Beet, Hong Kong
Smoke. Lots of smoke in the kitchen. Perhaps the ventilation system isn't working. Or, as we'd soon come to realise, this chef loves fire.
A buzzing lunch vibe greets us with scandi-clad staff deftly doing their thing. Wooden butter knives, clay plates and a solitary stalk of wheat await each diner, the latter perched above it's makeshift tablecloth bed in a gentle nod towards a kitchen that appreciates things grown in the ground. Everyone seated, and having collected all but one stalk of wheat, our waiter kindly offers the 4-year-old the option of keeping his as a form of rustic toy. Extra points for being nice to my child. Even more points for realising the potential scene of carnage he had unwittingly created by not giving one of identical quality to the 2-year-old. The waiter quickly brings back a second stalk for the younger diner. War averted, just.
A simple lunch menu allows for swift decisions, with either a 2-course or 3-course to choose from (dinner offers more). "Homemade" bread and butter arrive, with the restaurant's first statement of intent landing loud and clear - this is serious food. Salty, rich butter, and plenty of it is placed next to the mahogany-hued bread, served warm of course, with the butter at room temperature as every sane person should appreciate. Everyone at our table is happy, and how could you not be with exceptional bread like this? A good meal is expected at this point, with the only mishap arriving via our own children, who loudly proclaim their hatred of the actual flesh of the bread, boldly tearing large chunks out to leave just the beautifully bronzed crust to snack on. I begin repeating my inner chant - "I love my children, I will not disown them for this sin.”
As dishes begin arriving, the warm feelings elicited by the bread give way to proclamations of absolute joy. When a dish titled "Charred Brassicas" arrives, what appears in front of us is a simple but soothing medley of vegetables imbued with a smokiness more powerful than a well built campfire. Chef Barry Quek's appreciation for local produce comes leaping off the plate here as I uncover a vegetable that I've definitely seen in the "Gai See", or local Hong Kong wet market. Extra points for not trying to impress us with an Oyster leaf flown in from France, or some other such nonsense. And again, another dish of locally sourced salad leaves dressed with elegance and poise provides a welcomed break from the never-ending list of imported ingredients normally found in Hong Kong restaurants. Some starters do falter however. This example could be a case of anticipation outdoing reality, which often happens whenever the words Wagyu are found on a menu, however the tartare aspect of this dish was slightly lacking in acidity. It may also be fair to say that Wagyu beef is best saved for the fire, with this raw version tasting very similar to other beef tartares I've had that were made using less pampered mammals. If allowed the kindness of a silver living though, it would certainly be in the presentation of this dish - by far the most visually stunning of the day.
As we get through the main dishes, a conclusion is reached in my mind at least. The food here is truly excellent. Another charred dish arrives, this time to the tune of pork belly (and what better a tune is there in the world?). This may be the highlight of the meal, with a satisfying mix of pork and belly living in perfect harmony. Not everyone is a fan of ultra tender meat, but whoever isn't is wrong - and whoever is would die happily if this was their last meal on earth. The roast potatoes served on the side could arguably be crispier, but they carry with them a strength of flavour that others often fail to achieve. It would also be nice to have a bit more green on the plate, but there was plenty of that in the earlier dishes, so we live to fight another day.
This final main is another highlight-winning contender. Perfectly cooked Threadfin fish, with almost-pushed-to-the-edge charred skin (seeing a theme yet?) shone through despite a stellar cast of supporting actors. Like the sneakily hidden tiger prawns (charred ofcourse) lurking beneath little florets of cauliflower (charred) and the golden crunchiness of flaked, baked almonds. Not a small portion by any measure, and equally matched in quality as it was in size.
A small, smoke-filled, skilled kitchen, putting out dishes with incredible flavour, inordinate amounts of texture and a satisfyingly local emphasis on ingredients. £120 for 4 adults and 2 bread destroyers - a bargain for food this good. Will definitely be back.
Words by Ben, Photography by Viv.