If it ain’t broke, then take it and go big. This seems to be the thinking behind Craig Willis’s latest restaurant, the already-popular trattoria, café and wine bar Henkes. The man known for his work building the Wagas empire, Baker & Spice, MiThai and numerous other culinary ventures, has taken the best bits of signature restaurant Mr Willis and combined them with familiar hallmarks, taken to a new level of polish. The Mr Willis dark wood, low-lit interior, prompt service and casual atmosphere are here presented with the addition of a boatload of fresh flowers and custom leather furniture. He’s also brought over La Strada’s pizza menu and a second Sushi Raku next door for good measure.
To be fair, other than the pizza menu which is lifted wholesale from Anfu Lu (including prices, 85-108RMB), Henkes – Willis’s mother’s maiden name – isn’t a carbon copy of his previous outlets and there’s plenty on the menu to encourage old fans and new visitors.
On our first visit, we begin with a selection of three antipasti (58RMB, or 88RMB for five): oily, but tasty roasted red peppers, slightly over-chilled swirls of eggplant involtini and a masterful grilled polenta and mushroom pate. It’s a good range and a pleasant enough, if unspectacular, opening.
On our another visit however, we discover the real star of the starters: the stracciatella bruschetta, pomegranate and walnut (75RMB) is, frankly, genius. For this unusual bruschetta, charred toast is topped with cheese, a few bright dots of pomegranate seed, a crunch of toasted walnut and a bit of parsley for colour. The fresh buffalo stretched-curd cheese has a singular creaminess and a sprinkling of black pepper gives it an unexpectedly fitting kick. It’s a must-order.
Likewise, the roast Serrano pork neck, with lentil caserole and mustard fruit (171RMB) is fantastic. Three thick slices of gorgeous pork neck feature skin so crisp that you can’t even cut it with a knife – you’ll need your teeth. The fatty layer is luscious, almost creamy. The pork pairs beautifully with the hearty lentil stew with celery and carrot and the intensely sweet apple, pear and orange fruit compote, cooked with mustard seed, adds pop.
Not everything is perfect, however, at least not yet. For one thing, there’s far too much Tracy Chapman on the stereo. For another, some dishes are a touch inconsistent. On one visit, rigatoni braised beef cheek (98RMB) is a delectable blend of juicy beef and tomatoes over al dente pasta tubes; on another, the sauce is bland and watery. The grilled lamb kofta (138RMB), tasty skewers of meat on a bed of barley pilau with a parsley salad, needs a sauce to marry the flavours, but the accompanying tahini is so sharp it remains mostly untouched on our plate.
Desserts are a strong suit, though. The wickedly thick chocolate mousse (58RMB) with a chocolate covered disc of almond florentine is a dream, while the orange and caramom creme caramel (52RMB) provides a lighter, but no less delicious, alternative.
Meanwhile, service is perfectly on point over multiple visits.Although there are still a few kinks, this impressive venture looks set to become yet another winning venue from Mr Willis.
By Jake Newby