The moment the pithivier arrives I feel the envious eyes of neighbouring diners on my plate. It’s not hard to see why. The dish is a knockout — an instant classic rooted in the sort of very fine French cuisine seldom seen these days. Golden puff pastry, spinach and roasted mushroom farce, liver crêpe, and a slick of boozy Armagnac-soaked fig purée all come wrapped around blush-pink pigeon flesh.
Compared to some of the city’s gastronomic temples, the presentation is straightforward. There’s nary an arty squiggle of reduction, tuft of foam or any other visual pyrotechnics here. The only adornments are a single claw coiled seductively on top and puddle of demi-glace below, yet this is already one of Hong Kong’s most photographed dishes.
“It’s all anybody posts on Instagram these days. Some restaurants will never, ever have something so hypebeast and we’ve had five,” says Daniel Calvert, the head chef at Belon. Though less than 30 years old, Calvert has already spent a decade working his way through some of the world’s most prestigious three-Michelin-star kitchens in Paris and New York. Most chefs would kill for the kind of viral superstardom that his vertiginous mille-feuille or whole roasted chicken have achieved, but Calvert is both unfazed by and uninterested in such celebrity status. “I don’t cook based on what I think people will publicise. I like to eat pies. I love to eat foie gras. If you cook what you want to eat and you write on the wine list what you want to drink, it’s gonna be good.”
Of all his iconic dishes, none have drawn quite as much attention as what Food & Wine dubbed “the world’s fanciest chicken wing.” When it appeared on Belon’s menu last year, the South China Morning Post balked at the HK$348 pricetag, despite admitting that it was delicious. Yet merely looking at the numbers misses the point of both this dish and this restaurant. Yes, there are more affordable pieces of poultry out there, but this particular piece stuffed with smoked eel, foie gras and matsutake mushrooms had little in common with those.
It evolved out of a sweetbread, serrano and lardo farce that Calvert used to pipe into morels at Epicure in Le Bristol Paris, as well as a rice and matsutake farce at Per Se. All that careful consideration resulted in something so simple, yet extraordinary that guests still routinely ask for it even though it’s been off the menu for months.
“It’s not just Uncle Ben’s rice bound with pre-packaged foie gras. It’s a process,” says Calvert. The same could be said of practically anything that comes out of this kitchen — the pithivier’s puff pastry alone takes three days to make, and every Friday the staff spend four hours fabricating foie gras torchon. It’s worth noting that both Calvert and James Henry, a veteran of the Parisian dining scene and the restaurant’s first head chef, have never worked in casual restaurants.
Their mutual inclination has always been to take that extra step — technical difficulty, grueling amount of labour and cost be damned — to drive a dish to its limits. “The brief for this place wasn’t so ambitious. I think it was supposed to be a classic bistro-type thing. But I think just because of who we are, we pushed it very far.”
Perhaps the best example of that attention to detail lies in a staple unlikely to blow up on social media. Belon’s sourdough is a magnificent crusty loaf riddled with holes and threaded with a faint, tangy undertone. It needs nothing, but with a smear of salted Channel Island butter, itself cultured until it has a complexity akin to ripe cheese, it’s sublime. Since Calvert had never baked professionally, he called in a friend from a Michelin one-star, which at the time was supposed to have the best bread in Brooklyn, to coach him on the finer points.
Bread, for Calvert, remains an ongoing uphill battle. Unlike commercial yeasts, the finicky wild microorganisms in a sourdough starter require constant attention and are susceptible to even the slightest changes in temperature and humidity. The rhythm of his days and nights is closely tethered to that of the bread.
“The bread is something that we really love, but it’s a daily refinement. Right now, the weather’s starting to get hot, so we’re putting it in the wine fridge instead of the wine cellar. It’s a constant thought in the back of my head,” says Calvert. “Every half an hour, I have to turn the bread. At 5 o’clock everyday, I have to shape the bread, then at 9 o’clock every morning we come in and bake the bread. I was here last night at 10 o’clock feeding the starter.”
When I ask if there are ever days when the temperamental dough simply won’t cooperate, he mutters darkly, “Today.” To the untrained eye, the rustic slices are everything they should be, but they fall short of the domed, craggy Platonic ideal that Calvert carries in his head.
Both his relentless perfectionism and deep respect for a humble loaf make sense when one thinks back to Calvert’s days living in Paris, a city to which he still returns whenever he can. Although he was working two jobs, he still looks back on his time living in the 10th Arrondissement with fondness. It was there that he cooked at Epicure, a Michelin three-star at the pinnacle of Paris’s gastronomic scene. Eighty full-time employees, roughly a quarter of the total staff at Le Bristol Hotel, work in the restaurant to serve a mere 30 to 40 diners a night the meal of a lifetime.
“Nowhere else in the world do these places exist, nor should they,” says Calvert. While he admits that not everyone could come swing by to splurge on a €500 dinner, he believes such lofty establishments have a place, both in terms of preserving that certain Belle Époque grandeur and setting the aspirational standard for everyone else. “That’s Paris. That’s what Paris is. And I hope it never dies.”
As glorious as a tasting menu in the City of Lights may be, Calvert does not believe that this level of extravagance is what makes this sort of meal a luxury. To him, that word cannot be quantified by the amount something costs or the number of Instagram likes it garners.
“The definition of luxury to me is not being head-to-toe dressed in Burberry, but rather a plain black T-shirt, perfectly cut. It could be made by Balenciaga or even Burberry itself, but perhaps with no visible label,” he says. “The people who can spot something like that are the people who really understand luxury. That’s what luxury is. It’s a single thing done perfectly.”
And so he and his team continue to push the envelope in a restaurant where the warm wood interior is more reminiscent of a friendly neighbourhood brasserie than a fussy showpiece in the upper echelons of the San Pellegrino list. Most of the spare menu descriptions give little indication of the skill, craftsmanship and sheer amount of time that go into each and every dish.
Not everyone will realise that the tomatoes offset by briny anchovies and burrata are pricey Japanese fruit tomatoes, a rare hybrid variety with strawberry-like undertones, or that staff polish pearlescent grains of Katsukura rice the day they are to be served. The final portions may not be immense, but the quality of both the ingredients and experience is generous — the equivalent of a single flute of truly fabulous champagne as opposed to a bottle of cheap bubbles.
“You can come here and have a Hokkaido scallop flown in from Japan that afternoon. It’s opened straight before service and it’s still moving. Or you can go somewhere else that imports frozen scallops,” he says. “Not everyone will notice the difference, but that’s why we’re here at 9am everyday — for the people who do.”