Review: Aqua Group’s New Chinese Restaurant Chronicles A Vast Collection Of Regional Favourites
The Aqua Group has ambition. After the revamp of Hutong, the group went on to open Statement, Dispensary, and The Chinese Library all at the same time. Located on the first floor of the Police Headquarters in Tai Kwun, to reach The Chinese Library guests must pass through Dispensary, the bar connecting the two restaurants on the east and west wings.
The Chinese Library is extravagant in its interior design, which has hints of colonialism and traditional Chinese elements. The interiors are the master work of local firm AB Concept, who also created the look for Aqua’s other two Tai Kwun venues. The expansive space is lined with floor-to-ceiling windows and dark wooden frames that match the chestnut-brown flooring, while evenly spaced tables are snuggly arranged across the room. Pale jade-green walls and golden accents match well with marble tabletops, offering a subtle touch of luxury to the space.
The library of flavours documented throughout the establishment come from various regional plates crafted and prepared by chef Junno Li, with a sharp focus on well-crafted cold dishes and a few mains, some more familiar than others. The crispy Wuxi eel with 15-year old aged vinegar is a Shanghianese classic, revamped with an aged vinegar mixed into a savoury caramel sauce that coats each piece of crisp deep-fried eel. The battered freshwater fish is extra crunchy and the vinegar brings a welcoming astringent sensation to the light warm snack.
Chilled ‘jade flower’ in green Sichuan pepper essence is unique and creative in nature. The jade flower is a beautifully scored celtuce, whose jade stalks unfold into a unique accordion-like structure; the vegetable bears a wonderfully zesty flavour from the Sichuan peppercorn-infused sesame oil, offering a numbing sensation at first and a light warming heat lingering after.
BBQ pork loin glazed with New Zealand Manuka honey is on point. Served thick cut with occasional charred bit on the exterior, the honey offers the right hint of sweetness while the pork loin has a good fat to lean ratio. Chrysanthemum ‘thousand cut’ silken tofu in chicken broth is a work of art, showcasing the magnificent knife work of an experienced chef, decoratively scoring the soft tofu into a flower that blooms in the golden broth. The meat broth is a bit light, but the watching the tofu petals sashaying in the broth is an amazing presentation to be admired.
The Chinese Library offers a humble range of main dishes to choose from. The Dragon Well tea smoked crystal river shrimps arrived in a wooden steamer. Removing the lid released a whiff of tea-smoke that macerated the pale curls of river shrimps, deshelled and quickly tossed in the pan until they turned the slightest shade of pink coral. The smoky flavour adds depth while the prawns keep a delightful crunch of a texture. Fried vermicelli noodles with crab and shrimp are spot-on. The vermicelli strands are evenly tossed with confetti shards like scrambled eggs while crab meat and shrimps give the dish a much welcomed freshness form the ocean.
Dessert selections are minimal. The deep-fried chocolate hazelnut ball are sesame balls revamped with a molten chocolate filling, which can be a tad too sweet and a bit messy to be enjoyed other than popping the entire morsel in one go. The classic egg tarts were beautiful though, a miniature classic tart with lard-made pastry, creating well-laminated layers with a creamy custard filling within.
The wine list is an excellent read with an abundant range of labels covering old and new world, while wines by the glass options are adequate. It is worth noting the Chinese tea selection gears more towards artisanal varieties such as rose black tea and ginseng oolong. The cocktail selection mirrors such from the adjacent bar Dispensary. A fine range covering British collection and Chinese collection, the latter adding a local twist to each concept. Served in a traditional tea cup, the Dan Tat blends Plantation pineapple rum with a cream soda cordial and finished with nutmeg and lemon. The concept mirrors a British traditional custard tart more so than the Hong Kong classic, but the fruity rum base makes the cocktail easier to drink, and is a good match with the menu’s food selection.
Service at The Chinese Library is on point, although occasionally members of the service team stutter through our orders but others pull up the average by offering full-on descriptions of the menu, showing good knowledge on the restaurant’s offerings. The team is mostly attentive although service can be a bit haphazard at times, as they stuttered while repeating orders, walking off while leaving a rag on the table, and occasionally shouting at staff in the middle of the restaurant, but the experience is mostly a smooth-sail otherwise.
Thanks to a thoughtful concept and a great narrative and fine execution, Aqua’s The Chinese Library impresses with its food and beverage options, giving it the competitive edge as one of the must-visit establishments within Tai Kwun.
A meal for two with beverage amounts to HK$1,500.
The Chinese Library, 1/F Police Headquarters, Tai Kwun, 10 Hollywood Road, Central, Hong Kong; +852 2848 3088
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.