I almost didn’t go to this restaurant. And then I went twice.
When I thought about what I might eat in Hong Kong, I thought about street food, noodles, dumplings, BBQ pork, and dim sum. Michelin stars, many-course menus and molecular gastronomy were not at the top of my list.
But I was intrigued by BO Innovation. This wasn’t the outpost of a French star (Robuchon has a large presence in HK) or a western chef incorporating Asian ingredients. From what I could gather, this was a chef (more on him later) doing the reverse, starting in China and incorporating the world and, by most accounts, doing it very well. I booked it.
I was seated by the window in the modern, high-ceilinged room with a partial view of the open kitchen. My handbag was thoughtfully hung on a nifty hook the hostess brought to the table, I was asked what kind of water I wanted, then presented with an open menu, offering a choice of two starters and one main course, followed by dessert. It wasn’t until I ordered and started to close the menu that I saw the option of a chef’s tasting. I changed my order and said yes to the wine pairings.
A flute was filled and moments later I received a glass bowl filled with an airy scallion cream, brown porcini crumbs, and a splayed branch of crisped enoki mushrooms called “Dead Garden”.
This was a riff on a famous dish of root vegetables in faux dirt served at Noma in Copenhagen, where I happen to be going next month, and where an itinerant cook I recently housed happens to be doing a stage. A Baader-Meinhof moment? I don’t know, but it was surprisingly good, and set the stage for the series of small, intensely flavored dishes that would follow.
Next, the Molecular course, subtitled “xiao long bao”, also known as soup dumplings. The single shiny blob resembled a pale egg yolk and trembled as I brought it to my mouth, instructed to eat it in one bite. Sure enough, I was briefly transported to Pell Street as the flavor of ginger and vinegar burst through the thin skin.¹
Cubes of rosy Toro came next, dusted with foie gras and raspberry powders. The tuna was impeccable, of course, tender and sweet. The foie gras powder seemed to play the part that shrimp or fish powder often plays in Chinese cooking, a sort of role reversal, giving the fish savory depth.
(The raspberry powder, on the other hand, made me think of Haribo Tagada candies, and therefore this.)
A single seared scallop arrived, perched on a potato cake and surrounded by three sauces: Mango-sea urchin, kaffir lime, and kyoho grape that reminded this American of Welch’s. Yes, the interplay of the briny, sweet, and bitter flavors was interesting, but the bright kaffir lime was lipsmackingly good – I would have been happy with that sauce alone. By the way, the grape you see is not a grape, but grape juice jellied to look like a grape, which strikes me as similar to dressing up as oneself for Halloween.
It didn’t end there. A signature dish called Mak ‘n’ Yak arrived, rice noodles rolled up and sauced with creamy Yak’s milk cheese, at once familiar but also bizarre, mainly because of the texture and flavor of the pasta. Fun, though not as fun as the foie gras lettuce wrap with white miso.
Finally a Thiers blade was set next to my chopsticks for a beautiful piece of high grade Wagyu beef, marbled like the Duomo, cooked sous vide and then seared and served with a soy and black truffle sauce.
A delicate chrysanthemum ice cream with crisp pears arrived for dessert. And then so did Chef Leung.
“Hi, I’m Alvin,” he said, sitting down at the table where I had been eating and drinking — and yes, taking pictures — while the rest of the restaurant turned over, occupied by teetotaling business-minded diners. I don’t remember his exact words, but the gist of his first question was, “What’s your deal?”.
I told him about what I do in Paris (what is it again, exactly?), about my blog, that I used to work in restaurants. He asked how long I was staying in Hong Kong. I told him I was leaving in the morning.
“Where are you eating tonight?”
“Uh, I’m not sure. I think we’re going for Szechuan noodles.”
Then he told me I should come back for dinner that night, that he wanted to cook for me and my friend, that he didn’t think the lunch menu showed the full range of his capabilities. “On me, of course.”
I nearly choked on the litchi gelée I was nibbling, accepted his offer as graciously as I knew how, and sent a text to my friend informing him of the change of plans.
Mr. Leung’s nickname, I learned, is the Demon Chef, and on the stroll back to the apartment for my break between meals I began to wonder if I had made a deal with the devil.
To be continued…
¹ I will confess an aversion to most of what is called Molecular Gastronomy. I appreciate it the skill and creativity involved, think the techniques are fascinating, and think the results can be entertaining and sometimes even delicious. But I will take soup dumplings over something that tastes like soup dumplings any day.* Phonics — the breaking down of words into their sounds — doesn’t work as a method of teaching children to read because a word is more than just a sound or series of sounds. Similarly, food is more than the sum of its aroma, color, flavor and texture. Yes, that mysterious little gelatinous ball on my dish tasted very much like the many soup dumplings I’ve consumed in my life. But without the slippery chopstick struggle from steamer to plate, without the toothsome pork and green onion stuffing, without the slurping of the juice from my spoon (not to mention the old boyfriend and a cold Tsing Tao nearby), it’s no more a soup dumpling than that stuff in the blue box is pasta al formaggio.
* I mean, we all know what happened to Violet Beauregard when she ate that chewing gum that tasted like blueberry pie.