During my trip to Hong Kong, we had some memorable meals and some not-so-delightful ones. It's all part of the travel experience, isn't it? Don't worry, I don't intend to review each and every dining experience, complete with photos.... It would take too long, and by the end, nobody would be reading this blog. It's just overkill, right?
So I'm only going to write in detail about one meal I had, which was far and away the best. There are literally thousands of restaurants in Hong Kong. Not only that, but many are Michelin starred. And many are excellent, but undiscovered by those who write guide books and write lists of 'best restaurants'. So you are spoiled with a level of variety which frankly, is bewildering.
One recommendation we received was for Bo Innovation. The person who gave us this recommendation knows who he is, and should know that Him Indoors and I are very grateful for his help. The restaurant and concept are the brainchild of Chef Alvin Leung. Born in the UK, he was raised in Canada, qualified in Acoustic Engineering, decided instead to teach himself to be a chef (he is entirely self-schooled), and then moved to Hong Kong. He calls himself the 'Demon Chef' and I am given to understand that is what the sizable tattoo on his arm states, but my skills at reading Chinese script isn't up to much. so I have to trust that Chef Leung is telling the truth!
Chef Leung has been asked why he has given himself such a name. His response is typically frank and direct. As he said when talking to Anthony Bourdain: "because I cook like a demon in the kitchen". But don't let that lead you to the idea anything about his food is evil, because it is quite the opposite! He has since explained: "Well, Demon is actually far from sinister. It derived from the Greek word “Daimôn” which literally means ‘’good-spiritedness’’, and is a term for happiness. I chose ‘’Demon Chef’’ to show my cuisine follows the same principles of applying happiness to people. The tattoo on my arm represents a long term commitment to do what I am doing as it was painful to put it on and probably more painful to remove it." (See the full interview at: http://www.theworlds50best.com/regional-spotlights/hong-kong/interview-with-alvin-leung/)
Chef Leung's food and flavours draw heavily on his Cantonese ethnic background, and seeks to make the flavours cleaner and dishes lighter. Whilst his take on them is incredibly original and innovative, and some of the dishes I must admit look unrecognisably Chinese, to me the influence of his Cantonese culinary heritage is clear. I firmly believe if (and I do hope this never happens!) he were to be sliced open, this Cantonese heritage would become apparent, as letters would in a stick of rock. Chef Leung calls his style 'X-Treme Chinese', which he admits is a deliberate attempt to distance himself from 'fusion' cooking. I sympathise, since that was a food movement which suffered from a poor reputation despite being a great and very simple idea. It has only been recently that 2010 Masterchef Winner, Dhruv Baker, has injected new life and enthusiasm into the genre.
Many of the articles on the Web make much of his more sensational dishes, such as the now infamous 'Sex On The Beach' (which features an edible 'condom'), but I don't think this is an accurate reflection of Bo Innovation and the range of dishes available there. It is easy to focus on the sensational, as is attested by the column inches devoted to Heston Blumenthal's 'Snail Porridge' and 'Bacon Ice Cream', rather than the overall excellence of Blumenthal's ground-breaking dishes. It is noteworthy that Chef Leung has been compared by Anthony Bourdain to Ferran Adria. I never got the chance to eat at the now mythical El Bulli, so I'll have to take Bourdain's word for it.
So. what did we eat? Well, our meal was part of the Tasting Menu, featuring a belly busting 11 courses. We began with the Canape, which was a play on Hong Kong's famous street food, the Waffle. Hong Kong "Eggette" Waffle goes by the name of gai daan jai or 鷄蛋仔. It is normally made with eggs, sugar, evaporated milk and flour and is served with fruit or chocolate, obviously being sweet. Chef Leung, however, has reinvented this favourite as a savoury dish with cheese, and most interestingly, with Iberico ham. It was unexpectedly sweet, but all the flavours complemented each other in a delicate and pleasant way. It was a good start to what was a fantastic meal, and the street food style serving style was an effective tribute to the dish's origins.
