He’s one of Hong Kong’s most controversial culinary figures, but after a couple of years away from the headlines, Harlan Goldstein is back, larger than life.
It takes a certain type of personality to suffer the slings and arrows of a hostile press and come out on top. A pugnacious personality, maybe. An unapologetic and very self-assured one, definitely.
Of course, it’s characteristics like these that often lead to success in the cut-throat world of restaurateuring, so it’s perhaps no surprise that Hong Kong’s Harlan Goldstein, survivor of a debacle that saw him stripped of the commercial rights to use his own name, has once again come out swinging.
It’ll soon be two decades since Goldstein, a heavy set, straight-talking New Yorker, has called Hong Kong his home. He’s now chef-owner of two of the city’s most talked-about restaurants: Gold, which opened around two years ago, and the enfant terrible of Hong Kong’s burgeoning steakhouse craze, Strip House.
Goldstein isn’t shy to talk about the split that led him to where he is now. In 2006, after being accused of financial impropriety, he split with his business partner in a long, acrimonious legal battle.
The resultant settlement, which was hashed out over a “big bottle of wine at the Four Seasons” was not favourable to him and he says he laid low for two years, biding his time and searching for the right location to re-emerge onto the city’s restaurant scene. Goldstein thinks it made him a better businessman, more savvy about choosing the right partnerships, and has ushered in a new, perhaps more open relationship, with the press.
Gold’s main dining room
After a short stint as a young executive chef, he was 28 when Asia first beckoned in the form of a role in Beijing. Goldstein recalls: “My first question was, where’s Beijing?”After starting at the then China World Hotel (now part of the Shangri-La group) in pre-boom Beijing, and an unfulfilled six months in Thailand, Goldstein was invited to Hong Kong to interview for a job at the exclusive Aberdeen Marina Club.
“I didn’t want to come to Hong Kong – too fast, people were too rude – but I went for an interview and they had seven restaurants,” he says.
“I looked in the parking lot and there were Ferraris, Maseratis, Lamborghinis, and in the back there were 400 luxury yachts, and I thought, ‘this is my place.’”
After several successful years at Aberdeen he decided to leave the hotel- run business and become an entrepreneur.
He opened Harlan’s, his first restaurant, in 2004, and recalls: “The most exciting thing was when I opened up Harlan’s in IFC the chairman of Shangri- La, my boss at the time, told me, ‘Harlan, your restaurant will never work in Central, in a shopping mall.’
“There are 88 floors of financial whizz kids above us, and they need to eat,” was his comeback. He was right, and Harlan’s was just the beginning. “I dreamed all my life about having one restaurant and in four years it’d turned into six restaurants, and each one was different. The second was Tuscany by H, very successful and high- end in an area [Lan Kwai Fong] where people generally just go to get drunk.” He then took it up a notch, opening a new concept on the first floor of the same building, and opened Private H, describing at as a “little playpen for Donald Trump [types] – that was during the banking era when money wasn’t a problem. I would get 14 bankers in there who could spend HK$4,000 a head.”
Wild forest mushrooms, black truffle and smoked organic egg with pappardelle
When that period of financial excess came crashing to an end, he retreated to lick his wounds and turned up two years later with Gold, which he describes as spacious, warm and elegant, classy without being over-pretentious, and an ideal place to have a long business lunch.
One of the most notable improvements Goldstein made when opening Gold was the quality of the wine list, and he’s made strides in his own knowledge of what he’s selling. He says a lot of his stock is sourced at auction sales and that the key to earning his patrons’ trust in regard to the wine list is providing good value.
He admits that he’s far from the level of a sommelier, but has learned plenty about wine in the past nine years of restaurateuring: “I know what goes good with the food and every wine that I’ve put onto the list. I drink it to experience it, so I know what the taste is and what it will go with. Wine and food matching is very important.
“I have a good relationship with distributors in HK – I have only three suppliers and the rest I buy myself. The everyday wine I buy from the suppliers but I look for rare, different unique things. When I was [recently] in New York, I drank a lot of wines to experience. I’m not focused on one thing, I’ll try Israeli wine, Lebanese wine, anything.”
A highlight for Gold’s wine reputation came last summer when Goldstein sold one of his regulars, a mainland property tycoon, a Jeroboam of 1945 Château Mouton Rothschild. One of only 24 bottles in the world, the collector’s item was listed on Gold’s wine list under the aptly-named section “Crazy Stuff” where wines start from HK$15,800. Other collector’s items include a 1961 Pétrus Pomerol at HK$148,000 and Domaine de la Romanée-Conti grand crus (1985 and 1971) from HK$180,000.
“I know the food and the taste and textures of everything on the menu and it’s my goal to have my diners take a mind-blowing culinary journey of drinking wine and eating food,” he says. “If it’s a hot summer day, I’ll start off with a friendly Shaw and Smith Sauvignon Blanc from Australia.