Hours after landing in Hong Kong on a quick two day trip, I was tasked with the impossible feat of choosing the first meal for me and Tracey, who was in town for a conference. At any given time there is a slew of up and coming young chefs stirring up the pot of fine dining establishments, prompting gastro hipster madness and impossible-to-get reservations, reinforcing the status of Hong Kong of being a true trailblazer in the Asian dining scene. I had a long list of such restaurants in my Moleskin, but since I was only in the city for two nights, I needed my guidance to be more significant than the whispers of a gastro blogger (what qualifications do they have anyway?). I needed mastery, consistency, and a last minute reservation on a Wednesday night.
Joel Robuchon was my man, and also, the only man in the world to hold an obscene 26 Michelin stars. His Hong Kong L’Atelier holds two, and is headed up by Michel Del Burgo. As is consistent in his restaurants throughout the world, the boundaries between kitchen and dining room are dissolved, creating a full sensory experience for the diner. Rectangular glass vases throughout are filled with vibrant bell peppers from Spain, which are kept in fresh water that is changed daily, the peppers themselves lasting two days. There are lounge tables and private rooms, but the best seats in the house are at the counters surrounding a well-lit kitchen, setting the stage for Burgo’s army of chefs. I’ve rarely seen a kitchen team maneuver themselves with such grace and quiet confidence. Each chef seemed to uphold utmost integrity in his craft, each conscious of his part to play in the masterful act that was our meal.
Menu options for dinner included a la carte, the epic 11-course Menu Decouverte, or le carte des plats en petites portions degustation- small plates, which seemed more appropriate in my recent attempt to steer awayfrom the excess that normally characterizes my dining habits. We opted for the following dishes to share.
*LE CRABE en rouelles d’avocat l’huile d’amandes douces Avocado slices with seasoned crabmeat and almond oil
*LE HOMARD en fines ravioles de navet au romarin l’aigre-doux Maine lobster in turnip raviolis
*LE BURGER au foie gras et poivrons verjuts Beef and foie gras burgers served with homemade French fries
*LAGNEAU pastoral aux herbes et salade avec une pure de pomme de terre Lamb au jus with a salad of herbs, served with mashed potato
*LA BOULE SURPRISE au chocolat araguani, dacquois la feuillantine, glace au caramel Surprised chocolate ball with dacquois and caramel ice cream
*LE SOUFFL Chocolate souffle with green sorbet and mint jelly
The sommelier paired this with an elegant and simple Cotes du Rhone Mon Coeur after being given our price range of about HKD $700 for a bottle, and I think it supported the flavours well throughout.
My excitement started early with the arrival of the colourful bread basket with its accompanying statuette of freshly churned butter. I love a diverse bread selection, and nothing irks me more than when a waiter dangles a basket of hot, crusty bread in my face and asks, “Which one would you like, ma’am?” Which one?? Why can’t I try them all! To make me choose between a tiny cheese croissant and a sliver of walnut bread is simply criminal. Which is why I like Robuchon’s approach, of leaving the entire basket of goodies in front of you, with no hawk-like waiters watching the movement of your butter knife. Ok, maybe I got a bit too excited, and I didn’t realize quite how much until our ever considerate waiter discreetly asked us if we wanted a second basket after we completely did away with the entire contents before the second course. We politely declined.
First up was a complimentary amous bouche, a shot of pumpkin puree with parmesan encrusted ‘crouton’. Perfectly salty and perfectly appetizing.
The lobster ‘raviolis’ were ingeniously presented, large chunks of pink meat wrapped in a translucent layer of turnip ‘pasta’ that played up the flavour of juicy Maine lobster.
Next up was the crab and avocado. Some of my favorite ingredients were at play here, but this was not the best dish of the night. I think it was too conservative, there was no gusto for me.
Le Burger. This little thing packed a lot of punch, and I’m still fantasizing about it to this day. This beef came from a cow of class, a cut of kobe. The foie gras too, was likely very well-fed (ouch). This one-bite burger tasted like money, all the way down, and at HKD $260 for two, or about USD $20 each bite- it had better. Earlier, we spied one lone chef in a back corner of the kitchen, arranging our frites one by one into the little cup, inspecting each one for optimal colour and shape before inserting it carefully into the creation.
As for the fries themselves, I was quite impressed. I have been fascinated with the scientific Quest for French Fry Supremacy over at the Cooking Issues with Dave Arnold and crew, so paid particular attention to these little ones. Even though these were not hot out of the fryer and in fact had probably been room temperature for a while, there was a nice crunch to them, a good salty profile, and great texture on the inside without being overly greasy.
The last of our savoury dishes was a small plate of lamb au jus that was perfectly done, paired with silky mashed potatoes. As small as each piece was, it was immensely satisfying as a closing main.
And because we were sufficiently lubricated at that point, it took no convincing by our server for us to share not one, but two desserts. We spied the “chocolate surprise” at the tables of other guests and chose that with a chocolate souffle. The desserts came out with a third complimentary plate of tiny macarons and jelly candies. I could have lived without the souffle, but the ‘surprise’ lived up to its name. It was drama, intrigue, and sex appeal, all rolled into one ball of chocolate laced with gold and caramel.
The menu came to something like HKD $1,500 per person, which means I could almost have had the decouverte menu, albeit without wine. It was hedonistic, hyperbolic, and representative of the galvanizing world that is the Hong Kong restaurant scene. But it was also almost flawless, and upholds a standard of consistency which I believe is Joel Robuchon’s greatest success and what his bounty of Michelin stars can truly be attributed to.