Sunday, November 21, 2010

Boo Boo Bo - Bo Innovation

Alvin Leung's (in)famous molecular xiaolongbao

Does Alvin Leung or his restaurant Bo Innovation need any introduction? Well if he/it does, I'm not going to do it here. Just Google him or something.

Despite being one of Hong Kong's most famous chefs (especially on the international stage), it wasn't till recently that I mustered up the courage to throw some good money at one of his meals. I'd read enough about his molecular doo-da and frankly, was ambivalent. But of course I was curious.

He has a not-too-scarily priced dinner tasting menu of $680 for 7-ish courses (some come in 2 parts, hence the -ish), so when I was asked, I had an internal "What the heck, you can't bag it till you've tried it hey?"-type 2-second discussion and decided to go for it.

Dead Garden - morel, catepillar fungus, spring onion puree, lime
Nothing spectac. The spring onion is pureed, so it's all mushy and you can sure taste it. Despite all the mushroom stalks sticking out, there wasn't much texture nor layers of flavour to this.

True-8 Vinegar - foie gras, cherry tomato and ginger in Pat Chun vinegar
Foie was veiny/stringy, couldn't cut it with the spoon we were given. The combination didn't really work. The Pat Chun* vinegar was way too strong. A friend who had had it said she thought it was quite sweet, even too sweet, when she went, but liked it. They might have lightened up on the sugar now, maybe too much so, as the acidity of this simply made us splutter. The tomato was an interesting addition, and against the acidity of the vinegar, seemed sweet and mellow (but really, a small teaspoon of the vinegar would have sufficed for that effect).

(*I'm really going on a tangent here, but I feel confused about Pat Chun being 'translated' as "True-8". "Pat" indeed means eight, but "Chun" means treasures, (the Pat Chun website says it's "eight delicious dishes worthy of the Emperor"), though it has the same pronunciation in Cantonese (and Mandarin) as the word for true. Is it a clever pun, or bad understanding?)

Ginger parfait in a cube was served after, to mix into vinegar. It was layerish and just kind of just dissipated in the vinegar. I found myself trying to salvage flakes of it as quickly as possible so as not to lose them. Most attempts failed.

Beggar's chicken - fried frog's leg in lotus dust/soil/powder

The traditional beggar's chicken, as far as I know, is made with lotus leaf wrapped around the chicken, to impart some of the leaves' fragrance. Usually, it's really nice. This lotus dust was overpowering. Also, I thought beggar's chicken was always made in a salt and dirt case? Where I'm from (which, I presume, is the same place that Alvin is from), breaking the casing is kind of tradition. I didn't think beggar's chicken would be what it is without it. Anyway, maybe it's just me. The frog leg was fried to a nice golden brown, and it was juicy and tender inside. No complaints there. (Thank goodness, otherwise you'd have taken me for pretentious and anal by now. Ok, maybe anal).

Cod (the yellow one) cooked sous vide, with white miso and sauternes, white tile is sake and lime jelly
I never thought I'd say this, but there's a time when less alcohol is better. All I could taste from the cod was the alco bit of the sauternes - there seemed to be no sign of the miso at all. As for the sake jelly, I felt like I was eating wobbly alcohol. Yeah, they called it sake jelly, but I really didn't think it was just going to be sake in jelly form, y'know what I mean? The cod was cooked nicely, but cod is such a nice oily fish, you can't go far wrong... Sous vide was probably unnecessary if the objective was to keep it moist. I think it just magnified the wrong layers of flavour instead.

This is Alvin's famous "molecular" xiaolongbao. It's in jelly/liquid form that bursts when you bite into it. The pork, soup/fat and vinegar flavour components are already combined 'for you'. Because it was all liquid it felt like I was just drinking melted fat, which made me feel a bit yuck, but the tastes were there, balanced and fine. I think I prefer a bit of texture in my xlb - I don't think it's just about the taste, it's the stretchy skin and hot mounds of steamed pork too.

Hairy crab "souffle" served with aged Zhenjiang vinegar (seasonal special - supplement of HK$150)
Super rich and probably more of a mousse than a souffle, but as our waiter said, Alvin has his own unique way with terminology. (Gee, I wish I could call a cow a fish...) Nonetheless, you've really got the 'essence' of the crab here, which is fantastic, but given its intensity, weight and spreadability, a bit of toast or something would have been nice. There were bits of crab meat in it too, wish there was more. Both would have been good for balancing it out. (But not errant shards of crab shell, thanks. Tut tut)

preparing the ginger and shaoxing ice cream thingy - for post-hairy crab 'recuperation', a la Chinese medicine/health philosophy

Ginger "ice cream"
The ice cream was very, very cold, and slightly brittle on the outside. I couldn't really taste the wine, my brain was too busy freezing. This nitrogen thing isn't new anymore, and if it doesn't provide superior results, I say ditch it. There's no wow factor.

Langoustine, with English mustard foam, salty egg sauce, cauliflower, black truffle peas, duck sauce
First things first - the langoustine itself was deep-fried, which is usually great for fresh seafood - do as little to it as possible, and preserve the flavours. But this was slightly dry - overcooked maybe? Oil not hot enough? Left to sit too long?

Otherwise the flavours were overwhelming. The cauliflower wasn't tart enough to cut through the combined richness of duck sauce, salty egg and a not-very-pungent mustard. If I want salty egg yolk and fried seafood, I'd get 黃金蝦 (Shanghainese prawns with salted egg yolk batter/sauce). It's sad that a perfectly good piece of langoustine had to be overadorned as such. It's like seeing an adorable kid weighed down in jewels and fur.

