Saturday, September 19, 2009

Going Molecular in Wan Chai

HONG KONG - Wan Chai still has a lingering reputation as a redlight district - ala "The World of Suzy Wong'' circa 1960 - but this bustling district on Hong Kong island now hosts the city's mammoth convention center and a forest of highrise buildings, not just dimly lit bars. Other things have changed, too. For one thing, dim sum has been joined by molecular cuisine.

I hadn't heard of molecular cuisine until the British destination restaurant the Fat Duck earned three Michelin stars for serving it. Wan Chai's own Bo Innovation - a resto that bills itself as the home of "X-treme Chinese cuisine'' - has done almost as well in the critical department, winning two Michelin stars in last year's gastronomic guide to Hong Kong.

Molecular food is nearly as much a product of the chemist's lab as the chef's kitchen. City guide Fred Cheng, who showed off the place, told me the chef at Bo Innovation is a former engineer. It takes a chemist or engineer to do things like re-engineer foie gras to taste like sour cream, or make beef puree taste like pork dumplings, to cite two imaginary but not far-fetched examples.

Bo Innovation, which is three years old, can be hard to find. You access this noisy, pricey, trendy restaurant by taking a private lift at 60 Johnston Road and going up one level. There is an outdoor terrace and a happening bar in the mirrored, crowded main dining room. I was there for lunch. Cheng told me the bill can easily come to $100 U.S. person for a meal. I had the chef's special, which at 680 Hong Kong dollars, plus a 10 percent service charge, is in that neighborhood, tab-wise.

Looking at the black-clad staff - a sign of high seriousness and self-conscious cool - I wondered if terminal trendiness could be far off. But Bo Innovation surprised me. Much of the inventive food was flavorful and fun, and the presentation - which included a course served on fine, round stone plates - had an air of artful theatricality. The vintages were good, too, starting with Drappier Champagne, progressing to a 2006 Montessu, an Italian blend of four red wines that was Merlot-like on the tongue, and including a 2007 Paul Mas Chard.

Over the course of a 2.5 hour lunch, I sampled a few traditional Cantonese-style dishes such as ocean trout served with fermented black beans, honey and pickled bok choy. But innovative fare befitting the restaurant's name was far more common. Foie gras powder and freeze-dried raspberry on thin-sliced tuna belly was one example. Dessert looked like it came out of a mad scientist's laboratory: Ice cream in a glass covered with a lid. When you lifted the lid, steam poured off the ice cream giving off a distinct aroma of incense. And the ice cream was good.

I don't know if Suzy Wong would be enamoured with Bo Innovation (, but I think she'd be surprised by it. For me, the place pushed right up to the limit of turning food more into science than art, but in the end it came down on the side of art, just. It's not just a trendy place, it's a good place - provided the budget permits.

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