Shop 13, 2/F J Residence,
60 Johnston Road,
Wan Chai, Hong Kong, China
Tel: (852) 2850 8371
Cuisine: Modern Chinese
Nearest tube: Wan Chai
Website: Bo Innovation
I have to admit, visiting Bo Innovation was never been top of my list whenever I go to Hong Kong. And I have visited Hong Kong plenty of times. Even when the restaurant was promoted to 3-stars, I still did not get the urge to visit. I think part of it was because of the reviews I have read on the internet stating how bad the restaurant is, how undeserving the restaurant was and that Michelin had gone completely bonkers. The other reason perhaps is that chef Alvin Leung is one cocky bastard. Others would say he is self-confident. He has given himself the moniker of ‘Demon Chef’ (he even has it tattooed on his arm in Chinese) and dubbed the style of cooking here X-treme. I think it is easier for people to like a chef who is humble than one who is full of it. And then, there is of course his restaurant in London which was a complete, abject failure. Even though it received a Michelin star, Bo London closed less than 1 year after opening.
More recently however, the blog write-ups of Bo Innovation have been more positive. Some were even glowing. Plus you know, he did get the thumbs up from Bourdain at some point in the restaurant’s existence. As such, I decided to bite the bullet and have a punt at a meal here. If I was going to give this restaurant a shot, the only way was to go for the chef’s table and the full works tasting menu. Admittedly this is a huge punt with the chef’s table menu priced at HKD$2,380. That’s £215 with today’s abysmal exchange rate.
Finding the restaurant is tricky business in itself. Although the official address lists the restaurant as being on Johnston Road, the actual entrance is actually located on Ship Street. There is a very small (and I mean very small) sign post (located opposite Akrame restaurant) which directs you to an elevator that takes you up to the restaurant. It is easily missed. You almost feel a sense of achievement just getting to the restaurant.
We sat perched at the counter of the chef’s table with direct view of the kitchen, perched on high chairs so we can see exactly what was going on at the pass. The section of kitchen in direct view is one where the plating up takes place as well as the dessert/ pastry section. Behind a closed door is the hot section of the kitchen where all the actual cooking takes place. Alvin was not in the kitchen on the night we visited (not that I expected him to be), no doubt away on one of his many filming commitments. Interestingly, the table is set with both traditional fork and knife as well as a pair of chopsticks allowing guests to decide how they want to eat their food. Over the course of our meal, the cutlery would be changed by our chef who would also wipe down any mess that we made on our table!
To begin our meal, we were served the quintessential Hong Kong street food of egg waffles or ‘gai dan jai’ served of course in a paper bag like you would if you bought it off the streets. This would replace the traditional bread course found in most French restaurants. The popular street snack is given a little Northernly twist with the addition of spring onions and Yunnan ham. These were extremely more-ish and I had to hold myself back from devouring the whole pack given that we still had 14 more courses to go.
Our first official course was titled Air. Our chef explained to us that this dish was inspired by Hong Kong which means ‘fragrant harbour’ in Cantonese. You see, Hong Kong was historically once a small fishing village. This was back in the days without refrigeration and the fishermen had to think of ways to preserve fish for consumption. Thus salted fish was created. When the British arrived in Hong Kong the first thing they noticed was the pungent aroma of the salted fish hence the name Hong Kong was born. You’d be surprised how much you learn from a trip to the Hong Kong Museum of History! There is of course no salted fish smells here. Instead sitting on a board made from reclaimed wood from one of the piers in Hong Kong are tea-spoons with a foam flavoured with century eggs and pickled ginger. A little dry ice magic is used to create a rose-scented mist evoking the look of Hong Kong harbour on a cold morning. This dish works on so many levels. Firstly because you traditionally would start a Cantonese meal with slices of century eggs and pickled ginger and that flavour was perfectly encapsulated in a spoonful of foam. Then there is the theatre and sense of occasion which really makes sense. Lastly, it avoids the sticky texture of century egg which many gwei los are not used to.
We then moved on to Alvin’s take on dim sum. Taro puff is a classic dim sum dish found in every tea house in Hong Kong. The version here is a lot more daintier with the taro shaped to look like a nest. Hiding inside is a smoked quail’s egg. The whole thing is topped with caviar from China. Much like how a lot of cooking in England is focused on local produce, our chef explains to us that where possible they have tried to use Chinese ingredients. The caviar produced in China is actually a very good product. Not surprising given that the Amur river is shared between Russia and China. It is certainly a lot better than the poor quality Exmoor caviar which is produced here in England. This was an excellent little bite with the taro puff light and the quail’s egg having the right amount of smokiness. Even the presentation was a winner, with the taro puffs presented on a little stand resembling a tree.
