Friday, November 23, 2018

Amber Richard Ekkebus

Richard Ekkebus and Amber, the flagship restaurant of the luxurious Landmark Mandarin Oriental, are inseparable nowadays. Executive Chef Ekkebus has been holding this role since 2005 and under his guidance, Amber was awarded 2-star Michelin and has retained the award for a decade. What brought me to this fine restaurant serving modern French cuisine was when I had found that Amber would be temporarily closed in the Summer of 2018 for several months (it has since been postponed to operate until end of the year). The news also cited that Chef Ekkebus intended to start afresh and make it as if he would open a brand new restaurant. Before it eventually happens, Amber would possibly for the last time serving its signature dishes to the (loyal) customers. When I was in transit at Hong Kong last May, I did not waste the opportunity to return to Amber for dinner. My first meal here was lunch in 2013.

The meal began with a series of small bytes having different flavors with the aim to awaken the diners' palate. In my case, the kitchen served: Celery with black bean (salty); Lemon meringue (sour); Campari orange jelly (bitter); Jerusalem artichoke (sweet); and Egg custard with tomato compote (umami). For the more serious courses, as expected, I ordered the restaurant's "old creations"

Amber Classics Menu

Foie Gras (Duck Liver) in the form of chupa chup with beetroot & raspberry topped with crispy gingerbread & sea salt - The first "real" dish but in amuse-bouche portion. The lollipop of foie gras terrine was thick and rich but still velvety. The liver was nicely complemented by sweet & silky beetroot as well as raspberry coating - tasty and fun.

New Zealand Scampi in organic tomato & watermelon ‘nage’ with espelette chili & coriander - The big and succulent prawn was lightly torched to give a hint of smokiness. The dish was served chill with refreshing and fruity 'broth'. The addition of olive oil caviar, coriander, edible flowers etc. produce a mixture of flavors and aromas - playful and light, filled with natural oceanic taste.

Hokkaido Sea Urchin in a lobster jell-O with cauliflower, schrenki-dauricus caviar & crispy waffles - This was certainly Chef Ekkebus's most famous dish; it had a better portion of (more) caviar this time - a luxurious and scrumptious dish. Sweet and smooth uni and umami lobster jelly were in harmony with creamy cauliflower and buttery, full-body caviar. It would've been 'perfect' had the kitchen doubled the sea urchin's portion. I used the waffles as my blini by putting cauliflower and caviar on top since these were the most abundant ingredients here. Would it be the last time I savored this iconic dish?   

Kuro Awabi (Black Abalone) with a spiced chickpea compote, stewed tomatoes, crunchy celery stalk, braised pork chin & crispy pancetta - The presentation was colorful and it was more complex than your normal abalone dish. The Fukuoka Awabi, cooked sous-vide, was tender with its subtle and natural taste. Then, there were plenty of 'international' produce influencing the overall flavors: spiced chickpea (Indian), pork chin (Chinese), tomatoes & cured pork belly (Italian) - interesting though at times, these many variations distracted rather than enhanced the abalone. Pretty good and a rather unusual way to prepare an abalone 

Hakoo farm Miyazaki Wagyu beef, the Strip Loin part; dusted with dried red onion skin & dulse seaweed powder, red pearl onions with black currant in a shiraz reduction - The beef was perfectly cooked medium-rare, a bit charred on the outside, and having the right amount of buttery & melt-in-the-mouth taste. The jus + fatty A5 wagyu were balanced out by the acidity from the red cabbage and black currant shiraz as well as a little sweetness of red onions. An elegant beef course!   

Abinao 85% Chocolate Souffle with cacao sorbet - The most famous dessert (it's always been on the menu) at Amber, created by its Chef Patissier - Michael Pretet. It was rich and decadent with flawless execution. The temperature contrast of hot souffle and cold sorbet, bitter and (slightly) sweet flavor in this pure delicious chocolate finale was very comforting. This chocolate was special because of its intensity and long-lasting flavor. I would possibly order again if somehow I still see this dessert on the menu of "Amber volume 2"

The meals ended with some decent mignardises: banana & yuzu tart, ginger chocolate, carrot jelly and cucumber-apple sorbet. The service was friendly, attentive and professional under the leadership of the current manager - Yannick Kiefer. He has been around for more than 4 years and handled many things with confidence and ease. The local staffs might lack charmed, but they did the basic things right and well. Lastly, Amber was also famous for its dining room decor, designed by Adam Tihany. As the name suggested, amber shades (and something similar) dominated its interior color including the walls, carpet and chairs. The most outstanding piece, instead of big chandeliers, was thousands of golden bronze rods suspended from the ceiling. I was wondering whether Amber would keep them post renovation. To enhance the dining experience, only the best tableware was used such as the ones manufactured by Christofle, Bernadaud and Riedel.  