Our next course was a whole, ripe, sweet tomato, cooked in Pat chun vinegar, with chinese fermented olives "lam kok" and a fluffy baked dumpling. Pat Chun vinegar is a sweetened vinegar, well known in the culinary culture of Hong Kong. Made of Rice Vinegar, sugar, caramel/molasses, glutinous rice and is flavoured with ginger, orange zest and cloves. It made the tomato sing with flavours of mellow, tangy sweetness. I would have been doubtful of a dish where a single tomato was the main attraction, but here, it is pulled off with class.
I probably need to explain this photo. I had intended to take pictures of each course as they arrived for the edification of my (small band of) readers. But I admit that I totally forgot this thought and took my first bite of the Pat Chun Tomato. Him Indoors suddenly realised what had happened and reminded me that I was supposed to take a picture. So, sadly, owing to my gluttony, here is a picture of Pat Chun Tomato minus a rather big mouthful. Teethmarks are fully visible!
The nibbled tomato was followed by Saba with Sesame, ponzu cloud, ginger, parfum du Hong Kong. The Ponzu cloud is inspired by the Japanese Ponzu sauce, a citrus sauce usually served with grilled meat and fish or the very popular Shabu-Shabu. The phrase "Hong Kong" literally translates as 'Fragrant Harbour', something which it cannot claim to be any longer. Taking that ancient history as his inspiration, Chef Leung has sought to bring the aroma back to the city; by means of fragranced rose oils in dry ice (frozen carbon dioxide). The result is a dreamily subtle fragrance fizzing up like smoke. The dish itself is exquisite, and I am left wishing there had been more.
Foie Gras with "Mui choy" was the next dish to be brought our way. I am ambivalent towards Foie Gras. I realise I eat meat and contribute to the suffering of my fellow beast. But I just can't give it up and could not live as a vegetarian. So, yes, it seems a little hypocritical to be a little finicky about Foie Gras, but I did not make any claims to consistency. I prefer that animals don't suffer downright cruelty before getting to my plate. Also, my past experience has been that for the horrible time the poor duck has, the final product has not really been worth it. I don't order it, but don't refuse it if it comes as part of a menu. Chef Leung appears to understand that to make the duck's sacrifice worthwhile, any foie gras dish must excel. There was no creamy, greasy blandness to this dish. I should add that Mui Choy is a traditional Hakka dish of preserved Mustard Greens, a dish hailing from Taiwan. So what we have here is a marriage of French with Taiwanese cuisine.
The Fish Course, on paper: Cod with Saffron miso, Sauternes wine, seaweed sounds unappealing, right? How can you combine the intense sweetness of Sauternes with the delicate spicing of Saffron and the gutsy "of the sea" smells and flavours of seaweed? Well, I wasn't let into any kitchen secrets, but this seemingly contradictory combination has been duly nailed.
Molecular Xiao Long Bao was the next course. Xiao Long Bao is a dish we found in Shanghai and elsewhere in Hong Kong. It is a dim sum style dumpling (a steamed parcel with a doughy skin with a meaty or veggie filling) with a difference. The special difference is that it is full of a flavoursome broth, which comes out either when you eat it or pop it. The proper way of eating them is to make a sauce which is a mix of Chinese black vinegar and soy sauce, to which you then add a little ginger (in julienne/ grated). When mixed, you put the dumpling in a ceramic spoon, dip in the sauce, add a couple of slivers of ginger, burst the dumpling with a chopstick so the broth inside mixes with the sauce and tuck in! This may sound complicated, but makes perfect sense, particularly if you try it somewhere like Ding Tai Fun.
Chef Leung's version of Xiao Long Bao is obviously a Molecular take. But what was unique was how it managed to achieve every nuance of texture and variation of flavour present in the fiddly traditional Xiao Long Bao, but without the sauces, mixing, ginger and piercing required in the traditional dish. It was delectable and intriguing. When you taste this food, you just wonder how it is done. Then you realise it is bound to be hopelessly complicated, and you go back to just enjoying the experience.
I am unashamedly a seafood fan. I have long messed with the joke that 'whenever I see food I eat it' by saying that whenever I see 'seafood' it gets scoffed. So scallops were right in the office. The menu description was typically enigmatic: Scallop with Kaffir lime, passion fruit, schichimi potato. The schichimi potato was served as a cutely presented puree cake, with a Kaffir lime sauce. The scallop was a generously sized and perfectly cooked specimen. The dish married up the fruity kick of the passion fruit with the mild citrus of the lime with the slight sweetness of the pureed potato.
