I ate at Bo London in Mayfair – formerly the site of Patterson’s, a mediocre family-run Euro-British dining room – in December. Yes, I know, I’m late in getting back to you. Forgive me. But it’s given me time to digest.
The Bo experience – and it is much more an experience than merely dinner – is the creation of acoustic engineer turned self-taught chef Alvin Leung. With his glam rock mullet haircut, chef’s blacks (instead of chef’s whites) and cut-off sleeves revealing a tattoo along his tricep of Chinese characters that translate as “the Demon Chef”, Alvin is nothing if not a showman. He coined the phrase “X-treme Chinese” to describe his modern, molecular cooking: “X-citing; X-otic; X-traordinary”. His reputation across Asia – supported by the TV series Maverick Chef – is of a culinary anarchist playing in his chemistry lab-cum-kitchen.
I first met Alvin in London during the international chefs’ conference Identità, in 2010, and again in Hong Kong in 2012, when I ate at his two Michelin-starred restaurant Bo Innovation. I’d heard many wild and strange tales about his food including his now infamous edible used condom – more of which later.
it does sound like something you’d order in a sadomasochistic brothel rather than in a restaurant in Mayfair
In Hong Kong I gifted Alvin a cigar as an extension of international etiquette, and because I knew he was addicted to the things. Dinner at Bo Innovation was an extravagant, bold meal, lasting almost five hours, followed by too many tumblers of whisky and Romeo y Julieta Cedros de Luxes smoked on the terrace of the restaurant, overlooking the twitching neon of Hong Kong.
The room at Bo London is, in itself, underwhelming: there’s a small bar at the entrance and a long but narrow dining room leading back to an open plating-up counter, where back-wall diners can “Ohhhh!” and “Ahhhh!” The colour palette is chestnut and chocolate, with fawn upholstery – all surprisingly stripped back and reserved when you consider Alvin’s image.
The menu offers two dinner options: 12 courses for £98 and 14 courses for £138. Both of those prices are without wine. Let’s just get this out of the way, shall we? That’s a lot of money. It’s steal-money-from-your-boss’s-wallet expensive. It isn’t the most expensive restaurant in London, and the quality of food, service and ingredients is reflected in the price, but it’s still an awful lot of cash to be asking, even in Mayfair, where restaurants are renowned for knocking their customers’ credit cards out of the park. But then, it’s unlikely that you’ve had food like this before.
The 12-course menu is entitled The Ode to Great Britain, and begins with a dish named “Bed and Breakfast” (although I understand Alvin has rearranged the order of these plates since my visit, and the long menu now begins with “Dead Garden”). “B&B” comprises a smoked quail’s egg resting on a crispy taro nest, with a generous amount of Oscietra caviar on top. I remembered this dish from Hong Kong, but here it’s slightly different: it arrives on a silver tree – designed, along with much of the restaurant’s interior and tableware, by Alvin himself – and is as light as a cloud, dissolving on the tongue as it releases the smokiness of the egg and the sweetness of the taro.
Next came the less than memorable “Oyster” with green onion, lime, ginger and shaoxing wine seaweed, followed by a playful reinterpretation of the traditional British Toad in the Hole with bone marrow, Chinese yorkie, lotus leaf and a frog’s leg standing in for the toad. Every course at Bo London is carefully crafted and delicately assembled, just as I recall from Hong Kong, where standout dishes included oyster and ginger snow, foie gras “mui choy” and lobster with black trumpet.
I had been invited in Hong Kong to try out some proposed dishes for the London restaurant, some of which made it on to the list here, but with the notable absence of the one I most enjoyed: “Spam”. Yes, quite, that’s what I thought, but this small piece of triangular toast with scrambled eggs, truffle shavings and a thin-crisp wedge of fried Spam in its middle was delicate and full of flavour. As a nod to nostalgic British cuisine, it would have made for a witty addition to Alvin’s W1 menu.
Alvin talks about taking customers to the edge of their comfort zone, to “what is sane and insane… as close to the edge as possible without falling”
While there are too many dishes to list and explore here, a few standouts definitely warrant mention: “Tomato” showcases three ways of preparing a tomato: one soaked in vinegar and baked, one wrapped in filo pastry on olive paste, and the third – in my opinion the very best – peeled and turned into a fluffy marshmallow. “Steak and Kidney” is another successful and quirky reinterpretation of a national British dish, and “English Mustard” continues the poke-fun-at-the-English narrative with a langoustine and Coleman’s mustard foam, preserved duck egg, lightly pickled cauliflower, red cabbage, black truffles and duck sauce.
There are some visually astonishing dishes here. There are also smells, textures and tastes – from a sprinkle of ginger to a dash of duck sauce and a shaving of black truffle – that genuinely thrill the senses. The ingredients are interesting, exciting and expensive. Each plate has been conceived with its own story, making connections between national dishes and Alvin’s “X-treme” culinary aesthetic. Much of it is brilliantly creative.
Finally, there’s the dish that’s had London’s knickers-in-a-twist for months. I’ve encountered “Sex on the Beach” before, having first tasted it in 2010 and then again in early 2012 (yes, I went back for more). I’ve heard opinions on it ranging from “bloody weird” to “an example of how sick our society has become”. The remarks are all based on its appearance rather than taste, and when you hear the dish described, it does sound like something you’d order in a sadomasochistic brothel rather than in a restaurant in Mayfair. It’s essentially a very lifelike condom made from a mixture of kappa and konjac, which looks – and there’s no polite way to put this – used, with a white gooey unguent inside (honey and Yunnan ham mixture). There’s a delicate, melt-on-the-tongue texture to this pink sheath – light rather than rubbery. The mixture inside is released almost instantly and is, ahem, sweet over salty. Alvin adds mouth-numbing Szechuan pepper to the biscuit crumb sand, leaving a persistent tingle in the mouth. The dish is optional (£8.00) with all proceeds going to the Elton John AIDS Foundation. Served as dessert, and as a parting shot, you’ll find it either amusing or disgusting.
Alvin talks about taking customers to the edge of their comfort zone, to “what is sane and insane… as close to the edge as possible without falling”. Well, this is edgy stuff, and a million miles away from what most westerners think of as Chinese food. I genuinely think it’s unlike anything we’ve seen before in the UK. Find the money, book a table, and go. And eat the used condom. C
Bo London, 4 Mill Street, London W1
020-7493 3886; bolondonrestaurant.com