Look what they've done to my mille-feuille, ma

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 28 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 28 June, 2012, 12:00am


Recently, during a frenzy of restaurant reviewing, I ate spaghetti carbonara three times in five days.

Two of the versions might have passed muster at a trattoria in Italy. The third incorporated mushrooms and an abundance of cream. While the taste of the dish was fine, it wasn't carbonara - it was spaghetti with pancetta, mushrooms and cream. But this version has become so common at restaurants in Hong Kong that if unsuspecting diners went to Italy, ordered spaghetti carbonara and was served the real deal, they'd probably want to know, 'Where are the mushrooms?'

It irritates me when I order a classic dish and I'm served the chef's interpretation of it. So-called spaghetti carbonara made with mushrooms and cream no longer bothers me that much because it's so common that I'm actually more surprised when I get the traditional version, although I still think it should have its own name.

I'm all for innovation, but if a chef is talented enough to create a really new, interesting and delicious dish, he should think a little more, and come up with a new name for it. I once ordered apple mille-feuille, and it was nothing like what I expected. Mille-feuille means 'thousand sheets'. It's made of puff pastry, which consists of dough that's spread with butter and repeatedly rolled and folded (usually six times) so the alternating layers of dough and butter are very thin. The baked puff pastry sheets are stacked alternately with layers of pastry cream (or whipped cream). If you order a mille-feuille, that's what you would expect to be served. But three layers of thinly sliced apple with apple mousse in between is nowhere close to being mille-feuille, so don't call it one.

Some of the more creative chefs are famous for serving their own wildly different interpretations of classic dishes - in Hong Kong, Alvin Leung of Bo Innovation comes to mind. When you go to his restaurant in Wan Chai, you know that a dish of xiao long bao isn't going to be the same soup-filled dumpling you get at a traditional Shanghainese place.

Then there's carpaccio. The dish of thinly sliced, lightly pounded raw beef is supposedly created at Harry's Bar in Venice; it's now made with other types of meat, as well as seafood. Melon carpaccio? I ordered that at a restaurant in Wan Chai because it sounded new and interesting. I was served a plate of thinly sliced melon - in other words, a fruit platter. Would I have ordered it if it had been called 'thinly sliced fruit platter'? Of course not. Would I have been as irritated if it had been a lot more delicious and creative than just thinly sliced melon? Of course not. But as with apple mille-feuille, the chef was using an existing name to create heightened expectations, only to disappoint.