The great wines of the world meet Korean cuisine: Influential critic James Suckling opens his first bar in Hong Kong

Oct 26,2018
A wall filled with wine bottles greets visitors when they step inside the James Suckling Wine Central in Hong Kong. [FRANCESCO LEE]
HONG KONG - When presented with a plate of three different types of kimchi to eat while drinking a glass of wine, connoisseurs may do a double take. The traditional side dish, known for its pungent smell and spicy kick developed over months of fermentation, has long been thought of as an unthinkable pairing for wine, but upon walking in to James Suckling Wine Central in Hong Kong, you will find diners enjoying the two without taking a second thought. The newly-opened bar is the result of a collaboration between internationally renowned wine critic James Suckling and Francesco Lee of Hong Kong’s modern Korean restaurant Moyo.

“Pairing kimchi to wine isn’t an easy or traditional combination of course, but there is always room for flexibility,” said Lee, adding that working with a variety of preferences is possible because no wines are made with the expectations of the food they can be matched with. “When someone loves both kimchi and wine, they can just be happy that they are having two things they enjoy at the same time.”

Suckling wants to prove that not all Korean food is spicy and difficult to match with wine - a lesson he learned while drinking his favorite wines with the food his Korean wife Marie Kim Suckling makes when they have winemakers over at their home in Tuscany, Italy.

The wine bar named after the famous wine critic has over 400 wines that Suckling has given a score of 90 or higher on a scale of 1 to 100. About 200 of them are available by the glass for 80 Hong Kong dollars ($10.20). Some 30 percent of the wines are from the critic’s private cellar, including some vintage wines that make the list quite eclectic.

Above: The bar has about 400 different wines and about half of them are available to order by the glass. Right: Some of the food on offer at the new wine bar. At top is James Suckling pig, an equivalent to Korean bossam, and at bottom is beef carpaccio served with black sesame sauce. [FRANCESCO LEE]
Suckling’s idea to create a space where he could match Korean food with wine became a possibility after he met Lee at Moyo soon after it opened in 2014. He offered to help the young restauranteur with his wine list after his first visit. He and his wife, who has also worked in the food and beverages industry in France, the U.K. and Korea, soon became regular customers at the restaurant located in the Central business district. The Sucklings often talked about food and wine with Lee, and the talks evolved into discussions of running a wine bar together. The three now run a casual, yet chic wine bar with concrete walls and velvet chairs where, in their words, people can have a first date, have dinner with their boss after work and meet globetrotters looking to see what wines are available in town.

The menu features Korean style fried chicken with sweet and sour gochujang sauce (hot pepper paste), and many of its meat and seafood dishes use doenjang, fermented soy bean paste, as a seasoning. It also offers Prawn Jang Rice - rice served with soy-sauce-marinated prawn and an egg yolk - one of the most popular Korean dishes among young people at the moment. Korea’s popular bossam, or steamed pork with braised kimchi, is named James Suckling Pig on the menu.

“It’s like closing the circle,” said Suckling, reflecting on being able to offer more than just scores to wine aficionados. The Korea JoongAng Daily met with Suckling and Lee to learn about what went into creating their bar, which is offering one of the most unique takes on Korean food out there.

Marie Kim Suckling, far left, James Suckling, center, and Francesco Lee are the ones who would take turns greeting visitors to the bar. [FRANCESCO LEE]
Pivot to Asia

After a four decade career as one of the world’s most influential wine critics, Suckling is relishing in the opportunity to meet drinkers of all types in person and have a space to host food-and-wine-related events.

“This is an extension of what I do [as a wine critic],” said Suckling, explaining the beauty of having wines he rated available to try. “One of the most frustrating things for me is that sometimes people don’t know where to find the wines that I highly rated, or they just can’t find it. Now people can taste the wine together here.”

The American wine critic who developed his wine palate in France and worked for decades at Wine Spectator magazine thinks it’s “logical” for him to create a base in Asia, as he has spent much of his time in Europe or the U.S. Seeing the Asian markets growth potential, Suckling is focused on building a better presence in Asia, especially China, for his website Jamessuckling.com, which is filled with wine-related information and news. He is also planning to bring his “The Great Wine” events to Korea next year and to make contacts with ordinary wine drinkers in Korea. Many of the events he has done in Korea have been private or for small groups of people. If the wine bar does well, there is also a possibility of bringing the concept to other cities and countries as well.

“Doing a wine bar [has been on my mind] so that I could continue the communication, and I really wanted to have Korean food as it is trendy right now and it goes well with wine,” said Suckling. “If I [hadn’t met] Francesco, I don’t know if the bar would have ever happened.”

The staff of Moyo, a modern Korean restaurant using Italian influences in its dishes, stands outside the restaurant. [FRANCESCO LEE]
Refusing to be the same

Lee, born and raised in Italy, grew up with parents who ran a hotel and restaurants in Rome and Milan. He moved to Hong Kong to work at a Korean barbecue restaurant after realizing that a life in finance wasn’t for him. Leaving behind his comfortable life, he moved into a small apartment in Hong Kong shared by four people because he believed he could bring something new and exciting to the food scene in Hong Kong and make it more diverse. He found a team to work with, an investor who understood that making Korean food more modern could work in the Hong Kong food scene, and a chef who could deliver hints of Korean and Italian cuisine at the same time. Korean chef Jack Lee from Italy, who the restaurateur knew for over 10 years, helped the food industry newbie realize his dream of making a mark in the scene.

“At Moyo, we wanted to do something that’s not widely seen in the market yet,” said Lee. “I grew up on Italian food but learned about Korean food from my parents, and Jack grew up on Korean food and learned about Italian food at school in Italy.

“Some may say the strictly traditional Korean style should be served rather than doing something mixed, but I think with enough time and investment, the mix of two different cuisines can come together beautifully on the plate,” he said, adding that the mix of kimchi, gochujang and tomatoes works well to make a dish that is seen as tteokbokki (spicy rice cakes) by Koreans and gnocchi by Italians.

With his four years of experience running a relatively small restaurant, Lee now has the chance to swim in a bigger pond by working with the internationally renowned wine critic. He believes that working with Suckling will give him credibility, something he cannot achieve in a short period of time.

“I don’t know what I did to [make an impression] on Suckling to partner with me because he works with many influential people, but maybe he saw the vibe in Moyo, and appreciated how we tried to make our own identity with Korean-Italian which has not been practiced much in Hong Kong,” said Lee, showing his will to set an inimitable tone for the wine bar as well.

Meanwhile, his business ideas aren’t just limited to the food industry. He wants to continue starting new projects and taking on new challenges, possibly even venturing into winemaking later on.

“It can be a cultural spot, a product, or anything that can have a meaningful impact on humans,” Lee said, although he is not in a hurry to venture beyond the food business until he establishes his name as a restaurateur and entrepreneur.

BY LEE SUN-MIN [summerlee@joongang.co.kr]

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