Monday, July 30, 2012

Caprice: revisited Jul 12 (Hong Kong)

July 2012

6F, Four Seasons Hotel, 8 Finance Street, Central
Hong Kong
Tel: +852 3196 8860

Update: Caprice lost one Michelin star in 2014 and is currently a two Michelin star restaurant.

The last time we were at the three Michelin-starred Caprice for dinner, we didn't really have much of an appetite and I was, that night, constantly distracted by work calls which required me to leave the dining room to take calls frequently (see earlier review: Caprice). Despite that, we had a very good meal here and wanted to come back to try to have a proper uninterrupted dinner here for once. Similar to last time, we were given a really nice table by the window overlooking Hong Kong harbor and Kowloon. The iconic ICC building on the Kowloon side had constantly changing colored lights as its skin which kept us entertained for much of the evening. It was a Sunday night but despite that, the restaurant was well patronized.

We opted for the degustation menu this time round (as we were feeling sufficiently hungry despite having the Amber Sunday Wine Lunch earlier that day). From the wine list, we picked a Morey-St-Denis which was surprisingly well-rounded and mature. We were served some gourgeres which were more like caneles with their springy and chewy texture.

Veal Tartare Cannelloni, Marinated Vegetables and Caviar Imperial de France: The veal was excellent, although the caviar was overpowered by the raw meat and hence did not have the impact it was intended to have. We are generally not big fans of pairing caviar with red meat as the briny taste of both usually clash.

Tourteau Crab Tiramisu, Fruity Marinate and Tandoori Spices: Because of my allergy to beef (and by extension veal, although sometimes I make exceptions and suffer the consequences later), I requested to change the first course in the menu from the veal to this crab tiramisu. It was an inspired decision on my part as this was absolutely incredible. The crab meat was sweet, was topped off with a creamy foam and accompanied by a variety of fruits and fruit purees which brought both sweetness and tanginess to the dish.

Brittany Lobster, Lemon Tarragon Mousse, Shellfish and Tomato Jelly: Generous chunks of lobster were perfectly matched with a light shellfish and tomato emulsion (not sure where the jelly was - perhaps it was a thin film at the bottom). It was a very well executed and an excellent dish.

Watercress Veloute, Frogs' Legs and Onion Confit Bruschetta: Another dish which we loved. The watercress veloute was unique and the frogs' legs were juicy and succulent. Unusually, the onion confit was a flat disc sitting below the bread, which we didn't see till we picked the bread up, and it looked like it was put there to keep the bread from sliding around the plate.

Wild Sea Bream, Trumpet Zucchini, Nicoise Black Olives and Sea Urchin: The fish was cooked immaculately, being nicely charred on the outside and soft and juicy on the inside. Each of the ingredients wasn't very special on its own (in particular the sea urchin, which was cooked), though when eaten together, the myriad of flavours came together wonderfully in the mouth.

Stuffed Lamb Rack with Fennel, Sweetbread and Chanterelle Mushrooms: The sweetbread was wonderful and the chanterelle mushrooms were a favourite, but the lamb, though classically and well cooked, was rather boring. This resulted in the dish being slightly unbalanced as the sweetbread, rather than the lamb, took the headlights when it should be the other way around. That said, I'm being too critical as it was nonetheless a very good main course.

Challans Duck Fillet, Parmentier, Jardiniere Vegetables and Apple Chutney Sauce: The duck fillet was fantastic, especially with the apple chutney sauce which balanced out the otherwise gamey flavour of the bird. The parmentier was a kind of shepherd's pie served separately in a bowl, and was essentially a layer of rich and creamy mashed potatoes over shredded duck meat.

The Caprice cheese plate is acclaimed to be the best in Hong Kong (Caprice gets its cheese from Bernard Antony, a renowned cheese supplier) and it did not disappoint, especially the 48 months aged Comte which was probably one of the best we've ever tasted.

Mango Mousse Parfait and Elderflower Sorbet: An interesting and enjoyable dessert, the mango came in various forms, i.e. sliced, puree, jelly and foam. The chunky biscuit crumbs brought a nice crunch to the dish.

Jivara Chocolate, Apricot and Aromatic Thyme: An elegent dessert, the chocolate was encased in a crunchy casing sitting on a (slightly too sour) apricot square.

Mignardises were served together with coffee/tea to round of a superb meal.

