Sunday, 13 December 2015

The Ocean Repulse Bay - A tale of two lunches

I should have known something was up.  We'd just placed our orders and one of Hong Kong's hottest new dining spots and I wasn't feeling the love from our waiter.  There had been a level of enthusiasm from our waiter as he'd taken down SC's entree and main choices, in fact, he'd enthused that they were exactly the choices he would have made.  I'd received no such assurances when I'd placed my order.  As I said, I should have known something was up.

But I get a head of myself.

We'd picked probably the worst day imaginable to check out the new fine dining seafood restaurant over at Repulse Bay.  The sky was angry that day my friends, stormy clouds abounding and precipitation falling from the sky.  By the time our taxi dropped us off behind the Pulse Shopping centre, it was definitely anything but a great day for the beach.

Arriving for our 1pm lunch sitting at The Ocean restaurant, we were walked to our table in the middle of the restaurant.  I noticed a couple of things, there was an immense feeling of space in the dining room, with huge comfortable seats, arranged facing floor to ceiling windows, that in summer would provide spectacular views of the beach and islands further out.  There was a decent amount of space between the seats too, giving the feeling that we were alone in our own little paradise.

Our conversation with the wait staff commenced, whom I will admit freely, were possibly to most engaging and professional we'd come across in Hong Kong to date.  That conversation led to details about the menu, and a recommendation to pursue the tasting menu and a very good discussion between the staff member and SC about the wines on offer.  It made a lot of sense to check out the tasting menu, which was split into four sizes, ranging from the simple 'Horizon Lunch' three course, all the way to a ten course monster called 'Ultramarine'.  We thought the five course 'The Deep Dive' represented the best value, so made our choice.

The menu was a little different from your standard tasting menu, in that you were able to choose your preferences at key points throughout the meal, with only a couple of set pieces.  It was a this point in our selections that I think things started to go so badly for me, yet so well for the girl.

Everything started off extremely well, when a section of amuse bouche were delivered on a piece of coral.  There were four little bites for us to get the juices flowing, with the best of them being a skinned cherry tomato with a cream cheese, but the little pancake with caviar was not far behind. Then we moved on to the tasting menu.

The first course was a set piece called 'Sea Breeze' and was a very pretty looking dish, presented in a ceramic bowl designed to look like a sea urchin placed on a rocky seabed.  Pretty as it looked, I couldn't get excited about the homemade tofu with walnut, uni, chives and a ponzu sauce.  I've never been a fan of tofu and I found The Ocean's homemade version to be much denser than the light tofu I've tolerated over the years.  Not even the prospect of the salty sea urchin and sweet ponzu sauce could save the tofu for me and it was a struggle to finish off. Sitting across the table from me, SC thought I was decidedly crazy, as she finished off a dish that she claimed was light and delightful. 

It was not the first time that I asked myself if we were at the same restaurant!

There were four dishes to choose from in 'The First Wave', a reference to the first set of waves that crash on a beach.  It was also where our waiter had complimented SC on her selection of sliced cucumber with tuna tartare, dijon mustard, creme fraiche and dill.  The plating was spectacular, with the tuna tartare being delicately placed within thin slices of cucumber, arranged on a plate that bore a strong resemblance to churning water.  There were dollops of the yellow mustard and white creme fraiche interspersed with flowers to complete the look.  The tartare was a little spicy, enhanced by the mustard then cooled by the creme fraiche and cucumber.  The dish was delicately balanced and was quite special.

There was nothing inherently wrong with my selection of burrata with colours of tomato, flavours of berries, tiger prawns and paprika tuile.  There was an earthy natural look to the plate, with slices of red and yellow tomato covering a mess of soft burrata cheese and a dark 'soil' that was topped with spiky tuile.  Burrata is mozzarella that is combined with cream to form a runny cheese that should have been delicious, but was a little bland.  Somehow, that creamy flavour of straight mozzarella was lost, it just tasted a little washed out.  I did like the slightly acidic tomatoes with the cheese, but the classic combo didn't hit the highs that I was hoping for, even the sweet paprika tuile couldn't bring out the flavour of the dish.  The pieces of tiger prawns had the potential to elevate the dish, they were quite nice, but there were just not enough pieces to really 'bring' the flavour.

With two choices for the 'Blue Lagoon', we each chose a course to sample and the curse 'a tale of two lunches continued'.  My selection of octopus with carrot gnocchi capers and chimichurri should have been a winner, I mean any dish with octopus and chimichurri should be a winner in my book!  It started well enough with a lovely looking dish presented, quietly refined, I could see thin slices of octopus interspersed with the tiny gnocchi pieces.  Overlooking that octopus shouldn't be sliced so thin, I gave the dish a sampling and I was actually pleasantly surprised by the garlic and parsley from the chimichurri and how well it worked with the octopus.  What I didn't like was the carrot gnocchi, which was a little pasty for my liking and didn't really go so well with the chimichurri.  I also thought there was not enough of the octopus, so the dish felt a little mean spirited.

