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Bar review: The secret’s out at hidden New York speakeasy PDT

If anyone needed convincing that the novelty of the ‘secret unmarked door’ hasn’t yet run its course in Hong Kong (at least for those creating such concepts), one need only to take a stroll through Landmark, where under one roof you could stumble upon a retro-inspired Thai restaurant hidden behind a grocery store shelf; a gin parlour masquerading as a doctor’s office; and, recently added to the mix, the first international outpost of one of New York‘s hottest bars tucked away behind a telephone booth inside the luxe Landmark Mandarin Oriental.

The highly anticipated PDT (Please Don’t Tell) made its debut in January, two years after the Landmark MO first hosted a successful month-long pop-up as part of their ongoing Masters of Mixology programme. Now a permanent addition to MO Bar and officially open for reservations (advance bookings are a must), we snagged a chance to pop over to the not-so-secret bar to scope it out for ourselves.

The concept

While PDT’s two frontmen, founder Jim Meehan (formerly of Gramercy Tavern and Pegu Club) and bar manager Jeff Bell are quick to point out that PDT is no gimmick (after 11 years running as one of New York’s top bars, who are we to disagree?), there’s no denying that the initial novelty — on a superficial level, at least — lies in the hidden phone booth entrance. Feeling a bit like Harry Potter entering the Ministry of Magic, we stepped into the faux phone booth and followed the instructions to dial any number ending in ‘1’, at which point the door slid open and we were greeted on the other side and ushered in.

Please Don't Tell
Master mixologist Jeff Bell is the head bartender at modern speakeasy PDT.

It’s a satisfying reproduction of New York’s PDT — although the original phone booth is a much shabbier one inside Crif Dogs, an East Village mainstay known for its zany combinations of delicious, fried hot dogs. The phone booth also serves a more practical need there: In 2007 when Crif Dogs owners Chris Antista and Brian Shebairo first approached Meehan to partner together on a bar project, they were able to skirt the costly and difficult process of acquiring a second liquor license by establishing PDT as an operation within Crif Dogs.

Of course, in Hong Kong, it’s all show and theatrics with the ramshackle hot dog joint having been replaced by a posh five-star hotel, and the antique phone booth turned into a glowing beacon ushering in Hong Kong’s well-heeled at the top of MO Bar, which itself has long been a drinking destination for those with expense accounts. Nonetheless, it wouldn’t be PDT without this clandestine entrance, and we found ourselves suitably charmed as we went through the motions to enter the snug speakeasy.

Can you spot the mythical creature?

Inside, designer Nelson Chow has created a space that’s essentially a shinier, newer rendering of the iconic New York destination. The bar proper takes up almost half of the room, seating up to 9 at the high-top seats, while cosy semi-circular leather booths line the opposite and back walls. An under-lit bar casts a warm glow, and the no-standing-room policy — one of Meehan’s stipulations for the first PDT — ensures that noise levels are kept at low decibels, allowing for intimate and private conversations in the lounge, or pleasant chatter with the barkeeps as you bask in the feeling of being one of the lucky few allowed in that night.

Under the slatted wood ceiling, the mood is more casual and low-key than we’d expected — a cross between a rustic saloon and a posh speakeasy — with the gentle mood interrupted only by the provocative stares of taxidermied animals mounted on the walls (another trademark of PDT New York). Under the cool gaze of the mythical jackalope and a rifle-wielding stuffed rabbit with an impressive hairdo, we felt suitably part of the ‘cool crowd’ as we settled in at the bar for a drink.

The drinks

Charging more than HK$150 for a drink is nothing out of the ordinary in Hong Kong these days, so we weren’t at all surprised to find PDT’s cocktails priced at HK$158 across the board. Given the city-wide hike in drink prices, it’s all about being able to separate the mediocre from the top-quality establishments — and we’re pleased to report that PDT belongs firmly in the latter camp, with a thoughtful selection of proprietary craft cocktails rooted in niche ingredients, handmade mixers, and premium spirits.

Meehan and Bell are also dedicated to the local provenance of ingredients, as evidenced by their mission statement found on the first page of the menu: “…to highlight products and produce from all over Asia and celebrate the bounty of the region.” To that end, you’ll find Hong Kong–exclusive drinks such as the Milky Tea Punch, an homage to classic Hong Kong-style milk tea, with Ron Zacapa Centenario Rum sweetened with condensed milk, a taiyouran egg and rickshaw tea.

Of course, the most popular PDT drinks have made the trip to Hong Kong unharmed. We kicked off with one of the perennial favourites: the Benton’s Old Fashioned, a riff on the classic cocktail made with bacon-infused Wild Turkey Bourbon, maple syrup and Angostura bitters. A giant block of ice allowed for minimal dilution as we savoured the combination of fine bourbon and bacon. A creamy and velvety texture is achieved by using the ‘fat-washing’ technique, with the spicy back notes of the bourbon rounded out by sweetness from the maple and the smoky aroma of bacon. The drink is finished off with Angostura bitters and orange peel rubbed along the rim for a dash of citrus. The attention to detail here is apparent; for instance, the ingredients are added in a special order with the most expensive ingredients (the bourbon) coming last, to avoid dilution.

