Sunday, 26 July 2015

The Pawn - The British invasion continues

In 1997, after over 150 years of ruling Hong Kong, the British handed back control to China amongst much fear and anxiety. That anxiety was largely unfounded.  In 2015, it seems as if Briton's imperialist aspirations have returned, only this time it takes a very different form.  It's UK chefs that are taking control of Hong Kong, and it's the dining scene that is seeing an invasion of the UK's top chefs.  

When you think of the UK chefs establishing themselves in Hong Kong, it's usually names like Gordon Ramsey (see post here), Jamie Oliver and Jason Atherton (see post here and here) that spring to mind.  However, they're not the only well known celebrity chefs expanding their global network of dining establishments.  Tom Aikens may not be the first chef you'd think of when talking UK chefs, but that could be about to change.  One of the stable of well known chefs that have dominated Great British Menu, Tom was over visiting his Hong Kong outpost, The Pawn.  Of course, we had to get along and check it out.

The Pawn is located in one of the last remaining heritage buildings left in Wan Chai. The Pawn recently went through major renovations, which thankfully kept much of it's heritage charm. Aikens, working with HK group the Press Room Group, has collaborated as consultant chef and brings his uniquely British take on casual fine dining.  The dining room sits atop two bar areas, which we had to traverse to get to the restaurant, having failed to notice the main entrance on Tai Wong Street.  Instead, we'd taken a dark and narrow staircase up through one of the bars, before finding our way to a rickety elevator to take us the dining floor.

Greeted warmly by a couple of casually dressed maitre d', we wound our way through a sparsely decorated hallway before entering the kitchen and dining area.  Low hanging light fittings were the first feature I noticed as we walked next to the three separate kitchen areas before finding our seat.  We were seated near the back of the restaurant and where we would later learn was the dessert kitchen and as I ducked the low light fitting to take my seat, noticed the man himself prepping in the kitchen.  Tom Aikens was casually dressed but still working hard with the kitchen team on preparation and looked as serious doing prep work as he normally does in Great British Menu.

There were a lot of staff buzzing around and we counted no less than 9 chefs spread across the three kitchens, so it seemed as if The Pawn was planning for a big night.  It wasn't only chefs that were in abundance, there were plenty of wait staff too, and it was only moments before our 'shadow' for the night would hand over some menus.  I say shadow, mainly because I've never felt such personal attention during a meal, it was almost uncomfortable at times!  Looking over the menu, there were many great looking options for starters, but I did struggle with my main options, most not really appealing to me on the night.  But you only need to eat one main, and I found something that would work.

Our waitress had pointed out two starters that were highly recommended, so we decided to take her advice and ordered both.  The first of the recommendations was the soy marinated 'certified single hook' tuna tartare with sesame, crushed avocado and wasabi, which was beautifully presented on a completely unique plate that really highlighted the tartare.  The finely diced tuna was sitting atop some thinly sliced pickled vegetables and then was covered with the crushed avocado and sprinkled with sesame seeds.  There was a freshness to the tuna that signified high quality produce and the creamy avocado helped highlight the flavour. There was contrasting crunch texture in the dish which along with the acidity from the pickled vegetables helped set the tuna alight.

I'd taken the other recommended starter, and between us, we debated for some time about which was nicer.  There was no doubt my confit salmon with pomelo and grapefruit vanilla dressing looked more impressive.  It was art on a plate, with beautifully contrasting colours and textures that were incredibly visually appealing.  The confit salmon was served cold and lovely and buttery, which on it's own tasted great, but when combined with numerous pickled vegetables and the acidity from the pomelo really sang.  I didn't really pick out any vanilla notes, but didn't really miss this.  There were a couple of moments when I had some grapefruit and pomelo without the salmon and found it a little sharp on the palate.

We normally like to have a little break in between starters and mains, but it was only a few minutes after our plates were cleared that our mains arrived.  We shared a glance, wondering what was going on, we really needed at least five to ten minutes before cracking on with mains, but didn't say anything.

SC's main was a trip back down memory lane for many, with the Tom Aikens version of mac'n cheese.  With a number of options to be added to the macaroni cheese including lobster, braised beef and Iberico ham, SC kept it simple and just added truffle.  The massive casserole dish that was presented held way too much food, especially given our short interlude between courses. Try as she might, the girl just couldn't finish the dish, which was a shame, the creamy sauce was delicious and the truffle flavour divine.

Because I'd not really fancied anything on the mains menu, I'd instead ordered from the grill.  My 250g USDA beef fillet was simply presented on a board stamped with The Pawn and accompanied by a pot of bĂ©arnaise sauce.  The steak had a perfect criss-cross from the grill, which made the steak visually appealing, something that's not always the case with steak.  I can only think that my steak had been ready around the same time as our starters coming out, it had been well rested (perhaps too well) and was a little on the cool side.  What it lacked in temperature it made up for in it's tenderness and flavour, dominated by a charcoal flavour that somehow didn't detract from the slightly earthy beef flavour.

Even though our starters and mains were delivered and consumed in record time, we still had room for dessert - called Puds on The Pawn menu.  I'd ordered the 'white chocolate and pepper', only to be told by our waitress that it was no longer available but had been updated by 'white chocolate and pistachio'.  I was actually pretty happy with the update, thinking that pistachio and white chocolate would be a better pairing.  The dessert was presented with layers of creamy panna cotta, in between tempered white chocolate.  It was topped with crunchy pistachio nitrogen bombs and pistachio cake.  I though my dessert looked a little sloppy in it's presentation, with the tempered chocolate unbalanced at one end.  It's all about taste though and the combo of white chocolate and pistachio worked as well as I'd hoped.

Hands down, SC picked the winner for dessert.  It was sticky toffee pudding with toffee sauce and date ice-cream, which was presented very simply in a bowl.  It didn't have the flash of my dessert, but the soft, moist toffee pudding was incredibly light and simply delicious.  Good as it was, the toffee sauce was the element that elevated the dessert, combined with the pudding, it was like a party raging in your mouth looking to invite all of your friends.  It was a definite winner!

The Pawn is what I'd call a casual fine diner, that is, reasonably priced food, presented well but without all of the pomp of white linen tablecloths.  It seems to be where most chefs are taking their restaurants nowadays and I quite like the concept.  Sure, I also love the white linen and ceremony of a fine dining restaurant, but there is something great about top quality food in a more relaxed environment that is always appealing.

We liked our meal at The Pawn, but it didn't blow us out of the water.  There were a couple of little elements that didn't quite hit the heights.  There needs to be more of a break between courses, seriously, 120 seconds is too quick.  People want to relax into a meal and not feel rushed.  We also felt a little uncomfortable with the attention we were getting from our waitress and at times, it felt like we were being watched as we ate.  There is a fine line between amazing service and stalking and I think we went a little too much to the latter.

It was great to see Tom Aikens in the kitchen for our visit, I still get a little bit of a buzz by seeing a great chef in action, but it would have been even better to see him out mingling with the diners on the night.  We definitely enjoyed our meal at The Pawn, it's one of those restaurants that we'd look to visit when the mood strikes.  

The amazing plate formed a symbiotic relationship with the food
Such a pretty dish
Of course there is wine, this was SC's port with the dessert 
I loved this little bonsai tree - inspiration for one of the desserts on the menu
Some amazing looking plates
One of the three kitchen areas, this one was responsible for mains

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