On paper, Hong Kong wouldn’t strike one as a benchmark for casual fine dining. Seemingly mundane problems (e.g. liquor licensing and building compliance) have a habit of slaughtering mid-sized restaurants here; whilst asserting one’s personality, in a culture defined by bombastic dining cartels, remains a daunting prospect. Nevertheless, neighbourhood fine diners are a citywide fixture: the best offering considered succinct menus in relaxed surroundings. At first blush, Beet – yet another charming almost Antipodean enterprise – falls into this niche; but pierce the veil and you’ll find a restaurant bursting with culinary All-Stars, serving some of the cleverest dishes in Hong Kong.
Beet’s modest opening in October last year – on the foodie flooded streets of Kau U Fong – wasn’t preceded by much fanfare. The usual yammering from PR firms was (thankfully) absent, replaced by tantalising factoids that whisper the raw potential of this new venue. For starters, at the centre of the operation, there’s Chef Barry Quek – “Bazza”, as this writer calls him. Quek trained at the acclaimed Joël Robuchon Restaurant in his native Singapore before staffing at some of the most innovative kitchens around the world (notably, Ben Shewry’s ripping Melbourne institution Attica). Behind the bar, you’ll find Raphael Holzer. Previously the beverage director at HK favourite Yardbird, Holzer brings his love for elemental mixology to the fore. That means a tight roster of classic cocktails – the coffee highball is a must – backed by an impressively trim wine list that ticks all the interest-piquing boxes (e.g. a good number of single estate and biodynamic winemakers are present).
Dinner at Beet has an almost suburban modesty to it. A thin membrane of glass separates you from Chef Bazza’s dimension – one of the few reminders that this isn’t the setting for a cracking house party in Balmain. But rest assured, if there was any uncertainty that you’re in the hands of a professional, the Tasting Menu ought to clear the air. Snacks of Snapper & Chicken serve as an effective introduction to the Beet style – fresh and seasonal cooking that registers in the mind’s eye. The snapper is prepared as a ceviche, served atop a crisp of puffed rice garnished with lime and apple zest. It activates the broad spectrum of one’s palette: delivering sensations in waves of high and low. Tartness then sweetness. Chewiness and then a crunch. The chicken (i.e. livers whipped into a not-too-stiff mousse) is an altogether more indulgent affair. Reminiscent in structure to a dessert, this is served atop a diminutive spelt cookie. The low gluten pastry crumbles upon first bite, infusing the aromatic livers with a briney almost savoury edge. The flavours on show here are fairly strong yet no one element vies for attention.
Given the restaurant’s name, it’s no wonder that the eponymous Beetroot is one of Bazza’s signature dishes. Here, the often neglected taproot veg is given one hell of a makeover: a vision of crimson petals suspended mid-flight. Lashings of beetroot, pickled in-house, are served with a homemade goat’s curd and crispy granules of buckwheat. It’s a visual reminder to diners that the familiar (i.e. essentially a warm salad) doesn’t have to be boring. The complicated array of ingredients – ranging from tart beetroot to nutty buckwheat – are carefully balanced save for a slight overabundance in goat’s curd; and though the dish’s flavours never reach the lofty heights of its visual splendour the effect is impressive nonetheless.
Chef Bazza and his team manifest their creativity in a number of ways: sometimes conventional dishes are transformed by beautiful plating; at other times complexity is hidden in subtle technique. The “BBB” epitomises the latter approach – a rustic loaf of sourdough cut into meaty slices. Bazza bakes his bread in house and this typical mid-meal carbohydrate is elevated by the ingenious use of homemade butter. Churned using Canadian cream and trace amounts of kaffir lime, the result is an ethereal caramelised spread on the perfect delivery vehicle. The sourdough is – to borrow a phrase – a symphony of crackle.
Avoid the temptation to gorge on bread though; as Bazza’s seasonal mains are best enjoyed on a roomy stomach. Where previous dishes showcased balance the Hokkaido Scallop is all about concentration – every element highlighting the buttery umami rich shellfish. Cooking techniques here are old-school (i.e. a velouté made of the animal’s shell and skirt); tempered by deceptively simple ingredients (seldom has corn been so exciting).
The New Territories Chicken derives its name from locality: announcing Beet’s commitment to buying local and sourcing fresh. Poached and then seared, the meat is tender whilst retaining a rich mouth filling juiciness. It is, perhaps, Bazza’s most overt homage to fine French cookery – lightly coated with a sauce robert (itself a compound of the classic demi-glace pan sauce). It’s the kind of dish that makes other restaurants’ entries in the poultry category seem, frankly, lazy.
Simulating terroir in food can be a divisive experiment, and while some critics have been polarised by Beet’s Hay Ice Cream it is a timely reminder of the establishment’s creative brief. Scandi chefs have utilised herbaceous plant material in food for decades; and that history is built upon for an experience akin to imbibing the nuttiest dessert wine. Upon tasting, a hodgepodge of ancient grains come to mind: roasted genmai, porridge oats, shredded wheat. Morning cereal redefined for a nighttime indulgence.
Beet’s modesty – evident in everything from its decor to the pleasing and yet comprehensible cuisine – is a refreshing quality on the Hong Kong dining scene. In a town where so many openings are sound and fury signifying nothing, there’s a quiet steeliness to this little neighbourhood gem. The best restaurants have the power to be transportive, and with that in mind each new visit reminds me of the great neighbourhood kitchens up and down the Australian coastline. I’m already excited to see what the summer season brings.
Tasting menu from $690 HKD
Images courtesy of Justine Tai
6 Kau U Fong
Central, Hong Kong