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How I Spent My Summer – Bootleggers, Chinamen and Gangster Molls

Before they discovered they were good at running casinos, native americans used to smuggle whiskey from Canada
Before discovering their talent for running gambling casinos, Native Americans used to smuggle whiskey from Canada

Some twenty years ago in the middle of my MBA studies in New York City, I scored a summer marketing internship at the whisky division of Seagram’s, which at the time was the largest distiller of alcoholic beverages in the world. Seagram’s had a colourful history; during prohibition the Montreal based company was active in bootlegging.  Seagram’s stockpiled whisky over the border and flooded the US market days after prohibition was repealed.  This was possibly the only time since its inception that Canada served a useful purpose.

During that long whisky-tinted summer I received an invitation to lunch with Edgar Bronfman Jr., grandson of the smuggler and the head of the firm.  I was firmly advised that when Edgar offered me a drink before lunch I should eschew Diet Coke and order whisky.  It is the kind of mature advice that has served me well over the years.

Fast-forward a couple of decades and no one drinks at a business lunch anymore.   Journalists are the noble exception still ordering a “double bottler” at lunch (a bottle for each of you) if someone else is paying.  I guess you’d do the same if your profession were facing imminent extinction.

The rules are different in Asia.  Over many years of doing business in China I discovered that quaffing vast quantities of booze with your host is the traditional way to break the ice.  The quality of drink in China is dreadful without exception.  One Chinese businessman of my acquaintance did order an expensive bottle of French red wine at dinner – and proceeded to dilute it with Coke!  He liked the idea of drinking wine; he just didn’t like the taste.

A view of the dim sum bar through lattice work decorated with the "Demon Chef's" emblem
A view of the Bo London dim sum bar through lattice-work decorated with the “Demon Chef’s” emblem

Golden Boroniya, a Singaporean flower child with a sweet tooth taught me how to drink with the Chinese.  The key is to have plenty of absorbent napkins on hand and ready access to a potted plant.  Golden Boroniya visited London recently.  We met for lunch at Bo London.

Bo London is the creation of Alvin Leung, the self-taught “Demon Chef” whose combination of traditional Chinese recipes and modern molecular gastronomic cooking methods is branded “X-treme Chinese”.  Alvin has been awarded two Michelin stars for his cooking at Bo Innovation in Hong Kong.  Bo Innovation is one of my favourite restaurants in Hong Kong.  I was looking forward to the London incarnation.

Hanging out with the Demon Chef
Hanging out with the Demon Chef

Bo London is situated on an unremarkable side street in Mayfair.  The ground floor space has a large window overlooking the street, a small dim sum bar and two rooms – the farthest one from the street boasting a view of the kitchen.   It’s an inoffensive space with grey walls, light coloured wood and prominent black lampshades.

The first thing that struck me about the restaurant is the service – it is possibly the finest service experience I’ve had in a restaurant in recent memory.  I’ve visited Bo London several times now and the service has remained impeccable.  Bottles of obscure alcohols were brought down for me to sniff and taste.  Golden Boronia’s toddler was chortling with delight as the wait staff kept her entertained– allowing us to enjoy lunch.  A mention that I was familiar with Bo Innovation in Hong Kong brought the Michelin starred chef out to greet us.  Alvin Leung pulled up a chair and spoke passionately about cooking, the challenges of opening a restaurant in London – and taxes!

Bai Jiu Sour - stick your mouth at the end of the spout and try drinking without making a fool of yourself!
Bai Jiu Sour – stick your mouth at the end of the spout (on the right) and try drinking without making a fool of yourself!

The cocktails were unique and presented with flair.  The Bai Jiu sour is made with wu liang guo bin jiu, lemon and lime juices, egg white and grenadine syrup.  Wu liang guo bin jiu is a potent grain spirit at 52% alcohol by volume (ABV).  Vodka by comparison is only about 40% ABV. By itself wu liang guo bin jiu smells like a combination of pickles and rotten eggs. It is slightly earthy and sweetish in flavor.  Our waiter explained that it is normally drunk as a shot – ughh.

As a cocktail the Bai Jiu sour is stunningly presented in a white porcelain vessel that looks like a gravy boat with a spout.  The drink container sits on a custom-made silver stand decorated with the demon chef’s logo.  Drinking requires holding the whole contraption with both hands and tipping the liquid down the spout.  The layer of egg white sitting on top of the alcohol makes it even harder to drink without looking silly.  As expected the drink has strong citrus overtones with the alcohol adding earthy notes.  This cocktail looked better than it tasted.

The Hibiscus Mojito was a winner.  A reddish pink drink it combines a base of rum with lime juice and hibiscus syrup.  There is a soft, pleasantly tangy hibiscus flavor on the tongue, the sweetness of the syrup cut with lime juice.  A hibiscus flower floats on the surface of the drink.

Dim Sum at Bo London.  Steak and Kidney with Avruga Caviar (top left) was a hit
Dim Sum at Bo London. Steak and Kidney with Avruga Caviar (top right) was a hit

The lunch time set menu consisting of three dim sum dishes and a main course, is good value at £27 (US $42) for this quality of cuisine, .  The dim sum was inventive.  The smoked quails eggs, with crispy taro and caviar as well as the steak and kidney xia long bao with avruga caviar were standouts. Golden Boronia commented that while she’d had dim sum of similar quality in Hong Kong for a lot less money, each mouthful at Bo London brought an unexpected taste sensation, a twist on the traditional.

The dumplings were dense and rich in flavor.  I was glad that the main courses were heavily stylized and comparatively modest in portion size.

The beggar style quail (baked in a clay crust) with lotus leaf and yellow lentils was succulent.  The lotus leaf and yellow lentils complemented without overwhelming the delicate flavour of the quail.  I was hard pressed to resist the temptation to pick up the bones with my fingers and scrape off the remaining meat with my teeth.  The cod with glutinous rice wine, saffron, miso and braised fennel was to die for, the flesh glistening and moist with flavour.

A Princely Dish - Beggar's Quail
A Princely Dish – Beggar’s Quail

Bo London serves exceptional Chinese cuisine.  Made aware that Londoners may not wish to spend three of four hours over a meal (the dinner set menu consists of either twelve or fourteen dishes), the set course only menu is now supplemented by a la carte options.

Alvin mentioned that Londoners don’t spend as much on food and drink as their Hong Kong counterparts.  That’s probably true – apart from food and drink the only other form of entertainment available in Hong Kong is in the red light district!   On a recent weekend his Hong Kong customers spent an eye watering average of £270 (US $420) per person. That’s solidly oligarch spending territory in London.  I fully expect Alvin to collect a Michelin award for his London restaurant.  Go before the oligarchs and their gangster molls discover this place.


Bo London on Urbanspoon

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