It was a very satisfying dinner at a solid 2-star restaurant. One would taste the ingredients exactly how they're supposed to be and more sometimes. Culinary director Richard Ekkebus often added some twist and unexpected elements yet they're not too complex. Wish him and the whole Amber team all the best with the project! My feeling that they would re-invent themselves with the hope of gaining the 3rd star one day and given the red guide book Hong Kong's standard, I think it's not impossible. Dishes' pictures could be seen here - Amber Spring '18

Food (and Wine): 94 pts

Service (and Ambiance): 94 pts

Overall: 94/100

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Nihonryori RyuGin Tokyo

Thinking back to the year of 2013 when my wife and I did our gastronomy trip to Japan, initially RyuGin was among the top choice. However, as I did deeper research somehow the choices leaned towards the more exclusive Japanese dining places that had no sister restaurants anywhere. After 5 years delay, eventually we had to opportunity to have a dinner at the famous Nihonryori RyuGin in which Seiji Yamamoto, the iconic chef-patron himself overseeing the kitchen. The Ryugin's food concept was not totally foreign to me as I visited Tenku Ryugin a few years back. Still, I kinda look forward to having the dinner. In addition, I learned that our meal would be the last Summer of Roppongi Ryugin - as of now, they already moved to a more modern location at Midtown Hibiya. 

At first, Seiji Yamamoto was recognized for his avant-garde cooking in which he was capable of integrating modern and traditional cooking techniques as well as using local and (some) foreign ingredients. Chef Hamamoto of Ki-sho Singapore told me that period had been the most fantastic time of RyuGin Tokyo. Then in early 2010's onwards, (maybe in order to gain Michelin 3rd star) Yamamoto-san decided to change the direction of his flagship restaurant by exclusively using seasonal local produce and he would showcase more dishes that were grounded towards "traditional" kaiseki tradition - his creativity thankfully could still be seen from times to times. Yamamoto-san liked updating his omakase menu monthly, so for the regulars I suppose, it's very possible not to repeat the same dishes twice.

The menu was presented in the envelope with a stamp showing how many years the restaurant has existed (14 years in our case). Without further ado, our meal was as follow:
Summer Vegetables and Grilled Sweet Corn Soup - The beginning of the meal containing hot and cold 'sensations':
-The hot item was a bowl consisting of 7-8 different kinds of vegetables such as radish, fava beans, bamboo shoots, shiitake etc. plus pine nuts dressing. A variety of flavors and textures with tangy and nutty sauce
-I liked even better was the smooth and chilled soup with concentrated flavor and balanced sweetness from the corn. A pleasant start

Kesennuma Shark Fin and Abalone served with baby corn, mountain yam and egg yolk - A luxurious appetizer showcasing the "fukahire" whose taste was, I believe, an acquired one; the more prized aspect was its gelatinous and stringy textures. In addition, there was a bouncy awabi with subtle taste. The main flavor was derived from and tied together by the chicken stock 'sauce' while nagaimo's slimy texture provided an interesting accent - opulent & good

Seasonal Tradition of RyuGin (Ichiban Dashi): Awaji Pike Eel served with Kamonasu Eggplant, Water Shield and Green Yuzu - Soup and its dashi usually were the main test for the skills of elite Japanese chefs. Here, Yamamoto-san utilized the best seasonal Hamo in the owan. The dagger-tooth pike conger's white flesh was pretty, 'bloomed' like a flower. The fish beautifully absorbed the dashi's flavor. To add more depth and in contrast to the soft Hamo, the kitchen prepared: junsai having thin taste and jelly-like texture, gooey okra, juicy & tasty kamonasu and zesty yuzu. A well-executed soup with delicious dashi as well as hamo

Grace of Ocean Delicacy in 2 plates (from the Coast of Japan)
Part 1: The sashimi item was more creative than normal one. Here we had Akagai with Bafun Uni and Kamonasu. The marinated eggplant was quite flavorful; the short spines sea urchin was rich with umami taste albeit slightly bitter and lastly the ark shell clam was tender with subtle sweetness providing different texture and flavors. A hint of slight wasabi on top did not hurt ...
Part 2: There were a few layers here: at the bottom was Tougan, followed by Kuruma Ebi and Hotate jelly on top. By itself, the Ash gourd did not have much taste; instead, it soaked the sweet flavor of Tiger prawns and refreshing Scallop jelly. It was alright

