Vegetables are back in the spotlight thanks to a pivot towards sustainability and healthy lifestyles, and three Hong Kong restaurants aim to put produce back in its place as the star of the show.
The unassuming broccoli. The starchy artichokes. Those tiny cherry tomatoes. When it comes to fine dining, these ingredients were once considered, at best, delicious sides to the main dish. But are they good enough to stand alone as top-billed acts on a five-star menu? If you ask a rising number of establishments in Hong Kong, and indeed around the world, on missions to promote vegetables as a primary plate then the answer is a resounding “Yes.”
The truth is that dining in itself has extended beyond what is presented on the dinner plate, relying heavily on the overall experience from entry to exit, how creatively ingredients are interpreted, and most significantly in recent times, how the food impacts the earth and makes you feel long after you put down the fork. Hong Kong has seen a noticeable and prominent rise in plant-forward dining. Aside from the well-known health benefits, the increasingly innovative and sophisticated ways in which chefs are bringing the humble treasures of the earth back to centre stage are resulting in dishes that taste and look just as good – if not better – than a big serving of steak.
In November 2020, French designer-turned chef Tina Barrat opened Ma…and The Seeds of Life in Central, fine dining where raw food reigns supreme. After 26 years in Hong Kong in fashion, Barrat is no stranger to the city’s ever-increasing interest in plant-based cuisine having started with a wide range of dishes at Maya Cafe. Her audience has since expanded and with Ma, she polished her style to give raw food a much-needed revamp, beginning with the label.
“My goal is simple. I want to promote the appreciation of plant-based cuisine, and not only through its health benefits, but also in terms of flavours. For me, good food is good food, it doesn’t require a specific label to highlight something is ‘vegan’. It pigeonholes the cuisine into something often misinterpreted as salad. Ma allows me to present plant-based raw dining with more colourful and vibrant forms.”
Since its opening, Ma’s creative dishes continue to woo local guests, to a point where Barrat keeps her signature dishes on the menu. Her Chiaviar, a play on caviar made with chia seeds, presented in a metal tin and served with cashew sour cream and quinoa blinis, is a playful take on the classic. The Faux Gras Paté is liver-free, of course. Creating the creamy terrine with cashews and rosemary, the chef upped the umami ante with the savoury sweetness of sun-dried tomatoes to add depth to the wonderful treat, served with a dried fruit chutney made with figs, currants, apricots and dates.
Barrat’s fashion background certainly helps with presentation. In this day and age where Instagram and other social media channels are so crucial in spreading the word for restaurants, Barrat is dedicated to good flavours that also look the part, and are pleasing to both the palate and the eye. “I may not be very well-versed on Instagram, but I am keen on sharing posts from my guests. It is also a good way to receive feedback from them.”
At the heart of any menu, but especially a plant-forward menu, is seasonality. Barrat curates her ingredients from organic farms in Hong Kong and Taiwan, as well as a selection from Europe. Upon consideration on availability, Barrat brainstorms on pairings to enhance taste and textures, most often constructing each dish to involve one star ingredient and a handful to match. Another way she has fun is “veganising” familiar dishes. On a previous menu, Barrat reconstructed a beef stew using portobello mushrooms, where the earthy umami of the mushrooms yielded a resemblance to cooked beef. “Young jackfruit can also be a popular meat-alternative and it is an excellent option.”
Raw cuisine requires some lengthy preparation of ingredients at their prime. Barrat imparts the effect of cooking through dehydrating, removing moisture to bring out crisp textures. Sprouting seeds and fermentation also play a significant role in her cuisine, which is gluten free, keto-friendly, and omits many major allergens such as peanuts and dairy. Barrat keeps a few tricks up her sleeve. “I would love to offer fresh spirulina to my guests. With a high protein content its taste is unforgettable. Despite being sourced from the ocean, a fresh crop of spirulina tastes like dairy, almost like cream cheese, and is a wonderful spread on bread. If only we could get over how green it looks,” Barrat describes.
Barrat’s plant-based cheeses are also some of her most creative labours of love. Combining plant-based milk with almond flour, fermented with probiotics and complete with ageing, the plant-based cheeses are flavoured with spices to resemble dairy cheese. Among her creations are almond feta, featured throughout Ma’s menu, and a version of Reblochon, fermented with sauerkraut instead of probiotics. Barrat’s twelve varieties of cheeses are available for retail at her new Le Fromage by Ma plant-based cheese shop, which opened early in 2022.
Moxie is Michelin-starred chef Shane Osborn’s third restaurant after the successful Arcane and Cornerstone. As the newest addition to Osborn’s Arcane Collective, a restaurant group sharing the DNA of sustainability and seasonal ingredient sourcing, Moxie is making waves in the local dining scene
with its bold range of dishes designed and crafted by Michael Smith, a long-time protégé of Osborn.
Smith’s road to vegetarianism was an experiment at first, but he slowly discovered a diminishing craving for meat altogether. “When I started to cut meat off my diet, I could feel my palate changing, allowing me to take charge of my diet in a more holistic way as I became more aware of what I ate. I also enjoy cooking more. I believe many of us start to appreciate a more vegetable-forward approach for concerns over health and ethics, and more often the choice quickly becomes a habit that includes most vegetables, some seafood and very little dairy.”
