Friday, 14 August 2015

Catalunya - a slice of El Bulli in HK?

There are restaurants that are so famous that they transcend the industry and fundamentally change it.  Current paradigm changer is Copenhagen's Noma but Heston Blumenthal's the Fat Duck is probably better known for changing things up.  The grandaddy of them all though has to be El Bulli, Ferron Adria's Spanish game changer, a restaurant that has closed but its legend lives on.  I was never lucky enough to visit El Bulli, but then, very few were.

It was with great excitement that I realised that some of the team behind El Bulli had established a restaurant right here in Hong Kong, and that I'd be able to experience some of the brilliance of the famed restaurant, albeit a tenuous link.  Catalunya is located in a quiet side street in Morrison Hill (the back of WanChai), hardly the setting for one of Hong Kong's hottest restaurants, but in a way it's oddly poetic that a such a Spanish beauty can be hidden so well.  My excitement remained at insane levels for a few days while I maintained a fantasy that I'd be dining at a spot helmed by Alain Devahive Tolosa and Pol Perello, the El Bulli trained chefs that ran the kitchen......  at one time!

My bubble was burst by a well known and connected chef out of Singapore, who sent me a quiet FB message to inform me that the dynamic duo had moved on from Catalunya.  C'est la vie I guess, but it did help settle my expectations for our meal, with were rapidly reaching unrealistic proportions!

Making our way to Catalunya was a little bit of a journey, it was midway between MRT stations and required a little 'back street walking' before we finally found our way to the unassuming front door. There was a vast difference between the interior and exterior of the building, outside it was innocuous but inside it was traditional Spanish wooden floors and a fit-out that felt as if it belonged in northern Spain.  We were seated in the dining room, close to an impressive light fitting that completely dominated the space.

We'd been looking at the very comprehensive menu online and had a list of Spanish delights in mind already, but the team threw our planning into disarray when they presented a tasting menu that looked spectacular.  I was keen, but the girl wanted to try a number of Catalunya delights that weren't on the tasting menu, so I capitulated and agreed to stick to our guns.  We recited our our list of demands choices from the menu, which also included a glass of Sangria, which came in a short glass and according to SC, was quite lip smacking!

Like almost every Spanish restaurant we've ever been to, Catalunya is all about share dining, from the tapas to the main courses, each of the dishes was designed to share.  We love the share dining concepts, but the only problem for us is making sure we split the dishes down the middle and get an equal share.  I'd be lying if we'd not had duelling forks at times going for the last morsel on a plate (especially where odd numbers ensured).

There is no better place to start a Spanish feast than with some ham!  We'd ordered the Jamon Iberico 'gran reserva' 100% bellota, and the finely cut Jamon was presented in overlapping square pieces that contrast its plate beautifully.  It was pretty as a picture and it was almost a shame to dig into the richly flavoured cured meat, but dig in we did!  Served with the Jamon was some thinly sliced turkish bread, lightly toasted and rubbed with tomato, the slight acidity from the tomato cutting through the fat of the ham.  There was simply not enough Jamon to go around, but the opening salvo of our meal met it's objective of whetting our appetites.

I was hoping that our next course would have been thick and chunky grilled, but the chorizo pieces that found their way to our table were thin cold cuts.  It's hard to be disappointed when presented with such a beautiful plate of chorizo and the slight blow I'd felt when first seeing the dish was quickly dispelled with my first bite.  The chorizo was clearly of the highest quality, the sweet sharp flavour of the paprika shone through and there was just a hint of heat to keep things interesting.  

The cold dishes kept coming when our daily special of beef carpaccio was presented, again looking beautiful on its square plate.  Carpaccio is normally thin sliced beef that has been ever so slightly cooked and accompanied by extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper, parmesan and fresh baby spinach. The Catalunya version also had little garlic chips, but what set it aside from most carpaccio's I've had before was the presentation of the beef.  Not only was it tender, it was the thinnest beef I've ever come across, it was like it was spray painted on the plate it was so thin.  It also packed a decent hit of beef flavour, which was stunning when combined with the olive oil and the garlic chips.

We were given a little surprise next.  A couple of spherical olives were presented on wooden spoons with instructions that we'd eat the olives with one bite but needed to "watch out for the pit". Biting into the olives it became abundantly clear that they were no ordinary olives, but molecular gastronomic versions that were liquid covered in a thin skin.  I'm normally not a fan of olives, so it was with trepidation that I tried mine, but there was no sharp and overbearing flavour of olives, only a more subtle oily flavour that was pretty good.

