Header photo credit: @theleahhk
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The Leah, in Causeway Bay, serves British comfort food “done right”. What is British food? What is comfort food? What is “done right”?
British food lacks a signature flavour profile like Thai, French or Italian. It’s an edible multi-car pile-up, some foreign cars in the heap. Indian. Chinese. Mexican. Pizza. Scones with jam and clotted cream. Yorkshire pudding. Bacon, sausage, egg, baked beans, roast tomato. Fish and chips. Steak and kidney pie. Cornish pasties. Deep-fried you-name-it. Some up-end stuff à la Gordon Ramsay at prices that require you to counterfeit money. Phantasmagorical crisps: Roast Ox, Sunday Best Roast Chicken, Parsnip with Essex Honey and Black Pepper, Ketchup, Marmite. So, a core sample of British cuisine is oily, buttery, adipose, eggy, meaty, doughy, vegetable-retrograde. It is food for ploughing a field or football rioting or collapsing on the sofa or gout.
Comfort food is the food of just-home-from-university-first-year, Sunday dinners, grandma. It’s girth-inducing, full-on flavour, familiarity, family and love.
“Done right” is what serious chefs do.
The centre point of this Venn diagram is the The Leah’s fief. By day, it’s a club for families with little ones. Dinner opens to the public at 6pm. You can eat indoors in a pleasant conservatory. The furniture and decorations are by no means luxe, but comfortable and practical.
You choose to eat outside surrounded by potted greenery and skyscrapers craning above like colossal Pez dispensers. Nightfall outside, embraced by Hong Kong’s luminous cityscape, is lovely.
Most of their cocktails are tinned, from a company named Laiba, a perilous name if ever there was one. In your view, tinned cocktails are by definition illegitimate, like tinned orange juice or, God forbid, tinned sausage. They have three house-made drinks. You try an Orchard: gin, lemon, mint, ginger beer. Your wife, a Moska: vodka, lime, ginger beer. While refreshing, they’re both too sweet and need more citrus.
Later, your wife drinks a Spanish Izadi Crianza Tempranillo – with notes of black fruits and chocolate – that she enjoys. The wine list has a creditable number of inexpensive bottles.
Their Caesar salad uses Little Gem lettuce in a mild dressing, anchovy, toast shavings, soft-boiled egg. You adore the brined Spanish anchovy and wish there were more (a whole plateful!). You understand the restaurant must calibrate to the tastes of its customers, but you wish the dressing had more snap.
This raises an interesting question regarding customers: should restaurants dial down or hoist up? Considering the power of social media to amplify a restaurant’s perceived virtues or faults with praise or complaint, thus affecting their business, this is highly relevant.
Scotch egg and soldiers. A duck egg encased in sausage and breadcrumbs, deep-fried. You dip batons of sourdough toast into the runny yolk. This is another mild dish, fat-forward. You gather it’s common pub food for many Brits. Probably an acquired taste, it’s as rich as a stick of butter.
Wood ear mushroom risotto. Green and wonderfully herbaceous from parsley, rice cooked perfectly, a mushroom purée nestled within, jangled with fresh wild mushrooms. Outstanding. You wish more of their food had this green uplift, but perhaps that’s not the British way.
Chicken pie. A handsome puck of buttery, bronzed puff pastry stuffed with chunks of chicken thigh, bacon and leek. Its interior is glazed and intensely flavourful. Rarely has a chicken given its life for such a worthy cause.
The trophy dish, which must be pre-ordered, is beef Wellington. They bring it out before baking to stoke your appetite, then it goes into the oven and back again, baked and sliced. Costing HK$988, it’s enough for four, which really makes it reasonably priced. The superb beef filet is cooked textbook medium rare, gratifying to behold in its perfection. There’s an inner coat of Parma ham and duxelles (reduced, chopped mushroom and shallot) and an outer coat of puff pastry. There could no finer version of this dish. It is paradigmatic.
There’s a wine sauce to pour over, which you’re told is derived from reduced supermarket stock. This must account for the slight off taste of chemicals (stabilisers, preservatives, etc.). A sauce, particularly a reduction, transparently conveys the purity (or impurity) of its ingredients. If the kitchen can’t make their own stock from scratch (which wouldn’t be hard), it’s easy to buy. Also, in your view, the wine they use in this sauce is too sweet. And, just to pile it on, you think it needs to be reduced a bit more.
Potato mash is jacked with cream and butter. Priests would cross themselves, but you think the cream and butter could be doubled. In for a penny, in for a pound. The potato mash BELON used to serve with their chicken had two parts butter to one part potato.
Their cheesy (Cheddar, mozzarella, Parmesan) cauliflower is outstanding, the cauli cooked just right.
Green beans (haricots verts) with shallot butter are tops, beans crisp.
The heirloom tomato salad radiates tomato and fresh basil flavours. You like a restaurant that gives attention to the little guys.
Dessert starts with sticky toffee pudding. A quenelle of clotted cream on top, sauce plumbing the lower octaves of sweetness atop warm, moist, date-rich cake. It’s addictively good. Your favourite. Candor compels you to say that it is subordinate to New Punjab Club’s sticky toffee pudding with popcorn ice cream, a flavour dreadnought. That’s the big dog they need to take down in order to be alpha. It would be a worthy quest.
Blueberry oat crumble with vanilla ice cream. They use lots of lemon juice and lemon zest. Excellent.
Granny Smith apple pie and nutmeg custard. Baked handsomely within puff pastry, the apples don’t taste like Granny Smiths at all. The Granny Smith clan is sharp and in-your-face, right bastards. Could they have mistakenly substituted a milder apple, maybe some of those mealy McIntosh from across the dell? Could their Granny Smiths just have donated plasma? Are they pacifists? It’s puzzling. This dish requires rough-knuckled, pugilistic apples that only turn compliant when suppled by sugar, spice and heat. The nutmeg custard is great.
The service is friendly, warm, conversant, just right for the setting and food.
The “Creative Director,” presumably the chef who developed the menu, is James Sharman, “the world’s most adventurous chef”. Chef Sharman is no longer in the kitchen, off adventuring, no doubt, and you wonder if his absence accounts for the kitchen’s few wobbles. Were he there, would he extirpate the tinned cocktails, weaponise the toffee pudding, adjust the pie apples, modulate the wine sauce?
Few wobbles aside, The Leah succeeds. It serves fine renditions of fatty, eggy, meaty, doughy British food that sticks to your ribs and probably the rest of you as well. Never have you ever been to a restaurant that has better shielded you from nefarious vegetables, picking pockets, hatching plots. This is a restaurant for tucking in. A meal here is like Christmas dinner. It’s a good restaurant for whales to blubber up in for the long migration.
All of us are whales on the long migration, so coming here is requisite for the journey. Eat your fill of vegetables another day. You’ll surely return for a glass of wine and a plate or with pals for a grand blowout. British comfort food done right is The Leah’s mission. Mission accomplished.
Rating (on a scale of 0 to 5)
Ambience (outside on the rooftop): 4
Overall greatness: 3.5
Restaurants are intuitively rated within their particular realms. So Michelin restaurants, pizza places and stand-up sandwich joints are judged against other like restaurants, not against each other. A 5 for a high-end restaurant is not meant to be the same as a 5 for street food.
This meal (ample for four), which was comped, would have cost about HK$2,400 including service charge (but not drinks).
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