Dining at Restaurant Petrus is an unabashedly old-school affair. The decor is the kind that might include a 1940s-style realistic painting of a lobster; the service is more attentive than your mother-in-law; and marriage proposals are such a common occasion there’s a table unofficially earmarked for the occurrence. For years, it’s been business as usual at this fort of fine French food, until about a year and a half ago, when its steward for eight years, the talented Frederic Chabbert, decamped to try his hand at his own business. (He’s since left Hong Kong and is working with an old friend and frequent collaborator, the Parisian butcher Hugo Desnoyer, on projects in France and Japan.)
Chabbert had a deft touch with cuisine – rich, classic and precise. But in his absence, Petrus has been due for a shake-up, one that it receives from incoming chef Ricardo Chaneton, a young Venezuelan protégé of Mauro Colagreco’s from Mirazur, the restaurant in Menton, France known for its freestyle approach to food, which ranked sixth on the World’s Best Restaurants list this year.
Chaneton’s approach is, like that of many chefs trained in French kitchens, driven by ingredients. “The role of a chef is to honour these ingredients with good seasoning and honest cooking techniques,” he says. “Ingredients must speak for themselves.” He may only have been in Asia for a few short months, but he’s not afraid to mine local flavours, either.
He also executes, with a restrained touch, a philosophy that feels very current with the global movement away from heavily sauced and robust dishes in favour of a lighter hand. He’s the kind of chef who’ll take an oyster and make it cool and sharp with cucumber textures and lemon grass. The kind of chef who might marry langoustine with the expected – say, white asparagus and caviar – but also throw in something unexpected like chrysanthemum sauce. He can just as easily work with a big hunk of Miyazaki Wagyu beef, and be bold enough to plate it with nothing more than Swiss chard, Parmesan and a curly dribble of artfully placed sauce.
But will what he does please a group of on-it foodies? We challenged Chaneton to create a menu to be paired with bottles of Perrier-Jouët’s Belle Epoque 2007, and invited three guests to sample his cooking, all of whom have a great deal of experience with good food. PR and events guru Nancy Fung owns and runs Signature Communications; her firm has worked with no small number of luxury brands, including high-end F&B players Perrier-Jouët and Tate Dining Room. She’s also a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu, so she’s not just qualified to taste food, she can make it, too.
Her dining partner in crime – and fiancé – is Dinesh Nihalchand, a founding partner at boutique real-estate concepts company District 15, which is behind the soon-to-be-opened Tribute Hotel as well as a number of hip warehouse spaces popularly used by fashion houses for parties. Our final guest is Calvin Ku, who, as food and beverage director of Buzz Concepts, is responsible for anything that passes through your lips at any of the company’s establishments, which include Lily & Bloom and Tiger Curry. This is a tough crowd whose Instagram exploits show their dining habits rival those of a Michelin restaurant inspector.
First things first – champagne. Everyone is presented with a glass of Belle Epoque 2007, which was launched early last year in Hong Kong and represents a con dent early bottling from the house of Perrier-Jouët. The year’s mild winter and warm spring imbued the vintage with a subtlety that makes it immensely suitable for food pairing. That said, it’s still also the drink of choice for celebrations, and tonight there are a few causes for that. Besides Fung and Nihalchand’s engagement, the latter will soon launch Yat Fu Lane at Shek Tong Tsui, a classy, glassy retail podium that will bring together commercial and retail outlets in a space decked out with Hong Kong memorabilia, including neon signage and a “hawker unit”.
“As with many of our developments, paying homage to the locale is integrated into the architecture – neon signage on both frontages pay tribute to the craft, and a 20-square-foot hawker unit on the ground floor,” Nihalchand explains.
“Hong Kong’s hawkers will likely fade into extinction in less than 50 years, if current stringent policies don’t change,” he continues, referencing the Mongkok hawker crackdown during the Chinese New Year celebrations back in February. “We intend to preserve a very important mainstay of local heritage.”
There won’t be any curry fishballs at this meal, though. The first course that’s served at our dinner is a salmon carpaccio with cucumber and Oscietra caviar, a simple dish that’s designed to let the lean salmon and caviar shine. “Definitely healthier,” expresses Ku regarding the direction of the menu. He knows well that the modern diner is leaning towards that less-is-more approach to food – just a couple of months ago, Bloom relaunched its lunch buffet extravaganza, the Lunch Market Feast, with a new range of salads and gluten-free options.
The second course is a prime example of Chaneton’s ability to bring lightness to the plate. Two giant Hokkaido scallops meet a blood-orange sauce and a rainbow mélange of carrots. “The Belle Epoque 2007 pairs superbly with our scallop dish due to the aromatic richness of the white fruit,” says Petrus’s award-winning sommelier, Yohann Jousselin.
Conversation among the gastronomes naturally veers towards food and recent restaurant finds. Fung and Nihalchand’s latest hole-in-the-wall discovery is a ghetto-fab hotpot restaurant in between Yau Ma Tei and Mongkok with a mean selection of seafood and a killer hairy-crab roe. They’ve just checked out the eatery and, like good millennial foodies, they have the iPhone photos to prove it. Ku is unconvinced. “It’s not even hairy- crab season,” he retorts. Ku seems more curious about another “restaurant” that’s opened in Central, with a long history of fine culinary traditions: Hooters. “My colleague promises that they have the best chicken wings,” he insists, but no one’s buying that anyone goes for the nosh, until he adds, “and my colleague is gay.”
The chicken wing taste test will have to wait, though — because our main course is here, a thick-cut veal fillet with sesame sauce, eggplant and Taggiasque olives. “The veal creates a great harmony of flavours due to the roundness and delicate aromas of the champagne,” says Jousselin, as the champagne flutes meet with a clink and a chorus of “Cheers”.
The dish tastes like a trip to the Mediterranean, and Fung is especially curious about one aspect in particular. “Can you tell us about the olives?” she asks the maître d’, who returns with Chaneton himself. He explains that the olive is Italian in origin, and grown along the country’s Riviera, producing a small specimen that’s mild yet fruity.
The final act is a pretty combination of peaches, verbena and pistachio, an assemblage of acidity and creaminess that makes for a refreshing end to the meal – that, and a nice hot cup of peppermint tea.
The conversation continues through sad endings (the departure of Serge et Le Phoque causes unanimous dismay) and happy beginnings (their friend Yenn Wong’s Kaum at Potato Head is a winner, declares Fung). They laud chef May Chow for her hardworking spirit, opening Little Bao in Bangkok at the same time as launching Second Draft in Tai Hang, a gastropub collaboration with Mongkok hangout TAP: The Ale Project.
“You know what? The vibe in Mongkok is so down to earth,” says Nihalchand – a hint of where District 15 might be looking at developing its next real-estate projects, perhaps? The recent spate of restaurant closures – Viet Kitchen and Nur have bitten the dust, and the relocated Italian legend Va Bene in Sai Ying Pun looks set to do the same, if foot traffic doesn’t improve – has the group reminiscing over great spots that nonetheless couldn’t go the distance.
“You know what would be great? If we could go to Halo after this,” says Fung, referencing the underground lounge on Stanley Street that was one of Buzz Concepts’ earliest successes. “Can you reopen Halo?” she pleads. Ku’s laugh is answer enough. Another swig of champagne will have to do instead.