Innoseki Innovation, Hong Kong, China,
tasted on December 2, 2005 — Secret restaurants appeal
to me on a deep level. I figure, if someone is willing to break the
law to make food for people, then there’s not much they wouldn’t do
to make that food worth eating. Imagine my excitement when I heard
that Hong Kong was filled with these restaurants out of people’s
homes. I wondered just how much risk the proprietors were taking
given that they allowed their names and addresses to be published in
the New York Times, but I decided to seek some out nonetheless. The
first in my quest was Bo Innoseki. It turns out that Bo Innoseki
went legit and moved to highly designed restaurant in a high-profile
location next to Hong Kong’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club. Much to
my embarrassment I only found this out by showing up at their old
speakeasy location and then convincing someone local to let me
borrow their cell phone to call the restaurant and find out why the
front door was locked. Twenty minutes later I found the new place
and made my way to the relocated and renamed
Innovation. Would being ‘legit’ affect the food? Since I had
nothing to compare to I didn’t know (though a fellow diner told me
that the food had gotten more complex since they moved) but I was
There were several set menus. I chose the most
expansive – the White Truffles and Hairy Crab Feast.
In front of me was a
beautiful custom tray obviously built just for the restaurant.
The inlaid pattern was beautiful. I didn’t have to wonder for long
three holes at the top of the tray were for. First up was “The
Caesar in a Cone,
Waldorf in a Drink, and
Niçoise in a Bite. Each came in a little cup that fit neatly
into one of the holes at the top of the tray.
At first I thought, “oh isn’t this clever”. But
rather than shticky, the reconstructed salads in their new forms
were actually quite enjoyable. What I liked about each was the
clarity. Each little morsel started out with my tongue wondering –
“what is this?” (What? You’re tongue doesn’t wonder?) And then
mid-taste the flavors would come into focus and I’d think… “hey,
this tastes like a Waldorf salad”. The Caesar had a nice anchovy
component. And sure enough, in each case the flavors came together
very nicely to be exactly as advertised. Neat and enjoyable. (I
often wonder what I would have thought if I’d tasted the food blind.
I think naming of dishes, and setting expectations in general has so
much to do with how we perceive food. It’s seems silly but it’s
Next up was
Uni, Pumpkin Rice Pudding, and Cucumber Jelly. I couldn’t decide
what I thought of this dish until the very last bite. And that last
bite was superb. The trouble was that I had a hard time getting the
perfect balance of ingredients in my mouth with each bite. The
sliver of dried tomato served to focus the foundational flavors in
the dish. As I ate at first I thought the dish was a bit all over
the place. But I realized in the end that all the makings of
greatness were there if I could get them to balance on my tongue. In
writing about food I’ve taken on the obviously more difficult role
of critiquing the food I get to eat. I’ll leave the easy part of
coming up with a solution for how to make every bite sing like the
last bite of this dish to the chef.
The uni was followed by
Tuna Belly, Essence of Morel, and Air Dried Foie Gras Shavings.
This was super enjoyable. I was surprised at how much flavor the
foie gras shavings had. They really conveyed not only a solid foie
gras flavor, but had a deliciously smooth textural quality as well.
Yummy. Afterwards I got
Caviar with Oyster Tofu. Another clean and simple dish. But I
really enjoyed the flavor combinations. The sea was well
represented, and the caviar wasn’t weak. (I hate it when Caviar
shows up with very little flavor.) The tofu was custardy in a good
At this point in the meal a waiter I hadn’t seen
before approached me with a slightly uncomfortable look on his face
an started to tell me that the his manager and the Chef had a
request. At first I thought he was going to ask me not to photograph
the food. Instead he proceeded to invite me to the chef’s table (or
more accurately the Chef’s bar located in the
cold prep and plating area of the kitchen in the back of the
restaurant. I readily agreed of course and joined five other
customers sitting at the bar and having their dinner cooked in front
of them. I think they were moving me so they could make room for a
big party. I didn’t care. I always enjoy the show.
My first dish at the bar was
Steamed Foie Gras, Sticky Rice Soufflé, Iberian Braised White
Daikon, and Caramelized Green Daikon Juice. I realized, kind of
amused, that this dish was really foie gras mochi with the daikon
balls as little tapioca pearls. Aside from the cute factor, the dish
was interesting and deeply good.
As I ate I noticed the chef was behind the bar
chatting with customers, and encouraging the kitchen staff to
perform at their best employing a broad range of techniques both
encouraging and critical. For me it was nice to see the unvarnished
activities in the kitchen. It was also clear that
the Chef was part of the reason many Hong Kong residents came to
the restaurant. Not just his food but his personality.
