Eager to find out a bit more about the modest yet carefully composed wine list at the two 798 Unit & Co. restaurants, I spoke to Bridget E. Chen, Owner and Director of 798 Unit & Co. and Daren Hon, Operations Manager of JAR | Just-a-Restaurant and 798 Unit & Co. Bistro. Daren explained to me the clever naming of the company and the restaurants, as well as what originally inspired these names. He also described the concept behind both JAR and 798 Unit & Co. Bistro: to deliver really good food in a place where everyone can eat and drink without necessarily needing a special occasion – hence the People’s Dining Hall. Bridget and Daren also discussed the 798 wine program and how the wine lists differ between the two restaurants. They spoke about the structure of the clientele and the trends that they have observed in how their different customers order their wine. When asked to choose a signature dish, which best represents the concept behind the cuisine at JAR and 798 Unit & Co. Bistro, they chose the Thick-Cut Pork Loin Chop with Roasted Pineapple, Apple-Potato Salad and Honey Mustard, which they paired with the semi-dry 2010 S.A. Prüm Riesling Essence from Mosel Saar Ruwer, Germany.
Our interview follows:
Daren: Hi. My name is Daren and I am the Operations Manager of 798 Unit & Co. We have two restaurants in our group – one in Tsim Sha Tsui, called 798 Bistro and the other in Central, called JAR. Our restaurants offer a contemporary European menu that embodies the culinary ethos of bistro cooking — common dishes prepared uncommonly well — served in a bustling cosmopolitan venue reminiscent of New York City. Rather than attempt to be fashionable, we ascribe to something far more timeless. By offering honest good food and genuine service, we aim become the restaurant that comes to mind when people think of casual dining, hence the People’s Dining Hall.
Bridget: My name is Bridget Chen and I am one of the owner-operators of 798 unit & co. As a Harvard graduate, I am often asked how I got into the industry. “Cliché as it may sound, I was constantly intrigued by food and restaurant trends and followed my heart…You know it’s the right job when it does not feel like work when you are working.” As a restaurateur, one of the challenges is to stay in the game while being sufficiently true to oneself.
And a bit about the names of the restaurants, where does “798″ come from and why is JAR called JAR?
Daren: 798 unit & co.’s name was inspired by the 798 art district in Beijing, an enclave to the art community. With similar intentions, we wanted to build a company that could provide a platform for people to express their creativity in the F&B industry. We thought “7-9-8” was interesting because it was a twist on the usual sequence “7-8-9”, reflecting our slightly unconventional and irreverent attitude. “Unit” refers to the various function units and locations of our business. “Co.” symbolises our philosophy that the business is constituted of the unique character of the people who make up the company.
JAR stands for “Just a Restaurant,” and is called that to show the simplicity of the concept behind it. We decided to get rid of the long, complicated definitions for what we do and just go back to the basics – “no fuss, just a restaurant.”
Please tell me about the concept behind the menu. Is it the same menu at JAR as in Bistro?
Daren: 798 offers a simple contemporary menu that embodies the culinary ethos of bistro cooking — common dishes prepared uncommonly well. The menu is the same in both – simple comfort food, uncontrived, easy to understand and delicious. It is the type of food and place where you can return frequently without needing a special occasion, just to sit down with friends, open a bottle of wine, tear into crusty bread, dip into tasty dishes, and share not only the wonderful food but a way of life.
Please tell me a bit about the décor here at Bistro.
Daren: Bistro has a New York Greenwich type of feel, an incongruously lively and happening scene evoking the bustling, charged ambiance of metropolitan eateries. JAR exudes an atmosphere that is at once refined yet casual. It is the sort of place where you feel comfortable immediately upon walking in, reinforcing a feeling of belonging. It is the neighborhood restaurant we all wish we lived or worked around the corner from – comfy banquettes, smart clientele, an enthusiastic menu and friendly staff. It’s like finding yourself in a den of comforting food, balance and harmony.
Please tell me a bit about the composition of the wine list at 798. Is it mostly Old or New World wines?
