Brut! is now offering a new spring menu featuring incredible new dishes. Their tasting menu begins at $380, and the wine pairing is $650. If you really can’t be bothered to read the rest of this article, know that eating at Brut! will be amongst your best dining experiences of the year.
Six long months have passed since I last had a cigarette, but that was all I could think about as I climbed the godforsaken hill up to Second Street in Sai Ying Pun. Still craving that first long pull of velvety-smooth purple smoke into my lungs, I had finally reached the top. For years, a cigarette had served as gratuity to myself for any measure of physical exertion, but instead I summoned what little self-restraint I had and wandered into Brut! seeking another hedonistic vice: food.
Co-owners Camille Lisette Glass and George Kwok took over Brut! last March, and together they have transformed the former Spanish tapas bar into a thriving natural wine bar that’s serving incredible food. I’m still struggling with how I ought to label the “type” of cuisine the restaurant serves. The most appropriate descriptor is “alternative contemporary”, in the sense that the concepts and preparation, ingredients and ethics behind the menu and wines are in tune with the prevailing food scene in Hong Kong – yet the food and wine are still rebellious.
Camille is French-American (read our interview with Camille last year). She trained at the Ferrandi culinary school in Paris before working under Patrice Gelbart at Youpie et Voilà in the City of Light. After coming to Hong Kong a few years ago, she was a resident at La Cabane and Locofama Group before taking over at Brut!. She now manages the place, while George is the executive chef. A Hong Kong native, he was in the finance industry before working under Lise Deveix of Michelin-starred Akrame in Wanchai.
It’s exceedingly uncommon to find a local like George at the helm of a restaurant in Hong Kong’s mainstream food scene. I use the term “food scene”, as I have above, to describe the types of restaurants opened primarily by expats – expatriate chefs who bring their own culinary cultures and techniques with them, set up shop anywhere west of Causeway Bay and appropriate local ingredients to use in their dishes. I have to wonder – why aren’t there more locals breaking into the food scene in Hong Kong? Where is our voice in a field dominated by others?
Maybe we, the locals, simply aren’t fussed about what the English-language “luxury lifestyle” journalists have to say about our local establishments. Maybe most local chefs and cooks have no such ambitions to break into the world of higher-end dining. Whatever the reason, there are only a few few local-born chefs running kitchens – not to mention owning restaurants – in Hong Kong’s upscale, mainstream food scene. So, after hearing that George’s last name is Kwok, I didn’t need that cigarette anymore – I no longer craved nicotine – it was the food I wanted.
Brut!: What East meets West should be
Sitting down in the restaurant over a few glasses of wine, I had the pleasure of spending some time with Camille and George after the customers had meandered out into the empty street at closing time. The bar, however, was open for them to unwind with their friends after a long day of work. Everything about the pair and their restaurant screams nonconformity – the “I don’t give a sh** about your white linens and shiny silverware” attitude that I so love.
The interior of the restaurant is a testament to this fact: unfinished concrete walls still with measurements from the construction crew, wine menus written on the mirror behind the bar and the unexpected and unconventional pairing of Camille and George hurrying back and forth as dinner service raged on.
These guys know what they want to do. When conceptualising their menus, they clearly had a healthy dose of contempt for tradition but were acutely aware that in order to scrutinise and transform those defining dishes into novel creations, they had to respect what came before. Camille wanted to raise awareness of the importance of independent restaurants in Hong Kong. She wanted to create food she loved, in a place where she could share that love with others, a restaurant apologetically unpretentious where both she and George had the unalloyed freedom to experiment and explore with new ingredients.
Camille and George changes Brut!’s menu four to five times a year. The new spring/summer menu I tried was only one of many seasonal changes, though they keep one or two of their favourites on the menu year-round. It’s the global trend today: restaurants have to follow the farm-to-table model because that’s what smart, savvy and informed diners look for. Restaurants must use sustainably grown, fresh produce that’s grown locally.
Except Hong Kong can’t feed itself. Little is grown here. There is simply no farmland left – it’s a vertical concrete jungle of dazzling noise and light. For us, the farm is the world. That’s both our luxury and our Achilles heel. The consequences of Hong Kong’s fragile food security are chilling when I think about it, but on the other hand, it means that Camille and George get to use Hereford beef from Australia and goat’s cheese from France and are still able to look old-school farm-to-table chefs like Alice Waters – one of Camille’s culinary idols – in the eye.
Throughout our talk, I was entranced by Camille and George’s chemistry, how seamlessly they collaborate, each dish an amalgamation of their different culinary pasts, with a strong interplay between Eastern and Western cultures. Their dishes always start from something recognisable and traditional such as the classic French dish of white asparagus with hollandaise sauce. However, when it gets to the plate, it’s something revolutionary and brilliant, something that Asian fusion restaurateurs would never have the imagination (or balls) to create.
It’s worth mentioning – Brut! being a wine bar and all – that Camille is a consummate advocate of natural wines, stocking her racks and refrigerators with bottles of the cloudy and unmolested stuff. The seasonal spring menu is paired with a wide selection of funky, rebellious, young natural wines, focusing primarily on New World wines.
Natural wine is also known as organic or biodynamic wine. These are wines that are produced without adding or removing anything during the winemaking process, with the lack of filtering giving them their signature cloudy appearance. Brut! is not only promoting a more natural form of wine, but it’s also helping to erase the image of snobbishness that’s associated with wine tasting and drinking – no more of the “if you don’t appreciate fine wine, you’re a philistine” rubbish. If you have questions, Camille will be there to explain.