One of Catalunya's signature dishes was the tomato tartare, which on the menu proclaims to have a 'trick up it's sleeve'!  The tartare was presented like many a tartare and the twist was that at first glance, you'd never have known the tartare was not beef!  It looked like beef, but it was only when you placed the 'beef' into your mouth that the power of the tomato flavour shone through.  Texturally it was like beef also, so there was that moment of juxtaposition where visually and orally things were misaligned!  There was a tomato foam that came presented on the plate also, which didn't really add anything to the dish, but was certainly light on the tongue.  It was a smashing dish, which we both enjoyed.

The dish that had excited SC the most was up next and the ham, cheese and truffle 'bikini' didn't disappoint.  We'd had a pretty decent ham cheese and truffle toasted sandwich at 22 Ships recently (see post here), but the Catalunya version took the humble toasted sanger to another level.  They weren't that pretty on the plate, but they packed a tasty punch and did the trick of 'transporting us to Catalunya' - as exclaimed on the menu!  There was a decent truffle hit and the cheese was nice and melty, so overall, yep, I'd have a plate full please!

For me, the most exciting dish of the night was the 'perfect egg', a trio of egg shells that contained the most amazing scrambled egg with caviar, covered in potato foam and then topped with a decent shaving of truffle.  The scrambled eggs were covered in butter, which gave them an incredibly creamy texture with the saltiness of the caviar balancing the flavours so it wasn't too over the top.  The humming umami flavour of the truffle sat on the palate for a while after scooping out the concoction from the egg shell.  The best thing?  There were three and I got to eat two!!

Last of our tapas was my least favourite of the night, in fact, I really didn't like the Jamon Iberico croquette.  It wasn't surprising through, I'm not a fan generally and while I got to have two of the wonderful 'perfect eggs', SC was able to have three of the four croquettes.  I'd had a bite of the last, but it didn't sit well, so I'd left it behind.  Technically they were cooked well, golden brown with a light breadcrumb coating, but croquette's are just not for me.

Tapas finished, it was time for our main, which we had deliberated and agonised over for some time, not really being able to decide on just one of the super looking options.  At the end, I think we chose poorly by selecting the pork ribs, which were slow cooked and glazed with a quince reduction.  There was no doubt that the ribs looked the goods, but small alarm bells were going off when I saw the size of the pork ribs, which were massive!  The best pork ribs I've had are baby back and much smaller and I've not had a lot of luck from larger, full sized pork ribs.  

The ribs were presented to us intact, then taken to a side board to be sliced for easier eating. Great cooked ribs should fall off the bone, and while these came away from some of the bones, most of the pork was not quite yet ready to just fall away.  Also, I found the pork to be a little dry and with the quince reduction not being enough to compensate.  We tried our best, but our hearts just weren't in it and we ended up leaving a lot of the pork behind (some would say sacrilege!). We declined the offer for the ribs to be packed up for our trip home.

I'd been excited about the prospect of dessert, with some awesome looking sweet option on the menu and I'd already sorted out what I was going to order.  However, in the biggest disappointment of the night, we were told that the only desserts were from a series of cakes that were on display.  We'd already committed to dessert, so ended up getting a couple of quite forgettable cakes, mango for me and key lime for the girl.  I'm not really going to comment too much on the cakes, but I am going to say to Catalunya - you have a menu that you've given to a paying customer that didn't exits, not good form!

As is usually the case, we'd arrive quite early for our meal, and had been instructed that we needed to free up the table by 8:30pm, a time that we met, just.  Catalunya was quite busy for the early sitting, but it wasn't what I'd call packed and it wasn't quite buzzing, as I'd expected from reading some of the reviews.  I can only assume that it's the type of place that really starts to hum as the night goes on and the sangria flows.

Service was first rate, with attentive wait staff and management walking around talking to patrons making sure that everything was alright.  We'd actually spent a while chatting to Assistant Manager Mauricio Rodriguez, one of the remaining team that had actually worked at El Bulli. Mauricio was delightful and entertaining and he seemed to really care that we'd had a good meal, so we felt quite positive about our experience, even though there were a couple of blights on the food front.  

There were dozens of menu options that I still wanted to try, so it's fair to say that we will probably be back to Catalunya at some point.  Sure, it wasn't the El Bulli experience that I'd initially been hoping for, but then again, it would never be able to reach those highs...  I'd missed that boat and just have to live with it.

Anyway, I'm sure there will be somewhere else on the global food scene that I can fixate on :)

The tasting menu almost got a run, maybe next time!
How good was that Jamon?  Very!
So was the chorizo! 
Arguably, the best of the 'cold cuts' was the carpaccio
My favourite dish of the night was the 'perfect eggs' and they were perfect!
The smokey mash that we ordered with the pork ribs
It was still light outside when we arrived and the bar was empty
The bar was still empty when we left!

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