Sunday, 9 August 2015

Serge et le Phoque - relaxed French fine dining

Do you need a five star location to serve five star food?  It's a question worth asking.  I'd recently dined at perennial fine diner Amber (see post here), located in the oh-so-swanky Landmark Oriental and blessed with two Michelin Stars as well as a rating in the top 50 restaurants in the world.  It was lovely, if not a little sterile.  I mean it's nice walking through Central's million dollar shops to get to a meal, but it doesn't feel like old school Hong Kong.

I'd heard about a fancy little French fine diner that felt like it didn't need the fancy location to produce amazing food, so I set about checking it out.  Serge et le phoque is located in the back streets of Wan Chai and to get there you need to get out your map (well, SatNav) and then traverse the back streets, past the open fish markets and fruit vendors before finding the unassuming little restaurant.  The sights and smells of a more traditional Hong Kong assaulted my senses as we traipsed through the streets and when we finally walked through the black velvet curtain at the front door of Serge et le phoque, I was ready for just about anything.

What I found was an interesting little set up that was part post industrialist warehouse and part fancy dining room.  The area was split between a private dining room, sectioned of by more black velvet along with a series of circular tables surrounded by comfy booth style seating and along the front of the dining area (where we were sitting), tiny little two person tables facing the restaurant.  While I found the tables tiny, they were at least serviceable, but I think I'd have preferred to have the seats facing the huge plate glass window at the front of Serge, which provided a TV style view of the comings and going in busy Wan Chai.

Our "menus" were presented by our waiter for the night and with a sexy French accent, gave us a run down of how the menu worked. Menu is a loose term at Serg et le phoque, essentially the main menu has two items, 'Le Petite Serge' and 'Le Grand Serge', small and large tasting menus.  Given it's proximity to the Wan Chai markets, the team of chefs take the best ingredients of the day and create a live menu as the night progresses.  It means that you've got no idea what's coming and for me, that's almost the quintessential approach to modern French cooking.  

There was a 'while you are waiting' menu, which has a list of tapas available to whet your appetite before the tasting menu starts.  Tapas is obviously a Spanish approach to food, but we weren't complaining and decided to take advantage and ordered some of the Chorizo Iberico.  The sweet chorizo was presented on a terracotta coloured plate that merged with the red chorizo and allowed the contrasting white fat of the meat to shine on the plate.  The thinly sliced chorizo was lovely, with an ever so subtle heat that accompanied the sweetness, and it was consumed very quickly.

As we munched our way through the chorizo plate, were given two different plates of bread, the first was like a damper and came with a big bowl of peppery olive oil.  With such a big bowl, there was no need to be sparing with the olive oil, so we literally soaked the bread before consuming, which was quite indulgent.  We also had a larger bowl of still steaming rye bread, which didn't really need any of the oil for dipping due to it's lovely taste.

Of course we'd selected the "Le Grand Serge' as our dining option and the first item on the surprise tasting menu was a cute little dish that held a couple of lightly fried mussels covered in a sour sweet kimchi sauce.  Also on the plate was some tempura squid along side a couple of slices of grilled lime.  I stared with the grilled mussel, which was very sweet, but I struggled with the kimchi sauce on top, which was a little too spicy for my palate (although SC really loved it). The tempura batter was perfect for the squid, which was nearly perfectly cooked, with just a little extra chew than would be ideal.  It was good on it's own, but after a squeeze from the lime, the tempura came alive from the acidity.

I loved the contrasting presentation of our second course.  We were presented with two small bowls, one black and one white, and each contained some incredibly fresh ingredients that sang together.  The black bowl came with a piece of Japanese mackerel bathed in a cherry sauce with additional texture from a slice of cherry and toasted almonds.  The syrupy cherry sauce supported the oily mackerel perfectly and was simple yet delicious.  By contrast, the white bowl contained a heap of expertly cooked cockles in a zesty orange sauce and peanuts for crunch. Where the cherry sauce was heavier on the palate, the orange sauce danced on the tongue and refreshed the palate.

The interesting presentation continue with our next dish, which looked a little busy at first, but the beauty of the dish became more apparent the longer I looked at it.  With it's round and shiny bowl, the dish almost looked like an iris.  Comprising of lightly grilled tuna, edamame, sea grapes and Japanese ginger, the dish was brought together with a wonderful ponzu sauce that was more like a jelly.  This was a complex plate of food and some may have become lost in the blend of flavours, but we both really enjoyed it's complexity.  My only major concern was the slight lack of balance due to the size of the tuna, I'd have preferred a little more.

