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Choosing a restaurant for your wife’s birthday is stone-cold serious, as all sane married men know. All the more so when it is her 60th, which, judging from your life, is the transition from adolescence to adulthood. You considered Amber, where you’d eaten once before. It was extraordinary (receiving the highest scores you’ve ever given), but it completely depleted all your children’s college funds and your dogs went hungry. Going there again would mean a tin cup in old age. Also, though hailed by some as an Einsteinian breakthrough, you’re not charmed by their new regime of no dairy or gluten. It seems sanctimonious. And nonsensical. How is butter bad but wine, a known carcinogen, good?
You wanted French, and a mere Maison de Frites would not work. Based on reputation and your admiration for Black Sheep, you chose BELON, a Bentley (you hoped) to Amber’s Rolls, with no Butter Police.
You start with a warm gougère each. A gougère is a cheesy, butter-rich hollow sphere of warm baked dough, a classic French hors d’oeuvre. Into it, BELON pipes mornay sauce, which is cheesed-up béchamel. Popping it into your mouth is like being hit by a fondue grenade lobbed by a trebuchet. You fantasise about taking several dozen hits before collapsing happily. Though only the size of a large marble, by some quirk of quantum physics about a gallon of butter goes into each one.
In its essence, your next course is the same as the gougères: house-made bread and salted butter from Normandy with slices of dry French sausage. It’s flour and butter again, with sausage replacing cheese. You would nick BELON for redundancy, but these exemplary dishes are much too delicious for that. Fewer and fewer restaurants bake their own bread since it requires such resource and expertise, more chemistry than cooking. But BELON is dauntless. Their bread, made with miso, can duke it out with the big boys. You love the crumb – humid, with great artisanal chew – and the crust, which crunches and crackles.
Oyster tartare. You love oysters but have never quite expunged an uneasy association with slime. This probably comes from the back of your childhood refrigerator’s meat-and-fish drawer, which incubated life. You rarely order oysters without breadcrumbs, bacon, butter, spinach and such. Were this dish not on a set menu, you would not choose it. But you’re so glad it arrives. It is an elixir of chopped Kusshi oyster augmented by diced shallot, cornichon, chive and lemon, with a top layer of puréed oyster, cream and lemon. It’s what Poseidon eats, the pure taste and heady perfume of the ocean congealed. It is scattered with crisp, fine-grained croutons, cucumber and chive for textural counterpoint.
Their hamachi niçoise is to standard salade niçoise as Emirates First Class is to Ryanair. A standard salade niçoise is made with haricot vert, tomato, hard-boiled egg, tuna or anchovy, olives in a mustardy vinaigrette. BELON’s, luxed to the max, consists of bagna càuda (roasted garlic and anchovy), butter lettuce, Japanese fruit tomato (in a mustard vinaigrette), soft-poached Japanese egg, a Ratte potato slice (cooked in dashi), a pickled pearl onion petal, a slice of Picholine olive, haricot vert (blanched and split, in mustard vinaigrette), hamachi slices (cured lightly and cold-smoked), chervil and dill. For all its complexity, this dish presents seamlessly. It’s a terrace in Nice overlooking the ocean on a languorous summer afternoon, with a flinty Sancerre chilling beside you in a beaded bucket, turned into a salad. The hamachi stuns with its perfection. It’s Birthday Girl’s favourite dish.
The flavour of goose is an octave below duck. Pigeon is similar but leaner. You split an optional course of drunken pigeon with celtuce and sorrel for HK$388. Pigeon must be cooked perfectly, in your opinion between rare and medium rare, or it’s army rations. Only the cheffiest hand can do this. Naturally, BELON succeeds. The poaching time is a “state secret”. You understand (loose lips sink ships). It consists of half a poached pigeon marinated in vin jaune for three days, shimeji mushrooms cooked in vin jaune and pigeon jus, celtuce batons (blanched and dressed in hazelnut oil), sorrel leaf, chive, pigeon consommé spiked with vin jaune. Given that the pigeon is poached and cannot be crisped, you think that the skin should be removed before serving.
Sweetcorn scarpinocc with tarragon, with some truffles comped (thank you!). Your wife adores this. You, not as much. The stuffing is made from polenta, fresh corn and piquillo pepper. The fact is, you can barely taste the stuffing, if at all. You’ve encountered this before with other small stuffed pastas such as agnolotti, where the ratio of stuffing to casing is lean. You think this dish would transmit more flavour were it plumper. An elegant caramelle comes to mind. Also, you wonder if there aren’t stronger flavour options than polenta.
There should be kettledrums when they bring out their signature roasted three-yellow chicken with petits pois à la francaise so that you can ogle it before it’s returned to the kitchen to be portioned. It looks like a Vogue model stretched out in one of those difficult poses that seem to sell product.
It is subcutaneously stuffed with chicken liver, spinach, heavy cream, button mushrooms and egg white. Three-yellow chickens have less breast meat than their swollen American counterparts, and it dries out easily in cooking. The stuffing beneath the skin is not only delicious by itself, but it insulates the breast meat from overcooking. Anthony Bourdain said, “I like butter. I like a lot of butter. ... [Butter] is usually the first thing and the last thing in just about every pan. That’s why restaurant food tastes better than home food a lot of the time – butter.” This chicken is pure Bourdain. It comes with a sauce of chicken jus mounted with butter. It comes with mashed potato, two parts butter to potato, combined with unusually delicious baby peas and bacon cooked in bacon fat and butter beneath a thatch of shredded lettuce. The chicken is painted with clarified butter after roasting. After eating it, you make a point of avoiding open flames so that you don’t combust. James Beard claimed roast chicken was the most difficult of all dishes to cook well. BELON’s version would thrill him, dark meat and white meat moist.
