The 2018 edition of the Hong Kong and Macau Michelin Guide was recently published. Like the SCMP’s restaurant critics, the eponymous guide remains belligerently shackled to pre-handover expectations of what five-star (or should that be three-star) dinning should entail.
This year’s edition showed little recognition of, or appreciation for, the more exciting restaurant openings of the year. Preferring to copy and paste lifeless summaries of the restaurants that have become a mainstay of Hong Kong’s outmoded dining scene.
One such mainstay is Amber, now entering its tenth year as a two-star establishment. Amber has all the traits that cause Michelin inspectors to involuntarily dribble oyster velouté all over their corduroy trousers; a French menu, a symbiotic five-star hotel location and a wine menu with the breadth and burden of a tyre. Moreover, Amber is very, very expensive.
But there are occasions that deserve the mortgaging of one’s house for a meal at the world’s 24th best restaurant (as certified by the more progressive San Pellegrino list). Five years of marriage is one such occasion. So, Mrs. A and I made a reservation and agreed never to speak of the price ever again. With complete disregard for our unborn daughter’s college fund, we opted for the nine-course degustation menu.
As is standard in Asian hotel restaurants, Amber’s décor is gold, verging on gauche. However, the expansive layout and 4,320 bronze rod ceiling installation, provides both a sense of space and seclusion.
As you’d expect, service is attentive without being overbearing and swift without feeling hurried. No sooner had we ordered, a series of curious containers began to arrive. Richard Ekkebus’ five flavour amuse bouche opener was Noma-esk in concept and delivery. The pea tart and onion and Guinness stew both had a clarity of flavour that evoked a rarefeeling of culinary nostalgia.
For the second time this year (see my Rhonda review), a humble tomato blew me away. The starter of heirloom tomatoes had an unexpected complexity coupled with a real lightness of touch. The freshness of the blood- coloured watermelon & tomato water slashed through snow-textured solidified olive oil. While pickled rose peddles and green strawberry salad provided a heady perfumed complement to the soft bufala.
The Ebisu rock oyster was not so successful. Planktpngel, kale seawaer and lemon Jello-O’All accentuated all the less appealing aspects of an oyster. The experience was a bit too salty, briney and slimey for my tastes.
Restaurants like Amber unfortunately attract and pander to a confederacy of contemplable characters. The price point inevitably attracts patrons who favour appreciation over enjoyment. Which is to say, the perceived expense, rarity or status of ingredients is usually considered more important than their flavour. The next couple of courses are obviously designed to appeal to the small cocks and bulging wallets of this Balenciaga brigade.
A course of well-appointed foie gras was followed by a lavish trio of sea-dwellers. The minced langoustine, sea urchin and caviar did not surpass the sum of their parts. Even with the clever aeration of the langoustine, the ingredients lacked breathing space.
Despite my aversion to nouveau riche ingredients, I have to admit the Wagyu beef was the single best thing I’ve placed into my mouth this year. Eyes closed and jaw moving in slow motion, I raised a finger-up to Mrs. A, so as to enjoy each mouthful in perfect silence. I held the bovine velvet in the roof of my mouth, allowing the rich nectar to coat my palate and touch my soul. There was other stuff on the plate apart from the beef… I think it was purple.
The purple theme continued as a cherry palette cleanser provided a seamless segue into the first of the deserts, a quite beautiful rhubarb dish. The wonderfully tart sorbet provided welcome relief from the oppressive weight of the preceding courses (at this point we were both uncomfortably full and craving fresh air). That lightness was fleeting as the second desert of ‘caramelatte’ was far more cumbersome. The mandatory petite four felt like an exertion and the ‘Happy Anniversary’ cake was sweet – both literally and figuratively – but unnecessary.
Overall, our evening at Amber was one of descending enjoyment, from the playfully inventive amuse bouche, to tediously predictable salted caramel desert.
For its faults, Amber probably deserves the three-stars adoration it so craves. But this craving does result in the current experience feeling disjointed and self-aware. In as an effort to bring greater coherence, Richard Ekkebus will be closing Amber for four months later this year. The comprehensive refurb will replace the bronze chandelier with a more fashionable roof garden and the passé concept of a menu with an imposed collection of avant garde dishes. It remains to be seen whether the end result will appeal to the owners of corduroy trousers or Balenciaga sneakers.
How much? Around $8,000
Where? Landmark Mandarin Orinetal, 15 Queen’sRoad Central, Central
Who goes? Men who like to pee sitting down (i.e. Michelin inspector and factory owner’s offspring)