It took me a while to decide if I liked our next dish.  It should have been an easy decision, with a wonderfully grilled scallop with great caramelisation, a thin slice of pickled beetroot, a decent hit of saltiness from some anchovy and a little bit of tartness from some dehydrated raspberry.  It should have been....  But there was something that didn't sit quite right for me with the dish, perhaps it felt a little disconnected on the plate.  Either way, it looked pretty and I finished it off in quick time.  SC really enjoyed it, along with the small smear of chilli paste that was served on the plate at the table.  I steered clear of the chilli, not being a huge fan of spice, but SC assured me it worked well with the dish. 

We had ordered an addition to the standard menu, which was served next. I loved the simple presentation of our Japanese prawn, soaked in sake and butter before being finished off on the grill and topped with quinoa.  The red/orange of the prawn was a stark contrast to the matt black plate it was presented on.  It was a perfectly formed prawn and it almost felt a shame to disturb it from it's final resting place, but disturb it I did.  It was quite a messy enterprise, but I eventually got to the sweet prawn flesh that had been made sweeter from the sake butter.  It was delicious.  I was also thankful of the finger bowl with lemon water the help clean up afterwards, the little details always help.

I don't think I've been as confronted by a dish in a long time as I was with the next dish.  I think it was the deep fried baby Japanese crab that was sitting atop a piece of expertly cooked monkfish and covered with a dry aged beef and heaps of baby green peas.  We were told that we could eat the crab like a little chip, but it was placed on the fish like it was guarding it, like it could jump and attack at any moment!  The texture of the monkfish was quite firm, but it worked well with the beef and the peas were along for the ride for some freshness.  I did eat that little crab and it felt pretty weird, all texture and no taste.  I do wonder why though, was it just there for shock value?

The prettiest dish of the night was next and probably the most illogical pairing of the night.  We had a piece of grilled rabbit with creamed eggplant, with a huge piece of pickled radish with a sea urchin sitting atop.  It didn't work for me, the rabbit on it's own was good and the sea urchin on it's own was good, but together it just didn't work.  Rabbit is such a subtle flavour and sea urchin so powerful, you simply lost the rabbit when consumed together.  I've never been a fan of eggplant, but on this occasion, it barely rated due to the sea urchin.  I thought this was a case of style over substance, which was a shame because it looked great.

The last of the savour dishes out of the way, I was given a tasty pre-dessert treat of beetroot sorbet, which was sitting atop a smear of salted caramel.  Beetroot makes a great sorbet, but is often a little too savoury, which is where the salted caramel came in.  It added a little sweet sticky goodness to the dish, which balanced sweet and savoury perfectly.  I had opted for this over the cheese dish, which SC had ordered.  Unfortunately I didn't take any photos of the cheese, SC had consumed it too quickly!  She assured me that it was very good French cheese - a brie de meaux and a fourme d'ambert, and I'll have to take her word for it. 

Dessert was an interesting pair of vastly different components, which were not connected in any way. We were instructed to crack on with the lemon curd with a capsicum jelly skin first, which was incredibly sweet treat that had an interesting bite due to the capsicum jelly.  Next was an incredibly rich chocolate tart that was sprinkled with some dehydrated plum.  The tart was more on the bitter side, which was made more so by eating the sweet curd first.  I enjoyed the tart, but found it just a little too sharp for my taste and would have loved the dessert components being combined somehow so you could balance out the sweet and sharp flavours.

We were pleasantly full by the time the tasting menu finished, and our choice of the 'Le Grand Serge' was definitely the right one.  I'd read that service was a bit hit and miss at Serge et le Phoque but we didn't experience anything but first rate and friendly service.  It was better when we first arrived, we were one of the first parties to be seated, but it was still very acceptable as the restaurant filled up.

The team of Charles Pelletier and head chef Frédéric Peneau (from Parisian hotspots Le Chateaubriand and Café Burq) have created a lovely little dining experience that more than adequately balances the fine line between casual chic and fine dining.  The pair prove that you don't need to be located in a ritzy hotel in the centre of Hong Kong to provide a first class French dining experience, even if at times the food suffers from being a little too creative.

Do yourself a favour and get in to check out Serge et le Phoque.


These mini dacquoise finished off the meal - the creamy centre was wonderful 
A tasty little cocktail to start kick off festivities
An interesting start to the meal, but I didn't like the kimchi
black and white contrasting colours and interesting flavours
If you use your imagination you can see an eye in this photo
Two dishes in one, the sea urchin didn't really work with the rabbit, which is as subtle flavour and easily lost
It was an interesting fit out in the middle of Wan Chai
It filled up pretty quickly!

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