The Pawn review date: November 25, 2014
Overall score: 7.7/10
NB: I was invited to dine at The Pawn following an interview I did with Tom Aikens last month. You can read that piece here.
When I interviewed The Pawn’s culinary director Tom Aikens recently, it was clear from the off that he meant business. No PR fluff or spin, no icebreakers or forced smiles. While he may still lag behind Jason, Jamie and Gordon in the global restaurant empire stakes, he is slowly but surely building up his own stable. Which means no time for polite chit chat when he has half an hour to spare before lunch service. This was fine by me as he told it exactly as he saw it. Including how he was still treating most of The Pawn’s chefs and service team ‘with kid gloves’ and taking ‘baby steps’ to get them up to speed. Though that approach was doubtless combined with sporadic volcanic bollockings, fast forward a month and his strategy is beginning to pay dividends. Some way from the finished, polished article, but getting there.
The venerable venue has been discussed in exhaustive detail elsewhere, so suffice to say that the balcony overlooking the trams of Johnston Road still retains its appeal as one of the few buildings in Hong Kong that has survived a century intact without being turned into a branch of Sasa. Inside has seen some big changes, this one part of the new-look restaurant, ‘The Kitchen’:
A glance at the dinner menu (here) tells me the chances are high that I’ll leave happy, thanks to a mix of no-nonsense British classics, some serious meat action, a few daintier and more artful plates and sides galore.
But first to the short cocktail list that features enticing and innovative mixes alongside some terrible puns and names – such as ‘Grow a Pear’. One of the least wince-inducing was ‘Double roasted’ that promised to be ‘deep, dark and highly sophisticated’. So sophisticated that I’d never heard of one of its ingredients (Amaro Cynar – an Italian herbal liquor) but it lived up to its description, the bitter tones of chicory and vermouth rounded out by Pierre Ferrand cognac, delivering a bang-on mix to stimulate the palate for what lay next.
No bread was offered, something which continues to surprise me across high-end restaurants. It’s a chef’s calling card and a chance to show some early hospitality. So it was the starter of juniper-marinated venison with beetroot snow and smoked beetroot that left the kitchen first. The laughably bad photo (I was sitting on a dimly-lit terrace at 8pm) does it no favours, but overall it was the least successful dish of the night. While the beetroot textures were good and very Aikens, it was hard to pin down the juniper or venison flavour and texture around them. The star of the dish was lost in the supporting cast. (7/10)
Incidentally it also looked a million miles away from the version as shown on their website – I’m assuming the smear should be in the middle of the plate for a reason:
No such issues in the main event of brined pork belly, botanical (nope, no idea) glaze, fermented grain and miso. While I’ve touched before on my borderline obsession with pork, this was an outstanding incarnation. To the point where I wanted to eat it like a Double Decker, stripping one layer from the next. Thankfully I held back, but alongside a signature mac n cheese and sharp and sour Marmite onions, I was one very happy diner. (8.5/10) Only the side of grain mustard mash underwhelmed, more Dorking than Dijon.
In the interests of full research two desserts were tried, the sticky toffee pudding and ‘chocolate textures’. The former was just as good as you’d expect from a chef holding a British passport, with seasonal undertones of Christmas pudding – and better than the version served up by Gordon Ramsay’s Bread St Kitchen. (7.5/10)
The latter was the real stand-out however, pairing pomelo sorbet with chocolate soil, brittle, mousse and more. As it should, each bite bought a different combination of flavour and texture, somehow always complimentary. (8/10)
Service was warm, friendly and efficient, although as they knew I was invited I think it unfair to mark them on it as it possibly doesn’t reflect the average diner experience.
So all things considered, once the plating becomes more uniform, the kinks are ironed out and those terrible cocktail names ditched, The Pawn looks on track to re-stake its claim as one of Hong Kong’s go-to dining destinations.
The Pawn, 62 Johnston Road, Wan Chai, Hong Kong. Tel: +852 2866 3444 http://www.thepawn.com.hk/