OUT TO LUNCH

Esther Sham's charming French-themed restaurant maison es is a gem

Designer Melissa Bui falls in love with the Parisian décor and food at new restaurant maison es and feels right at home

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 09 June, 2015, 10:29pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 09 June, 2015, 10:29pm

Melissa Bui fell for maison es, a new French-themed restaurant on the slopes just off Star Street, even before she stepped through its pale green doors. "Just walking up I saw green," she says. "And then I saw the flowers and I was like, 'Oh! I'm in Paris'." The young, rising designer drags out the oh in a contented sigh and smiles as if transported back to France, where she had been just two months earlier attending Paris Fashion Week.

The restaurant is charming. The doorway, filled with pots of roses, belladonna lilies and begonias in varying shades of pink, could easily be mistaken for a Parisian florist. Inside, whimsical sketches and paintings deck the wall, and the salon-style furniture is all in owner Esther Sham's favourite pastels. Sham reportedly sourced all the furniture and crockery herself, scouring French markets for vintage finds. The spacious restaurant has its own terrace, which leads to a private kitchen where diners can sample the original menu Sham presented back in her first food venture, Ta Pantry.

As a starter, Bui opted for the seared langoustine on warm miso butter corn and mozzarella salad. The unusual combination of miso butter and corn had caught her eye, although she later confesses, "I don't eat a lot of shellfish because of my allergies."

Her penchant for unusual combinations extends to her own line of clothing. Bui's latest spring/summer collection, Opaline Blossom, is inspired by flowers, goldfish tails and stripes. "I was staring at a goldfish tank and I was just mesmerised by the goldfish and their tails especially," she says. The resulting collection is a contrasting mix of blues and oranges, and reds and pinks, a kaleidoscope of '50s-era charm, embellished details and hand-painted stripes. Today, Bui is in the Orlaya dress from her summer collection, a white dress with cut-out shoulders and flared sleeves.

A self-proclaimed dreamer, Bui looked right at home at maison es. As our first course arrives on mismatched floral plates, she declares the cottage-like restaurant her "dreamland". "I want my house to look like this. I love this rustic feel, and I do love flowers."

Flowers make frequent appearances on Bui's social media pages. Along with photos of her latest collection, inspiration and food adventures, her Instagram page is full of flowers, often in the form of her doodles. "It helps with my creativity and developing wearable designs," she says. Doodling in her spare time while watching television late at night helps Bui plan her designs, and think about what translates to embroidery, or print, or even how different colours can work together.

The young designer established her own brand in 2013, having graduated from the London College of Fashion and working as an assistant designer to Hong Kong couture designer Barney Cheng for two years. Success led her to open her first showroom in Sheung Wan, which she jokes has "more food to eat than other areas of Hong Kong".

"I love eating. I think eating is probably my second passion," Bui laughs. "Fashion first, food next". Throughout lunch, Bui happily shares her go-to dining places around the city. From Otto e Mezzo for Italian, to Mrs Pound for a fun night out, Ho Lee Fook for its short ribs, Sift for a cupcake fix, and Catch on Catchick for brunch, Bui is a walking guidebook to Hong Kong's best eats.

Japanese is her favourite cuisine, followed closely by Italian. Japanese for its wide-ranging varieties of foods - "they have a speciality in everything" - and Italian because it is comforting and easy, she says.

Bui's next two choices for her main course reflect her love for the two cuisines. The maple roasted black pork belly sitting on sautéed lardon and Brussels sprouts is reminiscent of a crispy-skinned roast porchetta, while the tossed crispy garlic, porcini and quinoa spaghetti topped with an onsen egg and shaved parmesan is clearly Asian-inspired. The latter dish is the clear winner. "Look how beautiful this egg yolk is," Bui says, as she gently breaks the onsen egg, coating each strand of garlicky spaghetti and bite-sized tempura vegetables in soft yolk.

Being in the fashion industry, Bui is either constantly on the move meeting clients, travelling for inspiration, or bent over her designs for hours on end, embroidering and embellishing. Health, not such a big concern a few years ago, has become a priority. "If I want to become the person I want to be, I need to be healthy and energetic enough to do it right. If I want my business to continue thriving ... health is quite an important part," she says.

Bui maintains a fairly healthy lifestyle, cutting out some meats from her diet, and going vegetarian for certain days. Cocktails, however, she can't stay away from. Her stomping ground is The Woods, founded by long-time friend Victoria Chow. "They actually named a cocktail after me on the new summer menu," Bui says. "The Bunny", a cocktail made with carrots, is based on a nickname Bui's friends gave her during her college years when she wouldn't stop talking about rabbits during a first-year project. The name Melissa Bunny stuck, and Bui incorporated the nickname into her work philosophy, affectionately calling her creative journey a "cotton tale".

With four collections under her belt, the next chapter of her "cotton tale" involves developing an e-commerce website, and one day bringing her brand to fashion week in one of her favourite cities, Paris.

"There's something about France that is just effortless," she says. On her last visit a few months earlier, she dined on fresh seafood platters, and observed people from little cafes along cobblestoned paths. There was lots of inspiration. She stumbled on a tiny bead shop, picking up new samples to create new embroidery designs for the next season. A short detour to Versailles also proved worthy, where she was inspired from the fabrics and the colours of Marie Antoinette's rooms.

Dessert arrives, a sticky lemon cake served with ginger sorbet. The dense cake is sharp and tangy, complementing the lightly spiced ginger sorbet. Bui, who is not normally a dessert person, is impressed, saying this might be her favourite course of the afternoon.

Bui says: "I can totally imagine a crazy birthday lunch or dinner [here] where everyone has to wear a hat fascinator." With lunch over, Sham, the owner of maison es, has quietly slipped into the restaurant in a pale pink chef's uniform. Bui walks over full of compliments, no doubt to plan her next party at this quaint little gem.

Stephanie Ip