For a city where restaurant openings are as common as the rising sun, I was surprised by the hype that surrounded the launch of Frantzen’s Kitchen.
Perhaps intrigued was a better way of putting it, after all, the Nordic style had been tried by Chef Nurdin Topham’s NUR. And while I rated NUR as one my top ten restaurants in Hong Kong last year, the experiment failed and after three years of operating, which included winning and losing a Michelin Star, NUR closed in 2016.
It was a turn of events that surprised me; Hong Kong is a place that thrives on the currency of things; and Nordic cuisine has shaped the thinking of many of the world’s top chefs in the last decade.
The first foray into a foreign market, chef and restauranteur Björn Frantzén has chosen a challenging market to enter into. The fickle Hong Kong market is well past saturation point for high end restaurants, you only have to read the almost weekly articles about how tough it is here, and see the vacant spaces open up as restaurant after restaurant fails.
It would be fair to say that I quite like the Nordic style of cuisine; the freshness and inventiveness that strips back the fancy preparation of produce, ensuring that the flavours speak for themselves is wonderful. So once I found out that the two Michelin Starred chef was opening a restaurant here, I immediately made my booking and waited patiently for my visit.
Located in Upper Station Street, Frantzén’s Kitchen has opened it’s 30+ seater in one of the cooler parts of town; but it’s a little difficult to get to if you don’t like walking up a steep hill. We easily found the little restaurant and I was fascinated by the elegant use of the tiny space; an open style kitchen with bar seats dominating the space and individual tables dotted around the remaining area.
With a distinctly contemporary feel (specifically avoiding the term Nordic), the space was a little cramped, yet eminently comfortable. There was lots of polished copper, marble and wood on display and the tables were made up with chopsticks, branded sharp knives and placemats that highlighted the menu. I loved the fact that the menu held more than names and descriptions of ingredients; there were images from chef Björn as he’d designed each of the dishes.
Our incredibly well trained and super friendly waiter had explained that the menu was made up from all of the hits from the two starred Restaurant Frantzén. He also went on to explain that his trusted lieutenant Jïm Löfdahl had permanently move to Honkers to run Frantzén’s Kitchen, a sign on how serious the pair were about ensuring Nordic cuisine was a permanent fixture on our shores.
We’d been forewarned that the menu items were quite small and true to that warning, we were advised that we’d probably want three to four main options for our mains. The explanation continued that the dishes were slightly bigger than amuse bouche and about the size of tasting menu portions. Immediately I reframed my thinking and though of the menu as a choose-your-own-adventure tasting menu.
As such, we ordered practically everything on the menu and waited for the meal to commence.
First dish presented was arguably the prettiest, and definitely a dish that from a visual standpoint could be called iconic. The French Toast was served on a heavy white curved plate that perfectly accentuated the usual appeal of the dish. Incredibly light toast was topped with an aged cheese and heaps of shaved black winter truffle, given the dish both width and hight. A twenty year old aged balsamic vinegar was dotted around the plate and sat as a stark contrast on the white plate. The combination of the salty cheese and earthiness of the truffle and zing of the balsamic was quite subtle, but with flavours that were in complete harmony, the dish set the palate alight for the delicious bites to come.
I’d kicked off with the Swedish Sushi, which ironically contained no fish! With a base of crispy white moss that was topped with deer fallow, ceps mayonnaise and frozen foie gras, the small bit was gone in an instant (leading to a small discussion from the girl about sharing!) It was an intriguing piece of food, super light to eat and wonderfully creamy on the palate; and for ingredients that you don’t normally see in HK or blended together, very very tasty.
The girl’s first main dish was the Sashimi of Norwegian Salmon, thin and precise slices of salmon sitting on a heavy brown plate then covered with king crab, crab aspic, trout roe and dusted with a dehydrated dill. Looking quite rustic on the plate, the flavours were subtle at first, but exploded once you allowed the ingredients to settle on the palate, the crab aspic (like a jelly) was incredibly powerful and was beautiful against the sweetness of the salmon.
Presented in two parts, my Roasted Hokkaido Scallop came with a sliced scallop in a heavy bowl and a ‘Nordic’ dashi with ginger oil in a separate container. I was so busy inspecting my dish that I didn’t notice chef Jïm pour the rest of my dashi into my bowl; just issuing a general grunt of pleasure as he highlighted that the dashi was good to drink out of the bowl when the scallops were devoured. The sliced scallops had a touch of caramelisation around the outside and were finished with fingerlime for acidity. The dish ate beautifully, the sweet scallop not overpowered by the intensely flavoured dashi with ginger.
