Saturday, 18 June 2016

Mercato - Jean-Georges in Hong Kong

I had to make some serious decisions during my visit to New York, admittedly not life or death decisions, but important to me.

So many restaurants and so little time meant that I had to carefully choose where I would spend my hard earned money.  One of the very last nights left in Manhattan came down to a choice between three star restaurants, Daniel and Jean-Georges.

Daniel won out on the day, but I'd always felt as if I'd missed out on something special.

A couple of years down the track I learned that Jean-Georges was opening an outlet of his slightly more casual Mercato in Hong Kong and I was excited.  I was finally getting to check out the fare of one of the United States' top chefs.  So cool.

Located in California Tower, one of  LKF's funkiest buildings, I'd managed to sneak into Mercato at the right time.  Not yet formally open and running through a soft opening month, I happened to dine on a day where Jean-Georges himself was hosting with some of his crew responsible for designing the restaurant and lighting.

Stepping out of the lifts and entering Mercato, I quickly noticed the lighting in the striking interior of the ultra chic restaurant.  As it turned out, the lighting was one of the features of the Neri & Hu designed interior, and Jean-Georges had brought over the designer as part of the soft opening. He explained to me that the idea behind the lighting was designed to mimic the mood of the day - a bluish purple during the day and a funky red as the evening wore on.

The interior was dominated by a bar at one end that stretched all the way up to the very high ceilings and an open kitchen at the other.  Red brick gave an earthy feeling, that when offset by the dozens of hanging lights, provided a natural yet contemporary feel.  I liked it and felt instantly at home.

I was quickly joined by a gaggle of other bloggers and all of a sudden it was time to eat, a selection of starters from the extensive modern Italian menu materialising magically at our table.

My first bite of cuisine by Jean-Georges was the spicy tuna tartar with black olives, cucumber and avocado.  Served in a deep bowl, contrasting colours from the pink tuna and green avocado enlivened the dish.  The fresh tuna was lovely, especially when combined with the creamy avocado; puffed rice added some texture and a lovely little crunch in my mouth.

I moved quickly onto the salmon carpaccio, which was finished with olive oil, lime and a dusting of sea salt; yellow and purple edible flowers tactically placed on the plate helped the dish transform from food into edible art.  The fresh salmon was sliced thin, yet still held a texture that was pleasant to eat.  It was enjoyable on the whole, but when I had a mouthful with the added sea salt, the flavours really exploded in my mouth, so a little more of that seasoning would have really helped.

There was a strong bite from the endive and sugar snap pea salad that was both refreshing and memorable.  On its own, the endive would have been too overpowering, but the addition of a parmesan dressing really helped balance the dish.  I liked the simplicity of the dish, each piece of endive had it's own filling, so you just picked up the enclosed leaf and munched away.

Still keeping it very simple, an Italian chicories salad with orange and fennel was presented.  I loved the bright orange sitting atop the salad, which was then finished with an aged balsamic. The sweetness of the orange matched perfectly with the bite of the chicories salad.  It was the first time that I really paid attention to the crockery used at Mercato, the matt black of the plate helping the colours from the salad really dominate.  It was a clever use of plating to enhance a simple salad.

In what felt much more like a dessert than a starter, one of Mercato's signature dishes was up next.  House made ricotta with strawberry and garlic bread sticks made an interesting departure from the fresh crudo and salads that we'd been devouring to that point.  The soft round ricotta cheese was topped with a strawberry jam, with the idea that the toasted garlic breadsticks be used to dip into the cheese.  I'd been sceptical about the dish looking at it, but it worked really well.  The sweetness of the strawberry working in harmony and the texture of the breadsticks giving a satisfying crunch.

