Phoque Tales: Brexit-weary London gets taste of French Hong Kong
The team behind the Michelin-starred Serge et Le Phoque in Hong Kong have opened an outpost in London's glamorous Fitzrovia. It's eccentric and welcoming ... and better value for money than the original
One short walk from London’s tourist-filled Oxford Street leads to the rather quieter Newman Street in Fitzrovia, where a uniformed doorman betrays the presence of a hotel. The building’s entrance gives way to a dark corridor, whose absence of light is both disorientating and enticing. Doors open into the opulently furnished, fig-fragranced reception of The Mandrake.
This new independent boutique hotel is home to the British outpost of the Michelin-starred Hong Kong restaurant Serge et Le Phoque.
The glamorous central London surroundings are very different from those of the original Hong Kong establishment – an industrial-chic space positioned right on the street, in the middle of Wan Chai Market. But the differences between the venues do not stop there, as restaurateur Charles Pelletier explains: “Serge et Le Phoque is not a concept restaurant – I don’t like the word ‘concept.’ It would be impossible to replicate or franchise, it is too spontaneous. So we decided, let’s do the same spirit of Serge et Le Phoque in London.”
That spirit would appear to be eccentric élan – in approach, interior design and cuisine. Pelletier and his business partner, chef-restaurateur Frédéric Peneau, are charismatic and friendly. Pelletier exudes a ferocious magnanimity, Peneau a dry, reserved humor. They talk with sincerity and enthusiasm about their new project, describing its challenges and joys.
One word unlikely to be associated with Serge et Le Phoque is “predictable.” The London outpost’s lavishly sensual décor may in fact be a little challenging for conservative-minded guests. A somewhat graphic nude painting hangs above one table for two in the restaurant, while in the colorful bar, a large stuffed deer, wearing a peacock-feather tail, offers a taxidermic finial above an impressive shelf of spirits. Not for the squeamish, perhaps.
By way of contrast, the restaurant windows open on to a stunningly beautiful courtyard, lit by the autumn sun and curtained by vines of jasmine and passion flowers. “It is like a jungle, an oasis,” exclaims Pelletier. It feels calm and somehow foreign. Not French, exactly – more of an Elysian sanctuary from the damp streets of the British capital.
The food is similar in style – exotic, but not identifiably French. It is redolent, both in its bold flavors and elegant plating, of the food served in the Hong Kong restaurant.
An emerald quenelle of herbal-tasting sorrel sorbet has a bizarre but delightful richness about it. An astounding ceviche of Sicilian prawns and red mullet is sweetened with charred corn kernels, passion fruit and pineapple, given crunch by perfectly toasted grains of buckwheat, then punch from a sauce with a brazen chili heat.
“A dish should have dimensions,” says Peneau. “Every mouthful should be different. This ceviche, with its fruits, is like going for a summer walk in the countryside.”
Pelletier explains the intention behind the interplay of décor and cuisine at both establishments: “Hong Kong was a contrast between the elevated dishes and their raw/brutalist surroundings – located in a market, where we painted the walls ourselves. In London it’s more elevated all around with the hotel, but at the same time, a restaurant is a restaurant – anywhere in the world, you need to hire good people and make good food.”
Two of the original Hong Kong team members, a head chef and a restaurant manager, have been supplanted to London with Pelletier and Peneau – and this is where the true spirit of Serge et Le Phoque lies: in a strong sense of a “working family.” Many of the original team from 2013 are still with the Wan Chai restaurant – an unusual achievement in Hong Kong’s notoriously fickle F&B industry.
“We call them [Hong Kong] every morning,” says Pelletier. “It is the same team from the beginning – that is how we [London] can do this because we trust them. We are very lucky.”
Now in London, George Scott-Toft, a New Zealander, spent four years in the Hong Kong restaurant and is working in tandem with François Roche, a newly recruited joint head chef originally from France. There is a humble, cautious air in the kitchen – the menu, they say, is evolving at a gentle pace.
“Soon we will offer a dégustation menu, but for now we are just doing à la carte,” says Peneau. “I like to do both – I like to give freedom to the customer to give them the choice to eat what they want. We will be ready to do it soon.”
A talented local sommelier, whom Pelletier met at a pop-up event, has also joined the team. Bert Blaize, 29, and previously of the Michelin-starred Clove Club in Shoreditch, in East London, brings enthusiasm and imagination to the cellar. “I have a lot of creative freedom,” he says. His list includes some exciting new finds (a biodynamic Welsh sparkling wine, for instance) alongside classic Burgundies and Bordeaux.
The 80-cover restaurant, with 16-seat private dining room, opened officially in September. Unlike its Hong Kong counterpart, which only offers dinner service, the London venture has to cater for hotel guests too, meaning the kitchen team are responsible for breakfast, lunch, dinner, bar snacks and room service, which has been something of a shock for Peneau.
“I cook English breakfasts,” says the Frenchman wryly, as we watch a young commis chef stir fennel into a large bowl of minced pork. “We even make our own sausages.”
One other, very welcome, difference between the Hong Kong and UK restaurants is on the price front – exorbitant produce costs in Hong Kong make it difficult to offer high-quality food at low prices.
“It was a big surprise how expensive everything is in Hong Kong,” says Peneau. “It is much easier and cheaper to source products in the UK. English products are fantastic and Europe is just next door. Our prices are very reasonable.” A set lunch at the London venue costs just £22 (US$29) for two courses, £27 for three.
Serge et Le Phoque London is unconventional, exciting – and excellent value for money.
Serge et Le Phoque, The Mandrake Hotel, 20-21 Newman Street , London, W1T 1PG