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Restaurant Review: The French Window 食評:「法國窗」

One moment I was window-shopping outside Prada and Burberry, the next I found myself being ushered down a never-ending tunnel lined with giant louvered shutters painted in a rustic fern green. At times it felt like the fictional land of Brobdingnag in Gulliver's Travels, or was it the curious hallway after Alice tumbled down the rabbit hole? The otherworldly entrance to The French Window, the latest addition to Hong Kong’s upscale restaurant scene, is as much a bold design statement as it is a harbinger of the gastronomical journey to come. I could almost see the Cheshire Cat grinning in the tree.

French Window at IFC Mall

The new kid on the block hides inconspicuously between a health club and a Chinese restaurant on the third floor of IFC Mall, just about the last place in the city I would expect to find haute cuisine. That perhaps explains why AB Concept, the award-winning interior designer for the restaurant, spared no expense (or space) to create an entrance that bridges reality to fantasy. The dining room itself is at once industrial and warm, working off a muted olive-metallic palette and featuring heavily textured wall treatments with no shortage of art deco motifs. By the time I trod down the bouncy carpeting and arrived at my table overlooking the sweeping Kowloon skyline, the visual feast was complete and the culinary one about to begin.

At the helm in the kitchen is head chef Mickael Le Calvez, a 24-year-old wunderkind who graduated the top of his class from the prestigious Hotelier La Closerie culinary school in Côtes-d'Armor. In his solo debut outside France, young Mickey was guided by celebrity chef Justin Quek, one of Asia’s few true masters of French cuisine. Following his successes with Les Amis in Singapore and a half dozen restaurants in Taipei and Shanghai, the Singapore-native sure knows a thing or two about the Asian palate. As I studied the carefully designed menu, I could almost picture the energetic Le Calvez, with well-honed techniques and halting English, cooking up a storm in the kitchen only to be reined in by an old hand twice his age who suggested using milk instead of cream, more olive oil and less butter to suit Asia’s preference for lighter fare.

Chefs Le Calvez (right) and Quek

The degustation menu opened with a silky-smooth pumpkin cappuccino to be slurped with a straw. The amuse bouche set the tone for the rest of the meal: simple, pleasing and positively playful. The teaser was followed by a trio of tiny green apples, which turned out to be a daring reinterpretation of the classic French dish of avocado shrimp. As the mélange of flavors worked its way through my palate, I was momentarily transported to a sylvan grove in the South of France. The only pity was that my favorite dish of the evening had come so soon.

The arrival of the eye-popping beef carpaccio Rossigny, the restaurant’s signature dish, put an immediate stop to my suddenly unimportant dinner conversation. Whatever topic my guest and I were discussing could most certainly wait. Alternating strips of foie gras and lightly salted raw beef lay unsuspectingly on a simple rectangular plate, pretending that it didn’t already know it was the most sought-after dish on the entire menu. The creation packed a powerful and complex punch, with every bite releasing a different, nuanced flavor and leaving us bewildered as to how such rich ingredients managed not to overpower one another.

A few hearty quaffs of Muscat d’Alsace later, the meal shifted to a heavier gear, as the young waiter of impeccable manners replaced my silverware with exquisite Laguiole cutlery. The grilled lamb with potato fondant, housed within an architecturally inventive potato tube, was a welcome change of pace as I finished my luscious white and moved on to a full-bodied Bordeaux. But if French cuisine is all about the sauce, then those looking for a sumptuous jus to go with the tender meat were bound to be disappointed. The scant amount of pesto sauce, however well-prepared, was used to glaze the serving plate for visual effect, leaving very little for actual tasting.

Grilled lamb

Dessert was a modest helping of diced fruits draped under a translucent pastry sheet made from agar-agar. Kiwi, pineapple and sundry other tropical fruits were somewhat odd candidates for a French dessert, but both the taste and the presentation held up well. The meal was rounded up nicely with a sampling from the plateau des fromages that featured a generous selection of classic and exotic cheeses sourced from all over France.

I took the same winding tunnel that led me back to the shopping mall, not realizing that I had just spent three hours in on a culinary tour de France that fed both the eye and the mouth with equal bounty. Dorothy finally woke up in Kansas, only this time she found herself surrounded by night cleaning staff working their waxing machines on the marble floor. In many ways the French Window reflects the ethos of its head chef: young, creative and daring with a sense of adventure. Together they breathe a breath of fresh air to the oftentimes complacent restaurant scene in Hong Kong and are on their way to becoming a force to reckon with.
___________________________
A shorter version of this article was published in the March/April 2010 issue of Men’s Folio.

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