Monday, March 2, 2015

Avant-garde Dinner at The Ritz Carlton

It was pure coincidental that I was having my second Spanish - or more accurately Catalan - dinner in less than a week. A few days after spending the evening at Catalunya Hong Kong, I was on top of The Ritz Carlton at the preview dinner featuring Barcelona-born Chef Alain Devahive Tolosa who's touring Asia with a special menu available for a few days in early March at the hotel's OZONE bar and lounge on the 118th Floor.

Melon Liqueor

These days with no less than hundreds of chefs around the world self-proclaiming to be Ferran Adria's disciple in an almost religious manner, Chef Alain was one of the few that truly fit that description, working under him at the el Bulli restaurant and later on at their laboratory for more than a decade. He's no stranger to Asia or Hong Kong actually, overseeing the opening phases of the hugely successful pair of Catalunya restaurants in Singapore and Hong Kong, and this time, he's touring around Asia with whistle stops at several Ritz Carlton properties in the region.

Chef Alain Devahive Tolosa and the Spherical Olives
After a few cocktails at the bar (spherified melon liqueur served on melon slices with bits of jamon on top and a "modified" sangria with foam and all on a martini glass), we moved to the back end of the restaurant, where Chef Alain had a quick meet-and-greet session with a quick demonstration of spherical olives at the show kitchen counter, before we started our meal at the long table right behind. 

Peanuts in crystallized honey
The menu this evening - identical as the one available to the public for one week in March - was served tapas style in bite-sized or tasting portion. We began with a series of snacks - the spherical olives, mimetic peanuts (reconstructed peanuts using fine peanut powder and crystallized honey) and nori-sesame and calamari-saffron-kimchi crisps, which perhaps needed no introduction as they were some of the signature menu items once served at el Bulli.

Iberico ham croquette
The "Iberico Croquette" was another playful creation and twist of the Catalan traditional dish of the same name. Similar to the Spherical Olives served earlier, this time it's Iberico ham consomme that was spherified and served with breadcrumbs and cheese toppings. The liquid full of rich flavors just burst in your mouth as you bite through the "skin".

Mollete bun with Hare Royale
We moved onto a few more dishes which were less of a surprise in terms of presentation and cooking styles but nonetheless decent. The mollete bun with hare royale matched the intense terrine made with rabbit meat and blood with a mild steamed round buns slightly toasted, and the oyster was served raw on the shell with cucumber infused and pickled in cucumber water and "white gazpacho". Then a soup course was served as intermezzo, which was a mushroom infusion with tofu, Parmesan cheese and truffle air served in a glass tumbler. My favorite part was the soft tofu and the enoki tops sitting in the middle between the mushroom consomme and the black truffle-infused foam giving the dish some interesting textures.

Avocado and king crab wrap with caviar
I think most of us around the table agreed that the best dishes of the evening were the two seafood-themed courses. The avocado and king crab wrap with caviar was perfect with picked king crab meat "stuffed" inside a wrap made with thin avocado slices in a bed of a bisque-like sauce. Instead of creating something with a contrast in tastes, in this dish Chef Alain opted to match the king crab with a crustacean sauce which was of similar tastes - and that brought each other up superbly. The avocado slices not only added to the presentation of a fancy wrap but also bringing in the creaminess and texture.

Mediterranean red prawn carpaccio
The Mediterranean red prawn carpaccio was essentially a "head-to-tail" prawn dish, with the prawn meat sliced razor-thin, seasoned and became the carpaccio, the prawn head turned into the sauce, the legs deep-fried, and the shell turned into a stock and then into a cream foam. If you happened to like shellfish (which I do), this is heaven.

Crispy suckling pig belly with scallop and artichoke
There's no main course in the menu per se, but the suckling pig belly was the only one in slightly bigger portion, with several pieces - just the skin and the first layer of fat - spreading around the plate with perfectly-seared scallops and an artichoke cream sauce. The meat was excellent and the execution of the dish was solid. 

Kumquart crystals, miso and bitter almonds
Two desserts were served to conclude our meal. My favorite was the second one - the combination of kumquat, almond, sesame and miso presented in different form in one dish just hit you right on the palate - even if you didn't like it on first taste you should at least appreciate the creativity and originality. I happened to love this savory-sweet, little umami bomb that didn't hold back any of those extreme flavors.

I think the dinner was pretty spectacular. Most of us had at least some of the dishes before so it's less of an eye-opening experience per se (as compared to some who might not have tried), but still, there were bits and pieces that surprised and delighted us. It's not so much about the techniques themselves - not like we haven't seen emulsification or spherification before, or even the ingredients, which by now we were quite familiar with given the influx of Spanish restaurants, but Chef Alain truly understood what each of those components do and combine those techniques and ingredients into something that challenged your taste buds, which something we all enjoyed and appreciated. 

Guess my only complaint was portion-wise I think I would be much happier if it's more substantial. If the meal came after an evening of drinking and munching on snacks and tapas - as people in Spain would have - then the portion of the set menu was fine, but for us expecting a complete dinner it came a bit too light.

This is probably the first time I was formally introduced to Chef Alain Devahive Tolosa - can't remember whether I met him in person previously at Catalunya Hong Kong at my first visit there - and my first impression was he's so fit and smart in his pearl white chef outfit. There's always the old sayings of never trusting a skinny chef, but in Chef Alain, I am happy to call this an exception.

Dinner courtesy of The Ritz Carlton Hong Kong.

When? February 26 2015
Where? OZONE, The Ritz Carlton Hong Kong, 118th Floor, International Commerce Centre, West Kowloon, Hong Kong.
Menu Highlights? Avocado and King Crab Wrap with Caviar, Mediterranean Red Prawn Carpaccio
2009 Pares Balta Blanca Cuisine Cava
2012 Belondrade y Lurton D.O. Rueda
2012 Vizcarra Ramos Venta las Vacas D.O. Ribera del Duero

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