As a local that's been in and out of Hong Kong, finding a taste that hasn't ever set up camp on my taste buds is a rarity. I've frequented the high end and the low, tried the tastiest of junk food as well as the finest health food in town. For a while it seems that's as big as the world gets. As it turns out, there's a quaint little restaurant at the west end of Hollywood Road that's learned me a thing.
Mediterranean cuisines aren't new in Hong Kong. Still, the category garners much less attention than its mainstream counterparts. At Bayta, Executive Chef Pauline Steiner is pulling all stops to convert us-- fans of the mainstream, self-acclaimed committed carnivores-- into healthy-eating fanatics for a mostly vegetarian fare. It's a challenge, but God knows it worked.
Tucked away in Sheung Wan, Bayta boasts of its cosiness and intimate atmosphere. In ancient Arabic and Hebrew, Bayta means 'house'. That's certainly the impression its interior decor is giving. With a scheme of blue, green, and copper, and velvety cushions on Arabic themed sofas, Bayta oozes comfort and little else. Expertly designed by Elsa Jean de Dieu, Bayta is a haven that'll have you instantly unwinding after a hard day at work.
Of course, the food is the main attraction, and at Bayta the tastes don't disappoint. Having brought along another guinea pig, my friend and I had the opportunity to taste Bayta's lunch menu. The set is priced at $140 per person, with no extra service charge. For that you get a starter, a main, coffee or tea, and for $40 extra you get today's dessert or cheese. I'm no fan of alcohol-- not at lunchtime, because reasons-- but for $50 extra you get a glass of wine to pair with. The lunch menu changes weekly, so there's no guessing what's up next, but we expect the coming weeks to be just as good.
For starters, we had the choice of soup of the day or chef's salad. We asked for both, because greed is a sin we're willing to atone for in exchange for good food. The mystery soup is a rich blend of carrots, organic red lentils, and hot pepper. It's beautifully golden and fashionably presented. Still I panicked, because if there's one thing on Earth I can't stand, it's carrots. The miracle is this: I didn't taste carrots. The soup had a creamy consistency, and the taste was pleasant, reminding me more of pumpkin than of the orange abomination. With its light, smooth texture, the soup was especially nice to pair with Bayta's crunchy homemade bread. The dish came warm, not tongue-scorchingly hot, which turned into a merit when I experienced a mildly spicy aftertaste that came a second after downing the soup. So it was an oddly intense experience: every spoonful was of two distinct tastes, one following the other. The experience is new, but suffice it to say we've finished the soup to its last drop, and still we craved for more.
The chef's salad was a blend of cauliflower and herbs tabbouleh, fennel seed, orange blossom cream, sided with crispy organic buckwheat flour chips. First impressions can be deceiving, it seems. Having tasted a decade's worth of questionable blends, with one look I expected a salty, heavy mix that'll stuff me full before the mains. It was quite the contrary-- the chef's salad turned out to be mildly sour, and appetizingly so. It wasn't heavy as its look suggested. Instead this brilliant mix brought along a crunchy consistency that rich, creamy potato salads can only hope to achieve. The blend was heavenly light on my tongue, and the tease left me anticipating even more from the mains.
It seems to me that Bayta's specialty lies in their homemade sauce, because sauces they do and sauces they do extraordinarily well. The first main we tried was the squid and chickpeas pancake with burned bell pepper puree. The pleasant surprise came with the chickpeas pancake, which was distinctly curry in content and intensely flavoursome. Another thing I learned is that contrast does wonders. Even though my hopes have been dashed once upon a time by bland carbs over-seasoned with store-bought sauce, Bayta restored my faith by reversing that principle to achieve the perfect balance. Here the rich-tasting pancake, dry and rich, is no doubt the best possible companion to the light, frothy burned bell pepper puree. In the same way the squid was only mildly seasoned, the chef added salty dried sausage to counterbalance the blandness. It's wonderful mix and matching, and personally there's little else more enjoyable than having two extremes of tastes explode in your mouth.
Next up we had a pan-fried polenta with tapenade, vegetables, and watercress sauce. As a proud carnivore I swore the polenta looked every bit a beef patty, but our vegetarian chef was very insistent on sharing her love for all things veggies. As it happens the pan-fried polenta was a much better-- healthier, too-- alternative. Crispy around the edges and incredibly soft at its core, this tasty polenta pretty much melts on your tongue. The spread of tapenade and mix of vegetables were great additions to the dish, giving the richly textured yet blander in taste polenta the wonders of variety and taste.
We wrapped up with iced nougat with hazelnut biscuit and apricot coulis. The dessert was a bit more on the creamy side-- whether that is a plus or a minus is probably subject to preference. I'd prefer something the consistency of ice cream, but it was more akin to alternate layers of cream and ice cream-- delicious for my fellow guinea pig, a little old in texture for me. Nonetheless it wasn't too sweet, and the nougat blended nicely with the bits of nut embedded within. We also had the chance to try the Torta Peghera-- otherwise known as cow cheese. And while it carries quite strong a taste, it is countered quite well with jam and raisins, and makes for a delicious snack.
I can't say Bayta's the entry gateway for me to Mediterranean cuisine, but it certainly may be the case for many Hongkongers and tourists alike. If you haven't tried this unique and surprising fare just yet, you might want to check out Bayta for their seasonal specials, new lunch offers, and their extensive collection of natural wine. Brace yourself for the sensational journey that will always keep you wondering what's next!
Address: G/F, 252 Hollywood Road, Sheung Wan, Hong Kong
Lunch: Monday - Friday 12:00 p.m. - 2:00 p.m.
Happy Hour & Dinner: Monday - Saturday 5:00 p.m. - 12:00 a.m.
Phone No.: 5597 9939
Written by Vivien Au