Monday, November 26, 2018

Dinner that almost didn't happen

“Oh, I thought you guys cancelled your booking a few days ago?” Some mis-communications among our group of 8 meant our dinner reservation at a fully-booked restaurant on Halloween weekend was no longer there, just as we were informed by the maître d’ when we arrived at ICHU at H Queen. Luckily for us, after a brief moment of panic (and despair), the restaurant staff managed to find us a table, in none other than their private room, and we were extremely thankful for them saving the night for us and not only that, turned into something quite extraordinary.

Our foodie friend V made a brief return to the city in transit and suggested we met up on a Saturday evening at this place, dubbed one of the most exciting new restaurants in town this year. Surprisingly I never had the chance to get around to visit before so I was eager to check out the place with this large group of food (and drink) lovers. The restaurant is one of the few local restaurants that specializes in Peruvian cuisine, and with Virgilio Martínez (of Peru’s Central restaurant fame and also with appearance on one Chef’s Table episode) being the chef behind the venture there’s little doubt of the quality there.

We were admiring the décor and the casual atmosphere of the alfresco lounge (which was decorated in Halloween theme and where we had our pre-dinner drink) and the main dining area as we were ushered into the private room on the side of the restaurant with a cozy space that seated the 8 of us comfortably. From the room we still got that laid-back vibe from outside yet had the quietness and privacy at the long table in our own space.

There were a decent selection in the a la carte menu with various sections. Chef Martinez’s flagship restaurant in Lima (regularly voted as one of the World's 50 Best) was known for the extensive use of ingredients foraged locally. While they couldn't quite do something similar in this part of the world (sorry, no special herbs found only on the high altitude of Tai Mo Shan), they did introduce many unique ingredients from their native region, even with the restaurant named after an indigenous plant in Peru. Wanted to try as many different dishes as we could, we decided to each pick a few dishes from the menu and shared everything, and at the end I think we almost swept the entire menu.

And I have to say I enjoyed all the dishes that we tried, with a few dishes that were particularly impressive. We began with a few appetizers. Palta Quemada is one of their signature dishes, with the whole charred avocado with aji limo and tomato salsa in the center – I liked the surprise factor in the presentation (with the salsa inside flowing out as one cut the avocado open) and also the balance of flavor plus the creamy texture from the perfectly ripe avocado with a smoky hint. The Tartar de Lomo Con Maiz was another dish I like, with tenderloin tartar served on a bed of corn puree and carob molasses with chive garnish. I felt like this is a deconstructed taco dish with the distinct sweet corn flavor.

The charred cauliflower served in whole reminded me of something we had in the Middle East, but this one was served with a mint sauce and stuffed with sheep cheese for an interesting mix of gamey taste and herbaceous aroma. We also had a couple ceviche dishes, one (Ceviche Caliente) served in the beginning and the other (Ceviche Clasico) after we did our second round of order. I personally preferred the first one better with less emphasis on the sharp Tiger’s milk and with better texture with the cured yellowtail diced rather than sliced.

We went on trying all of the main course selections, listed separately in Meat and Fish plus Seafood sections. The chicken was surprisingly good, with the de-boned pieces smothered in cumin and served with Pachamanca Sauce - it was perfectly done with juicy and tender meat and punchy flavor. That's one dish we asked for an encore after finishing our first plate in no time. And the uni rice was my another favorite – with the sea urchin mixed with warm rice and served in a stone casserole, and I love that spicy kick as aftertaste in each bite. We were more used to uni, or sea urchin in Japanese, served raw like sashimi but this version offered something different and worked well.

A few dishes did somehow remind me of Chinatown food – not in a negative sense when I said this – and that included the Tacutacu Chupe with Tiger Prawn, Peruvian Beans and Aji Panco served in a think gravy, and the Lomo Saltado, with slices of beef ribeyes sautéed with coriander, tomato and red onion. Totally sounded like the good old pepper beef. And another beef dish, which is the short ribs served in seco sauce and coriander, was the more predictable course of the evening with familiar flavor, but this is by no means inferior. I love the soft, tender meat cooked sous vide with rather interesting spices.

We went for a few desserts to share, some taken from their regular menu plus a couple cakes that I spotted at the open kitchen counter as they made those special for the Halloween party at the restaurant later on at night. And all our desserts arrived at the same time with much fanfare served in a long wooden platter decorated in ethnic theme and with theatrical effect using dry ice as they were brought to the table. Apart from the rather cheesy presentation, the desserts were actually great with generous portions, with the Dulce de Leche Cake and the Maiz Caramel (with a mix of corn, pineapple and caramel) being my favorites, though I wouldn’t mind having any of the others (or combination thereof) at all.

Didn’t go particularly heavy on alcohol this evening at the restaurant – started with their signature Pisco Sour (with a hint of saffron mixed with eucalyptus syrup) then a couple of whites (a Austrian Gruner-Veltliner followed by a German Riesling Kabinett which was surprisingly off-dry). Felt all went well with the dishes, especially the Gruner working well with the savory dishes with its slight mineral and “green” flavor on the palate.

Apart from being appreciative that they went extra miles to help getting us the table and saved our night, I felt the dishes were delightful and the restaurant did offer something different to our dining scene in town. A casual restaurant yet serious about cooking is something we didn’t have enough and I am glad Chef Virgilio Martínez brought this concept to us in his first Asian outpost. I was just about to cast my vote on the T-Dining Best New Restaurant Award during the weekend - I was on the fence with a few strong candidates in mind, but after our great dining experience here I think my choice became pretty clear. (P.S. no they didn't get the award this year unfortunately)

When? October 27 2018
Where? ICHU, 3/F, H Queen's, 80 Queen's Road Central, Hong Kong
Menu Highlights? Pollo Pachamanca – Chicken, Pachamanca Sauce, Cumin
2015 Peter Schweiger Zobinger Kogelberg Gruner Veltliner
2016 Reichsgraf von Kesselstatt Piesporter Goldtropfchen Riesling Kabinett, Mosel, Germany

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