Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Mandarin Grill + Bar (Hong Kong)

January 2016

Mandarin Oriental Hotel, 5 Connaught Road Central, Hong Kong SAR
Tel: +852 2825 4004

Hong Kong is one of those places that we go to several times a year, and we often find ourselves staying at our favourite hotel in the city, the Mandarin Oriental. However, it was only in the past year that we discovered Mandarin Grill. Not that we didn't know that it existed, but only that it never struck us as a place which would serve food better than the usual hotel restaurant fare. But as they say, better late than never, and during the past few meals here, it has slowly becoming a favourite of ours.

For starters, the word "Grill" in its name is a misnomer. For the longest time, we mistook the restaurant for a steakhouse, and though the interior does remind us of a modern take of a quintessential New York steakhouse, the cuisine here is modern European if nothing else. The open kitchen and oyster bar counter speaks of the restaurant's contemporary outlook, and its high ceiling and warm lighting makes it a very comfortable dining room for both business and leisure dining.

For a recent dinner, the menu options consisted of a tasting menu and an a la carte option for two or three courses. The a la carte looked more interesting so that was what we went with. The amuse bouche was quite interesting; a globular olive (similar to that of Tickets) with a small olive plant as a prop, a charcoal breadstick with edible leaves and a truffle sabayon which were delicious. The tipple for the evening was a glass of Ruinart blanc de blanc and a bottle of 2010 Moray St Denis 1er Cru "Clos Sorbe" David Duband.

The entree was an opulent Salmon & caviar (organic, Scottish, home smoked, cedar wood, king crab, bagel, egg). The salmon was brought out in a charcoal smoker and served on the plate, allowing us to experience the rich smoke used to prepare the fish. Perhaps it lacked the finesse of the unparalleled version at Amber, but this was very good nonetheless. The accompanying caviar on a bed of king crab meat was quite sublime as well.

The main course of Beef (Japanese, Miyazaki, tenderloin, smoked paprika, spring vegetables) was a larger portion than we expected. Two large slabs of heavily marbled wagyu beef were lighted breaded, and though accompanied by a bone marrow sauce, were so flavourful that they didn't require any of the sauce.

The desserts were the very competent Mango (Japanese, mille feuille, chocolate) and Salted caramel souffle), and the very enjoyable dinner ended off with some rich chocolate truffles. In all, this was a highly satisfying meal with good ingredients cooked perfectly without being too pretentious, with discreet and intuitive service, although at a rather steep price tag compared to other fine dining restaurants in Hong Kong.

We particularly enjoy lunch at Mandarin Grill for a variety of reasons. Firstly, it is highly convenient for a single diner looking for a quick meal without prior reservations; the bar counter is a comfortable option which is almost always available during lunch time. Also, the lunch menu has typically been very good (arguably more interesting than the dinner menu) and the dishes have always been well curated. In addition, there is the option to simply have a glass of champagne with freshly shucked oysters.

One of our favourites was the Chicken (wings, truffle, gnocchi, jus). It was a innovative dish with a rich and thick black truffle sauce which was simply plate-licking good. The Tart (heirloom tomato, basil, homemade goat cheese) was also very special and was a good light entree.

The Pork (dingley dell, belly, cider, cavolo nero, mash) was a very competent dish and the Lobster (Canadian, morel, peas, broad beams, asparagus herbs, gnocchi) was an excellent and very satisfying ragout-style dish.

The desserts were no slouch either. The Mille feuille (strawberry, vanilla, pastry cream) was a very classic French dessert and the Apple (shortbread, cream, sorbet) was a lighter and more refreshing alternative.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Bo Innovation (Hong Kong)

January 2016

Shop 13, 2nd Floor, J Residence, 60 Johnston Road, Wanchai Hong Kong

Tel: +852 2850 8371

Alvin Leung, the self-acclaimed 'Demon Chef', splits opinion like no other in Hong Kong. The current holder of three Michelin stars, which puts him in the echelon of culinary royalty, his so-called 'X-treme Chinese Cuisine' seeks to use molecular gastronomy techniques on classic Chinese food to produce ultra-modern dining experiences in a highly demanding dining crowd in Hong Kong. We first ate at Bo Innovation back in 2008 when it first came into prominence. At that time, the restaurant had one star, then the following year it controversially received two stars, after which it lost the second star. Now it has three stars, and we were very curious to see if the very mixed dining experience we had all those years ago would be repeated in what we expected to be a much more mature restaurant by now.

