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Oh, the rhapsody of Amber’s warm seaweed brioche with a slice of foie gras torchon wrapped in seaweed, strewn with a delicious saline dust and served with ornaments of wakame and radish. If only you could duplicate it at home. But there are so many ingredients, nuances, details, steps and sub-steps – and such sophisticated technique required – there’s no chance. Junior varsity can’t play pro.
Because it takes expensive time and talent to make complex food, it’s usually high end. But that’s no guarantee it will be good. As with rockets, complexity means there are more things that can fail. Only recently you ate at what is asserted to be one of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants for serious bank and almost every dish sucked.
This is why you’re so delighted to encounter a rare exception, a restaurant whose food you couldn’t begin to duplicate, a pipsqueak wine bar in Sai Ying Pun that punches like a prize fighter, dishing ravishing food for sane prices. Brut!
Amuse-bouches are top-cabin titbits. So you don’t expect Brut!, of modest demeanour, to serve one. They don’t. They serve two. Both are sophisticated and exciting. Chef Gavin Chin kindly consented to answer questions. He writes:
First amuse-bouche: gai lan is a local vegetable. Brined overnight in kombu, we serve it the next day with sesame, spring onion-parsley oil and jelly. The jelly is made from the brine it has been curing in. A couple of droplets of lemon juice before service help to freshen the dish.
Second amuse-bouche: we brine tomato in a solution of Chinese black vinegar, orange peel and ginger. We serve with puffed halloumi, pickled Japanese radish, pickled beetroot and Thai basil. The base is a purée of ginger, garlic and spring onion. This is our play on the classic tomato and burrata combo.
Chef Chin doesn’t point out (until you ask him to confirm your memory) that atop all the other complicated details, the tomatoes are peeled. Only the rarest restaurant would compound the labour-intensivity of this dish (a freebie, for goodness sake) with this step few will notice. You’re blown away. Chef Chin:
The brine will not penetrate and flavour the tomato if the skin is not peeled. Neither will you have a nice bite if the skin is stuck in your teeth. Initially we baked the peeled tomato in the oven at 120 degrees to help to dry out the outer layer to help to absorb more brine, but we found it better not to do this as you achieve a better balance of inner fresh tomato and outer brine acidity.
You start with house bread (served toasted and warm). Seems simple. Actually, there are few items so difficult and time-consuming to make. Making great bread is like making blue meth in Breaking Bad. It requires precise control of many variables: ingredients, kneading, proofing, temperature, humidity, volume, weight, time. If any one of these is off even a little bit, the bread will likely fail. Get it right and the end product is addictive. This is why most restaurants, particularly small ones, source bread from bakeries or just skip it. They have enough to do without devoting scarce resources to this one item. Not Brut! They make it themselves, and their sourdough is top tier, with a crumb and crust to make Demeter, Goddess of Grain, chortle. You wish that loaves were available for purchase.
The bread’s daunting complexity and backstory is such that you quote Chef Chin, who recounts standing upon the shoulders of giants:
First of all, I had a young chef working with me named Esther from Hong Kong, very shy and very timid. She desired to make bread, and so we did small sourdough buns that constantly failed. As a Brut! team, we dined at BELON for lunch. I was able to ask [Daniel Calvert, former head chef] details of his amazing bread. I took from him the missing components of my bread-cooking method, which was to have a super-hot oven between 300 to 400 degrees Celsius, to use a cast-iron pot with a lid on and to work my dough every 30 minutes, constantly moving my dough within various places in the restaurant, and to keep it at 26 to 27 degrees Celsius during bulk fermentation, no matter how busy I was during dinner service.
I went on to stage at Beet restaurant with Barry Quek to learn about his bread, and with him, I learned to add miso in my dough as my salt, to help fermentation and form a caramelised crust. He also taught me about hydration levels, touch, feel and shaping of the bread. That night, Esther and I went on YouTube and found a video that matched my findings, and we began our journey of the Brut! sourdough.
We named it “Esther’s Bread” until the day she left. I believe in empowering my team to grow better people, and I hoped this helped her to gain confidence in cooking before she left us to move on to bigger things.
We first have a starter that is six months old. We then mix 50g starter, 60g white wheat flour, 40g Japanese bread flour and 80g filtered water. We leave this in our kitchen cupboard overnight to rise and ferment. This is our levain.
