Saturday, 26 September 2015

Ta Vie - Japanese fusion with Chinese Influences

What would make a chef at the top of his game, a chef who is incredibly well regarded, make the decision to a leave a very successful two Michelin Star restaurant?  Earlier this year, acclaimed chef Hideaki Sato moved on from one of Hong Kong's best Japanese restaurants, Tenku Ryugin to set up Ta Vie in the historic Pottinger Hotel.  Bold move...

The Pottinger Hotel is located in busy Central, but is like an oasis in a chaotic desert and stepping through the front doors of the hotel was like stepping into a bygone era.  Classy and chic, it was a mix between colonial Britain and renaissance Paris.  Helpful staff went the extra step of escorting us to the charming old lifts that took us to the second floor and entrance to Ta Vie.  It was a stark contrast, while the lobby was light and airy, the restaurant was all greys and blacks, and while it retained a hint of the Parisian theme downstairs, it was much more attuned for romance (perfect for a date or special occasion).

Like many special occasion restaurants, we were warmly greeted by an incredibly friendly maître d' and shown to our tables.   With a warm glow from our special treatment, we quickly noticed a couple of glass bottles containing our menus for the evening, displayed just like I'd always imagined how a message in a bottle would appear walking down a beach.  Instead of a message of help, we were presented with chef Sato's customary tasting menu.  Sato is well known for degustation only menus, blending traditional Asian stylings with contemporary Japanese techniques.

The special treatment continued with what felt like a team of wait staff handing us refreshingly cold towels to freshen up and take our drink orders.  With a wine list that largely comprised of Chinese wines, SC decided to take a risk with a Chinese Chardonnay, which was surprisingly crisp and light.

Before we knew it, our meal commenced and what was a little surprising to me was the lack of amuse bouche, we were straight into the tasting menu! Starting with a rustic looking dish of baby cuttlefish with ratatouille and a potato and fennel cream, the most striking element of the dish was the beautiful plate it was presented on.  I've never been a big ratatouille fan, but the flavours were not too strong, allowing the cuttlefish to be the predominant flavour.  The tender cuttlefish was almost melt-in-your-mouth and was ably supported by the potato and fennel cream.  It was nice, but lacked any contrasting textures and was a little squishy on my palate.

Our plates were whisked away shortly before the delivery of a 'flying saucer' appearing plate that contained a sweet corn puffed mouse with 'aburi' lightly torched lobster in a shrimp broth jelly. There was a wonderful depth of flavour in the combination of the sweet corn mousse and the shrimp broth jelly.  Both sweet and sharp at the same time, the combination was delightful, adding to the dish was large chunks of expertly cooked and sweet lobster.  While the lobster added some contrasting texture, I found it very similar to the earlier dish and a little too squishy for my tastes.

Next was a completely different style of dish, with a lovely bright cast iron pot placed in front of us containing a consommé of 'Lung Guang' chicken with grilled Matsutake mushroom and a chicken wanton.  Incredibly powerful flavour from the consommé, which was perfectly clarified, danced on the palate and was a perfect example of rustic cooking with beautiful flavours.  The chicken wanton was delicious but was made from light Italian style pastry, which gave it the texture and styling of a ravioli.  

In a break from the noted menu, we received a little treat, which had the feel of a signature dish. A little enclosed bowl hid an interesting little dish of sweet corn puffed mousse and sea urchin with risoni alla carbonara.  With instructions to mix the blend together before eating, it was a full flavoured dish but I found it overly salty, dominated by the sea urchin and as consequence a little out of balance.  It was a return to the soft textures that had, to my mind, impacted my enjoyment of the first couple of dishes.

We were back on menu with the next dish of Wagyu 'minute' steak with burnt onion and onsen egg  with peated sweet soy sauce.  Aside from the beautiful plate, there wasn't much to look at, with an incredibly thin piece of Wagyu beef covering the egg and onion.  But, once you peeled back the beef the magic appeared, with a round of burnt onion ring holding back a soft and creamy slow cooked egg.  The dish was accompanied by a warm bread roll, which was used to dip into the egg yolk like a 'toasted-soldier'.  The Wagyu was so tender it literally melted on the palate and overall it was an interesting take on beef and eggs.  Pity about the original presentation, I'd have loved to have seen more colour and a presentation that matched the wonderful flavours.

It felt a little as if we were rushing through out meal, our very attentive staff were attuned to filling up our empty glasses and taking away our food as soon as it was finished.  It was great, but I felt as if it was contributing to our rapid passage through our tasting menu.

The next dish was very interesting, a huge poached oyster in a fresh green juice gel of 'wasabi, sedate, green mango, shiso and green apple', presented on a huge green leaf.  I loved the combo of flavours that were matched with the creamy oyster, which had been lightly poached. I normally don't like cooked oysters, but Chef Sato had done such a masterful job with the poaching that it really enhanced the flavour and texture.  It was possibly my favourite dish!

The next course proved that using luxurious ingredients doesn't always translate to a winning dish.  There was a promising start, with a beautiful and complex bowl holding a 'civet' of braised abalone with chestnuts and house made spaetzle (pasta).  Abalone is an interesting ingredient, expensive to the max, but risky.  If over cooked or not paired right, it can be a disaster.  I found the Ta Vie version to be a little too rubbery and I didn't particularly like the accompanying sauce, and I really didn't like the chestnuts.  I'd have to say, I was not too impressed with the flavour combination or textures, they just didn't sit well on my palate.

Moving on to the desserts saw more of the same, and by that, I mean soft textures.  We started off with a 'crown' melon soup and Jasmine flower blanc-manger, a delightful and fresh soup of melon and a dollop of a creamy substance which seemed like a sweetened bean curd.  Looking like a reverse fried egg on the plate, it was a very simple dish which mostly served as a palate cleanser.

I'd been anticipating the last dessert, ever since I read that there would be a sabayon sauce included, a process that had been in the best dessert I've almost had (see post here).  Presented in a stunning looking bowl that captured and reflected the light beautifully, we had the Japanese golden peach with Osmanthus flower sabayon sauce and a creamy sorbet, which was seriously delicious.  Golden peaches are the king of fruit and I'd not had any since arriving in Hong Kong, so I was always going to love it.  My only issue was again with the texture, which was totally soupy and not like the sabayon I'd remembered.

Our meal had finished fairly quickly for a tasting menu, in about ninety minutes, mainly on the back of super efficient and friendly staff whisking away our dishes as soon as they'd finished. Reflecting back, it felt a little too rushed and I'd have appreciated another hour to soak up the atmosphere and enjoy dinner in a more leisurely pace.  We were impressed to see Chef Sato out of the kitchen to thank us for coming and shake our hands on the way out, a great little touch.

Only time will tell if Ta Vie will reach the heights of Tenku Ryugin, so it's a big risk for Sato.  My overall impression of the food was that it was slanted more towards Eastern palates and a little off-putting to my Western palate, especially the textures.  I also found the meal to be ridiculously expensive at around $1900 HKD, nearly twice the price of a good two Michelin Starred restaurant in the UK.  Contributing to the feeling of excessive price was the time spent in the restaurant, you really want a much more expansive experience for the price.

As I said at the beginning, bold move...

Most of the tables were set up for two - so romantic
Old style charm of the Pottinger Hotel

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