Sunday, 5 June 2016

Amber - The 4Hands with Andre Chiang

I love the concept of 4 Hands dinners.  Two chefs working out of the same kitchen, producing a meal that highlights their best work.

I've been to a few.

But never one with the caliber of chefs from the recent dinner showcasing the skills of two of the world's top chefs.

Richard Ekkebus from Amber and Andre Chiang from Restaurant Andre, are two of the best chefs in Aisa, with their restaurants featuring in both San Pellegrino's Asia and Worlds best restaurants. It's fair to say that attending the special, two-nights only event, was high on my list of priorities.

I'd eaten at Amber before and rated the experience as one of my favourite meals of 2015 (see post here), and while I'd never dined at Restaurant Andre in Singapore, I had travelled to Taipei to visit Andre's Taiwanese outlet RAW.  Unsurprisingly, it was also one of my top meals of 2015.

Andre's visit to Amber formed part of his global tour to promote his publication of 'Octaphilosophy: The Eight Elements of Restaurant ANDRÉ' - a book that all diners would be given at the end of the 4 Hands dinner.

When we arrived for our 7pm reservation, we were again reminded why dining at the Mandarin Oriental is so special. Names remembered and such special treatment from the moment you enter the dining room, helps you feel incredibly special.  Taking our seat, we noticed how many additional tables had been added to the Amber dining room; it was clear that we weren't alone in wanting to sample the delights of two globally recognised culinary masters.

On our tables were a couple of specially printed booklets, outlining the history of both chefs and their restaurants - interesting reading.  Most importantly, the booklet outlined the delightful looking courses that we'd be devouring, along with details about which restaurant developed the plate. I'd sampled most of the Amber courses in my previous visit, so I was super excited about those courses prepared by Andre.

The dining room was a hive of activity, with many well dressed and impeccably mannered wait staff buzzing around ensuring that food was delivered in a timely manner.  

We kicked off the eight course tasting menu with a quartet of amuse bouche, two prepared by Amber and two by Andre.  Of the four small bites, my favourite was the 'croque en bouche' from the kitchen of Andre.  The small tartlet had tiny little mushrooms carefully placed to rise up like a traditional croque en bouche (a dessert made of profiteroles).  There was a sweetness from the mushrooms that was unexpected that combined with a subtle umami flavour that sat at the back of the palate long after it was devoured.

Some of the other small bites consisted of Amber's famous foie gras, raspberry and ginger bread chupa cup, which had come out of retirement for one last time.  The shiny red 'lolly pops' consisted of smooth and creamy foie gras, which were oh-so-sweet.  Finishing the quartet were traditional HK egg waffle with bell pepper and tomato and an amazing dish of butternut squash with salted duck egg and vanilla, that was mopped up with a piece of 'charcoal'.

I was particularly intrigued when we were presented with a board of burnt logs, most of which were actually wood, but two were edible and were specifically made to mop up the butternut squash.  Thankfully, we both chose the right 'logs' and use them to both mop up the squash, but also add texture to the soft and gooey vegetable.

If you're a foodie in Hong Kong, then you've probably had Amber's famous signature dish of Hokkaido sea urchin.  You'd probably also know that Chef Richard Ekkebus is retiring the dish after a decade of consistently appearing on the menu.  So, we were fortunate enough to have the second last sitting of the dish before disappearing forever.  I'll admit, the dish is spectacular with the salty sea urchin and quenelle of caviar working in complete harmony with the cauliflower puree and lobster jell-o.  But I understand why chef Ekkebus is retiring it, with a strong desire to continue to innovate and evolve.  Sure the dish will be missed, but bring on the next signature dish!

Andre's first dish was a colourful and tasty dish consisting of charred gillardeau oyster with scallop lasagne and an emulsion of watercress and wasabi.  The dish was presented with a wistful story of Andre's youth in France and a desire to produce the best food imaginable.  I loved the sweetness of the watercress emulsion, which really drew together the sweetness of the scallop and the slightly earthy flavour of the oyster.  I did find the mix of oyster and egg plant to be a little weird texturally, but the flavours worked wonderfully.

