The Power of Reinvention: the BellBrook – bistro oz by Laris

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Cuisine

Never underestimate the power of reinvention. It can be exhilarating and reward you with a much needed, fresh perspective. For a restaurant, reinvention can be necessary, a wise choice, or a recipe for disaster. In the case of the casual Australian eatery, the BellBrook – bistro oz by Laris, so far, it seems like a wise choice. A very wise choice.

The casual transformation of Laris to the BellBrook

The casual transformation of Laris…to the BellBrook

If part of this restaurant’s full name sounds familiar, it’s no accident. Chef David Laris’ eponymous restaurant was the former occupant of this space. And while the former iteration was quite a lovely space, it has received a very welcome, cool, casual makeover. While the Christofle silverware remains from the more formal Laris (likely more of a practicality), it is now playfully placed in tin buckets on each table, alongside paper napkins, crayons, and chalk.

You are (seriously!) invited to interact with your dining environment, using the brown parchment on your table and chalkboards on the walls and dropped ceilings as your canvases. Be tasteful – but some degree of wit, levity, or thoughtfulness will be appreciated. One example on a chalkboard from brunch today stated “Time is not wasted…when you are wasted”. OK, maybe not brilliant or particularly insightful – but it did make me smile. I was pleased to also see a short and sweet homage to the shockingly, recently deceased chef Charlie Trotter from Chicago in the US. If you decide to contribute your own quote, just don’t write over the daily specials, please- they’re damn good, and we need to know about them!

Chalkboards and brown paper-covered tables invite you to contribute witty musings and drawings

Chalkboards and brown paper-covered tables invite you to contribute witty musings and drawings

I rarely visit the same restaurant twice in one week. In this case, we revisited the BellBrook twice in one weekend – once for dinner, and again for their debut brunch. Both experiences were terrific overall, which is a relief. A relief for them, because in this business, consistency of quality is absolutely key to gaining a loyal following. A relief for me, because right after dinner, I decided I wanted to make this one of my go-to spots.

The introduction to both our meals was a perfect dome of warm, crusty bread, of just the right density, served with an ‘edible soil’-sprinkled butter. A local bakery crafts the bread using a BellBrook-specific, house-cultivated yeast and secret recipe. While the ‘edible soil’ has apparently caused confusion for some guests, I assure you, it is indeed edible. Made from a unique combination of dried mushrooms, nuts, and olives, it adds a salty, umami kick. Even if this is not really your thing, the bread itself is honestly pretty incredible. I could make a meal of it alone.

Perfect bread, with 'edible soil'-sprinkled butter

Perfect bread, with ‘edible soil’-sprinkled butter

Next up, the ‘twisties’ – super-thin, crisp house-made potato chips, freshly fried and sprinkled with parmesan. You can instead request truffle salt or togarashi (Japanese chili seasoning) flavors. The twist is they’re served in a stack on a long metal skewer. Break each one in half to remove, or better yet – pass the skewer and pull off sideways for a slightly neater approach. Be warned – these are an addictive snack!

Extracting 'twisties' from their playful skewer

Extracting ‘twisties’ from their playful skewer

The Aussie steak tartare, another small plate, is served in a hollowed-out bone (similar to bone marrow) and has a rich flavor but clean finish.

The bigger bites best showcase the culinary skills at work here. Not surprisingly, the Australian-heavy kitchen turns out really wonderful dishes for carnivores. Our favorite among these is the grilled black pork cheek-Wagyu beef rissoles (roughly similar to meatballs) with a savory roasted tomato sauce and orzo pasta prepared like a velvety risotto. Mark loved this dish so much, he ordered it as his brunch main on our repeat visit (and I stole a few spoonfuls).

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Grilled black pork cheek-Wagyu beef rissoles, with a savory roasted tomato sauce and orzo pasta

A close second is their sophisticated version of steak-n-potatoes: flank steak with Kipfler potatoes (an elongated, waxy variety), eggplant puree, tendon sauce, and lemon myrtle. It’s a delicious, very well-balanced rendition – rich, savory, and aromatic.

Kangaroo loin, pan-fried, with parsnip puree, roasted potatoes, and sweet onion sauce, is tasty but a little more on the gamey side.

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Kangaroo loin, with parsnip puree, roasted potatoes, and sweet onion sauce

Kinkowooka mussels with tanami fire frites, chilis, shallots, and coriander were also delicious – properly steamed, fragrant, with just a little kick of heat. My only criticism is the frites should be served on the side to maintain crispiness – they were tasty but a bit soggy sitting in the same pan (stovetop to table) as the mussels.

Kinkowooka mussels with tanami fire frites, chilis, shallots, and coriander…amidst boozy punch and lots of beer

For brunch, I experienced one of the best egg benedicts I’ve ever encountered (most are generic and forgettable). It’s a perfect example of how really good ingredients or individual elements of a dish truly add up to more than the sum of its parts. The grilled sourdough bread is fantastic – a great foundation for a benedict. Tender smoked trout replaces ham in this version, to great effect (as long as you enjoy smoked fish). Two organic poached eggs top all of this goodness, with brown hollandaise and snipped chives rounding out the dish. Perfection.

