Proper Bo or just Bo’ Selecta?
Many of the new restaurants that have opened in London over the past year have inexpensive menus, but that’s definitely not the case with Bo London. This new restaurant, from Hong Kong chef Alvin Leung, serves only three different tasting menus at dinner time and is unashamedly expensive with the cheapest at £88. Leung, a self-described ‘demon chef’, has often been described as ‘the Chinese Heston Blumenthal‘ and Hong Kong’s ‘l’enfant terrible‘ in the same overexcited breath. I usually find this sort of hyperventilated praise off-putting, but his intriguingly eclectic style mixing Chinese and modern European ingredients and techniques piqued the interest of both myself and the Euro Hedgie.
Bo is located on the former site of Patterson’s, a drearily average modern European restaurant whose departure won’t be missed. Although open for business, the place itself isn’t quite complete yet – at the time of writing the downstairs private dining room was still a building site. The lack of carpeting and an overabundance of bare wooden surfaces means the noise can become loud enough to drown out the softly spoken waiters. Oddly, the final prep area, usually hidden away as part of the kitchen, faces out directly into the rear of the dining space. There are about 50 covers, considerably less than Patterson’s, and the place has a disappointingly generic decor overall.
We both opted for the 15 course Chef’s Menu, although we had to put up with some erratic pacing. The first half of the menu came out in rapid succession, but slowed down to a Tube-like crawl near the end – I suspect these pacing issues will be sorted out in due course.
The Bed and Breakfast amuse bouche is a great way to kick things off. Taro puffs are a traditional Cantonese Dim Sum dish, but here the crisp, puffed pastry has been filled with a smoked quail’s egg instead of taro and then topped with caviar and gold flake. The toppings are merely for show, but the delightfully crisp and fluffy pastry is a perfect match for the slight squidginess and bold smokiness of the egg. I could eat a baker’s dozen of these little eggs.
I was less impressed with the second amuse bouche of a rock oyster topped with chewy seaweed and a ginger garnish. The overly chilled oyster should really have been served at room temperature and the choice of a rock oyster rather than a native breed during Britain’s oyster season is a curious choice. The chewy seaweed and limp lime topping also left me cold, but I found the chilled, icy ginger garnish far more interesting – the contrast between the heat of the ginger and the coldness of the ice was very pleasing.
The wrinkly, delicately meaty sweetbreads were competently done, but it was the sharpness of the creamy artichoke purée and the crisp, almost smoky bamboo shoots that made this starter stand out.
The oddly-described Cloud mackerel was a let down. The dish was served on top of a contraption combining rosewater and dry ice for both smell and dramatic presentation. Sadly, like the oyster, the mackerel had all the flavour chilled out of it and the citrus cream was bland. The ponzu and black sesame foam was the most successful element, but the dominant taste was the nuttiness of the black sesame. The first major disappointment of the evening.
Thankfully, the disappointing Cloud mackerel was followed up by a delightful trio of tasty tomatoes. Starting from the right, a cherry tomato had been roasted in a sweetened Chinese vinegar that was very similar to balsamic vinegar and enhanced the natural sweetness of the fruit.
In the middle was a far sharper yellow tomato covered in delicately fluffy strips of pastry. This pastry is more usually found wrapped around turnip as a Dim Sum dish, but it’s an inspired compliment to the tomato, especially when combined with the earthy truffle cream.
The final tomato bite was a delicate and light tomato-flavoured marshmallow-esque foam with a herby basil-ish tint to it.
The ‘umami’ noodle dish was surprisingly simple and something of an anticlimax following the inventive flourishes of the tomato trio. Soft egg noodles had been stir fried in chilli oil and topped with salty dried shrimp, earthy slivers of mushroom and crisp spring onions. It’s a safe and homely dish, but it’s a little too simple for its own good given the high prices.
The most eye-catching dish of the evening had to be the ‘bubble tea’ – a test tube filled with mildly hot, spiced tapioca at the bottom and a top layer of basil. Drunk with a straw, slurped from bottom to top it’s an unusual palette cleansing combination of spiciness and herbiness that’s unexpectedly tingly and very effective.
I’m a big fan of xiaolongbao, a dish of soup-filled dumplings originally from Shanghai. Bo’s version eschews the thick doughy dumpling skins of the traditional version in favour of an incredibly thin shell that resembles an egg yolk more than any traditional dumpling skin. Despite its remarkable thinness, it’s been filled with a rich, fatty, salty yet meatless soup. It’s a satisfying combination of the unexpected and the traditional, although the Hedgie wished for a little more ginger to cut through the richness of the soup.
The soft and milky chunk of lobster has an unusual appearance as it’s studded with rice krispies, but the contrast between the crisp grains of rice and the soft crustacean works surprisingly well. The roasted corn purée is rich, creamy and suits the lobster well but the butter allegedly spiced with Sichuan pepper isn’t buttery or peppery in the slightest. To clear the palate, there’s a refreshing cube of watermelon-flavoured jelly.