The spring menu features over a dozen dishes that are beautifully elevated versions of recognisable classics. Each creation is a tribute to the working chemistry between Camille and George. Let’s begin…
Asparagus, pickled lemon cream, salmon roe ($98)
Here, the unadulterated flavour of the tender, impossibly green asparagus was brought to life by the salty and tart pickled lemon cream. That was taken to another level with the addition of ikura, tiny magical spheres of salmon roe that pop with a slightly salty liquid when bitten. It is a remake of the classic French dish of white asparagus and hollandaise. During her time in Paris, Camille cooked with an abundance of fresh asparagus when it was in season. When she started working in Hong Kong, she fell in love with the flavour of salty lemon, so she decided to put these flavours together – genius. The subtlety of the white asparagus and sheer decadence of the hollandaise are done away with and replaced by robust, fresh and bright flavours. This was truly a fantastic opening statement to the meal.
Teriyaki beef tartare, sansho pepper ($98)
Not that I had any doubts about this next dish, but if I did, they would have dissipated upon seeing Camille’s enthusiastic proclamation of her love for the Hereford beef featured in the tartare. It came from a grass-fed, grass-finished (meaning that the cattle were grass-fed for the entirety of their lives) Australian breed of Hereford cattle. This dish consists of small strips of raw Hereford beef marinated in a light teriyaki sauce and a touch of sansho pepper with edamame, served alongside sourdough. The Hereford was, without question, the star. The teriyaki marinade lifted up the beef just enough, the edamame added another layer of texture and the sansho pepper playfully numbed my palate with each bite. This dish is a stellar example that if you have great ingredients, you don’t need to screw around with them.
Roasted aubergine, miso reduction, fresh goat’s cheese ($68)
As a devout carnivore, I’ve never seriously considered including a vegetable-based dish as part of my last meal, but I began to waver after tasting this roasted miso aubergine. This must be a stroke of sheer genius or the long grind of endless trial and error. Saying that my first bite was, for me, a transformative, semi-religious experience would not be hyperbole. The roasted aubergine had just enough char and chew to it – not an easy feat – but it was the pairing of the miso reduction and goat cheese’s that made me question my faith. Afterwards, I desperately wanted to know how they had come up with this plate. Camille and George said that the inspiration derived from the simple combination of honey and cheese, and I immediately thought of bougatsa, a Greek phyllo pastry stuffed with cheese. Here, the miso and mirin reduction replaced the honey and the French goat’s cheese replaced the Greek feta. You’ve got to try this!
Drunken chicken, fried ginger, wild mushroom mousse ($158)
This is a dish that speaks to me on a personal level. Being one of my father’s favourite dishes, drunken chicken (醉雞) was ubiquitous when I was growing up. I got the sense that being George’s brainchild, he was particularly proud of this interpretation of the classic Chinese dish. I’ve always thought that the traditional version of drunken chicken is pretty boring except for serving as a sponge for the rice wine. Here, the chicken is paired with a nutty porcini mousse, crisp fried ginger and firm and meaty slices of oyster mushroom – using Western techniques for a Chinese dish and adding various complementary dimensions and flavours to the chicken.
King mushroom, yuzu green chilli, pickled radish ($68)
How did they manage to make mushroom taste so meaty? The scored king oyster mushroom with yuzu green chili (yuzukosho), pickled radish and cracked nuts made me forget (again) that I was eating a vegetarian dish. It was a perfectly well-balanced and well-thought-out plate of food with a strong Japanese influence.
Lamb rib, blackberry relish, shisho ($188)
The final dish of the night was the lamb rib with fresh shisho, pomegranate seeds, chilli, ginger and blackberry relish. While the roasted miso aubergine was easily my favourite dish – almost causing me to convert to vegetarianism – the lamb rib most accurately espouses the philosophy and brilliance behind Brut!. Lamb ribs are a criminally underused cut of meat in a lot of Western cuisines, which focus on more prime cuts like the rack and chop. George rightfully pointed out that lamb ribs, much like pork belly, have incredible alternating layers of fat and flesh, which he used to his advantage in this dish. Flavourful lamb ribs with a crisp skin dusted with cumin already causes the mouth to water. When eaten together with the pomegranate seeds and blackberry relish, slobbering was unavoidable. What made this dish amazing was the fact that it was truly global in its representation. I could see strands of inspiration drawn from so many culturally significant dishes, from a classic British game dish like lamb with blackberry sauce to spicy cumin lamb from Xinjiang and the frequent use of pomegranate in lamb dishes in the Levant. This is a dish that can serve as common ground for people with different and distinct food memories – how fitting for the meal to end on a dish that perfectly sums up what both Brut! and Hong Kong stand for.
I don’t think I need to tell you that having a meal at Brut! in the company of its humble parents is an experience you must have. I’ve made that plenty clear above – with what I’m sure can be said to be a love letter to the restaurant. It’s hard for me to witness the gentrification happening all around Hong Kong, to see new and sometimes bleak-looking coffee shops replacing hole-in-the-wall noodle joints. It can be painful to realise that the Hong Kong I grew up with exists only in my memory. But change is inevitable. The owners of Brut! have decided that their way to change my city is by being young, raw and unfiltered, and if change has to happen on the streets of Hong Kong, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
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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