Saturday, August 1, 2020

Change Of Plan

After the minor issue of having to switch our dinner reservation to lunch next day at last minute, we were just glad to have visited Ando, the new restaurant by Chef Agustin Balbi, two weeks into its opening. Normally we would rather wait for the new restaurant to kick into high gear and settle with the team before going, but we know Chef Agustin well and had great experience with his cooking at his previous restaurant Haku, there’s no doubt in our mind he’s going to deliver at the usual high standard even when the restaurant literally just got its stove warmed up. 

Located half a block away from Lan Kwai Fong inside a commercial building on Wellington Street, the interior of the restaurant looks more spacious than its size suggested with a few tables scattered inside the main dining area, a private room with one long table at the back and next to it, the open kitchen where all the cooking happens. We were surprised there’s no counter seating – we loved the experience sitting in front of the kitchen watching Chef Agustin and his team cooked at his previous set-up, but at least we could still got a good view of all the kitchen action from our table. And I like the modern style décor with different shades of grey as their color scheme with a relaxing, homey vibe. 

Three different menus were available during the day, and we went for the Prestigio which was the longest one and essentially the same tasting menu for its dinner service. We just wanted to try the whole nine yard and see what this new team was capable of. At Haku we saw an evolution of dishes by the chef from the more traditional Japanese kaiseki-style cooking in the beginning to one that’s truly unique and consistent with his multi-cultural background and professional training. At Ando, that journey continues with even less emphasis on the cooking style of a particular region, but rather, a free-flow of ideas and inspirations, and a bit of mix-and-match. 

First up was a beautiful presentation of a tartlet with the crispy pastry base in the shape of a flower, and on top, okra, uni (sea urchins), kohada (gizzard shad fish), smoked beef jelly and celeriac puree. It tasted fine, though I thought it’s a little bit crowded in terms of ingredients and flavor. I didn’t get much of the uni taste with so many things going on in one bite. Then it’s the perfect summer dish – a cold “salad” with a thick slice of “pineapple tomato”, pickled fingerling peppers, smoked eel, mango and a tomato water dressing. The sweetness from the tomatoes and the pickled peppers, along with the sauce with salivating minerality was just perfect to counter the scotching heat outside. 

The simple menu description of “five raw seafood selection” didn’t do justice to our next course. He should have named it “five spectacular small bites that will blow your mind away of what you thought of raw seafood normally”. In front of us were five small hexagonal earthenware plates with white glaze and in each of the plates were one type of seafood with different marinates in progressing richness. It’s not sashimi, it’s not ceviche, but I guess it’s a bit of both. First was hirame (flounder) with just a touch of salt, pepper and olive oil; then it’s the carabineros with oil infused with ume (plum) and prawn “tomalley” which was the most amazing of all. In the center was kurodai (black snapper) with its mild but fatty flavor (I would swap the sequence with the carabineros) and dressed with a mild soy sauce with hint of ginger and garlic. The Saba (Horse Mackerel) was slightly pickled, and served with a slightly richer sauce and a dab of miso and a kick of chilies. Last but certainly not least, the tuna loin (Akami, rather than the fattier toro) with yuzu-kosho which was a nice conclusion of this series. Like a beautiful etude with five movements of different styles and rhythms in quick succession.  

Bread made the appearance for the first time in great fanfare, with the sourdough bread served with a choice of rich olive oil from Spain and the whipped Hokkaido brown butter. I personally liked the brown butter better, with the nice smoky aroma and smooth texture. Then an off-menu course was served, which was chef’s interpretation of ajo blanco. Inside a glass deep-dish was the chilled soup with garlic and almond cream, and to go with it, razor clams, shrimps, umibodo (Okinawan sea grapes), grapes and silver of slightly toasted almond. There’s almost as many ingredients as our first course, but this time, all the different flavors came out nicely and worked together in harmony. 

Our first main course was fish. A large piece of kinmedai (goldeneye snapper) fillet was done uroko-yaki style (with the scales crisped up using hot oil before serving) with the eggplant poached with sake and miso underneath and a yuzu-butter sauce and ebi oil for the hint of sweetness and rich umami flavor. I personally thought the fish was a tad bit too fatty for this combination, and the scales were bit too tough – perhaps a longer marinate with vinegar to soften would have helped. Other than that, I did enjoy the dish especially the slightly sweet sauce which helped to balance the fatty taste. 

The second main course was perhaps the more predictable one but equally outstanding. Piece of Kumamoto wagyu ribeye was quick seared and served with shiitake and shishito peppers, both done on the grill. The last savory course was a carry-over from the Haku days, with the soupy Caldoso rice served with thin slices of abalone and bits of chorizo in a rustic Japanese earthenware casserole. This is always comforting and I like the nice spicy kick with the chorizo and the soup base. 

We finished with two desserts – one small bowl of ume (plum) espuma with whisky agar, nectarine and tonka cream, and then a piece of wagashi with dark chocolate mousse and passionfruit caramel wrapped in a thick mochi skin in the shape of flower petals. I like the surprising factor of that rich and bold dark chocolate taste inside what looked to be a traditional Japanese-style sweet. 

The front-of-the-house team passed us a few glasses to pair with the dishes, beginning with a nice champagne which was perfect for the starter dishes. The syrah blend from a well-regarded Australian winemaker worked well with the wagyu beef with its gripping acidity and plenty of red fruit on the palate. Interesting ending with a dry sherry for the chocolate wagashi, adding a hint of minerality and savory notes to the sweet dish. Can't wait to go back for dinner some time when we were allowed to eat out at night again. 

When? July 18 2020
Where? Ando, 1/F, Somptueux Central, 52 Wellington Street, Central, Hong Kong
Menu Highlights? Five Raw Seafood Selection
Champagne Doyard Vendemiaire Blanc de Blancs Premier Cru Brut NV
2017 Cobaw Ridge "L'Altra" Syrah-Lagrein, Victoria, Australia
2018 A.R. Valdespino Manzanilla En Rama Deliciosa Saca de Primavera

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