We then were treated to a palate cleanser of Bubble Tea with Mango, Hawthorn, and chili. Bubble teas are beginnng to catch on here in the UK. Originating in Taiwan in the 1980s, they spread to Hong Kong, China and then to the West. The 'bubbles' are small balls made from tapioca, which are sucked up through the fruity/milky tea drink through an extra wide straw. (If you are looking for a good bubble tea in London, go to Chinatown to Candy Cafe (1st floor, 3 Macclesfield Street) for lots of wonderful fruity flavoured bubble teas and deserts. It's a great place to go after a lunch in Chinatown, provided that you left space for puddings!) Here at Bo Innovation, in a humourous play on the tag of 'molecular cuisine', the bubble tea is served in tall test tubes. The chili was mixed into the tea in a subtle way, and did not overpower. The result was a pleasant, lightly creamy fruity treat with the attitude and bubbles (pearls) its inspiration called for.
The palate cleanser made way for Langoustine with English Mustard, salty egg, cauliflower, black truffle, duck sauce. Read that description again. Come on, I know what you want to say. It's 'whaaaaaaaaaaa?!' I was sceptical, but thought I could enjoy the Langoustine and scrape off what came with it if it disappointed. My fears were premature. Some might criticise this dish as the trend for foams has suffered a backlash, but the foam was flavoursome and managed to combine some of the strong flavours in a way which was intriguing and definitely complemented the flavour of the langoustine and truffle studded cauliflower beneath.
The pudding course was Memories of Cha Chiang Teng: French toast, condensed milk, peanut butter and jam, corn syrup, ying yang. Apparently a "Cha Chiang Teng" is a tea restaurant or tea house. In Hong Kong, French toast is a particularly popular dish, as are egg tarts. Cha Chiang Tengs often serve noodles, and are now beginning to serve rice plates (although it is not traditional to do so). they are informal and fun places to eat, much loved by the people of Hong Kong. I am not usually a fan of eggy things, but tucked into this with relish. It was light, despite the ingredients and was sweet without being cloying. It made me want to visit a Cha Chiang Teng in Hong Kong.
Finally we enjoyed the "petit (sweet) dim sum" served on a delicate little stand, in the same way as you'd expect with petits fours. As you can see there were 8 little offerings. We could have squabbled over them, but decided very wisely to cut them in half and share them out. All in the interests of marital accord! The sweet dumpling and the macaron were particular highlights.
Overall this is one of the very best meals we have ever had. Every course was delightful. Our servers were knowledgeable, helpful and kind. Molecular food is occasionally derided because it is the current 'in thing'. However this is a different premise, since it takes its roots from the food of Hong Kong rather than Europe. It is a meal that stands out for us as a highly enjoyable experience.
Chef Leung's risky, groundbreaking and highly innovative approach to food - and his clear challenge to our perceptions - can be seen to great effect in this short film:
It may at first seem a little shocking. But really think to yourself; how influenced are you by the mere appearance of food? How much do you actually trust your tastebuds alone? If you had to taste foods without seeing them, could you identify even basic flavours? We eat with our eyes first (as the famous saying goes), and it is the eyes which can end up influencing the tongue.
Chef Leung was kind enough not just to sign my menu, but to come out and have a chat. He was affable, talkative and sweet. There was no arrogance to him, he engaged with me and Him Indoors in conversation on the same level. Some have felt the need to criticise Chef Leung, saying he is 'up himself'. This is completely not my perception. Perhaps when he is being filmed or is in the public eye, he comes across as larger than life, but during the time we had with him, he gave me every impression about being passionate about what he does. He shown real interest in our experience of the meal, hoping with unfaked concern that we had enjoyed ourselves. We swapped notes about life in West London, as it turns out he has a home in Brentford, back in my old stomping ground of the London Borough of Hounslow!
I was delighted to discover from Chef Leung that he intends to open a sister restaurant to Bo Innovation in London. Bo London is due to open in September or October in Mill Street, Mayfair. I wish Chef Leung every success with his new venture!