Daren: We have wines from all over the world. As you know, in Hong Kong, since the import tax has been erased, there are thousands of wine distributors and wines from everywhere available. Since we have a huge selection of wines to choose from, I’d rather have a representation of many different regions on our list. There is no particular region that is given preference, but it is mostly Old World wines to match the European food offered here.
And is the wine list at Bistro different from the one at JAR, or are they the same list?
Bridget: The wine list at Bistro is a bit more budget-friendly and simpler. It is more of an easy, comfortable list meant to encourage people to have wine. The guests here mostly rely on our recommendations when choosing wines. The pricing of the wine matches that of the food: both are characterized by value. People tend to choose a wine in a price range that matches how much they are spending on the food, even if they can afford more expensive wines.
JAR has a more mature clientele in terms of age, as well as food and wine preference.
The menu is 80% the same, with an additional cheese and charcuterie section at JAR, designed to go hand in hand with wine.
The wine list at JAR is more extensive and has a larger price range (400 to over 1000 HKD), catering to a more varied clientele. We can also offer wines with a bit more character because people in Central have a larger exposure to wine, so they are more eager to try new types. For example, we had a South African Pinotage for around HKD500 which was very popular. It was enjoyed even by customers who could afford much more expensive wines, because they rarely see that wine on restaurant wine lists in Hong Kong. In Central, people know the big names already, and when they come to JAR they are not looking for those, just like they are not looking for fine dining cuisine either – lobster or foie gras or caviar. They are looking for comfort food made with heart, and the wine list should match these foods at a good value.
And have you noticed any trends in how your customers tend to order? Are there any regions or varietals that seem especially popular among them?
Daren: Right now, New Zealand wines are popular, especially New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. Sometimes customers come in and just order a bottle of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, because they want something familiar that they know well already.
And how would you describe the structure of your clientele here at Bistro and JAR?
Daren: At Bistro, I would say there are more local people and only around 10% foreigners. At JAR we have more foreigners; they make up around 30-40% of the total guests. We don’t get any Mainland Chinese visitors though. They tend to prefer Chinese food. If you present them with steak or abalone, they will almost always go for the abalone.
Bridget: I think there are two types of Mainland Chinese. On the one hand, you get the wealthy, educated Mainland Chinese, those who can speak English; they tend to visit the fine dining restaurants, somewhat like how they subscribe to name brands. Then you have the other type, those who are not very comfortable with English menus. Neither of those preferences really fit us so we don’t get many of either type.
Daren: I’ve been in the business for 12 years and I have only served one table of Mainland Chinese guests, at JAR. It’s the same as in LKF, where you see many Mainland Chinese visitors taking photos outside, but they rarely actually enter the restaurants.
If you could pick a 798 signature dish and pair it with a wine, which would you pick and why?
Bridget: I think the dish that best represents 798 would be the Thick-Cut Pork Chop with Apple-Potato Salad and Honey Mustard Sauce. This dish has been our best seller since opening. The pork chop is marinated and placed over the grill which gives it a very nice, charred flavor. No thick gravy or heavy sauce is required; the meat speaks for itself. While most people tend to put pork in the red meat category, we see it as a pink meat, on the borderline between a red and a white meat, which is why we pair it with a white (Riesling).
Daren: In addition, it is served with a honey mustard sauce, so it has a sweet side to it. With pork chop on its own, I would say Pinot Noir would be nice, a light bodied red wine. But with the pork served with honey mustard sauce, I would recommend a semi-dry Riesling, sweet but not too sweet, to balance those flavors. Specifically, I would recommend the 2010 S.A. Prüm Riesling Essence from Mosel Saar Ruwer, Germany. This wine is characterized by apricot and peach aromas and fresh fruity flavors which balance out the acidity and minerality of the wine.
Bridget: The dish actually comes with an apple-potato salad and a roasted pineapple, which are a bit tart and so the dish has a cold-warm duality to it. It is quite refreshing, despite it being a pork dish.
Especially with a nice glass of Riesling, I’m sure.
That sounds great. Thank you so much.
JAR | Just A Restaurant
Address: 2/F, 8 Lyndhurst Terrace, Central, Hong Kong
Phone: +852 2543 8000
Opening Hours: Noon-Midnight