Egg benedict

A fantastic rendition of egg benedict – with smoked trout, brown hollandaise, and grilled sourdough

On the sweet side of things, their ‘regular’ desserts are designed for 2 – really, they are substantial. The eggy caramel custard flan we tried after brunch was one of the best I’ve had, rich but not heavy, creamy and smooth, with a deeply satisfying, buttery caramel sauce.

A generously sized, wonderfully eggy, buttery caramel flan

Wonderfully eggy, buttery caramel flan – built for 2 (with a touch of reflected HK skyline)

The BellBrook ‘spins’ their house-made ice cream daily, and their floats do not disappoint. You know how some foods immediately flash you back to your childhood (kind of like that precious scene from the culinary-themed animated feature, Ratatouille)? The orange spider float (don’t worry, no insects are involved) did just that for me. An avid consumer of Creamsicles in my youth, I adored this version – rich, Tahitian vanilla ice cream in a vertical pool of orange soda. So much fun!

The ice cream float version of a Creamsicle - instantly transporting to childhood

The ice cream float version of a Creamsicle – instantly transporting back to childhood

Cocktails are dominated by a variety of punches. I chose (and ordered quietly) the Pimpy Pimm’s – an early grey tea-based concoction with Pimm’s, sweet vermouth, lime, mint, and strawberries. Quite delightful – although I look forward to trying their sangrias, hard lemonades, and Asian-inflected tipples next time.

In these early stages, there were still a few service hiccoughs, all forgivable (for now). From my viewpoint, there seemed to be only 2 servers on Friday evening, which is a mistake for a restaurant of this size – which while not enormous, is more than just a few tables. Our server forgot to bring serving utensils a couple times, it took a while to get our first round of drinks before dinner, one dish came to our table instead of our neighbor’s, and the kitchen ran out of ingredients for one side dish.

On this last point, I have to say, I was glad they did – as the replacement was one of my favorites of the evening, a wonderful butter-fried cauliflower special. If you think you’re not a cauliflower person or just don’t ‘get’ this vegetable, this is the kind of dish that will change your mind about it forever – crunchy and buttery, with just a hint of sweetness and a lovely finishing note of pine nut. However, we should have been asked if a replacement was acceptable, instead of just proudly presenting it.

Roasted cauliflower special with bread crumbs and pine nuts

Butter-fried cauliflower, with bread crumbs and pine nuts – absolutely craveable

Like I said, all forgivable. Chef Laris himself was in the house on Friday evening, indicating he is definitely still ‘present’ and experiencing the restaurant for himself, which is critical. And when we missed dessert because the kitchen had closed for the evening (we were informed of this beforehand), the maître d’ instead offered a compensatory round of pepper-infused tequila shots. While I have warmed to the idea of sipping high-quality tequila after a visit to Mexico a few years ago (where I enjoyed the real thing for the first time), this one was not quite my taste. But the gesture was appreciated – and he even left the rest of the bottle for us.

While I enjoyed the original, upscale incarnation of Laris, its evolution to BellBrook now feels exactly right – the restaurant it should be. From the relaxed and friendly service by a T-shirt-and jeans-clad waitstaff, to the rustic tables and chairs, to the circular slab of wood on which your bread is served, the BellBrook exudes warmth. The open kitchen doesn’t hurt, either (it was there before, but now it takes on a different meaning). This past Friday, every table was occupied, and the slightly party-esque music thankfully played at a moderate volume – infusing the space with just the right amount of energy. Brunch is still a quiet affair, as it just began this weekend, although I fully expect that will change quickly – assuming they expand their currently limited brunch menu (although their full regular menu is also on offer). The BellBrook is comfortable, fun, inviting, delicious – exactly the kind of place you want to tuck into with friends at the end of a long week (or hell, why not in the middle of the week?)

Mark, enjoying the food and the view (and of course, my company!) at the BellBrook

Mark, enjoying the food and the view (and of course, my company!) at the BellBrook

Among the non-Asian-focused restaurants here in HK, which are disappointingly often mediocre-at-best, over-priced, PR-and-status driven joints, the BellBrook is a well-priced, high-quality, thoroughly enjoyable standout. And they take reservations! But call early for a prime-time table, as word has gotten out (and I guess I’ve now contributed to that)! 

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the BellBrook, bistro oz by Laris
2/F, 77 Wyndham Street
Central, Hong Kong
852.2530.1600

Reservations accepted

Table bites: HKD 68-158

Bigger bites: HKD 168-298

Cocktails and punches: HKD 68/glass

Lunch set: a bargain at HKD 138 (2 courses), 158 (3 courses)

HKF stars: 4 out of 5

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Globetrotter based in Hong Kong, travel and street photographer, Getty Images contributor, award-winning blogger of WanderFong.com - seeking true beauty in travel and life!

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