Eager to know more about Café Gray Deluxe, one of Entaste’s favorite venues in Hong Kong, I sat down with Yvonne Cheung, Chef Sommelier of The Upper House, to learn more about the famously extensive and expertly assembled wine list of the restaurant. Yvonne let me in on some of the chief differences she has experienced between working as a sommelier in North America and in Hong Kong. She also described to me Chef Gray’s wonderful food philosophy and how it manifests itself in his dishes, as well as the elegant yet comfortable décor of the restaurant and how it echoes the concept behind the cuisine. Finally, we discussed the excellent wine program at Café Gray and the unique, uncommon wines, which Yvonne affectionally refers to as her “personality quirks” and which truly set this wine program apart from some of the others in Hong Kong. When asked to choose a dish which best exemplifies Chef Gray’s cuisine, she chose the famed Braised Short Ribs and recommended with it a choice of three different wines: the 2007 Braida Bricco dell’Uccellone from Italy, a Beaux Frères Pinot Noir, or a Côte-Rôtie Syrah. What a tough choice! A glass of each should do…
Our full interview follows:
My name is Yvonne. I work here at The Upper House in Hong Kong and my official title is Chef Sommelier. I run the wine program here and am in charge of everything from the fun parts, like speaking to people and building the list, to all the less romantic notions of micro-managing stock and costs and all those things as well.
You’ve also worked in California’s Napa Valley and restaurants in Malibu and Nantucket. How has your experience as a sommelier been different in the States and here in Hong Kong?
That’s a bit of a tough question, because it seems like the world gets smaller and smaller and I feel like the cross-section of people gets more and more similar with time – especially here, we have a very international clientele. But, having moved here to work in the wine industry, I’ve noticed that Hong Kong is just much faster and sometimes a bit more prone to business type transactions. A little bit less chatty and a bit more straightforward. But, overall, the curiosity is great coming from everyone; people are asking questions. I think the main difference for me has been the speed and efficiency, here being much more demanding of time.
From what you can tell among your local guests here, what seem to be the chief differences between the Asian palate and the North American one, in terms of wine preference?
I think that in North America, if you live closer to the West Coast, your exposure to domestic wine will be primarily to wines of the West Coast – Oregon, California, Washington. If you live on the East Coast, you have much more access to European and more international wines. Here in Hong Kong, because there is no local wine growing community, it is fairly neutral. I think that, given its history and its tendency towards food, it seems like Old World or European wine has a higher esteem and I think people trust it a bit more from a market perspective. Palate-wise, I also think that Asian foods tend to be more savory and texture is also much more at play than in your, perhaps overgeneralized, standard American-type fare and this is taken into consideration when selecting wine.
Speaking of food, please tell me a bit about the concept behind the menu at Café Gray. How would you describe the cuisine offered here?
I’d describe it as primarily European. Chef Gray is Swiss, very talented. He grew up in Singapore, so he’s very well versed in Asian textures and flavors. And what would seem to be very challenging is that he’s actually able to keep them separate – he doesn’t do “fusion” cuisine. He really focuses on ingredients, which are of high quality, and the dishes are not too complex. I think that is something that we really strive for. It is called “Café Gray” – it’s not meant to be a very formal setting. The food is meant to be straightforward, obviously delicious, but the ingredients really do speak for themselves.
And how about the décor here? How does the interior design reflect the concept behind the menu and what kind of atmosphere does it create?
The design of the restaurant is in line with what we spoke about in terms of the cuisine. The décor is fairly high-end, I would say. The textures, the walls, the coloring – the interior design is sensational and really warm and inviting. You’ll see bamboo panels and warm lighting, so it’s a little bit friendlier, whether it’s a family dinner or a business lunch. It’s not too formal and not too stuffy. And I think that concept is echoed in the food philosophy as well.
Café Gray is known in Hong Kong for its extensive wine list. What do you think sets the wine program at Café Gray apart from those of the other fine dining restaurants in the city?
I think I’m a little bit more weird and off the deep end than some of the other wonderful wine directors and sommeliers that I know around town. I get really excited about things that aren’t so popular. I get very excited about producers who are experimenting. I do really hold true to the classics, which you will see on the list, and I would say these are actually the foundation of the wine program here. But you also see lots of bizarre personality quirks in there as well, which are more of the things that get me excited. Working on the floor, especially, it’s nice for me to have new things to talk about, things that are not so run-of-the-mill. The wine list is based on the classics, but it does extend quite generously from there.
