WAIT a minute. This can't be a French restaurant. Where are the silver domes and the starched waiters? Where are the patrons hunched over plates, the Gauloises between their fingers shooting up shafts of blue smoke? Where is the food, over-fussed and over-priced? But W's Entrecote is French, and not because the voice at the end of the telephone greets the caller with bonjour, although that is a nice touch.
W's Entrecote (translation: rib-eye or between-the-ribs) is a steak house, Wilson Kwok's first experiment, which opened last December when Times Square exploded with its Roman candle of restaurants.
And as the expense account brigade of expats and many locals yawned from the fancy hotel dining rooms that proffer the kind of French food that is frozen in early-80s style of nouvelle cuisine when food became precious arrangements of morsels on a plate the size of a steering wheel.
W's Entrecote has nothing in common with that. Here is a 150-seat haven, loud at times, but always friendly. It promises no more and delivers no less than a single menu of rib-eye steak in three sizes (charbroiled with herbal butter sauce), all-you-can-eat French fries, green salad and homemade bread.
The owner is 33-year-old Wilson Kwok, a native of Hong Kong. Undergraduate studies in business and marketing sent him to California, then the food-and-wine lover in him pushed him to Europe where he earned a Master's in wine from Bordeaux, cooked at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, and earned postgraduate credits in hospitality at Cornell University, New York, and a hotel school in Lausanne, Switzerland.
Then it was time to come home. After stints in some megastar hotels and restaurants here, he was ready to experiment: to show his friends another side of French food, the type of everyday dining he adored (and could afford) as a student, the elbows-on-the-table style of dining that endears many to France and doesn't have Michelin stars. The food that is affordable, simple and delicious, and does not swim in sauces with expensive garnishes.
He already had a role model, a steak restaurant, called Entrecote. It began in Toulouse and expanded later with one each in Lyons, Bordeaux, Geneva and two in Paris.
Dining at either Entrecote in Paris (one is located near Porte Maillot metro, the other, along the fashionable rue Marbeuf), one is assured of a queue. Neither place accepts reservations and the service volleys between harassed or harried and jovial. The price was unbeatable; the steak and fries, dependable; and the desserts, formidable.
Entrecote's menu redefined simplicity. Wine was served in tumblers and the seating was such that waitresses had to shimmy between chairs. The paper on the tables served as a tablecloth as well as their order pad.
When it opened last December, it appeared too big, too empty, and surely, not flashy enough for Hong Kong tastes. But the price was right and, for the fans of Entrecote in Paris, a distant hug. Word got around. Slowly, the homesick French came, and customers turned into regulars. Now, on any evening, you can hear French being spoken at some tables, and a generous mix of locals and expats.
The menu is a quick read. Vegetarians get respect in larger portions of salad, veggies and fish (though the latter is not on the menu and must be requested). The catch is usually sea bass, sometimes salmon, and usually pan-fried.
The salad, with its lacklustre greens won't inspire, but the walnut vinaigrette will. When the French fries are good, they're great - skinny, matchstick crisp and golden. On one visit, the entire portion was devoured in minutes. When the refill arrived, they were limp, pale and easy to resist.
Pick the size of your protein: steaks come in 170g ($130), 225g ($160) and 280g ($188) cuts of American beef, which Kwok buys because it is juicier and has more flavour. French beef, he says, is too lean.
On one evening, steak was passed up for curiosity's sake. But the sea bass ($118) was too soft in texture, and lacking in flavour. Go with what the kitchen does best.
The mixed vegetable - a toss of broccoli, carrots and cauliflower - was spared the drowning in butter and salt. In fact, it makes you feel virtuous and entitled to the wicked profiteroles au chocolat (cream puff with chocolate sauce) or apple tart.
The user-friendly wine list shows off Kwok's knowledge. It offers a decent spread of choices in the $200 range. An exception is Pomerol (Chateau La Fleur Petrus at $1,055) and St-Emilion (Chateau Figeac), a personal favourite of Kwok's because he worked in their vineyards. Our choice, Chateau la Baronnette 90 ($170), was extolled as much for the gutsy taste as the price. Lovers of half bottles have two choices: a St-Emilion for $170 or a Chateauneuf du Pape, $190.
If light and fluffy chocolate mousse is one's idea of heaven, go for this one. Otherwise, go to Paris for the dense, heavy, not-too-sweet cousin. The lemon sorbet was puckery, so was the tart au citron. All went down easily with a round of double espresso.
Dinner for three, with wine, cost around $825.
The homely salad is easy to forgive. So is the bread whose crust suffers from Hong Kong's humidity, not the skill of the five bakers. The French fries are more hit than miss. And my steak always arrives the way it was ordered.
For the value, the accommodating staff, the overall quality and wine list, W's Entrecote deserves the raves because it delivers, no more and no less, than it promises.