Restaurant review: Amber (in which a foodie draws the line)

Some really, really classy restaurants, it says here, have banned patrons from photographing their meals. This anarchist got away with it a couple of weeks ago in the Michelin two-star Amber in the Mandarin Landmark in Central, the only establishment in China to make it into the World’s 50 Best Restaurants. The chef is Richard Ekkebus, of whom I had vaguely heard in an isn’t-he-a-tennis-player sort of way. World famous among serious foodies, it seems.

The cuisine describes itself as French, but I’m not sure an average Parisian or Lyonais citoyen would recognize any of the dishes here.

We began with this amuse bouche. If sculpture using green edible plant material were an artistic genre, it would be a masterpiece. The little discs, barely half an inch across and a few microns thick, are slices of apple. The tube beneath is made of cucumber and contains yogurt. (All ingredients are of course very special, coming from remote valleys in the Andes, etc.) The stuff next to it is guacamole, even though it looks like guacamole. Some nimble-fingered underling in the kitchen must have taken hours, and it’s gone in one bite. Nice: a lovely combination of crunchiness, creaminess and fresh, tangy tastes. I make a mental note to consider combining apple and cucumber more often – possibly with a bit of salty cheese? With a thick grainy bread?

When looking through the menu, my host – a Henry Tang wannabe devoted to the whole wine-collecting, golf-playing thing – had recommended the ‘Cauliflower velouté with taiyouran egg sabayon’ as the starter. Filtering out the mystery vocabulary, I was left with cauliflower and egg, which sounded OK. It all depended on what a taiyouran was. An egg-laying animal, obviously. But a special superior breed of chicken – or an exotic species of giant iguana? My host said it was Japanese. Imagining some sort of vegetable teppanyaki you could dip in soy sauce, I chose it.

Wrong. It looked quite like this and came in a similar giant wine-glass vessel, to be eaten with a spoon. The staff linger and talk you through dishes, and the waitress suggested that I stir this one before eating it; behind her smile was a grim urgency that said ‘you’ll regret it if you don’t’. Beneath the foamy surface was a black, tarry mucus with brown lumps. Then, delving deeper down, I saw raw egg yolk. I stirred thoroughly before devouring. It was lukewarm and sticky. Obviously, you’re supposed to get off in a big way on the mushy/crunchy textures and sweet/savoury flavours. I didn’t feel a desperate need to gag, exactly, but I certainly had a sense that I could do so at will, with little effort. It wasn’t… what’s the word I’m looking for? Enjoyable, that’s it. I’m showing my age here, perhaps, expecting food to be enjoyable.

(OK: velouté is a sauce based on chicken stock; Taiyouran is a Japanese brand of hyper-expensive eggs laid by chickens that are fed only secret magic herbs and have daily massages; sabayon – the foamy stuff – is a chic version of the Italian zabaglione, an egg-based desert.)

I was so disturbed by the above course that I didn’t have the presence of mind to snap a picture of it or the main event that came next. This looked like a glistening square of French caramel pudding with chopped shallots, beetroot, herbs and cranberries painstakingly arranged on top, and a dark sauce artistically drizzled around. It was in fact ‘Stew ravioli wild venison’. A big pasta shell containing slices of deer. Edible and tasty, even, but no improvement on a conventional arrangement of venison with pasta.

Recovering from the raw yolk-black mucus trauma, I pulled the trusty camera out to capture pudding: ‘Chestnut ice-cream, brown rum marinated raisins & pastry diplomat cream served as a deconstructed mille-feuille’. (Whaddya mean, ‘What’s diplomat cream?’) I was suspicious at first. It was magnificent visually – possibly the finest ever expressionist figurine crafted from dairy products and marron glacé. But where, or rather what, was the challenge? Was there shaved air-dried hedgehog loin scattered into the gaps left by the deconstruction of the mille-feuilles? Did chili-stuffed pickled garlic lurk within the cream as a tantalizing contrast to the soothing sweetness? Had Richard Ekkebus’s minions left delicate shards of specially imported broken glass in every mouthful?

No. As if to reward the victim diner for getting through the earlier courses, the restaurant served up something you would actually want more of.

Just as you add a pinch of sugar to offset lemon or vinegar, so Amber includes a dash of humour to ensure you’re not overcome by the earnest pretentiousness. For example, lollipops made of paté as a between-course nibble. My host, well-known to the staff, got a lot of bowing and scraping, but the heavily-accented French uber-attendant – straight out of central casting – seemed to sense I was a skeptic; as with other supernatural powers, Richard Ekkebus’s mystical gifts with food don’t always work in the presence of negative vibes. Trying a bit of telepathy with the Filipino and HK Chinese waitresses, I got the impression that deep down they were on my wavelength: why not just have a bowl of noodles?

You’re supposed to say the surroundings are amazing (it cost loads and the designer was someone really famous). One thing I noticed is that the artful ceiling radiates a gilded halo over the restaurant’s rich spectrum from amber to russet. I did – honest. One thing you get for your money here is space; the surface area of our table for two equalled the square footage of a whole Soho concept themed eatery.

Otherwise, this is the level at which this particular foodie declares that pretentiousness officially begins, thus perhaps revealing himself to be only a semi-foodie after all. Some of us can consider ‘sake in a cup that was also previously filled with smoke’ and ‘liver … paired with a hibiscus reduction’ without laughing out loud, some of us just can’t manage it. 

