Monday, November 28, 2016

Second Day of Business - Frantzén's Kitchen

We have never been to his restaurants nor tried his cooking before, while our friend V has been there three times including once when he’s doing a pop-up at Landmark Mandarin a few years ago, but all of us were excited to be sitting inside Chef Bjorn Frantzen’s new restaurant in Hong Kong on its second day of business, eager to try out his dishes at what many dubbed as the restaurant opening of the year in town.

The restaurant – at a street corner in the hip Tai Ping Shan Street neighborhood in Sheung Wan - was compact but comfortable. The interior was modern with a minimalist theme, with the dining area that can seat around 40 at the table and by the counter. In front was the bar which doubled as the “cool” kitchen where some of the dishes were prepared, while there’s another kitchen at the back for more intense cooking, which you could take a peek in from the outside window (I think).

While Chef Frantzen’s flagship restaurant in Stockholm's Gamla Stan (which was closed and to be relocated next year) was known to be one of the finest restaurants in the world with all the accolades you could think of (2 michelin stars, World’s Top 50 restaurants, so on and so forth), Hong Kong’s Frantzen’s Kitchen, his first restaurant outside Sweden, went for the more casual approach like a bistro, as he described. Looking at the table set-up you would easily be mistaken the place to be some sophisticated chachaanteng (that's local diner-style joint for you non-Cantonese) – the menu was listed on the paper placemat, tableware found in a little drawer underneath the cloth-less table and you were encouraged to pick up the food either by hand or by chopsticks that were provided.

But let's not be fooled - there's nothing casual about the cooking and the dishes. "Even though it's still a month away before we close the book of 2016, I was tempted to just call this the meal of the year." was my verdict, as I reflected on our meal on Facebook the next morning. We were struggling a bit with the menu at first, not knowing what to order. With sixteen different courses were listed in the categories of "Snacks", "Dishes" and "Desserts" in the form of sketches with a brief description of ingredients, our first reaction was "can we just sweep the menu?" (among the six of us). We contemplated that question while each of us ordered all four "snacks" to start, which arrived at our table in order.

And all the snack courses were stunningly delicious (and beautiful). I started with "French Toast" served on a warm ceramics platter, with aged Swedish cheese, 100-year-old Balsamic vinegar sandwiched between two small slice of toasted brioche and on top, plenty of white truffle shavings. I could smell that truffle aroma from afar as the dish was brought to our table, and everything worked together so well to create the well-balanced flavor which made you wanting more after that quick but heavenly bite.

The (savory) macaron was another excellent dish – the single apple macaron was served with dried lingonberry, apple disc and foie gras parfait in between with dehydrated berry and herb dusting on top and on the small plate. The lingonberry was tart with a slight crunchiness, the apple sweet, and the foie gras flavor was subtle (comparatively) but rounded everything together very well. "Swedish sushi" - with crispy white moss as "shari" and deer plus frozen foie gras as "neta" in the true Swedish fashion - and Poached Oyster "63.4C" with frozen sea buckhorn and seaweed powder completed our quartet of starters.

Still caught in the dilemma of wanting to try everything but not sure whether we could finish them, Chef Jim – the executive head chef who's supervising the teams from the front of the house – overheard our conversation and came to our rescue, offering us the option for a reduced portion for the dishes so we could try more. "Deal!" - so we went along with this tasting menu of sorts.

Turned out we still couldn’t work our way through the entire menu that evening but came close, finishing with six "main" courses out of nine available. We began with the Sashimi of Norwegian Salmon. Thin slices of salmon sashimi were served with trout roes, picked king crab meat, pickled cucumber, touch of dried dill and lemon zest, and crushed crab aspic. I particularly loved the umami-rich aspic adding to the flavor to the otherwise mild(er) taste of the other ingredients. It was followed by another seafood dish of Roasted Hokkaido Scallop. The scallop was slightly cooked, sliced thin, and served in a shallow bowl with dried coral, fingerlime and a touch of spruce needle on top with “Nordic dashi” with ginger oil poured into the bowl at the table. The sharp acidity of the fingerlime contrasted well with the almost smoky broth, and the scallops were perfectly cooked and tasty even on its own.