Smith’s art certainly imitates life, as the restaurant’s menu mirrors a similar approach to his own diet and love of vegetables, with a few proteins sourced from plant-based meat alternatives as well as seafood. “Whenever a change in diet is implemented, it is important to learn more about the possibilities and alternatives. If you cut meat but consume more pasta and bread, the sugar will get you hyped up. You end up consuming more. It is crucial to make an informed change.”
The restaurant, nestled in a quiet corner of the Landmark Atrium, offers a set menu as well as à la carte selections, together with breakfast and a recently launched delivery option. Smith’s approach to creating dishes is more on-the-fly, very much along the same lines as the surprises he receives from his suppliers and farmers. Like Arcane Collective, Moxie shares the core value of spotlighting local produce. “We work with organisations such as Farmhouse Productions, Zero Footprint Asia, and also a few organic farms in Taiwan, Japan, and Europe,” Smith explains. Seasonality, as with Barrat, is the most prominent factor to consider at Moxie, as Smith reveals the difference between sourcing locally and internationally. “In the summer, the heat in Hong Kong and Taiwan can make produce rather scarce, while we can see an abundance of produce in the wintertime; strawberries are amazing in the winter, but each type of produce is available for as little as a week or two.”
With sustainability in mind, Moxie’s unfussy approach to vegetable dining is key to its success. The kitchen’s multicultural team prepares their dishes with great finesse, even though at times the best produce requires little handling to reach its full potential. Moxie strives to showcase not only the flavours but the boundless possibilities of vegetables.
Smith’s move to highlight a Mapo tofu as one of his signature dishes is a bold one. “We do ours the usual way – red and green Sichuan peppercorns, douban chilli paste and fermented black beans. Instead of ground meat, we opted for pearl barley, buckwheat and spelt, all whole grains that can be cooked down to bring texture and richness to the dish. We feel our Mapo tofu is how we pay tribute to locals and to show them the love for this classic dish is universal.”
Other notable dishes include Smith’s Jerusalem artichokes and green beans; the Bagna Cauda’s anchovies have been replaced by white miso and walnuts. The pavlova, a showcase of seasonal fruit made with Taiwanese kiwi to local strawberries and nectarines from southern France, is also a fan-favourite dessert at the restaurant. “It was daring to suggest a pavlova for dessert, not only because Hong Kong’s high humidity makes it difficult to create a stable [meringue], but also because Shane (Osborn) grew up having the best from his family. Fortunately, we got his green light from our trials, and the dessert has been our most popular ever since.”
The rise of the plant-forward, farm-to-table culinary approach in Hong Kong comes partially thanks to restaurants like Roganic, an international outlet of Simon Rogan’s London eatery, opened in February 2019. Rogan’s flagship farm-to-table L’Enclume was recently minted with a three-star Michelin rating alongside a Michelin Green Star. Roganic in Hong Kong has earned similar accolades, with one Michelin star and the Michelin Green Star awarded two years in a row. Roganic Hong Kong has kept Rogan’s ethos in its gastronomy, as the restaurant is fully committed to sustainability and advocates traceability of ingredients sourced for each of its dishes.
Leading Roganic’s kitchen is Ash Salmon. A seasoned chef and protégé of Rogan himself, Salmon has mastered the art of treating their ingredients with respect. “As a restaurant set on showcasing produce, the best way to do so is to avoid manipulating the produce too much with spices and sauces, which may mask the original flavours. A great dish always allows the true colours to shine through, simple as that.” Though the menu features as much as 80 percent local vegetables sourced from farms in the New Territories, namely a wide range of root vegetables, brassicas, and tomatoes, sustainability is still often called into question.
“Sustainability is not a catchphrase, and it is not just about the distance and carbon footprint of vegetables sourced from across the planet. There is so much more that goes into it. For instance, the nutrient level in the soil, the good use of crop cycles, decent farming practices, and reduction of industrial means in farming are all essential elements to consider in sustainability.” As such, Salmon makes a point to continue fostering better relationships with producers and farmers. “Farmers have such vibrant knowledge of their craft. Not only do they grow vegetables, but they also teach us the measures that elevate the crop for maximum potential,” Salmon reveals.
Salmon approaches each variety of produce with the same meticulousness as Rogan would. One of his most notable processes is salt baking. “Salt baking vegetables, especially beetroots, is a great way to intensify the sweetness of root vegetables.” The tomatoes with Hokkaido scallops features a beautiful array of local tomatoes, marinated with herbs and garnished with marigold from the New Territories and a dash of lemon oil. The restaurant is also presenting multiple carrot types as a part of its spring 2022 menu, where carrots are braised in the fat of three-yellow chicken, pickled, and served with celery leaves and an IPA reduction. All the key ingredients are local in the celebratory, spotlight moment for the humble root vegetable.
As these earthy ingredients continue to dazzle on the city’s restaurant scene, Salmon muses about a future that sees an increasing demand for vegetable-forward menus. “We do not try to crusade through everyone’s life decisions to change their diet,” Salmon sums up. “Instead, we advocate on the possibilities to appreciate vegetables by sharing the different facets of each variety of produce, familiar or novel, in ways we know will bring a smile and satisfaction to everyone. We hope by showcasing more vegetables we can invoke active thought to learn more about the vegetables we consume and where they come from. Learning is part of the takeaway from a good dining experience, and hopefully we can all start showing support for the more sustainable future we all will share.”
Originally published in ECHELON Issue 7