Amber (2 Michelin stars, World’s 50 Best No.24, Asia’s 50 Best No.3)
Add: 7/F The Landmark Mandarin Oriental, 15 Queen’s Road, Central, Hong Kong
Tel: +852 2132 0066
Hours: [breakfast] 7:00-10:30; [lunch] 12:00-14:30; [dinner] 18:30-22:30
Price: [dinner tasting menu] HKD2,698 / 10-course (+10% service charge)
Visited: November 2017
Will return: Definitely
It started with the sweet, delicate sea urchin espuma, so ineffably airy that its texture resembled a soufflé. Then came the minced langoustine in a dense cloak of gelatinous richness. A tickle of bright green apple and a jolt of briny caviar accentuated the mellow layers of soft creaminess and gentle sweetness. Every element was thrillingly pure, a story of life inherent in each that flowed and morphed like quicksilver, echoing against each other like a string quartet.
Langoustine, aka uni, Schrenki caviar, poached jicama, kabu, Granny Smith
The stage for this quartet was Amber, one of the most celebrated restaurants in Hong Kong – and indeed in Asia and around the world, if the Michelin guide and the 50 Best lists are anything to go by. Chef Richard Ekkebus has been mesmerizing diners with his compositions since 2005, using carefully-sourced ingredients and weaving Asian sensibilities through French techniques.
It is perhaps no accident that more than one person told me the langoustine felt like Amber’s new signature, after the departure of their much lauded sea urchin and cauliflower number in 2016. When Mr. Ekkebus announced that he was taking the acclaimed creation off the menu, many a fine-dining lover bemoaned the loss of this decade-old signature.
Not that Amber’s menu needed a signature dish. Every part of my ten-course tasting menu was so consistently meticulous, and came together with such poise and balance, that the dinner as a whole was much greater than the sum of its parts. Each dish was a candle leading me deeper into the forest, so that by the end of the evening, I ended up at the heart of what Amber was about.
But if there were a signature dish, the langoustine would make a stunningly fitting specimen, because it encapsulated everything that was wonderful about Amber’s food. The ingredients shone each in their own right, and united in eloquent harmony. Flavors revealed themselves layer by layer in their expressive and quietly theatrical way.
The sense of understated theater was underpinned by the dining room, tastefully clad in a spectrum of amber, a range of muted tones of the restaurant’s namesake color. The dramatic chandelier captured our attention as soon as we walked in, an endless flow of 4,320 bronze rods suspended overhead. Tables were scattered sparingly around the room, each enshrouded in a halo of light between which servers glided in near silence, setting down plates in fluid synchronization and speaking in soft murmurs. The room moved like a well-rehearsed ballet where everyone knew their part down to the t.
That quiet purpose defined much of the food, too, right from the first servings of amuse-bouche. Each of the five bites were meant to stimulate the palate with one of the five basic tastes – saltiness from sea grapes perked on a snowball of sea water, sourness from lemon meringue filled with lemon gel, bitterness of a globe of beer-stewed onions on toasted cereal, sweetness of a pea tartlet laced with Hokkaido milk, and umami of a seaweed-flecked chawanmushi livened up with tomato purée.
Salt – seawater, sea grapes
Sour – lemon meringue, lemon jelly
Bitter – beer-stewed onion, toasted cereal
Sweet – pea tart with Hokkaido milk
Umami – chawanmushi, seaweed, tomato purée, seaweed cracker
Everything that followed had a similarly single-minded focus, softly eloquent without waving for my attention. A Ronce oyster, gently steamed for 3 minutes at 70 degrees until it coagulated to a seductively creamy consistency, tasted improbably clean beneath a layer of plankton jelly. The briny freshness lingered on and on, tinged with a dab of lemon brightness and a flicker of bitterness from petals of mustard cress blossom.
David Hervé “Ronce” oyster, plankton gel, kale, seawater, lemon jell-O
A globe of foie gras fondant was glazed in its own consommé, taking on a mysterious, pearlescent black sheen, and then layered with bright truffle coulis, tangy chestnut purée, and a sweet wafer of celeriac. New layers of flavors kept unveiling themselves, a string of little thrills up my spine that never ceased to excite.
Duck foie gras, black truffle, celeriac, chestnut, walnut sourdough
These dishes spoke of confidence in the kitchen, unassuming yet self-assured, as well as a clear vision of what each dish was meant to evoke. But to achieve that vision with such precision also evidenced a keen sense for knowing exactly what a dish needed.
Pearls of caviar were covered with just enough crème fraîche to underscore their briny depth. The tart shell underneath looked too fragile to withstand the burden of 20 grams of caviar, but it managed to hold itself together for precisely as long as it took me to lift it from the plate to my mouth.
Schrenki-Dauricus caviar, leek, crème fraîche, feuille de brick
A sweet fillet of confit turbot was grounded by flakes of hazelnut and a lavishly concentrated black truffle coulis. The comforting depth was then sharpened with some pickled mushrooms, while a shard of crispy “beard” provided texture.
Line caught turbot, crispy “beard”, black truffle coulis, hazelnuts, girolles, pickled mushrooms
Mr. Ekkebus also displayed a knack for knowing what a dish didn’t need, and when to let ingredients speak for themselves. White Alba truffle was shaved over velvety potato foam, confit egg yolk, wild mushrooms laced with chicken jus, a scattering of crispy chicken skin, and a twinkling of chives. Not a single component was redundant, all of them converging into a smooth, earthy backdrop against which the white truffle swirled in ethereal wisps. Everything about this dish tasted so right that I almost wondered why white truffle would be served any other way.
White Alba truffles, wild mushrooms, confit egg yolk, potato foam, chicken jus, crispy chicken skin
Wagyu beef, especially a wonderful breed like the Miyazaki that Amber is famous for, doesn’t need much to impress. The kitchen seemed well aware of this point, searing the beef to crusty, melting perfection, and giving it just enough accompaniment – crunchy radicchio for freshness, pickled onions for acidity, and braised cabbage for a whisper of bitterness – to balance the fat and bring out the rounded richness.
Miyazaki Wagyu strip loin, dried red onion, seaweed powder, red pearl onions, plum, Shiraz reduction
Most of the dishes spoke with gentle, feminine sensibility, but a plate of Cantabrian octopus stood out in a rare burst of masculinity, grilled over charcoal until the surface took on a fierce char and the smoke insinuated itself into every crevice. But the blistered surface belied the achingly tender center, its soft sweetness jolted with a bolt of tangy fermented pepper.
Cantabrian octopus, fermented pepper coulis, pearl onions
A layered creation of pumpkin mousse, coconut foam, and nutmeg lemon sorbet was charged with the transition from savory to sweet. I understood this point conceptually, but on the tongue it didn’t quite compute. More illuminating were the figs, poached in a juice of black berries and served with a gently grassy purple shiso sorbet, and the decadent caramel and chocolate number sharpened by wildly acidic droplets of kalamansi gel.
Kabocha pumpkin, coconut foam, Menton lemon and nutmeg sorbet, pumpkin seeds, “fleur de sel”
Solliès figs, blackberry juice, purple shiso sorbet
Caramelized milk chocolate, cacao sorbet, praline, almonds, kalamansi
As I nibbled on petit-fours, I found my thoughts wandering back over and over to one word – economy. Not economy as in “the US economy” – that would be a strangely somber thought to end a dinner with – but in the sense of economizing and restraint. Looking at the dining room with all its careful luxuries perched six floors above Central, economy might be a difficult outfit to imagine Amber wearing. But if any restaurant knows what that word means when it comes to deciding what goes onto the plate and what stays off, it’s Amber.