Getting to the restaurant was a very tricky endeavour. Our taxi dropped us off at the stated address (i.e. 60 Johnston Road), only for us to struggle to find the entrance. As it turned out, it was along a side road called Ship Street. It was raining quite heavily that day (in the winter), so this made us quite miserable. It didn't help that after taking the lift to the second level, the short 10 metre walk from the lift to the restaurant wasn't sheltered so we got wet walking into the restaurant. This was very unacceptable to us for a three starred restaurant. What's so difficult building a shelter for the walkway? Or if not where were the service staff with umbrellas to receive the guests? Walking into the restaurant dripping wet wasn't the way we wanted to start our meal, and the nonchalance of the staff to the well-being of their guests was unnerving.

The restaurant is in a very small room with a cozy private dining space in the corner, some counter seats and several normal tables. We were seated at a table just by the door. Because the restaurant is so small, the main door opens directly to the outside, so throughout the night whenever anyone came in and out of the restaurant, we would experience the draft of the damp and cold wind from outside onto us. To say that we were uncomfortable throughout the meal was an understatement.

Putting aside the physical discomforts, we were looking forward to the food. There were two tasting menus to choose from and we chose the lighter one which looked more interesting. First off was a fun presentation of a classic Hong Kong street snack; a Chinese waffle with chives in a paper bag which we had to rip open to get to the snack. It was tasty, but we felt that it was quite a large portion (ironically for many people who have this snack by the street side, this is an entire meal in itself).

The first few dishes were good - Scallop (Shanghainese "jolo", wobble, sugar snap puffs, avocado, lemon) and Foie gras ("Mui choy", green apple, ginger bread), although these were more accurately 'western' dishes with some garnishes which were commonly found in Chinese cuisine, and hardly Chinese food cooked in a modern style.

The Umami (toro, har mi oil, mixed noodles, "wok air" powder) was delicious with its deep and rich flavours.

The supplement of Baby food (black truffle "chian dan chee") was very enjoyable and was an egg custard with bits of ham and black truffle, reminiscent of the chicken and egg sandwich this was supposed to reflect.

The classic Molecular (cha siu bao) was in the menu again. This was brilliant; a mouthful of flavours in a bubble which accurately mirrored the taste of a steamed barbecue pork bun.

The Tomato ("pat chun" chinese vinegar, fermented Chinese olives "lam kok", marshmallow with green onion oil) was disappointing because of its overtly strong acidic flavours from which we could tell nothing about the dish.

We had the red mullet before, but in 2008 that version was poorly cooked (undercooked to be honest). This time, the fish in the Red Mullet (black garlic, black bean, yuzu, mullet roe, pepper) was cooked perfectly. However, it was a pity that the black bean sauce was too overpowering and completely overwhelmed the dish.

Another old favourite is the Mao Tai. This version was served in an ancient Chinese wine goblet and came with hawthorn, lemongrass and passionfruit. This palate cleanser was very refreshing and delicious.

The main courses were competent without overly impressing. The Pigeon (black carrot, crispy kale, sour plum pigeon jus) and Saga-gyu beef (black truffle, soy, "cheung fun") were cooked well enough but similar to the red mullet dish, were let down by the lack of subtlety of the accompanying sauces.

The dessert, the Bo Baba (chestnut, sugar cane, imo) redeemed the meal somewhat after the misses of the past few dishes, with the traditional Chinese sponge cake holding the rum in reinterpretation of the rum baba. This dish worked.

We were waiting all night for Chinese food cooked in a ultra-modern style as was advertised, but aside from the very few dishes which followed that theme somewhat (i.e. the Baby Food and the Molecular), everything else was western cuisine cooked using some Chinese ingredients which in most cases didn't add much to the dishes (except make everything more sweet and sour). Granted, the western cooking was of a high standard (for example the meats and fish were cooked precisely), but it felt that in order to shoehorn the Chinese flavours and ingredients to justify the cuisine, often the flavours of such Chinese ingredients were emphasised to the extent that they overpowered the entire dish.

Ironically, the most Chinese of their dishes was the petit fours of Eight Treasures (dried mandarin peel chocolate, dragon eye sesame roll, wolfberry wild honey jelly, chrysanthemum custard tart, walnut cookies maple syrup and osmanthus "dan san").

