Friday, March 29, 2013

Bo Innovation, Hong Kong: a cigar (or three) with the Demon Chef

Now you would be forgiven for thinking that my earlier story about my experience at Bo Innovation abruptly ended there (and yes it has possibly been the longest article I have ever written and it has taken me months to finish the follow-up piece), but we’re not quite done yet!

Having been carrying a Partagas Serie E No. 2 (kind of like a double-length Partagas Serie D No. 4), I remembered the fellow smoking a cigar on the terrace, and decided to follow suit – there’s nothing like lighting up a quality stogie to round off a sublime meal.

As I sat down at a table outside, the Maître D informed me that the chap whom I saw as I walked in (and he was now having a meeting with a couple of people) is in fact the Demon Chef, and politely inquired if I would like my menu autographed.

The Demon Chef and I
Back home in Australia, we’re extremely laissez faire when it comes to these things, and I didn’t really want to bother him, thinking that he was busy and had better things to do than to talk to some random punter like me.  But I of course politely said yes, thinking to get the autograph and then settle in at my own outdoor table with my very special E2.  When we got to his table, Alvin said that he was finishing his meeting shortly, and would then attend to the autographing.

I thought “that’s fine, no dramas”, and went back to my table and lit up my ultra-fine piece of Habanos (you can tell I really dig this stogie don’t you?  But how could I not, with its smooth, spicy aroma, milky rich/soft smoke sporting cacao and leather flavours).

Next thing I know, Alvin pulls up a chair at my table and introduces himself.  He then pulls out his own Cuban beauty (a Bolivar Belicoso if I remember correctly) and proceeds to light it, and we start chatting.

Cigar Ben entrance
We chatted about his career, his philosophy on food, his cooking and about life in general.  This is a man who is extremely driven, full of ideas, and it was certainly inspiring to hear about his outlook on life.  Did you know that he’s a self-taught chef?  Other than Heston Blumenthal, he is the only other self-taught chef in the world to have won 2 Michelin Stars. But that’s not enough.  We spoke about the TV show he was working on (he was writing episode ideas and treatments while I was enjoying my degustatory experience), and was unabashed about wanting to earn a third Michelin star. He also has a share in a members-only cigar lounge called Cigar Ben on Hong Kong Island (where we caught up a few times over the next couple of days for a civilised cigar and whisky, and more conversation).  Now that is the life!

He has a refreshingly unique take on fine dining.  As I had observed, and he confirmed, most of his dishes had their origins in Chinese cuisine – not the style that is more prevalent in Australia, where “Asian fusion” is almost synonymous with South East Asian-influenced flavours and cooking, in particular Thai cuisine.

Bolivar Especiales No. 2 2009
Alvin is also a generous man – as we started chatting, he had a second dessert brought out for me to try.  And as we chatted about the lack of availability of old school caviar from Mother Russia, and the merits of caviar now farmed in other places, such as California and even China.  Alvin was adamant that the quality of Chinese caviar was unparalleled outside of Russia, and to demonstrate his point, arranged for a beautiful little morsel to be served to me – reminiscent of a dim sum-style deep fried yam ball (but delicately light in texture and flavour and not oily at oil) topped with gold leaf and Chinese sevruga caviar.  Both were delicious indeed!

His generosity didn’t stop there.  Upon discovering a fellow cigar aficionado, he insisted on gifting some rare and fine sticks to me, including a limited edition Bolivar Libertador made exclusively for the French market, a long panatela-sized 2009 Bolivar Especiales No. 2 Exclusivo Alemania, and a Cohiba 1966.

Bolivar Libertador 2007
I only discovered much later that the Bolivar Libertador was 2007 production of only 2,400 boxes, and was a sublime size of 54 ring gauge and 6.5 inches in length (incidentally, the original Cohiba Sublime is my favourite all-time cigar ever, over and above the 1973 Romeo y Julieta Churchill I enjoyed at Claridge’s just before the UK’s indoor smoking ban was introduced, and the Bolivar Coronas Gigantes which were made in the 1960s which my cuzzy bro DDski found at a deceased estate auction).  Thank you my friend.

Since the Demon Chef and I caught up, I’ve learned that he has opened a restaurant in London, which one of my old school mates Simo enjoyed as part of his “farewell tour” (in the parlance of his investment banking colleagues), and his TV show The Maverick Chef has just recently kicked off.

What an amazing, enriching and uplifting experience.  I am going back to Bo Innovation soon – in fact, I’ve already booked it in.  Simo is also coming along, in a quest to achieve the Bo Innovation quinella experience.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Urbane - Fine dining in Brisbane with fellow gourmets

Last week, I had the rare double pleasure of discovering an excellent fine dining venue and a fellow über aficionado of gourmet delights.  After a conference in Brisbane, I headed out for dinner with fellow conference goers Cameron and Katie (who like me also happened to be the final stragglers at the post-conference drinks).  Earlier that day, I’d googled the “best restaurants in Brisbane” and found a Courier Mail article which offered a top 10 list.  Cameron, from Australia’s gourmet capital Melbourne, was naturally up for some good food. Katie, the local, helped us pick the closest restaurant on that list within walking distance – Urbane on 181 Mary Street, Brisbane.

