In these troubled times we find ourselves, writing about restaurants feels trivial, disrespectful even. As I look around at the plutocrats pissing away their inherited wealth on wine they don’t understand, apathetic towards the plebeian protestors and their selfish pursuit of a fairer future, it’s hard not to see restaurants like Louise as part of the problem.
This sets an unfairly high bar when reviewing it. Louise – the sister restaurant of Asia’s best – can’t just be good, she needs to exceptionally good – so good that she causes me to abandon my moral fortitude for a few hours, forget the city is on fire and ignore the very real possibility of my parents-in-law never making it past the airport departure gate. A high bar indeed.
Louise occupies the two-story PMQ space previously frequented by Aberdeen Street Social. With soft lighting and an Insta-cool forest green palette, the downstairs Bar is gorgeous but lacked any real human atmosphere on the night we were there. The upstairs interior isn’t quite as successful feeling, as it is, a Hong Kongers interpretation of Parisian dining. There are nice flourishes here and there but these are overshadowed by the big boxy Kef speakers that too frequently punctuate the white wood panelling and pump out new wave French drivel.
Louise promised ‘traditional French cuisine, reimagined’. That word after the unnecessary comma renders mistaken expectation. I was anticipating progressive wank and whimsey. I’m very glad to be wrong. What we have in Louise is a cannon of classic French gastronomy. Big, opulent, unapologetic French gastronomy.
It’s a menu of Dover sole, Pâté en croûte and frogs legs (which, for reasons beyond my comprehension, are labelled as Hong Kong frogs legs, as if that’s some sort of virtue. ‘Monsieur, cahn I offair you ze frahgs legs? zey were caught een a Mong Kok puddle ziss very mahrneeng’. No merci, mate).
Mrs A, whose decision making is normally catatonic, selected her two dishes (the signature oeuf fume and sweetbread) with uncharacteristic certitude before I’d even had chance to open my menu. So, I was effectively down two dishes. Not to worry, I’ll have the Heirloom tomato tart and Poulet I’ve heard so much about. Sadly not, both dishes were now finished for the evening (we booked the second sitting). Other dishes were struck-off before I really had chance to consider them. I eventually landed upon shellfish and beef.
A generous batch of sourdough kept us occupied before our dishes arrived. Regular readers may have noticed I’m particularly pedantic about bread. Firstly, that’s because I really love good bread. But, secondly, it’s because I find the consideration given to the bread course a particularly good indicator of the consideration given to the overall experience (Jay Rayner feels the same way about restaurant toilets). If a chef bakes his own bread he generally care about his/her diners. If – and I’m pretty sure Louise does – a chef cultures a sourdough starter, then you are usually in for a treat.
The sourdough at Louise was magnificent. A rugged crust of oak, smoke and roasted hazelnut protected soft spongy innards. When slathered with the seed crusted salty butter it was utterly scrumptious.
A cook tease (amuse bouche) of sweet heirloom tomato and watermelon was very nice. The flavours were fashionable and tasty, but they’ve been done to death recently.
Mrs A’s starter was the star of the day. Smoked organic egg, potato, chorizo and buckwheat somehow all came together in a perfect little bowl of creamy beige cream. The cream had the colour and consistency of Dulux Grand Piano emulsion, occasionally punctuated by small, salty pieces of fried chorizo. It was velvety, frothy and very French. Oo-la-la, it was good – or, I should say, the one teaspoon Mrs A would allow me to have was very good.
My starter of shellfish à la marinière was cut from a similar cloth. Luxuriously fresh mussels and razor clams hung in a light buttery liquor. Slices of fennel gave the sauce a light perfume but they were too cumbersome to be cut and enjoyed with the poncey spoon I’d been given.
My father-in-law had a far simpler, but by no means less impressive, plate of salmon gravlax.
Each of the mains consisted of a perfectly cooked hunk of meat – be it duck, beef fillet or veal sweetbread – all of which were the size of my daughter’s head. Each came with a small adornment of vegetables and a sumptuous sauce that kicked a magic mule.
Given the generous portion sizes we opted out of dessert and made do with four perfect little Canelé.
So, the fare at Louise is very good. But there’s something missing. An absent je nais quoi. The Gallic arrogance on display hasn’t quite been earned. There are too many rough edges in the service delivery.
My overwhelming recollection of dining in France is an experience of being totally taken care of. On our first trip to Paris together, a teenage Mrs A and I naively made a reservation at Le George V – a restaurant utterly out of our league and price bracket. Despite foregoing wine, sharing courses and ordering the cheapest mains, the staff went out of their way to make us feel like millionaires.
Service at Louise doesn’t come close to this. It was all slightly clumsy, lacking the regimental flair I associate with French dining. All the requisite roles (chubby maitre d, geeky sommelier, young waitress) are there, but they’re an am-dram interpretation of what they should be. The maitre d failed to offer a wine menu, the sommelier sauntered over with awkward confidence of a drunk history teacher at a school dance and my mother-in-law was virtually scorned for ordering a dish from the downstairs menu. All of which detracted from the experience and focused attention back onto the amount you’re being charged for the privilege.
So, did Louise attain the high bar set by Odette. Not quite. We didn’t loose ourselves in the experience. The painful malaise of our city streets was never far from minds and conversation, and we left feeling a tad underwhelmed.
How much? $4,150 for four
Where? PMQ, 35 Aberdeen Street
Who goes? Wealthy Francophiles