In the spirit of birthday excess, you split an optional cheese course of 48-month-old Comté with New Zealand honeycomb for HK$188. It’s a noble cheese (and you love the honeycomb), but you probably would have enjoyed a medley of cheeses more. You wouldn’t order this course again. It is too much food. That’s how it always seems to come down with the cheese course. Too much.
BELON labels itself a “neo-Parisian bistro”. Bistros used to be casual restaurants that served homely fare like beef bourguignon, cassoulet, coq au vin. But across France, ambitious chefs began to transform some of them into sophisticated restaurants with little resemblance to their original selves. Absorbing the ambitions of its successive chefs, you gather this is what’s happened to BELON. When they move, they plan to drop the term “bistro”.
There is one part of lunch, however, that hews to the original bistro concept: dessert. One is a mikan and olive oil millefeuille. Mikan, which flavours the inner custard, is a tangerine-ish fruit, though you cannot detect its taste within the pastry that shatters around it when you apply a fork (your wife says she can taste it and that it’s just right). Millefeuille means “a thousand leaves” and refers to the layered pastry. Made with olive oil, this is crisper than a butter version, tasty but not faintly spectacular. It’s the sort of item you might find in a good bakery/coffee house like Bakehouse.
Same for their tarte au chocolat (which your wife loves).
Both are expertly rendered standard fare. But as BELON has moved beyond the traditional bistro model, you think its desserts should too. A great dessert is like Elon Musk flipping the rocket ship and soft-landing in a ball of flames. Wondrous. At a restaurant that is high-end French, this is what you expect. You ate at the late, great La Caravelle in New York City, one of the first US temples of French cuisine, a favourite of John F Kennedy (you still remember your main of pike quenelles in lobster sauce), and they served a raspberry soufflé, pierced the top and poured in chocolate sauce. Divine! At L’Altévic in Alsace, you had foie-gras ice cream shot through with tiny sparks of crunchy brittle. Astonishing! Soufflés and ice creams are well known, of course, but you think that all the desserts at BELON should aim to be at least this impressive. Let the customer remember the spectacular rocket landing so that the story of it passes into family myth.
BELON is moving soon, so maybe it’s pointless to evaluate the current premises. The varnished wood of their facade is a bit worn. The interior is handsome though not elegant. On the other hand, their stemware is thin and quite elegant.
They do not use tablecloths. The tabletops are Formica. Unlike some small restaurants, the tables are sufficiently spaced so that your romantic coos don’t inflame neighbours. The ceiling is primarily the kind of composite you find in office buildings. The washroom is completely mirrored, a design you associate with love hotels. They would do themselves no harm to style up, at least a little, in their new digs.
The service is excellent, though communication is difficult with masks. You could barely understand a single word from the earnest sommelier.
Your meal cost HK$2,800. A common TripAdvisor kvetch is that BELON is too expensive and portions too small or, put another way, value for dollar is low. You’ve only been to a few HK places of BELON’s stature. However, compared to Amber, LPM, New Punjab Club, the late Café Gray Deluxe and Rech, crunching the variables, value for dollar is similar. Perhaps it’s about 15% more than Frantzén’s Kitchen or the late Little Kitchen (felled by an avaricious landlord). So, while not the least expensive in town, BELON’s prices are in line with most competitors of similar rank. There are all sorts of Western restaurants of lesser stature in HK that charge as much or more. Probably these critics have been influenced by portion sizes at The Cheesecake Factory and don’t grasp the difference between gourmand and gourmet, which, if you’ve ever fed them, is like the difference between dogs and cats.
As excellent as it is, you would not accuse BELON’s food of being adventurous. It is the food of fine French restaurants that don’t seek to storm the Capitol. Perhaps the drunken pigeon is their most virtuoso dish. But it does not quite equal some similar places you’ve been to in France that walk higher tightropes. BELON’s menu inhabits the realm of comfortable-traditional-unthreatening-refined cuisine. You don’t suggest that BELON incorporates gimmicks, but you do wish that at least some of their menu had more forward lean. There could be more ooh and aah. More wow. More drama. Soon they will move to new premises and Chef Matthew Kirkley will introduce new dishes. You hope some will have this zing. You also hope for specials to showcase the kitchen’s improvisational powers.
And you think the wine sets can be improved. With the exception of a delicious champagne that they comped (either because they sensed how charming you are the moment you walked in or because it was your wife’s birthday) and a petrichorous white dessert wine, you liked but didn’t love the other wines. You believe a more exciting wine set is possible. Given the subjectivity of “exciting”, you have no idea how this can be done.
BELON serves outstanding French food – created with superb technique, ingredients and command of detail – that delights more than dazzles. It is expensive but fairly priced. With new dishes soon to be introduced, you hope it may be on the verge of even greater triumph. Far from Butter Police, they are Butter Benevolent. Belon is a Bentley with the touring, not racing, suspension. For those seeking splurge-worthy French food without the French revolution, come here.
Rating (on a scale of 0 to 5)
Overall value: 4.5
This is a truly terrific French restaurant well deserving of a Michelin star. Most of its food is a 5. You give it a 4.5 though because you feel the desserts fell short, the pasta dish didn’t quite live up to its full potential and, though this probably isn’t what their regulars seek, you think their food (some dishes at least) could be more daring.
41 Elgin Street, SoHo, Central, 2559 8508, book online
In order to review objectively, David Greenberg does not solicit or accept comped meals and anonymously reviews restaurants.
Read more of David’s reviews for many Hong Kong restaurants on his website, www.ardentgourmet.com, and remember to like Foodie on Facebook