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Dusk in Sai Kung is like the fur beneath a horse’s nose when it nudges you with affection: warm, moist, velvety, scented by grass. One-thirtyone is lit like a chandelier. Looking in, it sparks with fine crystal on white tablecloths. The napkins are crisply folded to look like bishops’ mitres (you know, those tall, pointy hats you yearn to wear, don’t deny) and, entering, you suppress the impulse to put one on your head.
Your wife lashed you into nice clothes, and now you understand why. A server spares you the trouble of putting your napkin in your lap by doing it for you, as though you’re a nursing-home patient dribbling soup. Your friend also receives this perk, but neither of your wives does. Could this be a subtle message?
The kitchen launches two amuse-bouches: a marble-sized sphere studded with sesame and a small pastry cup with micro-diced tomato (no easy thing to do) with what looks like an olive on top, though after querying two waiters, you discover it’s actually duck-liver mousse. There’s a teensy purple blossom perched atop, perfect as a haiku. The ball, coated in sesame seeds, has a satisfying texture and sesame flavour. The flavour of the duck-liver dish, though your wife likes it, is scant for you, the exquisitely diced tomato flavourless. And you question whether a duck liver+tomato marriage is quite the thing.
There’s hardly a better bellwether of a restaurant than the bread they bake. A server comes by with a basket of warm miniature baguettes, pretzel rolls and raisin rolls. Served in the French manner with two spoons formed into tongs, all have a delightful crumb and crust. You especially like the raisin. The butter is cold, which you don’t prefer, but your wife does. Unfortunately, you’ve learned in the process of writing this review that one- thirtyone gets their bread “from a supplier”. This doesn’t disqualify a restaurant by any means. But a restaurant that successfully takes on this daunting task – such as pipsqueak Brut! – gets major bonus points.
The restaurant fills, buzz begins, wine is poured. Your first course is a piece of beautiful abstract art, red crab, dashi jelly, salmon roe, avocado – crabmeat in an endive leaf, nestled with salmon roe, microgreens, dots of something yellow, dots of something green, a crown of something shredded (you’re clueless what it is), piped green dots of two different hues surrounding. You taste one of the green dots (probably the avocado) and there’s no flavour whatsoever. If it is avocado, a dot is not enough to transmit texture and mouthfeel, intrinsic to flavour. Same for the yellow dot (possibly the dashi jelly). It would be like trying to transmit colour through a few coloured-pencil dots. You need more to activate the sensors. The crab is delightfully sweet and pristine. You like the salmon eggs. The bitterness of the endive does not enhance either. You would have preferred shiso. Had they just served the crab alone, the dish would have been ideal.
Your wife is allergic to crab, so they thoughtfully make her a replacement dish of small tomatoes, a microgreen or two, a few dots of what is probably avocado (again, flavourless) and miniature spheres of balsamic vinegar held together by molecular magic. They must have known that your wife swigs balsamic vinegar as pirates do rum. She loves this. You taste it and it’s as good as its major ingredients: flavourful tomatoes and balsamic. There’s a granular heap at either side of the dish that’s neither aversive nor delicious. You have no clue what it is.
Next, a dish that seems structurally redundant with the first, scallop, shellfish orange sabayon, sakura shrimp, seaweed powder. You could interchange the scallop and crab and neither dish would suffer. The chubby scallop is wonderfully caramelised and overcooked. If there is shrimp, you can’t find it. The shellfish of the sauce comes through nicely, but there’s no orange. A dusting of orange zest at the moment of serving (perhaps tableside) would have been lovely though. The seaweed powder is saline and otherwise as devoid of flavour as neutrons are devoid of mass.
Your wife, with a shellfish allergy (which makes sense because she is not a shellfish person… she’s generous), is served a substitute dish of deep-fried lotus root slices and cold-cured salmon. Not generally a fan of cold-cured salmon, she loves it. You nibble a lotus chip, which, salted, would be an ideal nosh in itself. There are some particularly pretty greens that you think may be seaweed. And there’s a mound of white granules that baffles you.
