#TBT! Écriture - Hong Kong
Throwback Thursday? I'd completely forgotten to do a write up on my last meal in Asia this past month! So, #tbt, here it is!
So... I love Hong Kong.
Ok ok, maybe I loved Hong Kong a little bit more this time around, since it was a veritable oasis of order, clean air, and calm (which is saying something!) relative to mainland China, but regardless of the context, I think this very short visit solidified my absolute love of the city. It's the perfect fusion of "east and west," and is brimming with so much unique culture that results from this union. Moreover, the interesting geography and climate create a dense and compact yet "outdoor" feel to the city and its fascinating lifestyle.
After checking in at my brand spanking new hotel fairly far east on the Kowloon Peninsula and resting for a bit (and indulging on the complimentary minibar, which those scheisters made sound like a great gift but was really just a beer, a coke, and some peanuts), I made my way to the next-door ferry terminal to take me to the island. As we crossed, I was glued to the railing on the outside of the vessel looking west, treated to a distant panorama of the lights from the towering skyscrapers of Wan Chai and Central over Victoria Harbor, the weather crisp but not too cold to enjoy the night air. I felt, in this moment, a serenity (and breath of literal fresh air) I hadn't experienced on the mainland, and it was a refreshing way to end my Asia trip and simultaneously begin my night in Hong Kong.
I took a quick subway hop to Central (with people actually standing in lines and respecting my wimpy western personal space!) and emerged right in the midst of some of the famous skyscrapers of the district, an area I particularly enjoyed exploring during my last visit. My destination was on the top floor of a brand new building replete with galleries and restaurants right in the heart of Central. Coincidentally, the OTHER restaurant, Arbor, at which I was considering dining was just one floor below this one!
Écriture is a newly minted establishment (recently two star-rated by Michelin) helmed by French chef Maxime Gilbert. The tipping point in selecting between Arbor and this spot was a particular line on Chef Maxime's resumé––he was second in command at Amber, which many consider to be Hong Kong's best restaurant, and one at which I'd tried but hadn't been able to dine during my visits (was closed for renovation this time around. Weep.)
The modern and slightly edgy but elegant space is on the 26th floor of the building and offers beautiful views of the city and (apparently) the Harbor, but since I was relegated in the back corner for my lonely table for one, I didn't get to see much of what was going on at the windows. The whole theme of this place, at least in terms of the food, is application of master French cooking techniques to the absolute best and most beautiful manifestation of an ingredient, often an ingredient from Japan. The name of the restaurant translates to "writing" in French, and the entire menu is meant to evolve as a sort of "calligraphy." In fact, their menus for lunch are called "Calligraphy," while their evening tasting menu is called "Library of Flavors," both obvious nods to literature and writing.
When I exited the elevator, I was greeted by a large floor-to-ceiling and wall-to-wall bookshelf, prominently featuring autographed cookbooks and art books from Chef Maxime's personal collection. Later in the meal, since I was dining alone and must have looked "bored," I was offered a selection of these books, and asked for some modern art coffee-table type books to peruse between courses.
I was pretty concerned by how haphazard the first 40 or so minutes of the meal were in terms of service. I wasn't sure who to ask what, and the "waiter" I was supposedly assigned was SO FRENCH in all the ways you can imagine (read: aggressively hospitable but with the stank of subtle judgment, and the accent to match). The sommelier, who ended up being my primary contact throughout the meal, was also French, but absolutely nerdy and adorable, and with an even thicker accent that I sometimes had a hard time deciphering, and despite my feeble efforts to converse with him in some light French, he insistently (and mercifully) pushed forward with English. Hélas!
I regret thoroughly now the fact that I waited over a month to post this, because my memory is abysmal and the menu at Écriture simply offers a description (or more like "definition") of the primary ingredient without saying much else about what accompanies it. Additionally, I had apparently given up on my handy but cumbersome little notebook by this point in the trip. So, I will do my level best to remember!
