Saturday, 28 November 2015

Twenty Six by Liberty - worth the wait

What makes a restaurant desirable?  It's a question that many a restauranteur and chef has probably asked themselves a million times!  Long wait times to secure a table is often a measure of desirability, but is that all? Perhaps, but perhaps not!  I've entered waiting lists for many restaurants that have ended up being a let down, simply because of the elevated expectations by having to wait.  Equally, I've secured a table in restaurants with only a few hours notice, which have been incredibly desirable (luck plays a part!).

I've been lusting over Twenty Six by Liberty for a little while, ever since I came across some photos of Executive Chef Bjoern Alexander's take on modern cuisine.  The German born chef has an eye for the dramatic and his food presentation is nothing short of gastronomic visual porn. Having started his career in legendary American Chef Thomas Keller's French Laundry, before continuing onto countless two and three Michelin-starred restaurants, Chef Bjoern had created level of desirability that I'd not felt for a little while.

I will admit that my desire to check out Twenty Six by Liberty was fuelled by the fact that the place is nearly impossible to get into!  I'd tried without success to make a reservation on a Friday or Saturday night, and it wasn't until I tried to book on a Tuesday night that I managed to secure a seat.  I wasn't really sure if I felt like the ten course tasting menu mid week, but figured I could just about manage it :)

Twenty Six by Liberty is located on the 26th floor of 11 Stanley Street in Central, and as we stepped out of the elevator, we were confronted an incredible view of Hong Kong's skyscrapers from the restaurant's floor to ceiling windows.  It was all I could do to tear my eyes away from the spectacular view to take note of the restaurant's layout.  I could tell we were in for an intimate and interactive meal, the wrap around bar style dining area gave it away.  With a kitchen in the centre of the restaurant and the seats surrounding the kitchen, I got the feeling that we were in for an exhibition as well as a meal.

Menus were already in front of us and featured a 'wax seal' with the logo of Twenty Six by Liberty stamped, further marking the flamboyance of Chef Bjoern.  The menu gave little away though, with simple titles and few ingredients listed.  Taking an interesting view of food, the menu was separated into the analogy of a tree, 'young sprouts' signifying the smaller entree sized bites before 'the branches' reflecting heavier protein based courses before finally 'the roots' outlined what was clearly the sweet component of the meal.  The menu, and large parts of the interior of the restaurant were decorated similarly with tree roots and branches.

We had booked for the first sitting, which commenced at 7pm and allowed us to watch a lot of the preparation work for the coming meal from Chef Bjoern and his team of sous chefs.  There's always something special about watching top chefs go about their business, which is why I love chef's tables or bar seating in restaurants - so much more intimate and personal.

Before the tasting menu commenced, we were given a little circular stone plate with an amuse bouche of a warmed puff filled with Jerusalem artichoke puree and a sliver of duck breast with shavings of black truffle.  Designed to pick up and pop straight into your mouth, it was a blend of sweetness from the puff and artichoke puree, slight game flavour from the duck finished off with a wonderful umami hit from the truffle.  It was delightful and set the scene for the meal to follow.

One of the more spectacular dishes I've seen for some time kicked off proceedings.  Simply labeled egg, corn and uni, the dish was not only out there, but was seriously delicious.  We started with an egg shell filled with a creamy and smooth egg yolk dip, which had thin long strips of Mexican pastry rising out of the shell like octopus tentacles.  There was a prawn chip topped with Japanese uni and accompanied by sweet corn puree and wild herbs.  Our instructions from Chef Bjoern were to eat one of the herbs first, to prepare the palate for the richness from the egg. It worked beautifully, with a subtle peppery flavour that helped balance out the decadent egg concoction, which was mind blowingly good!  Finishing off the dish was the saltiness from the uni and the contrasting sweetness from the corn puree.  Despite the wild mix of flavours, the dish was a huge success, largely on the back of the star of the dish, the egg mix.

We thought that it would be hard to follow the dish, but we were pleasantly surprised with the change of direction to a couple of oysters.  With two vastly different preparation techniques, our first oyster was lightly toasted, then covered in a seawater granita, with both resting on an insanely thin slice of cucumber.  The sea water granita and plump oyster worked well together, but the real star of the dish was the second oyster.  Also lightly toasted, there was a smokey oil infused with a little chilli that helped the oyster retain it's salty salinity.  It was superb, with the slight smokiness holding on the palate for some time after consuming.

I loved the presentation of the our next dish, which combined beautiful ingredients to great effect and provided an overall whimsical feel to the dish.  Simply called avocado, the plate comprised of new avocado that had been cooked on the grill to bring out its flavour, combined with Norwegian scallops and fresh Japanese salmon roe.  Completing the dish was some vibrant violets and coriander seeds and flowers.  The idea was to bite into the sharp coriander seeds before consuming the sweet scallops and even sweeter avocado.  Saltiness was provided by the roe, which rounded out the balance of the dish and lessen the punch from the coriander.

