Amber is a fossilised tree resin, it is also a colour, and in this case it is a restaurant, and a very good one at that. Located in the Landmark Mandarin hotel in Central, it sports two Michelin stars. It is also notable in that it is the highest-ranked Hong Kong restaurant on the world’s 50 best restaurants list. It came as a recommendation from a friend who works at the hotel, so I decided that I would try it out and see (mostly taste) for myself if these accolades are well deserved or not.
Chef Richard Ekkebus, a dutchman, heads up this fine establishment which for all intents and purposes I would classify as ‘modern French’ with obvious regional influences, especially with regard to ingredients. Nowhere is the more apparent than in the restaurant’s signature dish – Hokkaido sea urchin in lobster jelly, topped with caviar and crispy seaweed waffles. Sea urchin is usually quite a strong and rich food, and combining it with caviar which is also similarly rich and creamy seemed at first to be overkill, but apparently Hokkaido sea urchins are a little different, and have a much more subtle taste to them, which combined surprisingly well with the lobster jelly (seriously, who thinks of that?)
As one expects from one of the nicest hotels in Hong Kong, the decor and surrounds are extremely well thought-out complete with mood lighting and candles on all the tables. Service was excellent, and quite chatty (or maybe it was me who the chatty one) and I was able to practice a little bit of my Spanish as well as my Dutch with the front of house manager and guy who brought me the selection of bread. Sadly the lighting design made it difficult to get a lot of good photos of the food.
My other favourite course was the scallop dish – seared scallops celery root, celery leaves and a little bit of black truffle thrown on top just for good measure. The lightness of the celery contrasted with the heaviness of the truffle taste, with the juicy scallop sandwiched somewhere in the middle. Most dishes followed this general formula with light, refreshing flavours being combined with heavier, creamier flavours to complement whatever the main focus of a particular dish happened to be. Sometimes it was a juicy seared scallop, and other times it was strips of wagyu beef which seemed to melt in your mouth.
One thing that I do appreciate about these more traditional French-based restaurants is the inclusion of a cheese course. The selection of cheeses at this restaurant, as well as the extent of the wine list, were truly impressive. When the cheese trolley came around, I asked my waiter to give me a ‘selection’. This is my way of getting to sample a good spread of some of the best, in-season cheeses, and also to observe how knowledgable the staff are when it comes to picking cheese. A good cheese, with all of its creaminess and complexity of flavour is a truly wonderful thing, and I ended up with quite a varied selection (although, unusually, I was advised to eat them in the wrong order… or perhaps just a different order than I was used to). As much as I love the very strong and often sharp flavours of the blue cheeses, my favourites have always been the hard ones. Surprisingly, for a restaurant headed by a dutchman, they didn’t have any dutch hard cheese, but they did have an excellent French hard cheese.
Although not very photogenic, my other favourite dish of the meal was the chocolate soufflé served with a cacao sorbet. There were moments there when I thought I was going to die of a chocolate overdose (in a good way) but fortunately the lightness of the soufflé was able to offset, to a certain extent, the very heavy and very rich 85% chocolate sorbet which skirted that fine line between being dark and mysterious, and being a little bit too bitter.
As a strange cosmic coincidence, Richard Ekkebus himself happened to be dining with a friend at the table next to mine. I first noticed because of his distinctive dutch accent, and then that he had an incredibly detailed and thorough knowledge of the food industry. Their conversation was very interesting indeed and they talked about the state of the restauranting business in various big cities, and even mentioned a number of the nicer restaurants at which I have had the pleasure to dine. Most interesting was the discussion about Hong Kong dining from which I will include this pro tip: no-shows are a big problem in Hong Kong, on any given night sometimes as many as 30% of diners won’t show up even when they confirm by telephone that they will come in the hours before a reservation. For this reason, if you have a small group, say four or fewer, there is a good chance that you can simply show up at almost any “fully booked” restaurant and expect to get a table if you are prepared to wait a short while. Also – some chef’s don’t like it when you take photos of the food, but most of the good ones either don’t mind, or actively encourage it.
Two Michelin stars is about right. The dishes were very well-executed indeed, and each wove a complex tapestry of flavours and sensations onto my palette, but all in all I never felt like boundaries were being pushed. Perhaps it was the cosy setting, or maybe it was the fact that most of the dishes looked a lot like their constituent ingredients (something you don’t always get with molecular gastronomy, for example). It’s a strange world we live in where a dining experience has to be a chemistry experiment with food in order to be able to impress the discerning diner, but in that world, Amber, while exceptional, just isn’t quite avant garde enough for a full three stars. The service however, was a definite highlight, and when I asked for a copy of the menu, they said that they didn’t have any but that they would go and quickly print me a copy. This copy wasn’t just a quick print off a word document of all the items on the menu that day, but an actual printed copy of the page of the menu where the degustation menu is located, complete with the date and the chef’s name (I should’ve asked to have it signed). On the other side, they even went to the trouble of printing the poem which appears on the inside cover of the menu (which I’ve included below, in the block-quote). If that isn’t service, then I don’t know what is. Situated right in the heart of the busy Hong Kong CBD, it is a quiet oasis of beautiful food. Apparently they have a great lunch deal which I might want to try, just to, y’know, get the full experience.
behold the amber room born of magic places and magicians walls like diamonds, rubies, jacinth and jewels a wealth and warmth of subtle tints coloured smoky topaz to lightest lemon the gold of carvings seems dim and false
sitting among the glittering walls scents of resin sweeten our idle hours glorious rooms rich in honey reflect the ancience sun