An entire year has passed, and a new decade is about to begin. The last year has been an incredible one, filled with experiences, especially of the culinary kind. Having begun the year in Hong Kong, dined in Beijing and Shanghai, in the remote national parks of Zhangjiajie, in the windswept mountains of Chongli, in Frankfurt, Munich, Duesseldorf, Copenhagen, Berlin, Stuttgart, Wiesbaden, Lisbon, London, Rome, Edinburgh and of course St. Andrews, there has been no shortage of good food. But nothing was quite as memorable as my meal at my first molecular cooking-inspired restaurant – BO Innovation, in Hong Kong.
This Wanchai restaurant is headed by the two Michelin-starred chef Alvin Leung, self-proclaimed “Devil Chef”. Upon entering the intimate, modern, high-ceilinged restaurant and seeing this tattooed, leather vest-clad, shaggy-haired chef, you might in fact feel like you have made a deal with the devil. But appearances are deceiving, and this meal was by the most memorable meal of the entire year.
After being seated and having my handbag hung on a fascinating little hook suspended from the edge of the table, G and I decided to opt for the tasting menu. At 680 HKD, this included five appetizers, a main course, dessert, petit dim-sum, and, for a HKD80 supplement, the most scandalous dessert of all time.
Our culinary adventure began with one of the visually most creative dishes I have ever eaten. Apparently inspired by a dish served at Noma Copenhagen(which I almost went to, but then didn’t), the first appetizer - DEAD GARDEN, was made of morel, caterpillar fungus, green onion, and lime. The dish had several levels, beginning with an airy mousse made of lime and green onion on the bottom. The next layer, which looked suspiciously like soil at first, was made of mushroom crumbs mixed with more scallion, and finally on top was a “tree” made of morel, a type of mushroom. Caterpillar fungus, a kind of fungus that is sometimes used in traditional Chinese medicine, lay wormishly on top of the soil to create an utterly bizarre appetizer. Despite its rather unappealing appearance, however, it was absolutely delicious, the zesty but light lime and scallion mousse creating the perfect contrast to the crunchy morel crumbs, and setting the scene for a very memorable meal.
The second appetizer – TOMATO, and foie gras bathed in true-8 vinegar with ginger was an explosion of taste in the mouth. The tomato soaked in some of the extremely intense taste of the vinegar and burst in the mouth, while the well-textured foie gras maintained most of its own taste… there’s no stopping a great piece of foie gras! Nevertheless, the overall taste of this dish was far too overwhelming, the vinegar too overpowering (though surprisingly sweet), and the entire combination seemed a little mismatched.
Appetiser number three, SESAME with mackerel, ginger rose and ponzu was very interesting and was the first indicator into a molecular cooking-type direction. The sesame had been reduced and condenced into two small squares of an unexpected but not unpleasant tofu-life consistency. On its side lay two divinely fresh pieces of mackerel, bedded on ponzu, a citrus-based sauce often used in Japanese cooking. Again I felt my preference for somewhat simpler foods prevail as I found the taste of sesame to be quite overwhelming. However, the wonderful freshness of the mackerel made up for this.
The fourth appetizer, SALTY EGG with English mustard, langoustine, cauliflower, black truffle, yaks milk and duck sauce sounded very impressive, but did not leave that deep of an impression. Salty egg is a typical Chinese food of which I am not the biggest fan, but the large langoustine was well grilled, though not served as warm as I would have liked it. It contrasted well with the cauliflower foam that topped it, and even went surprisingly well with the duck sauce and English mustard. The grainy black truffle was very good, but incredibly intense, almost too intense to be balanced by the langoustine, despite the cauliflower. Unfortunately I did not pick up any taste of yaks milk, though this may have been for the best, since any mention of yaks milk tends to bring up in me quite unpleasant memories of a highly demanding guest at the Ritz-Carlton in Beijing, who was on a yak milk-only breakfast diet in a city whose last yak was probably killed by pollution several centuries ago.