Big Fan
The Big Fan boasts a rim of pink peppercorns.

We also enjoyed the Big Fan, a tropical concoction that starts with Cabeza Blanco Tequila, shaken with lime juice, guava purée and Moonzen Fujian Radler, sourced from the Moonzen Brewery in Kwun Tong. It came with a be-speckled rim of pink peppercorn salt, not unlike a refined margarita, with the guava complementing the fruitiness of Cabeza Blanco Tequila for a well-balanced sip. A hit of lime juice rounded off the refreshingly clean and crisp concoction, and had us dreaming of summer despite the chilly Hong Kong weather.

Bad Hunter
The Bad Hunter incorporates the aromatic bitter Fernet Hunter, created by two friends who met in Hong Kong.

Finally, we tried the Bad Hunter, another Hong Kong exclusive blended with Chivas 12-Year-Old Scotch Whisky, Fernet Hunter (an elevated version of the classic Italian bitter co-created by the former manager of Yardbird), lemon juice, Dragons Eye and Moët Champagne. This one’s ideal for those who love a good whisky sour, with the familiar combination of lemon juice and whisky punched up by aromatic botanicals and a fizzy note from the splash of Champagne.

We were fortunate to find bar maestro Jeff Bell himself shaking up our drinks during our visit (he’s in Hong Kong for a few more weeks for those who can manage to snag a reservation), and it was a treat to see him in his element behind the bar, with each motion seemingly second nature as he stirred, shook and garnished with finesse.

The food 

The beauty of the original PDT lies not only within its well-crafted drinks, but also its proximity to Crif Dogs, which means you can satisfy your booze-addled cravings on the spot instead of trying to weave your way to the nearest 24/7 bodega. While the franks in New York are junky fried versions dripping in grease and fat, the menu in Hong Kong has been given a fine dining touch through a magical wave of the culinary wand by Landmark MO’s Culinary Director, Richard Ekkebus.

The Yankie relies on the classic condiments of mustard and sauerkraut.

We tried two out of the five hot dogs on the menu (HK$98 each); both were sensational. The Yankie featured a classic juicy pork dog with smoky Benton’s bacon, a generous squeeze of dijon mustard and a sprinkling of fresh chives. Tangy sauerkraut and sweet caramelised onions were packed into a neat layer at the base of the bun — a clever assembly that avoids sticky fingers and spilled toppings. The Ole Dog was a Spanish-inspired chicken sausage with a sticky-sweet pepper and tomato jam, espelette chilli mayo and chorizo. The flavours were solid, although a melted cheese would have been preferred to the clunky slice of Manchego on top, and the arugula was missing.

We’ll be back to try the Honkie Dog, featuring cabbage, sakura shrimp, scallions and XO mayo; the Kimchi Dog with a bacon-wrapped frankfurter; and the John John Derago, a direct homage to New York City that combines a beef dog slathered in cream cheese with Everything Bagel spices and scallions. Meanwhile, PDT is planning to bring in a rotating roster of guest chefs to create their own delicious hot dog variations.

The John John Derago is inspired by that iconic New York food: the Everything Bagel.

The short menu is rounded off with two types of tater tots (HK$88): cheese & jalapeno and takoyaki tots. We tried the latter, a generous portion of crisp golden-fried nuggets which held their crunch despite being draped in criss-crossed squiggles of kewpie mayo and sweet okonimyaki sauce. For those lucky few with limitless pockets, you can splurge on the Caviar Tots, priced at an eye-watering HK$1,488 thanks to 50 grams of PDT Reserve Caviar with crème fraîche and chives.

What’s not to love about okonomiyaki and tater tots?

The verdict

Disguised as a covert and clandestine operation, it won’t be long before word of PDT gets out and a table becomes just as hard to come by as its New York counterpart (there, reservations open promptly at 3pm and are booked out within minutes). With its relaxed, modern speakeasy vibe, hospitable staff and commitment to quality, we’re already comfortable dubbing PDT as one of the best new bars in Hong Kong.

While it’s been given a glossy makeover from its humble New York roots, prices have been kept fairly reasonable and the care that’s been put into maintaining the integrity of the original concept is evident. The real test, of course, will be when Meehan and Bell fly off and leave the Hong Kong team — led by barman Adam Schmidt and manager Malaika Suarez — to lead the direction and evolution of PDT Hong Kong. We’ll be back in a couple of months to see whether the bar continues to live up to its Big Apple sibling — if we can manage to snag a table then, that is.

Opening hours are from Mon–Thurs from 5pm to 1am, Fri–Sat from 5pm to 1:30am, closed on Sundays. Reservations can be made one week in advance for parties of up to 6 people by calling +852 2132 0110 or emailing lmhkg-pdt@mohg.com.

Bar review: The secret’s out at hidden New York speakeasy PDT

Leslie Yeh

Editor in Chief

Having worked as a lifestyle editor for almost 10 years, Leslie is thrilled to be writing about the topic she loves most: wining and dining. When she's not out pounding the pavement for the latest new restaurant opening or tracking food trends, Leslie can be found at home whipping up a plate of rigatoni vodka and binge-watching Netflix with a glass of Sauvignon Blanc in hand.

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