Friday, March 2, 2012

Restaurant Review: The Principal

Location: Star Street, Admiralty
Type of food: modern European
Rating: *** (3 out of 5)

Founded in 2006, the Press Room Group owns and operates a half-dozen restaurants and cafes specializing in everyday comfort food. They include an eponymous restaurant on Hollywood Road, The Pawn (now a landmark in Wanchai), SML at Times Square in Causeway Bay, the News Room in Quarry Bay, and a cafe/bakery chain Classified throughout the city. The Principal is the latest addition to the group’s portfolio.

The Principal: understated or cafeteria-like?

The Principal opened last December in the hip Star Street enclave. Intended to create an understated environment for simple, stress-free dining, the restaurant incorporated muted tones and organic elements like hardwood floors and faux exposed bricks, giving the space a distinct “private kitchen” feel. What wasn’t intended, however, was that because the line between “private kitchen” and “company cafeteria” is so often blurred, the decor at Principal is in danger of being classified as the latter.

To give the restaurant a chance to show off its stuff, my guest and I ordered the five-course degustation menu. We asked our waiter Joseph what’s on the tasting menu and he replied politely, “I don’t really know. Whatever the chef decides to serve.” Oh yes, the mystery tasting menu. Commonly adopted by high-end restaurants in Paris and New York, the gimmick creates the illusion that the kitchen staff are so spontaneous and inventive that they can whip up whatever comes to their whimsical minds. "Whatever" is what I say.

“Do you have any preference?” Joseph offered. Any preferences? Was I to believe that the chef would deviate from the pre-designed menu just for us? Or did the waiter mean to ask if we were vegetarians or kosher-eaters? And so I answered facetiously, “Alright, I'd like only red meat: beef, lamb, venison, what have you. And my friend here prefer fish.” “Errr… okay…” Joseph pretended to scribble something on his notepad and walked away. Surely enough, my guest and I ended up with the exact same dishes despite our "preferences." I wish the restaurant would spare us the theatrics and just print the dishes on the menu like everyone else.

Chef Armas' statement

Gimmicky or not, the degustation menu was the brainchild of head chef Jonay Armas. On the first page of the menu, the chef made a solemn declaration promising a culinary journey to his hometown, the Canary Islands, with the "food of [his] childhood." But since no one knows (or cares about) what the chef ate on the Spanish archipelago when he was a kid, Armas can pretty much cook anything.

Our “journey” began with an amuse bouche: foie gras with chocolate sauce and black olive cookies, followed by crayfish with caviar, poached white asparagus, foie gras (again!) with baby leek. The first main course was pan-fried hake (“What on earth is a hake, Joseph?” “It’s a fish, sir, spelled H-A-K-E.”) followed by the second main: sirloin cubes with bone marrow. The meal ended with a scoop of white miso ice-cream for dessert. And so the five-course menu came and went, and we were left somewhat unsatisfied. For the restaurant to omit a pasta or rice dish from a five-course menu, however intentional, is a major miscalculation. Didn't Armas get any carbs as a kid?

If you have never been to a Press Room Group restaurant, the Principal is worth a try. The food is tasty but not sophisticated, thoughtful but not memorable. In the end, we did get what the restaurant promised us: simple food with simple ingredients. But like a bad Hong Kong actress, the Principal tries too hard to be natural and ends up being neither here nor there. It ends up being just another expensive neighborhood restaurant.

Sirloin cubes with bone marrow


  1. Too bad that your experience at the Principal wasn't that satisfying. OK OK there are probably better restaurants in HK at that price, but the dishes I had there were rather "innovative" and tasted good ! I have to admit I am not as carnivorous as you are, I had a crab appetizer once and another "uncommon" dish on the other occasion. And the John Dory I had there was very nice. The first time I went, I ordered a raspberry or something jelly dessert and they said the machine was broken and they couldn't make it that night, so they whisk up another strawberry something for me which was not bad.

    Actually you may call me childish, I like the Press Room (never been to the New Room yet) due to its history (food is OK, not too bad). They said it was really used by the newspaper house before they were converted into a restaurant and you know anything readable always lingers on my heart and mind and gave me sort of a sentimental feel, of what it was like before imagining the people printing off the pres there.

    Just went for a bite at Classified the other night after a very very good Chamber Recital, actually it took me by surprise that there were serving more than just plain bread and cheese. The dishes we ordered were nice but nothing stellar, of course : >


  2. Dear Jason,

    I would have to say your account of this restaurant is spot on. I have been to this place several times - mostly for business lunches and recently tried the 5 course degustation menu. The food is similar to what I had for their lunch set (btw it wasn't cheap, close to $300 for a lunch set). But what I love about this place, especially for my business lunches is how spaced out each table is through out the restaurant. Therefor, I do not have to worry about if the next table is eavesdropping on our sensitive business conversation topics. I think the concept is good, but they need to add more character to their dishes. I still prefer meals at their old establishment, Press Room because of more variety and more selections of non-pretentious, casual food.

    With love,

  3. Thanks, Christine. Perhaps it's just me, but I find the Press Room pretentious. Nevertheless, I think the Group did wonders with the Pawn in preserving a historic tenement building. So kudos to them.


  4. AB,

    I give you that: the tables at the Principal aren't packed the way they are in a typical Hong Kong restaurant. It makes a difference when you just want to relax and enjoy a meal.


  5. Jason,

    Your review was rather fair. I have been to the Principal late February and the food was not impressive. To be fair, they have really put some thoughts into their dishes but sadly the results were unsatisfying. There was duplication in food ingredient (like what you have said, foie gras AGAIN!?) and the dishes were not hot enough. I reckon the dishes must have waited for some time in the kitchen before being brought to us as I and my friend were deep in conversation and thus we ate rather slowly. Wine pairing was disastrous; the wine and the food did not match at all! Service was awkward; the waiters tried very hard to be friendly but you could sense that they were very nervous.

    In my opinion, the Drawing Room and Madam Sixty Ate are much better options. Especially Madam Sixty Ate, I've tried their tasting menu and it was very impressive. I'd really love to read your reviews on these two restaurants. :)


  6. Thanks for your very thoughtful comments, Eric.

    I will give Madam Sixty Ate a try -- and I will try not to let the name influence my judgment...!