Alvin Leung tile face (1 of 1) © 2010 . All rights reserved.

Bo Innovation (Alvin Leung) in Wanchai, Hong Kong (1*)

Straight after eating at Bo Innovation I glibly described the food as being  like that by a “naughty schoolboy who is not as talented as he thinks he is“.  Having thought a bit more about our meal the problem is it is worse than that.

Dead Garden - morel, caterpillar fungus, green onion, lime

Bo Innovation is for those of you who haven’t been entangled in the Alvin Leung (the “demon chef”) star bandwagon is the Asian version of Heston Blumenthal or Ferran Adria.  Molecular gastronomy done to classic Asian dishes.  You’ll soon hear more about him if you live in London as he will be opening a restaurant there to foist Emperor’s new clothes on people.

True-8 Vinegar - tomato, foie gras, ginger with the vinegar then used for "Beggars Chicken"

I normally write reviews pretty soon after eating at a restaurant but for this one I let my thoughts marinate and I have found myself more and more angry at the experience.  This meal cost around 1,500hkd a head (£120) with a couple of glasses of wine and the entry level menu.  The food thought it was cutting edge, unfortunately it was derivative or a way to do nothing particularly worthwhile with good ingredients.

Cod - white miso, sauternes, sparkling sake lime jelly

I think half the problem with Bo Innovation is the hype behind it.  This is meant to be the *wow* in Hong Kong where you get interesting molecular gastronomy from a cigar chomping chef superstar (Alvin Leung).  Everything is based around quite how special Alvin Leung and the cuisine he bestows on you is.  You get a tiled narcissistic picture of him when you enter and then the waiters disclaim to you that “Alvin is quite special” and “you should prepare yourself for a surprise“.  Here in Hong Kong he is seen as somewhat of a white horse to show how modern and interesting Asian food can be against the onslaught of imported Western names. I mean this is where Anthony Bourdain eats when he visits.

Molecular - xiao long bao

However, when I went in person to the restaurant a couple of weeks before to book (and you needn’t bother as you can get a reservation on the day) I asked if Alvin would be there in person in the near future.  The receptionist proudly stated that “Alvin will not be here in November or December as he is away cooking at shows and doing presentations“. It was obvious that this was meant to impress me by showing how famous and popular he is.  Unfortunately I don’t care about that.  All I could think was that here is a restaurant where the head chef isn’t going to turn up to work for two months…. Hmmm.

Hairy Crab - aged zhenjiang vinegar (150hkd supplement)

And this went on through the meal – some kind of misguided belief that this really was ground breaking cuisine and much better than it actually was.  But it really isn’t.  What came out was old hat.  And using techniques such as molecular cooking is no excuse for ignoring the need to produce a good enjoyable dish.  I mean look at the “Molecular XLB” two pictures above, that is a straight rip off of Ferran Adria’s Molecular Olive (pictures in a review of El Bulli hotel here for comparison).  That said it was also one of the few highlights of the meal so thank god you can’t copyright dishes.

Ginger nitrogen ice cream palate cleanser

All the other dishes were, quite frankly, a touch average and tricks such as liquid nitrogen couldn’t rescue them. The picture above is of the liquid nitrogen ice cream which was served as a palate cleanser and is now such a widespread trick that you actually have an ice cream shop in London solely specialising in such stuff (Chin Chin Labs).  More importantly it wasn’t particularly enjoyable – like freeze dried aerated ginger.  Other “innovative” dishes suffered from this flaw.  One I particularly remember/ regret involved a soup of Chinese vinegar in which stringy foie gras was dunked and had the three of us at the table coughing.  We tried to like it but it wasn’t different, it was just annoying.

Langoustine - english mustard, salty egg, cauliflower, black truffle, peas, duck sauce

For mains I had the sweetbread which was another 100hkd supplement but which was a gutless little dish that made me wish I was eating at St John’s instead and Jen had the Langoustine (above).  Apparently the Langoustine was fine and made nice use of raw cauliflower.

Dragon Eye - blue cheese coconut (80hkd supplement)

In a fit of madness I ordered a further supplemental dish, the Dragon Eye.  It tasted like a shredded Bounty bar with blue cheese on top.

Shui Jing Fang - banana, vanilla, caramel, raisins

The saddest thing about the meal is that the best dish was the dessert. In itself this is no reason for shame but all the dessert was, was a banana liqueur pudding or “Bananas Foster”.  The least showy of the dishes was, in fact, the most tasty one.