Going to a place that very few chefs would turn to, our next dish was confronting and interesting at the same time.  Consisting of deep fried charcoal potato puffs, the dish looked very rustic and more than a little burnt.  Two black puff balls dominated a plate that also comprised of a spoon of oily Spanish mackerel and salty caviar.  It wasn't the most attractive plate I'd seen and I didn't love the charcoal potato puffs, the seemed a little superfluous - but I did love the mackerel and caviar, the oily fish working beautifully with the caviar, the little salty balls popping on my tongue.

Back on track with the next dish, we watched Chef Bjoern blowtorch some langoustine before placing the skewered delicacy on a bed of rosemary, which had a powerful aroma.  Our langoustine were caramelised on the outside but sashimi inside, and the juxtaposition of the flavours and textures were profound.  Coming with a salad of shaved fennel and rose petal doused in a light oil then covered with fennel dish, the dish was quite possibly the best of the night.  You can lose the flavour of langoustine quite easily on a dish, especially when it comes with strong flavours, but the preparation technique really brought out its naturally sweet flavour.

I'd been really looking forward to the next dish of octopus, mainly because of the artistic presentation of the dish on the Twenty Six by Liberty web site.  Of course, I should have realised that the dish's real life presentation would not match the 'publicity' shots.  The dish was quite messy on the plate, and looked a little rushed to me.  What it laced in presentation, it made up for in flavour!  Coming with a hibiscus infused slow cooked octopus tentacle, a hibiscus flower and sauce, as well as a pink pepper tapioca 'tentacle', the dish was packed with flavour.  The octopus was expertly cooked and had just a little chew, but was giving and delicate at the same time. What I loved was the hibiscus sauce  and crunch from the tapioca, in combination with that wonderful octopus.

In an ode to his German heritage, Chef Bjorn's next dish was an absolute cracker.  Slow cooked pork was presented with wonderful crispy skin on a bed of sauerkraut and a beer puree. Individually, the components didn't come to much, but once I mixed in the sauerkraut and beer puree, the combination transformed into a bitter sweet sauce that was absolutely perfect with the pork.  My main gripe with this one was that there was too much of the sauce and not enough of the pork, something that we noticed was rectified with the later sitting (which was by this time only a few dishes behind us).

We'd been watching the chefs muck around with a wood fired grill for most of the night, which was finally being put in to action to finish off the kobe beef cheeks, which had been cooking away in a water bath for the meal to date.  There was a lot of fiddling around to get the temperature right before the kobe was cooked on the grill for a few minutes (I honestly don't think the effort was worth it).  Watching the plating of the dish, there was the piece of kobe along with different textures of beetroot, a jalapeño puree and shavings of Italian black truffle.  Again, I thought the dish looked a little rushed and messy on the plate, and I didn't love the texture of the kobe beef cheeks.  There was an interesting earthiness from the beetroot sauce that worked with the kobe, but I didn't love the jalapeño.  All in all, it was not a dish that excited me, and I would have much preferred a lovely gilled piece of wagyu.

I was pretty nervous about the dessert, which noted honey eggplant as it's main component, one of the very few vegetables I don't like.  I'd also been curious about eggplant as the key ingredient for a dessert, but once the plate was presented, I could see that the main component was a huge steaming pile of nitrogen dipped banana rocks and different textures of ginger and cacao.  I really loved most of the dessert, with the banana, ginger and cacao combination working well.  I tried a little of the honey egg plant before deciding that it was not for me, and pulled it aside.

It had been a lot of fun watching the team of chefs led by Chef Bjoern preparing our meal and interacting with his 'audience' as the meal progressed.  That the meal was a performance was never in doubt, I mean, with the kitchen at the centre of the meal and a flamboyant and engaging head chef interacting like a boss - it could be nothing less.  After all, Chef Bjoern’s philosophy is more than just cooking, it’s about heart, passion and respect, all of which were on display for the lucky few to sample his tasking menu.

While I didn't love every course as part of the tasting menu, that was more about my personal tastes than anything else.  The parts of the meal that I did love, I really loved!  The opening course of the meal was both visually stunning and equally tantalising to my taste buds.  What I didn't love about the meal was the pacing, which was a little erratic at times and took well over three and a half hours to get through.  We found that we had to wait for others, who had started their meals after us, to finish their courses before we would get out next course.

One of the problems in an open kitchen is that we can see the going on and machinations of the meal, and I think a little problem for the chef and his team is that there is the additional pressure of an audience, which I think led to the rushed presentation of a few of the dishes.

I started off talking about desirability, and there is a raw desirability about the meal put together by Chef Bjoern, one that is helped by the very reasonable price for the ten course tasting menu. It was great value, delicious and certainly worth waiting for.  

Mad plating about to happen!
Chef Bjoern in action

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