The next course would be lost on most non-Cantonese people. What does oysters, tongue and moss have in common? A celebratory Chinese New Year dish called ‘Hou Si Fatt Choy‘ of course! During Chinese New Year, the Chinese people will eat food which rhymes with good tidings. Hou Si (oyster) and Fatt Choy (moss) rhymes with ‘to wish everything will prosper’. Lei (tongue) can also mean come or to bring on. The idea is that during Chinese New Year, Chinese people will eat this dish to bring on good tidings and prosperity. Of course, the take on this dish here is very different from the traditional braise served during New Year. Hidden beneath three thin slices of poached ox tongue is a saline, briny oyster. The dish is tied together by a sauce made from green Sichuan pepper which was extremely fragrant but without the trademark heat. A little fried moss is added for texture. Very tasty indeed.
At this point, we had different dishes as my fiancee is not a fan of foie gras. I tried their signature foie gras cooked in a water bath with miso before being finished on the stove. What was interesting were the accompaniments. Apple is a traditional pairing with foie gras but bamboo shoots? The dish is finished on the table with a few drops of Chu Yeh Ching – a sweet liquor made with various Chinese herbs including bamboo leaves. Another little touch was the hanako (shiso flower) which added little bursts of flavour complementing the richness of the foie gras. My fiancee was served an alternative of scallop instead with ‘soba’ (crispy rice commonly found in Northern Chinese cuisine), peas and Jolo sauce (a Shanghainese pickle sauce).
Following this was my dish of the night. Simply titled ‘Umami’ – the dish consists of thin strands of glass noodles made from har mi (dehydrated shrimps) oil, a slice of blow torched tuna belly (toro) and crispy noodles. The dish is finished off with a little burnt leek ash to evoke the ‘wok hei‘ that is found in traditional Cantonese wok cooking. On the side is a teapot with har mi oil which you can add to boost the umami punch. This was truly a 3* worthy plate of food from the use of traditional Chinese ingredients and combining it with modern techniques to create a truly unique dish.
As it was hairy crab season, it was only logical that we were served this prized ingredient. Of course, it wasn’t hairy crab in the most traditional sense. I don’t think anyone would have dreamt up serving hairy crab in a baby food jar. Complete with a kiddy spoon of course! The attention to detail was evident with male diners receiving a Peter Rabbit spoon whilst female diners received a Hello Kitty spoon instead. Inside our individual jars were layers of picked hairy crab meat (no shell of course) topped with an airy espuma made from the hairy crab roe. This takes the eating of hairy crab to another level because as light as the espuma was, it was packed full of flavour.
Traditionally, after eating hairy crab, ginger tea is served. This has to do with Yin/ Yang balance of food where crab is thought to have a cooling effect on the body so ginger is drunk for its warming properties. Of course, this coming from the mind of Alvin Leung, no ginger tea was in sight. Instead, we were served a nitro-poached ginger tea meringue, similar to the ones served at the Fat Duck. This was a little bit of fun to see who could exhale the most ‘smoke’ from our nostrils. Completely pointless, but fun.
Next was the restaurant’s signature dish – molecular Char Siu Bao, which has replaced their previous version of Xiao Long Bao. Our chef tells us that they buy in the char siu from a famous restaurant in Hong Kong which is then blended together with freshly made man tou (Chinese steamed buns) and left to infuse with water. The resultant mixture is then spherified to form the molecular Char Siu Bao. Popping it into our mouth, you could have been fooled that this was a Char Siu Bao coming out from any top dim sum restaurant in Hong Kong.
The least impressive course was a variation on tomatoes. First a tomato marinated in Pat Chun Chinese vinegar had a nice balance of sweetness and acidity. Next was a spherified tomato jelly topped with fermented chinese olives although following the molecular Char Siu Bao, this felt like more of the same. Last was a tomato marshmallow made from tomato water and drizzled with spring onion oil which was delicate and had good tomato flavour. While there was plenty of technique involved in creating this dish, and I understand the need for a palate refresher in a long tasting menu, this dish was the least interesting of the evening.
