Saturday, 18 July 2015

Fine Dining - Amber Hong Kong

Our first year in Hong Kong means a round of special occasions in a new country, you know the ones, birthdays, anniversaries and such. We've always had our favourite restaurants to revisit on those special occasions, but being in a new country means new dining spots and hopefully new memories.  We've had some lovely meals in Hong Kong so far, but were any worthy of revisits on a special occasion, that special someone only turns forty once right?

With an abundance of Michelin Starred restaurants in Hong Kong, we knew that we'd be able to find a great restaurant for dinner, but it had to be special.  So, what to do when presented with such a dilemma?  It was time to pull out the big guns, sure we could just look at the Michelin Starred list, but I wanted to go even better, so it was time to pull out the San Pellegrino - World's top 50 restaurants list.  There are some amazing restaurants in HK, but only one has consistently made the world's top 50 list, and that restaurant is Amber!

Amber has graced the list for five consecutive years, first joining the elite of world restaurants in 2011, where it listed as the 37th best restaurant on planet earth.  Since then, it's been a bit of a yo-yo ride up and down the list (currently back at #38), with it's highest ranking coming in 2014 where it came in at number twenty four, ahead of perennial favourites like Per Se and The Fat Duck.  Now, we're not strangers to the worlds restaurants in the world's top 50 list, with visits to Eleven Madison Park (#5 see post here), Le Bernadin (#18 see post here) and Attica (#32 see post here), so I was expecting something special.

For once, I'd booked well in advance, not wanting to disappoint my beloved on her special birthday and we'd taken a few days off work to make sure we could celebrate SC's 40th in style. As we made our way to dinner, a number of flashy posters reminded us we were heading into Michelin territory, The Landmark, which boasts no less than 10 Michelin Stars in the same building.  Interestingly enough, Amber has only two Michelin Stars, even though it ranks as one of the world's top restaurants.  

We arrived a few minutes before our reservation time of 6:30pm and after being greeted by the concierge, were shown to a waiting area to settle down prior to the restaurant's official opening time.  This was very similar to our visit to Daniel (at the time #20 but now a disappointing #80 see post here), however at Daniel, we were offered cocktails while we waited - something that was missing at Amber.  It wasn't long before our maitre d' came along to welcome us to the restaurant and take us to our seats.

Walking into Amber immediately reminded us of how we'd missed that ultra-fine-dining experience, with a very modern yet understated dining room.  I noticed that there was quite a lot of room between tables, which assured each diner a modicum of privacy as they dined.  Our table was huge and could have easily seated four and interestingly, we were set up side by side on the very comfy bench seat, rather than sitting opposite.  A good move on such a big table, and while we couldn't stare lovingly into each others eyes, we were close enough to touch throughout the meal.  The most stark element of the dining room was the copper coloured pipes hanging from the ceiling, which undulated throughout the restaurant and somehow gave texture to the environment, it was a feast for the eyes.

We'd decided long before arriving that we would be partaking in the degustation menu, but never the less had a good look over the provided menus to ensure that we hadn't changed our mind. Amber was up to it's 10th degustation menu, which held a collection of Amber's signature dishes, and provided a culinary journey around Asia and France.  A quick confirmation with the wait staff that we would indeed be devouring the degustation menu and our meal got underway.

Our meal commenced with the arrival of a pot, which was topped by what appeared to be a blanched tomato, but was in fact a fennel puree dressed up to look like a tomato.  The lid was removed and a tomato tea/broth was poured into the pot, which had a lovely yet subtle aroma. The idea was to drink the broth first, then eat the 'tomato', which further released the flavours from the broth.  It was clever and flavoursome and definitely got the palate warmed up for the feast to come.

Next out were a couple of amuse bouche, the first a little pillow of basil and fennel puree on a living plate (moss), which was quickly followed by a square of slate topped with a fennel macaron with tomato puree and a Bloody Mary tart in the shape of a small tomato.  I loved the theme of tomato and fennel that ran though the opening section of the meal.

The last small bite before the degustation commenced was presented in one of the more interesting plates I've seen in a while, a kaleidoscope of colours dotted the shallow bowl, which was filled with avocado foam sitting atop little pieces of mushroom  and asparagus then topped with a mustard chip.  The simple presentation belied the wonderful flavours and as it the case in most amazing restaurants, helped transition from the amuse bouche to the degustation proper.

'Violin Zucchini' was first up, which included the transition ingredient of avocado along with green olive and fresh almond tartar with a black truffle gel.  The gentle sweetness of the avocado, which was sliced incredibly thin, then rolled for presentation, was offset by the saltiness of the green olive, a slight hint of truffle hit the back of the palate, right where the umami flavour sits.  It was an interesting looking dish, like something I'd expect from Noma, fresh looking but with sharp angles.

Up next was 'Aji Horse Mackerel', presented on a bulbous glass plate that almost gave the appearance of the wedge of mackerel floating in air.  There was a smear of coriander puree which kind of detracted from the appearance, but was brought together by the addition of a lightly cured and smoked tomato juice, which filled the gap between the fish and the puree.  It's amazing how such simple flavours and fresh produce can deliver on flavour when prepared by a master. The acidity of the tomato helped cut through the slight oiliness of the mackerel for a very satisfying second course.

