Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Chef James' New Gig

With the sign "Coming Soon" still displayed prominently on the website, we were surprised that they took up our request for a table at Belon, the newest restaurant in Soho when we called a couple weeks ago. I never have the urge to jump on the bandwagon to check out any latest restaurant in town, but I made an exception for this French bistro with Australian chef James Henry at the helm. A few months ago after a promising meal at Bones, Chef James' previous restaurant in the 11th arrondissement of Paris, just before it was closed for good late summer last year, I wonder what and where his new gig's going to be. Then late last year I heard the news that he's going to open a casual Parisian bistro right in Hong Kong, in collaboration with a local restaurant group.

I think the restaurant was only "soft-opened" for a week or so at max when we visited last week. The facade of the place located up on Elgin bears some resemblance to Bones, with the similar wooden frame and the glass windows, but in a much refined design (Bones basically just inherited the store front from an old Irish pub while Belon is all brand-new and shiny). While Bones was industrial and skeletal (the rustic, almost bare decor gave the restaurant its name), Belon was modern and slightly more elaborate, with the dining area up front that can seat maybe 50, with the bar (no seats) and kitchen further back. Overall the atmosphere was very laid-back with dim lighting and soft music, or some might even argue it got them a bit too comfortable to stay awake after a long working day.

The a la carte menu was simple and divided into different sections – starting with hors d’oeuvres, entrees, plats with accompaniments, cheese and dessert. Four of us ordered a few dishes to share from each to share, so we all can get a good idea of Chef James' menu style at this new place. We began with a few bite-sized snacks. While I thought the spinner crab and snow pea salad – served in the form of little spring rolls – was a bit too light – the smoked eel devil eggs and sea urchin on sweet potato waffles were both fabulous. Especially the sea urchin one, which came highly recommended by the waiter who took our order. Sumptuous sea urchin (which I assumed came from Japan judging from the fresh, crisp taste) filled the top of a triangular slice of sweet potato waffle which is soft and slightly sweet. In between was the smoked bacon cream added to the savory, umami flavor. To me that’s the second best dish of the evening. Also worth mentioning was the country bread served with salted Normandy butter. It’s baked in-house and I can't get my hands off of those.

The Entrees section saw dishes served in small portion good for individual as proper appetizer course or for sharing among a small group. We had the pressed chicken and foie gras terrine and also the shima aji with pomelo and avocado. The terrine came in a thick slice, with good balance of the meat, foie gras and collagen served with watercress and pickled florets of cauliflowers. It was smooth and rich, working well with the bread. And the shima aji, or striped jack, was prepared crudo style with bits of pomelo salad and thin slices of avocado in between. The fish has a good, oily texture and bite, and well-balanced by the acidity from the salad and the creamy and ripe avocado.

I saw Chef James posted the picture of their Roast Chicken on his Instagram account earlier and I knew that’s what I wanted even before I stepped into the restaurant. And it tasted just as good as it looked and probably one of the best versions I have tried. They should make it a crime for people not ordering the chicken, even if you are eating alone and have to finish the whole bird. The whole chicken was presented to us then sent back to the kitchen to carve, and then it was served on a large pan with the meat jus. The skin has a dark golden color and was crispy, and the meat has impeccable flavor yet juicy and retained the tender texture – that included even the part with white meat which was usually dry and bland. It was roasted with the delicious mushroom and liver stuffing in the cavity, and I think the meat took in quite a bit of the taste from the stuffing as well. I simply couldn’t believe local chicken can taste that good.

Oh yes, the chicken also served with a generous portion of Pommes Anna – slices potatoes arranged in the shallow pan and baked with a crispy crust. It was so good that I think we finished most of them before the chicken arrived. I also loved the other main course dish of Veal Sweetbread with Sauce Lyonnaise and Black Truffles. It was rustic, aromatic and the sweetbread was firm and almost creamy. In comparison, I think the ricotta gnocchi was a bit ordinary, with larger than normal gnocchi pieces filled with ricotta served with spring peas.

The tomatoes with homemade curds and black garlic was a side dish recommended to us when we ordered. The tomato slices were sweet and delicious, and the combination of the ricotta-like curds was classic with an interesting touch of grated black garlic on top. It’s a decent meatless dish to balance out the rest of the meat-rich courses.

Many chefs took up the baton to be the champions for "local ingredients" these days, but James took one step further in not only using local ingredients whenever possible, he also tries to do as much preparation in-house as possible, minimizing the need to source from external vendors. That included the bread (baked using natural starter yeast), the burrata cheese and even the puff pastry for the mille-feuille dessert.

We finished our meal with 3 desserts – two of them we ordered, and one was off-menu item that they gave us. The crispy layers of mille-feuille were nicely done with good buttery taste, except I thought it’s a bit too burned and not having enough cream or custard in between, and I would describe our second dessert of lavender and whey granite with miso icecream and lemon meringue as “interesting”. I wouldn’t mind trying but you do need to be a bit adventurous to appreciate the unusual combination of flavors and ingredients. The third one was a soft cherry sorbet with a hint of apple tartness and made with a dash of sparkling wine. It’s pretty refreshing.

The wine-list followed the same philosophy Chef James had at Bones, filled with organic/biodynamic bottles, leaning towards production from small, boutique wineries off the beaten track, with a wide “by glass” selection so people can try more varieties. I started off with a white from Loire Valley then a red from the south interestingly-named “You Fuck My Wine”. I thought both were good, easy bistro wines.

Well I think my initial verdict at Belon is the same as what I thought of Bones after my first and only visit. The dishes we tried ranged from good to great, and I can definitely see the potential of this being one of the best in this competitive neighborhood in the local dining scene. Welcome to Hong Kong, Chef - this is definitely a case of Paris' loss and our gain.

When? March 10 2016
Where? Belon, 41 Elgin Street, Central, Hong Kong
Menu Highlights? Whole Roast Chicken with Pommes Anna
2014 Domaine Breton “Dilettante Sec” Vouvray
2014 Mas del Perie, Fabien Jouves “You Fuck My Wine”

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