I started with a little fritter of some kind, I believe with potato, topped with a small dollop of caviar. A few more bites came out, and I wish I could remember all of them, but I do remember the kombu "oreo" and the "chip" that looks like baked cheese from Whole Foods that was actually a chip of dehydrated fish and seaweed that they called "fish and chips," which sounded nasty but was delicious. The best thing, though, was the insane bread and butter, which I devoured alarmingly quickly.
The first course was uni, which frequent readers will know is my FAVORITE thing, and this urchin, from Hokkaido, Japan (my favorite source for sea urchin) was served with a sort of purée of sweet corn, root veggie, and some seaweed. Really tasty, with the sweet (very sweet!) corn complimenting the creamy-sweet salinity of the urchin. I had a really hard time getting any cogent description of the dish from the staff, which was really baffling to me, but finally received what I wanted, only to have subsequently forgotten. Well done, Steven. I do know, however, that alongside was served an oyster with some pickled seaweed, which was nice and refreshing after the rich sweet corn and creamy uni.
At this point, I hadn't been served wine, despite ordering the pairing, and I was concerned, and thirsty, so I asked the som, who muttered in French and rushed over, apologizing, with a glass of the wine for the previous (uni) course, a tasty but somewhat understated chenin blanc from Saumur in the Loire that I am sure I would have enjoyed more with the paired course. I am almost certain I was supposed to get a glass of Champagne to start my pairing, but the waitstaff brushed it off rather than fixing any mistake, and I was too much of a coward to ask (go figure!)
Shortly after, the real fireworks would start, at least in terms of wine pairings. The som poured a 2007 François Villard "Des Poncins" Condrieu (viognier) with partial skin contact fermentation. This was a knockout––I love viognier, particularly Condrieu, and the skin contact gave the wine the slight tannic heft and body I like from an "orange" wine while still maintaining the beautifully aromatic, floral, and bright fruit I expect in a viognier, with a lower acidity classic of the AOC.
This was served with one of the signature dishes of the restaurant, which is a beignet of sliced scallop wrapped in nori (seaweed) and layered with black truffle. The fritter was finished tableside (a common theme throughout the meal) to reveal the layers inside, and a purée of celery root was served alongside a foam that was distilled from the scallop's trimmings. I loved the celery root and foam, and the scallop was delicious, with the heft of the truffle and slight brine of the seaweed, but the frying overwhelmed a lot of the delicate flavor here, as frying tends to do, and I found myself a bit underwhelmed by this course and consequently generally pushing in the direction of viewing this as a disappointing meal.
Fortunately, the wine was still on track, despite my difficulty understanding the very French sommelier speaking Japanese words for an English-speaking guest, in his description of the lovely junmai daiginjo sake that was to follow. And even more fortunately, the next course blew me away, and was presented, again, tableside, with the waitstaff placing a beautiful piece kinki (a kind of Japanese fish that was described as the "most prized fish in the sea") to be poached in sake and served with a shellfish broth. This was simple and magnificent, the fish beautifully prepared and the silky broth providing a clam chowder-esque essence, and the sake offering some subtle tropical fruit as a foil. Finally, on the right track!
The som struck again with an infant of a 2017 cuvée of pinot from the Côte d'Or (Burgundy) from Fanny Sabre. This wine is made completely organically and naturally, without filtering, which lends it a vibrant red yet foggy color. It was bursting with bright red fruit and slight tang, but still with the lasting silk of a Burgundian Pinot. And who can resist that awesome, cheeky (literally?) label? I was beginning to hope that mister cute French sommelier was, in fact, the director of the wine program, so I could, ya know, marry him.
I stuck with the included shiitake mushroom dish as my next course despite the possibility for a truffle dish with an upcharge, and was presented a lovely plate of three shiitake caps in a mushroom dashi and topped with what I think was some sort of cheese, and served alongside thin slices of kohlrabi. What I loved most about this dish is how the earthy mushroom brought out a similar note in the wine, which is one of my favorite elements of many cool climate pinots that was otherwise missing in isolation from this particular bottle. I did look longingly at the Alba truffle being shaved at the table next to me, but didn't need to fork over the extra money to replace an already delicious course.
