Header photo credit: @monohk

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You enter MONO from its own lift landing. The room is masculine, dressed sharp. Your wife surveys it with admiration. ZZ Top: “‘Cause every girl crazy ‘bout a sharp-dressed man.” Mellow vinyl plays on a turntable. You and your wife are seated Royal Circle at a starkly beautiful stainless-steel counter overlooking a brightly lit kitchen. The focused chefs within – including their skipper, Chef Ricardo Chaneton, formerly of three-starred Mirazur in France – command your attention.

The tasting menu is the only option. The style is French-Latin American, French technique applied to a number of flavours more common to Latin America.

Excellent champagne – Charles Dufour Bulles de Comptoir #8 Stilleben – is poured into crystal so thin it seems wafted from a bubble wand. It pairs aptly with your first course of Hokkaido sea urchin and Brittany razor clam ceviche garnished elegantly with marigold leaf and puffed amaranth seeds (gratifying dots of texture). The dish is visually elegant, like a brooch. At first bite, your taste buds reel. Your eyes widen. Circuit breakers pop to save you from permanent damage. Extraordinary. The flavours and textures of the sea urchin and razor clam are each accurate and distinct and, yet, bound by the lemony sauce, one. MONO leaps from the gate. It takes a lot of juice to maintain lift. Can they keep it up?

You see each dish being prepared, which makes you feel connected to the food. Each is personally served by the chefs in artful ceramic, which makes you feel connected to the kitchen. Gambas rojas, jicama and rocoto. The Mediterranean shrimp are raw, firm, flavour-true in a sauce of Chantilly cream tinted by vinegar and shallot (a creamy mignonette). There’s a gelée made from prawn-head bouillon that pumps in yet more flavour. Though they were flash-frozen, the shrimp taste like those you get at high-end sushi bars, severed from life only moments before serving. There are small crunches of jicama. Were the Mediterranean condensed into one dish, this would be it.

Generally not a fan of orange wines, which are often blunt with tannin, they serve an Italian Tenuta Selvadolce Terrazze dell’Imperiese Bianco VB1 2017. You know superlatives grow tiresome (a danger with this review, which requires so many), so you hesitate to say more. Still, it’s crazy scrumptious, wine to make you howl, speak in tongues, scamper about on all fours. Like love, you must experience it to understand.

Tasting the raw peas in the green peas, Imperial caviar and nopal, you half-expect they will rapture, fly upward to heaven – they are that good, served in a lime vinaigrette. Shelled before you, they specifically cull the runts of the litter, tiny, radically sweet, lush with flavour. This shows the importance of meticulously curated ingredients. There are dabs of burrata cream and nopal (cactus). You think the bland nopal does nothing for the dish. The salty caviar is an exciting contrast.

You once ordered French fries at a restaurant. With sick fascination, you and your wife watched the chef tiptoe to a restaurant next door (like a cartoon thief) to get them, skulk back into his own kitchen with the fries hidden behind his back (like a cartoon thief) and emerge triumphantly with them on a plate moments later. They were cold. He hadn’t bothered to reheat them. You recently visited a HK restaurant that served tinned cocktails instead of making them fresh. You’ll have no truck with this if you can help it.

So you like a restaurant that makes its own bread (instead of tiptoeing to the bakery). MONO serves freshly baked sourdough quinoa bread, piping hot from the oven. As bubbles sparkle water, quinoa sparkles this bread, giving it the most delightful pops and crunches. There’s a distinctively floral olive oil – Eva Aguilera, picked (God’s honest truth) at the full moon for maximum flavour – for dipping, which your wife rhapsodises about days later. How they get werewolves, notoriously feral, to pick the olives is beyond you.

Brittany blue lobster, kari gosse at MONO

Brittany blue lobster, kari gosse (a French curry powder that can only be purchased at French pharmacies) and chayote take lobster further than you knew it could go. This is because of the sauce of reduced lobster stock made from lobster heads plus a sprinkle of the kari gosse. It augments but doesn’t overshadow the lobster itself. Also, unlike all other lobster you have eaten, it is cooked au point. Previously, you have filled yourself on brunch lobsters where this wasn’t a consideration. Give or take 10 minutes in the bath, what’s the diff? This lobster is distinctly tender and full-flavoured. The chayote is so mild you wonder if it adds anything.