I loved the look of the girls choice, the Hokkaido scallop was beautifully presented in it's shell and was served with a corn puree, miso, fennel and orange.  There was a lovely caramelisation on the perfectly cooked scallop, and although the miso, fennel and orange were an unusual pairing with scallop, the whole dish worked very well.

We were starting to find it quite amusing that, at least to that point, had consumed very different meals, with the girl sitting with a self satisfied smile of a person who'd made all the right choices. I was really hoping that we'd turn a corner with our main course.

Things continued in the same vein as the rest of the meal for our fourth course, the 'Great Reef', with SC's wild mushroom tortellini with lobster confit, maitake and bisque.  It was an interesting and unusual dish, with some large mushroom filled tortellini sharing the plate with expertly cooked lobster pieces and then covered in a rich bisque.  The deep orange of the bisque provided a shot of colour that matched the red of the lobster helping give the plate classic bouloubasis look.  The pasta for the tortellini was perhaps a shade too thick, but it was extremely well cooked and was lovely with the earthy maitake mushrooms.  

I'd thought I'd made the perfect selection with my choice of sous-vide turbot with textures of cauliflower and zucchinis with a nori butter sauce.  I mean, turbot is the king of fish and is usually delicious and I've never met a butter sauce that I didn't love.  The presentation started off quite nice, with the turbot and textures of cauliflower sitting on a deep ocean blue plate, that set off a lovely contrast.  The addition of the butter sauce at the table kind of killed the presentation by making the whole dish look a washed out pale yellow, and even the sharp green of the zucchini couldn't enliven the dish.  

I'm not sure what had happened with the cooking of the turbot, but it was completely lacking in flavour, totally bland.  What was worse was when combined with the lovely butter sauce, the turbot somehow neutralised the impact of the sauce.  It was amazing, I've never come across the effect before.  When I had the sauce on it's own, there was bags of flavour, but the minute I combined the sauce and the turbot, there was just no flavour!  I did like the crunchy florin of caramelised cauliflower, but the puree went the same way as the turbot, it just lacked flavour..

It was time for dessert, which was called 'Coastal View' and for once, I'd chosen a dessert that may have come out as the winner.  My thinking was that I couldn't possibly go wrong with lemon textures with soft meringue and mango, and thankfully, I was right.  The trend of pretty dishes continued, with a half of lemon filled with diced mango pieces then topped with a lemon sorbet and a tuile of beetroot.  I loved the contrast of the cold sorbet and the soft, sweet mango pieces, which were interspersed with even sweeter meringue.  There was a great balance between sweet and sour which worked well.  There was one moment that left me scratching my head, however, the beetroot tuile was a mystery as it really didn't belong with the dish and was bitter and unpleasant to eat.

SC's dessert was also quite pretty on the plate and seemed to be one of the signature dishes of the restaurant.  With textures of orange, hazelnut crumble, sponge cake and mascarpone, the dessert was really quite refreshing and light.  The perfect quenelle of orange sorbet was light and tangy on the palate and the addition of the dense mascarpone brought the sweetness to the dish. The sponge was light and quite lovely, but there could have been just a little bit more to help balance out the dominant orange flavour.

And so, the girl and I shared a space for lunch, but had two very different lunch experiences. Now, I'm not going to say that my meal was terrible, but it certainly wasn't memorable, which was a stark contrast from SC's very memorable set of dishes.  Apart from my turbot dish, which just didn't work, there was something I could take out of most of the meal.  But, I really want more from a meal from a restaurant that is touted as a future Michelin Star establishment.  What I really wanted was SC's meal!

That The Ocean will be chasing a Michelin Star is clear, the setting, the experience, the service, were all at Michelin standard.  The team behind Bibo, Tri and Hotshot have produced perhaps their most accomplished setting, which admittedly would be better on a day that was not raining 'cats & dogs'.  They've pulled in a very talented chef, Agustin Balbi, who'd been rated as one of the ten finalists in Japan's San Pellegrino young chef of the year competition.  The Ocean was also rated as one of Hong Kong's top 20 restaurants, and Chef Balbi won the Tatler award for best new chef!

We liked that Chef Balbi came out at the end of the meal to say hello to each of the guests, a nice little touch.

Where The Ocean really stood out though was it's service.  At the end of the meal, our fantastic waiter asked us how we'd arrived and how we planned to get home.  Not sure what he was getting at, we mentioned that a taxi ride was in our immediate future.  The restaurant was having nothing of that, and given that it was still raining heavily, arranged for us to be ferried home in a Tesla, a first for us.

I see huge potential for The Ocean, but for me, there needs to be more consistency with the menu.  There is no point having just a few dishes that really stand out, every dish needs to have that 'wow' factor.  There is plenty of time for the team to sort that out though, the restaurant's only been open a few months, so I'm sure they will get it right.

The bread was superb, and was topped up regularly.  It came with a peppery olive oil and light and fluffy butter
Beautiful presentation
Very modern look to the plating
With Hermes cutlery, there was a feeling of decadence in the restaurant
Lavish ingredients
Petite four of a berry tartlet and poppy macaroon 
Our seats were incredibly comfy and reminded us of clam shells
So much space!
Warm and inviting inside and cold and rainy outside

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