Hubert Burda Media

STREET STYLE

We visit Bibo, a restaurant that's taking the “art” of dining to literal new heights

STREET STYLE

I'M SEATED AT THE corner table beside the bar at Bibo at 2pm, Friday afternoon, better known as T minus four-and-a-half hours till opening night. There’s a lot going on, in the way that would make an external observer nervous for the owners. Tables and chairs are haphazardly strewn across the floor, like the detritus of an Ai Weiwei installation. A framed canvas – I assume a piece by the street artist Invader, because an eight-bit video-game relic stares out from behind the glass – is on the floor awaiting a home on some wall. Behind the bar, cocktail tumblers are being polished quickly and systematically, added to a growing crowd of glass citizens that colonise the counter top. In the corner of the restaurant that juts out onto Cat Street, big cameras and tripods are being set up for photos of the venue to send out to publications. The kitchen staff is preoccupied with none of that – food shots are being prepared the following day – as they’re about to cook their very first meal for their very first review.
Thanks to the lead time needed by a monthly magazine, by the time this is published, Bibo will be three weeks old and this pre-opening scramble will be nothing but a distant memory in the quick-paced timeline of running a restaurant. Phase two – lunch service – will have begun. Social media will have had its way with the interiors, and the food. And I have little doubt that the waiting list for tables will have begun.
Today, though, it’s still mostly a worrisomely (on my part) unworried (on their part) chaos. My concern is that of an industry amateur, of course. By 3.30pm, the main dining floor has been organised to impeccable and photographable standards, proving that many hands do make light work. I’m on the fourth or fifth course of my unexpectedly extravagant lunch, and getting more impressed by the minute; not just by the efficiency of set-up, but also by the cuisine, a light and delicately executed series of French classics.
Bibo has been conceived so that before you’ve even grazed upon the first page of menu text, you will have Instagrammed at least some corner of its interiors – first-wavers will no doubt focus on the imposing wooden Kaws sculpture that dejectedly presides over the centre of the space, but that’s not to say the rest of it isn’t share-worthy. There’s a lot to look at in every nook and cranny, down to the Shepard Fairey that greets you in the bathroom; the drippy spray-paints favoured by Banksy; the haphazard mod-Pollock paint splatters of JonOne, overlaid with repeating text that spells out his name like a varnished wallpaper; a painted white wall, chisel-scarred to reveal pensive eyes, furrowed eyebrows and just the bridge of a nose, the work of Vhils; little metallic balloon dogs by Jeff Koons hiding in bookshelves. Closer to home, there’s a scooter defaced with crude Chinese calligraphy by local street artist Tsang Tsou Choi, aka “King of Kowloon”. And right on our table, a show plate depicts two hands cupped together, shadows accentuating each line and wrinkle, produced by Bernadaud using the hands of Prune Nourry and JR.
That there is a show plate at all, quickly replaced and preserved as soon as service commences, is the first and only sign that this dining experience is anything you’d call elevated. The conceit around which Bibo derives its entire concept is a little bizarre, and a lot fictitious. The art is integrated with elements of a 1930s tram station – supposedly, the idea is that this Parisian-owned tram headquarters in Hong Kong was abandoned, and then subsequently inhabited by vagabond street artists who transformed the place. Explains Restaurant Manager Arturo Sims, “This idea was brought up through a story, a story about an artist called Bibo. This guy squatted in an office that belonged to a French tramway company, and he started inviting, little by little, his street-artist friends. Usually these people are runaways or people who don’t have homes, because their canvasses are on the streets. They started painting all over the walls, on the toilets, doing their art on whatever they found.”
The artistic influence stretches to the menu, which appears beneath covers inscribed “Compagnie Générale Française de Tramway”. Graffiti-like script decorates the page in straight lines of capital letters, offering simple-sounding plates: La Salade Vegetarienne, Le Carpaccio, L’Huitre to start; sharing platters such as Le Boeuf or Le Cochon; sweet endings titled La Banane or Le Millefeuille.
The titles are intentionally duplicitous, offering no real hint of what’s to come – which is nuanced dishes plated as elegantly as any traditional five-star hotel dining room, with ingredients sourced to perfection and sauced judiciously. “It’s a complete contrast,” says Sims. “The message is it doesn’t matter where you are, you can always have good food, good wine and good service. We’re trying to defy what is conventional fine dining.”
My amuse-bouche arrives, a tiny cup perched on a long platter stamped with little tram logos in shimmering sugar. Foie gras with Parmesan and a port-wine reduction, ostensibly, although all that’s visible from the top down is an off-white foam head. The first spoonful reveals the intricacies of the structure, and the first mouthful is that perfect opening oeuvre, showcasing just a little bit of everything in that cup, and exactly what Chef Mutaro Balde has up his sleeve. The mousse is so light it’s almost cream, and by contrast the Parmesan bubbles are substantial enough to negate that annoying airy-fairyness that often accompanies foams as a category.
Balde is the mastermind behind the menu, an as yet unknown quantity who moved to Hong Kong eight months ago in order to helm the Bibo kitchen, having earned his stripes at Alain Ducasse’s Plaza Athénée Paris outpost and L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in London, though he hadn’t yet had the chance to run his own kitchen. His bright, unharnessed energy is evident, as is his five-star training, culminating in dishes that offer comfort and elegance in equal measure. The hope, according to Balde, is to offer that whitetablecloth level of gastronomy in a venue whose charm is ghetto-industrial, rather than tuxedoed propriety. “I don’t want to change French gastronomic food, I want to give homage to all these people, all the big chefs I’ve worked with, I take a little bit of all of them and add my touch,” explains Balde.
The parade of dishes that follows the amuse-bouche only fortifies this statement: Le Carpaccio, a disc of thin-cut hamachi garnished with French herbs, Japanese shiso and a gentle but punchy sprinkling of Espelette chilli; L’Oeuf Mayo, a red-yolked Taiyouran organic egg that’s slow-cooked and paired with a creamy homemade mayo; Le Champignon, a haphazard stack of morel mushrooms rising from a bed of creamy foam; and L’Agneau, a pretty plate of perfectly pink lamb paired with a sheet of fried polenta and vegetables. Each example is well conceived, simple and yet absolutely refined.
And imagine, you could be dining on these delicacies in flip-flops and a pair of cut-off shorts. That, Balde and Sims know, is true luxury – the luxury that those in the know crave. When you eat well on a regular basis, you get a bit sick of dressing up for the occasion. Let the food be dressed up, but certainly not me! That said, Bibo probably won’t end up hosting guests in glorified pyjamas; with its groovier-thanthou music and vibe, it’s more likely to be a playground for the hipster set, with its high standards and dressed-down-but-still-designer duds.
On occasion, it does feel like the restaurant is trying a little too hard to be relaxed. Saying you’re chilled out is rather different than actually being it, but who really wants to eat somewhere in which nobody gives a damn? In fact, if anything, there’s a quiet determination, one that’s felt rather than seen; the kind that gets a dishevelled venue ready for service in three hours before my very eyes. Whether or not that’s a sign of success is debatable, but at the very least it’s a place to which I want to return. And under all the layers of graffiti and pants, that’s all Bibo – the restaurant, and the “man” – really wants.
+Prestige Hong Kong