Final Thoughts: We felt that our meal here was truly of three Michelin star standard. Every course was excellent and solid, the service was impeccable and the views out of the window from our table were spectacular. Yet the restaurant wasn't stuffy and dining here was a really enjoyable experience.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Amber: revisited Jul 12 (Hong Kong)

July 2012

15 Queen's Road, The Landmark Mandarin Oriental
The Landmark, Central, Hong Kong
Tel: +852 2132 0066

It's been a while since our last lunch at Amber, and after our last dinner at the 2 Michelin star Modern European restaurant a year ago (see earlier review: Amber), we decided to have a long boozy Sunday lunch and try out its wine lunch menu. The Sunday brunch crowd was quite different from that during the weekdays (when the restaurant is usually packed with businessmen in suits having expensed corporate lunches), and much of the clientele was well-heeled Hong Kongers and mainland Chinese having a nice meal with their families (including kids). The dining room was very bright with sunlight during the day (in contrast with the dark and discreet ambience during dinner) and this brought into sharp focus the beautiful installation art of brass tubes hanging off the ceiling of the restaurant.

The weekend wine lunch was a menu consisting of a choice of one starter, a middle course, a main course and three mandatory desserts accompanied by four glasses of wine chosen by the sommelier. For all that, the price was very reasonable, although in hindsight the paired wines weren't all that great (the sommelier did pour rather generously though). Amuse bouche in this case was a familiar raspberry-coated foie gras and discs of beetroot and gingerbread. It was well created and was a very delicious start to the meal.

The second amuse bouche was the ham croquette (which was also excellent) and a bowl of truffle soup, mushrooms and a pea veloute. The soup was beautifully presented and tasted as good as it looked.

Globe artichoke, cep mushrooms 'a la grecque' with sapporo barnabes bacon and summer leaves: One of the highlights of this meal at Amber was how beautifully the chef plates his food. There is clearly an emphasis on creative arrangement and placing of various food items and ingredients on each plate served. This meal was also memorable in respect of the thought put in to marry various ingredients to produce a balanced and light meal. In this dish, the vegetables were well matched in both taste and texture, but the dish was let down slightly by the overuse of balsamic which resulted in an acidic aftertaste.

'Maatjes' herring fillets, seaweed salad, creme fraiche, sherry and cevennes onion dressing: This was another pretty dish which had a light and clean taste. However, it lacked any real 'oomph' and ultimately came up a bit flat.

Tasmanian salmon confit and smoked, avocado, horseradish and granny smith apple: An Amber special (we have had this a few times here previously), the salmon was smoked perfectly and the strong sooty (meant in a good way) flavour was very apparent with each bite. It was a most unique dish and well complemented by the slightly tangy apple slices and creamy avocado puree. A word of warning for those who like their meats cooked well done: the salmon was cooked with hot smoke and not heat from a flame so the fish was very red on the inside and had the appearance and texture of being almost raw.

Grefeuille triple A lamb shoulder, braised with garden herbs, 'paimpol' coco beans, bellota ham with cuttlefish in a tomato broth: My main course was a very good piece of lamb braised just right, ad accompanied by rather large beans which were a good complement. The sauce was more tomato than cuttlefish (couldn't taste the seafood) but otherwise it was a good main course.

Duroc pork belly roasted and vintage sherry glazed, mustard new potatoes, spinach and girolle mushroom: My wife loved her nicely roasted piece of pork belly which was tender yet not that fatty, covered by a rich and classic glaze.

White peach poached in champagne and verbena ice cream: This was a refreshing dessert yet the peach in this instance wasn't ripe enough and was too sour.

Mara des bois strawberry sorbet and salad over an aged balsamic vinegar jello, cubeb pepper semi-freddo: This was an unremarkable dessert, which had more of a visual than a gastronomic impact.

Manjari 64% chocolate and port wine 'delice', bitter chocolate glaze and cherry sorbet: Another attractive looking dish which did not excite; the chocolate glaze was too sweet, the 'delice' (the jelly-like blob) was tasteless and the chocolate was quite ordinary.

Petit fours came in a container reminiscent of the one we had at Per Se in New York (except that the Per Se one contained so much petit fours that it was physically impossible to finish them). The quantity of food and wines was just right for a leisurely yet substantial Sunday brunch.

