What's in a $480 sandwich?

At a whopping $480 – the priciest in town, what’s the deal with Hullett House’s posh, promotion-season-only club sandwich? Is it made of gold - agog minds want to know? Almost, but not quite. We head to The Parlour to get the low-down on this toasty staple.

If oysters are decadent and a stir-fry cheap n’ cheerful, club sandwiches are the ultimate in classy comfort, the childhood favorite you return to in the comfort of a foreign hotel. The classic version is made of chicken, turkey, tomato, lettuce and mayo in between toasted bread, but since we’re in Hong Kong, where 5-star lounges jostle with cha chaan tengs, pretty much anything goes.

Recently, using data gathered from 840 hotel receipts worldwide, Hotels.com came up with the new Club Sandwich Index, a definitive overview of club sandwich prices in 3-5-star establishments across the globe. While it’s unsurprising that Geneva, known for its high living standards, tops the list with clubs at $236, and New Delhi bottoms things out with an average price of $71, Hong Kong also counts among the pricier cities in Asia, with a firm place in the top ten. Cheaper than Tokyo but more expensive than New York, our club prices have long surpassed our neighbours Singapore, Seoul, Beijing and Taipei. At $86 for the cheapest club, this is a small indulgence rather than a working man’s lunch.

Now, it’s been given an even swankier makeover by Hullett House’s The Parlour, cementing our status as a city of expensive clubs. From now till August 31, the town’s priciest specimen will be available to the public, boasting such fine fillings as caviar and Wagyu beef, just to name a few. It’s basically a fine dining menu tucked between toast, befitting the exclusive venue, which oozes colonial charm.

■ Dining on the colonial-style terrace

On a sunny day, I met The Parlour’s Executive Sous Chef Peter Lee, who was personally responsible for the birth of the sandwich. ‘One day, I got a call from management saying we’re embarking on a new venture to create the world’s most expensive club sandwich, in an upgrade of the traditional sample. It’s also a continuation of Hullett House’s British heritage– the sandwich is such a staple of the English tea-set, and to reinvent it seems the most logical step. The next question for me is - what ingredients should it include, to justify its price tag?’’ Peter thus set about designing the sandwich, dreaming up ingredients, gathering them, and, finally, finessing its execution, throwing in such ravishing delicacies as smoked salmon and Belgian honey figs. Initially just a marketing dream, it turned into a real-promotion. Now it’s on the menu, available for all those with thick pockets and sharpened palates.

■ The Menu

The Hullett House Club is definitely a ‘gourmet’ creation, in every sense of the word. However, Peter stresses that it still retains the standard club formula, despite its fancy trappings. Once a club, always a club. ‘The bottom layers are basically your usual club sandwich material, including eggs, tomatoes, bacon, chicken and mayonnaise. However, we don’t just use materials from the local market. Our eggs are Italian and organically grown, our chicken breast French, and our tomatoes Roman, our romaine lettuce imported.’

What arrests our attention, of course, is definitely the topmost layer, which is a lesson in luxury and gastronomy. First, there’s the Iberico ham, paired with the sweetest Belgian fig. Then there’s the most expensive salmon in the world –Balik salmon, cold-smoked at 37 degrees, topped with a generous spoonful of Beluga caviar. Finally, there’s the A5 Wagyu beef roll, wrapped round fresh green asparagus.

The exquisitely-presented specimens are accompanied by a portion of onion rings – a healthier option than fries, says Peter, as well as a delicate hoop made of shredded potatoes, and is served on a choice of white or rye bread. ‘Making this sandwich is a true balancing act. The key to the preparation process is steady hands – we need to make sure the structure stays in one piece, as toppling is always a real possibility when we’re dealing with such delicate materials!’

