Tuesday, December 8, 2015

The Number 4

Just as we returned from a weekend away in Singapore where we had a memorable pop-up meal from one of the World's 50 Best Restaurants, we received an email promoting yet another dinner event, this time in Hong Kong at Landmark Mandarin Oriental featuring the top restaurant in Latin America.

I got to be honest here - before the event, I have not heard of Chef Virgilio Martinez nor his restaurant Central in Lima, Peru. True it's voted top on the Latin America's 50 Best Restaurant and is number 4 in this year's world ranking, something that should be in my radar naturally you would expect, but I guess Lima just sounded too far away for me to pay any serious attention to. But that's exactly why I was particularly interested in this dinner event, because otherwise it may be hard to try his food in the foreseeable future.

The pop-up restaurant was held for 3 evenings only at the converted space from the function rooms next to Amber. As we arrived, the young Chef Virgilio was already working at the reception area, assembling canape bites to go around with the special cocktails being served before dinner. Both the pisco-based cocktails were very nice - one the classic Pisco Sour served on martini glass, and the other mixing pisco, syrup and ginger ale in an old-fashioned glass for a chilano drink infused with airampo, an Andean cactus giving it an attractive red hue and refreshing taste.

Spiders on a Rock: Sargassum, Limpet, Crab, Sea Snail
We also managed to try all of the canapes being passed around, and our favorite was one called the Spiders on a Rock, with sargassum, limpet, crab and sea snails served on a bite-sized crisp. The subtle umami taste just filled the mouth as I bit into it. This is as beautiful as a piece of snack can be.

Marine Soil: Razor Clams, Sweet Cucumber, Lime
The dinner began after everyone settled down at their tables and Chef Virgilio gave his brief introductory speech. It would be almost impossible to describe the meal dish by dish, because I still don't know half of the ingredients being used even as they were listed in the menu and were introduced to us as the dishes were presented. Many of the ingredients used were unique to Peru, some of which Chef Virgilio's team foraged in specific regions, hence I wouldn't blame the front staff for not knowing a lot about them either. So pardon me if I happened to get things wrong.

Amazonia Colors: Doncella, Bahuaja Nut, Pijuayo, Huito
All together seven courses were presented - five savory and two dessert courses, with seven different wines selected to pair with the dishes. We loved all of them - that's a cliche way to say it - but I think a few did stand out as extra special to me personally. The Marine Soil matched thin slices of Pepino Dulce aka Sweet Cucumber, a fruit common in Peru with raw razor clams with splash of lime juice and edible flowers on top. The clams were so tender that they were almost like "pillow". The Amazonia Colors was a beautiful seafood dish in a sashimi-like presentation with Bahuaja nut cream espuma and bold-colored pijuayo and huito sauces on the side.

Low Andes Mountains: Quinoa, Veal, Airampo
The Low Andes Mountains was our meat course - with veal tenderloin done similar to tataki style with the pinkish center, and plated with quinoa infused with herbs and airampo giving them green and red colors and a herb-infused milk sauce poured on the side. I loved that smooth flavor and the super tender meat with that slightly crunchy quinoa.

Green Highlands: Lucuma, Cacao, Chaco Clay
Our "Andean culinary expedition" continues through with the duo of desserts served at the end. First was the colorful presentation of "Amazonian Rainforest" with dices of pitahaya, better known locally as dragonfruit and Rose Apple, Lemon Grass and Sweet Pepper in a mixture of powder or granita textures. It's enticingly beautiful and full of floral fragrance. The second one - called Green Highlands - was one with a quenelle of cocoa mousse and topped with lucuma sugar crisps and flakes of the white chocolate mixed with edible Chaco Clay, offering an interesting contrast of textures with that deep, soft but rich chocolate flavor.

I think the dinner was eye-opening in many ways. To outsiders including us, Peruvian cuisine was often misunderstood as all about everything ceviche, or fusion, Nikkei style, or everything served with quinoa. It's good to have someone like Chef Virgilio now with his worldwide fame giving us a brief introductory lesson of true Peruvian cuisine through his contemporary style of cooking and interpretation of local dishes.

I also enjoyed trying out many of the exotic ingredients presented, some from the sea, some from the mountains and some from the river bank of the Amazon, celebrating the diversity of landscapes in this small country so far away from us, and to taste the many ingredients that were rarely seen and used here. We often boast our city having easy access to any ingredients around the world given our geographic location, but I guess now at least there is one blind spot to that claim. My only regrets were we didn't get to spend more time hearing Chef Virgilio introduces the ingredients in more details, or shares more of the findings from the Mater Initiative, an organization he founded for the research of indigenous food ingredients in Peru, similar to what Slow Food does in Italy and some other parts around the world. That would have been an inspiring educational experience.

The menu came with the wine pairing so that's been taken care of as long as drinks were concerned. I did shrug when I first saw the wines chosen, thinking they were just common bottles taken from the hotel's own wine collection and being arbitrarily paired with the dishes, but turned out the selection was spot-on. Kudos to John and the sommelier team at Landmark Mandarin. One pairing I found most interesting was the one with the vegetarian dish, "Valley Between Andes" with Avocado, Tree Tomato and Kiwicha, and a Chilean red, a popular blend of Cabernet, Syrah and Merlot, which showed much elegance that I found it rare for this part of wine region and pleasing to drink with the food.

What a night to remember - it's indeed a true blessing that we got to try the food from two of the world's best chefs in quick succession without having to go on a long journey - first in Singapore with Chef Massimo Bottura, then back in Hong Kong with Chef Virgilio Martinez. Of course it wouldn't completely replace the joy and excitement to dine at their actual restaurants in Modena and Lima respectively, but we enjoyed these pop-up experiences nonetheless.

More pictures in my Flickr album: https://www.flickr.com/photos/g4gary/albums/72157661170001389

When? November 30 2015
Where? Landmark Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong
Menu Highlights? Low Andes Mountains: Quinoa, Veal, Airampo
2012 Ulrich Langguth, Riesling "3 Terraces" Trocken, Mosel
2010 Tement, Gelber Muskateller, Styria, Austria
2011 Domaine Jean-Philippe Fichet, Meursault AOC
2009 Aristos "Baron Grand Vin", Central Valley, Chile
2011 Chateau des Fines Roches, Chateauneuf-du-Pape AOC
2011 Joh.Jos Prum, "Graacher Himmelreich" Riesling Auslese, Mosel
Demonio de los Andes Pisco, NV
Central Restaurante: centralrestaurante.com.pe
Landmark Mandarin Oriental: www.mandarinoriental.com/landmark

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