Friday, June 3, 2011

Creature comforts & pet hates

I had not had the opportunity to eat at Amber (7/F, Landmark Mandarin Oriental, Queen's Road Central, HK) for a very long time, and could only jump at the occasion when a friend and fellow foodie suggested to have lunch there. This is one of my 3 favourite restaurants in Hong Kong (I leave you to guess which are the other 2) and over the years I have been consistently impressed by Chef Ekkebus' style. He got me at hello with a Dungeness crab ice cream a few years ago, and I have been a faithful returning customer ever since :)

Today the food was at its usual best and revealed some interesting, carefully researched and brilliantly executed flavour pairings. The service was a bit of a let down though... I cannot believe myself that I am writing this about a Michelin starred restaurant within the Mandarin Oriental group, which is (rightly) reputed for its smooth and faultless service the world over. So what was it today? New staff? Training issues? I am not sure exactly what the problem can be attributed to, but it certainly came as a bit of a shock. I have come to be extremely demanding with establishments of this standing, and I admit that my expectations are quite high, but frankly that was a first. That won't stop me returning though, even if I will be strongly expecting they got their act together next time...

The flower displays at Amber are always quite spectacular... and so is the ceiling.

A healthy start to the meal - mixed fresh orange and carrot juice

I liked the refined touch brought by the tiny slice of lemon peel on the rim of the glass. The crisp citrussy notes brough some interesting depth to the carrot and orange juices, which were quite sweet on the palate.

Aaaah... Amber's mini focaccias! As delightful as ever, with their tasty olives and a touch of thyme.

One of us had brought a leftover bottle of delicious, sweet white wine which we had just started sipping when a waitress bounced out of nowhere and dropped a slice of lime in my water glass, which I promptly fished out with a grunt. She came back apologizing and whisked the damn thing away. What happened to asking !? Sorry but I expect waiting staff to know that any citrus in your glass will affect your ability to taste wine. I am already oenologically challenged, no need to make it more difficult for me, really...

Then another member of staff stopped by our table to explain some of the items on the menu... and I think my eyes might just have popped out of my head when he proceeded to declare that the Challans chicken on the menu came from Burgundy, as did the langoustine in the same dish. As far as I am aware, Challans is a protected "appellation" and is located in Vendée (i.e. a good 700km west of Burgundy), and if Burgundy certainly does have crayfish in its rivers, I am pretty sure all the said rivers are fresh water and a langoustine wouldn't really feel at home in them... I found this all the more unforgiveable that the member of staff in question was a fellow frog. Brilliant Chefs are let down by their dining room staff, this is not really news, and if I were them I would beat up the offenders with a rolling pin until they are able to recitate the origin and preparation of each and every single ingredient in all the dishes on the menu. Show some respect, people...

The foie gras lollipops, glazed in raspberry/beetroot jelly and decorated with a beetroot "chip" and a cinnamon crisp.

Tasty, creamy foie enlivened by the crisp fruitiness of the raspberry jelly. Always delicious.

Amuse-bouche - not sure what the name of this was, as the staff promptly dropped it on our table and ran away without a word of explanation (!?)

Ok then, blind tasting it is... The glass cup contained some deliciously sweet, warm beetroot coulis, topped with a dollop of creamy Meaux mustard mousse. The vinegared spiciness of the mustard cut the sweetness of the beetroot and offered some interesting, contrasting flavours. The croquette in the coquetier at the back was crispy, warm and deliciously wrapped around a liquid center of tarragon mustard, perhaps with a touch of honey. Very, very nice.

ALC starter - Organic spring vegetables & wild mushrooms marinated ‘à la grecque’ with
manni olive oil, fava bean purée & mint tea jell-O

I wanted to make it to dessert so I opted for a light starter. The 2-tier presentation was a bit gimmicky but I very much enjoyed the work and thought put into making simple veggies interesting (always a bit of a challenge for a chef IMHO). Clearly the Chef had a lot of fun creating this dish - I loved the play on the textures of the veggies created with different preparations (some raw, some cooked, some marinated and almost pickled) and different slicing (paper-thin slices, whole beans, navettes of pickled zucchini). A few dollops of sweet almond cream on the plate brought some delicious nuttiness to the dressing. It was a veritable veggie party in a plate!