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16 Responses to Restaurant review: Amber (in which a foodie draws the line)

  1. You didn’t mention the price of all this decadence. Perhaps I can guess by doing a rough calculation:

    Landlord 85%
    Food 10%
    Wages and other overheads 5%

    Plus service 10%

    Plus unreasonable markup for the investors 200%

    Given the location, the landlord must get 500 an hour for the table space. Then theres is the food which look like pretty classy fresh items so there’s another 500. The wages are minimal. So you have to add double all that to satisfy the investors. So it must have come to over HK$ 3000.00.

    Wine…well anything goes. Let’s add another thousand if you stick with the vin du jour.

    I hope you did a Nury: “I cannot be bought but I can be bought lunch”.


  2. Property Developer says:

    I suspect the pressing injunction to stir in the yolk and so cook it a little from the residual heat was to avoid being sued if you caught something nasty. Even chicken nuggets have to be cooked 15 minutes these days to obey the diktats of the food safety police.

    Unable to comment directly on your gustatory experience, I will analyse the level of the translation from Chench (or Frinese?), a subject where I have considerable expertise in more than one language pair.

    It unfortunately often escapes the attention of those who wish to peter plus haut que le cul (which expression, incidentally, shows that the French are no slouches in earthy expressions) that noun conglomeration in English must start from the “wrong end”.

    Hence might “Stew ravioli wild venison” make more sense as “wild venison ravioli stew”? Just an idea…

  3. Peter Cook says:

    The worst job I ever had was trying to get the taiyouran scales out of Jane Mansfield’s arse.

  4. Big Mac says:

    Whilst on matters of a culinary bent, although at a different end of the scale, please be prepared for mayhem on Monday. McDonalds are giving away 1000 free Egg McMuffins at each branch. Now even at the best of times Hong Kong people love lining up for a freebie. But this is truly inspired marketing, because its free food and certain to bring them out in their hundreds of thousands. The potential for disputes over queue jumping, old ladies falling over or general obstruction of pavements across Hong Kong as people line up is massive. I wonder if McDonalds risk assessed this. Let’s watch with interest.

  5. Mary Hinge says:

    Looks OK, but do they do “Shake-Shake Fries”?

  6. Stephen says:

    I like a good restaurant alas in Hong Kong they are few and far between and from what I have read from you I doubt if I will be darkening Dickie Ekkebus, Amber door anytime soon. Eating pretentious bollox, masquerading as food, especially when attached with a frisky price tag and over seen by a snooty European maître-d does bring the customer from hell in me, much to the embarrassment of Mrs. Stephen.

    Perhaps (worryingly I’m agreeing with George Adams again) things are generally poor here is because so much of the price goes to feed the rent hence staff are on minimum wage, the food is at best so so and the non-taxed wine prices ludicrous.

    Is the weekend open and will we be treated to a Rugby Sevens post next week because i know how much you enjoy it?

  7. Not-so-Wealthee says:

    It takes deep pockets to truly appreciate all that pretentious Frenchified cuisine envelope pushing, masterpiece creating slop.

    I remember taking Mrs Not-so-Wealthee off to Petrus in the Shangri-la for a meal and being hit with a bill for $3,000. Not quite in the same league as this place, but considering we needed to stop at Ebeneezer’s to fill up afterwards, it was all a bit of a waste.

  8. Chef Picky says:

    “…velouté is a sauce based on chicken stock”.

    Not exactly. It’s a sauce made from any light stock – fish, chicken, veg – that has been thickened with either a liaison (liaison = “a mixture of egg yolk and cream”) or a blond roux ( = “flour and butter that have been cooked together but not browned”)

    Don’t worry, you don’t need to know any of this to order FCC curry.

  9. Foxtrotosca says:

    Not quite up to the acerbic standards of young Raymonde….
    Although I do believe he rather enjoyed Amber.

  10. Big Al says:

    I just wonder why anyone would put themselves through such an thoroughly unenjoyable experience. Really, what is the point? If only to prove how wealthly (and stupid) you are then why not get a bowl of noodles and leave a $5,000 tip. Probably cheaper and you’d enjoy it more, too!

    Personally, I just stick to beer. It’s a complete and natural food. Contains everything you need. And you don’t need to understand cutlery …

  11. Believer says:

    230,000 free egg mcmuffins coming your way with the Privacy Commissioner’s egg on today about protecting the environment, that is a big piece of data, hopefully not boiled.

  12. Big Mac says:

    If my sums are correct McDonalds are going to donate 57.5 million calories to the Hong Kong public next week.

  13. Peter says:

    I think the food is really pretty good and diverse in HK if you’re willing to go beyond pretentious Frenchified cuisine.

  14. Chimp says:

    I’m with Peter on that… there are some decent restaurants out there. Not so much on HK Island… prolly down to them grasping landlords, with one hand in the till and the other wrapped around the tenant’s bollox.

  15. “Some of us can consider ‘sake in a cup that was also previously filled with smoke’ and ‘liver … paired with a hibiscus reduction’ without laughing out loud, some of us just can’t manage it.”

    I couldn’t read it without laughing, either. It certainly reinforces rule number 1 of eating out in HK – the price and ambience are not necessarily related in any way to the quality of the food.

  16. By the way, the Youtube link doesn’t appear to be working.

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