Sunday, 11 October 2015

Private Dining - The Popsy Room

There is a saying, I know you've heard it before; 'Art is in the eye of the beholder'.

But what is Art?  Contemporary wisdom tells us that it's a painting on a wall, a sculpture in a park or an exhibit in a gallery.  But is that all?  Over the last few years, artists have been using a new canvas for their pursuits - the plate.  The advent of the blogger, the food photographer and Instagram have helped transform gastronomy to arguably the most popular of all art!

This was never so evident than when I recently visited a private dining room that is an art gallery by day and gastronomic gallery by night.  The Popsy Room is an art gallery in Sheung Wan, an area that is rapidly transforming into the hippest of Hong Kong areas.  So it's fitting that such a juxtaposition of contemporary art and dining art start to bleed into each other.

Rotating exhibitions through the Popsy Room every two months keeps things fresh, but it is their approach to marrying the visual arts together that's so interesting.  The dining room takes direct inspiration from each exhibition, creating a menu that's in perfect harmony to tell a compelling story.  At the time of our visit, the gallery had a tribute to Madame Helena Rubinstein's legendary life, outlining her audacity and passion for creating a beauty empire.

Our tasting menu on the night was called State-of-Art and we were provided a booklet that outlined the stages of Madame Rubinstein's life and which aligned each stage to a gastronomic and sensual delight.

We kicked off with a story about the embryonic creation of Madame Rubinstein's vision for a beauty empire, and what better way to represent the start of something grand than with a slow cooked egg.  Titled 'dawn of the legend' we started with a 63° slow cooked egg with parmesan creamed spinach and handmade toasting with parma ham curl.  Presented in a plain coffee cup, the slow cooked egg was covered with a parma ham foam, along with a crispy parma ham soldier.  The eggs was beautifully cooked and once the creamy yolk mixed with the parma foam, I was transported to my happy place.  Creamed spinach added a freshness to the dish and the crunchy ham added some texture.  I loved the taste of the dish, but was surprised by the presentation, which was very basic, I expected amazing presentation as well as lovely taste!

'The mystery of inspiration' continued on the initial theme and a series of portraits and photographs of a young Rubinstein were the inspiration for the next dish.  Presented on slate, the soft avocado summer trifle with fresh lilies and strawberry yoghurt was more in alignment with my expectations for an art gallery cum dining room!  Rubinstein's intimate relationships with Picasso and Matisse account for the contemporary presentation, but it was the flavour that really surprised.  The combination of avocado and strawberry was a stroke of genius, both providing contrasting sweetness that was well balanced with the addition of cherry tomato.

Rubinstein was credited with revolutionising the beauty industry, so the the next dish of 'Swirl of Revolution' symbolised the moment of revelation!  Silky french chicken was accompanied with a beautifully clarified chicken consommé and perfectly symmetrical spring vegetables.  The spring chicken was beautifully tender and moist, but it was the consommé that was the breathtaking beauty.  With a depth of flavour that was almost fathomless, it was a highlight of the meal.

Believing that science was at the heart of beauty, our next dish reflected both by being incredibly beautiful on the plate and was called 'Infusion of Science'.  The pan seared grouper with oyster infused 'fork-crushed' potatoes with seaweed and a masala butter sauce was an inspired combination that was slightly let down by it's execution.  The highlight was the masala butter sauce, which was silky smooth and all-so-creamy, it worked really well with the Grouper but not so well with the oyster infused potato.  Unfortunately, the delicate Grouper was ever so slightly over cooked, which impacted the balance of the dish.

I was most looking forward to the next dish, called 'A mask with gold skin', butter poached lobster with shell pasta stuffed with tomato concasse, carrot puree, basil oil and pesto powder.  The dish had the most amazing colour, textures and flavour, in particular the carrot puree and the pesto powder.  The gold colour on the plate represented Rubinstein's belief that skin care products delivered sensuous skin and character, boosting a woman's allure and confidence.  The dish was indeed confident and alluring and would have been perfect if the lobster had not been over cooked.

There was a mix of creativity and delicacy with 'The miracle of nature', a razor clam shell was the centrepiece of the dish and contained sea urchin risotto and decorated with lilies and exotic mushrooms.  The risotto was perfectly cooked and had a nice flavour, but what really helped make the dish pop was the richness from clam foam.  There were the most amazing little mushrooms mixed in the foam, they were so tiny, but added a powerful earthy flavour to balance the richness of the foam.

As a punctuation mark on the Rubinstein exhibit was a exhibit called Prodigy of Sacred Oil, celebrated with a choice of mains.  We both chose the pan seared duck in lychee sauce, cauliflower puree, zucchini, deep fried purple potato and pomelo.  There was a natural symmetry to the dish which was centred around the angular duck breast.  From it's colouring, I expected the duck to be over cooked, but once I took my first bite, I could see the perfect pink colouring and expertly rendered duck fat.  I loved the strong flavour from the duck, contrasted against the silky smooth cauliflower puree and the crunchy texture of the purple potato.

"Legacy of Perfection' was our last dish and arguably the most aligned with my image of an art gallery and private kitchen.  The cinnamon sugar pasty filled with chocolate ganache and decorated with mixed berries and vanilla sauce looked spectacular.  It was art on a plate, almost too pretty to eat!  The cinnamon donut had plenty of sticky ganache and the chocolate and vanilla sauce paired wonderfully with the sharpness of the berries.  

Our sweet treats weren't finished just yet, petite four in the form of macarons were delivered on an artists palate.  They were sweet perfection and a superb finish to the meal....

My first real dinner in a private dining room had been a success.  We were a little apprehensive when we first arrived, mainly due to the tiny little space set out with only three tables looking slightly out of place in the gallery.  The wait staff cum gallery guides were superb, making us feel at home and explaining the concept, as well as detail about each dish as the night went on. There were also little things that enhanced our dining experience, like ensuring our bread and butter was always replenished.

If I'm being honest, I'm not sure we picked the best of exhibitions for our dining experience, I didn't really feel a connection between the art on display and the accompanying food.  Perhaps it's because an exhibition about Helena Rubinstein doesn't align with my view of contemporary art and I found it hard to link the art on the wall to the art on our plates.  

Having said that, the meal was very enjoyable and if not for a couple of instances of overcooked proteins, would have been utterly superb.  The idea of contemporary art and food being so close as to be one in the same is an idea that I do buy into.  I can't think of too many modern artists that command the same respect or admiration as some of the globe's top chefs.

I wonder if food art will stand the test of time?

Images from the Helena Rubinstein collection

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