A hidden French bistro draws inspiration from Japanese seafood

Updated: 2014-02-16 08:36

By Rebecca Lo in Hong Kong(China Daily)

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Despite living in Western District where there is a plethora of good grocers, temporary and permanent, I love Wanchai market.

Not the controversial historic building with a high-rise condominium grafted on top of it, but the stalls where fish swim merrily in circles and hawkers beckon shoppers by proclaiming their produce is the freshest.

If I am in the neighborhood, I will make a stop there to see what's seasonally available. Though the environment is less than posh, many restaurateurs share the same sentiment and have opened outlets or private kitchens to be as close to the competitively priced produce as possible.

The latest to arrive on the scene is Serge et le Phoque. It opened without any fanfare or publicity last summer, and even today the ground-level restaurant doesn't have any signage. Strictly through word of mouth, Serge has steadily gained a following for its inventive Gallic dishes made with fresh seafood and Japanese flourishes.

It would be wrong to call Serge fusion, as the French and Japanese components are distinctive and immediately recognizable. Ingredients are predominantly Asian: Razor clams, octopuses, yuzu and chrysanthemums are just a few. It's the presentation and attitude that distinguishes the restaurant as contemporary European.

I liked the full-height glass front of the restaurant, and its situation along Wanchai Road opposite the market stalls reassured me about its quality ingredients. There is a small counter with bar stools near the entry that appears popular with the local French crowd for chatting over a glass of wine. Behind it is the bar where drinks and cocktails are concocted.

The rest of the restaurant is devoted to an open dining room with a combination of banquet seating and individual tables and chairs. White globe pendant lamps give the rough stucco walls a cheerful glow. Orange and green upholstered seats against plywood furnishings are casually chic. To one side is a cheese table where fromage from Paris' renowned Alleosse is sliced for the cheese course in the four-course set menu.

I first glanced at the wine menu, which is de rigeur in a French restaurant. As expected, it was dominated by French vintages with a couple of reds, whites and sparklings by the glass. What was refreshing was how many bottles were affordable at around the HK$350-600 ($45-77) range for a fairly decent label. I also liked that there were plenty of spirits to choose from.

A hidden French bistro draws inspiration from Japanese seafood

For those stopping by just for drinks, there are cheese, sausage and cold-cut platters to snack on. We were seeking more substantial sustenance, so we opted for the set menu with its six choices each of starters, mains and dessert.

I was in the mood for soup, and went with squid soup with chestnuts, mandarin and chrysanthemum. We were first served a complimentary amuse bouche of tuna sashimi that was balanced with lean and fatty fish. It did a good job of whetting my appetite.

My soup was full of unami, the robust broth contrasting perfectly with the tempura style of the chrysanthemum greens and squid chunks.

We then received another complimentary surprise in the form of pan-seared frog legs, immaculately frenched so that we could pick them up and eat them delicately. The meat was plump and juicy, and tasted like very succulent chicken.

With the menu dominated by seafood, I was hankering for some meat and chose Hugo's beef with smoked garlic, enoki, sea snails and nori for my main course. Seared on the outside and juicy-pink on the inside, the beef was melt-in-the-mouth delicious. The scattering of seaweed and garlic gave the dish a lovely crunch while the mushrooms balanced out the textures. The dot of fresh-ground pepper to one side was both artistic and palette pleasing.

After a couple of bites of the ripe camembert, I dove into my Dacquoise with vanilla cream and nougatine. Our waiter assured us that it was like macaroons elevated to an art form and I agreed, relishing its lighter-than-air puffiness with a faint dusting of icing sugar.

We wanted to thank Serge for his efforts, but found out that "Serge" was actually the name of the owner's kindergarten-age son. Maybe Serge is already being groomed for the kitchen, as his dad's restaurant will surely spawn success.


 A hidden French bistro draws inspiration from Japanese seafood

Squid soup with chestnuts, mandarins and chrysanthemums. Rebecca Lo / for China Daily

(China Daily 02/16/2014 page7)