As far as star chefs in Asia go, Julien Royer needs no introduction. Since opening Singapore’s Odette in 2015, the fine-dining restaurant helmed by the the 37-year-old French-born chef has experienced a meteoric rise: It picked up two Michelin stars just nine months after opening; and shot quickly up the list of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants, from debuting with a Highest New Entry award at No. 9 in 2017, to reaching No. 2 in 2018; and finally, edging out four-time-winner Gaggan to take the No. 1 restaurant in Asia for 2019. A few weeks ago, Odette jumped to No. 18 in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2019.
It follows, then, that the local food scene was all abuzz when we heard the news Royer had set his sights on Hong Kong for his first overseas venture, to open in collaboration with Hong Kong’s JIA Group (Duddell’s, Old Bailey and Chachawan, amongst others). After a head-to-toe makeover from acclaimed local designer André Fu (The Upper House and The St. Regis Hong Kong), Louise recently debuted in the old Aberdeen Street Social space in PMQ. Serving rustic recipes inspired by Royer’s childhood growing up on a farm in Auvergne, the restaurant represents a more casual sibling to Odette’s fastidious, tweezer-constructed tasting menu.
Embracing the ‘bistronomy’ movement — gastronomy served in bistro-style environs — Louise largely pares back the formality, with a casual all-day lounge on the ground floor and a cosy dining room upstairs. Although we were initially wary when we read the restaurant is “designed to emulate the chic, colonial home of a fictional expatriate French lady named Louise” — the mysterious mistress trope having been exhausted at restaurants such as Madame Fu, Madame Ching, Mama San and Mrs. Pound — it turns out the real inspiration behind the name is more sincere: Louise is the middle name of Royer’s paternal grandmother, just as Odette is the name of Royer’s maternal grandmother (and a strong culinary influence on his life).
Fu has, unsurprisingly, done a spectacular job in creating the colonial-style home of Louise, dividing the two-storey heritage space into different dining areas, each of which emanate a distinct look and feel. As was the case during the space’s prior incarnation, the patio is still one of the best places to enjoy a pre-prandial cocktail on a balmy evening (try the French Martini, HK$88, with a wonderful undercurrent of tart black currant); while through the double doors, the all-day ‘Parlour’ comes to life with an array of rich green succulents such as cacti and palms. (It’s here where you can dig into the dedicated cold cuts and cheese bar, and classic bistro dishes from Croque ‘Louise’ to Polmard beef tartare).
Outdoor and indoor spaces flow seamlessly with cushioned rattan chairs placed around four-top tables in the lounge, mixed with tropical-print armchairs and cushy slate-grey banquettes. Blush-pink lamp shades cast a warm glow on the bar: a beautiful, green-marbled piece which extends the length of the room, set with tall, leather-backed bar chairs. Adjacent to the patio lies the ‘Drawing Room’; with a botanical carpet and tropical murals painted on the walls, it can be easily repurposed into a private space for special events and celebrations.
Up a plushly carpeted staircase you’ll find the ‘Dining Room’, where lighter cream and blush-pink colours are the dominant palette. Natural light floods in from the floor-to-ceiling windows along one side of the dining room, with stately olive-green curtains and sleek Kef speakers mounted on the walls. While the lack of tablecloths and crystal stemware speak to Louise’s more down-home approach, the room still exudes a classy elegance, with an open kitchen and extended pass acting as a showpiece and bridging the gap between chef and diner.
Food & Drink
While Odette serves fine dining with Asian influences, Royer has gone back to his roots growing up in the countryside of France to craft the menu at Louise. Heading the kitchen here is Executive Chef Franckelie Laloum, Royer’s long-time peer who’s relocated from Tokyo’s Azure 45 at the Ritz-Carlton, where he earned the restaurant its first Michelin star. Together, they’ve collaborated on an à la carte menu which burrows to the heart of familial French dining, intended to ‘invoke the joy of sharing a meal’ prepared with top-notch ingredients and honest cooking. (Though our server tells us that the food is indeed made for sharing, the chef emphasises that it’s meant to be singular portions — betraying some mixed signals between front- and back-of-house that still need to be sorted).
After whetting our appetite with a plate of rustic sourdough from Bread Elements (a popular supplier for some of the best restaurants in town) and a pot of French butter, we start our meal with the heirloom tomato tart (HK$258). An elegantly reimagined caprese, the trio of summery tomatoes rest on a sturdy yet flaky pastry tart, with a quenelle of bright basil sorbet cutting through the creamy bulb of fresh Luigi Guffanti burrata.
Pâté en croûte (HK$188) is a traditional cobblestone of chicken, duck and foie gras pressed together with chopped olives and housed in a square of golden pastry spread with a thin layer of port wine gelée, providing a sweet contrast to the gaminess of the liver. Classic to a tee, the dish proves the kitchen’s not afraid to dive into the more technical and labour-intensive canons of classic French cuisine, from perfecting glossy sauces to charcuterie-making.
