Chef Nate Green on REX Wine & Grill, Modern Steakhouses and His Restaurant Values
After holding the reins at Henry for two years, British nose-to-tail chef Nate Green has allied himself with the group behind Octavium for a “contemporary European” restaurant.
Seven years after landing in Hong Kong, Nate Green has at long last opened a restaurant in Central. The British veteran, whose CV includes such stalwarts as 22 Ships, Ham & Sherry and Rhoda, has plied his brand of focused, produce-led cooking across the city’s vast urban gestalt, but his latest (and arguably most personal) venture sees him digging in at a cavernous space beneath Des Voeux Road, marking a much-delayed, highly anticipated return to the world of local restaurant groups.
Having steered Henry – Rosewood Hong Kong’s preeminent eatery for meaty, smokehouse-inspired fare – through a two-year gauntlet marked by political turmoil and the Coronavirus outbreak, Green confides that in 2021 he felt ready to realise his vision for a modern, grillroom-inspired restaurant.
“For a long time, working in a ‘grill’ or ‘steakhouse’ wasn’t desirable for chefs who aspired to be top-level,” says Green. “The prevailing viewpoint was that there simply wasn’t enough ‘kudos’ in something like that.”
With Rex Wine & Grill, however, Green appears determined to counter this narrative: championing, without an ounce of cognitive dissonance, generous platefuls of USDA prime alongside more chef-y creations that draw on his considerable talent for indirect cooking techniques. A month into opening, we grab a seat at the bar with Green and hear how he hopes that Rex will usher in a resurgence of the Grand Grill.
Having played a pivotal role in opening Henry and popularising the smokehouse concept, why did you feel now was the right moment to embark on a new project?
After working with hotel groups for three years, I came to realise I just didn’t belong in that sort of corporate environment. I hold strong opinions about a range of different subjects and always speak my mind. That, coupled with the fact that I’d achieved everything I set out to do with Henry, convinced me it was time for a change.
That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy learning about and bringing to fruition the “American smokehouse” concept, but Rex presents me with the opportunity to put what I feel is the best representation of my cuisine in front of diners. Without wanting to sound wanky, that means modern European food, prepared with a strong nose-to-tail mantra, from the best produce that we can realistically source whole.
Rex is billed as combining Italian flair with American opulence. How will that translate for your diners?
We’ve evolved that concept since I came aboard. The foundation of the cuisine is definitely modern European, but when we use the phrase “American opulence” we’re talking about generosity: real cooking, not piddly little portions. Then, the “Italian flair” is a reference to the level of hospitality being redolent of the great grillrooms of continental Europe. We aren’t necessarily talking about the food that’s going on the plate – there won’t be eight pasta courses on the menu. In fact, early on, one of the first points Octavo management and I agreed on was that we didn’t need another regional Italian concept.
What we’re envisioning is a return to the era of the Grand Grill, in the vein of parliamentary canteens at The Savoy or The Dorchester in London. We want the beauty and attention to detail of traditional European service to come through: whether that’s in the shape of our silver, stemware, or the substantial number of dishes prepared tableside.
Your new venue shares a name and certain stylistic touchpoints with Mauro Vincenti’s pioneering LA restaurant Rex il Ristorante. What inspired you to resurrect such a piece of America’s dining history in Hong Kong?
In a way, Rex is a tribute to chef Umberto Bombana. Back in 1983, Rex in LA was the first restaurant Bombana helmed and his experiences there eventually led him to Hong Kong, where we met. That was an important connection to celebrate when we were discussing what the restaurant should be called.
We also wanted to explore the American restaurant scene as it existed in the 1970s and 1980s, pinpointing what the height of sophistication was during those eras. Many people forget that the idea of an “American” culinary identity, forged by chefs like Jeremiah Tower and Alice Waters, didn’t develop until much later – French and Italian cuisine were the two dominant influences for a long time. If anything, my cooking at Rex shares a certain affinity with modern British cuisine: beyond the “nationality” of our ingredients, we’re interested in the conditions they were produced in and the personalities behind them.
As you’re one of the foremost proponents of nose-to-tail dining in the city, how can we expect your passion for that to take flight at Rex?
