Internationally acclaimed as one of the world’s best restaurants and with two Michelin stars, Amber at The Landmark Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong has fiercely guarded its status under the sole culinary directorship of Dutch chef Richard Ekkebus
Culinary director Richard Ekkebus
Richard Ekkebus was positively beaming when
I met him, albeit rather inwardly. As a two-Michelin-starred chef with a reserved ego, it took my familiarity with him, acquired from previous meetings over seven years, to sense it. Our interview, after all, took place just four days after chef Ekkebus had returned to Hong Kong, having attended The World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards in the UK, in which Amber at The Landmark Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong had made the list for the second year running – and is one of the few restaurants in Asia to ever appear on it. This, in Hong Kong, a territory with numerous well respected establishments that pepper the pages of locally, regionally and internationally produced food guides and websites.
Organised by UK-based Restaurant magazine, the award is a noted international listing of top-notch dining destinations, judged by a global network of food media and industry professionals. Yet, true to form, the down-to-earth Dutchman says that the most important thing was that Amber had remained listed. ‘This proves it wasn’t a one-off lucky hit,’ he says, ‘and now we need to make sure we continue to stay on the list.’
Blue lobster roasted in its carcass, crispy tête de veau in a Merlot reduction, summer vegetables in flat parsley oil, with pink Lautrec garlic
Ekkebus is no stranger to accolades at Amber, having presided over the restaurant since the hotel opened in 2005. When the Michelin Guide for Hong Kong and Macau was launched in 2009, Amber was awarded the two stars that it has retained to this day, and, in 2011, Ekkebus won TimeOut Hong Kong magazine’s Food and Drink Awards: Chef of the Year gong. So, how much do such tributes mean to him? ‘I always feel these are the cherry on the cake,’ he said, ‘but you don’t do this work for the awards. The chef may be mentioned, but the drive comes from within myself to see my team grow and do better, and we have had tremendous support from Mandarin Oriental to encourage us to grow. It’s a costly operation to maintain this kind of restaurant, without only focusing on the bottom line.’
And there lies a hint at the labour-intensive preparation and presentation of the extraordinary take on modern French cuisine served twice daily at Amber by Ekkebus and his 18-strong kitchen staff. As well as his dedicated team, according to the chef, the quality of ingredients
is of paramount importance. That, of course, means cooking with the best of what is available, mostly from France, Japan and Australia, although some fine organic vegetables are now more plentifully grown in Hong Kong. The menu is led by seasonal traditions in Europe, and from there, Ekkebus gives it a modern interpretation, such as with a trio of amuse-bouches, presenting diners with bite-sized indications of the texture and colour play that is to follow.
Some of the signature dishes, meanwhile, use produce that can be found year-round. Foie gras ‘lollipops’, for instance, have always been on the menu – a ball of house terrine coated in a layer of sweetened beetroot and raspberry jelly, presented Chupa Chups-style on a white stick. During multi-course meals they sometimes appear between two dishes. Another perennial favourite is the starter of Hokkaido sea urchin in a lobster jelly, with cauliflower, caviar and crispy seaweed waffles – the latter counterbalancing the richness of the seafood. ‘People also always talk about our poulard cooked with truffle, or our steaks and our soufflés,’ adds Ekkebus.
Abinao 85% chocolate soufflé with cacao sorbet
Speaking of the house soufflé, any diner who tries one will notice how pleasantly and unusually moist it is. That was my experience of the chocolate version – served with a dark cacao sorbet, the creamy soufflé is light and airy. Imposing Valrhona Abinao 85 per cent chocolate is used in both parts of the dish, and it is obvious that Ekkebus has put a lot of research into obtaining this consistency. A little reticent to give away his culinary innovation, he eventually relents.
‘We don’t use the traditional technique, which is a heavy pastry cream with flour,’ he explains.
‘We use a totally different vehicle with a fresh cheese base.’
Kitchen experimentation has always been associated with Amber. In the restaurant’s first two years, recipes often brought Asian, classical French and continental European flavours together. And, for a period, the mostly Western fine dining cuisine was paired not only with wine suggestions, but also with Chinese tea options, working closely with a local purveyor of high quality tea on a special degustation menu. In the past five years, however, from this continental menu with Asian influences, Ekkebus has consciously returned to more classically inspired and recognised French food. ‘We are more French today than in the beginning,’ he says. ‘At first we were a European restaurant and I liked the liberty and spectrum that gave us, but we decided it was more important for us to refocus, so the diner would know what to expect. I am also French-trained, so it made sense to pursue that.’