The final appetizer has become somewhat a legend amongst the dining adventurers of Asia – I had heard of Alvin Leung’s MOLECULAR xiao long bao long before I even knew about the Devil Chef himself. Xiao long bao are a delicious type of dumpling originally from Shangha, usually consisting of a paper-thin dough shell wrapped around pieces of meat in piping hot soup. While I am no stranger to unique interpretations of xiao long bao (like the foie gras xiao long bao at Din Tai Fung), my heart has always been true to the original. After trying these, the same still holds true. While the creation of the molecular xiao long bao seems to me a sheer feat of physical impossibility, and the surprising feeling of the a hair-thin-almost-too-delicate-to-be-true shell bursting to reveal a warm, pork aroma-infused soup cleverly contained within the shell was surprising and exciting, nothing can truly beat eating a real xiao long bao in the streets of Shanghai in true local style – biting off one corner, slurping out the soup in an appropriately inappropriate manner, and then gobbling up the rest.
My main course was SUCKLING PIG with Sichuan vanilla, apple and peas, a relatively good but surprisingly normal-tasting dish. While the suckling pig surely was painstakingly cooked and roasted in a special way, it tasted rather normal to me. In fact, the crust was a little too hard and tasted a little as if the top had been somehow deep-fried, and the layer of fat below, though decadent, was simply too much for me. The peas were extremely delicious, and the vanilla and apple added an interesting twist to an otherwise rather unremarkable dish.
The second main, AYU with “hunan” ham, compressed winter melon, honey, fennel, shiitake and pine nuts was rather interesting, with well-blending tastes. The ayu, a type of fish found in the waters around Japan, Korea and China, was buried under the other ingredients, with a fish finger-shaped breaded “hunan” ham piece on the side. While my memory of each of the separate components is quite foggy, I remember that once eaten all together, the ingredients mixed well to form an enjoyable mouthful without any one taste, surprisingly not even the often all-powerful taste of fennel, overpowering any other taste.
Finally, the time came for dessert, and without further ado, we were served the most scandalous dessert of all time. The very aptly named SEX ON THE BEACH left no holds barred, and played a very visual homage to its name – without much relation to the drink of the same name. It looked, quite literally, like a cocktail glass filled with sand, and on top, a used, pink rubber condom filled with…. Well, look at the picture. Next to it, a pretty sugar shell with an AIDS ribbon looked almost comically pretty and reminded us that we were doing this for charity – all proceeds (HKD68) from this supplementary course go to the HK AIDS Concern. With a deep breath and a slight inner shudder, we tried this dessert and found it, like so many things at Bo Innovation, surprisingly good. While it was difficult to identify any of the ingredients, it was a very delicious dessert, though NOT one to order when dining with one’s grandmother.
Next up on the desserts was SHUI JING FANG with banana, vanilla, caramel and raisins.
Shui Jing Fang is one of the most popular brands of the Chinese white spirit baijiu, and has been responsible for many a white man’s demise in the tradition of gan bei-ing. In its dessert form it was a lot milder in the form of a sauce that accompanied the pear and vanilla ice cream. Though I am usually not a big fan of fruit served any way but raw and fresh, this dessert was a delicious and well-rounded, almost traditional end to a very non-traditional meal.
Finally, Bo’s versions of petits fours – PETIT DIM SUM - were served in small, cute, bird nest-like containers. A white chocolate truffle, sesame and red bean sandwich, green tea macaroon and a red bean and chocolate-filled dough ball finished off a unique, unforgettable and unbelievable exciting meal.
To me, Bo Innovation is a must for any foodie visitor to Hong Kong. Delicious, interesting, educational or just plain weird, any visit to Bo Innovation is sure to be a memorable one. Though some say that because of all of the hype, standards have decreased from where they were just a few years ago when Leung received his two Michelin stars, I hope to return some day and sit at the 8-seat counter and watch the Devil Chef prepare his sixteen-course tasting menu right before my very eyes.