Review: Old Bailey Gives New Energy To Traditional Jiangnan Cuisine
As a heritage site, Tai Kwun pays excellent homage to history, but its dining options go beyond offering local eats. Madame Fu, Christian Rhomberg’s cocktail-focused dining establishment plays its part as the hip lifestyle hub set within the quarters of the vintage structure, serving Cantonese cuisine. Old Bailey, too, breathes new life into the destination, residing on the second floor of the new JC Contemporary artspace designed by Herzog & de Meuron. Both restaurants add new energy to their design within the landmark heritage site.
Most may prefer accessing the restaurant via elevator but—if you are able to—we suggest strolling up the dramatic swirling staircase that has taken social media by storm. Once you reach the second floor and pass a kitchen-inspired art piece, you’ll find Old Bailey, where the expansive lounge area and well-stocked bar invites guests for a casual cocktail before the meal.
The elongated main dining area stretches the same length as the restaurant’s outdoor terrace, where guests can unwind over cocktails while overlooking the city scene and the view within the Tai Kwun building complex. Like the building in which Old Bailey resides, the furniture design takes inspiration from Ming Dynasty, re-creating fine chairs and square tables that are neatly placed throughout the dining space. The abundance of natural light brightens up the space during daylight hours, while during dinner service the intimate setting, combined with dimmed lights and wood panelled walls and flooring, brings warmth to the overall ambiance.
The kitchen takes pride in serving Jiangnan cuisine, a diverse style that covers traditions from Shanghai, Zhejiang, Jiangsu and neighbouring provinces. Yet, Old Bailey is not shy to add contemporary touches and premium ingredients to create original interpretations of classic dishes. The menu introduces a handful of signatures and the stories behind these creations.
We began with honey-glazed smoked fish, where hearty slices of carp are deep-fried and simmered in a rich sweet marinade richly flavoured with dark soy sauce and spices. A pleasant crust and deep chestnut-brown hue are proof this traditional starter was done well.
The mala (Sichuan spicy) xiaolongbao are filled with minced Iberico pork and a rich meat broth, wrapped within thin flour wrappers that have been dyed red with beetroot juice. The beetroot did not impart any sweetness, but rather a deep crimson hue that emphasised the heat from chillies. The broth within the filling was rich, bearing a spicy and numbing kick that followed, and lingered on but not overpoweringly so.
Longjing tea smoked pigeon is an outstanding poultry course. The dish arrives in a glass-lidded birdcage to be uncovered at the table, releasing a rich tea-infused smoke that brought flavour to the pigeon. The bird itself was tender with crispy skin, while the lightness of tea permeates into the meat. Pan-fried organic tofu with egg and shrimp roe was impressive. Arriving in a claypot and simmering in creamy brown sauce, the tofu was soft with just an even toasted exterior, while the sauce had the right hint of umami from the shrimp roe. The dish itself was simple, but the seasoning was just right.
The village-style house-made handkerchief pasta with organic seasonal greens is the restaurant’s signature dish. Based on chef Wong Kwan Man’s memory of a rustic home-style dish, thin sheets of dough were cut into bite-sized pieces before being pan-fried and tossed with bok choy. The pasta, despite having crisp edges, were a bit soggy; some soaked up too much of the oil they were tossed in. The vegetables, however, were crunchy and refreshing.
The sautéed river shrimps with sweet peas were a let down. Conventional practice sees the tiny shrimps deshelled and quickly tossed in the wok. Old Bailey’s version kept the tails on, which brightened the dish by presentation, but was tough to enjoy heartily. Instead, we nibbled on the flesh and picked out the shells one by one. The peas were also slightly overcooked and slightly shrunken and dried up.
For dessert, we decided on the ‘rolling donkey’, or glutinous rice cake rolled with red bean paste and toasted peanuts, as our dessert. A popular dessert in Northern China, Old Bailey’s version is pleasant, the chewy mochi has just the right consistency wrapping a mildly sweet red bean filling.
Drinks at Old Bailey are just as exciting and vibrant in selection as the restaurant’s food offerings. The wine menu is abundantly filled with by-the-glass options, while labels from all over the world are affordably priced. The Chinese tea selection is a curated by Plantation, a tea brand by Nana Chan, the tea-aficionado and proprietor behind the hugely popular café Teakha. Guests are encouraged to sample cocktails created by the mixology team that have adopted Chinese ingredients for an Asian twist. The Three Rhymesters resembles a negroni, with a Campari and vermouth base, with three-year old mandarin peel and Sichuan peppercorn adding a complex fruity and spicy element. The Lucky Tortoise, however, is a sweeter, fruitier cocktail, where osmanthus oolong shines through Ocho Bianco tequila and refreshing Chinese pear and ginger.
Service is attentive and personable, as the members of the staff are keen on assisting with portion control and suggestions for food ordering. They are, however, less knowledgeable when it comes to beverage pairings. We suggest 6:00 pm to be the best time to secure a table as the establishment is quickly filled up by 7:30pm on a weeknight. Dishes are well-paced and delivered promptly, however at the restaurant’s full capacity some courses may take up to 30 minutes to arrive—although getting the bill took mere seconds. It is worth noting that Old Bailey takes reservations online as well as leaving a message by phone, although take note that the restaurant is not open on Sundays.
Brilliantly encapsulating style and great execution in food, Old Bailey is fine proof that when it comes to heritage, be it regional Chinese cuisine or architecture, a touch of contemporary interpretation is often welcomed, if not mandatory, to give it a fresh start and a new life.
A dinner for two including beverage and service amounts to HK$1,500
Old Bailey, 2/F JC Contemporary, Tai Kwun, 10 Hollywood Road, Central, Hong Kong; +852 2877 8711
How we rate
Each of our reviewers score restaurants based on four main criteria: setting, food, service, and drinks, taking into account more than 35 different points of reference including manners of staff, usefulness of the wine list, and whether or not the restaurant makes an effort to be environmentally aware. 5/5 indicates an exceptional experience; 4-4.5/5 is excellent; 3-3.5/5 is good to very good; and 2.5/5 or lower is average to below average. Before visiting a restaurant, the reviewers will book using a pseudonym and do not make themselves known to restaurant staff, in order to experience the venue as a regular guest—if this is not possible, or if we are recognised, we will indicate this in the review.