Wet markets are a staple in Hong Kong, and it’s always nice seeing this part of the city’s heritage being celebrated. Enter Chef Chunwan Lai, the current chef de cuisine at members-only The Hong Kong Club and a protégé of Michelin-starred Tom Aikens, who dreams of whipping up molecular-gastronomic delights based on ingredients he sources daily from local markets.
Chef Lai’s recent three-day pop up, aptly named Marché Local, was held at tfvsjs.syut, an equally cool restaurant tucked away in Shek Tong Tsui. It was a bit of a one-man affair, with help coming from the chef’s friends from culinary school and his days at The Pawn, and it seemed more like a dinner party being hosted by a hip friend.
The sourdough bread, fresh from bakery tête-à-tête, was chewy and served with house-made seaweed butter. The seaweed butter, which was topped with powdered brown butter (made by mixing liquid butter with tapioca maltodextrin) was interesting – definitely to be used sparingly or it’d be like eating straight-up kombu.
Disappointingly, the trio of canapés was a bit lacklustre: sweetcorn cones, shisito peppers with “bei fung tong”-style sautéed garlic and chilli and fish skin with Sichuan pepper jelly and mayo.
Trio of canapés
The geoduck starter that followed, however, completely reaffirmed Chef Lai’s abilities in presentation and flavour profile. By preparing the geoduck as sashimi, the delicate, sweet flavor of the mollusc – freshly imported from Canada that morning – shone through. The geoduck liver was first clarified into a consommé, then chilled into a gelatin, giving the dish a buttery richness without disrupting the silky-smooth texture. When eaten with the bits of diced peach and cucumber, it was almost like a ceviche.
.Geoduck, peach, cucumber, consommé
Following was the flowery crab, a mixture of crabmeat on a bed of fermented sprouted grains. The crabmeat, much like the geoduck, was light and nicely prepared, working well with the grains, which were mixed with mascarpone, basil and sprigs of sea asparagus. It had the consistency and taste of a miso-flavoured risotto. The tomato-and-crab bourbon foam, though pretty, was a tad excessive, and we thought that a lighter hand on the cherry tomatoes would have sufficed.
Flowery crab, fermented grains, cherry tomatoes, sea flavour
The amadai (a sea bream native to Japan) was a bit of a surprise, as the scales were deep-fried and spiky. According to Chef Lai, this dish was the most popular amongst diners that night, and we could see how the crispy skin (perhaps a bit exotic to Western palates) and lily-bulb sauce would be popular with Hong Kong diners. A highlight was the honey pea dan dan, or steamed egg, which was wonderfully creamy and fresh, served on the side.
Amadai, honey peas, lily bulb, Venus clams
The main course was a French-style pigeon, served medium rare – Chef Lai’s self-proclaimed favourite dish of the night. While we couldn’t taste the rosé wine, the chenpi, or dried tangerine peel, purée was complex and elevated the gamy meat to a whole new level. The meat- and mushroom-filled “Chinese ravioli” that was served on the side was also enjoyable, especially with the pigeon au jus.
Pigeon, chenpi, green asparagus, rosé wine
The most unique dish of the night was the dessert: a grass-jelly-filled lemongrass panna cotta with basil purée, served on a bed of hay, which was lit by the chef himself. When it comes to textures and distilling flavours, Chef Lai excels, and the dessert was surprisingly enough not too “local”– a triumph.
There is something very earnest about Chef Lai that – as shown by the room filled with patient diners, his volunteer kitchen crew, his supportive wife and friends – makes people want to root for him. He’s young, creative and eager, and it shows in his cooking.
The Marché Local pop-up is now over, but we’re excited to see what Chef Lai has in store for the future. Check out our exclusive interview with him below:
Why did you decide to have a pop-up?
I see the potential of some of the local ingredients – such as amadai, geoduck from the market – plus I feel that in the Western cuisine industry, they seem underrated. Therefore, I wanted to try, have a look and see if it would work.
Is this your first pop-up?
Yes. I definitely learned a lot from the experience – from searching for venues, to partners, to how to source better ingredients.
Weere there any struggles in running the pop-up?
Yes, there’s struggles every day, every minute. For example, just yesterday I feel like I am not that pleased with the quality of the food I am sending out. Also, I had to ask a lot of friends to come in and help out. As you can see, some of the chefs that were working yesterday was just my friends, and they just offered to lend a hand voluntarily. I feel like the whole process could have went a little better, smoother, but I guess that’s the reality when it’s my first time.
What happens when some of the ingredients are not available?
Actually, just this morning I had to go to three markets just to find the amadai, as the stall I am used to going to didn’t have it. I went to Ma On Shan, Wanchai, then Central. I try not to change the ingredients.
Will you do more pop-ups in the future?
Maybe... if my friends continue to support me. The hours are quite long, and there’s just a lot of effort and paperwork that needs to be done. If I’ve still got energy left after this one, then definitely.
What do you see yourself doing in five or 10 years?
Of course, I just hope that in the future I will have a restaurant of my own, and it will be of similar style to Marché Local, more local markets influenced and inspired.
How would you describe your cooking style?
More like modern Western cuisine, modern cuisine. Nowadays, people just don’t specify what cuisine they focus on any more; they combine everything together. Like I know some French chefs use soy sauce in their cooking, so Chinese ingredients in French cuisine. I just feel like it’s a more global cuisine nowadays.
This write-up is based on a complimentary media tasting provided in exchange for an honest review and no monetary compensation. The opinions expressed here represent the author’s.
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