For such a glamorous Hong Kong cocktail bar, the name, Darkside, is a surprisingly rye reference to the nickname for Kowloon — the bar, in the Rosewood Hotel, is on Hong Kong’s Kowloon side of the famous harbor. And Simone Rossi is now its director of bars, having been part of the project since the very beginning, in late 2018.
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During British colonial rule, all the important administrative buildings were built on Hong Kong Island, and so, in comparison, the Kowloon Peninsula, with its farms and fishing villages, was literally the dark side.
Ironically Darkside Is A Beacon Of Cocktail Bar Brilliance
The irony is that Darkside is a beacon of cocktail bar brilliance amid the dazzling resurgence of Kowloon’s Tsim Tsa Tsui waterfront. The Rosewood Hong Kong and its Darkside bar are tucked right alongside the “sparkling new global cultural-retail destination” K11 Musea Art Mall.
And Darkside Hong Kong was just voted #9 in Asia, at Asia’s 50 Best Bars 2023, which (adding to Tsim Sha Tsui’s shine) was held in the Rosewood ballroom.
“The dark side is home for me.”
In the debate about the best side of the harbor to inhabit, Simone Rossi has always been on the Kowloon side anyway. “The dark side is home for me,” he smiles. “I’ve lived in Jordan and Tsim Sha Tsui ever since I’ve been in Hong Kong. Demographically it’s different over here. We have lots of tourists coming from China. The streets are busier during the day. And I like to be on this side, because I feel the local vibes compared to Soho, or Mid-Levels, where you bump into so many people you know too.”
Winning World Class Hong Kong & Macau 2018
During that time, Simone Rossi picked up a number of accolades, including winning the exacting World Class Hong Kong & Macau 2018.
“How do you calm your nerves before an event like that?” he asks. “Obviously, practice. You need to go into the competition with confidence. I suggest practicing in front of the mirror. And also, try in front of your team. Gather as many of them in front of you as you can to watch. That way you get used to performing in front of an audience.”
The final speed round at World Class is particularly tough. Participants have to remember a host of classic cocktail recipes and be able to make the drinks as quickly as possible. “Exactly,” Simone shakes his head, “I practiced for the speed round solidly for one whole month. I’d have one bartender in front of me with the timer. Every day, before the shift and after the shift I’d practice. The important thing is to make sure you do it every day.”
Simone Rossi has just about recovered from that intense Asia’s 50 Best Bars 2023 week in July when a typhoon 8 whipped through Hong Kong and the ballroom aircon has some issues, leaving everyone a bit exhausted (and, of course, hungover).
It is, at least, a good time to pause and reflect on the success for Darkside, which climbed four places from #13 in 2022. It wasn’t, after all, always accolade after accolade from Simone Rossi.
At 18 he moved to England to work at Veranda in Brixton – a tough district of the London Borough of Lambeth. “I remember, I left Italy on 11th October, 2011,” he nods about the relocation, partly to start his hospitality career, and partly to learn some English. Only Brixton has a large Caribbean community. “That’s right, I think the first English I learnt was how to say ‘wha gwan?’” Simone laughs.
Being Away, Somehow, Brings You Closer To Home
And, after that, nothing. It was, he recalls, particularly hard to find work for a time.
But his big break eventually came with a position as barback at Quo Vadis, the historic Soho restaurant and members’ club, under Luca Missaglia, who’s gone on to become managing director of Amaro Santoni – the herbal liqueur crafted by Gabriello Santoni in 1961.
“And that was ironic too. ‘Quo vadis’ means where are you going? And, at the time, I had absolutely no idea where I was going in life!” Simone says, breaking out laughing again.
At least he got to learn what he calls the ABCs of hospitality from Luca, the classic cocktails, wines, coffees and teas, and how to offer a bespoke service befitting such a iconic members’ club.
Plus, he’d become part of a grand lineage of Italians in the hospitality industry. Quo Vadis – which was famously taken over by Marco Pierre White and Damien Hirst in 1996 and is now run by Barrafina’s Sam and Eddy Hart – was founded in 1926 by Italian Peppino Leoni.
“That’s true,” he smiles “and in my time, there have been many influential Italians I admire. I’m talking about the older generation of bartenders like the godfather of British bartending Peter Dorelli, and another legend, Salvatore Calabrese. Then there have been bartenders who were also astute businessmen who made an impression on me – like Giancarlo Mancino. And if you’re talking about people who are still there at the bar then there’s Agostino Perrone. Then, more recently, there are people like Simone Caporale, who’s synonymous with The Artesian Bar, and whose impact really marks the start of contemporary bartending for me with his guest shifts and masterclasses.”
Which makes us wonder how Italian Simone feels today, having been away from Italy now for 12 years and counting. “Out of 10? I’d say I’m 11!” he declares proudly. “It’s still in everything we do, the bitters we use, and even in my accent. And there’s something about being away that also brings you closer to home…”
Darkside Hong Kong Is As Multifaceted As The Destination Itself
But right now Darkside Hong Kong is very much home too. It’s a bar that’s as multifaceted as Hong Kong is a destination – with its lush green Lantau, its dramatic hiking trails, its breathtaking peak, and endless rows of luxury goods stores.
At Darkside Hong Kong you can sit at the counter, and flip open the MahJong set that, for now, still doubles as a menu, or enter the walk-in wardrobe of exceedingly fine spirits, or, simply, enjoy the live band that plays most nights. “If I had to rescue one bottle from the walk-in? Maybe I’d try to roll out our specially sourced cask of grande Champagne cognac,” he says, “or the bottle, that I’m really attached to because it was one of the first I tried from the cabinet, the 1914 Jean Grosperrin La Gabare Petite Champagne Vintage Cognac. I think it’s one of the most beautiful cognacs we have.”
And at the other end of the room, the band strikes up. “When they play Adele I can get a bit melancholy, especially on a Friday or Saturday night when I want to party,” he admits. “It can bring me down from 100 to 20, you know? But usually they bring me back with some Michael Jackson – covers of songs like ‘Smooth Criminal.’”
Darkside Hong Kong’s Martini VS Vesper
Underpinning Darkside’s obvious opulence is a finely-honed hospitality team, who display a remarkable memory for guest names.
“In general, for the team at the hotel, anyone who books and stays with us, there’s always pictures and information about our guests being circulated. We will know their faces. We’ll know their allergies and any dietary restrictions. And we’ll know their preferences. That’s our standard,” Simone nods approvingly.
And, added to that, they have the skill of building instant rapport.
“Building rapport takes time and experience,” Simone muses. “But overall, in the industry, I think people can lack the basics which helps them with this and other things. Sometimes people want to run, but they don’t know how to walk. Since Instagram came through, people have prioritized how they look on a screen and they forgo the basics. But it’s the basics that give you the confidence.”
In fact, it occurs to us, the sharp suited Italian wouldn’t look out of place here himself as a guest. “I would sit at the bar counter and I would order our Martini VS Vesper, created with my predecessor, Arkadiusz Rybak, that’s a mix of the old martini recipe with a more modern martini with dry and sweet vermouth, Mancino Vermouth Secco and Mancino Vermouth Bianco, and we switch the olive for Japanese wakamomo, a kind of unripe Japanese peach, which give it a little welcome fruitiness. You can’t go wrong with that.”
And who, right now, would argue with Simone, a bartender and a bar that are clearly, finally, undoubtedly, going places.