Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Eating Hong Kong: Bo Innovation

I'm not a sciencey kinda gal; I majored in English so that I could get out of having to take any courses having to do with labs, chemicals, or mechanized doodads.  Still, I love creative approaches to food, so I'm rather intrigued by the idea of chefs working at the frontiers of science and haute cuisine.  So when I saw a segment on Chef Alvin Leung and his restaurant Bo Innovation in the Hong Kong episode of "No Reservations," I was pretty curious about his effort to bring molecular gastronomy to Chinese cuisine.

Molecular "xiao long bao" at Bo Innovation.

What finally got me beyond mere curiosity to actually making a reservation was finding out that the restaurant has a (somewhat) affordable set lunch for HK$228 (about US$30) per person.  The lunch includes a choice of two "dim sum" or "classic 'bo' dishes," an entree, a starch, and a dessert.  No way you'd ever find this at El Bulli or wd~50!

My sister, the gourmand, is not too impressed with the mosaic'd chef.

Upon arriving at the restaurant, which is on the second floor off a non-descript little street a few blocks from the Wan Chai wet market, we were greeted by a GIANT mosaic of Chef Leung, who has his self-created moniker, "the demon chef," tattooed on his arm.  The tat, dark sunglasses, muscle T . . . it's all a little pretentious, but the best artists usually are, right?

The open kitchen, with Chef Leung at work on the right.

The real, non-mosaic'd Chef Leung was actually also in the house today.  (There was some sort of film crew setting up when we were leaving, so that probably explains the chef's presence on a random Monday lunch service.)  I doubt he had anything to do with our dishes, but he did seem to be supervising fairly closely what his sous chefs were working on.  Probably a good thing, since his restaurant just lost one of its two Michelin stars this year.

The unique table setting.

The wait staff, with their dark-rimmed glasses and narrow-cut suits, looked more like Soho gallery reps than waiters.  I was pleasantly surprised, though, at how gracious and attentive they ended up being.  There were four of us dining together, and hearing of our intention to share everything, our server helpfully offered to bring us an array of the dim sum and classics so that we could sample as much as possible.

We began with the black truffle cheung fun, which is an homage to the rice flour rolls that are ubiquitous at dim sum places.  While the preparation was not that different from regular cheung fun, the black truffle gave it a rich, umami taste that was really yummy.  I could have eaten the whole plate of these.

My sister and I then sampled the famous "molecular xiao long bao," which is Leung's take on Adria Ferran's olive jellies.  Although the spherical shape on the spoon looked nothing like the classic soup dumpling, when you put it into your mouth, the ball explodes with the taste of xiao long bao.  The red strip on top of the ball is a strip of ginger that has been soaked in red vinegar; the taste mimics the vinegar and ginger condiment that is usually served with soup dumplings.  It was, in a word, awesome.

Next came "har gow" -- the classic shrimp dumpling -- with black truffle.  Truffle is truffle, so I enjoyed the dish.  But I didn't find it very memorable or creative.

I also liked the spring roll, which was filled with chicken, bamboo shoots, and pesto.  Again, not particularly innovative, but still very tasty and a good fusion of East and West.

Same goes for the cuttlefish ball with kaffir lime sauce.  Not unique or memorable, but really good.  The salt-and-pepper-flavored cuttlefish ball had a snappy bite to it, as all good meat balls should.  And the kaffir lime cream complemented the savoriness of the cuttlefish.

I was less impressed with the final dim sum offering, a cod ball with morel and EVOO.  The flavors were fine, but I didn't like the texture of the steamed fish.  It was mushy and dense, like eating polenta that's been sitting out too long.

Next came the entrees.  My mom ordered the "slow-cooked suckling pig, with Chinese vinegar and egg."  I loved the fact that it arrived in a rustic clay pot.  And my mom enjoyed the taste of it, which is reminiscent of the traditional Cantonese dish of stewed pigs feet with red vinegar.

I ordered "French quail 'beggar style' with Chinese lentil and wolfberry chutney."  "Beggar's chicken" is a classic Chinese dish in which a whole chicken is stuffed with goodness, wrapped in lotus leaves, and baked in a clay pot.  The deconstructed version at Bo Innovation uses a lotus leaf oil and a wolfberry reduction.  But while the concept is ingenious, the execution was just okay: the quail seemed overcooked and needed more moisture and flavor.

Any disappointment I felt over the quail was abated by a taste of the "langoustine with preserved duck egg, English mustard, and cauliflower risotto."  The mild sweetness of the langoustine worked beautifully with the intense savoriness of the duck egg.  This was definitely the highlight of the meal.

The dish was also gorgeous to look at, even if foam is oh-so-very 2007.

Accompanying the main courses was a Westernized version of yang chow fried rice that used a long-grained rice pilaf as the base.  It was decent, albeit not very exciting.

A greater disappointment, though, was the dessert, which I think was some sort of strawberry bread pudding.  First of all, conceptually a bread pudding is just not that exciting.  Second, this bread pudding was dense, one-dimensional in flavor, and not particularly appealing to the eyes or the palate.   Not even the tiny tart strawberries adorning it could save it, and we felt less obligated to eat it than they did to serve it.

In any other circumstance, a bad dessert would bum me out and send me away pouting.  In the case of Bo Innovation, though, the molecular xiao long bao, the truffled cheung fun, and the langoustine saved the meal.

All in all, Bo Innovation is worth a visit, though perhaps not multiple returns (unless it earns back its second star next year).  The food is, at its best, innovative and delicious, but at its worse, dull in conception and execution.  It feels like a restaurant that is a little bored with itself, capable of doing what it does well very well, but not stretching itself beyond what it has already achieved.  

Are you a fan of molecular gastronomy?  Or do you think the whole movement is played out?


Cathleya December 21, 2010 at 10:42 AM  

How interesting! That xiao long bao is probably what I'd like to try most. Molecular gastronomy is not really big here on the west coast, and I'm dying to try it just for the experience!

Mrs. Hot Cocoa December 22, 2010 at 10:41 AM  

@ Cathleya: The XLB is definitely worth going there for. If they let me get away with it, I would go there just for the XLB as an appetizer and then go elsewhere for the rest of the meal.

Anonymous,  January 4, 2011 at 9:39 PM  

Bo Innovation is a true dining experience. I loved your review, and especially the photos.
I went there last summer for dinner and tried the tasting menu - mindblowing!
If you're interested, check out my review on my blog: http://thesommerlier.typepad.com/blog/2011/01/a-pact-with-the-devil-bo-innovation-wanchai-hong-kong.html


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