As I'd been exploring the dining room before our meal, I'd noticed the wood fired oven in the kitchen, and knew that wood fired oven meant pizza.  And what a pizza!  Imagine adding black truffle to three different cheeses and then topping with a farm fresh egg.  The smell was amazing! The aroma of the truffle was overwhelming and really made me want to dig in; so that's what I did. The egg was slightly oozy and the creamy yolk paired beautifully with the umami flavour of the truffle.  A crisp base held it's shape as I quickly devoured my slices of the pizza.  It was extremely memorable, especially since I'm a traditionalist and usually stick to a Margherita!

It wouldn't be a visit to an Italian restaurant without trying the pasta, the rigatoni with meatballs and a smokey chilli ragu.  Fat and moist meatballs dominated the dish, but the tasty meatballs were ably supported by the perfectly cooked rigatoni.  Interestingly, I found the chilli to be quite mild in the dish and found myself wanting just a little more heat to make the dish really exciting.

We were given a couple more of the Mercato signature dishes for mains.  I thought that the porcini crusted salmon presented with a warm leek and lemon vinaigrette looked beautiful on the plate.  I'd initially thought that the crust was the salmon skin, but as I bit into the salmon, tasted the earthy texture of the porcini crust.  It was a little disconcerting but once my mind adjusted to the texture change, the earthy porcini played nicely with the slightly sweet salmon.

It was good, but the dish of the day had to be the crispy skin chicken with braided potatoes and lemon, which was simply divine.  It looked more like a spatchcock due to it's size and the flesh was incredibly sweet, but what I really loved was the crispy skin that texturally and flavour wise was just super.  I could totally understand why the chicken was one of the dishes that Mercato and Jean-Georges rate as the best!

It was time for dessert, and we were assaulted with a plethora of dishes that came out in rapid succession.  Starting with an interesting take on a tiramisu, the simple looking dessert actually looked like an ice-cream sandwich, but the texture was soft and the flavours pure tiramisu. Chocolate, coffee and cream balancing together perfectly!

One of the more beautiful desserts I've seen for a while was the Italian cream cake with raspberry sorbet and fresh raspberries.  There was a simplicity of the plate's design that added to its prettiness, as well as the symmetry on the pate, a berry coulis looking suspiciously like the Mercato logo design.  The cake was moist, the sorbet sharp and a shard of tuile added texture.  I really loved the dessert, but it wasn't my favourite.

That honour went to the home made mascarpone with macerated strawberries and young ginger granita, which was essentially a big pot of love strawberries and cream.  The granita added temperature to the mix, so the creaminess of the mascarpone was offset by a super cold hit to the palate - tasty and refreshing!

All of the desserts from Mercato were visually stunning, I also loved the dark chocolate passionfruit tart with passionfruit sorbet; there was also a dessert that consisted of three scoops of peanut butter ice-cream in a pool of warm chocolate and finished with caramel covered popcorn. Yeah, the desserts at Mercato were pretty special!

The whole time we were at lunch, Jean-Georges was actively talking to all of the diners and doing a fantastic job of hosting the day.  I was stoked to get a few minutes chatting to JG, who was clearly happy with the finish and design of his newest restaurant.  I could tell he was proud of the restaurant, but he seemed most happy about the lighting!

Soft openings are interesting affairs, usually in place to help the restaurant iron out any 'kinks' and ensure the full opening is a first rate affair for diners.  As far as I could tell, the restaurant was running like a well oiled machine on the day of my visit, and I couldn't really pick on any issues at all.  It would be interesting to see how the team would perform on a busy Friday night with a full house!

My first experience of a Jean-Georges restaurant was a memorable one, good food, great environment and a quick conversation with the man himself.  What more could you want?

Well, as it turns out, I now have reservations about my decision to choose Daniel instead of Jean-Georges....  

Ahh, it just gives me an excuse to get back to New York!

We started with some soft bread with rosemary - with a peppery olive oil for dipping
Mercato has a special cocktail menu
I went for the Vodka Thyme and Lemonade 
This whisky based cocktail was a little too strong for some at the table!
There are a couple of different areas for dining at Mercato
Jean-Georges giving last minute instructions to the kitchen?
Restaurant Manager Romain B - a very good host!

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