Petit fours - with bought White Rabbits and sugar gems

So… as is fairly clear Bo Innovation is a big no for me. I still wonder how I would feel about it if you took away the tiled picture of Alvin Leung, dispersed some modesty into the air and actually had a chef who turned up to work .  It would also help if there wasn’t such a hope or expectation in Hong Kong that Bo Innovation is great or that it rivals the Blumenthals and Adrias of this world.  Because it doesn’t and Hong Kong doesn’t need it to.  Hong Kong has food in spades that blows away 90% of the countries in the world and dishes which you can buy for street food prices that are above and beyond 3* Michelin jaunts in France or Spain.

  • Price – 1,500hkd a head or more without alcohol
  • Shop 13, 2/F J Residence, 60 Johnston Road, Wan Chai, Hong Kong

PS Bo Innovation used to have 2* Michelin but lost one in the 2010 guide.

31 Comments

  1. Great write-up. I couldn’t agree more, though I’d probably be harsher and say that even if Alvin was there, it mightn’t have been that great. He’s the mastermind behind it all, but as far as I know, he doesn’t do the cooking. I want to know where the lady (I think it was a lady) who did his cooking went!

    • Same here – as soon as we can track her down I am off to Kowloon for some proper innovative food. Interestingly a lot of people say it has being going downhill. Not that surprising with no head chef present for large chunks of time.

  2. Aw, I was looking forwards to you taking us there for my birthday.
    Did they really serve White Rabbits in a basket?

  3. laydeejol

    Lol i told u lunch would’ve been a better bet ;) x

    • I can’t get all the way to Wan Chai at lunch annoyingly. In future I’ll take your advice. Any thoughts on the Krug Room?

  4. Great review – reason for such hype on BO is because there wasn’t such thing as molecular cooking in Hong Kong and he probably was the person who had the balls to bring this to Hong Kong.

    To be honest, I haven’t tried this restaurant therefore I cannot give any opinion on this but quite frankly, I dont want to spend HKD2000 a head in eating foam.

    Enough said.

    Happy Eating
    Geoff

    • Coming to HK I would have always gone. I am just glad I went for the entry level menu. I think lunch – if you are ever going to go – and keeping it bargainous is the best way to go.

    • Rock

      well u should better come to BO because the food is well worth its price.!

  5. Wow… $1500 a head and they serve White Rabbit and those cheap-as Iced Gem things at the end?!

    As I think I said to e_ting on Twitter, I’ve been for lunch a fair few times and the quality has gone downhill with each time I’ve been. Just talking about the set lunch menu (that’s all I can afford!), since the first time I went about 18 months ago, the dim sum menu is deeply reduced, there are fewer courses served and everything feels a bit less ‘special’.

    However, I will defend their service. Whenever I have visited, it has been attentive, with staff taking the time to explain each dish without being too grandiose.

    To be honest, I think the demon chef needs a little more challenging in the HK market to bring back his A-Game! But you’ve definitely put me off ever forking out for their dinner! Great photos as ever too.

    • Two people have noted the white rabbits now. I have to say I didn’t know they were called that until highlighted in the comments but they were tastier than the funky macaroons.

      I have no complaints about the service. We had quite a spunky Hong Kong/ Australian guy serving us who was fun and a good host. We personally thanked him when we left. That said, for these prices, I really don’t expect the service to be anything but good.

      Thanks for the compliment on the photos. Poor e_ting and Jen had to put up with me stopping them eating!

      And I am really curious if there are any other (good) molecular or inventive places around.

  6. Pete

    I liked Bo Innovation (Bo Innoseki in its previous incarnation) years ago, when Alvin came up with the deconstructed “lap mei fun”. But lately, all these hype and self-proclaimed superstardom seemed to be a tad tiresome. And the stratospheric prices don’t help. Thanks for giving a courageous & honest opinion.

    • I have read quite a lot about the Yak and Milk which actually does sound pretty good but wasn’t available when I went. I kind of hope that the restaurant gets a refocus as I think it could (or maybe only ever was) be very good.

  7. G

    Before all the hype happened, or I should really say, before the Michelin Star, Bo was good once upon a time. I still remember my first dining experience there from a couple years ago – and this was when the menu was only $600-$800 – he WAS behind the kitchen and the food WAS good and innovative. I returned again after he got the stars and sadly, it was just as disappointing as your experience. It’s really unfortunate that Alvin has fallen into the classic Michelin trap of arrogance (I just made that up). Probably not going back again either.

    • G – what is quite interesting is that I am not really aware that anyone has followed his path (he in turn having following the Spanish chefs). It seems strange as he has obviously been very successful in bringing molecular cuisine to HK. Where is the next one to go and try before it gets over confident?!

  8. Charmaine

    Awww, and I think we were both hoping you would be proven wrong! What a travesty, and at such a price to boot. I’m so glad you went so I don’t have to.