This establishes the pattern of the food to follow: complex, labour-intensive, Instagrammably exquisite, comprised of beautiful, pristine ingredients, many you can’t identify, a number with little or no flavour. Enchanted patrons lift their phones as often as their forks.
Beef consommé with autumn truffle and red radish. The beef consommé is perfectly clarified, not so easy to do, but not as strong as you’d like. The radish, sliced prematurely, is wilted. The autumn truffle hasn’t a muon of scent or flavour. Restaurants commonly woo with truffles that turn out to be flavourless. You’re surprised though that here at such an expensive one this is the case. Flavourful truffles do exist, though dear. You might as well be eating postage stamps.
Pickled sanma, zucchini, beer bread, fennel cream. This is a kitchen that does love piping dots, a trick that wears. Piped dots and stripes for some chefs are like glitter for children “doing art”, who mistake the glitter for the art itself. For the first time you catch flavour from the piped sauce: fennel. However, the flavour of the fish is muffled by the strong bread and zucchini. It’s quite pretty, but like the crab, had the pickled (and delicious) sanma just been served alone with perhaps a blob of fennel aioli alongside, it would have been ideal.
Showing the compassion you’re due after so many complex courses comes an intermezzo of winter melon ice over cookie crumbs with shards of particularly fine brittle on top. Beautiful again! Exotic ice creams can be great. Marron glacé ice cream is your very favourite in the world. You still pine for the horseradish ice cream and parsnip ice cream you had at Restaurant Floreyn in Amsterdam years back. Winter melon sorbet is not of this exalted class, nor close. It is almost without flavour, a nullity. Possibly there’s a hint of something squashy, but it’s certainly not beguiling. It’s almost as though this restaurant, noting that other fine restaurants use unusual ingredients in novel ways, is determined to join the club without grasping the imperative to put flavour first.
Australian lamb chops, stuffed spring roll, beetroot, lamb jus. Tasty enough, but demure. The perfectly done chops lack that luscious char or caramelisation you hanker for. And they’re fatty. The stuffed spring roll is, in fact, stuffed with fresh mint. You could put almost anything in a spring roll and it would be tasty. Egg rolls stuffed with corned beef are amazing. Mint is fashion-model pretty. But it would have been far more impressive if they’d taken the unglamorous time to reduce their lamb jus to a demi-glace and flavoured it with fresh mint. It wouldn’t have had that slick food-mag look, but would have been far more delish.
Staggering under the onslaught of food, a delicious cheese course follows. Is cheese in a fancy restaurant de rigueur? Frankly, at this stage of the meal, it’s more likely to trigger a cerebral hemorrhage than enhance. Manfully, you eat it and quite like it.
Like a mountaineer on their last rope pitch to the summit, you muster the final strength for dessert: steamed tofu cake, roasted rice sorbet, black sesame soil, miso caramel gel. This course has the look of what’s commonly called “deconstructed”, though, if it is, you have no idea what they were deconstructing – maybe a parts bin. It doesn’t hold a candle to the blue-cheese cheesecake with whisky ice cream you had recently at Rubia or the lemongrass panna cotta you had recently at Brut! or countless versions of mango sticky rice you’ve inhaled at far less expensive restaurants.
The roasted rice sorbet – like the winter melon sorbet, like the micro-diced tomato, like the dots of avocado, like the seaweed powder, like the truffle, like the unidentifiable granular heaps – is flavourless. It could as well have been water sorbet. The tofu with dabs of caramel tastes like tofu with dabs of caramel. Pillowcases taste good with dabs of caramel, but the tofu and caramel would have been better utilised in altogether different concoctions, not mated. Perhaps you’re old school, but tofu just isn’t the stuff of desserts. What was the kitchen thinking? You suspect they were thinking to wow with novelty and beauty, without expending the resources that exquisite desserts require, such as an in-house patissier (who could also make bread).
A chocolate and a pâté de fruit made from a fruit you can’t distinguish are served just in case you’re not quite dead. Both are good. Then, coffee to revive you.