The next day we mix the levain into our bread dough to help it to rise. We make our dough at 2pm (if the day is not too humid), and every 30 minutes we work the dough until 9pm. We then let the dough rest until 10pm. Once rested, we start to flavour and shape our bread, which is when I add black garlic and preserved lemon. The bread then rests in the fridge overnight and is baked the next day in a 300-degree fuming cast iron. Just before placing the bread into the oven, we spray the surface of the dough with water and cover with a 10-grain seed mix. We cover it with cast-iron lid and bake at 300 for 30 minutes, then another 30 minutes without the lid at 225 degrees.
The compound butter that pairs with it is a seaweed butter – room temperature unsalted butter beaten with seaweed, sage and tarragon. We salt and pepper the butter before service.
You nosh bread and seaweed butter at the bar while your wife, family sommelier, discusses wines (most of them organic) with Brut!’s co-founder, Camille Lisette Glass. Ms Glass’ warmth and attention are such that you feel more like you’re at a dinner party with a charming host than at a restaurant – my, she must have reserves of energy (also, on a tangential note, you’re pleased that she, like you, loves a muffuletta sandwich).
Wine happily in hand, you welcome five-spice duck fritters with beetroot crème and blackberry jam. Slightly larger than ping-pong balls, the first thing you notice is that they’re not coated in panko, which has become to restaurants as textured drywall is to cheap motels – ubiquitous and tiresome. They use fine breadcrumbs. You cut in and, POW!, you’re popped in the kisser by pure duckalicious confit. POW! POW! POW! Lots of it. This is unlike any other duck fritter you have had before, which extend the duck with batter like a beignet, diffusing its flavour, making it aversively doughy. Brut!’s are apex good with deep flavour, requiring reverence. You particularly like the sauces beneath them and how they play against the duck, pickled daikon and the profound (yes, profound) blackberry jam on top, the extraordinary secret of which Chef Chin shares:
The duck fritter is a dish initially created by George Kwok, co-owner of Brut!, for Valentine’s Day. We have continued with it since it has become a Brut! favourite. The base is simply a hung yoghurt. We then layer with a spoonful of beetroot aioli. The fritter is duck leg that we confit and strip. We mix it with Lao Gan Ma, a tasty XO dried chilli oil, five-spice and sautéed onion. The blackberry jam on top of the fritter is made with blackberry, blackberry purée, bay leaf, juniper berry and chicken stock and cooked down to a jam consistency. We then garnish with pickled Japanese radish and Thai basil.
Most dishes are served either by Mr Chin or a direct emissary from the kitchen, presumably one of the chefs, which adds to the sense of personal connection that imbues this restaurant. You once went to a three-star in NYC where you saw a chef like a marine sergeant chewing out an underling, and you hated it for that reason alone (you now regret not walking out). The restaurant’s soul was debased. Brut!’s sunny staff reflect well on its soul. The way Chef Chin credits others reflects well on its soul. Ms Glass’ warmth reflects well on its soul.
The interior does not aim for swank. It is smart and spare, reminding you of a comfortable, comforting sweater. Filled, it gives great buzz. There’s a man outside the front door (when you leave) with an elegant dog that is drinking a glass of wine. What you mean to say is that the man is drinking the wine and the dog, who is not drinking wine so far as you know, is by his side (after all, dogs don’t have thumbs and it’s challenging for them to hold a wine glass – God save us if dogs ever grow thumbs). This would seem odd at Amber or LPM, but it is just right here. Dogs, of course, confer goodness on everything.
Miso cod with butter radish and pickled mandarin arrives. This is a cured, caramelised fillet, compact and firm, with a crest of butter-poached radish slices and – genius touch! – slices of pickled kumquat that are bottle rockets of flavour, extraordinarily delicious foils to the blander fish. There are those who say there is only one True Cod in Heaven. You agree, except you now know it’s in Sai Ying Pun. Chef Chin:
We break down Atlantic black cod into portions and let it sit in a bath of red miso, mirin, sake and sugar for five days, although on the third day it is important to soak up any extra moisture on the surface of the bath and then give the cod a good mix to encourage consistent curing. This is a traditional Japanese method of extracting moisture from the cod and injecting flavour. We then roast the cod in the oven for 12 minutes and torch the surface of the miso cod for caramelisation. We garnish with pickled kumquat and butter- poached baby red radish.
