Thursday, August 14, 2014

Gimmick or the Real Deal? My First Bo Innovation Meal

For some reasons I never felt motivated enough to check out Bo Innovation, the "X-treme Chinese" restaurant in the heart of Hong Kong's Wanchai district, even when the place by the self-proclaimed "demon chef" Alvin Leung has been elevated to the much coveted 3-star rating by The Michelin Guide late last year. As adventurous as we are when it comes to food choices, the thoughts of slurping down a "molecular xiao long bao" - one of his most talked-about dishes at the restaurant - still didn't sit very well with us.

But a couple weeks ago, I received an email from his publicist inviting me to try out their "new" menu with other media/blogger people. I figured it wouldn't hurt giving it a shot, at least this way i can confirm by my own first-hand experience whether the place is hyped as many have suggested, or the real deal as reflected in many of the accolades it earned.

On arrival at the restaurant, as I walked out from the elevator of the building, I expected something more of a modern but glamorous fine-dining decor but turned out it's much down-to-earth, especially in Michelin 3-star standard. And the place is surprisingly small - with only a handful tables in the indoor area (with a few more if you want to dine al-fresco), plus a few seats next to the open kitchen. The interior is dark with abstract art hanging on the wall, plus a larger-than-life mosaic portrait of the demon chef himself on the facade. Okay okay, made no mistake this is your restaurant, chef - I got your point loud and clear.

We were sitting at a long table right in the middle of the restaurant this evening with a direct view of the kitchen inside where Chef Alvin was standing and working with his assistants. Throughout the evening he dropped by our table a few times to explain the concept of the restaurant and his dishes.

The conventional bread basket was replaced by a freshly baked egg waffle with green onion oil inside - like a crossover between two of the most beloved street snacks - the local favorite egg waffle (aka "gai daan jai" or 雞蛋仔) and the green onion pancake (蔥油餅) common in northern Chinese cities. Coincidentally I had something similar a couple weeks ago elsewhere but I reckon this is a much better one, both in flavors and textures. I couldn't stop munching and ended up finished the whole bagful of it (even when it's meant to be shared). 

We began our meal with the bite-sized amuse bouche of deep-fried taro "nest" with tea-smoked quail egg and caviar, sitting on a silver-plated "tree" specifically made to serve the dish. (A nest on the tree with an egg inside - got it?) I loved the strong tea flavor combined with the caviar. The miniature "nest", shaped with finely silvered taro before being deep-fried in oil, came from traditional Cantonese cooking and it's very nicely done.

Mulhoe is a cold appetizer inspired by a Korean soup with the same name (which apparently meant a cold and raw dish). On the plate was a neat presentation of several random items - cube of pears, slighly-cooked jelly fish, halibut slices, tongues of sea urchins, beetroot kimchi and dried seaweed, then little tapioca pearls infused with pear juice was spooned on the plate, and on the side was a tube of foie-gras and gochujang (Korean chili sauce) paste which we could squeeze in on top, like how you would squeeze a toothpaste. It's easy to dismiss the whole exercise as gimmicky, and in spite of the randomness, I did like the overall combination of textures and flavors, especially the contrast of the sweet pear and the spicy kimchi and gochujang with umami flavors from that of sea urchins and jelly-fish sitting right in between.

The Lap Mei Fan was almost as surrealist as one may find in culinary art form. Served in a little ceramic casserole (similar to what we used for the regular Lap Mei Fan which literally means rice with cured meat), inside it's a ice cream made with cured Chinese sausage ("lap cheong") covered with soft meringue with a small piece of Woba (crispy rice common in Northern Chinese cuisine). It was then flambéed with Chinese rose rice wine in front of us. Believe it or not, once you get over the mental hurdle of putting the savory Baked Alaska into your mouth, it actually tasted very decent and refreshing. I was amazed at how the intense, unmistakably "lap cheong" flavor steeped well into the ice cream custard and turned into something quite enjoyable.

The Umami dish, which came next, certainly tasted much better than it looked (my friend who looked at the picture afterwards described that as "like road-kill"). Slices of fatty tuna (toro) sat on top of vermicelli soaked with "har mi oil" - oil infused with tiny shrimp and the whole dish was covered with grated black truffles and garnished with crispy fried rice noodle bits. It did look like a bit of a waste to let the prized toro buried with other rich flavors present in the dish but I like its fatty texture. The har mi oil was the additive umami bomb bringing all flavors together - I couldn't help but to pour extra servings of that into my dish.

For the signature dish of the restaurant, the molecular Xiao Long Bao was dissappointing and a bit anti-climactic. First the idea was hardly original - this is essentially a variation of the liquid olives first made famous by Ferran Adria. Second I reckon the one I had didn't really resemble the taste of the traditional Xiao Long Bao. If the taste was supposed to remind me of something, I would rather say it's instant ramen, with a punch too much sesame oil that overwhelmed everything inside that calcified algae encapsulated "dumpling" and that combined with the taste of that tiny piece of pickled ginger on top was just plain weird.

The tomato done 3-way was okay - the first two - one slow-cooked in Chinese vinegar (made by a local sauce maker) and the other with dehydrated fermented Chinese olives - were too similar to provide much variation in texture and taste and I am not very fond of the third - a marshmallow with green onion oil that didn't have much of a tomato flavor. They weren't bad per se though, but just not that memorable.

