Amber - Central, Hong Kong

Lunch - Monday, December 19, 2011

One cannot visit Hong Kong these days without acknowledging its burgeoning Western dining scene - from the McRobuchons and established spots like Bo Innovation, to smaller scale affairs like Liberty Private Works. Although this trip was primarily focused on Cantonese and Teochew cuisine, we resolved to visit one European restaurant.

We selected Richard Ekkebus' Amber in the Landmark Mandarin Oriental based on a smashing write-up by the folks over at QLI, as well as nods from a few knowledgable friends. We were not disappointed - this was one of the best classically-inflected meal we've had in some years, and the service was absolutely phenomenal (there's definitely something to be said for Asian obsequiousness). To top it all of, the degustation menu ran only $240 each inclusive of beverages and tip (no tax in Hong Kong) - quite a bargain for food at this level.

Amuse 1 - Candied foie gras, beet, gingerbread
Beautifully glazed spheres of foie gras - unctuous decadence offset by discs of beet and crisp gingerbread.  A surprisingly rich start to the meal, but it worked well in the context of the other amuses.

Amuse 2 - Yogurt, croquette
Amazing. The yogurt was topped with balsamic tapioca pearls, olive oil gelée, and a flattened leaf of arugula. This was served alongside a pork and pickled vegetable croquette. The saltiness and grease-free crunchiness of the croquette worked so well with the tart, acidic and bitter notes from the creamy yogurt concoction.

Amuse 3 - Goat cheese, chives, apple, beet
Lobster gelée, cauliflower panna cotta, caviar
Crispy seaweed waffles, seaweed tempura
The uni was served with the crispy items on the side. I believe this is one of Amber's signature dishes (and if it's not, it certainly should be) - the decadence of the uni with intense lobster stock and caviar is a hard combination to beat. The smooth cauliflower panna cotta underneath added the depth that carried this dish to another level. Alternating bites of crunchy and creamy kept everything alive, and the seaweed flavours balanced the richer items wonderfully.

Tasmanian salmon
Avocado, horseradish, Granny Smith apples
The salmon was confited in olive oil, then smoked with apple and cherrywood. The lingering scent of smoke was great on the nose, and the fish itself was surprisingly flavourful. Although the apple in various forms (right) were a nice pairing with the fish, we didn't enjoy the avocado mousse quenelle (left) nearly as much.

Red amadai, bouillabaisse
Fennel-orange confit, grated new potatoes, Manni olive oil emulsion
Even better than the previous course. Red amadai is a relatively lean fish, but the olive oil emulsion provided the necessary fat, while augmenting the snapper's natural flavour. The best part was the fish scales, left intact on the skin and perfectly crisped, making each bite a little marvel. Hints of powdered orange and saffron rounded off the flavours.

Roasted foie gras
Granny Smith apples, boudin noir, onions, whole grain mustard, red cabbage coulis
Fregula Sarda
Parmigiano Reggiano, wild mushrooms, pearl onions
Done in the style of a risotto - very rich and creamy, while still maintaining the texture of this wonderful Sardinian pasta. Flavours were classic and expectedly umami-rich, although I would have appreciated a little more complexity.

Kagoshima A4 wagyu
'Forgotten' shallots, potato, lettuce, Sarawak pepper
The meat was oven-roasted, and a beef jus spooned over the dish table-side - delicious. On the side, a puree of caramelized shallots was so intense, but balanced by the crisp lettuce heart and a tiny amount of lime cream.

'Pot roast'
Chunks of braised wagyu short ribs, with trumpet mushrooms, corn croutons, and more of that delectable beef jus. Decadent, and in dire need of some balance, but we polished it off nonetheless.

Cheese by Bernard Antony
The cheese course was courtesy of the famed French affineur Bernard Antony. No choices were offered, and we were presented with strong (top) and mild (bottom) cheese plates, featuring many of the prototypical French cheese varieties. Every cheese we ate ranged from good to excellent, but the one true standout for me was the Mimolette - perhaps the best I've ever tried, and I suspect it was aged for longer than others I've previously consumed.

Clementine sorbet, confit zest
Florentines, 'Calisson' semifreddo
Very refreshing, especially after the richness of the previous courses. I especially enjoyed the semifreddo, styled after a Calisson de Provence - strong notes of almond and orange, but with a clearly different texture and less fruitiness than the traditional candy. Another nice touch was the dabs of sour cream on the plate that tied together the other elements.

Abinao 85% chocolate souffle, cacao sorbet
A textbook soufflé that stood proud and tall, utilizing Valrhona's Abinao dark chocolate - I haven't had a soufflé this good since L2O under Laurent Gras (and that was probably the best we've ever eaten). I will note that one of our dining companions had an incompletely mixed souffle, with threads of meringue still remaining. While I had no faults with mine, or the accompanying cacao sorbet, I wonder about serving something so substantial and monotonous at the end of a tasting menu - a few bites were more than sufficient to sate my tastebuds (although, admittedly, I ate it all anyway).

Mignardises - Calissons, coconut tarts
Lemon-mint macarons, passionfruit gelées, chocolate madeleines, coffee puffs
Overall, a terrific meal, and one which clearly demonstrates that Hong Kong is not just a place for the grand French chefs to open chain restaurants. Based on just this meal, I would hope that Amber is a serious contender for the title of best European restaurant on the island - this is a restaurant that is definitely "worth a detour", and I expect things to improve as the kitchen works on balancing out some of the heavier flavours in some of their dishes. Perhaps Amber's Spring menu will reveal a lighter touch that takes the restaurant to the next level.

The Landmark Mandarin Oriental
15 Queen's Road
Central, Hong Kong
Phone: (+852) 2132-0066