“Welcome back! Nice to see you again!” The knowing smiles of the staff members at BO Innovation, ushering me into the restaurant for my second meal there in one day at the bidding of the Demon Chef, were a little discomfiting. If these were the gates of hell, the greeting was awfully friendly. Then again, souls probably taste better when they are well-buttered.
I was seated at the counter and offered Champagne while I waited for my friend, and started getting to know chef Alvin Leung a bit better. An engineer by trade, he’s only been cooking for six years or so (and only had for four when he received his two Michelin stars). “It’s not that hard, really,” he said, a remark which could be interpreted as politely humble or wildly ostentatious. It was surely disingenuous, though: I suspect the last thing Leung wants anyone to think after a meal at his restaurant is that anyone could do what he does, or do it as well.
With his longish, streaked hair, a feathered bauble in one ear, and sleeveless jackets — the better to show of his tattoo, my dear? — this London-born autodidact names Robuchon, Ducasse, and Adria as influences. He is frequently described in the press with clichés like “enfant terrible”¹ and “rock star”, which doesn’t necessarily gibe with his stated desire to please the customer. He scoffed at the type of chef who makes no effort to accommodate diners’ particular wishes, to adapt to their needs. “It’s not about me, it’s about you,” he said.
Of course, we all want to be loved. Even (or maybe especially) the devil.
Some extracts from the 15 course meal:
We started with a single oyster with a green onion purée and fluffy ginger “snow,” delicate shaved ice from which all of ginger’s harshness was somehow removed. That was followed by a smoked quail egg piled with caviar in a nest of crispy taro. If this had been a party with passed hors d’œuvres I would have stolen a bottle of Champagne from the bar and stalked the waiter carrying around this particular item, which was so delicious that I forgot about my general dislike of hard-cooked eggs, 80s gold leaf be damned.
There was an unusual soup, an emulsion of taro root and riesling into which a ridiculous amount of black truffle was shaved on the spot. The wine gave the sweet soup a sort of bright, fermented taste, and the truffle added its own mild funk, though it was not a particularly flavorful specimen. The riesling, by the way, which was also in our glasses, was a kabinett from Diel that is bottled exclusively for the restaurant, with Leung’s demon tattoo on the label.
It looked like we were going to the Mediterranean for a portion of cappelini with rosy carabinero shrimp, sage and tomato, but the dusting of intense shrimp powder kept us in Asia. Something called “Squid” arrived but what I saw was a glazed sweetbread and tender greens. The squid, it turns out, was in the sauce.
My friend had the Wagyu but mine was swapped out for crisp skinned pork, sweet peas and a sort of apple and vanilla sorbet, and this was about the point at which my belly started to protest. My mind, too, though Leung’s streamlined style did not overwhelm the way that some marathon meals can. I have had meals so elaborate, so filled with little dishes containing so many unidentifiable elements that mental fatigue sets in long before the physical. Rather than load each course with so many elements, Leung concentrates a few. The flavors in each dish are bold and distinct, and each dish is boldly distinct from the one that came before. Like colors, too many flavors can start turning to mud. This meal was like flipping through my old roommate’s set of Pantone chips.
That isn’t to say that I liked every dish. I love trying new things and unlikely combinations, but my tastes run pretty traditional², a fact which became apparent when dessert was served.
Now, I don’t generally think of myself as a prude, and I like to support good causes, but when the edible³ pink jelly condom arrived, half-filled with some kind of white cream and strewn across a bed of shitake mushroom “sand”, my embarrassment (again¹) was tempered only by gratitude that I wasn’t having dinner with an elderly relative. “Sex on the Beach” is, for better or for worse, Leung’s signature dessert. Considering that the proceed from each one sold go to support Hong Kong AIDS Concern, I suppose it’s for the better.
It was certainly memorable. Whether you like Leung’s food or not, there’s no doubt that a meal here is unforgettable. This demon won’t easily be exorcised, and that’s just the way he likes it.
BO Innovation shop 13, second floor, J Residence. 60 Johnston Rd., (enter on Ship St.), Wan Chai, Hong Kong +852 2850 8371 website Dinner from HK $680 (US $87) to HK $1580 (about US $200) for the Chef’s Table Menu. Our dinner was graciously paid for by Chef Leung.
Read part one of this story.
¹ From Dictionary.com: “an incorrigible child, as one whose behavior is embarrassing; an outrageously outspoken or bold person who says and does indiscreet or irresponsible things; a person whose work, thought, or lifestyle is so unconventional or avant-garde as to appear revolutionary or shocking.” One and a half of these definitions seem to fit, actually.
² Though it turns out that “traditional” is a maddeningly inept word. The way we cook, like it or not, is always evolving, and traditions weren’t traditions when they started.
³ The fact that something is edible does not, in my opinion, make it food, which is perhaps why I have issues with this molecular business.