    Ps can’t believe they had the cheek to offer white rabbit and gem biscuits as petit fours, which is probably the equivalent of presenting someone here with a dish of flying saucers. There’s a difference between being tongue-in-cheek and being a twat.

    • The hate for the white rabbits is amazing! But I think I kind of understand now, basically the HK equivalent of cola bottles or flying saucers. Actually pretty tasty. Not exactly a patch on Amber’s awesome petit fours selection though.

      I will be interested to see what happens if he does launch in London. Presumably there will be a refocus and personal attention once again. Maybe it will be great?! Hopefully it will be cheaper.

  9. Is being a ‘sleb chef like being a rock star? It all starts off well but then they forget what made them great in the first place. The songs become formulaic, the guitar solos interminable and no one knows what the lyrics means. Yet there will be those that will consider them the ‘second coming’ just cos people say they are.

    It’ll be interesting to see what the reaction will be when this fella hits London.

    • I’ll be really curious to see what you think when it does hit. One thing Jen and I were thinking about was whether it will actually be revelatory to European diners because of the fact that he is playing with ingredients which although now familiar to me are still largely unknown to the public at large in Europe.

      Could be interesting…

  10. I don’t know about the food but if I’d paid £120 for a tasting menu and they gave me White Rabbits and iced gems at the end, I’d be livid.

  11. Charmaine

    Well, to be fair I love white rabbits – but I don’t think they have a place in a Michelin-starred restaurant :/

    Like you say, I think Londoners will lap it up. He will be the new, post-Yau representer of ‘modern Chinese’ cuisine. There’s no accounting for taste though…

    • I know… but I am a ghetto Alan Yau lover. That said, maybe now I am wise in the ways of wonton (or no longer ignorant) my views will have moved on :)

  12. Daphne Wong

    Hi Tom, I enjoy your website.

    Just to share a little – I dropped by in Jun 2010 and on a random weekday, paid Bo Innovation a visit for lunch. No booking required. I am no gourmand and I purely wanted to visit because I’m a huge fan of Bourdain and Bo was featured on No Reservations. I was blown away by this concept of ‘deconstructed gastronomy’ just when I thought HK was all about dimsum ;p So i swore to visit. I was fairly impressed by the food though my partner wasn’t… And I was lucky because Alvin Leung happened to be in that day! (according to the waiter he ‘sometimes’ drops by after lunch) So I asked for a picture with him and he kindly obliged. A rather quiet persona, quite unlike the cigar-chomping character we see on TV.

  13. Hi Daphne – that sounds like a far better drop in than ours. I think lunch is probably the best way to experience the Bo on a budget as the wow factor will get you through.

    You are not alone on being a fan of Bourdain. I think Jen would barely be able to speak if she ran into him at a restaurant!

  14. Spooks

    Totally agree about Alvin. First experienced him when he had a tiny cupboard of a place in Sheung Wan and even then he was so far up His own arse that it t me off the food. Having to endure the boy flinging himself around the cigar divan I frequent makes it even more so irritating. I’ve also heard the same accusations of him not actually doing any of the cooking and ripping off the sous-chef(s).

    Until late last year Kee Club had a gem of a molecular chef in the form of Bonelli. Interned at El Bulli and Fat Duck. Disappeared for a bit and has now reappeared in TST at Luxe Manor – http://www.gedining.com. Opens end March but has been soft opening for the last two weeks. Two thirds the price of Bo. You can thank me for this tip by raving about his cuisine when you try it; I’m confident it’ll live up.

  15. Spooks

    [crap, posting in the right thread now]
    I’ve got a scan of the tasting menu if you want it; let me have an email addy if so. [yes it's the same bloke as the last post but with a proper email addy this time, not some random placeholder]

    • Hmmm – went last night to the soft opening. He appears to be a good pastry chef but everything else was a bit overindulgent and attempting to shoehorn far too many flavours/ textures/ colours/ styles into one dish.

      I think he perhaps needs the oversight of another chef. Or something. Despite just eating there last night I only remember one dish clearly – a fantastic yoghurt based dessert.

  16. Bonita

    Tom and Jen,

    Thank you for sharing this with us. I can’t agree more with you. Bo Innovation is a successful marketing ploy. My experience there was thoroughly disappointing and the food pairing completely bizarre.

    My personal take on food gastronomy should be to maximise the essence of the produce in order to create a unique yet familiar dish – not chucking in all ingredients into a pot and calling it molecular, then charging customers an arm and leg for the gimmick. Especially not by some “celebrity” architecture turned chef who screams, “look at me.”.

    • Yup – what is really sad is that there is a massive potential for new or elemental cuisine with Chinese food. All those flavours and complicated dishes are perfectly suited to modern techniques. But so few restaurants in HK do the full gambit – food, technique, service, “trendiness” etc.

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