His reputation precedes him. When you hear ‘Demon Chef’ and ‘X-treme Chinese Cuisine’ in the same sentence from the people at the JW Marriott Juhu, you’re bound to feel a tad nervy as you’re heading there to sample his daringly different dinner.
We spy him in the show kitchen when we enter the stunning Spices restaurant. Chef Alvin Leung stands out in his chef blacks and stylish shades amongst a sea of white. And when we hear a raised voice while we’re sipping wine and having a jabber with our dining companions, it only adds to the aura around this self-taught chef whose Hong Kong-restaurant Bo Innovation has three coveted Michelin stars, while his Bo London had also earned one soon after it opened. His take on Chinese food combines heritage recipes with modern ingredients and molecular gastronomy. He tells us his cooking is all about being a ‘playful spirit’, a Daemon in Greek, when it comes to food creation. And that’s what his tattoo says too, to remind him to be naughty, laughs the Demon Chef.
We wonder what’s in store for us as we take a peek at the menu. No Sex on the Beach, we observe. That’s the dish that first put him in the global limelight. Everyone was doing soil; he decided to go several steps ahead and donate the proceeds to an AIDS charity. Now that’s truly X-treme! We’re a trifle disappointed and also rather relieved that we won’t be receiving the platter scattered with shiitake mushroom ‘sand’ and an ostensibly used and discarded pink condom made of tapioca and yam, injected with a white mixture made of honey and ham, artfully tossed over it.
What arrives instead, is a rather tame-looking dim sum trio. The crunchiness and fresh accents of the Chicken Pesto Spring Roll are a good contrast to the juicy and intense Sichuan Lamb Xiao Long Bao. As good as the flavours are, we think that this Xiao Long Bao doesn’t quite seem to be the molecular bao spherification that made Chef Alvin famous. The best of the trio, we all declare is the Truffle Har Kau. But then again, we’re suckers for the earthy-metallic taste of truffle in anything! The vegetarians agree; their black truffle crispy taro is delicious, while the vegetarian spring roll and dumpling aren’t as stand out.
The next course is exciting, with the non-vegetarians being served Ice Tomato, which melds the tartness of dehydrated heirloom tomatoes, Chinese herbs and vinegar with the creaminess of cottage cheese; the final taste not dissimilar from our all-time favourite salad, the watermelon and feta. The bowl is presented with a puff of pageantry and everyone gets busy with their smartphone cameras. The Dead Garden that the vegetarians receive with no such fanfare looks like a messy mud patch from hell but tastes heavenly. The morel mushroom ‘soil’ and the slender enoki, fried and treated with liquid nitrogen, that make it look like those soak-the-legume school projects, give the dish a flavourful funkiness that’s offset by the green onion and lime and the smooth avocado mousse.
The fish course is fantastic, the sea bass flaking delicately as the deep flavours of black garlic and black bean roll around the mouth languorously. The lightly braised green pepper and hints of yuzu add zing, while the salty and umami shaved slivers of karasumi (cured mullet roe that’s often called the poor man’s caviar) take it to another level of delish. Sometimes the surprise star of a Michelin-star meal is an ingredient that isn’t one of the usual suspects. In contrast, the vegetarian offering of Woba, Chef Alvin’s take on traditional leftover burnt rice, has instead, crispy puffed rice, sugar snap peas and corn in a sluggish Shanghainese pickling butter sauce.
We aren’t comfortable with a huge kick of chilli so although we love some elements that come with the locally-sourced lobster, we find the spice levels in the Sichuan hollandaise and the Bo chilli sauce a bit too fiery for our palate and slightly overwhelming for the sweet lobster flesh. Of course, going by the appreciative ooh and aahs around the table, we are in a minority of one and this is a very well received plate! The vegetarians, meanwhile, have a relatively cool course as they get to sample the Ice Tomato the non-vegetarians had earlier.
Next up is the Organic Chicken, straight off the Bo Innovation menu, albeit made from nine years aged Arborio rice instead of his usual Acquerello. The chicken comes rolled and wrapped in crispy skin, that’s reminiscent of the bacon-wrapped chicken, an old Chinese-restaurant staple. The risotto-like rice is cooked in ginger and chicken stock with wood ear for added texture. Perhaps Chef Alvin was going for a deconstructed chicken-rice, which usually has finely chopped ginger. It’s delicious but we think it could’ve been even better with some pandan or yuzu. The vegetarian Black Forest that is served simultaneously is really novel, literally taking us to the dark side. For this, Chef Alvin uses the same dark wood ear fungus with black carrot, a truffle taro purée over charred veggies and a dusting of charcoal powder!
Next, we’re treated to something simply called Coconut, which is a very tropical take on dessert. The palm-sugar ice-cream is absolutely scrumptious, the roasted pineapple adding bite and the tapioca and toasty pine nuts, texture.
As meals go, this one is certainly memorable, treating us to a tantalisingly different array of food thoughts that challenged the rules. As with the other Michelin meals that the JW Marriott Juhu has organised with Asia’s leading pop-up expert 4XFOUR earlier this year, this one too, has given us a glimpse of what a culinary giant is up to in the kitchen and left us curious enough to want to pop over to Hong Kong to blow up some big moolah on the double! If that’s not a successful pop-up, we don’t know what is.
Tel: 022 66933344 or 7710060732
Venue: Spices, JW Marriott Mumbai Juhu, Juhu Tara Rd, Mumbai
Pricing: Rs 4,500 plus taxes per person (without alcohol)