The co-founders of the celebrated restaurant group share the stories behind their latest openings
2018 was a fruitful year for Black Sheep Restaurants: Belon and New Punjab Club topped the Top 20 list for T.Dining Best Restaurants Awards in 2019, while the group continued to open more restaurants, each one different to the last—including one in Shanghai, with Canton Disco at the Edition hotel. Christopher Mark and Syed Asim Hussain, co-founders of the local restaurant group, didn’t slow down in the final months of the year either, with Artemis & Apollo, a Greek restaurant, and Hotal Colombo, of Sri Lankan cuisine, opening just weeks apart. In early 2019, the group is gearing up for yet another series of openings, beginning with a Mexican restaurant—you heard it here first. We got Chris and Asim to sit down to chat about these three diversely different concepts, and how they approach opening all within such short intervals.
Having opened in the quiet quarters of the Star Street precinct, Black Sheep’s fifth Wan Chai restaurant is all about basics, seeking to challenge the underrepresentation of Greek cuisine in Hong Kong. “Greek food is an ancient cuisine. We are not trying to modernise it,” says Mark. “In fact we are going for a reverse direction. Other people may try to change the tzatziki, a minty yoghurt dip, but we don’t see the need for it. It is about getting every element exactly right and bringing them together.” To prepare for the opening last year, the restaurateur took a two-week tour to Greece with Hussain for an eating trip throughout the Mediterranean country, journeying through streets on six meals a day and doing the leg work across the ruins of temples and ancient sites for cultural context.
Artemis & Apollo resides in two adjacent shop fronts, with the room connecting at the back. Named after the twin Greek goddess Artemis and god Apollo, the double-shop restaurant front was designed by Sean Dix with Aegean architecture in mind. “Sean Dix stripped down the interiors of the previous restaurant and added the arched ceilings, a crucial element in Greek architecture. It’s rather tough to build but we managed to have it made, even though that element alone took one month to finish. Such elements and connection to Greek culture are important but not in-your-face,” Mark explained.
Much like Greek food, Sri Lankan cuisine is relatively unknown in Hong Kong, despite the awareness of Ceylon tea and the country’s revered cinnamon bark. Its food, as is its culture, are less familiar to many, which is why Mark and Hussain had a lot more to explain when opening Hotal Colombo at the end of last year. “We start with the name. Hotal, not hotel, is a roadside eatery that serves a collection of dishes that are similar to street food but finer. Pronounced Hot-Toll, is the keyword to know in Colombo, and unique to the city as well. I think Colombo is Asia’s best kept secret. It has the energy of Bangkok, but less chaos."
Compared to New Punjab Club, Black Sheep’s successful Pakistani restaurant, Hotal Colombo is yet another establishment developed by resident chef Palash Mitra. “Palash grew up in Kolkata, formerly known as Calcutta, and he had fond memories spending holidays in the Sri Lankan beaches. One of them is the Hiriketiya Beach, where he had many fabulous crab curries. “ Like Mitra, Hussain recollected remarkable times in Sri Lanka. “When I was little, people would go to Sri Lanka for beach holidays the same way Hong Kong people would go to Bali now. Sri Lanka is a wonderful place for sandy beaches but I’ve always been drawn to the food, and the influence the country got from three colonial powers: the British, Portuguese, and Dutch, which all contributed to the vibrant culture and cuisine the country has. I would eat at hotals, watch cricket with my friends at the Premadasa stadium, located in a famous Muslim neighbourhood where these hotals flourish. The food is amazing there. “
“The food is truly something different,” added Mark. “The use of spices are very sophisticated in Sri Lankan cuisine, an exciting breed compared to Indian and Pakistani. The dishes are much lighter and less carb-heavy. We also enjoyed introducing rum and arrack to Hotal Colombo. Arrack is a distilled spirits usually made with fermented sap of coconut blossoms or sugarcane.” Since its opening in late November, Hotal Colombo has spiced up the Elgin Street neighbourhood—which also houses the group’s Belon and Soul Food Thai—with a more casual, less structured vibe, a direction the restaurant group has mastered.
As Mark and Hussain shared details of their Greek and Sri Lankan openings, we could see the spark that brought joy, the same level of excitement like walking into the candy store discovering cuisines and sharing them with others. The two-time T.Dining Best Restaurateurs Award winners have yet another new concept to come, a Mexican establishment, and this one is just as close to heart to both of them.
“We are not doing Tex-Mex. This is where we should start talking about our Mexican restaurant.” said Mark and Hussain in unison. Mark continued. “Mexico is a far away country from Hong Kong and, a lot of times when we talk about the country, people have a lot of preconceived notions about it: tequila, refried beans, tacos, piñata, and all that.” Mark, who embarked a 45-day gastronomic trip across different provinces and regions of Mexico, saw a different side to Mexican cuisine. “Mexican cuisine is all about having fun, but different regions have diversely unique dishes that surprise us. You can find an abundance of livestock in the middle, continental part of the country, while along two coasts you will find an abundance of fish and seafood, embellished with fresh citrus throughout the year, and less on beans and rice. Such is the side Mexican cuisine we are bringing to Hong Kong. You will certainly find the best fish taco here.
“When people know we are going to open a Mexican restaurant, they are slightly weary it may be more Tex-Mex than the real Mexican cuisine. I feel like these preconceptions are not necessarily wrong, but it offers us a window of opportunity to right that ship, by bringing in not only the physical form of the cuisine, but also its cultures captured under the same roof. We also bring in the music, the kind of interiors that will transport you back to a beach holiday in the Baja California region, and the food.” Hussain explained. While specifics have yet to be shared, there is one thing the dynamic duo is sure we can find at their Mexican debut. “There is definitely tequila in the new Mexican restaurant. It encapsulates the essence of Mexican culture that everyone can understand and appreciate, that life should be about enjoyment, and the fun that allows us to let loose sometimes and take things less seriously.”
Mark and Hussain are nothing short of fun, as reflected. The restaurateurs take their fun seriously, and more often they shared mishaps and adventures in their journeys of discovering new concepts and rediscovering the joy of sharing food and culture. The above video captures the essence of the duo, as they stumbled through a quick-firing Q&A session with us on their three latest projects, while candidly revealing their fondness for that one element that makes a great party, and the greatest Mexican movie star. To these two, work—and life—is best enjoyed to the maximum with no reservations.
Artemis & Apollo, G/F, 9-11 Moon Street, Wan Chai, Hong Kong; +852 6991 6231
Hotal Colombo, G/F, 31 Elgin Street, Central, Hong Kong; +852 2488 8863