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You loved BlackSalt, the Indian restaurant in Sai Ying Pun. You love Brut!, the French wine bar nearby. Together, they have fashioned a new restaurant, Pondi, in BlackSalt’s old location, marrying their cuisines. So popular is it that you are forced to make reservations weeks out.
Seated outside on a languorous evening, beneath a canopy of lambent stars, your party orders Pondi’s group menu.
Vermouth! How nice to see it listed. You start with a glass of Del Professore Classico at HK$90. It comes at room temperature. You ask for ice. They take your glass, amble off and return with one cube added. You need more, of course, for vermouth must be sipped ice-cold above all else. They take your glass again, amble off and bring it back just right – all good things come to he who waits – sweet, bitter, herbaceous, cold. Such a great aperitif for sultry weather! The rest of your party tilts a bottle of Minimus Pét-Nat Dolcetto champagne for HK$780.
Bowls of crudités – pristine slices of chilled fennel, cabbage, endive, carrot, green bean beaded with moisture – and a dip of yellow lentil hummus with peanut and sesame-chilli relish. It is a tasty launch, though you don’t think lentil hummus is quite as good as chickpea. You particularly like the sesame-chilli relish, which reminds you of the great Diana Kennedy’s pumpkin seed and chilli dip, but better.
Gougères with toppings. You love gougères, based on the five food groups – milk, butter, flour, egg and cheese – baked until they puff, hot, cheesy, handheld soufflés. The toppings are crab in a cream sauce, onion sofrito and goat’s cheese, apple slice with pork cheek. All are tasty, though only the pork comes close to exhilarating. The crab topping conveys a general sense of crab, but nothing of its sweet, delicate essence. The caramelised onion is good, though not enough to make you writhe with pleasure. The problem is that gougères, when used as a base for a moist hors d’oeuvre, condense into heavy sponges. If Pondi really wants to go with this concept, you think another platform – something much lighter than a gougère such as crisped rice paper or shiso leaf or toasted nori – would work better. One of the best hors d’oeuvres in the world is a really good potato chip (in the USA, Costco’s ruffled salt and pepper potato chips come to mind) with a topping of sour cream (or crème fraiche) and smoked salmon (and perhaps a sprig of fresh dill). Really good potato chips might work here, especially cut the long way, peel on, homemade! Maybe they could be flavoured with saffron salt. That would be crazy delicious.
The butter chicken and liver terrine is not what you expect. Terrines are typically based on minced liver and meat, mixed with other ingredients such as egg, butter, medallions of meat, liver, nuts, raisins, etc. Cognac is common. The most prominent taste ingredient in Pondi’s version is chicken liver chunks. So the terrine tastes close to plain chicken liver, not an enhancement of chicken liver, not an aria of chicken liver. Chicken liver by itself, particularly when it’s not seared and salted, is leaden. This dish needs more flavouring and a lighter texture. It comes with two kinds of chips, plantain and flour based. Why two? To what purpose? Neither is especially interesting. Nor is the mango relish.
You stuff baby squid with yam noodles, chopped tentacles, minced pork, coriander and fish sauce, close them with a toothpick, grill them on the barbecue or sear them in a wok. Pondi’s version is nothing like this. It’s a large squid – not a man-eater, but pudgy – stuffed with minced pork belly that is oddly dry and not particularly delicious. It seems poached and lacks the exterior sear you crave. The clams and the broth with the dish are delicious though, excellent for dunking their tasty flatbread. A better dish would leave the squid out altogether and concentrate on the clams. Or would use baby squid and another stuffing. The New York Times has a recipe for squid stuffed with breadcrumbs, anchovy, pecorino cheese and garlic that has long intrigued you.
The chickpea French fries, aka panisses, are tasty, though you prefer potato (double- or triple-fried). They come with house-made date ketchup, which is an interesting novelty but no more.
The night’s neutron star is lamb chops. They’re cooked to an exquisite medium sous vide, seared perfectly, served in a delicious jus, sprinkled with pomegranate seeds. Lamb is difficult to cook just right. These are wonderful.
Your vermouth experience at the beginning of the meal typifies the service throughout. It’s warm and moseys along. Your waiter is charming, though clearly not a food sophisticate. He is difficult to flag down and shows up unexpectedly. Dishes are coordinated imperfectly. It’s rather like you’re having dinner at a friend’s home and their children are serving.
Dessert is whipped cream mixed with fruits and, if you remember, oats. There are pastry crests on top like stegosaurus plates. It reminds you of the desserts your mom used to improvise with Cool Whip and Nilla Wafers. Though it takes little skill to make, it’s not bad. But you wouldn’t commit a Class A felony for it as you would for, say, marron glacé ice cream or a dulce de leche lava cake or bread pudding with bourbon sauce or your wife’s Grand Marnier soufflé or blueberry crisp or… you get the picture.
This is not precision-made, three-star food, nor does it aim to be. It’s more food from a talented home cook dished to friends and fam. It is not equal to the food of its parent restaurants, Brut! and BlackSalt (now closed). The food is heavy, particularly the gougères. Instead of marrying French and Indian cuisines, it feels like more of a mash-up, more of a culinary Sharknado. Perhaps French cuisine, with its precise refinement, and Indian cuisine, with its raucous flavours, are unsuited for matrimony. For love alone is not enough for a good marriage. Affinity is no less important. Having been married twice, once abysmally, the second time wonderfully, you speak with some authority.
Your meal for four was expensive, somewhat over HK$4,000, but only because your group was in the thrall of bad-boy Bacchus. Given the cost – self-inflicted, yes – and the fact that a number of dishes didn’t inflame your lust, you probably won’t return. Then again, on a languorous evening beneath a canopy of lambent stars for a glass of their iced vermouth and their lamb chops, maybe you would.
Rating (on a scale of 0 to 5)
Ambience: 3.5 (seated outside, inside seemed cramped)
Overall value: 3
14 Fuk Sau Lane, Sai Ying Pun, 6556 4253, 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