Review: At Francis, There’s No Pulling Back On The Middle Eastern Flavours
Middle Eastern cuisine is known for its use of spice and herbs, from wild oregano and sumac to distinctive spice blends such as ras-el-hanout and za’atar. Right from the beginning, the expert use of these flavours is something at which Francis excels.
From the za’atar-laced chicken schnitzel, to the generous dousing of halloumi with wild oregano, to cauliflower that’s elevated by the mark its tarragon sauce makes, herbs and spices at Francis are more than just a nice addition—they work for their place on a plate.
The crisp breaded chicken’s tangy za’atar accentuates the squeeze of lemon, lending a sharpness that enhances the juicy white meat. The earthy freshness of the wild oregano atop the browned, almost melting halloumi brings out the flavour of a squeaky cheese that can sometimes come across slightly bland. It brings balance here, too, to the sweetness of the pomegranate molasses and the tang of the fresh pomegranate seeds. In the cauliflower dish, the generous use of tarragon in the yoghurt sauce does not scream “look at me”, but instead, “look at what I can do.” Florets of cauliflower are cooked two ways—some crunchy and sliced, others grilled and spiced, before the tarragon lends distinction.
For all that expert use of herb and spice, sadly for me, it is lacking in the one dish that the restaurant itself lauds. The hummus is raved about from door to kitchen hatch as something of a signature. It’s apparently a bestseller, too, so it must have found some fans. But for me, I like my hummus with a bit of oomph. Controversial as it may be, I love the nip of cumin, even an edge of cayenne, or at least the bite of paprika. I like to taste lemon juice and that hint at garlic. But here, while the hummus is amazingly light and fluffy—characteristics that no doubt appeal to a certain stratum of hummus lover—it lacks weight and body, even if the balance of tahini to chickpea is good. The lamb ragu on top is a pleasant addition—savoury and textured—but it would be ever more so atop a more flavour-layered chickpea dip.
As well as herbs and spices, classic Middle Eastern ingredients all make their mark. There’s rose water (it gives iced tea here a twist); orange blossom (in the perfectly executed knafeh dessert, where it adds citrus vibrancy to the flavours); and harissa, (which is made in-house and accompanies the grilled octopus and burgul potato cake: the mollusc is tender but there’s enough texture there, too). Like the spices, each are used for what they bring to a dish, whether it’s for adding fragrance, bringing texture or, in the case of the harrisa, drawing out the flavours before allowing a pleasant spiciness to linger on the back of the tongue.
Then there’s moisture—another important aspect of Middle Eastern food. After all, in lands that are dry, hot and arid, nobody wants to be presented with shriveled up falafel or dried out kofta. This is far from being a problem at Francis. The kofta here are made with a well-calculated mix of 80% spring lamb to 20% wagyu beef, the fat ratio and the medium-rare interior of these kofta ensures they are moist and juicy—so much so that the accompanying tahini is somewhat redundant. Their succulence and depth of flavour needs only their simple tomato topping. Just one thing—why serve such a well-executed kofta lukewarm? It would have benefited greatly from arriving hot, even if there is no rule either way.
The food at Francis is definitely authentic. Behind the stove, chef Asher Goldstein, who was born in Tel-Aviv, is bringing his roots to the table. The Middle East has its place on sommelier Simon Sammuri’s wine list, too, with select wines from Lebanon enhancing a good selection by the glass, while there is a very reasonably priced collection of wines by the bottle, too, priced at either HK$350 or HK$600 a bottle and sourced from small producers who grow with care for the environment. We try a chardonnay from Domaine Buronfosse, made organically using a hands-off approach and it’s bright and light and crisp, bursting with green fruit, and complementary to the lighter dishes from the menu.
Francis offers space for just 30 guests, with in-on-the-action bar chairs, intimate low tables and see-and-be-seen counter seating window-side that allows for dining both outside and in. Sleek, chic and sophisticated with grey stone, black leather and gold accenting, attention has been paid to design details throughout, while at the back, the raised kitchen with brass paneling provides behind-the-scenes access. The setting is a far cry from the more traditional environs of its cuisine yet it’s contemporary and cosy. And it fits with what the team at Francis, led by James Ward, former restaurant manager at Aqua, Zafran and The Ocean, say they are doing—providing authentic Middle Eastern flavours in an inviting (Hong Kong) neighbourhood setting. And that, for the most part, they are doing well.
Francis, G/F, 4 & 6 St. Francis Street, Wan Chai, Hong Kong; +852 3101 9521
A meal for two with wine and service: around HK$1,000
How we rate
Each of our reviewers score restaurants based on four main criteria: setting, food, service, and drinks, taking into account more than 35 different points of reference including manners of staff, usefulness of the wine list, and whether or not the restaurant makes an effort to be environmentally aware. 5/5 indicates an exceptional experience; 4-4.5/5 is excellent; 3-3.5/5 is good to very good; and 2.5/5 or lower is average to below average. Before visiting a restaurant, the reviewers will book using a pseudonym and do not make themselves known to restaurant staff, in order to experience the venue as a regular guest—if this is not possible, or if we are recognised, we will indicate this in the review.