Nostalgia for childhood treats inspired the latest concept restaurant to hit Central. Chloe Street meets the French founders using their loaves
Nostalgia for childhood treats inspired the latest concept restaurant to hit Central
"I don’t eat bad food,” declares Arthur de Villepin as we take our seats at Tartine, the French entrepreneur’s latest venture and his first restaurant. Nor will he touch nuts and other snacks, preferring to “reserve” his stomach “for better things.” Memories of boarding school in Reims— where the food was so bad he “didn’t eat dinner for three years”—are still fresh for Arthur, the son of former French prime minister Dominique de Villepin. His weekends and holidays back at the official government residence were joyful occasions when he could gorge on the finest cooking in the land. The waiters, carrying plates piled with the likes of scallops, veal and polenta with black mushrooms, “circled twice because they knew I was starving!”
It’s no surprise, then, that the boy grew up to establish an enterprise called Art de Vivre with the express mission to “introduce European savoir faire to contemporary Asia.” Under its umbrella, Arthur has brought to Hong Kong some of the key ingredients for advancing the art of living—fine wine, fine art and, now, fine tartine. The ubiquitous snacks are the staple of every Frenchman’s childhood, traditionally composed of a piece of bread or toast spread with butter, jam or marmalade.
Arthur’s partner in the new venture is chef Philippe Orrico, a fellow Frenchman with a multicultural culinary background. With Tartine, Philippe riffs on the theme to deliver a tempting smorgasbord of open sandwiches—but his are a far cry from the childhood renditions. “We are looking to
combine the reliability of a product you know with an element of surprise, by playing with it and modernising it,” says Arthur.
For diners fearful of tartine fatigue, rest assured that Philippe’s broad interpretations of the concept ensure this restaurant is not a one-trick pony—and there are plenty of salads, soups and light options to complement the tartines. Blini-based sharing bites, eggs Benedict breakfast tartines, gluten-free and vegetarian choices, and even Nutella brioche tartines give glorious variety, alongside showstoppers such as lobster bisque tartine (an oozing, cheesy, herby lobster béchamel affair) and a wonderfully decadent duck confit-topped creation that bear little resemblance to the quotidian sandwich.
The bread (for which Philippe learnt the recipe from Belgian chef Michel Souris in the South of France) comes in sourdough and gluten-free varieties, and is made with special flour the team ships in from France.
While celebrating the simpler culinary fare of their motherland, Arthur and Philippe’s restaurant is unmistakeably European and refined. The idea for it came to Arthur while dining at Tartinery, a New York restaurant that serves innovative twists on the traditional toast-with-a-topping. But it remained just an idea until he managed to recruit Philippe, whose food he discovered on a visit to St George in Hullett House. Arthur had been “so amazed” by it that Philippe was his immediate choice for Tartine. “It’s very rare,” says Arthur, “to be able to feel the identity, the DNA of a chef in every dish; he has a definite style and yet at the same time it’s daring, it’s surprising.”
The tartines come in manageable sizes, with diners encouraged to order two each. “I like the idea of putting lots of food in the middle and tasting everything,” says
“WE ARE LOOKING TO COMBINE THE RELIABILITY OF A PRODUCT YOU KNOW WITH AN ELEMENT OF SURPRISE, BY PLAYING WITH IT AND MODERNISING IT”
Arthur, emphasising the laid-back vibe of the restaurant—“casual, but with the best products. You can eat a truffle sandwich with your hands.” Quick service means the venue is perfect for breakfast meetings and business lunches, while candlelit evenings are conducive to leisurely repasts.
The breadth of the menu allows Philippe, who trained under Pierre Gagnaire at his eponymous Mandarin Oriental restaurant, to flex his multicultural muscles. Born and raised on Réunion, a French island in the Indian Ocean, he grew up eating and cooking not only French but also Chinese, Creole, Indian, Madagascan and other African food, which gave him his confident deftness in combining flavours. “I can mix some cumin with some soy sauce and when you eat it, it makes sense. It’s about controlling something while injecting elements from my life,” he says. As the owner and executive chef of the Michelinstarred On Dining in Central and Upper Modern Bistro in Sheung Wan, Philippe certainly has form when it comes to feeding Hong Kong.
As for Arthur, his sculptor mother, Marielaure Viebel, instilled in him a passion for art that shows in the decor of Tartine, which occupies the second and third floors of The Mood at Lyndhurst on Lyndhurst Terrace. White walls, wooden floors and exposed brick combine with windows along two walls to create a light and airy space. An art deco leitmotif gently permeates, with copper fittings, bronze tableware, and 1920s candles and chandeliers. A curved marble bar on the upper floor opens onto a pretty terrace where 30 diners can choose to tartine al fresco.
On the walls hang scenes from the belle époque, the period of French history after which Arthur has themed the restaurant. The adventurers of the era are depicted travelling the world in search of exotic produce to bring back to the kitchens of France (or, indeed, Tartine) for chefs to “create the best symphony of flavours,” explains Arthur.
Just as the zenith of French imperialism saw the country exporting its cuisine and culture further afield, Arthur and Philippe are also excited about bringing their concept to Asia. “This is a great, booming place where people want new ideas and are open to new things,” enthuses Arthur, who arrived in Hong Kong in 2010 and soon set about establishing Art de Vivre. “In Europe they think they know it all already, but here they are open to new discoveries.”
The tastemaker’s first venture under his lifestyle brand was the premium wine label Pont des Arts. Next came photography gallery Yellowkorner, of which he is chairman for Greater China, an events agency and the organic Mr Green Juice brand. “I put myself at the forefront of my businesses, I personalise them,” says Arthur. To “put the Philippe Orrico touch” on his latest is equally important. “We live in a world where people relate to individuals and the personalisation of food. They like it when you can feel the soul.”
Sitting on Tartine’s terrace drinking Pont des Arts with the two gourmets, I imagine them as modern-day versions of the adventurers on the walls inside. Given that the city’s French community is growing at a faster rate than any other expatriate group, it seems we’re witnessing a new belle époque. Vive la révolution!
toast of the town Arthur de Villepin’s latest contribution to the art of living harks back to the belle époque
on a roll Philippe Orrico brings a multicultural culinary background to the table
beauty and the bisque Arthur’s favourite treat from the menu: lobster and homemade béchamel tartine with lobster bisque