ESTABLISHED HOTEL BARS TEND TO RUN ON TRIED-AND-TESTED FORMULAS. An extensive wine list with trophy bottles from renowned regions. Cocktails that don’t stray too far from classics. It’s all very safe, and rather predictable.
There’s nothing safe or predictable about Café Gray Bar. Located on level 49 of The Upper House in Hong Kong, the bar has only one champagne by the glass. Right now it’s a little-known Franck Bonville Blanc de Blancs, chosen after a blind-tasting by restaurant and bar director Yvonne Cheung. She is confident “you would absolutely love it”.
“We’re not a trophy wine place, I don’t have a bible for a wine list,” says Cheung, who is one of the city’s leading sommeliers. While major wine regions are represented, so are up-and-coming places like Syria and Uruguay. “I’m not some hipster going out and finding something weird and funky, but I want to focus on deliciousness that doesn’t come with a big label,” says Cheung.
Cocktails are also imbued with an element of fun here. If you want to get inside the head of the mixologists at Café Gray Bar, order from the Bartenders’ Collection of the cocktail menu. This section – a showcase of the team’s creativity – is where each member gets to experiment and express their personality. Instead of being given directions, bar staff spend days, weeks and sometimes months working on their own interpretation of a drink, stirring, shaking and tweaking until it’s ready for its close-up.
The Collection features about six cocktails and changes quarterly. Sometimes, it may include a non-traditional-spirit base, such as sake and oolong tea in the Urontini, a crisp and refreshing beverage that goes down a treat in summer. Or you might find a bold shot of mezcal in a cocktail, together with yuzu, lemon juice and honey. Autumn is when you’ll see the use of stone fruits and other seasonal ingredients.
“You can get a well-made drink at many places,” says Cheung. “But I want them to know that (at Café Gray Bar) someone made the effort to create something, rather than always following a recipe.”
This collaborative approach also led to the development of an innovative Bloody Mary menu, which might include gin with homemade chilli syrup, or jalapeno-infused tequila. Because fresh tomatoes are used, the Bloody Mary menu is only available during weekend brunch.
Cheung and her team are also game to surprise adventurous guests. One particular guest, for instance, recently asked for a sipping spirit and was offered a vodka instead of a liquor traditionally associated with sipping. This was not just any vodka, however, but one made from distilled honey sourced from a bee farm in Vermont in America. It’s soft and unctuous with floral honey notes, “not something you want to mix away,” says Cheung, who delighted in the guest’s “wow” moment.
“That person might not remember every detail, but will remember that they had a special experience at this place,” says Cheung.