One of the beauties of dining out in Hong Kong comes in the fact that the restaurant scene never ceases to amaze. Yet another wave of recent new openings makes you wonder if chefs and owners got the memo on how takings are down at least 20% year on year, across the board. Elsewhere, the mind blowing number of dining options we are faced with often throw in unexpected surprises. A case in point at Olé on Ice House Street in the heart of Central.
For years, having a crafty smoke outside the FCC, I would look across at the Olé sign and wonder who would ever go in there, let alone expect decent Spanish food. It was never talked about, never mentioned in passing, I never heard anyone suggest popping in there for some jamon and a glass of amontillado. With no little arrogance, I imagined the worst kind of faux Spanish, aimed at confused tourists. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Once you climb the stone steps and enter inside, this is a little corner of Spain, one opened back 1998, long before gourmet burgers, baos and kimchi were a thing, let alone the dreaded fucking hipsters. It’s indisputably a little bit cheesy, old cartwheels and castanets alike hung from nails, majolica porcelain, a mix of pastel orange and white on the walls and the obligatory jamon suspended from the ceiling. But service is sweet and it’s perfect for assignations in the corner tables behind the spiral staircase. There are two Filipino musicians playing Spanish guitar and one of them in particular, seemingly able to do any requests, has a seriously beautiful voice.
So it’s old school but not without its charm and comparative history – let’s not forget that 18 years is a long time in the world of Hong Kong restaurants. As to the food, again some surprises. The only duff note was the first dish, part of a ‘hunting’ special menu, of a game pâté. Texturally it was a bit sloppy and it definitely needed more consistent seasoning. But thereafter, things picked up considerably.
The big winners came in the mains, firstly a duck (mallard) and rice dish. Young chef Jesus Parscual explained that he adds sweet Spanish sherry while cooking the rice, a touch that made it more risotto than plain old arroz. The duck was beautifully cooked, the mushrooms earthy, the whole ensemble a happy marriage of autumn flavours.
Next came the ultimate Spanish dish, paella. I’ve bleated on at length in the past about how the best are defined by the soccarat underneath, the crispy and crunchy base that needs to be scraped from the pan. It’s the most coveted part and Parscual’s version reminds why. On top of the black rice come snails, taut rings of calamari and generous chunks of rabbit, alongside Christmassy shards of rosemary. But the best is saved til last when the waiter attacks the pan with a spoon, delivering a glorious bowl alternating crunch and softness, the (deliberately) slightly burnt bits adding a gentle carbon twang. Whisper it, but this was the best paella I’ve ever had in Hong Kong.
The finale of the mains bought one of the world’s greatest beefs – from Galicia in north western Spain. If you haven’t had the chance, you need this in your life. Maybe it’s those salty, bracing Atlantic gales which add to the grass, maybe the way they’re raised, maybe it’s the fact they live to the age of 15 before being dispatched and dry-aged for 45 days, but it always makes for a glorious cut. It’s served simply with roasted garlic and padron peppers, boiled potatoes and a pile of sea salt. The last is all that is needed to grace a sensational bit of meat.
Desserts came and went, as did Rioja and sangria. But ultimately Ole perfectly demonstrated the old maxim – don’t judge something until you’ve actually experienced it.
The hunting theme dishes are available until mid January. Prices below:
Paella Valenciana ($440), 45-Day Dry-aged Rubia Gallega “Txuleton” ($380)
Wild Mallard Duck with Seasonal Mushroom Juicy Rice ($290)
Porccini Mushrooms Croquettes with Truffle Aioli ($110).