This article appeared in Baccarat’s March 2016 issue as part of ‘Back to the Future’, a photo profile on five young individuals and duos who are reinventing traditional arts for a modern audience.
MAN MO CAFE: NICHOLAS ELALOUF
“How is it?” Nicolas Elalouf asks as I bite into a sea bass dumpling, Man Mo Cafe’s latest creation. “I love the buttery sauce; what’s the recipe?” I give my verdict, to which he replies, “Well, that’s a secret.”
“I wanted to call it Man Mo but added ‘cafe’ as I was afraid that it might be offensive to the locals,” says the 30-something restaurateur as we sit in the sunlit space. “But nobody really cares!” Hidden amid the antique and souvenir shops along Upper Lascar Row in Sheung Wan – “that was part of the concept, we want this to be a hidden spot people go in search of” – Man Mo Cafe was set up in 2011 to cater to a clientele that appreciates traditional Cantonese dim sum but desires something more inventive.
A Swiss native, Elalouf studied at the Lausanne Hotel School before working his way up the ladder at several hotels as well as food and beverage companies. A job opportunity brought him to Hong Kong almost eight years ago, and it was here that he fell in love with Cantonese dim sum. “We had dim sum restaurants in Switzerland, but they only served stuff like har gow (shrimp dumplings) or siu mai (pork dumplings). It was all very traditional,” Elalouf says. “To me, Man Mo is a concept as much as a restaurant. I really wanted to combine traditional dim sum with Western ingredients.”
Lacking professional chef experience, Elalouf sought the help of a friend whose family owns the longstanding Bistro Manchu in Central. A dumpling-making workshop was organised – “admittedly it was more Northern-style, but it was a good opportunity to test the concept” – giving Elalouf a boost of confidence to open his own place. The Swiss businessman also courted a chef from Din Tai Fung – “Chef Pan barely spoke English, but he was perfect” – just days before opening. Pretty soon, curious passersby were popping in to try out the Peking duck dumpling, and what remains to this day a bestseller, the foie gras siu long bao.
What’s the clientele like? “Well, it’s mostly expats now, a demographic that we’d always aimed for,” Elalouf says slowly. “But I’d like to attract more locals.” To that end, the menu is undergoing a revamp of sorts, with items like the sea bass dumpling being added to the current mix. “Chinese customers really like seafood, compared to expats, who are more into the meat-based dim sum.” There is the Ratatouille dumpling – a mix of vegetables, tomato sauce and mozzarella – for vegetarians. And the Nutella ball, which according to its inventor went through a nightmarish three-month trial period. “I had the idea of a chocolate bao, you know, like the ones used for char siu bao,” he explains. “But it just wouldn’t work! Either the texture wasn’t right, or we had Nutella leaking from the corners.” The epiphany moment came when chef Pan presented him with a sesame ball. “It was truly a collaborative effort!”
Not every dumpling is made equal, naturally. Misses in the past have included a cheese dumpling – “it leaked horribly” – though they haven’t dampened Elalouf’s penchant for experimentation.
Elalouf has barred the use of soy sauce from day one – “it affects the real taste of the food; we do have our homemade chili sauce though” – and has replaced pork fat with duck fat. “I’m Jewish so I don’t eat pork,” he explains. “I’m not entirely opposed to the idea [of having pork dishes] but as the owner, I want to be able to try every dish that comes out of the kitchen unless, of course, it’s an item that is guaranteed to be the talk of the town.”
Man Mo’s interiors also appear to be on the cusp of a revamp. “There should be a sense of sharing that comes with dim sum,” Elalouf says as he wrinkles his brow and knocks on the wooden table. “And what we have right now isn’t conducive to that.” As for his favourite dim sum joints in town? “Island Tang, Luk Yu Tea House,” he says, before adding, “and Din Tai Fung. Oh, I know it’s not from Hong Kong but that place inspired Man Mo.”