For a chef who’s appeared on multiple TV shows in the UK and made his world debut not long ago as one of the last four contestants on Netflix’s The Final Table — the most expensive cooking competition show to date — Shane Osborn is surprisingly low-key, as anyone who meets him will attest to. After wooing Hong Kong gourmands quietly for years at his fine dining restaurant, Arcane, the Australian-born chef has quite surreptitiously debuted his second restaurant, Cornerstone, opening at the junction of Lyndhurst Terrace and Hollywood Road this week. This is a project that’s flown somewhat under the radar despite having a high-profile culinary star behind it.
The fact that not many people seem to know about Cornerstone — a quick Google search reveals no website or social media presence — is perhaps proof of the slow, steady and thoughtful approach that’s characterised much of Osborn’s career. While that calm and measured mentality might not lead to a big splashy opening, it’s fittingly in-step with the quaint and understated modern bistro that is Cornerstone, a restaurant that has assumed the immediate sense of familiarity as a long-established neighbourhood eatery.
The restaurant is small — holding about 20–25 people at full capacity — but the food speaks volumes, thanks to the command of flavours and sensitivity to seasonal ingredients shown by Osborn and head chef Neal Ledesma, who rose up the ranks at Arcane and now oversees the pass at Cornerstone. The all-day dining concept (breakfast will be launching soon) might be set within the framework of a sunny Australian café, but the menu doesn’t restrict itself to borders: There are French-style sarnies, Italian pastas and even Japanese influences such as the yellowfin tuna with yuzu and ginger, with most dishes toeing the line between the simple pleasures of casual bistro fare and the elevated techniques of fine dining.
Forming the cornerstone of the succinct one-page menu is a focus on exceptional produce; during a recent tasting, Osborn could hardly mask his enthusiasm as he took us through the greatest hits list of his all-time favourite ingredients on the menu. Oxheart tomatoes — richer and meatier than most market varieties — shine in a version of caprese salad with buffalo mozzarella and sweet basil on a bed of pesto (HK$108), a vibrant salute to the bounty of the garden and a dish that hangs its hat purely on the quality of its ingredients.
Another one of Osborn’s treasured ingredients — Forman & Son’s Scottish salmon, which he proclaims to be the best smoked salmon in the world — anchors a simple open-faced tartine (HK$148). The smokiness of the Scottish salmon works in tandem with the earthy aromas of dark malt bread dotted with flaxseeds, cut through with acidity from bite-sized cornichons and made rich with a dollop of herbed cream cheese.
For all the signs pointing to fine dining chefs leaning vegetarian these days, Osborn and Ledesma deliver a few refreshingly calorie-dense dishes which speak straight to the spirit of gut-heavy French bistro cooking. A tangle of tagliatelle (HK$148) employs a liberal use of cream and cheese, with the golden semolina strands hiding a mix of fresh spring peas, smoked sausage and button mushrooms. The jumbo quail (HK$168) likewise delivers flavour in spades: Sourced from the Brisbane Valley in Queensland, the succulent bird is roasted to a golden crisp and sits on a bed of spelt risotto, with the chewy cracked gains infused with a punch of umami from a dried porcini stock. For dessert, we scraped the glass clean from a sweet and tart lemon posset (HK$78) and licked our fingers after devouring the fudgy chocolate brownie drizzled in caramel (HK$78).
There are areas that could use improvement — raw Sicilian prawns are a tad one-dimensional and the tagliatelle begs for a sprinkling of fresh herbs — but for the most part, the menu delivers exactly what it promises: exceptional produce given the chance to shine through the familiar templates of bistro food, imbued with a touch of creativity and eye for artistic plating. To pair, sommelier Didier Yang has crafted a short wine list of 50 bottles which leans towards the exotic and esoteric. On our visit, we were won over by an elegant Grace Gris de Koshu 2018 with Japanese citrus notes, and a surprisingly rich and velvety Chinese Marselan wine from Tiansai Vineyards near the Gobi dessert.
The restaurant has been tastefully designed by Sean Dix — you’ll know him as the mastermind behind some of Hong Kong’s coolest F&B interiors including Yardbird, Okra and multiple Black Sheep Restaurants venues. Here, he’s employed a cool colour palette of slate and steel blue juxtaposed with light woods to evoke the breezy Australian-style café. Banquettes and hanging pendant lights reinforce the bistro theme, while a few bar stools propped up against the back wall are primed for a private conversation over aperitifs. In creating the restaurant, Osborn envisioned a space that could work for a casual morning brekkie, romantic tête-à-tête or a late-night snack (for the latter, the kitchen serves up a tasty steak sandwich with Rangers Valley Australian Wagyu, dijon, red onion and rocket). Dix has nailed the brief — like the menu, the interiors are entirely uncontrived, a refreshing change of pace from the recent slew of highly conceptual openings.
With Cornerstone, Osborn hopes to make room for the next generation of hospitality professionals, handing the reigns over to Hong Kong locals Ledesma and Yang. It’s a commendable pursuit and, given what we’ve tasted at Cornerstone so far, comes none too soon: Osborn’s two protégés are clearly ready to step into the spotlight. The high-quality produce that forms the backbone of the kitchen and the playful wine list set a new standard for mid-range eateries in Hong Kong. For this price point and style of dining, Cornerstone has carved out a cosy niche in Central’s restaurant scene — whether or not it lands with a big buzz, we know where we’ll be headed next time for an honest, homestyle meal.
Cornerstone opens this week from Tue–Sun, 11:30am–11pm (no service charge and no-reservations policy) at 49 Hollywood Road, Central, Hong Kong.
All images credited to Dishtag.