Where can you satisfy a craving for French food in Hong Kong? Thirty years ago, the answer would have been “the big hotels.” With the exception of a few independent restaurants such as Au Trou Normand in Tsim Sha Tsui, which closed in 2003 after 39 years due, this same advice applied to any decent Western food at all, most of which was served among the dark and overstuffed corners of the Peninsula, the Mandarin Oriental or the Hyatt.
Ask the same question again today and you’ll get more answers than you can handle. You could probably eat your way through French food for a few weeks and there would still be something new to try. In Hong Kong, la cuisine française has a new face, one that is bold, passionate and casual – a face represented by one type of French restaurant that has come to dominate the cuisine: the bistro.
Far removed from the formality of high-end French dining, the original bistros were often home kitchens that opened their tables to the paying public to supplement the household income. Food was simple and often presented as a set menu with wine and coffee to complete a meal. Some say the name comes from Russian for quickly — “bystro” — which Russian shout at waiters during the 1814 occupation of Paris in 1814. Others say it comes from a type of aperitif called bistrouille. Either way, Hong Kong’s food scene has embraced the bistro.
To find out more about this nouvelle vague of French cuisine, we met some of the colourful personalities that are changing the city’s culinary landscape, adding nuance to Hong Kong’s perception of French food and giving the dining experience a more personal touch. Much of their success has been accomplished by getting back to the basics — fresh food, good wine, the right people — without losing sight of the need to take risks.
Today, the first in a two-part series: one restaurant that brings fine dining into a bistro setting and another that aims to make everyday French food accessible to Hong Kong diners.
Bistro as fine dining: Serge et le phoque
“I like to disturb, in a good way,” says Charles Pelletier with a grin. With his bamboo-frame glasses and suede welder’s apron, you can see the designer background of this first-time restauranteur as he explains how the city’s clients first reacted to the mix of fine dining with a bistro atmosphere. Compared to familiar terrain in Paris, the culinary landscape in Hong Kong can be unpredictable for new bistro owners; customers often have surprising reactions to new ideas.
“At first, people were shocked or even a bit lost,” he says. “We serve fine dining in a super relaxed environment, at the same time we are not cheap, so it was something new.” It didn’t take long before they gained a stable of habitués and waves of new customers who liked the concept, which blends French techniques with seasonal ingredients and a hefty dose of Asian influence.
The group of friends behind the trendy hideaway nestled beside the narrow streets of the Wan Chai’s wet market include Pelletier and Michelin-starred chefs Christophe Pelé and Frédéric Peneau. The name of the restaurant itself reflects the playful vibe: Serge is Fred’s son’s name and it was his idea to add “le phoque,” meaning “seal” in french. “Of course we also love Serge Gainsbourg and le phoque was funny in English, too.”
The restaurant was designed by Pelletier himself, and its big picture windows and Fat Albert lights may be a twist on the welcoming bistro style, but the food is far from homey. You’re more likely to encounter experiments like a gorgeous Hokkaido scallop served with tender spinach, almond butter crisps, capers from Pantelleria and anchovies from Cantabria, with a watercress sauce to add extra punch.
Pelletier had always wanted to do something with eating and drinking so when Peneau suggested they open a restaurant, he jumped onboard. “We almost bought a beach in Indonesia instead,” he says with a laugh. Pelletier lived in Hong Kong before and loved the city, so he thought it would be a good place to start this new venture.
Location has also been an important factor for all the bistro owners we talked to. While most of them are located in and around Central, Serge et le phoque chose to be in Wan Chai — the real centre of Hong Kong Island, according to Pelletier — and in the middle of the neighbourhood wet market at all. Serge is part of a group of avant-garde restaurants changing the food landscape of the area, including Pirata and the Optimist on Hennessy Road.
“I guess in a way you could say we are the food gentrifiers of Wan Chai,” says Pelletier. “There is a bit of a quartier feel.” Every night, Serge’s staff place benches in front of the restaurant and several neighbourhood residents come and sit on them. “Come rain or shine, they are there!” exclaims Pelletier. Serge’s large windows give the restaurant a cinematic quality, whether you are inside looking out or outside looking in. Pelletier waves at an older Chinese man passing by and gets a wide smile in return.
As they prepare for the evening ahead, Serge’s all-French staff sit down to have their “family lunch” around 4pm, testing new recipes from the kitchen and discussing new wine pairings. Hong Kong’s new wave of independent French bistros place importance on the bond between the team; Pelletier sees it as part of the restaurant’s their identity and he believes that customers can feel it too. “We call ourselves the phoquers,” jokes Pelletier. “Food is important, but it is not everything for a restaurant, I want customers to enjoy the experience as much as I do.”
The restaurant has drawn even more attention since it was awarded a Michelin star in the 2016 guide. Pelletier admits that many new customers might be put off by the offbeat atmosphere, which may not fit their preconception of a Michelin dining experience. Sometimes it is necessary to take a risk and let go, he says.
Home-style cuisine: La Grande Bouffe
Right in the middle of the fast-growing French quarter around Hollywood Road is La Grande Bouffe. Named after the seminal 1973 movie in which four friends gather in a villa with the sole purpose of eating themselves to death, the restaurant reflects the larger-than-life personality of founders Anthony Rost and Stephanie Suor.
“It is a name that sounds French for non-francophones, as well as [being] fun in French,” says Rost. The owners have a very hands-on approach, chatting with their customers as they trickle in throughout the day. Every corner is painted in a different colour, reflecting the regions of France that provide the bistro with its ingredients: yellow for Provence, red for Burgundy, blue for Auvergne. They import charcuterie from Corsica and wine from small producers. The goal: show people in Hong Kong what everyday French cuisine is like.
La Grande Bouffe is meant to demonstrates what Rost calls the “democratisation of French food.” Thanks to the new wave of French restaurants, it has become possible to have a full French meal for HK$300 or $400, and even less for lunch, which has taken the cuisine beyond date night and into the quotidian. Rost says La Grande Bouffe’s customers are about half local and half expat. Today’s Hong Kong customers are able to appreciate authenticity, he says, which means that even people who can afford more expensive food are looking for good food in a more relaxing environment. The quality of the food has become central and competition is higher, meaning customers can compare different places.
“We could say there are two types of bistro in Hong Kong, the real ones and the fake ones,” says Rost. “The fakes ones have a French name, but without any French actually working there. They are usually opened by big companies who jumped onboard the bistro concept when it became popular. Then you have the real ones, which are opened by French, where the owners are engaged and there everyday, those who actually speak to their habitués. Unfortunately, it is not always easy for locals to tell the difference between the two.” One clue is the way the restaurant relates to the neighbourhood. Outside, La Grande Bouffe, Rost and Suor commissioned an artist to paint a mural that depicts the bistro as well as the dai pai dong noodle shop right next to it, a symbolic nod to the spirit of Hollywood Road.
Like any restaurant, La Grande Bouffe struggles with Hong Kong’s exorbitant rent. Rost says the market for bistros in Central and Western District is actually quite mature. “If I had to open another one, I would probably look towards Kowloon,” he says. But that may not be in the cards, because Rost wouldn’t want to give up the intimacy of running his own restaurant. “It is a risky business opening a bistro – you have to enjoy it,” he says. “For me, the human connection with customers is as important as the food. Success would be to have a drink with each customer outside of the restaurant as well, for them to become my pôtes” – his friends.
Serge et le Phoque, Shop B2, G/F, Tower 1, The Zenith, 3 Wan Chai Road, Wan Chai. +852 5465 2000.
La Grande Bouffe, 66 Hollywood Road, Central. +852 2324 1408