In conclusion, this was not a bad meal, but even in our most generous of moods, we cannot fathom how this restaurant can be so highly regarded by the Michelin Guide. It fails the basic requirements for three stars on so many levels; the poor design and set up of the restaurant, the less than impeccable service and more importantly, the inability to execute to perfection its culinary identity.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Fook Lam Moon: revisited Jan 16 (Hong Kong)

January 2016

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

Update: In the 2017 Michelin Guide, Fook Lam Moon lost its one Michelin star.

Fook Lam Moon remains one of our favourite Hong Kong Cantonese restaurants, especially for a relaxing weekend dim sum brunch. As was the case in our earlier visits here (see earlier writeup), we were very impressed not only with the food but also the service levels.

For lunch, we ordered our usual favourites, the crispy chicken and char siew pork, as well as the dim sum staples; the siew mai, the meat balls and the steam pork buns. Dessert was the egg yolk custard buns. Nothing much to write about this rather standard dim sum lunch, except that the food was excellent as expected.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Lung King Heen (Hong Kong)

January 2016

4th Floor, Four Seasons Hotel, 8 Finance Street, Hong Kong SAR
Tel: +852 3196 8888

Lung King Heen is probably the first Chinese/Cantonese restaurant to have received three Michelin Stars, in fact it has held that distinction since the entry of the Michelin Guide in Hong Kong in 2008. Since then, there has been countless debate on the criteria on which Chinese restaurants are graded to be awarded Michelin stars and whether it is even appropriate to subject what is essentially a communal dining experience to comparison with the traditional European fine dining model. Some of the best Chinese restaurants in the world have been known for brusque and inattentive service, an atmosphere so loud and rowdy that it is difficult to hear oneself think, a non-existent wine list much less a qualified sommelier, and no concept of individual plating of food. Contrast this with what has been accepted to be uncompromisable requirements for a two or three Michelin starred restaurant, i.e. highly customised service, posh and elegant dining environment, curated wine list and professional sommelier and deliberate individualised plating of food for each diner.

However, with the recent phenomenon of culinary tourism and the growth of the Michelin Guide's global reach as well as that of other restaurant ranking organisations (like the San Pellegrino List), there has been a convergence by top and aspiring restaurants around the world into a acceptable common dining standard, perhaps so that it will be easier to rate and rank them among themselves. This has resulted in many of the premium Chinese restaurants subtly changing the way they provide the fine dining experience, for example, many have invested in improving their knowledge and inventory of fine wines, changed their ambience to suit smaller dining groups who prefer a more intimate atmosphere, prepared cuisine more suitable to individual plating and above all, sharpened service standards. And amongst all the Chinese restaurants we have dined at over the past decade or so, no one has done this better than Lung King Heen.

Set in a prime location on the fourth floor of the luxurious Four Seasons Hotel, it has spectacular views of the iconic Hong Kong Harbour (which probably explains why the restaurant had such a muted ambience which was unusual for a Chinese restaurant in Hong Kong; diners were too distracted by the view to engage in their usual conversations). We were given a cozy table with a window view, and presented by a choice of champagne as a aperitif. Service throughout the night was first rate, and the wine list was well crafted as well, from which we picked a 2012 Morey St-Denis 1er Cru which turned out to be a perfect match for our meal. All these, though unusual for a Chinese restaurant, was certainly standard fare at a three Michelin star establishment. Unfortunately, that was also true of the price of the dinner; the tasting menu cost about as much as that of a three star French restaurant in Paris.

Price aside, we thought the food was really very good. After the amuse bouche of Deep Fried Beef Wonton, the dishes were served sequentially with a good rhythm. This was Cantonese cuisine at its most refined. For example, the Barbecued Pork with Honey was quite spectacular, as it was incredibly succulent. The Barbecued Suckling Pig was also superb, with the skin roasted to such a precise crisp.

The soups (Superior Pottage with Shredded Chicken and the Hot and Sour Tofu Soup with Shrimp Wontons), a Cantonese staple, were predictably excellent as well.

The Wok-fried Prawns with Organic Black Garlic and Dried Chilli and most notably the Wok-Fried Australian Wagyu Beef with Spring Onion, Garlic and Black Pepper were also flawlessly executed. And the meal ended with the Lung King Heen Lobster Fried Rice with SeafoodSweetened Almond Cream with Egg White and Baked Peanut Puffs with Sesame. With the exception of the Baked Peanut Puffs which we thought was ordinary, every other dish was sublime.

Food aside, the whole experience was more akin to dining at a fine dining French restaurant than a Cantonese restaurant. On that basis, we understood how Lung King Heen could have been awarded, and has since maintained, its three Michelin stars.