Urban treasure: speakeasies

Nina Simonds, in the Times’ food section, describes a series of “speakeasies,” or tiny, limited-menu restaurants set up in nontraditional spaces — art galleries or even people’s apartments.

A Hong Kong friend who is an avid foodie took me to Mum Chau’s Sichuan Kitchen, which is definitely an insider’s type of place — just one room in an undistinguished apartment building at the top of D’Aguilar Street in the heart of Hong Kong. A colorful but discreet red sign reads, “Mum Chau’s Sichuan Kitchen, Members Only,” in Chinese and English. Lunch is served promptly from noon until two, first come first served, and tables fill almost immediately, as word has spread of its superb but simple Sichuan-style fare. Dinner is by reservation.

Mum Chau’s specialties are homemade dumplings and hand-thrown noodles, but she also offers other traditional items. To order, customers are given a small yellow paper menu in Chinese and asked to tick off their choices. (You can go to other people’s tables and point if you are stumped.)

I’m not sure whether it’s a trend or not, but I like the notion of less choice when eating out. Restaurants with set, prix-fixe menus — from palaces like Charlie Trotter’s or French Laundry down to homey spots like Savoy Truffle — express and highlight their owners’ or chef’s unique background and talents, which are increasingly worth seeking out in a world with ever more (but ever more bland and processed) dining options.

Of course, these speakeasies could only thrive in Hong Kong: tightly packed, rolling around in money, in love with food, gossipy, and freewheeling in the ways of regulation.