Thursday, April 25, 2013

As close as it gets - Catalunya Hong Kong

A couple evenings ago I was at Catalunya with a group of fellow food lovers who called themselves the Amateur Gourmet. Catalunya is a new restaurant only opened in late March/early April, but has already become quite a talk of the town - being hailed as the candidate for new restaurant of the year by every local lifestyle magazines in circulation and all that - with the culinary team apparently coming from the kitchen of (the former) El Bulli. This is their second outpost in Asia - the other one being in Singapore on an "island" near One Fullerton with a full view of the Marina Bay Sands. Anyway, just as you thought its Hong Kong branch would be located in Central or at least a prime spot downtown, it's actually in a quiet neighborhood known as Morrison Hill somewhere in between Wanchai and Causeway Bay. It could be hard to find if you are not familiar with the area.

The restaurant was basically the only place that stays open this late of the night on the street. The decor is chic and the dining area is very spacious. With 12 of us all together, we took the private room with the long table which was near the front of the restaurant with the wine cellar right next to us. With one side facing the street window and the other side the rest of the dining area (then further is the bar and the kitchen), this is easily the place to see and be seen.

As people in our group started to arrive and began chatting, introducing to each other etc, I didn't pay close attention to what's on the drink menu - at a glance I think they did have a wide selection of cocktail and presumably wine collection (given there's a big cellar space), but I had my eye on a bottle of the smooth Inedit in the beer section, a product by collaboration between Estrella Damm the brewery and Ferran Adria the chef. It has an unmistakable lager flavor without the bitter aftertaste, which means it stood up against the strong savory dishes and went along well with them. That was one of my favorite beers so that is a no-brainer for casual dinner like this.

Well even though it's easy to impress to say their culinary team came from the innovative (and famous) El Bulli, Catalunya serves more traditional Catalan cuisine, often with a contemporary twist. So don't expect anything progressive or mind-boggling, but the food turned out to be nicely done with this creative touch. Also what struck me was how long the food menu is. With more than a dozen choices of tapas, then around 10 main dishes and then other sides, even with a big group like us, we only managed to cover a small fraction of what's being offered in the restaurant. The manager suggested a customized tasting menu but we opted for a la carte so we could try a bit more (instead of everyone having the same stuff) By and large we stuck with some traditional tried and true Catalan dishes with a few items came recommended by friends who visited the restaurant earlier.

We started with the spherical olives - one of the signature items originated in El Bulli. For those who don't know, it's a spherified olive juice that looks like a real olive served on a metal spoon. Catalunya's version seems to be a bit smaller than usual - we had it at Albert Adria's 41-degrees bar in Barcelona a couple years back - but I guess they made it small to go with the cocktails rather than as a dinner course, and it's very tasty with the sensation of popping through the skin and a burst in olive flavors from inside, just as what I remembered. The olive was followed by Pa Amb Tomaquet which we had with slices of Jamon Iberico. I love the smell of its burnt crust with the grease coming out of the jamon in this simple yet iconic dish.

Cod Fish "Esqueixada" was my favorite of the night. Cod was broken into tiny piece and with the texture almost like a mash. Similar to a brandade, except it's deep-fried in batter. It's almost seductive and so good that I must have chowed down two or three pieces. Patatas Bravas with "All i oli" was another dish I enjoyed much - potatoes were cut into small pieces, deep-fried, and served with two sauces - one garlic aioli and the other made with piquillo pepper, I believe. Love the contrast between the two.

I also like the gambas tapas - they must have flown in the shrimps direct from the Mediterranean and it's fresh and tasty. Also loved the foam (garlic?) and caramelized onions at the bottom of the dish - we spent no time spooning up every bit of it. On the other hand, I found the Calamares - deep-fried squid - a little disappointing. I don't quite like the batter which easily fell off as I took it off the bowl, and didn't taste much of the aioli that came with it.

I am usually not a fan of lamb, but I did have a few bites of the lamb shoulder and they were perfectly grilled and delicious. The other main dish we ordered was the lobster rice, which was a glorified version of Paella, with a strong seafood taste infused into the rice by means of lobster stock, and served with a generous portion of lobster in its shell.

We had mixed opinions over the Suckling Pig served "Segovian style". Many at the table found it a bit dry and salty, but I like its meaty flavor and a good balance between being tender and firm with a bite. The waitstaff probably waited a little too long at the kitchen so they can bring out both portions of the pigs out at the same time (we ordered 2 halves for the entire table) so the skin on ours wasn't as crispy as it should - it's evident as the pig was cut by a ceramic plate at the table, in the traditional way. I have seen the pictures before from friend's facebook wall, but I am still a little disturbed by seeing the whole pig lying on the cutting board as it's being served - it did look like a road kill of a cute baby piggie. Can they think of a better way to present this?

For dessert, I had the cheese flan which was like a Creme Catalana only with a stronger cheese flavor in it (manchego?) and served with berry coulis and crumble. Nothing to write home about, but it's delectable - it would have been scandalous if they screwed this up, I suppose. I also tried the Catalunya fruit salad that someone else ordered - which comprised of slices of different fruits which were sous-vided, compressed, twisted, or infused with other flavors - basically every bite wasn't exactly what you would think. It's fun to eat and was beautifully presented. Some people ordered the other desserts and from the look of them, they  looked interesting too so there are extra incentives to try more next time. 

There were still glitches in the service here and there - the staff wasn't familiar with the menu; it took a while for the dishes to arrive, or even the bill for that matter, but since it literally only opened a few weeks ago, those teething problems were understandably forgiven. I could see there are at least 6 or 7 dishes that I wanted to try but didn't get a chance that night, so rest assured I will be back soon. Anyway, it's an enjoyable gathering and a chance to meet some new friends. Food-wise, in most cases the executions were spot-on and I think it's as close as it gets to an authentic Catalan fare on this side of the world. Once they get over the initial incumbating period I have a feeling that this place's destined for glory.

When? April 23 2013
Where? Catalunya, G/F Guardian House Morrison Hill, 32 Oi Kwan Road, Wanchai, Hong Kong.
Menu highlight? Cod Fish "Esqueixada", Suckling Pig "Segovian style"

1 comment :

V McB said...

I had high hope for Catalunya but after having dinner there two weeks ago, I feel like warning people to adjust their expectations before going. While most of the food aren't bad, it's nothing to write home about. Hope they will get better with time!


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