Thursday, March 12, 2015

Amber's Weekend Wine Lunch

We realized we haven't come to Amber at the Landmark Mandarin Oriental often enough recently, despite having very high regards of the restaurant and being an admirer of Chef Richard Ekkebus' cooking, striking that delicate balance between classic French cuisine and innovative, Asian-inspired ingredients and techniques. So when our friends asked us to join them for lunch on a recent Saturday, we didn't hesitate to say yes and even pushed aside a few other things on our schedule to make it possible.

Each of us were surprised when we arrived at the restaurant separately as they led us into the private room near the entrance instead of the main dining area - they were very nice to call this an "upgrade" for us, but we suspect it probably has more to do with the main dining room being fully booked and as we opted for a late lunch, putting us in the private room was logistically more convenient for them. Anyway, whatever the reasons, we didn't mind having some extra privacy and a quieter space all to ourselves for the next couple of hours.

The weekend wine lunch, featuring 6 courses along with wine pairing, is probably the priciest set lunch menu around town but nonetheless offered tremendous value for money for what they offered. There were a few options for each of the savory courses, then the meal ended with cheese and desserts. The different choices were explained to us in great details before we made up our minds and ordered. 

Amuse-bouche #1
We started with two amuse bouche nibbles came one immediately after another. As they brought in the first, which was a squid ink pita bread with celeriac puree with a crispy rice cracker with bits of nori and dots of apple and pumpkin puree on top, all served on a Japanese wooden masu container, the foie gras lollipop glazed with beetroot and raspberry juices also arrived right after. All of them were alright - Chef Richard has been offering the foie gras lollipop for as long as I could remember and it's just as good as the ones we had previously, and the bread and crackers were light and came with interesting flavors. Not a bad way to start.

duck foie gras - ballotine with black pepper over a hibiscus jell-o with tasmanian cherries & toasted dried sour cherry bread
I sort of regret about my choice of Duck Foie Gras as first course when it arrived (and regret a bit more when I looked back after the whole meal - more on that later). The bloc of foie gras ballotine, brushed with cherry glaze and sugar crisp on top, was served on a bed of hibiscus jelly and halves of marinated Tasmanian cherries on the side. A piece of toasted bread with dried cherry was served on a separate plate as well. I thought the presentation was impressive for such a simple dish and it was delicious.

But my first regret was the realization of this being too similar to the foie gras lollipop I had right before. Of course, primarily I was the one to blame for the repetition since I picked that out of the 4 choices myself, but it did raise the question of why the chef decided to put the dish as a choice with such similar combinations of ingredients and tastes in the first place. Again, I got more to say on that later.

australian abalone - black pepper & vinegar seasoned tomato compote, braised then crisped oxtail & its jus
It was interesting to find abalone - more a Chinese/Asian delicacy than a western one - on the menu so I was curious to check it out as my choice for the second course. Again, the presentation was very nice - the Australian abalone was slow braised, sliced and served on its own beautiful shell with vinegar-seasoned tomato compote, a piece of crisp oxtail on top and a sauce made with abalone jus and oxtail consomme. The abalone was tender with a good bite and flavorful, and I like that racy tomato compote cut right through the richness in both the oxtail and the abalone, all together gave the dish a very unique flavor. 

'patis' poularde - upper leg with sauce albufera & crispy cereal, kabocha & chicken jus with virgin hazelnut oil
Rarely did I order chicken as main course at a restaurant if I have a choice because from my experience it could be hit or miss, but this time I was very glad that I did. Two pieces of Poularde du Patis chicken, coming from the upper leg, was slow-cooked with the skin torched to a perfect brown color with the right crispiness. Underneath was the sweet kabocha pumpkin puree, chicken jus and the rich albufera sauce made with foie gras and cognac. Then on the side was a few thin slices of kabocha rolled in a fancy pattern. The chicken was of excellent quality and perfectly cooked - moist and flavorful and all - and came with generous portion which left me very satisfied. I was expecting the sauce to be a bit richer but it's pretty decent as was and you couldn't fault this classic combination. I wouldn't expect anything less and they delivered this dish spot-on.