Next up was
White Truffles, Chinese Pasta, with Egg. This dish was
magnificent. There’s really no other way to describe it. While the
pasta/egg/truffle combination is relatively standard, this
particular version was original and special. The pasta was uniquely
Chinese (as the chef told me as he shaved a generous amount of
truffles onto my plate, “everything in this dish comes from China…
except the truffles.”). The noodles were like elongated thick penne
tubes with an enjoyable chewy quality. As you began the dish you
broke the yolk to really bind all the elements together. The
tons of truffle shavings were delicious as always. And frankly,
given my deep and abiding love for white truffle I worry about being
balanced in evaluating dishes that contain them. But this dish was
so much more. The pasta itself was either pan-fried or put in the
salamander to get a crispy brown top (in retrospect I think some
kind of broiling in a salamander was the technique – like you would
use on the top of a good baked macaroni and cheese). The crisp
texture of outside of the pasta was a perfect textural complement to
the rest of the dish.
A little surprise dish form the chef followed. Not
on my menu was
Tofu with Foie Gras, Caramelized Pear, and Pine Nuts. It was
just a spoonful, but that’s all I needed. The flavor profile was
certainly more traditional with the sweet complementing the foie.
But I enjoyed the textures together even though the softness of the
tofu and foie were similar. They were still complementary. The chef
later told me he thought of it as a tofu dish where the foie gras
was playing a supporting role.
The foie was followed by
Pine Nut Crusted White Fish with Escargot Duck Egg Sauce and Pea
Shoot Royale. The pea custard had loads of flavor – it was chock
full of green pea-ness. (No, I never get tired of that joke. And
yes, I am in third grade.) But really it was quite good. The
escargot and the white fish were not as flavorful. I could have done
without one of the seafood items in exchange for the remaining one
to be more flavorful. Even with this mixed dish it’s still very
clear that one of the chef’s strengths is isolating the core flavor
of an ingredient and making sure it’s not only preserved, but
highlighted through the cooking process. The value of this should
not be underestimated.
This skill was featured in the
Hairy Crab Soufflé with Aged Jiangsu Vinegar. The soufflé was
like a freshly cooked crab in soufflé form. Yummy. The vinegar was
good too though I could have done with maybe a touch less.
Time for a palate cleanser –
Ginger Beer to be specific. Huge fire on the finish of this one.
It cleared my palate alright and scorched the back of my throat (but
in a good way). I was ready for the next dish.
And next up was
Jasmine Smoked Sea Bass with Chrysanthemum Glaze and Pickled Ginger
Pellet. I’ll admit that I usually eschew dishes that have the
word “pellet” in them. But we’ll chalk that up to the language
barrier. In fact, this dish had a genuinely special combination of
flavors. There was sweet with ginger and a smoked flavor as well.
Frankly, the dish was reminiscent of sushi.
One note to mention is that the pacing was kind of
rough. It was actually superb when I was in the dining room, but
once I moved to the kitchen things were a bit haphazard. I think the
chain of command in the kitchen was a little confused because
sometimes the chef would make it his business to take care of the
customers personally and sometimes he was busy cooking. Not sure
there was one person focused on the diners there. But it wasn’t a
It’s funny how in tasting menus chefs often still
feel the need to make the last savory dish something bigger than the
others. Personally I can live without it as I’ve already eaten a ton
of food. In this case though it wasn’t entirely unwelcome as the
somewhat larger portion was of
Wagyu Striploin, with Mixed Mushroom, Mustard Potatoes. The beef
was super buttery. I mean, it literally at times tasted like a stick
of grilled butter (in a good way). And the mushrooms were perfectly
Dessert didn’t go exactly as advertised but it was
still quite good. I started off with
Chocolate Pudding Cake with Port Marinated Strawberries and Vanilla
Sauce. As someone who writes about food you want to not gush
every time someone puts hot liquid chocolate in the middle of
chocolate cake. To put it simply, it’s just not cool. But there are
some things that are simply innately GOOD. And yes, there are worse
and better examples. And this happened to be a better example. Much
liquid bittersweet chocolate was oozing out of the center of my
little cake and mixing with everything. The strawberries were a
rich complement. Super yummy.
And finally I got
Lychee Foam with Rose Water. This was a nice cloud-like closer
for the meal.
It turns out I was supposed to get Vanilla Ice Cream
with White Truffle Shavings instead of the chocolate. And although I
would have liked to try it, I was pretty happy, pretty stuffed, and
pretty jet-lagged so I expressed my gratitude and made my way home
on the tram that takes you from one end of Hong Kong to the other.
Leung is obviously trying to do something special. And I think he
is. I think as with anyone trying to innovate, there always has to
be a grounding in solid flavors and textures, and it’s clear that
for the majority of the meal his dishes are well grounded. It also
felt, at least to me, that when the innovation borrowed from the
regional traditions, that’s when it seemed the most solid,
flavorful, and frankly special. And any restaurant capable of that
is worth going back to.