Fresh Fig and Goat Cheese Salad
Union J, Hong Kong
In 2006, I met Eric Johnson, then executive chef at Jean Georges Shanghai, inadvertently. Though we had exchanged a few emails, I hadn’t anticipated that he’d call me out when I visited the restaurant unannounced. We kept in touch loosely over the subsequent years.
Serendipitously, Johnson popped up in my life again this summer during a casual conversation with Johnny Iuzzini, the Executive Pastry Chef of Jean Georges, about our upcoming travel plans (he, just back from Spain on this way to Italy, and I, about to leave for Hong Kong). Johnny told me that Eric had left Jean Georges Shanghai, taking the pastry chef, Jason Casey (who had worked under Iuzzini), with him to open a restaurant called Union J, in Hong Kong. I should check it out.
I tell you this banal story not to bore you, or as a pathetic attempt to impress, but only to explain how it is that I ended up at a thoroughly American restaurant in Lan Kwai Fong instead of some local place serving local Cantonese cuisine.
Truth be told, up until a few hours before dinnertime, I was still considering spending my last meal in Hong Kong hopping around the various dumpling and noodle shops that my friend Yong had recommended earlier that day at lunch. But, having already committed to saying hello to Eric, I headed to crowded Lan Kwai Fong, a small district traditionally dominated by expats and expat eateries.
Union J is located on the second floor (technically the first in Hong Kong) of the California Building. From my window seat, I had a colourful survey of the narrow street below, lined with drunks, punks, and young foreign bankers out for a late-night beer. Together with the glow from a 7-Eleven (apparently, the busiest one in all of the city) and a sex shop – neon-lit bright as day – the street scene kept me entertained during a multi-course dinner that Eric assembled for me.
Eric says that throw-back, Industrial Revolution era feel to the restaurant and its branding were unintentional byproducts of their creative re-engineering of the space as they found it. Upscale pub meets trendy restaurant, Union J feels like an oasis of order tucked amidst the mismatched chaos of Lan Kwai Fong.
The restaurant is lined with black paneling, polished wood floors, and accented with burnt orange and dark purple chairs. A giant chalkboard, on which hand-written recipes and their plated versions are sketched, devours one wall. There’s a sizable bar that oversees a small lounge area outfitted with communal high-tops. During the course of my dinner, that’s where most of the action took place — all expats out for a beer, a good laugh, and a quick tuck.
The menu is not extensive. What struck me is how “American” it was. By this I mean that dishes are the kinds that you’d find on a menu at any upper-crust restaurant in a large American city.
As with my first encounter with him as chef at Jean Georges Shanghai in 2006, Eric offered to cook for me. Although I really wanted to give Eric cart blanche, I made two requests. The dish I most desired from the menu was “Fresh Chanterelles and Little Green Peas” (HK$148), which Eric said he had already planned on bringing out to me. This gorgeous heap of fresh peas and tender chanterelles gathered in a bowl of light, buttery sauce. The dish was, perhaps, a touch over-salted. But, overall, the pristine condition of the ingredients was its main reward.
I also requested the Fresh Fig and Goat Cheese Salad. Truth be told, it wasn’t among the more interesting items on the menu. But, coming from a place where fresh figs are nonexistent, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to indulge.
These figs were in their prime. Blushing and dripping with juice, they were fantastic. The goat cheese here was not of the chalky chevre type. This was a much more buttery and creamy goat cheese. Together, it was simple and delicious, a beautiful summer salad.
CLICK HERE to see all of the photos from this meal, or click on the course titles for the individual photos:
Cucumber, wasabi ice. (HK$168)
Fresh Chanterelles and Little Green Peas
Smoked broth. (HK$148)
Fresh Fig and Goat Cheese Salad
Honey, toast, and greens. (HK$
Overnight Red Wine Beef Cheek
Sweet potato puree, pomelo salad. ($258)
70% Chocolate Cake & Sorbet
Toffee, chocolate mousse, and pop rocks. (HK$88)
Soft Milk Chocolate
Coffee caramel, hazelnut, and vanilla-yogurt sorbet. (HK$78)
The first course, for me, was suspended in time. It was essentially the creative amuse bouche that Eric served to me at Jean Georges three years earlier. At that meal, Eric put eel with green apple-wasabi dip ‘n dots and diced cucumber. This time, it was an avalanche of green apple-wasabi shaved ice on top of meaty dices of raw hamachi and cucumber.