Urbane sports a discreet entrance, particularly at night, and when you walk in, it is a minimalist oasis of calm – dark shadows and pools of light – with the tables set far apart from each other to further extend the feeling that you almost have the place to yourself.  The service is discreet, calm and sophisticated; the two Sarahs looking after us executing an excellent tandem act of bringing us food, presenting and explaining the dishes, making sure we remained watered (or wined, as was more the case) and never being far away.  And they never, ever avoided making eye contact or pretended not to notice us when we needed something.   Let me digress for a pet gripe: waiters who avoid eye contact are one of the most annoying things I frequently experience in Perth restaurants, even those who self-style themselves as "fine dining" venues (if you expect me to wave my arms around like a bloody aircraft carrier flight-deck operator just for the privilege of asking you to bring me the bill, you can forget about any kind of tip!).
Kingfish Sashimi

We ordered the 5 course degustation (although I was sorely tempted by the 9 course marathon offering, my fellow diners were not hungry enough).  But it was kind of 11 courses anyway, since we received 6 canapé-sized pre-dinner morsels in succession while we waited for the main event to begin.  All were delightful, served upon unique and clever vessels (such as a pot of pebbles and a wooden rack of test tubes); with some exquisitely prepared and presented (like the Kingfish Sashimi).
Duck consommé & tongue!

These canapés kept us going while the kitchen prepared the main courses; my favourite of the lot was the richly flavoured duck consommé served in test tubes, accompanied by a crispy dry duck tongue (!) that had the taste and texture of popcorn.  As anyone who’s been adventurous with dim sum in Hong Kong would know, the texture of a duck tongue is moist, crunchy and gristle-chewy.  So it would have taken some interesting technique to transform this little morsel into displaying a dry popcorn-like texture.

The “main” courses each had one feature ingredient, accompanied by other things, featuring an interesting mix of fresh ingredients and what I would best describe as molecular methods.

It’s hard to talk about highlights when every dish is an amazing dish, but my pick out of the 5 “main” courses would have been the very pretty looking octopus bits accompanied by delicate pieces of crunchy (but somehow colour-infused) green apple and dollops of avocado and rye mousse.  Beautiful, fresh, simple and complementary flavours.  Sometimes the best things are the simplest ones.

I also love sweetbread, so that deserves a mention – perfectly cooked, with just enough caramelised searing for flavour and texture, yet remaining soft and tender when bitten into; and the accompanying "egg yolk" (looking like an emulsified re-constituted yolk creation) seemed to defy the laws of physics: perfectly soft, runny and yet somehow possessing a robust structural integrity that survived the plating and serving process and all that time remaining in situ on the plate without sliding around.  Just three items on the plate, but yet again, complementary in a manner as to enhance each others' flavours and textures.

Even the dessert, which looked straightforward on the menu, was meticulously made, the "walnut" being a light crunchy ball of walnut confection reminiscent of maltesers in construction, but slightly larger and without the chocolate covering.  The chocolate was a beautiful mouthful of soft and moist chocolate cake-like bakeware (at least that's what I thought it was).  And the portion was enough for you to enjoy dessert, but not so much as to make you feel stuffed like a Thanksgiving turkey at the end of the meal.

You would be wondering which of my dining companions is the über aficionado: when our octopus dishes were delivered to our table, it looked so good that I simply could not resist leaning over to smell the beautiful fresh aromas of the various inhabitants of the plate, despite not knowing my dining companions that well (even serious gourmet friends think I’m strange for doing that – yes Amanda, I’m talking about you).  Then as I looked back up, I realised that Katie was doing the same thing, albeit more decorously off a fork.  She had an eloquent response for the sniffer-haters – a dining experience must be experienced with all 5 senses.  True-dat!

This is someone who cooks 3 gourmet courses over the weekend to freeze them up for lunch and dinner during the coming week, runs marathons in her spare time (and sometimes in a catwoman costume …), so good at her hobby that she qualified for the Boston and New York marathons; who was going to wake up at 5am on Sunday morning to do a lazy 25km; and on top of that started up a multi-million dollar business when she was younger, put her sister through uni, and is now an accomplished lawyer.  What a woman!  C’est pas possible … но это правда!

Cameron, Katie and I just kept talking throughout the evening; the flow was natural and happy – there was never a quiet moment, and the allegedly inevitable awkward silence expected for every conversation never eventuated.  We spoke about life, family, love and the future.  All the while eating amazing food and drinking one of my favourite Barossa shiraz from one of my favourite winemakers – Ben Glaetzer’s 2010 Bishop Shiraz – we polished off two bottles without even realising it until the dinner was over.

Everything about this place was stylish and sophisticated, and showed a lot of forethought.  The bill even came in an envelope hand-sealed with red wax (sporting Urbane's "U" logo, no less!), accompanied by 3 copies of the menu we had enjoyed, so that everyone could take home a record of our experience.

A truly amazing evening – beautiful food, enhanced to a new level by wonderful company and conversation; one of the greater pleasures in life – greater because you can’t buy it, nor can you prescribe how to achieve it: it just is or it isn’t.


Sweet Corn Soup, Popcorn
Salmon, Juniper, Onion Seed
Duck Consommé, Tongue
Mussel on Rye Toast, Saffron
Vegetable Escabeche
Kingfish Sashimi


Almond, Onions, Tomato Seeds

Green Apple, Avocado, Rye

Sweetbread, Emmenthal, Egg Yolk

choice of
Murray Cod
Chicken Liver, Shallots, Yeast Cream
Lamb Shoulder
Watercress, Horseradish

Coffee, Chocolate