Late-night chats are not famous for producing ideas that still sound great the next day, if they are remembered at all. Charles Pelletier and chef Frédéric Peneau had one such talk at a wedding reception in Bali, but this idea had some traction. The pair ended up on a flight to Hong Kong, pounding the streets in search of a new restaurant venue.
While Pelletier, an interior designer and stylist turned restaurateur, had previously lived here, it was a first visit for Peneau. Despite arriving on the hottest day of the year, Peneau fell for the city's energy, and a restaurant concept was born. Or sort of born, as the duo prefer to have it.
Serge et le Phoque has a very simple menu of bistro dishes. It may advance towards a more fine dining type of menu, but with a casual atmosphere. Or it may not. Peneau and the other chef involved, Christophe Pelé, are wary about outlining their plans and promising too much to their customers, as they are still building a team and gaining familiarity with the produce Hong Kong has to offer.
The chefs themselves won't be based here, but will come to Hong Kong for 15 days a month.
The whimsical French name, which means Serge and the seal, is not the product of another of those late-night conversations. Peneau wanted to name the restaurant for his son Serge, but the child refused.
But the boy suggested that, as Peneau used to own a restaurant called Le Dauphin (the dolphin), a seal would be a logical next step. He said he wouldn't mind his name being linked to the animal's. Pelletier says that the name resonates with children but "adults all have problems getting it".
If Peneau and Pelé say they are wary of promising too much, it's because they have solid track records to protect. Peneau is originally from Nantes, a place not famed for food aside from its butter. He says it takes five or six years to learn how to cook properly with butter.
Most recently Pelé owned La Bigarrade, a restaurant offering a changing menu of surprising combinations such as strawberries and foie gras, or veal sweetbreads with dried shrimp. The dishes delighted some customers and dismayed others. The Michelin inspectors seem to have enjoyed it, as they awarded it two stars.
He has also opened a Turkish kebab shop called Grillé. Here, slices of marinated veal are served on bread that goes in the oven when the kebab order is made, and cooks in 20 seconds.
Pelé comes from near Tours in the Loire valley, a place famous for muscadet wines, and the home of writer Rabelais, creator of Gargantua of the renowned appetites. He made his name at for Le Royale Monceau, a grand old Parisian hotel in the traditional style. He worked his way up through the kitchen team to help earn a Michelin star for the hotel, which was bought by the Raffles group in 2010.
He was co-owner of Le Chateaubriand with Inaki Aizpitarte, another renowned chef who likes to surprise, before he sold up and opened Le Dauphin. Pelé also spent some time in the kitchen at Café Le Burq, next door to Aizpartite's then restaurant La Famille. Having become friends, the two chefs bought Le Chateaubriand, a well-respected bistro. Le Chateaubriand, which is known for its 16-course degustation menus, is ranked the 18th best restaurant in the world by Restaurant magazine, and was ranked ninth when Pelé worked there. It's also one of the most difficult restaurants in the world to make a reservation.
When Pelé decided to strike out on his own again, he didn't move too far. Le Dauphin serves a tapas menu in a space designed by Rem Koolhaas which is only about 100 metres down the road from Le Chateaubriand.
Pelé describes his style (through an interpreter) as "peeling away layers to get to the produce". He laments French chefs' tendency to keep adding more cream or "layers on top of layers."
He says, "Produce is the key to any dish. Remove the layers, and the produce is all that is left. There can be no mistake, no layer to hide things under."
The chefs' fascination with produce is evident: they have just returned from a local market when we meet. Pelé has a bag of local shellfish, he wants to know what they are and how they are cooked. Why is the local garlic so pungent? How do local chefs treat small razor clams, mussels, frogs and dried scallops?
They are trying green tea from West Lake in Hangzhou, wondering if it can be improved by drinking it with coconut milk.
Unfamiliarity with local produce is one reason why the chefs are keen to start out with simple menus. "We have no point of reference. The fish and meat are different, so are lots of vegetables, herbs and spices. We have to learn about these from the beginning," says Peneau.
Bread is bought locally from Bread Elements, the bakery recently started by former Four Seasons Hong Kong pastry chef Grégoire Michaud.
There will be French imports. Peneau wants to bring in artisanal butter while Pelé is keen on an andouillette from Chablis in Burgundy. The sausage, made from pig intestines and offal, is an acquired taste but Pelé describes this one as "feminine, not strong, not smelly".
This will be served either cold or hot with a mustard-infused Hollandaise sauce. This is not any old mustard - Pelé insists on using one from a producer he describes as France's last artisan mustard maker.
The chefs say such traditional French home-style food qualifies as bistro food. Certain brasserie-style dishes might creep on to the menu, as Pelletier says that the city lacks a true brasserie, with a strong emphasis on seafood, and waiters who prepare dishes like steak tartare tableside.
But this is not a direction they necessarily see themselves taking the restaurant in. They see it as a place with a bar that serves good food, and is fun to visit, rather than a temple of gastronomy. Or that's the way they look at it now. As Pelletier says, in a few months, they "might change everything". firstname.lastname@example.org
Serge et le Phoque
3 Wan Chai Road, Wan Chai,
tel: 5465 2000
Open for lunch (Tue-Sat), dinner (Mon-Sat)