The wasabi ice was surprisingly strong – it definitely had to be taken in good measure, threatening a proper nose-clearing if you got too happy with a bite. By most standards, the wasabi was too strong. But I kind of liked it. Surprisingly, it managed not to overwhelm the rest of the flavors. If anything, I found it a refreshing start to a meal on such a hot, steamy day. Again, the ingredients were incredibly fresh. The cubes of pink, alabaster fish were immaculate, the cubes of cucumber were crisp and grassy.
A large house-made sourdough roll with a wonderful crust arrived (it’s listed on the menu as at HK$38) with instructions not to eat it — there was simply too much food to follow. Eric gave the same warning when he came out to introduce the next course.
Eric told me he had found exquisite flower crabs at the market that morning. Taking them directly to the restaurant, he cooked them up immediately.
Thinly coated in a house-made mayonnaise, the crab meat was so soft and silky that it all but melted away in my mouth. Eric attributed the amazing texture to the freshness of the crab – especially the fact that they hadn’t been refrigerated. Eric said he was thinking about putting Flower Crab Salad on the menu on the next turn. I hope he did. It was the best dish of the night (and one of the 25 best dishes I had in 2009).
Commingled with the crab were tender dices of artichoke hearts cooked sous vide and halved grapes, juicy and sweet. The crowning touch, however, were the bits of torn baby basil leaves dotting the top of the salad. Strewn across a buttery strip of toasted brioche, this was an upmarket seaside picnic.
My main course was a burgundy bowl of beef cheeks that had been cooked sous vide overnight. Like the crab meat, the strands of beef cheek barely held together in the mouth. The purple sweet potato puree beneath the cheeks (not stained from the red wine sauce – the interior parts were all purple), I suspect (need to confirm), were Japanese yams.
Topped with pomelo buds (lots of pomelo being used in Hong Kong), the nugget of meat was also blanketed by shaved horseradish, which I absolutely adore on braised meats. The red wine sauce, you could tell, was the product of patience and, no doubt, was mounted with lots of butter. It was very rich. Overall, this was a comforting and hearty dish.
Serving two chocolate desserts in a row was a little unnecessary – especially when one is a re-tooled molten chocolate cake. But they were both good.
The “Soft Milk Chocolate” – the more interesting one – featured a block of milk chocolate ganache that had been sprayed with a mixture of equal parts cream and milk chocolate (or “flocage” as Heston Blumenthal calls is – see pg. 416 of The Fat Duck Cookbook). Cooled, the coat of chocolate spray set and hardened into a thin, textured shell. Yet, despite this novel technique, it as the swatch of coffee caramel that stretched across the plate that stole my heart – it was delicious.
While I appreciated the tang of the yogurt sorbet against the sweet, rich milk chocolate ganache, I found the consistency a bit too thin. I would have preferred a creamier-tasting sorbet or ice cream to stand-up to the richness of the ganache and caramel.
Jason Casey, having been a sous pastry chef under Johnny Iuzzini, and having headed the pastry department at Jean Georges Shanghai for a number of years, was perfectly capable of riffing on Vongerichten’s masterpiece, the molten chocolate cake. I liked Casey’s version better (“70% Chocolate Cake & Sorbet“). It doesn’t ooze and gush from within like Vongericthen’s. Casey’s is really more like a hot, half-baked souffle on the inside.
While it may not be the next culinary destination, Union J serves an important purpose. No matter how vibrant and irresistible the local cuisine is in Hong Kong, having been an American expat working and living abroad, I can appreciate the need for a reminder of home, however superficial the form. Eric says that the type of food he serves confuses many local Hong Kong natives – they can’t quite culturally place his food.
It is, in fact, good-old-melting-pot-contemporary Americana. Yes, that’s a genre. And I know you know its boundaries.
These boys clearly know what they are doing. The food may not jettison one to the moon, but it is well-executed, simple, elegant, clean, and delicious. The ingredients are unscrupulously fresh – really top shelf stuff. And they’ve trained their staff well.
A big thank you to Eric, Jason, and their staff – especially Creamy Leung, Union J’s affable general manager – for making my last night in Hong Kong a happy reunion and a pleasant farewell. Next time, Eric, we’re going for those spicy crabs under the highway overpass!*
Executive Chef Eric Johnson
Pastry Chef Jason Casey
1/F, California Tower,
30C 32 d’Aguilar Street,
Lan Kwai Fong, Hong Kong
+852 2537 2368
* Get your mind out of the gutter!