Hong Kong Food Diaries: Restaurateur Manuel Palacio wolfs down pasta, yakitori and charcoal powder waffles

Updated on January 17 2018

In Hong Kong Food Diaries, we ask notable locals and visitors to tell us exactly what they ate and drank over the course of a few days, and where they did it. 

If you’ve recently enjoyed a carnivorous meat-fest at new Soho restaurant MEATS, discovered the exciting flavours of Peruvian-Japanese cuisine at Nikkei den TokyoLima, or curbed carb cravings at pasta bar Pici you’ve been privy to the warm and radiant hospitality of restaurateur Manuel Palacio. Together with business partner Christian Talpo, he runs Pirata Group, a homegrown hospitality company which specialises in accessible, delicious, and, above all, great-value-for-money restaurants. Essentially, his are the restaurants we want to go to Monday through Friday, noon or nighttime.

But where do Palacio’s personal tastes fall? In a recent interview, we learned that the he has an inclination for the finer things in life, being an ex-musician and jet-setter who’s been known to enjoy less than five Michelin-starred multi-course degustations in one night (all in the name of research, of course). Below, we asked Palacio to document a week in the life, from yakitori cravings to scarfing down pasta in-between working the floor at his six restaurants (plus one pop-up bar). Read all about it in his Hong Kong Food Diary.

We’re recovering from a late night at the new Yardbird. They are one of my favourites and I went with my old friend James Ward, who is actually in the middle of opening his new restaurant in St. Francis Yard called ‘Francis’ (His chef is a monster and I foresee a great success!). Yardbird didn’t disappoint and definitely won as my ‘new’ favourite restaurant in Hong Kong once again. Of course, it’s not a secret that their service and food are great, but most importantly the ambience was buzzing despite it being 11pm. I’m definitely loving the new location, everything is like it was… just better somehow. 

We just arrived back to Hong Kong after a crazy food research trip to Italy and I promised myself a diet of nothing but broccoli soup and water after all the eating we did. We visited Bologna, Modena, Florence and Milan over six days whilst eating an average of five meals a day in search of the perfect pasta…this week so far doesn’t seem to fit into my idea of a diet. 

I start my day later than usual and am up at 9:30am. The sun is out and I grab a cup of instant coffee (Yes I know, instant…but having lived in America for a while, I got used to bad coffee, and I actually prefer instant coffee over any other coffee in the morning) and fire up my computer from my sunny terrace to review a few emails and prepare for a long day ahead.

I get to the office around 11am and the first thing I do is to grab a cup of freshly squeezed juice from Call Me Juice. Today’s juice features orange, leek and ginger — just what I need to help me start my day! 

In general, I never eat at normal times and my meal plans are constantly changing, as my meals depend very much on the tastings of the day at our restaurants. We try to adapt to the chefs’ schedules as much as possible so they don’t get distracted with their day-to-day. Today, Christian and I have a tasting at Pici at 7pm. Since our trip to Italy, chef Andrea from Pici has been working on some amazing recipes for new pasta dishes — my mouth is watering just writing this down.

I get to the tasting 30 minutes late; as usual, I got caught up with some issues at our other restaurants. Andrea has prepared a selection of eight new pasta dishes to try from, of which three are amazing and immediately get set aside to add to the menu at the new Pici Central location. My favourite of the night is the Tortellini in Brodo, a classic mix of pasta and soup from Bologna that is perfect for winter.

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I’m up earlier today at around 7:30am and start preparing my agenda for the day. Today is colder and grey but I know it’s going to be a good one. I have a meeting at 9am in Central and have coffee at a longtime favourite of mine — simplylife in Landmark. The meeting goes well and all the talk about new projects gets me pumped for January – my favourite time of the year where projects come alive. Also the busiest time of year for us.

Today, as usual, I’ll have to skip lunch to keep space for a tasting at MEATS of their new dishes. Paddy has been busy in the kitchen crafting more dishes to add to the new menu. I hope these are as good as the chicken and charcoal powder waffles with tobacco honey and smashed avocado we tried last week. I’ve had dreams of that dish all week. 

We make our way through all the new dishes — whilst tastings are intense and a weekly routine, they make me so happy! Today’s favourite is surprisingly the pork terrine, which is extremely delicate, meaty, sharp and delicious.

Today starts off like every Friday — so much to do and so little time. We’ve got another massive tasting at Pici tonight. Another skipped lunch it is — we’ve got to save space to try around 10 new pasta dishes tonight. 