The lower plate contained a glazed fava bean purée decorated with fresh mint leaves and whole baby fava beans, on top of which a waiter dropped a couple of spoonfuls of slightly salty cucumber foam. Very "green" and fresh in taste and very delish.

ALC main course: lamb greffeuille triple-A
roasted loin wrapped in ramsons leaves, confit of shoulder with smoked aubergine & ratatouille

The loin was obviously sous-vide, cooked medium-rare (this is what the Chef recommends and I was happy to go with that) and wrapped in ramsons leaves, which gave it a very delicate garlic aroma. The "ratatouille" was in fact a brunoise of veggies on top of yummy aubergine caviar. The confit shoulder was spiced up by a delicate touch of curry, and the generously sauced-up plate was additionally decorated with an intensely green ramsons leaf puree and a dollop of sweet onion purée. Absolutely delicious. Comfort food at its best.

As I started to chomp on my lamb, a zealous waiter tried to remove my bread plate (again, without asking...), which prompted yet another grunt on my part (on account of a full mouth) and he finally proceeded to send more bread over. Now tell me people - why the heck would you think that someone would leave all that delicious jus on their plate and not want to mop it clean ?? At this point I had become frankly annoyed by the waiting staff's poor performance.

Pre-dessert teaser: coconut ice cream dipped in dark chocolate with almond slivers

Always a welcome treat.

We then ordered dessert and coffee, and for some reason coffee was served before dessert (!?) but the petits-fours were despatched after we had finished our desserts (and coffees). Sigh...

Gariguette strawberries - in a sorbet and freshly sliced over Napoleon cream

The sorbet was very fruity and absolutely delicious, but I found the biscuit crumbs at the bottom very distracting and unnecessary. The fresh, clean flavours of these rare strawberries really didn't need any additional sweet and buttery crunchiness.

I am not entirely sure how a "Napoleon" cream is made (for all I could taste, it was like a very light chiboust cream with lots of fragrant vanilla seeds) but this was without contest the best vanilla cream I had in a long time. The texture was just heavenly and the sweet, creamy vanilla taste was a perfect complement for the fragrant strawberries, which still had a bit of acidity. Under the cream and on top of it was a tasty strawberry jelly, and on top of the strawberry slices was a strawberry mousse sprinkled with tiny bits of freeze-dried strawberry and topped with a strawberry juice "crisp". This was a very elaborate dessert with many textures and a very interesting work of various degrees of "strawberriness". A very delish variation on a strawberry :)
As usual, we ended the meal with some incredibly pretty and no less delicious petits-fours:

Chocolate madeleines - the chocolate disk was "glued" to the madeleine using chocolate flavoured whipped sour cream, which was a nice touch. I wish the chocolate was more intense in the madeleine, but it was probably meant to be eaten together with its little cap rather than deconstructed as I did.

The small golden cakes were packed with shredded coconut and dipped in dark chocolate, which reminded me of the much bigger, pyramidal "Congolais" cakes I used to get from my neighbourhood bakery as a kid. Hello memory lane...

Honey and passion fruit caramels (with edible wrappers) - these were absolutely awesome, with just the right sweet/tart balance. The PC used acacia honey (we asked...) which was pretty floral and added some complexity to the fruit.
The macarons were nice in texture but a bit weak taste-wise (we did not manage to identify the mystery berry).

Lemon tarts - awesome pastry crust, deliciously tart lemon curd and topped with a tiny white (coloured...) chocolate disk. Gorgeous.
Calissons with orange blossom water - more gorgeousness. Pleanty of nutty flavour from the almonds and a very floral nose. Yum!

1 comment:

  1. very, very few waitstaff - even in so-called starred restaurants in Asia - have a clue about how citrus can destroy your palate for wine