Praise the lord, Barolo was next, a Cannubi "Riserva" from 2011. I have talked up Barolo before on this blog, and it is DESERVED, but for extra explanation, Barolo comes from the Piedmont region in northwestern Italy, and is made from Nebbiolo, and Italian red varietal. Like in France, Barolo is a specific appellation, so wines are names by place rather than grape, and Barolo along with Barbaresco are considered the two best regions for Nebbiolo. This Barolo had just enough age to mellow out the tannic Nebbiolo, and I was struck by how brazen the berry fruit came off on the palate, reminding me more of a jammier wine like a syrah or zinfandel than Nebbiolo. Delicious, though!
Lamb was next. This stunning cut of lamb from France was delivered to my table atop some sort of preparation of "local vegetables." The server garnished with a lamb jus and shaved some Perigord truffle on top. This was easily the best lamb I've had. It was tender without being overly fatty, with tons of flavor without being over-the-top or complicated. Just a beautiful, simple dish with an incredible ingredient and expertly executed. Magnificent. And with the Barolo...! The cheek of the lamb was served alongside.
I was very happy that things seemed to have turned around at this place, and was admittedly a little disappointed that the savory courses were over, despite my very nagging fatigue that told me it was time to eat dessert as quickly as possible and then get back to the hotel to pass out. Sadly, the fatigue didn't get much better––quite the opposite––and I found myself anxious for my chance to leave, which I really hate when dining at a restaurant like this, but those Circadian rhythms are powerful!
Dessert, however, was not too lengthy and was quite delicious. My pairing was a sweeter expression of pinot gris (or pinot grigio, as most Americans best know it, "gris" or "grigio" meaning "grey") from Alsace, a very interesting wine region on the border of France and Germany that grows mostly varietals that are best known in Germany and Austria (Riesling, Gewurztraminer, etc.) but is also known for sparkling wine, many of which some think may begin to rival Champagne, and even more varietals are being explored in the appellation. This wine had a honeyed sweetness to it with a balancing acidity and a slight hit of oxidation on the back end of the palate.
I prefer fruit to chocolate in my desserts, so I was partial to the first dessert, which consisted of strawberries, sake gelée, and sorbet, and I wish I could remember what flavor it was! Meyer lemon maybe...? The second dessert was tasty as well, which was chocolate ganache and chestnut.
I have to take issue, however, with two things here––the first, and most obvious, is the silly field of electrons in chocolaty orbits around the ganache nucleus. But I also have to express a bit of a tipping point frustration about the inclusion of flakes of gold leaf on food. Why do restaurants do this, and what type of person, besides Steve Mnuchin's wife, is truly and genuinely impressed by an ingredient which literally does nothing to the flavor but just makes them feel like they're fancy? Does it make the restaurant feel like they're more worthy of being fancy; are they compensating for something, like the terrible-looking atom I had in front of me? Lipstick on a pig. I have never understood. Ok rant over.
The dessert was actually delicious despite it looking like Saturn had begun to lose its marbles.
I was instructed to remove the bonsai tree from atop the book on my table and open said book, only to reveal a beautiful chocolate ganache tart. Alongside this, they brought a personal-sized King's Cake, a treat best known in New Orleans on Mardi Gras, and told me to find the toy baked inside and that it was good luck if I did. I imagine this description is for competitive dining of two or more people, since I would inevitably find the toy by myself, but I digress. The cake was SO GOOD and I wish I hadn't been too full to eat it all, and I wound up finding the toy in the first bite (extra good luck??). The last component was a honeydew melon arranged in a pattern that resembled crooked teeth, which was tasty and juicy but at the end of the day was just honeydew melon arranged in a pattern that resembled crooked teeth.
I really am disappointed with myself for letting my fatigue get the better of me at a place like this. Bottom line, however, is the latter half of this meal was magnificent. The first half was somewhat disappointing, mostly because of the apparent web of responsibilities of the various servers which often overlapped and also often left major holes, but also because of a miss of a beignet dish and some missing wine pairings.
I am so happy it turned around, however, especially because I was SO impressed with the wine program! They are serving some really unique and magical stuff alongside the food here, and I really hope it's the cute som that's making those decisions, because I will hunt his French ass down and make him marry me and pour this magnificent stuff for me as we grow old. *dreams*