Sunday, 17 January 2016

Akrame - the beginning of a global empire?

While there is little dispute that Hong Kong is one of the world's great food cities, for a westerner in an Asian city there are a couple of locations that seem to capture my attention most.  It's no surprise that Wan Chai and Soho/Central are the locals where I dine out most often, after all those two hot spots have the highest concentration of French restaurants in all of the land.

Renowned French chef Akrame Benalla, who'd secured his second Michelin star in only his second year of operating Akrame in Paris, picked Wan Chai as his location for Akrame Hong Kong.  That Chef Akrame had earned two stars at such a young age was not so surprising, after all, he learned his trade from culinary legends Ferran Adria and Pierre Gagnaire.  What was surprising was that the young chef decided that Hong Kong would be the location of his second French fine diner.

So well regarded is Akreme Benalla, he was recently voted as one of the top 100 chefs globally by Le Magazine Le Chef in 2016.

Located in trendy Ship Street, the facade of Akrame is unobtrusive and understated and, unlike many of the flashier dining establishments along Ship Street, would be quite easy to walk by if you weren't specifically looking for it.  We'd made our booking quite late on a Saturday morning, more just hoping that we'd score a seat than actually thinking we'd get in.  As it turned out, we secured the last two seats in what turned out to be a busy Saturday night.

Much like the facade of Akrame, the interior was quite understated and unlike many of the fancier French restaurants around HK. Taking a minimalist view, the largely bare concrete walls were grey, which matched with the simple glossy black table tops and grey carpeted floors.  The only splashes of colour we noted were the tattoos on the black and white portraits of beautiful women on the bare grey walls.  I was also surprised by how small the dining room was, which splayed out into a number of smaller areas containing just a couple of tables per area.  Our late booking meant that our table was right by the glass sliding doorway, which thankfully was well designed and didn't interfere with our meal.

Chef Akrame takes an interesting approach to he menu, which he attributes to more of a collection than a set menu.  In fact, when selecting our choice of tasting menus for the evening, we were just left with the option of four or six courses and a note that the courses will include 'vegetable, seafood, fish, meat cheese and dessert'.  With a philosophy towards building a meal around seasonal produce and a menu that changed ever two weeks, it was clear that each course would be a surprise.

Our meal started with a trio of amuse bouche which included pommes dauphines with whole grain mustard topped with smoked beef,  a squid ink cracker with a small square of mackerel and a sesame cracker with avocado.  The flavours of each of the small bites were delicate and combined well.  It was interesting presentation, we were given a skewer to help eat the piping hot potato puff, which was very thoughtful.  However, the sesame cracker with avocado foam was quite difficult to eat.  The round cracker was sitting atop the foam, so you had to use the cracker to scoop up the avocado and it became quite messy.

Vegetable was the focus of our first course which was sautéed pleurae and trumpet mushrooms combined with a walnut sauce with milk coffee foam.  A slow cooked egg was the centrepiece of the dish, and once the yolk was pierced and mixed in with the light sauce, a type of alchemy occurred to deliver a wonderful dish.  There was a little saltiness from the sautéed mushrooms that provided a little chewy texture in the otherwise light and foamy sauce.  The egg yolk-infused sauce was creamy and rich with a coffee undertone, the flavour sitting on the palate well after the last bite.

A French oyster was next which was presented with a charcoal granita consisting of tarragon, lemon and vodka.  Simply presented on three upturned oyster shells, the plump Gillardeau oyster was thoughtfully sliced in two, so you could savour the taste of the creamy oyster with the accompanying granita.  The salinity level of the oyster was medium, so there was a beautiful taste of the sea, without the unnecessary saltiness that would have confused against the lemon and tarragon.  Simple and super tasty, I would have loved a couple of dozen to snack on.

Our first two courses had been vegetable and seafood and interestingly our third dish was a combination of the two.  A deep bowl was presented with shaved two tone cauliflower with lightly cooked clams with garlic oil and chives.  Our waiter presented the bowls before pouring a creamy cauliflower soup over the lot, with the pink hue of the cauliflower floating to the top.  The velvety cauliflower soup was quite light and well seasoned, but the best trick of all was the contrasting flavours and textures of the variants of cauliflower.  I really appreciated the hits of salty clam interspersed within the soup, like little jackpots of flavours once in a while.

It seems like the two most common ingredients used in French restaurants are truffle and foie gras, with the latter being the key ingredient for our next course.  So far, our courses had been quite pretty, as well as very tasty, but our foie gras dish looked messy by contrast.  Hidden beneath a steamed spinach leaf, the foie gras was sadly out of sight.  A mint sauce and grapefruit zest finished off the presentation along with a smattering of what looked to be dehydrated spinach dust.  The flavours were well balanced and while the dish looked too green, the creamy foie gras was the dominant flavour on the plate.  