Christian and I arrive at Pici with Andrea patiently awaiting us with all the new dishes. Honestly, out of 10 new dishes, we usually only end up choosing one to add to the menu and sometimes that one dish goes through 10 versions before we sign off on it. Having said that, we loved a fair few of these including a series of cappellacci pasta dishes that we have never tried before. I guess Andrea was inspired from his recent trip to Italy! The pasta is great and we work out a few ideas for the sauces. The one I particularly like with this shape of pasta is the green peas sauce with mozzarella and red prawns — come down to Pici to check it out! Saying that, my favourite of the night is the garganelli with duck, Sichuan peppers and roasted cauliflower, which is going straight on the menu! 

My day starts off with a good cup of coffee at another local favourite Elephant Grounds. I don’t know how many times I’ve visited this spot — it’s so strategically located in the corner of all the restaurants. I particularly love the avocado toast, it’s simple and delicious!

Saturday is a restless day for us in general as the restaurants get busy, and it’s generally my day to work on paperwork and meet some members of the team that I only get to catch on the weekends, when the phone is not ringing continuously. We have an afternoon meeting at TokyoLima with the office team to prepare a series of games for all the staff this month. I sneak in a couple bites of ceviche from Arturo to keep me going before another tasting at MEATS. Wolfing down the ceviche, I head around the corner to MEATS to re-try all the new brunch items. I make a couple corrections with chef Paddy and mentally prepare myself for the heavy eating I’m about to take part in today. We have two to three days a week that are all about food, especially when we are in the middle of openings, where we need to try the food several times a week. During the opening weeks, I try to avoid eating anything other than our restaurant’s food, salads and soup.

The evening follows with a selection of 10-15 wines for a tasting with Jen, our new manager at Pici Central. The Fiano is particularly nice and we end up drinking half a bottle whilst reviewing the week. 

I make my regular rounds at all the restaurants until I get to MEATS, where Samantha Eades, our interior designer, is waiting for me to grab a late dinner together. As the restaurant is busy and chaotic, I end up having to jump into service and leave Samantha waiting a good hour — did I mention she’s my favourite interior designer? We finally head to Yardbird once again, where we have every skewer they have left on the menu and a delicious soba noodle salad that I finish despite the amount of food I’ve eaten today already. We end up going for a quick drinks tour in Central starting with the recently opened Yojimbo and Ozu on Wyndham Street before ending up at Lily & Bloom.   

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Sunday tends to be my cheat day (In my case, this is when I avoid food the most) to make space for the next week of tastings. Saying that, I grab a power breakfast at Café Gray in The Upper House to start the day on a good note while I am preparing my week ahead.

I manage to skip lunch, but for dinner I head to our first restaurant, Pirata — I can’t remember the last time I had food here and decide to pop in and grab a quick gnochetti with pistachio and red prawns. Definitely as good as I remembered. Since I’m here, I decide I might as well get a few others and tuck into the sausage crostini, seabass carpaccio and tiramisu. I know it is my cheat day but I really can’t help it!

A hectic week ahead. Monday is my “non-office day” — the day where I work from home and take care of myself, make sure I get some reading in, work out, tidy up the house and take care of the groceries. It’s been a long time since I’ve stepped into the gym so like every Monday, I start with good intentions and head to PURE for a quick aerobic workout to help burn off the close-to-100 dishes I must have eaten over the weekend. I grab a healthy salad to-go, which I devour whilst working on the computer from home. On the way back, I sneak into BALLS to try a couple of the dishes we’ve been busy creating. There goes my workout.

Tonight we have our new operations manager Carlos arriving from Spain. I take him to my other must-visit restaurant, the forever busy Ho Lee Fook, for a few orders of my favourite dumplings in the city and a couple other classics such as the prawn toast and Sichuan chicken wings. I can’t get enough of those.

My week usually ends on Mondays, not on Sundays like a regular person, and Mondays are usually when I plan all the meals of the week and try to work out how we are going to make it through all the food that needs to be eaten this week.

During a regular week when we don’t have openings and hundreds of tastings, I do try and make it out to some of my favourite spots in Hong Kong for food. Old favourites are 22 Ships (which reminds me I haven’t been there for too long now), Yardbird, Ho Lee Fook, Belon, Zuma, RONIN, Din Tai Fung, Mott 32 and Amber. When it comes to eating a good pasta I love CIAK and for a relaxed meal I love Tosca. When it comes to Pirata Group restaurants, I have to say I’ve got a soft spot for Alfredo’s gigantic turbot fish at The Optimist. I am Spanish after all!

For drinks, the only bar that comes to mind right now is The Old Man. Although I don’t tend to drink very often, I love the amazing quality here — the daiquiris especially. Agung and his gang are the best in Hong Kong. The only restaurant that is on my must-visit list right now is Frantzén’s Kitchen — I’ve still not managed to make it down yet. I make a mental note to get there this week.

I am honestly not very creative when it comes to Hong Kong dining. I know what I like and I try to get to my favourites as much as possible. I’m definitely making more of an effort now to change this but what can I say? I’m a creature of habit.

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