Pertuis aparagus, Caribbean sauce, smoked sardines at MONO

It’s no surprise to you that the asparagus in the Pertuis aparagus, Caribbean sauce, smoked sardines is cooked perfectly, bright with flavour. Imported from Provence, the aspargus is beautiful, peeled in a helical pattern. The Caribbean sauce features lemongrass and tamarind. As mathematicians perceive elusive relationships between numbers, Chef Chaneton perceives elusive relationships between foods. You would not have believed that smoked sardine could go with asparagus. Or trout roe (marinated in aged Nicaraguan rum). But they do.

Brittany monkfish, mate Béarnaise, infladita (fried, puffed tortilla). You appreciate how they bring the monkfish to you to behold in its entirety (rubbed with cumin and chilli) before they serve you a portion. The fish is dry-aged on the bone for 4–5 days to concentrate its flavour.

You know that some cutting-edge sushi bars serve aged fish and some cutting-edge bakeries bake with aged flour. Of course, beef is routinely aged. This is your first acquaintance with this technique applied to fish. The monkfish is meaty, mild, pristine, foiled delightfully by the Béarnaise. You would have enjoyed the Béarnaise even more had it been made with traditional tarragon and a drop more vinegar. To be truthful, you’re not charmed by the taste of mate, clearly an acquired taste. The fish is served two ways, as a fillet and within a puffed tortilla to be chomped in one bite. You adore both.

You drink a Catalan red wine, Domaine Paetzold La Cazotte 2015. It is big, operatic, bold enough to partner the next dish, Racan pigeon, Ratte potato, 21-ingredient mole.

You relish pigeon. It’s hard to cook right though. Usually, it’s overdone, which brings out an off-putting liverish quality. Or it’s tough. Or sinewy. Ideally, it’s served rare or just between rare and medium rare. With nonchalant ease, MONO perfectly cooks it. The leg is stuffed with pigeon mousse and a bunch of other good stuff (including capers and Venezuelan chilli), wrapped in banana leaf, steamed, then grilled over Thai charcoal. Your wife says the leg was so yum, she wanted a whole plateful. After charcoal-grilling the entire bird, you watch a chef fillet the breast. Leg and breast (and a nutty slice of Ratte potato) are served with a dollop of pigeon jus and a duo of sauces. Guava ketchup and chimichurri made with parsley and fresh oregano. Dazzling.

Then – drum rolls and elephants and fireworks and crashing cymbals – 21-ingredient mole. It actually outranks the mole you’ve had from the dirt-floored mole markets of Oaxaca (which are the font of all mole). It contains too many ingredients to list. But they include dark Venezuelan chocolate, active charcoal powder, aubergine and many kinds of peppers. They dramatically finish it before your eyes in a molcajete carved from volcanic stone, which they hit with a blowtorch so that when the spices are added, their fragrances release.

Fresh lime zest is grated over. It’s deep and sweet and chocolate and sombre and spicy and smoky and zingy. The entire dish, including the mole itself, is a triumph. Bravo!

You have, on a few occasions in your life, seen sights so beautiful that it hurts. A puppy gnawing on an expensive shoe and looking up with wide-eyed innocence. Your wife super-glammed for a date, a stray curl at the nape of her neck. Moonrise. The green flash. A crackling goose from the oven. So it is taste-wise with your final wine, Noe Vinum Optimum Rare Signatum Sherry 30 Years Old. Old yet spry, sipping it is like a conversation with a beloved elder, profound, moving, beautiful. A hint of raisin, this is wine to contemplate, to cherish. You tip your Stetson to the sommelier (and restaurant manager), Mauricio Rodriguez. He’s a grape gunslinger. A deadeye.