Summer Festival of Japanese Cuisine - Swimming Ayu Fish highlighted the coming of Summer season. The Sweetfish was char-grilled and simply seasoned with salt; it's served with sauce made of watermelon, vinegar and some herbs. First, savor the crunchy and sweet head, then the crisp body with slight bitterness from the guts / innards - the sauce gave an extra punch to its flavor. Sweetfish could be consumed from head to tail, including the bone. Ayu was highly prized and I enjoyed it here though it's not my favorite kind of fish

Shima-no-Hikari Somen Noodle served with Amber Beef and Onion - The Somen (the thin noodles) was almost translucent; they provided solid 'support' for the Omi beef cheeks. The aged Amber beef was braised for a few hours resulting in stringy / soft texture and sweet flavors. The onions reduced any potential cloying taste ... the only protein coming from the meat in this dinner

Charcoal Grill "Unagi Eel" - Slowly grilled Unagi (from Binchotan's flame) were prepared meticulously - perfect with smoky & aromatic; crisp on the outside and soft on the inside. Large Eel was another Summer classic. At RyuGin, we could consume the Eels with a few options: tsume sauce (dark and sweet), shio salt, and citrus sudachi. There were also wasabi, to draw out more of Unagi's flavor, as well as egg-yam as a side dish. By itself, the Unagi was already pleasant

Awaji Pike Eel Rice served with "Chrysanthemum" soup and five colors Pickles - Japanese rice was very good; the deep-fried Hamo still had tender & tasty meat at the inside. My spouse and I managed to finish the whole Pike eel rice. The Shiso leaves might be underrated but quite essential to enhance the dish with their unique taste & aroma - grassy and some spearmint + basil flavors. The miso soup contained soft tofu in the shaped of Japan's national flower. The pickles (radish, coriander etc,) were ordinary

Luscious Desserts
Part 1: Roppongi Pudding with Wasanbon sugar and ripe Mango - The pudding was smooth and sweet, combined with mild caramel ice cream and some Wasanbon sugar, supposedly the finest sugar in the nation. Plenty of sweetness in different degree with delicate textures
Part 2:
-Oyaki Souffle with Fig and Blueberry. The souffle was beautifully executed with light / feather-like texture having the right amount taste of fig and blueberry
-Yogurt ice cream and Oiri. The soft ice cream with crunch 'rice cracker' nicely complimented the souffle. Above average desserts by the standard of Japanese kaiseki restaurants

Both of us shared a small portion (1/4 bottle) of cold sake - Kokuryu Gin no 18 Junmai Daiginjo from Fukui prefecture. We enjoyed it very much. The sake was smooth, not overly rich, with elegant and distinct flavor. The wine and sake list were comprehensive for a non-French restaurant standard but as expected very pricey. RyuGin's dining room catered to serve 20+ diners at once and a few seats were used for 2 seating. The decor was simple with not-so-high ceiling and the dining room felt a bit hot in the Summer. Despite the minimal interior, one would enjoy plenty of valuable ceramic plates / china used to serve the dishes. The service was efficient and professional with relatively fast pacing - 5 min. with no food on our table almost never happened. Most staffs spoke fluent English as a few of them used to live in Canada & Australia. They were friendly and helpful but lacked of any personal touch. Thankfully the warm and amiable Seiji Yamamoto with whom I had some chats towards the end "improved" the impression of the restaurant's hospitality. 

Nihonryori RyuGin was my only Japanese kaiseki meal for this trip. Overall, I liked this meal experience with plenty of delicious and quite creative dishes though nothing truly stood out or blew my mind. Perhaps, after 3 years of not returning to Japan, this meal (temporarily) satisfied my palate and crave of a 'real' kaiseki. For comparison, my meal at Tenku Ryugin was only marginally inferior to this dinner. Seiji Yamamoto managed to keep high standards towards all of his Ryugin restaurants. That being said, I would not mind returning here especially in the late Fall or early Winter when the restaurant has some special produce and knowing that as long as the restaurant opens, it's a guarantee that the legendary Yamamoto-san would lead at the kitchen. Here are the pictures, RyuGin Tokyo Summer '18 

Food (and Wine): 95 pts

Service (and Ambiance): 93 pts

Overall: 94.5/100