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Friday, December 9, 2016

(Now)here: Amber at the Landmark Mandarin Oriental

Amber at the Landmark Mandarin Oriental in Hong Kong is one of the best restaurants in the world.​ The restaurant is a perennial player on the fashionable list of World's Best 50 Restaurants. This year Amber is ranked number 20. The restaurant is also ranked number 4 on Asia's Best 50 Restaurants list. Since the inception of the Hong Kong and Macau Michelin Guide in 2008, Amber has consistently received two Michelin stars. Some of my friends in the restaurant industry speak highly of Amber and its chef Richard Ekkebus. There is also a prevalent sense among many food bloggers and the press that it may be only a matter of time before Amber is elevated to three stars. Yet, every year Amber remains at the same place and this November is awarded two Michelin stars again. In reporting on Michelin's announcement, Timeout Hong Kong posed the question:

What does Richard Ekkebus have to do to get his third star? Michelin seems stubbornly insistent on keeping him locked at two stars. 

Michelin works in mysterious and sometimes controversial ways. The Hong Kong Michelin guide has been accused by some people as being generous with its ratings: awarding stars to restaurants in Hong Kong that would not receive them if the restaurants are in France. If it is true that Michelin grades restaurants in Hong Kong on a curve, would Amber just be a one-star restaurant in France? In general, I tend to agree with Michelin's rating. I do not know Michelin's rationale for keeping Amber at two-star. Perhaps the reason is consistency, a criteria often cited by Michelin's director whenever he gives an interview on restaurants anywhere in the world. I don't know Michelin's thinking but I concur with their inspectors on Amber's two-star rating.

I have been to Amber twice. The first time in April of 2014 and recently in September of this year. Both of my dinners were very good but each time I came away feeling something was missing.

Amber is located on the 7th floor of the tony Landmark Mandarin Oriental hotel. The route from the street to the restaurant is a bit circuitous. The first impression of the hotel entrance off Queen's Road is actually the noise coming from the boisterous MO Bar on the left. A staircase in the middle, though not necessarily inviting, provides the only way up one floor to the hotel reception. Walking past the indifferent hotel receptionists, one turns left at the back of the lobby to find the elevators to go up to the restaurant. This has the effect of detaching from the hustle and bustle of the city and entering a separate world.

The interior of Amber is beautifully designed by the New York-based designer Adam Tihany. The shell of the interior is a harmonious combination of wood panels, beige banquettes, and brown carpet. Floral arrangements in tall vases dot the room, similar to three-star restaurants such as Le Cinq in Paris and Le Bernardin in New York City. The main feature of the room is the atmospheric ceiling which consists of 4,200 vertical suspended golden rods. This seems to be inspired by the Richard Lippold installation at the bar of the Four Seasons Restaurant in New York City. While there are windows in the restaurant, at dinner time the translucent shades are drawn providing only a vague sense of the outside environment. The ambiance is completely interiorized, however I actually prefer to have bit of the feel of Hong Kong in the restaurant.

At my first dinner, I was led to a table by a French waiter. After being seated, the restaurant manger, also French, came to the table to distribute the menu. The waitress asking me about bread sounded American. The service was professional and excellent, but I felt a slight sense of disorientation. Allowing myself a momentary suspension of disbelief, I could easily imagine myself not sitting in a restaurant in Hong Kong but in Singapore, New York, or any of the large international cities. Amber seems to have very little connection to its locale.

The food at Amber further dislodges the diners from Hong Kong. Given the size of Hong Kong, it is difficult to source products locally. Most of the fancy western restaurants in the city simply just use imported products. Since Hong Kong is an international hub, almost any product anywhere in the world can be ordered and delivered within 48 hours. At Amber, Ekkebus has the luxury of sourcing the best products in the world. He can charge high prices for the food and have the clientele who appreciates them.

For my dinner in April of 2014, most of the products used for the tasting menu were from France; fantastic handcrafted butter from Jean-Yves Bordier of Brittany on the west side of France; delicious oyster and abalone from the west coast of France; a beautiful stalk of asparagus from Jérôme Galis of Piolenc in the south of France; wonderful lamb from the Pyrenees on the southwest of France; amazing unpasteurized cheese from Bernard Antony of Vieux-Ferrette on the eastern border of France; and Valrhona chocolate from east-central of France for dessert.

The products are great and you would find them at the three-Michelin-star restaurants in France, such as the ones operated by Alain Ducasse. With Ducasse, these products are local and express the sense of place and the seasons. Eating the same products at a different climatic region 10,000 kilometers away seems to only magnify the detachment of place. The ingredients are seasonal for France but not necessarily for tropical East Asia. I am not a locavore, but I wish the food feels more Hong Kong than Paris.

In 2013 Ekkebus started a collaboration with VistaJet, a private jet charter company. While flying on the Bombardier Challenger 850 at the altitude of 39,000 feet, a passenger can enjoy Amber's signature sea urchin cauliflower mouse with caviar just as a diner does in Amber's dining room. The food is truly global and groundless.