Your first “pre-dessert,” served personally by Pastry Chef Dafne Herrada, is a riff on the pina colada: fresh coconut-milk ice cream (from coconut milk made at a Kennedy Town shop) with fresh pineapple and a condiment of habanero, yuzu and Nicaraguan rum beneath a coconut tuile. Delicious.

To compel nothing less than your total worship, MONO makes its own in-house chocolate from cacao beans that they extract from cacao pods, something you’ve never before heard of at any restaurant. It would be like a race-car team making its own gasoline from crude oil they pump out of the ground or mining its own ore to make the engine’s metal. They show you the cacao pods with the pulpy beans inside. Both the pods and the beans look sinister, like alien pupae soon to hatch out and unleash Armageddon. They give you a bean to taste in order to contrast it with the finished product, which has undergone fermentation and processing. The pulp is citrusy, with zero taste of chocolate, no imaginable connection. What genius it must have taken to first make this linkage.

Pastry Chef Herrada’s second dessert is based on this chocolate. A dribble of Sicilian olive oil on top of rosemary ice cream on top of chocolate ganache (so luscious it makes you pant), covered by a decorative chocolate net. There are ornamental points on the net made from glycerin-thickened olive oil. Beyond awesome. Staggering.

Mono dulce de leche cookie.JPG

Your final dessert is a memorable dulce de leche cookie.

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You coast to a stop with an excellent cappuccino.

Every time a microscope flips to higher magnification, complex features invisible previously become clear. Progressive layers of complexity underlie everything. Serious chefs understand this, layering complexity to create food that seems simple enough. For instance, you’d be forgiven for thinking that MONO’s mole is straightforward, just chocolate and stuff whipped together like pudding mix, when really it’s advanced chemistry. Most customers couldn’t begin to fathom all that goes into MONO’s pigeon leg (at least 10 ingredients and two cooking methods). Chefs who stack complex layers can go astray though, putting means over end. They so utterly fixate on the intricate process of fabrication that they lose sight of why they’re going to such trouble. Their food tends to be more fussy than delicious.

Chef Ricardo Chaneton gets it. He single-mindedly crafts his cuisine from myriad bits combined in myriad ways to one end: ravishing food. All his experience, work, artistry, intelligence is bent to this paramount purpose. Thus MONO’s grilled pigeon leg. Thus their mole. Thus their house-made chocolate. Thus their ceviche. Thus the whole scrumptabulous shooting match.

You think that the chayote, the nopal, the mate were superfluous. Could they be there more to brand the food as Latin American then uplift it?

You’re astonished this restaurant doesn’t have at least one Michelin star. You can’t think why. It’s unquestionably as good as or better than other HK one-stars. All aspects of the dining experience surpass excellent. Perhaps COVID has kept Michelin inspectors away.

As some bag trophy game, others bag high-end restaurants. You know of none more worth bagging than MONO. A restaurant like MONO really is particularly suited to those who know, who can flip the lens on their microscope to higher magnifications and appreciate the virtuoso command of tremendous complexity that informs each dish.

MONO leaps from the gate. It takes a lot of juice to maintain lift. Can they keep it up? Oh yes.

Rating (on a scale of 0 to 5)

Food: 5

Ambience: 5

Service: 5

Overall greatness: 5

Restaurants are intuitively rated within their particular realms. So Michelin restaurants, pizza places and stand-up sandwich joints are judged against like restaurants, not each other. A 5 for a high-end restaurant is not meant to be the same as a 5 for street food.

From my website, here’s how I rate food: “I believe the quality of a restaurant’s food is vastly more important than any other factor. Even if I love a restaurant’s food, I’m very conservative about giving out 4s or 5s. I reserve 4s for food that is uniformly excellent. Preponderantly excellent tends to get a lower score. 5s are for food that is stunning.”

This meal was comped. It cost HK$1,488 each. The four-glass wine option was HK$888 each. There was a 10% service charge.

5/F, 18 On Lan Street, Central, 9726 9301, book online

Read more of David’s reviews for many Hong Kong restaurants on his website, ardentgourmet.com, and remember to like Foodie on Facebook

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