Dragon eye - longngan jelly and chunks of blue cheese, with shaved coconut ($80 supplement)
This was interesting. The herb-iness of the longngan (more obvious when dried) melded with the blue cheese in a way that was peculiar, maybe a little exciting, but enjoyable only in its curiosity, not the heightening of flavours. It makes you think... at least.

Shui Jing Fang
Banana cooked in Shui Jing Fang bai jiu (very strong, probably 100-proof Chinese rice/grain wine), in a tart (well, on some pastry), with vanilla bean ice cream, caramel and raisins.

You can definitely taste the alcohol here too, but the caramel softens the 'sting', as does the ice cream. The raisins were actually large-ish and jammy, a bit date like - not bad at all. Probably the only thing I properly enjoyed, like in a real food way, all night.

All in all, I thought it was a lot of showmanship for little real quality. I'm really sorry I couldn't like it more. I wish I could say Bo Innovation is an astounding, creative way of representing Chinese cuisine, but to me it just wasn't right.

The circus of flavours and techniques seemed to strip the meal completely of real, palatal enjoyment. The fun does come in/back in the form of discussion, so if you do go, go with good company who like to talk about the food, are curious enough to drop a few pretty pennies.

In this interview, Alvin says, "My objective is to introduce Chinese flavours to the whole world". I can see that, but taking it apart piece by piece, combining them with "western" ingredients and techniques in order to try and communicate to those unfamiliar with Chinese cooking? Nice idea, but the end product seems amateur and try-hard, especially for anyone who is already familiar with Chinese ingredients. Maybe my ideas about how they're supposed to be used are already too ingrained? Maybe, but this is how I see it - he's trying way too hard to be Hong Kong's culinary rockstar. Try-hards are annoying. Try-hard rockstars are just worse.

I don't think I need to go on and say that Alvin is no Ferran or Heston.

Basics like fried langoustine are not things I would expect to go wrong at a Michelin-starred eatery (ha, Michelin, whatever that means in this town**). Chinese cuisine, as much as they are about classic products like Pat Chun vinegar and medicinal philosophies, are also about making the most of fresh, seasonal flavours. Just look at the number of signs in restaurants around HK and China that advertise "fresh", "made to order" and origin of produce, for example. If you're looking to introduce Chinese flavours, that's what I think you should be going for, but I guess "fresh" just isn't rockstar enough.

Bo Innovation
2/F J Residence
60 Johnson Rd. (enter via lift on Ship St.)
Hong Kong
+852 2850 8371

**I would trust Michelin for French towns and cities much more than I would for Hong Kong. It's a decent point of reference, but even with more local reviewers, the philosophy behind reviewing is essentially still western/French/Michelin. They're doing all sorts of weird stuff this year like adding sections for BBQ and congee in an attempt to localise, but the problem is, they're still looking at these places from a western perspective, which isn't wrong, it will just never be as 'local' as they so desperately want to be. Can't they accept that they won't be local and live with it? The notion of Michelin congee is just weird. Are there Michelin sandwich shops?


  1. Great review. After reading so much about Bo Innovation recently, I will give this over-hyped place a miss, and spend my calories quota elsewhere!

  2. The "idea" of applying Molecular Gastronomy to Chinese cuisine is clever. But, to be anything more than an intellectual exercise, it has to connect with the most profound levels of our taste experience.

    If we took Ferran Adrià's philosophy seriously, then a molecular XLB should launch us back, Proust-style, into the deepest memories of the great XLB we have shared and the people we shared them with. It should look new, but taste profoundly, almost spiritually, ancient.

    It's a high calling and one that will require years of work and creativity before someone really achieves it.

  3. Too sad. You're right, the meal I had looked waaaaay better - it's only been a year and half. What the heck happened? *sigh* I will say this - in May 2009, I thought molecular gastronomy applied to Chinese food was the smartest thing EVER. It's too bad / too sad that it's just not what it was anymore. Aiyah.

  4. You're on the money. The phrase "try hard" kept popping to mind as I read through the dishes. Sounded like sketches of interesting ideas but an ultimately very hollow experience. Thanks for sharing.


  5. i've read so much about Bo that i'm really looking forward to try this restaurant!

  6. A true World Class Chef is always able to combine their ingredients, flavours and cooking techniques ingeniously to make the end result a sum greater than its parts. Looking at this meal, I only have one word - an Alchemist.

    Doing things differently just for the sake of trying-hard to stand out as you mention just isn't very convincing. Tather than meticulously planning and evolving the dishes recipes over time, this looks too random for a seasoned restaurant which has existed for a few years already.

    If Alvin's ideal is to showcase Chinese ingredients, I don't see this with the Sauternes or Miso sauce on the Cod dish at all, or the Langoustines, etc. Discovering new signature dishes via trial and error method takes time, but they seem to be on the wrong footing. Most importantly, every single component should be cooked to darn close perfection (there's really no excuses, esp if they're doing molecular science cooking).

    The Chefs need to develop their scheme and coherency rightly, if they are to ever regain the 2nd Etoile.

  7. This is the kind of restaurants I am looking forward to try if I visit HK: sounds like an entertaining meal

  8. So thats why call himself devil "廚魔"