Final Thoughts: Amber continued to impress us with the highly professional service and beautiful decor, as well as the gorgeous food that they served, making them worthy of high acclaim. However, as  with the dinner we had here last year, we still felt that it was missing a spark and consistency across the courses which could make this a truly outstanding restaurant. In this meal, the middle and main courses as well as the amuse bouche were outstanding but the rest were quite ordinary. While the cooking is solid and technically sound, it is our view, some more inspiration and consistency is needed in the food in order to match up to the already sky-high standards of its service, decor and presentation. But despite all that, this is still a very classy and elegant fine dining establishment worth having a special meal at.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Lupa (Hong Kong)

July 2012

3rd Floor, LHT Tower, 31 Queen's Road Central, Hong Kong
Tel: +852 2796 6500

Lupa is one of Mario Batali's new additions to his Italian food empire. Carrying the same name as another of his restaurants in New York (of which we have heard good things and are meaning to try during our next trip there), the concept of both restaurants centers around serving traditional Italian cuisine in a casual and hip environment. Located right in Central, and in a corner building along Queen's Road Central, it is highly accessible to the bustling business and tourist crowd in the heart of Hong Kong CBD.

Truth be told, we were slightly apprehensive about our visit there, having read rather unflattering reviews about its service and having not been overly impressed by any of the Batali restaurants we have eaten at (albeit only the ones we have tried in Singapore). That said, with the notoriously hard-to-please Hong Kong dining crowd and the high regard New Yorkers seem to regard the Batali restaurants in their city, we thought it was worth giving a try.

It was a Saturday night and the restaurant was buzzing with energy. With ambience not dissimilar to a modern New York steakhouse or brasserie, loud contemporary music was played and there was loud laughter and chatter from a predominantly youngish clientele (from the wine or their attempts to try to be heard over the music, or both) in the fully packed but dimly lit dining room. This was definitely not the place for a quiet meal.

From a short but decent wine list, we selected an excellent 2006 Brunello di Montalcino by Il Poggione and settled down to pick our food from a one-page menu. This was not the usual trattoria menu but included quite a few rather eclectic and interesting dishes. The waiter was very helpful in giving us recommendations and helping us to decide on our orders.

Grilled Radicchio with Scamorza - bitter lettuce with smoked mozzarella and balsamic: Not the most visually appealing but an excellent starter. It was the ideal balance of taste and texture between the saltiness and chewiness of the cheese, the bitterness and crunch of the lettuce and the sweetness and acidity of the balsamic vinegar. It was clever, unusual and very enjoyable.

Octopus and Celery - olive oil braised octopus with celery and chili: The other starter was also pretty good. It was again a contrast between the crunchiness of the celery and the chewiness of the octopus. The very strong taste of the celery also complemented the nicely grilled octopus slices as well, although we felt that the octopus could have done with a bit more salt (as the celery slightly overpowered it)

Corzetti with Rabbit Ragu - coin-shaped pasta with rabbit, cured pork belly and sage: This was discs of pasta (it looked like unrolled spaghetti) cooked in an amazingly delectable meat stock with very tender rabbit meat and some pork belly. We really loved this, as it was simply yet very well done. The portions though were quite big and there was actually a lot of pasta in this dish (hard to tell just looking at it).

We noted that when the waiter took our pasta orders, he specifically asked us if we wanted our pasta done al dente or a bit more cooked. We thought it quite impressive that he asked. We perceive that many diners in Asia still prefer their pastas overcooked and soggy (no disrespect to them, it's ultimately a matter of preference) and as a result, a number of Italian restaurants in the region cook their pastas this way to appeal to the masses. Many an Italian chef who we know of start their early days in Asia cooking pasta the authentic Italian way but are very soon forced to change as too many guests end up sending their pastas back to the kitchen for being 'undercooked'. It was very nice of our waiter here to ask us for our preference without any presumption on his part.

Black Spaghetti with 'Nduja - spicy pork sausage with mint and almonds: Another dish which looked quite unappetising but tasted better than it looked. This dish we felt epitomised the authenticity of the Italian cuisine in this restaurant. In our experience (limited only to Northern Italy, admittedly), a lot of focus is placed on the pasta itself, i.e. its taste and texture, and sometimes the sauce or accompanying meats are there to enhance the pasta and not the other way around. In Asia, the common view is that pastas are merely the base on which sauces or the other ingredients are expressed (pretty much like how rice is regarded), resulting in a lack of appreciation of the art of making and cooking pasta. In this dish, there wasn't much of anything else; there was some minced spicy pork sausage, a hint of mint and almonds, but what this dish was really all about was the squid ink pasta cooked simply in olive oil and perfectly al dente. Admittedly this was not a dish for everyone but we found it very memorable.

Crispy Duck with Salsify and Saba - confit half duck with grape vinaigrette: This was humongous. An entire half of a duck turned up in front of me on a plate. It was terribly delicious though, and was roasted to a crisp perfectly with a nice doneness for the meat inside. No sauce was required for this dish as the duck could hold its own. As good as it was, I struggled to finish it (especially after the massive corzetti pasta I had before that), and it was a portion fit for two.

