November 26, 2014

Week of not collecting Michelin stars: Bo Confusion

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I've been a long-time fan of Alvin Leung's cuisine, having first visited his place at Gilman's Bazaar back around 2004.  It's also one of the restaurants I often recommend to visitors.  But for someone who's supposedly a fan, I certainly haven't been there much lately.  In fact, my last visit was more than 4 years ago, so a return visit is certainly long overdue.

The PR for the restaurant has been kind enough to extend me invitations for visits, repeatedly over the last few months both for Bo Innovation as well as MIC Kitchen.  Unfortunately timing has never worked out for me, and in any case I am more than happy to go on my own dime.  After such a long absence, I kinda wanted to go in under the radar... and check things out as a "regular" diner.

But with this restaurant, it's not always easy finding a dining companion.  People either love or hate the food, and people also either love or hate Alvin.  And with the pricing of the various set menus, it's a little expensive for someone to bet on.  Fortunately My Favorite Cousin is always up for some good food, so I had no difficulty in roping in my accomplice for this mission.

I was running late and arrived a few minutes after my cousin, who was seated but hidden from view.  The staff at the entrance didn't seem too keen on the idea of me going around the place looking for my cousin, so they asked for the name of the reservation.  I told them my last name and also spelled it out.  They can't find it.  Was I sure about the name? Then they repeat my name back to me, with the wrong vowel.  I repeat my name again.  Eventually they managed to find my name on their clipboard, and lead me to the right table.  When a restaurant with Michelin stars can't find your reservation - even after someone else from the same party has already arrived - you kinda get the feeling that there's more trouble ahead.

I had checked out the menus on the website, and while I preferred the Tasting Menu myself for some of the items listed there, I wanted to see if my cousin could order the Chef's Menu, so that we could swap dishes and taste a greater variety.  Well, apparently that is simply too difficult for this 3-star kitchen to handle.  If we wanted to take different menus, we would have to take the Chef's Menu and the Chef's Tasting Menu - the more expensive two out of the three - because there was more overlap between those two.

Well, I didn't feel like paying an extra USD 100 for a more expensive menu simply because the kitchen couldn't be bothered to time themselves better, so I decided that we'd both take the cheapest Tasting Menu, without any extra dishes requiring supplements.

Our amuse bouche came in a paper bag, and we ripped it open to reveal Alvin's version of one of Hong Kong's beloved street foods - gai daan jai (雞蛋仔).  These egg waffles were slightly sweet, but with bits of Yunnan ham (雲腿) and spring onions inside.  These were a little greasy and pretty finger-licking good.  The only issue we had with it was that the two "halves" didn't stick together and separated.

Scallop : Shanghainese "jolo", avocado, woba, sugar snap peas, lemon - Hokkaido scallop slices served raw, on a bed of sugar snaps and Shanghainese rice crispies (鍋巴), drizzled with Shanghainese zaolu (糟鹵) sauce and served with avocado dots.  The scallops were fresh and sweet, and I liked the contrasting textures here between the soft scallop and the crunchy rice crispies.  The flavors from the sauce naturally paired well with the rice crispies, too.

Foie gras : "mui choy", green apple, ginger bread - the piece of pan-seared foie was pretty good, and I liked the ice cream with preserved leafy mustard along with the ginger biscuit.  The Granny Smith foam worked well with the foie, as it provided the necessary acidity to balance the fatty richness.  There was also a ring of preserved leafy mustard powder.

Umami : black truffle, langoustine, har mi oil, vermicelli, rice noodle - I told the staff that I didn't want to eat tuna, so they replaced the toro (トロ) with langoustines for me.  The little chunks of langoustines were absolutely perfect.  In between them was a pile of glass vermicelli, which were nice and crunchy.  It was also very tasty, thanks to little bits of black truffle and also from being soaked in Alvin's har mi (蝦米) oil.  I just can't get enough of the intense flavors of the dried shrimp, so I greedily poured a little more on top, relishing in its slight spiciness.  And the deep-fried rice noodles on top were nice and crunchy.

