Monday, 25 May 2015

Lei Garden - Franchise. Chinese. Michelin

When thinking about Michelin Starred restaurants, I have a picture in my mind of unique little and sometimes large restaurants with a mad chef toiling in the kitchen striving for perfection. Sure, there are some exceptions, such as the global phenomenon Joel Robuchon and his chain of L'Atelier Joel Robuchon restaurants (see post here and here).  But those restaurants are spread across the globe, and until recently, I thought an exception.

Lei Garden is a bit of a local success story in Hong Kong, starting from humble beginnings in 1973 with a lone outlet in Sham Shui Po to a restaurant empire with twenty four branches across Hong Kong, Macau, China and Singapore.  Most impressively, in Hong Kong along, there are six outlets that have acquired coveted Michelin Stars. While that sounds impressive, the business hit its peak in 2012 when it held eight individual stars and even more impressively, a two star restaurant at Mong Kok.

We'd walked past a number of the Lei Gardens in our time exploring Hong Kong, with many of them being located in some of the larger shopping complexes.  It wasn't until one Sunday evening, wandering around ICF in Central that we'd decided to give the restaurant a try.  There is a fun game I play at times, trying to get into Michelin Starred restaurants without a booking, something that would be impossible in Europe, but quite achievable in HK.  As luck would have it, we managed to score a table....  With the proviso that we would be finished within an hour, so we didn't have too much time to waste.

As we took our seats, I took my first decent look around a Lei Garden restaurant and was reasonably impressed with what I saw.  Very clean lines and a modern take on a traditional Chinese restaurant, but instead of large open spaces with round tables, the dining room was sectioned off with loads of smaller personal spaces.  It actually felt quite intimate.  However, there was one small problem, with such private spaces, we initially found it difficult to get the attention of the wait staff to take our order..  We were on the clock and didn't have much time to spare.

It didn't take us too long to decide on our Sunday evening meal, there were a number of items that jumped out of the menu that were 'must haves'.  I was a little disappointed though.  When finally catching the attention of our waiter and ordering, the one item that I most wanted was no longer available!  I was a little crushed, mainly because it was the BBQ honey pork and looked incredible.  Listed as one of the Lei Garden signature dishes, I was also a little perplexed...

Anyway, disappointment aside, we placed our orders and were presented with our ubiquitous pot of Jasmine tea and some curious little bites to eat.  We didn't realise it at the time, but the wrapped scallion and cucumber with a sweet bean sauce was actually for our first course of Peking Duck (one of the several signature dishes we ordered).  Instead, we ate them like little amuse bouche and wondered at the oddity of the dish.

It wasn't until the bamboo basket with beautifully thin pancakes were delivered, along with a viewing of the Peking Duck that we'd ordered that we had one of those 'Oh Yeah!' moments. Feeling a little embarrassed, our plate of thinly sliced duck breast with incredibly crispy skin was delivered and we set about making our first course of duck pancakes....  Unfortunately, missing one of the main ingredients, the scallion and cucumber.  It was not the last lesson we would learn that evening!  Onto the pancakes, the succulent and sweet-gamey duck was wonderful with the even sweeter bean sauce, the only thing missing was the scallions (oops).

Up next was another of the signature dishes, the beautiful looking crispy roasted pork.  The little squares of perfectly roasted pork belly had just the right level of golden pork crackling on top of soft and jube like pork.  The little squares were completely melt-in-your-mouth but with a satisfying crunch from the crackling.  The sweetness from the pork was just right, with the flesh retaining enough moisture that you never felt that you needed a sauce (there was a sauce) in fact a sauce would have detracted from the delicate flavour, so I used it only sparingly.

We followed the beautifully presented pork with a very rustic looking dish of sautéed beef fillet with onion scallion.  Look, there was nothing wrong with the beef, it was well presented and expertly cooked, it just lacked a little flavour and punch.  I'm not sure if it was a seasoning issue or something missing from the sauce, but whatever the case, it was a reasonably forgettable dish.

Our second major faux pas of the evening, and one that also involved the Peking Duck, really had us rattled.  After finishing the beef, we were left sitting around, wondering what was happening as no staff were coming near us but were positive that we'd ordered the half duck, but were equally positive that the duck from the pancakes was not anywhere near what we'd ordered.  We even sent a WeChat to a blogger buddy to check on our expectations.  We were just about to complain when the rest of our duck was finally presented on a huge plate.  Phew, you can imagine our embarrassment on that one and we learned a lesson about ordering Peking Duck!

The plate of expertly roasted duck was quite lovely.  We'd been told that ordering a half a Peking duck can result in a slightly dry duck, but not the case.  The roasted duck was dark and luxurious, with a strong flavour that really sets the palate alight (especially if you like gamey flavours).  We realise that the rest of the duck gets sliced up, bones and all and we always struggle with getting the duck flesh off the tiny little bones.  It was a struggle, but we managed to get most of the duck - success!

There was no time left to order dessert, our ploy of rocking up without a reservation had only been partly successful, so we had to leave without sampling any of the Lei Garden sweet stuff.  

We'd had a moderately successful introduction to Lei Garden, but there were a couple of issues that detracted from our experience, which you'd expect more from a Michelin starred restaurant. Firstly, we'd only been given a short time to order and leave before the table was to be used again, but our wait staff pretty much ignored us for the first fifteen minutes.  That really put us back a bit.  Also, we'd ordered a side of steamed rice each, which didn't turn up until we'd just about finished the last of the duck.  Not cool, it should have come with our beef dish, which may have been the difference with that slight fail.

Lie Garden prides itself on it's service and we didn't really think that it was up to standard, which was a shame.  The food was quite good overall too, but I didn't think it was any better than a heap of other Chinese restaurants we'd been to that didn't have Michelin stars.  I guess, I was expecting a little more from our visit.  I was also pretty disappointed that I was told one of the signature dishes was no long on the menu, when it's still online...  Not sure what's up with that?

However, I have to give Lei Garden the benefit of the doubt, they managed to squeeze us in when they could have just as easily turned us away.  Given that there are six restaurants with a Michelin star, my plan is to check out one of the others, next time, I'll make a reservation.

We loved the place settings at Lei Gardens
Oops, not an amuse bouche but part of the Peking duck!
Lots of segmented seats gives a real private dining feel at Lei Garden
Yeah, I loved the pork belly
Ultra thin pancakes and lots of crispy skin.  I think we needed more duck flesh though.
Rice, better late than never?
Our neighbours also enjoyed the pork belly, but they left some!?
Lei Gardens is located in IFC Central

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