Roasted broccoli, black garlic, burnt onion. How good can broccoli be? Pretty damned good! This is the sort of dish that almost any other restaurant would do in an offhand way. Perhaps it would be roasted or sautéed. Brut! does both. Perhaps there would be a simple garnish like sesame seeds and an aioli or the like. Not at Brut! They go at this dish, as with all their dishes, full rockets. Chef Chin:
The base is a black garlic mousse consisting of coconut milk, black garlic and sea salt, topped off with a spoonful of house-made tahini. We roast our broccoli in the oven till hot and then sear on the flat-top to achieve a crust, seasoned with smoked paprika, salt, pepper and vanilla olive oil. The dish is finished with a crumb of burnt onion.
The burnt onion (which you like excessively) isn’t simply a burnt onion. As with everything else, it is complex and delicious. Chef Chin:
We fry onion at a low temperature until 90% black, then dry overnight in our dehydrator. The next day, we blend it together with water crackers, soy sauce and sugar. Once the mixture is blended, we dry it out once again overnight to achieve a dry crumble.
For dessert, you split a lemongrass panna cotta with a crumb topping. Being a fan of all crumbles and crisps, you like the panna cotta a lot but adore the crumb topping. You particularly appreciate its salt level, which is achingly perfect, in tantalising tension with the panna cotta itself. Chef Chin:
At Brut!, due to a lack of space, we can only have one dessert, and we found the simplest to be the humble panna cotta, but if we were to continue this, it better be a damn good panna cotta. This season it is our lemongrass panna cotta. We beat our lemongrass to a pulp to ensure maximum flavour infusion into the cream, to which we add sugar, vanilla bean and gelatin. It sits with the lemongrass overnight before we set into our dishes the next day.
The crumble is an olive oil shortbread recipe: plain flour, black sesame, cardamom seeds, sea salt, sugar, extra-virgin olive oil, lemon zest.
We bake at 160 degrees for 20 minutes, using a fork to break up the mix at the 10-minute mark and then letting it cool to a biscuit consistency. Finish with fresh lemon zest before serving for aroma.
Few dessert wines are red except, in your experience, some fortified wines (like port and marsala) and a few moscatos (which are usually white). So it is a particular pleasure to split a glass of red Mas Amiel Vin Doux Naturel 2015. You’re surprised to find it’s a Grenache from Languedoc (where glorious Carcassonne is located) and you adore it. Would it be wrong to drink this at breakfast?
You and your wife, not unfamiliar with good restaurants, are staggered. The food is so brilliantly conceived, so detailed, so labour- and technique-intensive and so delicious, with no exceptions. Brut! does this by extracting the full potential of simple ingredients, not smacking you with the usual suspects: caviar, lobster, uni, Wagyu, etc. They do this by fusing complexity into a unified whole so that the food is much more than a confusing parts bin.
Brut! does not strut. They let you grasp their food as best you know how, without any of the self-congratulatory explanations that some restaurants inflict. You know your way around a kitchen, but all this is way beyond your abilities to replicate. What makes it even more astonishing is that it’s produced by a small cast in a small kitchen, nothing like Amber or LPM.
Brut! is a rara avis. The only restaurant you can think to compare it to is Little Kitchen (actually, a private kitchen), now sadly gone. The lone chef, David Forestell, was a genius who turned out immensely complex, impossibly delicious, beautiful food (though it had a set menu and you brought your own wine, which does have some advantages).
Brut! is also lit by genius. But you and your wife do have several massive complaints.
Number one: your wife thinks there should be different stemware for different types of wine and that the wine’s country of origin should be listed on the wine blackboard. You’re agnostic on these points. And you rather like their wine glass with its fluted rim (you’re just glad it’s not IKEA).
Number 2: you would have liked it if the butter for the bread had been at room temperature, not chilled and difficult to spread. On the other hand, your wife adores chilled butter and feels it is the only way to go.
Number 3: you had been hoping to eat lamb ribs (a particular favourite of yours and hard to find) and was sorry to see they weren’t available.
Number 4: both of you would have liked an even more prominent taste of lemongrass in the panna cotta.
Whether Brut! can withstand this artillery barrage remains to be seen.
The meal of seven courses and four glasses of wine (which you split) costs roughly HK$1,000, a deal per Hong Kong prices.
Though dappled by other cuisines, you’d call Brut!’s food French-Asian. It is extraordinarily innovative, sophisticated and delicious. All the dishes are flawless, without any fails. It is one of the finest restaurants in Hong Kong. It is not merely a pipsqueak that punches like a prize fighter. It has Brut! force.
Rating (on a scale of 0 to 5)
Overall value: 5
You have only given a handful of the many restaurants you’ve reviewed this high a score.
In order to review objectively, David Greenberg does not solicit or accept comped meals and anonymously reviews restaurants.