David Chang has a problem. He’s arrived at Gaddi’s for dinner without a jacket. The young entrepreneur shrugs on one of the restaurant’s loaner garments without missing a beat. He peeks at the lining. “It says, ‘Excellent’!” That appears to please him.
Maybe it was once a social faux pas to show up for dinner underdressed, but he’s part of a generation of executives that makes a living in jeans and untucked shirts, and even occasionally in sweats and old sneakers. The venture capitalist by day and co-founder of Hong Kong’s first Crossfit gym on the side laughs off the dress-code boo boo.
His business partner at Crossfit 852 is Jamie Lee, who has shown up appropriately outfitted in a suit. He may train in a T-shirt, but as general manager of the LF Fashion division at Li & Fung, he’s still got a soft spot for quality threads. The two met at kindergarten and have been fast friends since, launching their gym (or “box”, as insiders dub it) as a passion project when they discovered a void in the local fitness scene.
Tonight, they’re meeting Guiltless founder Yen Kuok for the first time. Her digital startup is a marketplace for secondhand designer goods, unique in its network because it’s one of very few entities that accepts vintage wares from Asia (most, wary of the continent’s reputation for knockoffs, shun this part of the world).
The trio has descended upon one of Hong Kong’s most decidedly classic restaurant establishments, which has recently welcomed new chef Xavier Boyer, who comes with two decades of experience with the likes of L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon and Le Cinq. For tonight’s meal, Boyer will pair a number of his new creations with a flight of Perrier-Jouët Belle Epoque champagnes, including the Belle Epoque 2008, the Blanc de Blancs and the Belle Epoque Rosé 2006.
Our meal begins with a trio of appetite ticklers – the Pen Egg, which comes in its own shell and was in fact created to be paired with champagne, as well as a few other small bites. The sommelier, Kay Man, introduces our first flute, the 2008.
Besides being fit and fashion savvy, it seems Lee knows a thing or two about wine, as he’s a collector, though his expertise is more with non-bubbly varieties, so he’s happy to receive the sommelier’s reading. “This wine is quite mineral and floral, because of the higher portion of chardonnay. Its acidity is not too high compared with the Blanc de Blancs (which we will enjoy later), and it’s the perfect time to drink this now.”
“Do you like truffles?” Chang asks with a smirk. “Jamie has a truffle story to share,” he says, proceeding to regale the rest of the party with a classic dinner-party anecdote that involves Lee going to Italy and meeting a truffle supplier who offered to send him some test wares. “That piece of truffle turned out to be 10 kilos – I think he thought I was a restaurateur,” says Lee. And so a dinner ensued for friends in a private kitchen attached to a wine-storage facility he uses. “There was so much truffle. By the end of it, they were just shaving it until you couldn’t see the food underneath anymore.” Luckily, the Pen Egg is quite appropriately dressed with the potent fungus – not too much, not too little.
Next up, there’s a Brittany scallop carpaccio and sea urchin seasoned with fresh yuzu, a perfect showcase of Boyer’s less-is-more approach to fine dining, which allows the ingredients to shout their freshness and seasonality. A smattering of greens and edible florals is all that’s needed to dress it up.
The Belle Epoque Blanc de Blancs is served to us between courses. “This one is a little more crisp, a little less in acidity – good for pre-dinner drinking. This is not as soft as the general Blanc de Blancs, it has some texture. But some can be quite hollow, and this one the depth is quite good, and I think it’s because it’s from the Belle Epoque series, the prestige means they use a better classification of grapes,” says Man.
What’s a good amount of time to store a champagne such as this, asks Kuok.
“When a champagne house releases a champagne, it’s supposed to be ready to drink, but it can age, and that’s quite personal,” Man answers. “Maybe I give you this bottle and you drink it now, but for me, I might keep it for 10 years; for someone else, maybe 20 years. For champagne, 10 years is not a problem – the problem is if you can resist the temptation to drink it,” he says with a smile.
Kuok laughs. She knows a thing or two about giving into temptation – her business is, after all, called Guiltless, and caters specifically to shopaholics who might have their eyes on a past-season handbag or secondhand acquisition. As a venture capitalist, Chang can’t resist talking a little bit of shop. “What are your numbers these days?” he asks, referring to her monthly site traffic.
“A lady never tells,” she says demurely. Instead, the conversation turns to social media, the mechanics of gaining followers, and the tactics she employed in buying guiltless.com – “a dictionary-word domain,” she explains, is the hardest to acquire – from a cyber squatter, by using multiple names and email accounts to ascertain a reasonable ballpark figure before making a proper offer.
She may be pleased by her approach, but Chang’s heard it before, being the owner of davidchang.com, a site coveted by the chef-owner of the New York-based Momofuku group who shares his name. “He tried that too. But I checked their IP addresses, saw they were all contacting me from New York, and so they failed!” He vows never to sell, even if the site currently hosts his personal blog, which hasn’t been updated in years.
The conversation is interrupted by a large plate featuring a giant mushroom graphic, which is then obscured by a dish filled with porcini custard, Iberico ham and parsley, topped with pan-fried porcini – it’s potent in flavour and beautiful to look at. That is followed by what appears simply to be a large slab of foie gras accompanied by a slice of Japanese mandarin. There’s more than meets the eye, explains chef Boyer: “The duck liver is pan-seared, and the mandarin is cooked in butter and glazed and flambéed with Grand Marnier, and you have dots of kumquat and mango, with some shiso leaves.” The dish may not be politically correct or healthy, but if you’re going to be bad, this is the way to go.
Another of the chef’s own favourites is the langoustine, which is done two ways: “Pan-fried, and with a ravioli of langoustine as well. The sauce is coconut with some lime, and you have a powder of lime and coriander.” If his dedication to minimalism wasn’t evident before, it certainly is now – but it’s worth the effort in paring down the ingredients list, because the shellfish shines, perfectly accented by the few Asian accent flavours.
It may be rare to pair a red meat with a champagne, but if you’re breaking rules the Belle Epoque Rosé is the one to do it with. A mix of champagne with 10 percent still red wine, it exhibits a rather firm texture and greater maturity, which is why our sommelier deems it a good friend for the robust main course we’re about to be served. “The acidity is quite moderate, not too high when compared with the Blanc de Blancs, and more complex as well, because of the red grapes,” he says. The Australian Black Market striploin with capers, oxtail ravioli, celeriac purée and truffle is exactly what it sounds like, and is welcomed by the Crossfit enthusiasts who, true to form, tend to stick to a meat-heavy diet. “Today is a cheat day,” announces Lee, who tries as much as possible to adhere to a strict Paleo regime. He proclaims the rosé his favourite of the trio of champagnes, and his dining partners nod in assent.
There’s yet one course to go. Expectations are high while stomach space is low, but the group is pleasantly surprised with the figs compote and almond crumble, Port, sabayon ice cream and mascarpone espuma. It’s beautiful – a melange of layers topped with a proud and fiery crown – also delicious, nuanced and multifaceted.
The evening draws to a close with the presentation of petits fours – which, even after seven sublime courses, still disappear within minutes. The Gaddi’s band, which has been playing a mixture of golden oldies and soft-rock hits for the earlier portion of the night, changes tune, starting in on Teresa Teng’s “The Moon Represents my Heart”. By now, the rest of the tables save for one have been cleared. Taking a few last swigs of champagne, the group rises to depart. “Let’s do this again,” says Chang.
Next time, with their own jackets.