In the quenelles club: Hong Kong bistro chef champions tricky fish dish

Notoriously difficult to make, pike quenelles has dropped off menus in France, but Mischa Moselle finds one chef who has brought the dish from a Michelin-starred restaurant in Paris to a Hong Kong bistro

PUBLISHED : Friday, 17 July, 2015, 6:36am
UPDATED : Friday, 17 July, 2015, 6:36am

Toothy pike from France's river Rhone look like a vicious relic of the dinosaur era. The classic French bistro dish they star in, quenelles de brochet (or, more prosaically, pike dumplings) is fast becoming a relic on restaurant menus. But the recipe has found a champion in chef Emmanuel Xu Zhao of Scarlett Cafe & Wine Bar in Tsim Sha Tsui.

It's probably easier to understand why the dish has come off so many menus than how it has tenaciously clung on in just a few spots. As Zhao has not found a suitable Asian substitute for the fish, he has to import it from France, which means predicting demand two weeks ahead of time. The fish arrives whole and has to be filleted. As a typical river fish, pike are extremely bony, with plenty of small bones running through the flesh, much like the marbling in good beef. It takes many hours to turn the ugly fish into a fillet ready for processing.

Then there's the recipe itself.

Recipe book writer Julia Child's instructions end with a section captioned "In case of disaster". Back when the dish was created, some poor Lyonnais chef would have found himself pounding the fish to a purée in a pestle and mortar, along with kidney or veal suet. In Child's classic book Mastering the Art of French Cooking, the fish has to be passed through a mincer - twice - before the other ingredients are beaten in with a wooden spoon. If you insist on using a blender, you have to make sure the fish doesn't get warmed by the heat of the motor.

Child starts with a classic choux pastry made from water, butter, flour, salt and eggs, before mixing in the fish, seasoned with nutmeg or even truffle, before the final addition of cream. The next step is to poach one oval-shaped dumpling as a test, forming it with two wet spoons. Even for a competent, keen amateur cook, this takes a surprising amount of manual dexterity. Of course, here you find that one dumpling works, so you try five and Child's disaster strikes and they collapse. Child's solution is to turn the rest of the mix into a fish mousse or souffle - probably acceptable to your dinner guest friends but hardly realistic in a restaurant.

Daniel Cheung, who now works in food and restaurant PR, is a classically trained chef who loves the dish. He first tried it when tasked to make it at a cordon bleu cooking school and says that, as a freshwater fish fan, he was on to a winner from the start. As a chef, he likes the technique required to make it. "For a non-pastry dish it requires a lot of precision and know-how. There are lots of small steps and you can easily muck it up," he says.

How does chef Zhao get around these problems?

At Scarlett, which opened recently, the filleted pike goes straight into the food processor for puréeing before the chef adds whole eggs, extra egg yolks, butter and scallops. Next is the cream and, once the mixture is smooth, Zhao seasons it with salt and paprika. Zhao dispenses with the fiddly spoon work by rolling his paste into cylinders wrapped in clingfilm, also considered acceptable by traditionalists. These go into a 90 degrees Celsius oven for 12 minutes while the chef works on the sauce.

The Beijinger's confidence in navigating the fussy dish comes from extensive training and practice over 10 years in France. As a young man he knew he wanted to be a chef but couldn't decide between a Chinese or a Western kitchen. He soon found a reason for choosing to become a French chef. "Western kitchens were not so dirty. I was young and I didn't want to do any cleaning," he says.

The problem was there were barely any French restaurants in Beijing at the time, so he had no idea what the food tasted like and nowhere to train. He didn't speak French, either.

That didn't stop him moving to France to learn the language, but he was soon bored with the grammar and vocabulary tests and went on to study cooking and work in restaurants. Unlike Scarlett, these restaurants were not your neighbourhood bistro. There was time at the George V, the restaurant that spawned the famous opening team at Caprice in the Four Seasons hotel in Hong Kong, and then at Meurice under Yannick Alleno. His last French gig was with Guy Martin at his famous Parisian restaurant Le Grand Vefour. They are all winners of multiple awards, including many Michelin stars. Zhao left these establishments not only with a mastery of French technique but also with a very different attitude to the ingredients he uses. "I learned a lot about how to work and respect produce. In China we don't know how to respect the ingredients," he says.

Zhao's sauce for the dumplings is a variation on the Hollandaise - butter and egg yolks flavoured with tarragon vinegar and lemon. The sauce here is flavoured with chardonnay. Other classic sauces served with the dumpling might be sauce Nantua (freshwater crayfish and spinach) and Normande (fish stock and cider), all, as Child says, "fine, rich, buttery".

Cheung is a fan of the classic Nantua sauce because he finds it refined and loves the delicate flavour of the crayfish. To finish the pike dish, Zhao fries mushrooms in butter (naturally) before placing them as the foundation of the dish. Then comes some sauce, the dumpling, more sauce and a sprinkling of parmesan cheese before the dish goes under the salamander or grill and comes out browned on top.

The result is a very delicate flavour, with an almost omelette- or tofu-like texture. The saltiness of the scallops and richness of the butter is balanced by the light acid tang of the cream, and shining through comes the flavour of the pike itself.

Cheung happily concedes that this is not a healthy dish but says no one should eat it on a daily basis. "If it doesn't sound pompous, moderation in everything, except moderation itself," he says.

At Le Grand Vefour, where Zhao worked in Paris, there is a starter on the menu for €120 (HK$1,024). At Scarlett the pike main course comes in at HK$108. "This is a bistro and it will never become like a fine dining restaurant. It's a place to relax," says Zhao.