Then we ran into a little trouble again.  The way I read the menu online, only the dishes which had "($xxx supplement)" written underneath were optional, so I was fully expecting to get the next dish on the list - which would have been hairy crab.  But molecular arrived instead.

What I didn't realize - because nobody bothered to explain to us, and just expected us to understand from the different color of the font (which wasn't displayed on the website) - is that hairy crab was also a supplement, whereas we thought only nitro was and hairy crab came standard.  I guess My Birdbrain Favorite Cousin and I were just dumb...

There was no way I was gonna miss out on Alvin's hairy crab soufflé, so of course we added the supplement.  But since molecular was already here, we decided we'd take the dishes out of sequence while the kitchen tried to whip up the soufflé.

Molecular : "xiao long bao" - one of Alvin's signature dishes.   I gotta say that this tasted less like the contents of a traditional xiaolongbao (小籠包) than I remembered.  The thin sliver of marinated ginger provided the acidity normally added.  But the texture wasn't perfect.  Even my cousin noticed that the "skin" was too thick and crunchy, and she immediately remembered what Gaggan Anand told her - that the skin would be too thick if the liquid was left in the calcium bath for too long.

Tomato : "Pat Chun" Chinese vinegar, fermented Chinese olives "lam kok", marshmallow with green onion oil - so... tomato done three ways.

The first cherry tomato was peeled and marinated in Pat Chun (八珍) brand vinegar.  This was essentially the same dish I had on my last visit, and I do like the flavor combination.

The second, yellow cherry tomato came with ginger powder and Chinese black olive (欖角) powder, plus some black olive foam.

Finally there was the tomato foam - which looked like a tubular marshmallow - with green onion oil inside.

Hairy crab : aged Chinkiang vinegar - finally, the dish I was waiting for!  An older variant of this was one of the dishes that first blew me away on my first visit to Bo Innoseki, and this has evolved somewhat.  The hairy crab roe and meat were mostly at the bottom of the mini clay pot, and we drizzled some aged Zhenjiang vinegar (陳年鎮江醋) on top.  It's similar to balsamic in that the consistency becomes more viscous with aging, and also it's a little sweeter than regular vinegar.  So yum.  I drizzle more vinegar.

Nitro : ginger tea - OK, so I'm REALLY dumb.  I thought we were only ordering the hairy crab as an extra with the supplement, but I guess the ginger tea comes with it... which I suppose is only correct.  You do need to drink some ginger tea after eating your hairy crab, as the "heat" from the ginger neutralizes the "cool" from the crab.  Anyway, this is the gimmicky part of the meal.  Meringue is made by spooning it into a bowl of liquid nitrogen, so you get the chilly, crunchy puff that sticks to your tongue.

Red fish : Yunnan ham, mandarin peel, wild mushroom, Jerusalem artichoke, pickled pearl onion - I can't remember exactly what fish this was, but it was pretty decent.  Many of the other flavors here are familiar with Chinese preparations of fish: the aged mandarin peel (陳皮) powder, the Yunnan ham powder and Yunnan ham sauce, mushrooms like chanterelles and the deep-fried shiitake chip.  Not sure what the chunk of Jerusalem artichoke is doing there, but the pearl onion pickled in vinegar was pretty tasty.  I thought overall this was a very good dish as the flavors meshed together pretty well.

Mao Tai : hawthorne, lemongrass, passion fruit - instead of a sorbet as palate cleanser, we get a fruity cocktail.  I have an intense dislike for Chinese baijiu (白酒), and I'm certainly no fan of Maotai (茅台).  Besides the liquor, I tasted mostly passion fruit and a little bit of the hawthorne, but had a difficult time picking out the lemongrass.

One thing... honestly I think the jue (爵) is one of the most impractical drinking vessels one can use.  When you're serving only a small amount of a viscous liquid, one either needs to tilt one's head back by 90 degrees, or tilt the vessel so that the opening covers up the nose.  I'm glad the Chinese haven't used this for the last two millennia...