Baby Food was kind of cute - a deconstructed "chaan dan chee" (spam and egg sandwich - a common local snack) with spam whipped into espuma and served with runny egg and croutons and black truffles inside a little jar resembling baby food. It's fun to eat (even came with the baby spoon) and it tasted fine.

Two seafood courses were then served. The red fish didn't look close to anything inspired by Chinese cooking, but look closely, the ingredients were based on the traditional Cantonese steamed fish with superior soup made with yunnan ham thickened into gravy consistency and the red fish fillet poached with dried mandarin peel. On the side was the sauteed chanterelle mushroom, pickled pearl onions and a tiny piece of jerusalem artichokes.

The blue lobster was a dish in completely different style, with poached lobster meat  - cooked to just the right doneness - served on a bed of a spicy consomme spiked with shaohsing rice wine, with sichuan pepper hollandaise and charred corn on the side. The spicy flavors were subtle and I liked the presence of the almost burnt corn kernels giving the dish some interesting smokiness.

The palate cleanser came in the form of a cocktail mixed with Mao Tai (a Chinese liquor distilled from fermented sorghum), hawthorn, lemongrass and passion fruit juices. It's served in a funny-shaped ceramic cup on a metal tripod stand - a replica of an antique Chinese imperial goblet. Not as much an alcohol flavor as you would expect from a Mao Tai drink, but it's sweet and refreshing.

Two final courses were presented before desserts. I am not a particular fan of sweetbread usually but I like the texture of this one, which was served with oyster sauce, mountain yam, spring onions, ginger and kale, topped with a little piece of "oyster leaf". It's rich but of the right portion without being too filling. The last savory course was sauteed Saga-gyu beef served with black truffles and "cheung fun" (steamed rice rolls), paying tribute to this common Hong Kong street food of cheung fun. He even served it on a piece of parchment paper inside a shallow enamel bowl with a piece of bamboo skewer stick, just like how it's done in the street stalls back in the old days. I personally think the black truffles were a little redundant (especially we had a few dishes with it already) but overall it's tasty, in addition to the nostalgic factor that I appreciated too.

I was a bit disappointed at the dessert being more Southeast Asian inspired than in real local style - no offense to Southeast Asian cooking but I was just more curious to see how he would turn around something like a sweet red bean soup into his own creation. Nonetheless the dessert tasted alright - it was a scoop of palm sugar ice cream served with little coconut and panden meringues and cherry jelly, but I preferred the pre-dessert right before that, with the almond panna cotta served with genmai and cinnamon infused in Okinawa black sugar syrup, a variation of the traditional Chinese "almond tofu" dessert.

Alvin and his team brought out the petit fours in much fanfare. First we were poured a little cup of Eight Treasures Tea, a sweet drink brewed with longan, osmanthus, rose, walnut, dried mandarin peel, red dates, wolfberry and chrysanthemum, and then the petit fours pastries were brought out in a fancy wooden birdcage, with each piece made with one of the eight "treasure" ingredients. We were so full by then, but I did manage to try a few and they were delicious. 

Before the dinner, my impression of Chef Alvin's cooking has been he would go over the top in avant-garde techniques with the sole purpose of bringing out the wow factor, but turned out as I discovered during the meal, he's more thoughtful than I imagined.

I agreed when he said the restaurant is not about molecular gastronomy which seems to be the general misconception - in fact there's hardly any trace of anything molecular in the Chef's Table Menu we tried, with the sole exception of that Xiao Long Bao which I could easily live without. But yes, his cooking is progressive and subversive and he meant to overthrow the traditional thinking of Chinese cuisine and took it in a totally different direction, often beyond one's imagination. Concept like this is always polarizing - some people may love it, and others would look on with detest.

This evening obviously there were some dishes that I liked more than the others, and there were some that raised a few eyebrows around, but at least I sort of understood where the concept of those dishes came from and appreciated the thoughts that went into them, even if I wasn't 100% convinced in all of those creations. Overall it was an eye-opening dining experience to me.

As for the endless debate of whether the 3-star bestowed upon the place is justified, while I agree this is perhaps the most atypical 3-starred restaurant I have set foot in, if you took the literal definition of Michelin 3-stars meaning restaurants serving exceptional cuisine that worth a special journey, I could see why Bo Innovation would make the grade. Strange as it sounds, his food is uniquely Hong Kong - it wouldn't have made much sense to serve the same food anywhere else in the world - so from that perspective, the meal itself does worth a special journey for some adventurous minds. Guess I would leave it at that.

Thanks Chef Alvin for the interesting meal and an enjoyable evening.

Here's the complete collection of the photos:

When? August 5 2014
Where? Bo Innovation, 2/F 60 Johnston Road, Wanchai
Menu Highlights? Lap Mei Fan with lap cheong and woba
Schlossgut Diel "Demon" Riesling-Kabinett 2011
Collovray & Terrier Pouilly-Fuissé Vieilles Vignes 2011
Justin Vineyards & Winery Isosceles 2010 (Central Coast, California)
Lake Breeze Moscato 2013 (Langhorne Creek, Australia)


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