With a real wow factor, my next dish of North Atlantic Cod ‘Jannsons’ was arguably the tastiest dish of the night (I say that because everything was delicious). Served in a shallow bowl, the exquisitely cooked cod sat in a beurre blanc and was topped by vendace roe from Kalix and crispy caramelise onion. The texture of the cod was perfect, flaking away easily to swim in the sweet beurre blanc that had elements of preserved anchovy juice for a bit of extra saltiness. The Kalix roe was also exquisite, made all the more by it’s backstory; harvested from the Bothnian Bay archipelago of the Baltic Sea and holding the status of protected designation of origin. It was truly rare and wonderfully balanced against the slight sweetness of the cod. The star of the dish though was the beurre blanc; as I said, wow!
Showing a complete deftness of flavour and presentation, next up was the Grilled Chicken, which had actually been poached over a sustained period of time to ensure the chicken was super tender. The thin strip of chicken was covered in blond miso, lemon thyme with hazel nut and girolles; a quenelle of Jerusalem artichoke puree finished off the presentation. Incredibly tender, the chicken had a lovely flavour that was enhanced by the earthiness of the girolles (chanterelle mushroom) and the hazel nut provided texture as well as a nuttiness. The dish was perhaps a little too subtle when compared to the other very punchy flavours on the menu.
A minor issue with ordering happened when the next round of food only provided one course; we’d actually thought we had also ordered the Roasted Swedish Pork Belly as well as the Green Asparagus. The girl was starting to fill up, so instead of asking for the pork belly, we just shared the asparagus. The lightly cooked asparagus was sitting in a bowl and covered in white asparagus fermented juice, the bowl smeared with textures and flavours of pistachio then finished with flowers and pine shoots. Holy crap the dish was good; the fermented asparagus juice a revelation, slightly astringent but also sweet. Each component of the plate working in harmony and an overarching sweet flavour that was just a delight to eat.
Each of the dishes to date had been relatively small, perhaps even smaller than traditional tasting menu sizing but I’d hoped the mains would be a little more substantial. I’d chosen the Swedish Dairy Cow; beef dry aged for 100 days and served under a plethora of individual flower petals and with a side of an incredibly truffled ponzu sauce. The thinly sliced beef was also mixed with a beurre noisette and truffle salt which on their own enhanced the meaty flavour. However, once I dipped the beef into the truffled ponzu sauce, I was transported to heaven, it was simply unbelievably good; but all too quickly over… There was just not enough beef and for the individual price of the dish, I definitely wanted more.
The only dish of the night I didn’t try was the girls Lamb Tartare, which came with cumin, feta cheese, lavender yoghurt and smoked eggplant. I have to say, apart from the lamb, if you were to list out ingredients that I’d hate, this dish would have won first prize! The girl is a fan of middle eastern flavours and though the dish was good, but not great. All around, it was probably the weakest dish on the menu.
Dessert options were interesting, only one of the three was what you’d call conventional; so I was left with a choice of the two ‘unusual’ sounding desserts (the girl had called the short bread biscuits nice and early). I decided that the Smoked Ice Cream was the lesser of two evils and was very happy with my decision. My bowl came with a dome of chocolate which sat on a scoop of smoked ice cream and tar syrup; a container filled with hot fudge was poured over the dome which promptly melted over the ice cream. It was quite the sight! I didn’t get a strong sense of the smoked ice cream, but what I did get was lovely intense flavours from the fudge and tar syrup, which were sweet and sticky. Overall, the dish reminded me a little of a sticky date pudding, but without the cake part.
The girl went with the Syltkakor, brown butter shortbread with Nordic berries. A very simple way to end the meal, there were five small short bread cookies with berry jam in their centre. The cookies could have been a little shorter, but the brown butter flavour shone through and the bitter sweet flavour of the Nordic berries helped give some extra oomph.
We tried most of the dishes on the 16 course menu, and of those we devoured, only one was not a dish I’d order again. Saying that, there were plates of food that I’d happily order every day of the week, in particular the North Atlantic Cod, Swedish Dairy Cow and Smoked Ice Cream. However, I’d have to be feeling particularly rich if I was to eat at Frantzén’s Kitchen on a daily basis.
Truth be told, I’ve had many a 16 course degustation over the years and I really think the Frantzén’s Kitchen menu predisposes itself to the style of multi course tasting event. Each of the courses was small enough, designed to show off the very best of Nordic cuisine and on the whole, incredibly tasty and visually stunning. The only problem is the price.
I get that a well established two Michelin Star restaurant can get away with that sort of pricing, they do it all the time; but a new entrant into a busy and chaotic market? It’s a big risk. Given the newness of the restaurant, it’s kitsch factor and it’s delicious food, I think they will be able to pull it off initially.
The difficult times may come when Frantzén’s Kitchen isn’t the new and exciting restaurant on the scene and Hong Kong’s fickle diners have moved onto the next big thing.
Given I want to dine there again and again, I’d love to see a slight adjustment to the pricing and the introduction of a tasting menu. After all, it’s more expensive than the NUR tasting menu was, which was delicious…. And gone.