Sweetbread : oyster sauce, mountain yam, spring onion, ginger, kale - a wonderful dish.  The sweetbread is deep-fried and served on a bed of chanterelles with oyster sauce.  There are chunks of roasted Chinese yam (山藥), plus a deep-fried piece of kale, as well as some ginger and spring onion purée.  Curiously, there is an oyster leaf.  I thought the hearty flavors of the oyster sauce worked really well with the sweetbread, and of course with the chanterelles, too.

When it came to "plats", the menu didn't specify for us to choose one, so I originally thought I was gonna get both the suckling pig and the langoustine.  Well, if I had to choose one, there was never any doubt about which one I would pick...

Suckling pig : roasted Sichuan pineapple, Port jus - the Vietnamese pork had pretty strong pork flavors.  The pork was, of course, pretty tender.  And the crackling was pretty good.  The sauce was made with caramel and Port, with Sichuan peppercorns to spice it up.

Langoustine : English mustard, salty egg, cauliflower, black truffle - fortunately, My Favorite Cousin ordered the langoustine and shared it with me.  This is a dish I've had before.  The langoustines were delicious, and I love the way that there's a layer of salty duck egg yolk and yolk foam on top - just like the way it's done in Chinese dishes.  The cauliflower purée is delicious, as is the black truffle purée.  And the finely chopped cauliflower and black truffle bits pays homage to one of the earliest dishes I had from Alvin - the cauliflower and black truffle "risotto".  And they even pickled the purple cauliflower.  Yum.

Coconut : palm sugar, coconut water, chocolate, pina colada, cherry, pandan - a lot of different ingredients here, and just as I was snapping a picture of the dish...

...our waiter came and sprinkled the frozen pina colada powder on top, without checking with me that I was done taking my pictures.  Gula melaka and coconut is one of my favorite combinations in the world, and here you've got some young coconut water meringue with gula melaka ice cream together with lime and pandan dots - which kinda makes a nice chendol.  Then you've got Brandy cherry jelly, little chunks of chocolate and cherry candy at the bottom.    Absolutely delicious.

The mignardises came and we were presented with eight treasures.

Chrysanthemum milk candy - had a tough time picking out the chrysanthemum.

Wolfberry, wild honey, jelly

Dragon eye, sesame roll

Dried mandarin peel chocolate truffle - love that salty flavor.

Osmanthus steamed sponge cake - definitely taste the saltiness of the osmanthus paste.

Rose, hazelnut chocolate, sticky rice dumpling - definitely could taste the rose...

Chinese red date marshmallow - the jujube flavor was kinda faint, but that's not surprising for a marshmallow.

Walnut cookies, maple syrup

There was also a cup of eight treasure tea, brewed with brown sugar as well as the eight ingredients of the mignardises above and served chilled.  This was a very nice ending to our meal, although we wondered why we only got one lousy little cup when there was a whole pot.

I think I made a poor choice of wine selection and grabbed the wrong bottle from my office fridge...

2010 Roulot Meursault Luchets - very big nose of toast, but initially a little closed and slightly pungent.  More buttery notes when opened up later.

I do have to take issue with the front of house here.  For a restaurant of this stature - and at 3 Michelin stars, you should expect a reasonable amount of traffic of expats and tourists - why is the staff's English so poor?  The irony here is that I had an easier time understanding the French staff than some of the local staff, and My Favorite Cousin almost couldn't understand a word that came out of a particular waiter's mouth.

Some of these guys have clearly been around, but they still have difficulty explaining the ingredients in English, and it's clear that they only know the names in Chinese and translated literally into English when faced with English-speaking customers.  Instead of chanterelles, we were told they were "chicken oil mushroom (雞油菌)".  We also got "oyster oil sauce (蠔油醬)" and not oyster sauce.  If I didn't know the names of the ingredients in Chinese, I would be pretty confused.

Well... this was a very enjoyable meal, and there were a few dishes I thought were standouts.  I still maintain that Alvin is doing something that no one else is doing - creating a unique blend of Western dishes with Chinese elements that actually works really well... unlike some world-famous restaurants which just don't get it.  So yes, it's certainly worth a detour, and perhaps even a special journey.

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