Veal Saltimbocca - pounded dutch veal with proscuitto, sage and spinach: My wife claimed that this was the best satimbocca she had ever tasted. It was tender, juicy and the parma ham draped over the veal enhanced the flavours.

Warm Cappuccino Cake - hazelnut crumble, condensed milk gelato: We never have very high expectations for desserts in Italian restaurants (unlike the French, they don't have the same flair for it and very often don't even have dedicated pastry/dessert chefs). This dessert was quite good but took a bit of work. The cake was coffee flavored and had oozing molten chocolate in it, but in order to get the cappuccino taste, it had to be eaten together with a scoop of the thick milk ice cream.

Final Thoughts: Our meal here exceeded expectations and we truly enjoyed the food and dining experience at Lupa. Service was really good (probably the best amongst the 7 restaurants we dined at during this 6 day Hong Kong trip), and everyone from the front desk to the waiters and sommelier was warm, friendly and knowledgeable. One observation though: we noticed that our waiter persistently laid out the cutlery for the next course even before and while we were still eating our current course. This happened for our main course and dessert and though it didn't really bother us very much, we found it strange.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Fook Lam Moon (Hong Kong)

July 2012

35-45 Johnston Road, Wan Chai, Hong Kong
Tel: +852 2866 0663

Being awarded a Michelin star in Hong Kong is not necessarily deemed by locals to be a mark of success for a Chinese restaurant, as it exposes the establishment to a substantial amount of scrutiny and criticism by a very picky Hong Kong dining crowd (some fair, others unjustified). Many bon vivants of the Chinese cuisine argue that the Michelin grading system is not necessary an accurate reflection of the standing of a restaurant, mainly because the Michelin guide has historically appraised a restaurant to a large degree on its food presentation, service, setting and wine selection; whereas most of the best regarded Chinese restaurants in Hong Kong (and elsewhere in the world) are commonly judged solely on the quality of its food (and often they have neither a pleasant setting, decent service nor any wine list to speak of). Though in the various revisions of the Michelin Guide in Hong Kong, the esteemed organisation seems to have made recent decisions with increasing cognizance of such peculiarities of chinese dining, nonetheless the number of stars a Chinese restaurant has achieved in Hong Kong is more often that not viewed domestically with some suspicion.

On the flip side, the rush for most if not all of the more prominent Chinese restaurants in Hong Kong to be recognized by Michelin has resulted in the general improvement in service levels, upgrading of the toilets and the effort taken by staff to communicate in languages other than Cantonese, which is big boon to tourists like ourselves.

It was in this context that we chose to eat at Fook Lam Moon; not because it has one Michelin star, but because we had heard good reviews about it from the locals. It's Hong Kong Island branch is located somewhere in the middle of Wan Chai, along a busy street, and its entrance can be easily missed if one wasn't really looking out for it. Inside (and we were shown to the third floor), the decor was reasonably modern and the staff conversant in English and Mandarin, and was very helpful assisting us with our ordering from the menu.

We ordered some of the usual dim sum favourites, like the char siew bao (roast pork bun) and the har gao (shrimp dumpling).

The har gao was noteworthy for its crunchiness and freshness of the shrimp.

We ordered a clear soup of cabbage, garlic and pork lard, which initially tasted quite bland but grew on us as we drank on. The soup ingredients were served separately on a plate.

Apparently, one of their signature dishes was their beef balls and it was indeed very good. The flavour of the herbs and the crunchiness of the spring onions in the beef balls brought a level of sophistication to this dish.

The sliced beef with kailan vegetables was also very good.

The plat du jour as recommended by many was the crispy chicken. It was probably the best crispy chicken we have had. In addition to the thin and cripsy skin (which was the easy part to make, I think), the chicken meat itself was mouthwateringly tender, juicy and tasty.

To add to the list of 'best ofs", on the strong recommendation by the waitress, we ordered the spring roll  (not typically one of my favourites). It was probably the best spring roll I have had. The outer 'skin' was light and crispy (unlike the more soggy ones I have been used to) and the filling of shrimp and vegetables was excellent.

For dessert we ordered some of the recommended desserts. The glutinous rice stuffed with red bean and the custard bun.

The custard bun was delicious and the custard was more egg yolk than anything else, resulting in its almost overbearingly rich flavours.

The glutinous rice was also very good, although the rice was so gooey it took a while for me to get it off my teeth after eating it.

Final Thoughts: Probably one of the best dim sum meals we've had in Hong Kong, this restaurant certainly lived up to its hype. Service was excellent and every dish was prepared to a very high standard.

