Sunday, 7 June 2015

L'aLtro - trading on former glory

I've often wondered what helps a restaurant lose a Michelin Star. The hard work and dedication that goes into an award winning restaurant is nothing short of hard toil and a fanatical level of detail. After going through the pain and effort to get a star, to lose one must be gut wrenching.  But, to lose one, there must be a reason and after visiting L'aLtro in Central Hong Kong, I have a better understanding of how this could happen.

A little bit of research had gone into finding a restaurant in Central that would allow us to grab a bite to eat on the way home from work.  We'd found a decent looking spot in one of the many 'restaurant buildings' in Hong Kong, you know the ones, where the first ten to fifteen floors are take up by restaurants.  The only problem in the research was that L'aLtro had lost it's Michelin Star in 2015, which on it's own wasn't too shocking, surely it would still be a decent place to eat?

We had an inkling of our answer when we stepped out of the lift to find that the concierge desk empty and a waiter hovering in the dining room, back to the entry just walking aimlessly.  It was a little strange and we waited to see how long this state of affairs would last, but after about ninety seconds, the maitre d' arrived with a big smile and asked us if we had a reservation.  After confirmation, and a quick exchange in Cantonese with the waiter, we found ourselves led to what was probably the worst table in a completely empty restaurant, right next to a building pylon.  We were a bit dismayed and were about to ask for another table, when the maitre d' magically appeared, apologised and offered us a much better table.

We were given a menu to look over, which was quite glittery and high quality, which was the first real sign of the restaurants glory days.  Looking through the menu, there were a couple of tasting menus, one from executive chef Philippe Léveillé and one from Chef de Cuisine Mr. Mauro Zacchetti, each looking ok, but neither really grabbing our attention.  To my dismay, looking through the menu, there were really not that many items available that excited me and I flipped backward and forward, over and over until I finally decided on what I'd order.

Once we'd placed our orders, our wandering waiter meandered over to our table carrying a couple of dishes that were clearly our amuse bouche for the evening.  Our waiter silently and carefully placed the dishes in front of us, made sure they were carefully placed, then turned around and walked away without explaining what we were about to eat!  We still don't know for sure what we'd been given, but there was definitely some cuttle fish (over cooked) and what appeared to be a crab cake sitting in a thick and viscous soup, perhaps a bisque.  I didn't mind the soup, it was actually quite pleasant, but the crab cake and the cuttle fish were not so good, with the cuttlefish being chewy to the point of rubber and the crab cake being flakey and almost inedible.

My starter came shortly after, which admittedly was probably the best part of the meal.  I'd ordered the octopus 'Miramonte L'altro', which was octopus with olive oil potato puree and crispy bread.  I didn't know what to expect, but it wasn't the finely diced octopus that had been set in ring, then topped with crusty bread.   The octopus then sat atop some very finely pureed mash potato and the dish looked quite refined.  But by chopping the octopus into tiny little squares, much of that wonderful texture was lost but at least the flavour was still there.  While I quite enjoyed the dish, I found it too big for a starter and about two thirds of the way through, had had enough and couldn't eat anymore.

Our other starter was the foie gras black truffle terrine with brioche and onion marmalade, which sounded quite nice.  The two pieces of cold duck foie gras had a smear of truffle infused inside, which gave the appearance of a stripe within the terrine.  It was smooth and creamy, and worked quite well with the blending of the fatty foie gras and the umami flavour from the truffle.  

Mains was where things started to go awry, with SC's order of pan fried duck breast with a Sichuan pepper corn and balsamic vinegar sauce being completely over cooked.  There had been a late change away from braised French duck leg to the breast, which may have accounted for the schoolboy error.  It was shame really, the Sichuan peppercorn sauce was lovely, not at all super hot and worked well with duck.  Simply put, the duck breast was a little tough and had none of the pink hue that signifies well cooked duck.

Perhaps the biggest issue of the night was my special of lobster spaghetti, which both looked and tasted a little wrong.  Firstly, the foam on top of the spaghetti looked like and had the texture of a soapy residue, which had an incredibly overpowering flavour of lobster bisque.  There was a generous amount of lobster in the pasta, which would have been welcomed, except that it tasted a little wrong and way too 'fishy'.  Worst of all was the pasta, which didn't feel like it was fresh pasta, or at the very least was completely undercooked and quite chewy and rubbery.  By the time I'd got three quarters through the main, I'd started to feel a little sick.

When our plates were cleared away and were were asked if we wanted to look at the dessert menu, a quick glance at each other told the story, we weren't going to risk it and called for the bill. When the bill arrived, we were actually quite shocked at the price and were thankful that we'd decided not to partake in dessert and potentially throw more money away.

Given the pedigree of the restaurant and it's recent history as a Michelin Starred restaurant, and knowing a little bit about the Executive Chef's back story from a number of well known two Michelin Starred restaurants, I was pretty shocked by our meal.  Our service had been patchy at best, when served by the Maitre'd we'd had our meal explained and had reasonable service, but the waiter was really out of his depth and provided us with nothing.

The other thing that concerned us was that the restaurant was still practically empty by the time we'd finished our meal, which by that time should have been filled with diners.  Well, perhaps not, when taking in to account our experience, it was not so much of a surprise.

My question had been answered, I now knew what it would take to lose a Michelin Star, a significant drop in standards will do it, especially when not redefining the price in alignment.  Sad, but it shows that you really need to keep on top of your game, otherwise...  Empty restaurant.

Some of the awards from L'aLtro's halcyon days
It was pretty much empty, with one other table taken while we were there
I did like the colour in this arrangement though
The elevator ride out of L'aLtro - I was pretty happy to have left

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