Maybe I was spoiled by really excellent cheeses recently elsewhere, I was surprised our cheese course came with very ordinary, generic selection - to the extent no one even asked for our preferences before 3 different types of cheeses were brought in on a wooden cheeseboard (I didn't expect they will cart in the cheese selection into the room and served by our table, but still...). And I definitely had better cheeses before - the ones this afternoon were a bit too mild and monotonous to my liking and yes, that included the comte which normally would have been my favorite.

chestnut - fondant inspired after a "mont blanc" with white chocolate snow, crispy meringue & black currant sorbet
The menu described our last courses to be "Tasting Desserts", so I should have expected that they came with rather small portion - more like the size of pre-desserts. Both desserts were fine - first was a playful presentation of the classic "mont blanc", with a small roll of white chocolate fondant served underneath chestnut puree, then meringue, a scoop of Williams pear and a quenelle of blackcurrant sorbet on the side. I love everything chestnut so it's good.

Our second dessert was a chocolate cremeux served with halves of Tasmanian cherries, hibiscus and black currant fluid gel and a cherry sorbet. The donut-shaped cremeux was excellent and pretty, but the combination of cherry and hibiscus again? Remember I said I regret a bit more of the choice of my first course? This is the reason why. Not only the same set of ingredients appeared twice, I thought the cherries were prepared exactly the same way in the dessert as they were in my first course. Well you could argue this matched the beginning and the end on the same note, but I thought that made the menu rather repetitive, one-dimensional and in serious lack of creativity.

Well taking everything into consideration I must say we still enjoyed the meal and loved the opportunity to catch up with our dear friends whom we haven't really had the chance to sit down and chat for a few months. But there were the subtle sense of "sloppiness" in the service throughout - nothing major but it certainly didn't go unnoticed. I wasn't sure whether this has to do with the fact that both Chef Richard and Sebastian the restaurant manager not being around on the day of our visit. The most remarkable "mishap" was an incomplete dessert landed on the table - my plate of first dessert arrived without the pear and no one has noticed that until I pointed it out when the dish was introduced to us. Of course they took it away and replaced/fixed it immediately, but this time, my dish had one extra piece than normal. We half-jokingly said the extra piece must be for compensating the earlier mistake, but in my mind that's just adding to further sloppiness or a sense of indifference in whoever handled the dish, either of which was inexcusable. What if I turned back a savory dish saying it's under-seasoned - would they have overcompensated with one laden with salt? 

I could also easily point out other mind-boggling observations, something that I probably would let go of for restaurants not of such high caliber but not at a place likely to be crowned one of the Asia's best by the time you read this (and yes, it's ranked #6, the highest among all Hong Kong restaurants). But not wanting to sound too much of a hypercritical prick, I would just leave it at that. Anyway, those many little issues aside, I thought the food was quite decent but nothing close to being mind-blowing. I came with high expectations and they largely delivered, but only in a predictable manner and not a single bit above - nothing that I could look back upon and said to myself, "I wish I have had more of that", or "wow I was pleasantly surprised with what the chef did to that dish!"

Well every year when the Michelin Guide came out with the new edition, we - like many of our friends - asked the same question time and time again of why not Amber got its third star which we thought Chef Richard's culinary team was aspired to achieve and very much deservedly so. But this afternoon, our weekend lunch raised the question of "why" more so than "why not".

More pictures on my Flickr album:

When? March 7 2015
Where? Amber, Landmark Mandarin Oriental, 15 Queen's Road Central, Hong Kong
Menu Highlights? "patis" poularde - upper leg with sauce albufera and crispy cereal, kabocha and chicken jus with virgin hazelnut oil
Champagne Olivier, Bruno et Christiane NV
Weingut Ulrich Langguth Riesling 2012
Olivier Leflaive Bourgogne Aligote 2012
Bodegas y Vinedos Valderiz Valdehermoso Crianza 2011

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