For a western restaurant in Hong Kong to be connected to the local culture is not easy. But there are things a restaurant can do. For instance, at my recent dinner at Amber I ordered a tea after the dessert. The server recommended a Japanese Sencha which was served in a beautiful clear teapot. After seeping for a few minutes, the served poured a cup and it was wonderful. However, the server didn't pour out all the tea from the teapot. By the time he refilled my cup, the tea became bitter. A few moments later he asked if I wanted the teapot to be refiled, I declined as the tea was already undrinkable. Clearly, not much care was given to tea service. Restaurants in New York and Paris, such as Atera and Yam'Tcha, are miles away from the best tea producing countries, yet they make a great deal of effort in incorporating tea into the dining experience. The proprietors of Yam'Tcha travel to Hong Kong to buy tea. Yet at Amber, located where tea culture is prevalent, tea is simply an afterthought.

Placelessness is my own bias and not Michelin's concerns. After all Hong Kong's two other three-star restaurants, L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon and Otto e Mezzo Bombana, are not local in terms of chefs and ingredients. Michelin actually published five criteria by which they rate a restaurant: quality of the products, mastery of flavor and cooking techniques, the personality of the chef in his cuisine, value for money, and consistency between visits. As mentioned earlier, the products used at Amber are fantastic and the dishes are well executed. While it is hard to put a value for the money, the price Amber charges for the full tasting menu, expensive at HK$2,068, seems to be what the market calls for. The tasting menus at top tier restaurants in Hong Kong are about the same, with L'Atelier at HK$2,080 and Caprice at HK$1,999. As for consistency, I only ate at Amber twice in the span of two years, thus  I am not able to judge. Of the five criteria, the only one that is problematic in my mind is the personality of the chef in his cuisine.

Unlike the food at Robuchon's Atelier or Otto e Mezzo, the dishes at Amber doesn't seem to be rooted. While the food at L'Atelier may be similar at every location in the world, the food feels deeply connected to Robuchon's essence. This is partly why one of Robuchon's signature dishes, mashed potato, is such an amazing food. There is a great deal of techniques involved yet it never loses a connection to the humble origin. Despite the refinement of the traditional food, there's a soul. The same can be said for the dishes by Umberto Bombana. When he slices the truffle tableside, you feel the unwavering connection of the chef and where he came from. With the food at Amber you don't really feel the core of Ekkebus.

When I ate at Amber recently, the French ingredients were mostly replaced by Japanese products. Some of the presentations and techniques used for the dishes also took on a Japanese feel. While the interior design remained the same, the food seemed completely different. I was taken a bit aback by the transformation.

The dinner started with five amuse bouches, each representing a sensation of taste: sweetness, sourness, saltiness, bitterness, and umami. The umami dish was very reminiscent of the food served in Japanese restaurant in Japan.

The first course was a Japanese oyster served with sake, followed by raw aji mackerel with tomato. Both dishes were very refreshing. The third dish was the replacement of the signature uni dish, which was no longer on the menu and donated to In Situ of San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Instead of a mousse, the uni was served with ribbons of kohlrabi. The fourth dish was foie gras. One would think with this ingredient the meal would move away from Japan and back towards Europe. Instead, the foie gras was poached and served with daikon fondant and radish in a dashi broth. It was well executed and delicious. But if the foie gras was served in a lacquerware, it wouldn't be out of place in Kyoto's Kikunoi.

The main savory course was a predictable ingredient: Japanese wagyu beef. The strip loin from Miyazaki was of very high quality and the dish was very good. The sauce of horseraddish and pepper berry emulsion gave the dish a nice kick, which I quite enjoyed.

The dinner didn't really turn towards Europe until the cheese course. As with my previous visit the cheeses from Bernard Antony were wonderful. However, the focus on Japan returned again with dessert. One of the two desserts was a pineapple poached in Junmai Daiginjo. By the end of the meal I felt I was at a restaurant in Japan and Amber had a guest chef instead of Ekkebus.

Ekkebus started his training in the Netherlands followed by stints at some of the best restaurants in Paris: Pierre Gagnaire, Alain Passard, and Guy Savoy. Afterwards he worked on two islands, Mauritius and Barbados, before arriving at Hong Kong. I wonder if Ekkebus is a modern day Flying Dutchman, who travels around the world and doesn't touch down. The food at Amber lacks a bit of soul. Sometimes Ekkebus seems to be chasing after new ingredients, wanting to be the first to incorporate them into dishes. Other times the food seems to be a reflection of his current interests and recent travels. Maybe he changes his food drastically as a response to the demand of his fickle clients. Ekkebus seems to be in the hunt for the here and now instead of building from a central core.

When Amber started in 2005, it was a modern European restaurant. By the time I first ate at Amber it had already changed into a modern French restaurant. With my recent dinner Ekkebus seemed to have transformed Amber into a Japanese restaurant. The standards are always high. But I wonder what will Amber morph into next year, Nordic, South American, or Chinese? A restaurant is like a person and will change as time goes by. Change is good and also necessary. But I want to know the essence of the person and understand what's driving the change. A person doesn't need to take on a new personality every year. I prefer iteration and evolution rather than reinvention.

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