Our next dish, the angel hair pasta with caviar (a pricey HK$458, part of a specialty caviar menu) is a study in the art of subtlety: the thin strands undressed save for a touch of truffle which envelops each twirl of the fork in a heady perfume. The lack of superfluous ingredients refined elegance that’s implicit in Royer’s style of cooking.
Frog legs (HK$258) are plated like savoury lollipops, tender and meaty with the trimmed bones affording an easy way to swipe the succulent meat through a pool of astoundingly bright and herbaceou) parsley purée, juxtaposed with dots of garlicky white purée. Garlic chips add a final element of crunch in this quintessential bistro dish, revived and reimagined within the framework of contemporary Gallic dining.
In a bit of table-side theatrics recalling those at Belon — another upscale French bistro in SoHo — a whole roast yellow chicken (the same local variety sourced from the New Territories) is paraded around the room dressed with a bushel of bright green rosemary and other fresh herbs. However, the carved-up bird doesn’t quite deliver on its promise (especially considering its HK$858 price tag): the meat is disappointingly devoid of much flavour, with some of the white meat slices erring on the dry side.
Luckily, comfort arrives in the form of Nigata rice ‘en cocotte’ (included with the chicken): A cast iron pot of fragrant Japanese rice is glossed over with chicken fat and interspersed with crunchy bits of chicken skin and chives, before being showered with seasonal Australian black truffles. On the side, La Truffade (HK$178) is a small dish of sautéed potatoes draped under a heavy blanket of Cantal cheese, with a simple sprinkling of garlic and parsley to highlight the mildly nutty, milky characteristics of the young cheese sourced specially from Royer’s hometown of Auvergne.
Visible from the staircase through an open viewing window, the pastry kitchen churns out some textbook-perfect pastries that are well worth throwing out your summer diet for. On our visit, we were pleasantly pleased with the ‘Mama Royer’ yoghurt cake (HK$118), a prized family recipe with ice cream and confit lemon, while we swooned over the mille-feuille (HK$128), shatteringly crisp golden pastry held together with an ethereal cream speckled with dark flecks of Madagascar vanilla. Capped off with raspberry sorbet and fresh raspberries, the simple yet masterful dessert suggests some very capable and skilled pâtissiers in the kitchen. (You’ll also want to try the traditional French cannelés and crisp, scallop-shell-shaped baked madeleines.)
Cheese lovers won’t want to pass up the opportunity to tuck into the specialty selection of cheeses (paired with charcuterie in the Parlour) from MOF cheese artisan Xavier Bourgon, designed to delight those who believe the older and smellier, the better. The menu at Louise is complemented by an excellent selection of house cocktails and a total of 24 wines by the glass. On our visit, we enjoyed Louise’s own label from Champagne Pommery, an effervescent vintage full of finesse — but oenophiles will also find comfort in discovering boutique wineries from lesser-known French regions as well as a selection of other wine-producing countries.
Louise marks a welcome return to classical French cooking, unmarred by the overly creative impulses that can sometimes tend to cripple Western chefs cooking in Asia — those who think fusion-leaning bells and whistles are somehow compulsory to opening a Western-style restaurant here. By contrast, Louise is content in sticking to the classics, elevating familiar dishes such as pâté en croûte, frog legs and French-style pastries with a certain refined technique and careful attention to composition. Some dishes are instantly transportive, whisking you straight to the countryside of France as if you were summering in Royer’s own family home.
That said, the idea of bistronomy is to deliver the polish of haute cuisine stripped of pretensions, affording the average diner the chance to appreciate classic recipes at affordable price points. For a restaurant that bills itself as casual and affordable, the price of some dishes (tellingly unavailable on the website) are occasionally as off-putting as the starchy tablecloths and stiff service — those hallmarks of old temples to haute French gastronomy — that the restaurant supposedly seeks to avoid.
If the current shifting tides in culinary thought have taught us anything, it’s that gone are the days when we should dutifully accept French food being priced at a premium (over Chinese, Mexican, Indian, you name it) simply due to its Old World prestige as a first-rate cuisine. If Louise can manage to be as cheerful in generosity as it is in disposition, Royer will soon be counting another successful restaurant as a notch on his belt.
Opening Hours: Mon–Sun; upstairs open 12–3pm, 6–11pm for dinner; downstairs open 12–11pm for all-day dining (no reservations).
Recommended Dishes: Heirloom tomato tart with burrata, Nigata rice ‘en cocotte’, La truffade, pâté en croûte, angel hair pasta with caviar, sautéed frog legs, ‘Mama Royer’ yoghurt cake, Madagascar vanilla mille-feuille.
Price: HK$1,000–$1,500 per person with drinks.
Noise Level: Comfortable.
Service: Attentive, though with a few service kinks to sort out during opening weeks.