Lettuce filled with noodles and various other fillings is a fairly common staple in more authentic Chinese restaurants. Here the lettuce has been filled with crispy, deep-fried vermicelli noodles and seared foie gras. The contrast between the crispness of the vermicelli and the lettuce on the one hand and the softness of the foie gras on the other was spoilt by the relative plainness of the foie gras. It wasn’t quite as rich or buttery as I was expecting, but the relatively rich and creamy sauce helped compensate for this to a certain extent.
As naturally as night follows day, wagyu beef followed the foie gras. Although the Hedgie’s first cube of wagyu was a duffer, both of my wagyu cubes had an incredible depth of flavour with layers of marbled fattiness and moist, moreish meatiness. The beef is served with a few strands of distinctly chive flavoured noodles in what is described as a beef bouillon. The soup actually bears a striking resemblance to traditional Chinese medicinal broths made with carrots and dried goji berries or wolfberries and provides a rich, lightly sweet backdrop to the beef.
The final savoury dish of the evening was prepared at our table by Alvin Leung himself. Dressed entirely in black and a natty pair of shades, the Man himself has an incredibly expressive pair of eyebrows. He prepared a dish of bacon, bacon fat, eggs, truffle oil and steamed rice garnished with spring onions at every single table that evening which seemed unnecessary given the simplicity of the dish. It wasn’t quite as rich and homely as we were expecting though due to the amount of rice outweighing the other ingredients.
Deep fried banana fritters often turn up on the menus of Chinese takeaways throughout Britain and the first dessert could be seen as an elaborate homage to this humble dessert. A milky, tangy cream made from condensed milk was encased in a light, crisp deep-fried pastry and served with a sharp, tangy banana ice cream. Some small, crunchy chocolate balls added variation in texture, although the caramel sauce added little. Still, a tasty dessert.
The second dessert arrived in a miniature milk bottle complete with its own foil top, but with a twist – a powerful whiff of smoky sandalwood that’s very pungent. Although very aromatic, it didn’t really complement the top layer of soft, creamy almond tofu. This tofu was easily the best tasting part of the dessert – the bottom layer of sour cherries was far too bland and ruined what could have been a cracking dessert.
Although flawed, the sandalwood-scented almond tofu was a masterpiece compared to the shipwreck that was the third dessert. The strawberry cream and chip consisted of a deep fried won ton skin in the shape of an ampersand covered in golden syrup and dehydrated strawberries. The entire thing is then served on a bed of white chocolate powder. Sadly, the deep fried won ton skin was just too hard and stale-tasting and all the bog standard accoutrements couldn’t rescue it. It was so bad, the Hedgie couldn’t bring himself to finish his portion.
It’s a good thing that I had the foresight to order the off-the-menu Sex on the Beach, otherwise our meal would’ve ended on a very sour note indeed. This dessert is Alvin Leung’s signature dish at his Hong Kong restaurant, so it’s odd that it’s off the menu here (although that does follow the annoying trend of many Chinatown restaurants hiding the good stuff off the menu).
It’s called Sex on the Beach since it’s intentionally designed to resemble a used condom discarded on a sandy beach. The lily-livered might find the very appearance of this dessert off-putting, but it’s worth bearing with. The biscuit crumb (the sand if you like) has an initial taste of ginger, but this quickly gives way to the unmistakably numbing tingly taste of Sichuan pepper. The heat of this unusual ingredient is neatly counterbalanced by the milky ice cream dollop served both on the side and inside the jelly-esque ‘condom’. It’s a quirkily inventive dessert full of panache.
The petit fours weren’t bad, but the only real highlight here was the powerfully zesty lime macaron.
I was content to sip tap water for the entire evening, but the Hedgie opted for the sole signature cocktail of baijiu mash. Baijiu is a potent Chinese spirit made from a variety of grains depending on which part of China the spirit is made in. Rice and sorghum are the varieties that the Hedgie has encountered most often and he describes it as a ‘dirty drink for tramps’ with a flavour akin to being kicked in the genitalia.
Here, the baijiu has been mixed with egg whites, lemon and lime and then served in a traditional but ungainly double-spouted Chinese drinking vessel. The herby smell gives way to a delicately fruity taste which wasn’t what the Hedgie was expecting at all.
At its best, the food at Bo London is inventive, clever, flavourful and, if you’re familiar with more traditional Chinese food, plays and toys with your expectations. However, it can also badly misfire or even just limp and coast along on a single key ingredient, neither of which is acceptable at this price. Bo London has the potential to be great, but for now it’s merely respectably good.
Name: Bo London
Address: 4 Mill Street, London W1S 2AX
Phone: 020 7493 3886
Opening Hours: Monday-Friday 12.30-15.00 and 19.00-23.00. Saturday 19.00-23.00.
Total cost for one person including drinks and service charge when shared between two people: £170 approx.