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Bo 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 Bo 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 excited nonetheless.

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 what the three holes at the top of the tray were for. First up was “The 3-Salads” – 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 true.)

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 way. Nice.

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 alternately cooking, 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 huge deal.

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 cooked.

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 better. Fantastic 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.

Chef 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.

     

 

 

 

 

 

   

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  Garlic has long been credited with providing and prolonging physical strength and was fed to Egyptian slaves building the giant pyramids. Throughout the centuries, its medicinal claims have included cures for toothaches, consumption, open wounds and evil demons. A member of the lily family, garlic is a cousin to leeks, chives, onions and shallots. The edible bulb or "head" grows beneath the ground. This bulb is made up of sections called cloves, each encased in its own parchmentlike membrane. Today's major garlic suppliers include the United States (mainly California, Texas and Louisiana), France, Spain, Italy and Mexico. There are three major types of garlic available in the United States: the white-skinned, strongly flavored American garlic; the Mexican and Italian garlic, both of which have mauve-colored skins and a somewhat milder flavor; and the Paul Bunyanesque, white-skinned elephant garlic (which is not a true garlic, but a relative of the leek), the most mildly flavored of the three. Depending on the variety, cloves of American, Mexican and Italian garlic can range from 1/2 to 1 1/2 inches in length. Elephant garlic (grown mainly in California) has bulbs the size of a small grapefruit, with huge cloves averaging 1 ounce each. It can be purchased through mail order and in some gourmet markets. Green garlic, available occasionally in specialty produce markets, is young garlic before it begins to form cloves. It resembles a baby leek, with a long green top and white bulb, sometimes tinged with pink. The flavor of a baby plant is much softer than that of mature garlic. Fresh garlic is available year-round. Purchase firm, plump bulbs with dry skins. Avoid heads with soft or shriveled cloves, and those stored in the refrigerated section of the produce department. Store fresh garlic in an open container (away from other foods) in a cool, dark place. Properly stored, unbroken bulbs can be kept up to 8 weeks, though they will begin to dry out toward the end of that time. Once broken from the bulb, individual cloves will keep from 3 to 10 days. Garlic is usually peeled before use in recipes. Among the exceptions are roasted garlic bulbs and the famous dish, "chicken with 40 cloves of garlic," in which unpeeled garlic cloves are baked with chicken in a broth until they become sweet and butter-soft. Crushing, chopping, pressing or pureeing garlic releases more of its essential oils and provides a sharper, more assertive flavor than slicing or leaving it whole. Garlic is readily available in forms other than fresh. Dehydrated garlic flakes (sometimes referred to as instant garlic) are slices or bits of garlic that must be reconstituted before using (unless added to a liquid-based dish, such as soup or stew). When dehydrated garlic flakes are ground, the result is garlic powder. Garlic salt is garlic powder blended with salt and a moisture-absorbing agent. Garlic extract and garlic juice are derived from pressed garlic cloves. Though all of these products are convenient, they're a poor flavor substitute for the less expensive, readily available and easy-to-store fresh garlic. One unfortunate side effect of garlic is that, because its essential oils permeate the lung tissue, it remains with the body long after it's been consumed, affecting breath and even skin odor. Chewing chlorophyll tablets or fresh parsley is helpful but, unfortunately, modern-day science has yet to find the perfect antidote for residual garlic odor.  

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