ROWLEY LEIGH is a meat-and-potatoes kind of chef. And thank God for it, cries CHRISTINA KO, as she takes a seat at The Continental
THE FISH PIE is a humble creation, not usually the stuff of Michelin stars and best-restaurant books, but is ironically exactly the kind of dish that prospers in today’s comfortfood revolution. Which means that 37 years after he first entered the culinary world, British chef Rowley Leigh now finds himself – or at the very least his food – very much in vogue.
Leigh hasn’t exactly been working his way up the ladder all these years. One of the earliest students of the Roux brothers, and a leading light of the London food scene when the city was still considered a foodie’s wasteland, he’s had two restaurants to his name (the closed Kensington Place and the still-going Le Café Anglais) and hundreds more recipes as the long-time weekly recipe correspondent for the Financial Times (two decades and counting).
One of those recipes, published last October, is his fish pie, which kitchen dummies can try instead at Leigh’s new Hong Kong restaurant, The Continental. Pub classics of the like have always found favour in our little region, thanks to the legions of British imports seeking a taste of home, but Leigh has discovered a clientele beyond the “nostalgic expats” – “the young Chinese,” he writes in his column, “they know all about pork buns and ramen, caviar and cauliflower cream, oysters and abalone, but they do not seem to have come across fish pie before. Perhaps for that reason, perhaps because it is so intrinsically good, they like it.”
Leigh writes as he cooks, which is to say both beautifully and simply. His fish pie combines fresh salmon, prawns, whiting and smoked haddock in a rich béchamel sauce under a cover of silky mashed potato. Fresh fish and fish bones aside, there isn’t much on the ingredients list for this dish that a regular cook wouldn’t already have in the kitchen, but it is without a doubt the city’s premier savoury pie.
Much of the rest of the menu at The Continental is similarly basic: “Simple, plain food. [Starters like] oysters, salamis and hams and so on,” describes Leigh. “Raw tuna is as popular here as it is in England. People say the Chinese don’t like this, and the Chinese don’t like that. It’s nonsense. They will eat anything if it’s cooked and presented and served well, but they won’t tolerate rubbish, that’s for sure.”
On the hot side there are more embellished experiments – griddled scallops with chestnut purée, shiso and lemon are exactly as described; big, fat and meaty-as-hell scallops that encounter the surprising juxtaposition of a rich and creamy chestnut paste plopped on a cool, sharp whole shiso leaf. A little bit of lemon peel provides the necessary acidity.
Then there’s Leigh’s most renowned dish, a chicken and goat’s cheese mousse with olives whose recipe was dug out from the archives at his first restaurant, Kensington Place. “When I opened Café Anglais I didn’t want to be considered a one-trick pony, and I thought I’ll do something different. [But] it’s a good dish. One I’ve never eaten myself because I’m so superstitious about it, [which is] very odd because I’m a big believer in eating in my own restaurants, because I like to sample everything.” What he would have tasted, had he dared to taste it, is a little wobbly piece of heaven, a fluffy and savoury pudding that’s unlike anything else you’ve seen on a menu. While it lacks the depth of flavour found in the more common chicken-liver mousse, what it’s missing in taste it makes up for in a cloud-like texture that’s much lighter than expected, with more nuanced seasoning, too.
That fish pie is one of the more popular mains, but there’s more sophisticated fare, and equally trendy, too, for those who care about that sort of thing (Leigh, naturally, does not). There are comfort classics such as a half-chicken with anchovy, onion and olives; or a hamburger with Swiss cheese, bacon and chips (because who doesn’t love an elevated burger?). This year’s offal obsession is satiated by veal kidneys with mustard sauce and creamed potatoes. And then there’s the middle bit of the menu, titled “From the Josper Grill”, identifying meats and seafood both juicy and charred, thanks to treatment in the Josper, which offers the vigorous direct heat of a grill but without the associated moisture loss. Leigh’s own favourite is a pomfret for two with khichiri and garam masala that’s heartier than you’d expect for a grilled fish. And the Dingley Dell pork chop with sage butter is a winner, served with slow-braised chard and a few slivers of crackling – “I always thought pork chops are quite hard to get the timing right, but it comes out just juicy. Not pink, but still moist. It’s a really good piece of meat.”
Desserts are just as robust, with a joie de vivre identical to all the other courses, mostly because they’re conceived by Leigh instead of a separate pastry chef. “I’m afraid I’m very autocratic,” he says, not very apologetically at all. “I’m not the most skilled pastry chef, but I’ve done quite intensive pastry work. Pastry chefs tend to verge towards technique at the expense of taste, and I’m afraid I won’t give them an inch.” The star is without a doubt the pain perdu with chilli roast pineapple and vanilla icecream, simply executed and boldly flavoured. His Paris-Brest is puffy and proud, a pastry that exudes strength and delicacy equally. But even simpler, there’s a sturdy and sweet crème caramel; fruit salads that arrive by dessert trolley with accompaniments of yogurt, cream or rice pudding; cheeses for those who are missing the sweet tooth.
Twenty years writing recipes have certainly had an effect on the chef, and his approach to food. “[Writing and cooking] always have been parallel, but my whole path has been to simplify. Most modern chefs put too many ingredients, too many flavours in the dish. And I think partly because I’ve always been an enthusiastic home cook, I’ve always cooked at home as parallel to cooking in a restaurant, partly because I’ve tried to put myself in my readers’ shoes.”
In fact, the fanciest thing you’ll find at The Continental is probably the Thomas Heatherwick-designed ceiling, a relic from the venue’s prior life that has become an immovable fixture. Down on ground level, however, David Collins Studio has done an admirably restrained renovation, in dark wood and emerald leather – humble as the fish pie, but with the same due regard and, perhaps more importantly, longevity.
“We built this for the long haul,” says Leigh, and you feel it. Given the mercurial whims of the Michelin guide, it probably isn’t a contender for a coveted star (the inspectors seem to prefer fancy French, or roast goose shops. Then again, who knows?) but with bites like these – and the backing of property behemoth Swire – it certainly won’t bite the dust any time soon. And for that, we can rejoice. With pies for everyone.
+Prestige Hong Kong