The service is very attentive, but language difficulties, compounded by masks, sometimes make it hard to communicate. Some of the servers seem to have only a superficial understanding of the food and even less of the wines. Hard workers, they’re more efficient than they are warm. This contrasts with other restaurants like Jean May, Brut! and Rubia, where you’ve recently eaten, or the Black Sheep restaurants, where servers are not only efficient but personable and enthusiastic about the food. This makes the meal so much more enjoyable. You’re connected to people revelling in their team effort, not merely the recipient at the outlet of a machine.
Taken by itself, the interior of the elegant and spacious restaurant fans romance.
The food is served on some of the loveliest tableware you’ve ever seen, much of it handcrafted. The stemware is so delicate it makes you nervous.
Dish after dish, each one another crank of the kaleidoscope, blur together. All are Instagrammably awesome. One-thirtyone uses unlikely ingredients in novel ways, though so often you can’t decipher what they are and no one can tell you. Often they have little or no flavour. You’re staggered at the amount of work that goes in. You grasp the technical-artistic ability to pull this off and the organisational genius to serve it.
Is it scrumptious? This is the nub. Does the food at one-thirtyone spike your serotonin like the seaweed brioche at Amber or the duck fritters at Brut! or the tandoori lamb chops at New Punjab Club or the baby cucumbers in meat sauce at Liao Za Lie or the okra at Lao Zhang Gui Dongbei or the pork belly with wide mung bean noodles at Wing Lai Yuen or the char siu at Go Go Goose or the pork neck at Chua Lam’s Pho or the lamb ribs at 121BC or the chicken wings at Chom Chom or the dan dan noodles at Ho Lee Fook or the dried turnip fried marinated meat at Hu Nan Heen or the sous-vide smoked duck at Sichuan Club or the blue-cheese cheesecake at Rubia or the country terrine at Jean May?
One-thirtyone’s food is, for the most part, tasty. It’s okay. It’s fine. It’s nice enough. Not too bad. It has bright spots such as the clever balsamic balls. The bread is great, though they don’t make it. However, for all its beauty, it does not slip the surly bonds of Earth to touch the face of God. Shorn of its frou-frou, it’s top-level mediocre. You feel like you’ve eaten more fuss than food. If only photons were delicious, it would be amazing. And it comes at such a cost. Lord.
HK$6,644 for four, with two bottles of wine and a brace of bottled waters (there was no corkage charge for a red your friends kindly brought). Add in a tip of HK$400 and HK$800 for round-trip Uber fare and the total cost really was HK$7,844 (or US$1,012). By your lights, this is clown-crazy, particularly for what was essentially unexceptional food. The four of you could have flown round trip to Vietnam and had a great dinner there for this. You could have gone to five or more excellent, though modest, restaurants for this. It definitely causes you to look at this restaurant with a sharp eye. Flaws you’d overlook at other restaurants are unacceptable here.
The meal, starting at 7pm, took over four hours. You won’t deny that, by the end, your boilers were losing steam. Had you been five years old, you might have put your head on the table and zzz’d off mid-bite. Is a four-hour meal twice as good as one lasting two?
You believe that Instagram and such have inverted this restaurant’s thinking in three ways:
1) An axiom of architecture is “form follows function”. An axiom of cuisine should be “form follows flavour”. One-thirtyone gets this backwards.
2) An axiom of life is “less is more”. One-thirtyone gets this backwards.
3) You can make sock sorbet, but should you? Should you? must precede Can you?
One-thirtyone gets this backwards.
Missing these three switch tracks, one-thirtyone hits the curve full throttle and, money flying from passengers’ pockets, plunges off the trestle.
Rating (on a scale of 0 to 5)
Food: 2.5 (this seems harsh, but it factors in the gargantuan cost)
Overall value: 2
131 Tseung Tau Village, Shap Sze Heung, Sai Kung, 2791 2684, book online
In order to review objectively, David Greenberg does not solicit or accept comped meals and anonymously reviews restaurants.