Wednesday, March 24, 2021


Going to a new restaurant on its first week of soft opening was not something I would normally do, but we went to check out Cultivate a few weeks ago when chef Leonard told us there’s two seats available on a Wednesday, two days after they opened its door. There are every reason to be confident – I was impressed by his creative dishes from a few times I ate at his residence-turned-private-kitchen – and expected him to replicate the same level of success with the same team over at this proper dining space up in Soho, with the long open kitchen and counter that can seat around 20. 

A single 8-course tasting menu was offered, which changes regularly depending on seasons or themes he came up with. The one we had focused on Spring – with seasonal vegetables and colors being the highlight. We started with just like that, with a trio of small dishes called “Bites of Spring” – slices of slightly pickled celtuce served off a pair of tweezers, followed by the sweet vidalia onion “tart” with green peas, trout roes, edible flowers and lemon verbena ricotta and underneath the bowl, a small bite of smoked eel with interesting combination of hickory smoke and sweet flavor from the sorghum glaze. The restaurant features a logo of nasturtium flower and our second course was exactly that, served with green apple sorbet, whey espuma and lemon confit. It’s light and refreshing, but with captivating complexity. 

I have had Chef Leonard’s Ajo Blanco before, but this time it’s a slightly different version with a richer almond flavor, a touch of sweet fermented rice (a.k.a. Jiu-niang 酒釀), zucchini flower, melon and anise jelly, and it’s more aromatic. Another colorful dish was brought to us, with a piece of saba, cured and torched with the charred skin, served with watermelon radish, rhubarb “consommé” and osmanthus. The sweetness with a touch of acidity and smoky taste seemed random but worked well together in this. 

The maitake course was like a turning point of the menu, stepping up in richness with more earthy flavor this time with the mushroom dashi and foie gras underneath a charred piece of maitake mushroom. There’s a touch of sweetness in the goji berries and the refreshing mint and culantro, in the dish chef joking called “pho gras” – it did have that traits of Vietnamese pho with the aromatic herbs. 

Lamb was served in 2 ways for our main courses – first the morel stuffed with lamb sweetbread with fava beans prepared in different forms with molasses, then the piece of lamb loin prepared off the grill, with chunks of celtuce, harissa on the side, and Sichuan peppercorn meat jus. I like the seasonings in the lamb loin dish with an exotic spicy kick, though the meat seemed to be a bit tough to cut through – for that I blamed the knife more. 

Chef Leonard must have seen our questionable look when he put down our pre-dessert which was described as banana bread top with banana miso and Kaviari white sturgeon caviar. “Trust me, it may sound weird but it works”, he confidently assured us. And it actually did! The sweetness in the bananas plus the buttery flavor countered well with the briny umami caviar to create this wicked savory-sweet taste overall. Our first proper dessert was a playful interpretation of the local “dau fu fa”豆腐花, traditionally a sweet tofu custard served with simple syrup, and here, the tofu custard has stronger soybean flavor and underneath in the bowl was the sweet ginger syrup, thyme, slices of candied kumquats and kumquat jelly. 

The checkered table mat was set up for our desserts and we soon understood why when a few small bites were delivered to us, and they were described as “strawberry picnic”. There was strawberries done two ways and served on two separate plates – first the one from Kumamoto Japan was barbecued whole and dusted with dehydrated goji berry powder, and next was the Korean strawberries served thinly-sliced with drizzle of basil oil. Wrapping up was a piece of buttermilk biscuit and chrysanthemum cream espuma – and we were told to enjoy the dishes in whatever way we like. I split open the biscuit, spoon some strawberries in along with the cream, and it made a nice sandwich. 

Not knowing what we dishes we would be having we brought a bottle of champagne, thinking it would work with (almost) everything. I liked it dry with yeasty taste and sweet spices that reminded me of candied ginger. Our friends M and J who happened to sit a few spots away from us kindly offered to share the pair of bottles they were drinking with us so that made a nice flight of glasses for our evening, starting with a young Burgundy white, followed by a big and beautiful Chilean red. 

Following Chef Leonard’s Instagram posts over the last few months saw this dream restaurant project of his slowly turned from nothing into reality, and it’s enjoyable to reap the fruits of all those hard efforts. I ain’t saying there’s no teething issues just like any other new restaurant openings, but nothing I found bothersome. What’s on the table were beautifully executed and presented, and it’s something that I would love to go for a repeat soon. 

When? March 10 2021
Where? Cultivate, 29 Elgin Street, Soho, Hong Kong
Menu Highlights? San Lorenzo Melon, “Ajo Blanco”, Jiu-niang, Anise Jelly
Champagne Vouette et Sorbee Fidele Blanc de Noirs NV Brut Nature (R16, Disgorged Feb 2017) 
2017 Domaine Rougeot Meursault Premier Cru "Les Charmes"
2016 Sena, Aconcagua Valley, Chile

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