Cepage: revisited (Hong Kong - Closed)

July 2012

23 Wing Fung Street, Wan Chai
Hong Kong
Tel: +852 2861 3130

Update: Regrettably, Cepage has closed. Its lease ended in June 2013 and there are currently no known plans by the Les Amis group to re-open something similar in Hong Kong.

Another Hong Kong trip and another customary visit to one of our favourite restaurants there. For some reason we have grown to love this rather non-descript fine dining joint at the hip edge of Wan Chai. This time we were there early enough to have a drink at the roof top bar (the last time we were there it was during winter and the wind was too cold and strong). 'Roof top' as a description though factually correct was rather ironic given that we were on the fourth floor of a row of shophouses and surrounded by tall skyscrapers. That said, chilling out in the open concrete jungle with a flute of champagne was a uniquely Hong Kong experience.

We have always felt comfortable at this one Michelin-starred restaurant (we joked that this is because Cepage is our favourite Singaporean restaurant in Hong Kong (in actual fact it is part of the Singaporean Les Amis Group)), and despite its formal setting, we have enjoyed its discreet yet warm service and ambience. So despite the fact that it cannot claim to have the best food in the city (and can be rather pricey), we have found ourselves coming here more often than any other restaurant in Hong Kong (see earlier reviews: Cepage 1, Cepage 2, Cepage 3). It certainly has one of the best wine lists here (mainly because the Les Amis Group is also a prominent wine retailer), boasting a wide selection of French wines in particular.

To accompany our dinner, we selected a Gevrey Chambertin (Vieilles Vignes, Bernard Dugat Py 1998) and a Chateauneuf-du-Pape (Les Quartz, Clos du Caillou 2003). The Burgundy was drinking beautifully but the Rhone was still quite young and tannic.

Simon Martin - "Guijuelo" Spanish Iberico ham: Cepage has never disappointed with its Spanish ham and it was no exception this time.

Amuse bouche - raw scallop wrapped with black truffles and black truffle consommé: The most memorable dish for this meal was surprisingly the amuse bouche, which was unusual in concept and presentation but utterly divine in taste. Black truffle can be quite tasteless at times (especially when compared with its more luxurious cousin, the white truffle), but this dish managed to bring out the essence of its flavour.

Le Homard - Lobster suspended in an oxtail and black truffle jelly, accented with the "Belle de Fontenay" cream: An interesting dish and one with many different contrasting yet complementary tastes. I enjoyed the first half of it but started to get bored of it thereafter. This would have been an excellent amuse bouche if served in a smaller portion.

Le Foie Gras - Pan fried foie gras with pre-summer cherries: This was a classic dish done without fuss and was excellent.

Le Veau - Veal chop from the region of Limousin, France, grilled over charcoal, served with Japanese white asparagus: We had looked forward to this for a while (having had this previously here) and we actually 'pre-booked' this days before we arrived (not that this was necessary, we just didn't want to be disappointed). The white asparagus and black truffles were a welcome addition to the dish, though we missed the pesto pasta which accompanied the veal the last time (and which was superb).

We ordered 2 portions, which was sufficient for the 4 of us. The meat was carved table-side.

Admittedly the meat was better than it looks in the photo below. I was (unfortunately for me) given the fatty bits of the veal. My friends had the nicer looking cuts.

Selection of French cheeses - Selles-sur-cher, 24 month aged Comte, Epoisses and Roquefort: We picked a few of our favourite cheeses from a good selection, but made the amateurs' mistake of eating the Epoisses first (it was so tempting, being nicely put on a spoon) and hence overpowering the goat's and hard cheeses when we ate them subsequently.

Mignardises: a marshmallow, sugared jelly and chocolate coated ice cream.

Le Mais - Trilogy of sweet corn symphony soufflé, ice cream, caramel popcorn and La Peche - White chocolate sauce and fresh Japanese mono: The peach was tangy and refreshing but otherwise unremarkable but the corn soufflé was unbelievable. It was served with an equally excellent corn ice cream and pop corn. This was a new flavour for us and we hadn't thought that corn would be such a great flavour for dessert.

Petit Fours: For the earlier diners, they had the benefit of choosing from a large tray of eclairs, but we were amongst the last diners at the end of our meal, and the four eclairs we got were probably all they had left.  Despite how full we felt at that time, these were good enough for us to further burden our stomachs.

Final Thoughts: Classical french fine dining without the stuffiness and in a relaxed yet elegant dining environment. This remains one of our go-to places in Hong Kong if we don't want to think too hard about where to eat or fail to get a reservation at one of the more popular places in town.