Hong Kong chefs have a berry good time creating dishes for summer
A trio of local chefs use these fruits of summer to add a light and sweet touch to every section of the menu, writes Tracey Furniss
Summer conjures up images of bright, sunny days, stress-free vacations and long, cool drinks, all complemented by plates of light yet delicious fare packed with fresh, seasonal ingredients.
On menus across town this summer are some refreshingly light dishes using summer berries that play a versatile role, transcending sweet and savoury fare.
Chefs get inspired by these summer fruits that are not only delicious, but also good for us. For example, strawberries are high in antioxidant phytonutrients known as phenols, which are said to protect us from disease, while blueberries are high in anthocyanidins, aiding in the process of neutralising free-radical damage in our cells.
Name a berry, and it will be beneficial to your health in some way, which makes any of them a guilt-free indulgence.
We asked some of our favourite chefs about their berry of choice to work with when creating summer dishes, and what berry-based creations they have put on the menu this season.
At French fine-dining restaurant Le Dôme de Cristal in Central, chef Charles-Benoit Lacour, who took over as culinary director there last year, has created a starter of duck foie gras with raspberry, blueberry, red currant and strawberry pickle, toasted brioche and red fruit Chinese tea leaves, for his summer menu.
"It's interesting to make some dishes with summer berries," says the Michelin-starred chef from Lyon, who started his career at the three-star Guy Savoy in Paris. "I like the combination of foie gras and berries. Foie gras goes well with sweet flavours; it's quite interesting in the mouth as some berries are a little acidic, some are a little more sweet. So when you put them in your mouth with the foie gras - which is fat and very oily - the sweet and the sourness can be a good mix.
"Then, I had an idea for the jus," Lacour adds. "I wanted something that is light, so we had this red fruit tea, but instead of making the jus with water, we used consomme so it still has a meaty flavour."
His inspiration for using tea came from several quarters: the light and refreshing taste, especially in the hotter months; the universality of tea; and the process and respect for the drink in certain cultures. "I was inspired by the summer - imagine being outside by the swimming pool and wanting something refreshing; you usually don't want to have something with a hot sauce or something that is rich, just something pure and elegant.
"I like the idea of every time we create a dish, we have good complicity - the idea that with tea, there is some process like at a tea ceremony. I like the idea of having to respect tea. It's also international, whether you are French or from Hong Kong, so I put it in the plate."
For the main course, Nicolas Boutin, executive chef at the French fine-dining restaurant Epure at Harbour City in Tsim Sha Tsui, has created a flavourful dish for the à la carte and tasting menus this summer. He has named the dish "Le canard Maison Burgaud aux fruits de mûrier", and it consists of roasted Challans duck, faisselle cheese and mint, mulberry compote and jus.
"Duck is a perfect match for berries," says Boutin, who first came to Hong Kong in 2005 as executive sous chef for the opening of The Landmark Mandarin Oriental. "A few months before I used elderberries [with duck] - that was interesting. Mulberries come out in the summer, and are acidic so they match well. I tried not to make the dish too sweet.
"The other ingredients include spring onions, to bring a bit of crunchiness and freshness to the dish, and I used faisselle cheese," the chef adds. "I love faisselle cheese. It's the cheese that you have before it is put in a colander, where weight is used to extract the water from the cheese. Faisselle is light because it only has 6 per cent starch, so it has a beautiful texture.
"I don't add any sugar to the dish. The ingredients strike a balance, so faisselle goes with the mint and the berries, and the duck, so it matches and comes together with the freshness of the mint."
The classically trained French chef - who enrolled in his first culinary class at age 14 and went on to collaborate with his idol, chef Michel Portos, as executive sous chef at his two-Michelin-star restaurant Hauterive Saint-James in Bordeaux - likes to create dishes according to the seasons.
"I see which fruits and vegetables are in season. From there, I find the proteins that will match," he says. "So, I find the fish, meat or poultry based on the ingredients I can get at the time, and from that I will start to combine and see how I can bring them together. I don't like complicated dishes."
Finally, at Gaia Ristorante at Grand Millennium Plaza in Sheung Wan, Gaia Group executive chef Paolo Monti has created a berry dessert that's sure to satisfy diners with a sweet tooth.
"It's called Snowball," says Monti, who has been with Gaia since it opened in 2001.
"The idea comes from an old English recipe we call zuppa Inglese [English soup]," says the chef, who before coming to Hong Kong worked alongside legendary chef Mauro Vincenti at the famous Rex il Ristorante in Los Angeles. "So there is a little bit of cake, custard and some Italian red liquor we use for desserts. On top is whipped cream. We do use a little bit of berry puree and a lot of wild strawberries on the top. We finish with the sugar snow and a little bit of mint leaf to give the freshness of taste.
"It is simple," Monti adds. "We want to keep the taste of the wild strawberries very simple."
The wild strawberries used in the dessert are brought in from Malaga in Spain. "We tried for many years to get these wild strawberries to Hong Kong. They are very delicate, coming from the mountains, and then they have to travel to the airport and go on a flight, so they can be easily ruined."
Wild strawberries are sweeter and smaller than the typical store-bought strawberries, and can be found growing in woodland and mountain areas in Europe. Monti has fond memories of picking wild strawberries as a child in his native Italy.
"When I was a kid, I used to go to the mountain when I was in Tuscany. We would see these wild strawberries; we would find them in the woods, too," says the chef, who was born in Rome. "For me, they are a treat.
"So here at Gaia, at first I said: 'Let's just enjoy them by themselves'. But not everybody understood this, so I decided to do something extra.
"I could do strawberries and whipped cream, but I thought: 'Let's try and do something more interesting'. When I proposed a dessert based on a classic Italian favourite, zuppa Inglese, everyone thought it sounded quite interesting."