Our aim is to keep the menu quite small, populating it with satisfying, classic dishes you’d expect to see at a grillroom-inspired restaurant. On top of that, we offer a house-made sausage; maybe a ragout of lamb shoulder – all of which will be done as specials – and when they’re gone, they’re gone. The way that the menu is set up allows us to utilise almost the entirety of an animal. Even in those situations when we don’t source a whole cow, we’re still championing offal cookery: liver, kidneys and sweetbreads, nothing goes to waste.
Was the decision to compose a shorter signature menu in part to encourage diners to explore the list of specials? To consume a wider variety of dishes?
I’ve always thought the best way to build a menu is to have steady à la carte options, supplemented by a few seasonal dishes. Our aim with Rex is to build a clientèle that includes a core of regulars who come all the time. You can’t sustain a restaurant like this around a business model of “one and done” – though, sadly, that’s an extremely popular attitude among many Hong Kong operators.
I also feel the idea of a steak is fairly self-contained. If you go to dinner for crispy-skinned chicken, you’re not going to order it at a Peking duck restaurant – you’re going to go somewhere that’s best-known for its chicken. Obviously, there’ll always be one or two diners who aren’t like that, but over time our aim is for them to feel so familiar with us that we’re like their canteen. By that, I mean they can be assured they’ll find something delicious on the menu, even if what that is changes weekly.
There’s less wastage, the ingredients we use maintain their optimal freshness, and my team stays engaged because they’re constantly seeing and learning new dishes.
What role will sustainability play in the creation of your new menu and the physical spaces at the restaurant?
I’m always looking at the impact of whatever we buy and use in the restaurant. I don’t think it’s controversial to say that we work in a damaging industry: there’s food waste, plastics and the destructive effect that comes with producing food on an industrial scale. What we need – and it’s something I’m proud we’re doing here at Rex – is a greater willingness to utilise whole animals. Another commitment we’ve made is re-writing our lunch menu every day, which means we can prepare a lot of the larger items that need to be broken down in a succession of different ways.
In a restaurant scene already teeming with premium reserve lists, what aspects of Rex’s beverage programme will be most exciting for seasoned drinkers?
We’ve approached it sensibly. The calibre of the wine list is comparable to what you’ll find at our sister restaurant, Octavium. For cocktails, we’ve kept it along the lines of “really good classics”, albeit with a subtle twist. We’re also specialising more on after-dinner tipples – categories that I personally really enjoy, like whisky and digestifs.
Our killer feature, however, is the wine-locker system: we have 100 available for diners to rent, which is something you don’t often see outside of private members’ clubs. Nothing encourages repeat visits like having a couple of your own bottles on-hand – it’s an opportunity to give our guests exactly what they enjoy.
Considering how diners are becoming increasingly restrictive in their dietary choices, are there elements of the menu that will appeal to those with less carnivorous appetites?
We’re in the business of hospitality. If I’m cooking for a table of 10, there’s a good chance two of those diners will only eat fish, be vegetarian … I’ve got no issue with that. But instead of composing a fully vegan menu, I’d much prefer to come to your table, ask what you enjoy, and prepare something around the seasonal veggies we have available. It’s such a cop-out to say, “You’re a vegetarian? Right, your choice is either salad or gnocchi.” Often, vegetables are where you can afford the most creativity: you can blend them, bake them, pickle them. When you think about a “composed” dish at a Michelin-star restaurant, the plate itself is around 60 percent vegetables. I love that.
Is it necessary for certain elements in the classic steakhouse concept to be “modernised”, so as to better reflect Hongkongers’ dining preferences?
If not, why do you think the traditional idea of a restaurant specialising in wine and steaks has remained so celebrated? Put simply, I think steakhouses are easy for most diners to understand. Whether it’s a business meal or a big celebratory occasion, you don’t necessarily know if everybody at the table is going to enjoy a composed tasting menu. But guess what? Nine out of 10 people are going to love steak. And the beauty of steak is you can make it as simple or complicated as you like. Where I felt Henry was most successful was on the side dishes: we offered 14 of them, and they all went beyond the settled notion of simple accompaniments. You could order a handful of those and not even consider steak.
At Rex, even though we’re working with many of the techniques of a traditional steakhouse, we also add an element of our own creativity: whether it’s a smoked eel and roasted beetroot, a blue cheese bearnaise, or toothfish with artichokes and preserved lemon. I mean, there’s no universal rule that says you have to serve a prawn cocktail in a martini glass, so why not play around with it? A steakhouse is no different – it’s all about paying homage to the classics, with a fresh perspective.