Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Jean-Georges' Comfort Food

We were at Lan Kwai Fong on a Sunday night trying out a new restaurant on California Tower. Mercato, which opened its door on June 1. This outlet in the middle of Lan Kwai Fong represented a re-entry of New York-based Chef/Restauranteur Jean Georges Vongericheten to this city (since his previous Thai-French restaurant Vong closed its door at Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong more than a decade ago), with a new casual dining concept similar to his other restaurants in a few cities around the world, notably the one in Shanghai and Vancouver with the same name.

I was not particularly eager to be the first to check out any newest restaurant but I do trust Chef Jean-Georges of doing things right given his track record of restaurant expansions in New York City and overseas. That plus they didn’t charge additional for BYO bottles during the soft opening period (since they were still waiting for their liquor license to serve wines at the time of our visit) so we wanted to take advantage of that with a few of our own bottles.

The restaurant took up the 8th floor of the remodeled California Tower right in the middle of Lan Kwai Fong. Décor was typical of any contemporary western bar/restaurant with bar on one side and an open kitchen on another, and in the middle, a comfortable dining area with high ceiling. There's a balcony outside with a view of all the actions on the street of Lan Kwai Fong, so I could imaging it's perfect for after-work drinks when weather permits, or weekend brunches at those tables by the window with plenty of sunshine beaming in. The restaurant wasn't that crowded on the day of our visit, with covers of maybe less than 10 tables for the entire evening.

The menu was divided into various sections like crudo, appetizers, pizza, pasta, mains and sides - a bit of cliche maybe, but nothing wrong with tried-and-true dishes if they were done right. The portion was said to be in family style so we were encouraged to order for sharing. With eight of us sitting at a long table, we split our order by two ends, with four people in each group sharing the dishes. We ended up sharing 3 appetizers, 1 pizza, 1 pasta and 1 mains among the 4 of us, which was more than sufficient, taken account into a few complimentary dishes the kitchen sent over throughout the meal.

After a small bowl of arancino as amuse-bouche, all the appetizer dishes came almost at the same time, soon followed by the rest of the dishes we ordered. The char-grilled octopus was super tender and I love the overall flavor with the caper garlic dressing, olives and fennel mixed with the forked potatoes. That's a perfect warm summer salad. The burrata cheese was served with slices of toasts and lemon jam, sea salt and basil – the citrus taste with a hint of sweetness worked very well with the creamy cheese spread on the bread.

The black truffles, three cheeses and farm egg pizza came straight from the brick oven right behind us to our table. The cheeses weren't very strong but nonetheless tasty with the unmistakable truffle aroma with the slightly gooey egg in the middle of the 12-inch hand-kneaded dough. Our pasta dish, the shrimp and lobster ravioli, looked more like wontons, with the bouncy shrimp and lobster paste filling inside the thin and long-shaped ravioli dough, served with a splash of olive oil and herbs on top. It wasn’t quite what I expected but tasted pretty good.

The Veal Milanese, our main course, reminded me of the one at Carbone restaurant, another New York-import just nearby. It came in huge portion – with two big pieces of veal chop pounded thin, and deep-fried with a crispy breaded coating, served with grated parmesan and lemon zest on top and rocket and tomato salad on the side. The zest was a good touch balancing the richness of the deep-fried veal chop, and it’s a perfect dish to share – you wouldn’t want to finish the whole thing by yourself.

The desserts were a bit inconsistent. Both the blueberry lemon crostada and affogato sundae were excellent, while I thought the house-made gelato (with three scoops of almond, vanilla and chocolate) was a bit icy, and the tiramisu lacked flavor. The dark chocolate "souffle" tart, while it tasted fine, suffered the problem of the melted chocolate being separated, an obvious problem with tempering, and I wasn't a fan of mint-chocolate chip gelato having that fake green color. But they were all very reasonably priced.

Each of us brought a few wines to share among our table, so we had a good mix of white and red, sparkling and sweet. The vintage Bollinger was great, coming from a limited edition bottle, and so was the South African Chenin Blanc from Sadie Family. Meal like this and in this weather did call for a casual, well-chilled white, I think, and we had a good share of those to go around. And we finished with a sweet Sauternes and a shot of Manhattan on the house.

If people come here expecting a 3-star "Jean-Georges" dining experience or to rekindle their fond memory of Vong back in the old days, they may be disappointed. The style of Mercato reminded me more of Mercer Kitchen (Chef Jean-Georges' other restaurant in New York’s Soho area), with similar style of food but a level more on the casual side. Nothing too innovative about the dishes but I thought the execution was good for dishes I considered as comfort food, except a few areas here and there that probably needed some fine-tuning.

Service was great throughout the evening, the restaurant was well-staffed and the team was knowledgeable, attentive and friendly. Hope they will keep it up once the place got more crowded. There’s no surprise that some of our friends was already on their second visit in less than a week, and some even planning for a third visit later on when Chef Jean Georges is in town. So that goes without saying we enjoyed our meal and the Sunday evening for a treat of easy-going, comfort food at this new restaurant in Lan Kwai Fong.

When? June 5 2016
Where? Mercato by Jean Georges, 8th Floor, California Tower, Lan Kwai Fong, Hong Kong
Menu Highlights? Char grilled Octopus, Caper Garlic Dressing, Warm Potato Salad with Green Olives and Fennel
Champagne Bollinger "James Bond 007" Brut 2009
Sadie Family "Skurfberg"Chenin Blanc 2013
Domaine Long-Depaquit Chablis 2011
Chateau Liversan Haut Medoc 2011
Paul Hobbs Russian River Valley Pinot Noir 2011
Chateau Suduiraut Sauternes 2010
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