Moving on, was another favourite for the evening – Alvin’s take on Egg Raviolo. Instead of traditional pasta, a duck egg is wrapped with cheung fun (rice noodle roll) before being finished with some dehydrated yak’s milk cheese. Of course, an egg raviolo is best enjoyed with truffles and being white truffle season, the raviolo was soon showered with a snowstorm of Alba white truffles. What is there not to like? Runny duck egg yolk and white truffles are a sure winner.
For our fish course, we were served lobster with a char-grilled sweetcorn ‘siu mai’. The lobster was perfectly timed, with not a hint of chewiness and it was paired with a chilli shaoshing broth as well as a Sichuan hollandaise. The later was a really interesting addition as it had a beautiful perfume and just enough tongue-numbing kick without overpowering the lobster. This was in contrast to the green Sichuan peppercorn sauce encountered earlier which goes to show the diversity of the kitchen in making two different tasting sauces from a singular ingredient.
Another refresher before our main courses – this time we were served a drink made from the dreaded Mou Tai (a Chinese liquor notorious for its high alcohol content which is a popular drink of choice during Chinese banquets). Thankfully, the amount of Mou Tai was kept in check and there was plenty of refreshing acidity from the passion fruit and hawthorn (a berry which is used to make haw flakes sweets). The drink was served in a unique contraption which had to be tilted 90 degrees. The idea here is that you would be looking upwards towards heaven when imbibing in this drink like what the Emperors of China would do in ancient times.
Our first main course was Alvin’s take on Chicken & Abalone Congee. This is a classic Hong Kong breakfast item (incidentally I ate the classic version for breakfast on the same day). Here, we were served acquerello risotto rice, aged 9 years, which was cooked in a stock made from Long Jiang yellow chicken. The dish was topped with slices of tender abalone and geoduck. The rice was very interesting because it had a nice nutty flavour to it and because the ‘risotto’ was cooked only in chicken stock, without the addition of cream or butter, the purity of the chicken flavour came through nicely.
The final savoury course once again revisits the streets of Hong Kong. Cheung Fun was served in a metal bowl lined with paper as you would find in any of the dai pai dongs with wooden skewers as your eating utensils. Slices of A3 Saga-gyu beef and grated black truffle gave the dish a luxurious touch. The restaurant has wisely opted for a less marbled cut of beef which was a sensible decision given how rich the overall composition of the dish was. This was yet again another outstanding dish.
After the flurry of savoury courses, we were pleasantly full, but not to the point where we could not eat any desserts. Thankfully, the dessert options were generally light. But first, here is a picture of their head pastry chef. Just because….
They say a picture is worth a thousand words….
First dessert was a light almond pannacotta, a nod to the almond jelly that is popular in Hong Kong, sitting in a pool of black sugar and cinnamon syrup. The final dessert was a dish of coconut, chocolate and cherries. Coconut was served in various forms – a coconut water meringue, palm sugar ice cream and nitro-freezed pina colada. This was a fun way to end the meal.
End of the meal? Not quite… First, you are served a small cup of cold Eight treasure tea. Then an array of petit fours are served in a birdcage stand. Each of the petit fours are made from one of the core ingredients in the eight treasure tea. For example, the egg custard tart is flavoured with chrysanthemum. Very interesting for sure, but we were near exploding by this point.
As a final treat, we were presented with an old-fashioned sweets tin. The type that my late grandmother used to store sweets. Inside was a treasure trove of classic Chinese sweets including my favourite coconut sweets. Nostalgia is a fascinating thing because these sweets probably cost the restaurant next to nothing, yet like a 3 year-old discovering being given crayons, I thought these were the dog’s bollocks.
Coming into this meal, I was sceptical whether all the gimmicks and toys would result in an enjoyable meal. The answer is a resounding yes. Behind each dish was a story which gives you a glimpse into Alvin’s creative mind. Perhaps for others, the concept of the dish was not very well communicated to to the diner. However, as we were sat at the chef’s table, our experience was enhanced as our chef for the night would explain every single detail and intricacy of each dish. All these would however be for naught if the food itself was lacking. Yet each dish was perfectly executed and tasted superb. Rarely do I encounter a meal that I have enjoyed in its entirety from start to finish. This was certainly one of them. For me, Bo Innovation is easily my best meal of 2015 and is fully deserving of its 3 stars.