Saturday, June 22, 2019

The Transformed Amber

I came to experience the transformation of Chef Richard Ekkebus’ Amber restaurant recently, shortly after the place reopened last month after the renovation. And when I said transformation, I am not just talking about just the remake of the dining area, now featuring a more relaxed, contemporary design with more natural light beaming through from the window, or the much expanded “show” kitchen, moving away from being just the backstage where food was prepared to being in the spotlight completed with dining counters, spacious cooking stations and wall décor.

Just a couple of weeks after visiting Somm, the new casual restaurant at Landmark Mandarin Oriental which I enjoyed, I received a second invitation to check out Amber (dubbed 2.0 by Chef Richard) on the same floor for lunch with my friends C and J. Other than the obvious makeover in physical appearances (done by the same designer as the original Amber), the change went much deeper, which became apparent by the time the first dish was served. Inside a simple round ceramics bowl was a cold appetizer dish of housemade tofu, topped with chunks of sweet tomatoes, salt-cured cherry blossoms and drizzles of almond oil. Rather than calling this fusion, I say it’s more a typical new age cooking style where boundaries of locality in terms of cooking methods or ingredients became vague and irrelevant. Is that French? Japanese? Asian? Authentic or not? It doesn’t matter anymore. There were elements of savory and sweet tastes, the pleasant aroma and smooth texture and combined with the nice presentation, all of which made this soothing and enjoyable.

A pair of chopsticks were placed in front of each of us before the next course was brought in, and this time it’s Japanese aji (horse mackerel) done kombu-jime style (cured wrapped in sea weed) and served with thin slices of cucumber and celtuce on a bed of green line seed oil. I liked this light and refreshing with the hint of salt/mineral flavor with the fish being firm and fatty, well suited in this hot weather.

After our second course, we followed the staff walking through the backdoor into the kitchen, where our third course was served, at the standing-room-only dining counter specially designed to give customers a panoramic view of the kitchen while enjoying some food. One had to appreciate the effort put in to build this into part of the unique dining experience for every guests and enabled better interactions and connections between the culinary team and the customers they serve. It’s said that every table may have a different course served inside the kitchen, and for ours, it’s corn and caviar served inside a brass tin. Sweet corns from Japan were cold-pressed into puree and topped with layers of seawater espuma, caviar, corn tuile and zest of sudachi. The interesting combination of corn and caviar was mind-blowing.

Our last starter course was served as we settled down back to our table. The dish sounded simple enough – with just cabbages and mushrooms – but it’s amazingly complex. Inside the deep dish was a "slice" of Chinese cabbage and champignon puree mille-feuille, and on top, a halved shiitake mushroom plus soy-dashi sauce and hazelnut oil. It checked every boxes for those longing for “healthy” food – meatless, dairy-less, carb-less, gluten-free… but that’s not really the point. Chef Ekkebus managed to deliver a fault-less dish with just a limited set of ingredients, so we could focus on the original flavor of just those handful of substances. I guess that’s the new philosophy of Amber 2.0 – cleaner flavor; ingredient-driven; lighter cooking style; more natural, less intervention.

Two main courses were then served. First, the amadai (tilefish) fillet prepared uroko-yaki style (what else?) with the crispy scales on top and served with a medley of vegetables and herbs including pickled onions, zucchini, nocellara del belice, finger limes and shiso. I like the acidity balanced with the firm meat from the fish. The second dish was lamb loin, slow-cooked for the evenly tender texture and served with meat jus and mint oil, and on the side, kabu (Japanese round radish) done two ways. I found the puree interesting, with a rather neutral flavor but a hint of sweetness.

The desserts followed the same philosophy of focusing more on the natural flavor of the ingredients rather than one loaded with sweetness. We started with sake lees icecream served with raspberries and puffed rice at the bottom, followed by avocado icecream served with meringues, slices of granny smith apples and Thai basil puree. And we finished with some fresh cherries plus jam and juice, and a madeleine made with buckwheat flour, coconut sugar and olive oil, with a lighter texture and slightly different flavor than the traditional ones, but just as good.

John their sommelier took care of the wine pairing of us and we ended with a couple of bottles. The pinot noir from Languedoc was nice with more intense ripe red fruit on the palate probably from the warmer climate. Worked well with the lamb dish for sure.

I gave credits to Chef Richard and his team for this unique dining experience and bold move into something entirely different (and to a good effect) I look forward to years of innovative dishes to come out of this magnificent looking kitchen.

Meal was by invitation; more photos in my Flickr page:

When? June 5 2019
Where? Amber, Landmark Mandarin Oriental, 15 Queen's Road Central, Hong Kong
Menu Highlights? Okinawan Corn; Kristsal Schrenki Caviar; Seawater; Sudachi
2013 Domaine Jean-Marc Pillot Chassagne-Montrachet Premier Cru Morgeot "Les Fairendes"
2016 Domaine de la Metairie d'Alon Pinot Noir "Solaire"

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