[Photos above courtesy of The Upper House, Hong Kong]
And a bit about the composition, you mentioned classics. So, is the wine list mostly made up of Old World wines or is it a fair balance between Old and New World?
I would say it’s quite balanced between the two. Europe has a very strong presence on the list, but I also believe in celebrating region for region, philosophy for philosophy. So I don’t necessarily want to bring in a California Cabernet, which is meant to emulate Bordeaux. I actually want a California wine to taste like a California wine (obviously very good California wine), for Spanish wine to taste Spanish, for Australian to taste Australian, and so on. So, primarily, Europe is quite strong, but it’s not necessarily all the standard European stuff. I also like to explore regions like Toro, or Bierzo or other parts of Spain that aren’t as popular as of yet. For example, what Palacios has done in Priorat, which he’s now moving to Bierzo. And Napa Cabernets have a great reputation, but I’m also a huge fan of Sonoma Coast Pinot Noirs. Things like that which are a little bit unexpected.
And how would you say that the wine list pairs up with the cuisine? Is there any particular region, which matches the cuisine best or does it all match up?
Chef Gray is very good at what he does and I think that he is particularly talented in handling seafood. There are many fish items on the menu. He also works with a lot of fresh ingredients, citrus and unique sweet products as well, to really bring a balance to the dish. So, Grüner Veltliners and Rieslings, things like that, which are very much in line with what I personally love, are also well represented on the list in order to accommodate those flavors.
And how is the wine list at Café Gray physically arranged, by variety or by region?
I decided to go by varietal and then region. I think that is the more traditional approach. If it were an all-European list, I would probably go by region, but because we cover so many countries on Café Gray’s list I thought it would work better this way. And it goes by intensity, so that lighter white wines come first and then richer white wines and then reds.
Have you noticed any trends in the regions that restaurant clients seem to order from the most? Is there a particular region that is especially popular?
I think Bordeaux will always have a place here. I have noticed in the last year a growing interest in Burgundy, and the Rhône Valley is getting more attention than it has ever gotten. On a completely wacky side-note, I randomly put this Zinfandel on the list, thinking that it would never move. I had four bottles and I thought it would last me for a while and it was gone in 2 days, which was really bizarre. I think people are branching out beyond Bordeaux, which is great. And also, white wine sales have gone up recently – white Burgundies are doing very well and more and more people are recognizing wines that are different from the norm, so to speak. People are now quite willing to explore new things – whether it’s dry Furmint from Hungary or Ribolla from Slovenia or a Riesling from Slovakia. So I think the time is good now for those kinds of experimentations.
If you could pick one dish and pair it with a wine, which would best represent Café Gray which dish would it be and which wine would you pair it with?
The signature item would absolutely be Chef Gray’s most famous Braised Short Rib [photo below,left courtesy of The Upper House, Hong Kong], which he has been working on and making for his guests since his days working at Lespinasse in New York City. It’s amazing. The meat is marinated for three days and over 50 different spices are used. It’s a very complex dish but in the delivery it’s just hands-down very delicious. Guests come back for it over and over again – people who are in town have to come here to have the Short Rib. In terms of a wine that would go with it, to really let the dish shine I would choose a wine that is more of a supporting player, rather than one which is going to try to compete, because there is already a lot going on in the dish. So for something excellent but not quite as assertive, I would definitely go with the Braida, Bricco dell’Uccellone from Italy, maybe a youthful vintage, like a 2007. This would go very well. Another option, for something a bit lighter, I think a Pinot Noir could go very well with the dish, one with high levels of acidity and a good fruit component. I’m a big fan of the Beaux Frères wines coming from the Willamette Valley, so something from their Upper Terrace vineyard would be great, also probably with a good 5-6 years of bottle age. And lastly, I’m also a huge Côte-Rôtie fan and a huge Syrah fan, so something with those kinds of aromas would go perfectly. And, depending on bottle age, something with a slightly softer palate would be stunning with the dish.
That sounds wonderful. Hopefully I’ll get to try it soon! Thank you for your time.