Hidden treasures offer a taste of little Brittany
You have to look carefully to find Hong Kong's two French cr? restaurants, La Cr?rie in Wan Chai and Fleur de Sel in Causeway Bay, as both are hidden above street level in nondescript buildings.
But the sweet, wheat-flour dessert cr?s and savoury buckwheat galettes, authentically served open under a range of toppings as they would be in their native Brittany, are well worth the search.
Buckwheat packs a highly nutritional, gluten-free punch, the lace-thin crispy pancakes are a light, crispy base for toppings that vary from authentically rustic to deliciously rich, ideal for Hong Kong's hot summer weather, especially when washed down with traditional Breton cider.
La Cr?rie's cosy space is filled with chunky black wooden tables and chairs. The nautical Brittany theme of marine photographs on the walls, lighthouse shaped salt and pepper pots and staff in stripy tops, just falls on the charming rather than twee side, setting the scene for a fun, and pleasantly affordable, French meal.
You could choose to drink Ricard (aniseed aperitif) or kir (white wine and blackcurrant liqueur), but it would be a crime not to go for the cider, which is delicious, dry or sweet (Val de Rance, HK$45 for a cup, HK$140 the bottle), or at least the moreish cloudy apple juice (HK$40 a cup, HK$120 the bottle). Similarly, there are oysters, a salad, galette rolls and a tangy fish soup served with grated Emmental cheese and crunchy croutons on the side, to start, but unless you're ravenous, save your space for the galettes and tempting dessert pancakes later.
The main course galettes come as simple as La Complete, with ham, Emmental cheese, a sunny side up egg whose yolk makes a delicious sauce, and salad lightly dressed with a classic, delicious mustardy French vinaigrette (HK$68). More sophisticated is La Broceliande, of goat cheese crottins (soft round slices of cheese) and walnut salad (HK$92). The clean taste of the goat cheese provided a pleasant, mild base for the crispy fried crottin and salad, the walnuts giving a crunchy additional texture. The Eckmuhl was contrastingly rich, with addictive Reblochon cheese coating the potatoes, bacon and onion in a quintessentially French combination (HK$125). Portions are generous on the fillings, which gradually peter out towards the folded-in galette edges, allowing them to stay crispy.
Salty caramel features on both restaurants' dessert menus, which also offer simpler combinations such as sugar and lemon, or flambe. The dessert pancakes are made with a lighter flour, and when combined with the caramel, which could have been saltier, and caramelised banana make for a deliciously light, French-style banana split. Both restaurants charge HK$65 but at La Cr?rie caramel ice cream is also included, whereas at Fleur de Sel ice cream is HK$12 extra. La Cr?rie's ice cream and hot chocolate or lemon sorbet pancakes demand a repeat visit. Fleur de Sel also offers dessert pancakes with ingredients such as caramelised pear with lavender, chestnut and lemon curd.
At Fleur de Sel, named after the premium salt harvested in Brittany and used in its pancake batters, take an old-fashioned lift to the second floor, walk down the arched corridor and the restaurant opens up to a semi-open bar/kitchen and a small room of light wooden tables, plush seating and walls hung with blackboard specials signs. At the far end, the open area of low rattan chairs and tables creates a chilled terrace space.
The menu here focuses almost exclusively on pancakes. Parisian chef Gregory Alexandre, who works his magic over the griddles - used to be a fine-dining chef at the French consulate and Robuchon A Galera in Macau. The only waiter is also French and he tells us La Complete (HK$68) is always his French guests' first choice, while his favourite is La Bourguignon of snail fricassee, mushrooms, bacon, spinach and white wine sauce (HK$128) and Alexandre's is La Sarladaise of duck confit, mushrooms, potatoes, parsley and garlic sauce (HK$128).
At Fleur de Sel, the La Francaise, which also includes Bayonne ham and walnut salad (HK$125), marries slightly saltier camembert at its base with tangy soft rounds of goat cheese, while the cured ham and fresh tomato give a salty and sweet contrast, respectively. This is less summery than La Cr?rie's but so moreish. The walnut salad is served in a charming edible galette bowl.
Both restaurants offer considerable Gallic charm, but on a nice day the balcony area at Fleur de Sel is a sure winner. Service at both was good, with the French managers checking in, and happy to answer questions.
La Cr?rie's galettes were slightly more generous in toppings, but the imaginative ingredients found at Fleur de Sel, such as snails, merguez sausage (the spicy lamb sausage from Morocco), truffle oil and foie gras, upped the temptation factor for a return visit.
Those temptations just tip the balance in Fleur de Sel's favour, making it the winner in a contest that is very close to call.
Look out for La Cr?rie's second, street level outlet on Sheung Wan's Jervois Street, which will be opening soon and a second Fleur de Sel in SoHo opening in September. Clearly, business for authentic buckwheat galettes and sweet cr?s is looking good.
1/F, Kui Chi Mansion,
100-102 Queen's Road East,
Wan Chai, tel: 2529 9280
Fleur de Sel
Shop 2J, Po Foo Building,
Foo Ming Street,
Causeway Bay, tel: 2805 6670