It was Andre's turn again with one of the more interesting flavoured dishes I've had in a while. Andre's wife, who had been hosting the dining room, was on hand to explain the dish, which was presented on a bespoke bowl that looked so much like a rock pool.  Consisting of surumi squid confit, kelp jus and a granola soufflĂ© mixed with silky potato foam, the dish was powerfully flavoured and more than a little sweet.  The squid was cut thin and looked a lot like white worms writhing in a compost - although no worm ever tasted so good (don't ask me how I know!).

After two Andre dishes, we were back with an Amber dish, and we were presented with the biggest asparagus spear that I'd ever seen - it was ginormous!  It even had a name, the Robert Blanc 'bourgeoise' green asparagus came presented with raw and marinated kibinago (a type of herring) and a light and airy seawater foam.  There was a sharp contrast between the astringent asparagus and the salty herring that was a little disconcerting and I wasn't sure if I loved the dish or was indifferent.  As if sensing my thoughts around the dish, my camera decided not to play ball and I was unable to take a 'winning' shot.

We were back with Andre and a simple yet delicious dish that had been on the Restaurant Andre menu since opening, and was also a dish that Andre had borrowed from one of his mentors.  The clear glass bowl contained a warm foie gras jelly and was covered in a liquid of pergola black truffle coulis.  Talk about luxurious ingredients!  The simplicity of the creamy jelly, the richness of it's flavour was just perfect against the umami flavour coming from the truffle.  I simply devoured the dish, then helped the girl finish her bowl off - the dish being a little too rich for her palate.

Unbelievably, the night had marched on and it was time for our main course, produced by Chef Ekkebus and the Amber team.  We were actually quite full and were very appreciative of the dainty main of 'hugenin' piglet cutlet and saddle served with a roasted apricot stuffed with yellow bell pepper and topped with a black pudding coulis.  The dish was finished at the table with a sticky jus which melted into the apricot puree on the plate.  It was a dish of two halves for me, I loved the cutlet and saddle, the sweet porky flavour exciting my palate, but I was less excited about the apricot and bell pepper, which have never been favourites of mine.  I could tell that they were expertly cooked, but they just didn't resonate.

Amber's dessert was the classic fennel sorbet with confit and raw shaved fennel, served with a lemon custard and lemon thyme infusion.  The dessert was just as beautiful as I remember from our last visit to Amber.  Fennel is very unusual to have as a sweet, but by combining the slightly bitter vegetable with the sweet yet sour lemon custard, the dessert comes together in a way that it perhaps shouldn't.

The final dish of the night was the most bizarre dessert I can remember having.  Simply called D.I.Y cake, we were presented with a plate of ingredients that included marshmallow, popcorn, chocolate - sitting quite messily and unprepared.  As it happened, Chef Andre was at our table and was able to explain that the eggs (made of treacle) and the rice milk (from Mexico) - should be added to the mix for the diner smoosh up the ingredients to form a sticky and messy dessert. I really loved the theatre of the dessert, but wasn't a huge fan of the mess that was left over.  I kind of get the approach, but found the final dessert of the night a little bit of a let down.

I remember fondly my only previous Andre meal from RAW in Taipei (see post here) - it was inventive and creative and full flavoured.  Apart from the dessert, I'd have to say that I found the Andre component of the meal to be equally inventive and completely delicious.  I seriously need to get back to Singapore soon so I can finally dine at Andre's flagship restaurant.

Notably, the dinner was much like two meals by two different and talented chefs, and not a free flowing story from beginning to end.  Some of the 4 Hands dinners I've been to, there has been closer alignment of the courses, telling a complete story.  At this meal, I felt that this cohesive story was missing.  

Not that it was a bad thing - I mean, seriously, dinner from Chef Andre and Chef Ekkebus was amazing - but it could have been just a little bit more.

A glass of rose champagne was a great way for the girl to start her meal
Many interesting bites to begin - this was an apple and pear combo with caviar on top
If you live in HK, then you will recognise these!
The two great chefs talking about the meal
Andre working the room after kitchen service was over
Andre's book in an amazing case that will travel the world with him on his tour
There have been a lot of famous chefs who have visited Amber

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