Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Bo Innovation

Shannon and I recently had an amazing dining experience. I use the term dining experience purposely, because it was much more than a meal. We ate at a restaurant called Bo Innovation, which is run by “Demon” Chef Alvin Leung. What Leung provides is an intellectually engaging meal that uses cutting edge culinary techniques and boundless creativity to showcase traditional Chinese dishes and ingredients in progressive and reinvented ways.

Chef Alvin Leung

We knew about Bo Innovation from watching, many months earlier, the Hong Kong episode of Anthony Bourdain’s TV show No Reservations. So, it was in the back of our mind. Then, we decided we ought to hit at least one really high-end restaurant while here in this culinary capital. Looking at the list of “world’s best restaurants” or those with Michelin stars, we were surprised to see the big ones in Hong Kong were generally French. French food doesn’t really suit our semi-vegetarian tastes, and it certainly doesn’t scream Hong Kong, so we weren’t sure where to go. But, then we came upon Bo Innovation, which had both a Michelin star and a place on the best-of lists we found. Shannon made it happen by taking me there as a Christmas present.

What drew us to Bo was the fact that it was Chinese food, but Chinese food that provided something new. It seems to us that few Chinese restaurants, either here or in the States, try to do anything innovative. The best, most highly rated Chinese restaurants all provide outstanding versions of traditional dishes. Fusion restaurants that draw from Chinese or Asian cuisines seem just to borrow a flavor or ingredient and then throw it into a dish from another tradition. What Leung does is reinvent Chinese food while still keeping it Chinese.

If you’re the sort of person who only likes a simple meal that involves an ample plate of recognizable and delicious food, Bo Innovation is not for you. Bo Innovation is a reflective and intellectual experience. We learned a lot about Chinese food. That’s not to say the food wasn’t tasty—every one of the thirteen small plates on the set menu was awesomely delicious (and kudos for the kitchen’s willingness to substitute and adjust to keep land animals off our plates). But the real enjoyment in the meal came from the surprises, innovations and unique connections to Chinese cuisine.

There were unusual ingredients: ginger snow (ginger frozen with liquid nitrogen and then crushed); Hawthorn sorbet; cauliflower risotto (that is, the cauliflower itself made up the grains of risotto); butter ice cream; mashed potato foam; a tomato marshmallow; wasabi foam.

And then there were the unique constructions: lobster with star anise butter, chanterelles, corn and sea urchin; pineapple cubes with three different types of peppercorns; that Hawthorn sorbet (very bitter) with beetroot foam (very sweet).

But most impressive were the ways he drew from and celebrated Chinese food and Hong Kong traditions. The first plate, an oyster with spring onion, lime cream and the ginger snow, also came with “parfum du hong kong.” It smelled exactly like the wet markets here. A tomato plate included a skinless cherry tomato that had been cooked in a particular brand of sweet vinegar, Pat Chun, that is very popular in Hong Kong.

A dessert plate was a little ball of orange-flavored chocolate around Chinese almonds. The chocolate was placed on a Chinese soup spoon and brought out on a little covered box. At the table, the top of the box was removed and a puff of Sandalwood smoke came out and wafted over the food and across the table. It brought you right into the many temples here that are filled with the mysterious smell of the burning Sandalwood joss sticks. And, though it might sound off-putting, the odor actually went perfectly with the taste of the chocolate.

Another dessert was a take on a very popular tea set in Hong Kong—the pineapple bun slashed through with butter and a cup of half coffee with cream, half tea. Along with the pepper and pineapple cubes, there was Leung’s take on the pineapple bun—a crispy dough-coated ball of butter ice cream. And with it was a cup of the coffee/tea, except the two parts were gellified and separated into two halves within the cup. The coffee half was warm and the tea part was cool, so when you sipped it you simultaneously felt warm and cold on your lips. Amazing.

The service was incredible, and most courses came with explanations and instructions. They brought out the bottle of Pat Chun vinegar, explained its popularity and let us smell it. The brought out containers of key ingredients in the dishes (like little dried shrimps or fermented olives) and let us smell and even taste them. While I don’t always go in for this level of fussiness (“this course should be eaten with fork and knife; this course in one bite with chopsticks”) and appreciate simple, good food as much as the next person, we really did learn a lot and enjoyed the food more for knowing the backstory.

Leung, despite the edgy look and ominous nickname, seemed like a really nice guy. He led a small group of chefs in an exposed kitchen area through plating and expediting. The dining room was pretty quiet (it was early on a weeknight), so I often caught him leaning back looking out across the tables. The look was one of eager assessment—were they enjoying my food? When I caught his eye and gave him a little smile and nod of appreciation, he smiled back with satisfaction. On the way out we thanked him for a great meal and he was very humble and polite.

After a few months here, Shannon and I have realized we are not huge fans of Cantonese food. It’s very meat-based and relies on light and delicate flavors and sauces. We much rather prefer really spicy vegetables (like Sichuan or Southeast Asian food). We’re pretty well done with dim sum. But Bo Innovation made us really appreciate Cantonese cuisine in a way we hadn’t. And, as Shannon points out in the prior post, it captures Hong Kong so well, merging traditional Chinese culture with the fast pace and dynamic energy of this progressive city.


  1. You should have the Demon Chef pay you for that review!


  2. Wow that sounds incredible. I've only had one experience like that in Antibes, France. Meals like that live on for many years after...

  3. Written like a Food & Wine editor...nicely done!