■ The sandwich in all its glory

If you look at the ingredients that went into the making of this sandwich, even naysayers would agree that the hefty price tag is, on closer inspection, good value for money. It’s expensive for a very good – and justifiable reason. ‘People who know gourmet food,’ says Peter, ‘will realize the true cost of these ingredients. The topmost layer itself is worth half the price tag already – and it’s not every day that you can find all these fine foods together on one plate.’ He also divulges that for every sandwich that they sell, they will probably lose the profit on another.’ That’s a natural result of using such precious materials.'

Like any standard club, it’s large in size and definitely filling – at least, large enough to share. It is expected that a party of two will split between them, and Peter suggests that families might order it for their children – those lucky kids, receiving an early lesson in gastronomic sophistication!

Ultimately, it seems fitting that the world’s most expensive club sandwich is offered by Hullett House, a boutique hotel (transformed from the former Marine Police Headquarters) which has always prided itself on its colonial heritage and its debt to traditional British dining. As a classic and recognizable food in the British diet, it follows that a designer version would make its debut during teatimes and dinnertimes here.

■ Executive Sous Chef Peter Lee

‘A club sandwich is truly iconic, because it’s universally popular. You get it in the lounges of posh hotels, but you also get it in local cafes. It breaks through all stratum of life,’ says Peter. Clearly, there’s always a hunger and need for it in people’s lives, a veritable club-sandwich-shaped hole, in other words. ‘But what we’re doing this time round is reinventing this need. We’re offering not just a tried-and-true sandwich to fill a belly, but a boutique version. The ultimate differentiator, as always, is in the ingredients.’

And when those ingredients could’ve come from the fine dining section of a fancy restaurant or an upmarket deli, who could disagree? No longer comfort food but gourmet food, this seasonal venture has transformed a universal staple into something altogether more rarefied, but no less filling.

The Indie Organic Choice: Sinmei Tea

(Photo by herbert)

A bit intimidated by the price tag? Turning your nose up at food snobs and their sophisticated palates? For a gentler, indie option, head to Sinmei for your regular club cravings. A small haven for matcha-lovers tucked away in Sheung Wan, this cafe offers a flagship sandwich besides their signature cakes. The Tea Club Sandwich, at $75, is a true bargain. A highlight is the cheesy fried eggs, infused with Japanese green tea leaves, that form the bulk of the sandwich. Add to that mock turkey/ham, lettuce and tomatoes, and you have a wonderful specimen to give its posher rival a run for its money. And with its layers of organic, eggy goodness, this is the perfect choice for practicing vegetarians.

With quality vegetarian options a rarity in the city – unless you’re going high-end with Sevva’s $240 offering, this is a rare gem. The best thing about it is that it gives you the ‘rich’ flavorings and textures of meat while being entirely meat-free – a crowning achievement for this little cafe.

C'est La Vie:) says: ‘The first layer of the sandwich contains fluffy fried egg, with cheese and organic green tea leaves whipped into it. A definite winner if you love eggs! The second layer is my favorite, the mock ham – not least because its texture and appearance is no different than real ham, but because of its tanginess and appropriate degree of saltiness. Paired with tomatoes and lettuce, it’s foodie bliss for the health-conscious.’

The Cheap and Cheerful Choice: Australia Dairy Company

(Photo by TaiwanWalker)

If you want a Hong Kong-style specimen, this is the go-to place. Australia Dairy Company, which has been providing authentic HK comfort food for decades, serves a mean club with some of the thickest, fluffiest toast in town, and some of the best fried eggs. It’s a secret that only locals know.

Don’t expect, of course, caviar, Wagyu and 5-star service. What it has in abundance are eggs, cheese, ham, pickles, tomatoes as well as corned beef, sandwiched by toast which is guaranteed crispy. (the corned beef is definitely a local sandwich specialty) All the ingredients you need to fill your stomach on a hungry afternoon, proving that budget can sometimes be just as delicious, even if it doesn’t have that gourmet rush.

TaiwanWalker says: ‘To be honest, their egg sandwiches are already winners, but if you want something even richer that can bring you yet more gastronomic satisfaction, this is the perfect choice. Even better than the daily special!'

Text, photos: Michelle W

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