So many things going on with our next course of green asparagus, in this garden-like presentation served in a Japanese-style ceramics bowl specially designed for the restaurant (yeah, I flipped to see the bottom of the bowl with the inscription after I finished the dish). Stalks of green asparagus (from New Zealand, we were told) were hidden in all the edible flower petals, micro-herbs, pistachio bits and a sauce made with fermented white asparagus juice. On first bite it almost felt like a Thai dish, possibly because of the lemon verbena and the creamy sauce, and then all the other distinct, exotic flavors came into play.

We then moved on to the meat courses, as we told them those were the dishes we really wanted to try. First was the Swedish Dairy Cow. Thin slices of dry-aged beef was flash-grilled on the side, then served with black truffle shavings, julienned raw mushrooms (shiitake?), beurre noisette, flowers and truffle ponzu dipping sauce on the side. The beef was aged for 100 days by a butcher in Sweden before vacuumed and sent over (“the butcher would send the picture of the beef for my approval first before sending over”, as the chef explained) and I thought the meat was super tasty even without any of the other seasonings. The texture was borderline between tender like a piece of raw tuna sashimi and firm like a jerky. That was my favorite dish of the evening.

I couldn’t recall having lamb tartar before elsewhere but it was a fun dish to have. Again, it was beautifully presented, with the chopped meat spread on the rim of the dish with feta cheese crumbs, dots of lavender yoghurt, bits of aubergine crisp and crispy onion on top. Then in the middle was some smoked aubergine puree and brown butter for dipping. I normally was not that big of a fan of the gamey lamb flavor, but I loved the combination of that and the cumin mixed in, along with the sweet, crispy onions and aubergines on top and the kick of the pungent feta cheese, which almost overwhelmed the yoghurt flavor (I couldn't get much of the lavender, to be honest).

We ordered the Pork Belly as an “encore” course towards the end, after we figured we could take in another dish. And glad we did. The pork belly – from Omega-3 pork sourced from Sweden - looked just like the Cantonese siu yuk but with a thinner, less crunchy skin. Apart from the pumpkin puree, dots of apple sauce, dried kale and pumpkin seeds, I particularly liked the addition of roaster black garlic cloves, which brought in that rich, earthy taste similar to what fermented black bean does to Cantonese dish (but milder and sweeter). Umami in a different sense.

I went for two desserts – first was the smoked icecream served in a half-sphere covered in tar syrup with salted fudge poured on top. Well, I never realized sugar, cream and smoke worked together so well, not to mention the great presentation of a golden dome! And the second dessert was called “Syltkakor”, which was brown butter shortbread cookies with Nordic berries in the center, dusted with dried thyme powder, like how the cookies grandma brought to the table at the end of the meal, as the chef explained. I could keep on munching on those with a cup of coffee every afternoon.

Not seeing anything particularly interesting to try on the wine list, we turned our attention to a few beers on the menu, all coming from Sweden. Starting off with a lager than onto a bottle of American pale ale, my favorite was definitely the latter, with the bread-like malt nose, herbaceous with a mild hoppy flavor, making it perfect to go with the dishes.

We were usually reluctant to try a restaurant that's only 2-day-old, but here it showed no sign of issues typical of any other restaurant opening. Service was excellent and attentive, even it was absolutely packed (I heard now the tables were booked up til the end of the year), and despite some dishes came a bit slower than the rest, overall we liked the pace of serving. So, yes, definitely the best meal of the year so far, without a doubt, and now the question is when we are going to return to cover the remaining one-third of the menu and to repeat the many dishes we have enjoyed. That would require some serious planning.

(Much) more photos in my Flickr album: https://www.flickr.com/photos/g4gary/albums/72157675412346552

When? November 25 2016
Where? Frantzen's Kitchen, 11 Upper Station Street, Sheung Wan, Hong Kong
Menu Highlights?
"French Toast" with truffles, balsamico vinegar and aged cheese
Roasted Swedish Pork Belly, carrot "hot sauce", pumpkin and dried kale with roasted garlic
Swedish Dairy Cow, dry-aged for 100 days with truffle ponzu, beurre noisette and truffle salt.
Drinks?
Nils Oscar God Lager
Omnipollo Mazarin American Pale Ale
Web: www.frantzenskitchen.com

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