There are an awful lot of restaurants to choose from in Hong Kong and with the endless parade of new openings, it’s impossible to begin to even scratch the surface of the total dining options out there. This also means that occasionally, even storied restaurants which are the talk of the town fall through the cracks. A case in point is Serge et Le Phoque, smack in the middle of the Wan Chai wet market. Their success and acclaim is no secret: from rave reviews on opening in 2014, to a Michelin star last year, they’ve continued to woo diners. Just not this one. Until now, that is.
A very brief previous visit allowed me to taste the same dish twice in the spirit of research for my piece on CNN looking at how a chef can influence diners perception of a meal, below. The chef in question wasn’t actually a chef at all, but the charismatic co-owner Charles Pelletier. Gregarious and with a brilliant staccato laugh, he has been the face of Serge since opening. Now, however, new pastures call and London is where he and the team are headed next, in February. What this means for Serge the restaurant is still to be seen, but chances are that it won’t be around much longer. All of which is a long winded way of saying that, if you haven’t done so already, you should book in to eat there now.
An invitation to dinner showed a flawless parade of dishes, served with easy Gallic charm by a young and passionate team. The dining room’s large windows allow for a constant stream of entertainment outside, including an energetic older gentleman who took great pleasure in gurning at diners. But given the succession of great plates, focus remains firmly indoors.
The chef’s tasting menu runs $850 and is by far the best way to experience the considerable talents of Frederic Peneau in the kitchen. The first amuse bouche was an oyster ceviche with raspberry and coriander. In common with many of the dishes, on paper the combination sounded bizarre, if not wrong. But the other communality was that they all worked beautifully. Here the sweet tartness of the fruit cut through the oyster, while the sometimes-soapy coriander provided freshness and bounce.
A small slate came next bearing mussels in miso, skewered yakitori style. Outstanding, as were the veal sweetbreads – yes, throat and stomach glands but with great PR – that came with a hint of orange that accentuated their flavour and unique texture. A tomato of extraordinary sweetness and quality followed, with olive tapenade underneath to counteract it.
Thinly-sliced yellowtail was pretty as a picture with peanuts, ricotta and yellow peach. The black dot of smoked garlic seemed unnecessary until the excellent house made sourdough came to the fore in cleaning the plate.
Another combination straight from the Salvador Dali cookbook came with perfect mackerel, daikon, Japanese grapes, shallots and a sort of crisp made from sardines. On the side, an eggplant with miso looked like a huge fig, breathtakingly tasty and – whisper it – better than any I’d had in Japan.
For the main act, wagyu with geoduck and confit lemon, accompanied by oyster mushrooms with crisped rice. If the wagyu wasn’t perhaps as buttery smooth as one would expect, the brilliant jus forgave all. The geoduck – the comically-phallic clam – came in tiny thin slices to again complement and contrast.
Unusual and intriguing wines continued to accompany, notably in the ridiculously-lovely ‘Les 4 Villages Coteaux du Layon 2006’, a dessert wine to usurp even Tokaji. It matched the Fourme d’Ambert and another cheese, before the trio of desserts.
One was another peach, this time with an outrageous salted caramel, hazelnut, bamboo and…tofu skin. But of course. The second hurrah came in the form of a perfect mini Baba au Rhum, that little dome of boozy happiness, here with a vanilla buttermilk.
And finally, as a parting shot, two utterly perfect dacquoises or nut meringues with vanilla filling.
We left replete but not defeated or overfed, seriously impressed at Serge’s ability to spin wonderful plates from ingredients. The Japanese aesthetic and approach, entwined with classical French technique, is not new to Hong Kong. I just wish I’d discovered it at Serge et Le Phoque’s hands much, much earlier.