Thursday, January 31, 2019

The Most Exciting Restaurant Opening

There are every reason to be excited about the opening of Aulis at the turn of the year. Chef Simon Rogan is considered one of the greatest British chef of our time, and with a few Michelin-starred restaurants under his belt, has decided to open a couple new restaurants in Hong Kong as his first overseas venture, with Aulis opening in January quickly followed by a more casual eatery Roganic the next month.

It may sound like a peculiar choice to open a fine-dining western restaurant in the heart of Causeway Bay far away from the usual spots, but the team has tastefully transformed what used to be a Japanese restaurant into something totally different, complete with a huge open kitchen with counter space for the chef’s table (where Aulis is situated) plus a spacious dining area for Roganic. Somewhere in between there’s also a bar where people can drop by for a drink before or after a meal, and even a mini temperature and humidity controlled “farm” in a cabinet where some of the herbs and micro-greens were planted.

Aulis is said to be the “development kitchen” serving more avant-garde style cuisine in tasting menu format, with a maximum of 12 served every evening around the kitchen counter space. Sitting in such cozy setting does make one feel like eating inside someone’s home kitchen, and one could see up close and personal all the action going on right in front of us as we went through the “culinary journey” curated by Chef Simon and his team.

The menu changes frequently based on the ingredients available, with many either flown in direct from the farm in UK’s Lake District owned by its sister restaurant L’Enclume, or transported from local farms they sourced from regularly. The tasting menu consists of more than a dozen courses, most of them in bite-sized portion showcasing the creative skills of the team.

I am not going to give you a course-by-course commentary, but I must say quite a number of the dishes we tried were remarkable. We started our evening at the bar where a few cocktails were served. I enjoyed my maitre de chai, served with much fanfare by the restaurant manager, with grey goose vodka, Cointreau and chai shaken with ice and served with a wedge of caramelized pineapple. Just went down smoothly with the right sweetness balance.

As we settled in at our seats at the kitchen counter, we began with a few snacks served in quick succession. The course described as “skin, roe, carrots” was the most memorable one, with thin piece of roasted chicken skin topped with neatly-organized pickled carrots and cod roe emulsion and dried cod roes sandwiched in between. We got this smoky flavor from the dehydrated chicken skin, then the acidity and sweetness from the carrots plus the umami flavor of the roes with a touch of crunchy texture. It was beautifully presented too.

The combination of sea urchin and caviar has almost become cliché these days, but the version here was spectacular, with sea urchin custard served in a tiny earthenware cup, topped a thin layer of vinegar jelly, sugar kelp, a piece of sea urchin tongue and then caviar especially packaged for the restaurant by Petrossian, the Paris-based caviar specialist, to Chef Simon’s exact specifications. It’s quickly followed by another seafood dish served in a slightly larger cup and with more subtle flavor, and this time it’s hairy crab, liquorice and pickled onions served in a green gazpacho of celtuce, fennel, grapes and herbs (and topped with some beautiful marigold flower petals). And to go with the soup was a warm soda bread served with miso butter, which was literally just taken off from the oven behind the kitchen and brought to us in less than 10 seconds. Talk about oven-fresh.

Meanwhile, the team was busy preparing our next course of mixed vegetables charred and smoked on a table-top stove, and served on top of a truffle custard and dressed with a light drizzle of chili garlic oil plus a cheese sauce made of Westcombe cheese. The preparation looked straight forward but it was amazingly delicious with so many different tastes went into this small plate of warm “salad”, and said loudly of Chef Simon’s unique cooking style of highlighting the original flavor of different ingredients, sometimes in a rather unusual combinations.

We moved into something slightly more substantial as the evening progressed, starting with the salt-baked celeriac topped with whey mousse, malt crumbs and watercress oil, then the snapper fillet topped with “5 flavor sauce” (with dried mint, orange, lime, liquorice and vanilla went into it, we were told) and some black garlic puree and roasted red cabbage as garnish. Our final savory course was beef, with dry-aged Welsh beef sirloin roasted and charred on a stove with a sauce made with the beef bones and  a touch of sherry vinegar and maitake mushrooms. On the side was a piece of roasted onion topped with dots of garlic honey puree plus a quenelle of parsnip puree.

We ended our evening with a few desserts. The stout icecream with molasses reduction, chestnut and burnt milk crisp was the interesting one with unique flavor, and I also loved that small piece of mini caramelized apple tart. Not quite like Tarte Tatin but richer in apple taste with just a thin layer of pastries at the bottom. We went for the wine pairing option for the menu, and quite a few interesting bottles were poured, from an English sparkling wine to start, to an interesting acidic (and mild) sake, then a few (mostly white) bottles. I thought they all went well with the dishes served, and for those who prefer to stay dry, there's an non-alcoholic pairing available as well, and from what we saw, those were nicely matched with the food too with some cool selections. 

Even with my heightened expectation, I think the team delivered with flying colors both in terms of the food and execution and the overall dining experience. I would love to come back for more creative dishes next time and eagerly look forward to the opening of Roganic, with a more casual setting but in-line with chef’s philosophy of farm-to-table cooking.

(Dinner was by invitation and more photos can be found in my Flickr album:

When? January 15 2019
Where? Aulis, UG08, Sino Plaza, 255 Gloucester Road, Causeway Bay, Hong Kong
Menu Highlights? Grilled Salad, Westcombe cheese, truffle
2010 Barry Bros & Rudd, English Sparkling Wine Brut
2016 Domaine Zind-Humbrecht Gewurztraminer Roche Calcaire, Alsace
Tsuki no Katsura “Kasegi Gashira” Junmai, Masuda Tokubee Shoten, Kyoto Prefecture
2016 COS “Pithos Bianco” IGT Sicilia
2016 Weingut Prager “Hinter der Burg” Gruner Veltliner
2015 Mullineux Syrah, Swartland

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