Bo London, 4 Mill Street, London W1
Saturday 05 January 2013
It's all gone a bit Eyes Wide Shut. I'm sitting, head tipped back, with a porcelain speculum angled into my mouth, from which a pale, foamy liquid is supposed to be flowing. A small, intent group of men in black have gathered round to urge me on. Gripping my silver beaker by its tiny handles, I tip it even higher, like a clumsy toddler with a sucky cup. Just when it seems the whole lot will pour out over my chin, a thin flow of liquid drizzles out and the watching men sigh and smile and move away. Welcome to the whisky sour, served Alvin Leung-style. And to the fun and games of Bo London, the most exciting restaurant you'll probably never go to.
You may have read about this place, and its flamboyant owner, Leung, the self-styled Demon Chef from Hong Kong. He gave a pre-launch interview to this newspaper, talking about how he wants to take diners to the border of comfort before pulling them back, like bungee jumpers. Self-taught, Leung is famous in Hong Kong as a TV chef and for his Michelin-starred restaurant, Bo Innovation, which introduced the techniques of molecular gastronomy to the Asian repertoire – though he rejects the m-word, preferring to call his style "X-treme Chinese".
If I had only read that Independent article a little more closely before I went to Bo London, I would have realised that not only is Leung's food X-treme, it's also X-pensive. Much more so than I was X-pecting. There's one sure-fire way of producing a bungee-jump lurch in a customer's stomach, and that's to give them a menu with only two options – a 15-course 'Chef's Menu' for £138, or the cheaper 'Ode to Great Britain', at £98 for 12 courses. It certainly worked for me. My whole life flashed before my eyes, even as our waiter served our (reckless, it now seemed) cocktails, and strongly recommended that we really, really should try the Chef's Menu…
The OMG impact of the prices is thankfully mirrored by much of what comes out of the kitchen; brace yourself, sensation-seekers, for a display of synaesthetic shock and awe, complete with smoke, light boxes and an explanatory back story for every dish.
Leung's GB-inspired menu, in which he wackily reinterprets some of our national dishes, may be a great headline-grabber, but it also offers moments of subtlety and brilliance. Only fleetingly do the flavours collide with anything you may have encountered before in a Chinese restaurant. A spoonful of rice-wine-infused raw mackerel comes in a rose-scented cloud of dry ice. Steamed soup dumplings, crowned with avruga caviar, burst open to flood the mouth with a swoony hit of classic steak and kidney. 'Toad in the hole' is a proper little Yorkshire pudding, in a bone-marrow-enriched gravy, but the 'toad' is frog's leg, partnered with the chestnut-ish bite of lotus bulb, nodding to the artistic association between frogs and lotus leaves.
Another traditional reference, the bird's nest, appears here in 'bed and breakfast', a smoked quail's egg wrapped in the lightest taro basket, pimped up with caviar and gold leaf, and perched on a silver tree. The best dish wasn't on the menu, but was given as a substitute to my oyster-averse guest. The 'dead garden' is Leung's riposte to the foraging tendency; a box of 'soil' and 'grass' – an umami-rich rubble of dried porcini mushrooms on a foam of green onion and lime, from which freeze-dried enoki mushrooms twist up to suggest dead plants. It sounds grotesque, but it was stunningly delicious.
There were some misses – a bubble tea, served in a test tube mounted on a light box, looked show-stopping, but the contents – hawthorn juice, basil foam, and chilli-filled tapioca balls – were mildly repulsive. And a dessert of almond cream and fruit compote which released a dense aroma of sandalwood reminded us not of the temple, but of a Muller Fruit Corner eaten too near a joss stick.
Leung himself brings some of the dishes to table, and prowls the room, a tattooed silverback with the shag-cut of a Seventies heavy-metal drummer. It's hard to reconcile this intense, slightly menacing figure with the intricately-wrought, gold-leaf-sprinkled food, which seems more OCD than AC/DC.
The room, too, is oddly polite and bland, for all the maverick intentions. It was freezing on the night we visited; no need to trick out the food with clouds of dry ice when the same effect was produced every time the door opened. And the noise levels, from groups of suity business diners, were unforgivable, given that Leung worked for years as an acoustical engineer before becoming a chef.
For all Leung's talk of pushing diners out of the comfort zone, Bo London isn't game-changing. But our meal had an integrity which made it much more than Chinese food with a modernist vajazzle. It won't cause the sensation here that it caused in Hong Kong, but it will attract an audience, of the rich, jaded and curious. Most of them, crucially, on X-penses.
Bo London, 4 Mill Street, London W1 (020-7493 3886). Set lunch menu £30/£35; set dinner £98/£138
Tipping policy: 'Service charge is 12.5 per cent discretionary. All tips and service charge go to the staff
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