Monday, April 29, 2013

Hitting the Right Tone - The New Ta Pantry

We got a table reservation at the model-turned-chef Esther Sham's new Ta Pantry restaurant a week ahead of its official opening in late April. I didn't have a chance to try her food at the original location on Wanchai's Star Street before it was closed, but based on what I heard from friends and fellow food bloggers, I am quite eager to see and taste what her creative fusion menu has to offer.

I guess one of my first impressions I had as I stepped out of the elevator and walked into the premise is that, this is no humble speakeasy as Ta Pantry started off as in a tiny apartment turned private kitchen in Wanchai. At this new spot in a harborfront industrial building somewhere between Causeway Bay and North Point, Ta Pantry now shares the same space as the new Hip Cellar, an exclusive, members-only club facility with a state-of-the-art wine cellar and a nicely-decorated lounge featuring 180-degree harbor view and top-notched audio-visual equipment for private or corporate functions.

For the dining area, there were 3 private rooms each with a long table for up to 14 guests, apparently all with slightly different themes. Ours was one in contemporary style with an Art Nouveau twist, furnished with a classy chandelier, a tapestry armchair, an antique-looking cupboard in bold, lime color and a wall decorated with extravagant bone china dishes. I also love the color tone of the place - hues of dirty pink and brown, dark interior with clever use of spotlights makes it kind of warming in a trendy way. By the way, one of the rooms has a perfect view of the kitchen, so those who wanted to witness the cooking action first hand can ask for that room (Room A, I believe). Each of the three private rooms opened up to its own spacious sun room with a harbor view facing East Kowloon, so I am sure it's nice to hang out there over a drink or something, especially on sunny days or clear evening (and of course, one of those fireworks nights)

Normally the restaurant only accepted bookings of a minimum 10 persons, but they agreed to accommodate just 4 of us since it wasn't fully booked that evening. I doubt we would still be able to do so after the place is officially open for business and nice words come out from those who have been here. And as it's their usual practice for the entire table sticking to the same menu and that has to be confirmed in advance, so after a quick deliberation by emails, Menu "L'Indochine" we chose.

As the menu name suggests, Chef Esther attempted to infuse some Southeast Asian influence by use of "exotic" ingredients - of course it's not exotic to us per se (given we are quite familiar with Asian food, obviously), but I have to say most of those less-than-usual ingredients worked seamlessly with the dishes. After a small, fun bite of salami-wrapped quinoa and corn as amuse-bouche, we started our dinner with scallop carpaccio on a bed of sea urchin creme served with a martini glass. On top are bits of green mango and sprinkles of curry powder. I couldn't taste much of the sea urchin flavor but certainly loved the creamy texture it brought, and in the midst of so many different flavors, the scallop taste still came out nice and fresh. Overall it's a balanced, appetizing starter and would be especially perfect for summer time.

Next up is crabmeat ravioli with citrus flavors, served in a lemongrass scented chicken bouillon. The citrus taste combined with the lemongrass aroma was so refreshing as the dish was brought to us. Personally I would love to have the taste of the soup be stronger but this is no complaint and the crabmeat ravioli was irresistibly delicious.

Our main course is veal cheek cooked with star anise, with compote of mint and pineapple, and "burnt" brussels sprouts with miso-blue cheese sauce. Again, the dish smell so good as it was presented - thanks to the star anise - and the veal cheek was perfectly cooked and served with a reducion of its jus. The finely-diced pineapples mixed with mint brought the right balance to the rich meat with its acidity and light tartness. I especially loved the roasted and slightly charred brussels sprouts with "sauce de bleu" - made with miso and blue cheese, as Chef Esther came over and explained. The sauce was dominated by the distinct umami shiro-miso flavor but I suppose the blue cheese gave the sauce a creamier texture, beside the subtle taste and a hint of tartness that was hidden behind. I love the dish overall, and especially the sauce. 

Well, I wasn't sure what to say about the next course which was called "Coco Balsamic Linguine". Essentially it is linguine tossed with balsamic sauce and served with a ring of squid, mixed mushrooms (ceps, shimeji and perhaps something more) and topped with a thin slice of white truffle. I like its strong flavor - reminds me of the classic Shanghainese cooking style actually - and it's delectable, but there really isn't much interesting other than that. I personally could not find the coherence or contrast with this composition, and it's a pity that the white truffle - while looked good (and expensive) on the plate - was buried and became almost unnoticeable on the palate.

We finished off with the dessert of red-wine poached pear crumble with tapioca and tiramisu icecream. Interesting combination and individually they were tasty. I am just not 100% sure whether the red wine poached pears necessarily matched with the tiramisu ice cream. Perhaps using moscato or hey, for a more Asian flavor, even an osmanthus wine (桂花酒) as the poaching liquid instead? Would that be more complementary, I wonder?

Originally I had some doubts over whether Esther's small kitchen team can cope with this bigger venue, with multiple menus and serving time from different parties, now that the capacity has effectively tripled and it's still in its run-in period, but she seemed to be handling well. She also managed to pace herself in the rhythm too with just the right intervals between courses, and popped by our room during a few courses to introduce the dishes to us. I would describe her style of food as creative but not over the top - not all of them worked 100% in my opinion, but I appreciate how her chain of thoughts came about as she designed the menu. 

We had two wines this evening - this being a wine cellar plus private kitchen it's hard not to get a few wine glasses to swirl while eating. We started with a rosé champagne which we ordered from Hip Cellar under the same roof - a non-vintage René Geoffroy Cuvee Rose de Saignée Premier Cru Brut - which was elegant with a pleasing strawberry aroma in front, and a noticeable hint of yeast at the back. And oh, it has a beautiful, sexy ruby tint too (due to the fact that the champagne was made with 100% pinot noir by the Saginée method). It's rich yet easy to drink with food, and I am struck by its intensity and smoothness, something I didn't expect from a rosé usually.

I brought a bottle of 2003 Chateau Gruaud-Larose to match with the veal cheek main dish. I believe this is the last from the case we bought from an auction a few years back. We have been observing the changes of this wine over the years and I think it has reached its peak now (and unfortunately that's our last bottle. bummer!) Full-bodied, prune and chocolate aroma and with a delicious red-fruit, jammy palate. Not a terribly long finish but a smooth one.

With glamorous decor to match with glamorous food and wine in this cozy, exclusive and sophisticated venue, I think Ta Pantry hit the right tone.

More pictures of Ta Pantry on my flickr page:

When? April 24 2003
Where? Ta Pantry, 5th Floor, Block C, Sea View Estate, 8 Watson Road, North Point, Hong Kong
Menu Highlights? Say Cheek! - Veal Cheek cooked with star anise, accompanied by compote of pineapple and mint, also with burnt Brussels sprout on sauce de bleu.
René Geoffroy Cuvee Rose de Saignée Premier Cru NV Brut
Chateau Gruaud Larose 2003


spicycocoa said...

A group of us were debating if we wanna try the new Ta Pantry. I remember going to the old Ta Pantry, looking forward to an exciting dining experience and the shanghainese menu did not live up to the hype.
The menu you tried looks interesting, maybe i can give it a second chance ;)

Valentin said...

This is cool!