“The Journey to 25:00” is Kenzo Lee’s love letter to flavours we, Hongkongers, know. Flavours we adore. Flavours that hold a special, undeniable place on our palates — all together.
Food has always been a communal experience, the one kind of collective memory that can be passed down, passed on and experienced pretty faithfully in full.
For some, it’s the hot-then-cold relish of a thick, generous slab of butter tucked snug between a crusty, just-out-of-the-oven pineapple bun. For others, it’s a “half-fat-half-skinny” portion of honey-glazed char siu, all sliced, shiny and so very sticky.
For Kenzo Lee, Manager and Head Mixologist of speakeasy bar Twenty Fifth Hour, it’s an exhaustive library of flavours, carefully curated, captured and remixed, with some very, very familiar and others, an education (say, the “Nothing” cocktail; more on that later). A Herculean effort, “The Journey to 25:00” is a six-count itinerary of cocktails, with stations cantering past yum cha, past bo jai fan, past a mango pomelo sago pudding-inspired dessert.
Then, while other establishments in town have their own special midnight rituals, Twenty Fifth Hour does, too: a bowl of home-made, double-boiled soup. Because nothing says “I love you” in Hong Kong like an overfilled basin — slightly too hot to the touch — you cradle between your hands as you sip; then slurp; then tip, head canted backwards, down, down, down. Here is where the cocktail tasting menu ends. With cognac-laced soup. With love.
In light of the tasting menu’s last running month, we stopped by Stanley Street for a chat with Kenzo Lee about his inspiration, his mother’s plum wine and the flavours that excite the city.
Can you speak on the inspiration behind “The Journey to 25:00”?
The last few years have been tumultuous for Hong Kong. I wanted to create a menu that would reinvigorate what is, in my opinion, the true spirit of the city, which is loving and caring for each other through food. I was also inspired by the iconic restaurants in Twenty Fifth Hour’s vicinity, such as the historic Luk Yu Teahouse on the ground floor of our building, and The Chairman, recently named number ten on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2021.
The tasting menu riffs on classic Hong Kong flavours. Is there something unique about the city’s palate that you kept in mind and/or learned whilst developing the menu?
While developing the menu I considered the flow of the cocktails, from low ABV to spirit-forward drinks, from Chinese influences to Western. I wanted every guest to be able to experience the menu in full without getting too drunk.
Hongkongers are very open-minded when it comes to food and beverage. They are very willing to try unfamiliar flavours or reimagining of familiar and nostalgic tastes.
I also noticed that guests loved to hear the history and inspirations behind each cocktail, over what the cocktail was made with, especially since we were so inspired by classic Hong Kong cocktails and dining culture.
Is there a particular cocktail on the menu you’re especially proud to have developed?
“Nothing” is a quintessential Hong Kong beverage. It’s a beloved drink, but comes with many negative connotations and memories. I was proud to have been able to elevate this classic cocktail with our own twist on the recipe (a classic Nothing calls for vodka, melon liqueur, coconut liqueur, lemon juice and pineapple juice) and an innovative duo presentation of cocktail and cold soup. During the development process, we also found out that the combination of florals and melons created a whole new layer to the drink — you’ll have to try it yourself to find out, though.
“Ice Cream” is another creation I’m particularly proud of. Alcoholic ice creams aren’t common in Hong Kong as the addition of alcohol in an ice cream base gives it a faster melting rate, which in turn causes difficulty in recreating that creamy, melty texture we’re familiar with. We went through a lot of trial and error to find that sweet spot in our final ice cream batch. We also chose mango sago pomelo as the flavour because firstly, mango sago pudding is an iconic childhood dessert for many Hongkongers, and we wanted to recreate it in a different form to remind people of simpler times; and second, it was the best combination, flavour-wise, with tequila. Who doesn’t love getting drunk off ice cream?!
For 19:00 — Abalone, you mentioned using shots of plum wine made by your mother. Can you speak a little more on how this came to be?
I love my mum! She is very supportive as I’ve grown through the bar industry and I am eternally grateful for her unconditional love. She’s actually inspired a few of my competition cocktails, and this time being able to share something that she made with love to all my guests is very special to me. 19:00 — Abalone is my tribute to her.
There are a lot of textures and flavours that are, perhaps, a bit unusual in a cocktail tasting menu. Was this intentional?
Yes, I wanted to do something unusual with the cocktail menu and keep guests surprised and interested throughout the entire experience, from the temperature to textures, ABV, flavours and more.
We end the menu with a double-boiled soup as it is an XXV signature. We always serve hot soup at the end of the night on weekends, so we wanted to incorporate it into the tasting menu, too.
Any crowd favourites?
The crowd favourites are 19:00 — Abalone and 22:00 — Ice Cream. Maybe because they’re a bit unusual and they really capture the essence of what we’re trying to do with the menu.
Lastly, how has the reception been so far?
The launch of “The Journey to 25:00” was actually pushed back many times as the R&D process was full of trial and error, and we also ran into other issues. When we finally launched we absolutely didn’t expect the reception that we’ve gotten — we’re fully booked most nights and people have already started asking what the next theme will be.
“The Journey to 25:00” is currently available every Monday to Wednesday through 10 November. Reservations can only be made via WhatsApp: +852 5546 8540.