One of the most iconic dishes when thinking about Amber must be the 'Hokkaido Sea Urchin', which is beautifully presented in a stark white bowl reminiscent of the black husk of a sea urchin (minus the spikes).  The sea urchin was sitting atop a lobster jell-o with a perfect quenelle of cauliflower caviar and crispy seaweed waffles.  There was an intense saltiness from the dish, the urchin and the caviar both packing a punch, perhaps too much of a punch?  I really think the dish would have benefited from a countering flavour to settle the saltiness down.  Perhaps my palate just wasn't refined enough to appreciate the very asian flavours.

Our 'Langoustine' was presented in a glossy black bowl that allowed it's natural orange colour pop.  Seared 'a la plancha' with a crisp chicken skin, the langoustine was gently placed on top a spring vegetable 'soup' that had little squares of apple mixed in with mustard seeds.  The langoustine was delicately cooked and tasted wonderfully fresh, with the sharp mustard and apple flavour balancing out it's natural sweetness.

I loved the presentation of the 'Duck foie gras', which was again presented in a lovely black bowl. Covered in thin slices of daikon and radish then bathed in a seaweed broth, the thin red edges of the radish helped define the dish.  Foie gras is a beautifully decadent ingredient and it was treated with respect by the Amber team.  Lovely and creamy, there was just a little crunch from the radish and a slightly sharp flavour of the seaweed broth, which helped cut through the rich foie gras. 

It was time for our degustation 'main' and we'd had an option of two dishes, so of course we selected one each.  My choice was the 'Miyazaki wagyu beef', which was a strip loin char grilled and presented a honeycomb patterned plate.  The beef was beautifully cooked medium rare and looked stunning with the rich vein of fat still visible.  Black garlic caramel pieces were artfully placed on top and 'Nagasaki fruits' and tomatoes forming a spherical grouping of slightly bitter fruits to combat the fatty meat.  I simply adored the wagyu, which was as good as I've had anywhere but my only gripe was that there was not much of it!

SC definitely had the larger 'main' and her 'Dupont duck' presented with roasted golden turnip puree, roasted fig in bangles jus and baby daikon looked both more substantial and equally delicious.  What made the dish stand out was the most amazing looking side of 'rillette' of (duck)leg on toast with radish.  The duck was perfectly cooked medium rare and had a superbly rendered fatty skin that was also a little crispy.  The turnip puree was sweet, but seemed to work with the rich gaminess of the duck with the sticky jus finishing off the dish.  With so many sweet components, there was a risk of the dish being overly sweet, but it wasn't the case - chef magic at work!

Cheese course was next and SC had a selection of cheeses from a cheese board that was wheeled around, which reminded us if the fine dining establishments in Europe, where cheese boards are common.  I'd already highlighted that I wasn't into cheese, so the team had provided me with an alternative of marigold sake jelly and a poached apricot, topped with something toasted (I never did find out).  It was a wonderful extra dessert for me.

Our first formal dessert was something a little different and harked back to the start of our meal, which was heavily laden with fennel.  The simply named 'Fennel' looked amazing and refined, with a crunch biscuit sitting atop a thin layer of fennel sorbet. Finished off with shaved fennel, then surrounded by dollops of lemon custard with a lemon thyme infusion, the dessert had an interesting blend of sharp flavours and sweetness.  Less of a dessert and more of a palate cleanser, it was delicious.

The last of the formal part of the meal was 'Dulcey chocolate', soft spheres coated in manjari 64% chocolate sitting atop of caramelised macadamia nuts and cocoa sorbet.  The dessert was so dark on the plate, it just disappeared into the background and my photos just don't do the dessert justice.  While I liked the final dessert, I didn't love it.  There was just too much chocolate, I'd have loved to see a contrasting colour and flavour, perhaps raspberries (classic combo) to set the dish apart.

In one final surprise of the night, we were presented with an assortment of petite four in a tin that also carried a thin layer of tempered chocolate with a special birthday wish for the girl.  The team also took a photo of us together and returned later with a memento of the evening - a framed picture!

The man behind the success of Amber is Culinary Director Richard Ekkebus, a Dutch born master chef who had learned from some of the best French chefs in the world, while never actually working in France himself.  Holding two Michelin Stars and appearing for five straight years in the top 50 restaurants of the world has cemented Richard's place in culinary history.  But, was the meal as memorable as other top 50 restaurants and worthy of a special occasion?

Absolutely!  The food was impeccable, cooked to perfection in every instance.  While there were some elements of the meal that didn't sit perfectly on my palate, I could appreciate the level of effort and expertise that had gone into every dish.  Service was as good as we've had anywhere in the world and definitely a cut above most Hong Kong restaurants (save a few other multiple Michelin Starred restaurants).  The degustation is a little pricey, but certainly not the most expensive in Hong Kong and one that felt just about right from a value perspective.

My only question about Amber is why?  Why only two Michelin Stars and not three?  Mmmm.

Our bread was topped many times throughout the meal
Of course a birthday celebration wouldn't be right without a celebratory drink! 
I just loved the look of this radish side dish
Very generous cheese course

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