Before getting to what turned out to be a lovely dinner at AOC, I had a all too typical Hong Kong customer experience. It was at a popular bar/restaurant I’ve reviewed before where, with 30 minutes to go before dinner at AOC, I take a seat at the bar and order: ‘just a sparkling water please, I’m not here very long’.
When I look up a couple of minutes later, an enormous (1 litre) bottle of Antipodes has already been opened and is being poured. Now while it’s true that I asked for a sparkling water, I also made it clear I wasn’t stopping long. I’m also not a camel, at least last time I checked, so would have been hard pressed to finish the bottle throughout an evening, let alone in half an hour.
I explain to the manager why I don’t want the water and ask why it was served in the first place. “It’s the only sparkling water we have”. Hmmm. ‘So’, I ask, “what about the can of soda water behind the bar that I can see from here?”
“That’s soda water, not sparkling water”.
Right. Stunned bewilderment is obviously writ large on my face. The Antipodes, I then discover, comes in at cool HK$80. With service, that’s almost US$12. It’s a scandalous amount of money anywhere for water, but especially so when it’s so vehemently unwanted and un-needed. Eventually some sense is seen and I am charged a bargain $36 for a can of soda water that you can buy in packs of 4 for $16. The point is that we are fleeced daily in Hong Kong and usually blithely accept it, but when it’s coupled with environmental waste on an epic scale and a total lack of any common sense, it makes for a truly unholy trinity.
Aaaaannnnyway, with that rant-ette over, time for dinner at AOC and, once again, the guys behind Wine Beast show the merits of doing the (relatively) simple things very well. This is classic French cookery with occasional Asian influences and ingredients. The chef is a softly-spoken Breton, Stephane Guillas, while Johan Ducroquet and his wife and resident sommelier Cristina Carranco-Ducroquet oversee the menu and head up Wine Beast in nearby Johnson Road.
Let’s not pretend that the space is anything other than tiny, but the tables are big enough for two larger than average guys to avoid playing footsie. There’s a genuine charm to the place though, distinctly un-corporate and homey.
We start with Fines de Claire No. 4, left alone exactly as they should be. Incidentally, fact fans, a claire is a knee-deep salt pond where the oysters are placed to ‘finish’ for a month, where they fatten and become sweeter due to all the photoplankton flying around.
Ensuite, some home made pork rillettes. Salted pork cooked in fat until tender, then shredded before the a brilliant creamy layer develops on top? Oh go on then.
Then an excellent boudin blanc, served on top of a faultless onion tart along with a pork and chicken sausage, little sharp batons of apple, onion and pine nuts. The whole ensemble then has a lovely hazelnut emulsion spooned on top. Just an excellent plate of food.
Duck confit, potato, confit fruit. Five words to raise a smile. Perfectly crispy but also the right side of oily, the meat falling apart as effortlessly as the UK following Brexit.
After some good cheese – well this is a French restaurant, after all, there were desserts, surprisingly the only slightly underwhelming note of dinner. The pineapple number with cream and sponge was a winner, the glaces were soothing, but the patisserie numbers weren’t AOC’s finest hour. Overall however, and aided by some excellent and incredibly good value wines by the glass, AOC have followed in the footsteps of their bigger brother Wine Beast by retaining unpretentious, relaxed cuisine that is as genuinely French as you can imagine in the Fragrant Harbour.