The fish course consisted of a fillet of pollack with a vanilla and lemon accented celeriac puree and was the biggest letdown of the evening for me.  My pollack was overcooked and texturally was just not right, perhaps made worse by being wrapped in a thin slice of celeriac.  A well cooked piece of pollack should have a slightly firm texture but I found the Akrame version to be quite 'mushy'.  Personally, I've never been a fan of including vanilla with a celeriac puree, it just comes out as an overly sweet mess and that was my feeling after consuming the dish.  If there had been more of a contrasting lemon flavour to soften the sweetness, then perhaps it may have been OK.

I was so impressed with the palate cleanser that it will always hold a fond memory for me.  We were given a frozen mojito, like a granita, but the memorable component was the ice glass that the mojito was presented in.  Yep, it was a shot glass consisted of ice, with the granita sitting in the middle, fresh and inventive, it was the perfect palate cleanser.

There was a choice of options for main, either beef or pigeon.  The girl went with the smoked pigeon, which in hindsight may have been the better option.  The signature dish was a breast of pigeon presented in a smoking bowl, with pine and pistachio used as the smoking base. The breast was transferred to a plate with sliced of asparagus and a tasty jus.  The smoking process had delivered a wonderfully full flavoured bird, with a crispy skin that had been seasoned perfectly.  The bird was cooked exquisitely and married well with the slightly astringent asparagus.

While the girls pigeon dish was superb, my USDA grade fillet of beef was no slouch either!  The small piece of beef was cooked a perfect medium rare and was topped with a cocoa butter and foie gras sauce and crowned with a slice of burnt leek.  I loved the presentation of the dish, the wavy black bowl helping to accentuate the colours of the dish.  The beef had a very distinct barbecue and charcoal flavour that could have been quite harsh if it wasn't for the sweet and oh-so-decedant butter and foie gras sauce.  My only gripe was that the piece of beef was quite small, I'd have appreciated the beef being a little larger.

I've never been a fan of the degustation cheese course, and normally will ask for an alternative, but for some reason I didn't ask at Akrame.  We were given a really interesting dish of thin layers of comte cheese, alternating with incredibly thin layers of mushroom, which was then bathed in a mushroom broth.  The broth itself was quite tepid and hardly tasted of mushroom at all, but when you mixed the cheese with the mushroom, the dish came alive.  Strong flavours overtook the tepid taste of the broth, it was interesting indeed.  To this moment, I'm still not sure if I loved it, or loathed it!

Dessert was really interesting, instead of just a single bowl of pudding, we received a trio of dishes that all related to each other incredibly well.  Each dish was based on a summer fruit, which admittedly was a little weird in the middle of winter, and they each built on the last.  The first was a passionfruit opaline and accompanied by white chocolate and Jerusalem artichoke mousse.  It was delivered with a mango soup with tapioca and a coconut sorbet, with the trio completed with fresh pineapple with a dill flavoured yoghurt.  I have to say that these three dessert components would have been sensational in the middle of summer, but while nice, contextually, they were just not right.  I think a hearty winter dish would have gone down well, or even better, a perfect soufflé would have finished the meal on a real high.

The meal finished up with a specially wrapped bar of dark chocolate that had been infused with sea salt, and a couple of little meringue bites.  The chocolate bar wrapped in the distinct Akrame logo and clearly to be taken home as a reminder of the meal.

There were a couple of things that really excited me about our Akrame meal, but equally, there were a number of the dishes that were just not quite right, that upon reflection, impacted my overall impression of the meal.  We were both impressed with most of the dishes and the flow, but what was really great was the impressive service.  Each of the wait staff were dressed in impressive black suits, fitting the minimalist feel of the restaurant, and each were well attuned to the needs of the dining guests.

It's clear that Chef Akrame is the head chef of the Hong Kong Akrame, even in absentia, as I have not been able to find out any details about the local head chef.  It's an interesting approach for a chef who has clearly stated that he prefers to work our of his Paris restaurant 'because this is my baby'.  Preferring to spend time in France and developing concepts and training chefs to work in his outlets, it's a model that I'm not 100% convinced about.  If Chef Akrame is to build a global empire, which seems to be in his thinking, then it will be a great idea to build the reputation of his local head chefs as well.

We enjoyed our Akrame meal, which was admittedly quite different from your traditional and often rich and sauce heavy French meals.  Chef Akrame seems to take a slightly lighter touch to his meals, which in some respects reminds of northern European styles.  From a value viewpoint, the tasting menu is quite reasonably priced.  Akrame is well worth checking out.

From interesting highs of the cauliflower and clam dish
To the low of the pollock and vanilla celeriac puree
Akrame Paris has Two Michelin stars and the Hong Kong outlet has a single Michelin Star

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