The Dutchman began his culinary career in his native country, helping out as he grew up at his grandparents’ restaurant in the port town of Vlissingen. It was there in the Netherlands, early in his career, that his talent was first noticed, when he won the prestigious Golden Chef’s Hat award for Young Chef of the Year. This paved the way for Ekkebus’s experience in some of the most respected restaurants in France, where he worked in the hallowed kitchens of some of the world’s big-name three-Michelin-starred chefs, Pierre Gagnaire, Alain Passard and Guy Savoy. After France, Ekkebus went to top-tier restaurants in Mauritius and Barbados, so that by the time he joined Amber, in 2005, he was at the helm of some of the most exciting fine dining in Hong Kong.
It should be noted that at the time of Amber’s launch, there were one or two restaurants in Hong Kong offering French and European fine dining with a contemporary twist; some dishes were quite complex, needing waiting staff to explain what diners were to do with the various sauces and components. So, were such increasingly intricate demands part of the reason for Amber’s menu modification? ‘We listened to what the diners preferred, and didn’t like, without compromising our integrity,’ says Ekkebus, describing Amber’s culinary evolution. ‘A restaurant that wants to survive has to be a good listener. We were considered a fusion restaurant, which we’re not, and we have never been about molecular cuisine.
‘We now do French food, but not in the classical sense – we apply modern techniques. Where modernity is appropriate and has impact and a purpose, we use it – but we don’t use, say, liquid nitrogen or other techniques just for the sake of it… I learned a lot from eating in Chinese restaurants in Hong Kong. The best of Chinese dining is extremely focused – it is always about one, two or three ingredients. And
I wanted to bring this kind of focus to Western fine dining.’
The Adam Tihany-designed interior of Amber with a sculptural ceiling light made of thousands of bronze rods
That said, although the dishes at Amber are light in ingredients, they are not always conventional – and all are plated in a strikingly contemporary way. Tables are treated to the finery of Frette table linen, Christofle flatware, Baccarat and Riedel glassware, and bespoke Bernardaud chinaware. Ekkebus has always played a key role in choosing its interior elements. Beyond his role of chef at Amber, he is the hotel’s director of culinary operations and food and beverage, overseeing all the undertakings in these areas. And while celebrated American interior designer Adam Tihany conceived the stylish amber-toned dining room, with its striking ceiling decoration – a flowing wave of more than 4,000 suspended golden rods – Ekkebus gave direction for the table settings. ‘I made sure the seating was exactly the right height, and we chose quite avant-garde but simple plates, dishes and glasses,’ he recalls. ‘Some of it was a lot more modern than fine dining restaurants would dare have on tables at that time.’
When the restaurant first opened, it had space for more than
80 diners; in 2008, a reconfiguration brought the number down to 55, allowing for more space at, and between, tables. More recently, the private dining room had a makeover. It is separated from the main dining room by Amber’s glass-walled wine cellar and vertical wooden louvre slats that allow partial
or total privacy, and the new upholstered chairs were worked on four times
before Ekkebus was satisfied. Fittingly,
it is now known as the Private Wine Room.
The best of Chinese dining is extremely focused – it is always about one, two or three ingredients
Amber’s adjoining bar has been remodelled, too – physically and conceptually. At the end of 2011, instigated by the fact that the restaurant got booked up so quickly, additional tables were installed and the
bar-counter area made smaller in order to comfortably accommodate single diners or tables for two. These days, on any given evening, due to Amber’s popularity, a few tables are held back for in-house guests and six to eight tables are on a waiting list. As well as the full à la carte menu,
a newly introduced bar menu reflects Amber’s culinary precepts better than ever – expect the likes of Iberian pork ‘snout to tail’ with piccalilli croquettes, Wagyu beef mini-burger with Roquefort and onion compote, and Tasmanian smoked salmon with traditional trimmings and
crispy sourdough bread shavings. There are also new afternoon tea listings – finger sandwiches and pastries can be ordered individually;
millefeuilles, macaroons and scones are popular choices.
The bar's cocktails attract many regulars. Among the house favourites is New Territories: bourbon, red and white vermouth, ginger, vanilla and soda – each part from a boutique producer, bringing unexpected characteristics to this refreshing dry-edged blend with a satisfying kick. Less alcoholic and quite fruity is the Knickerbocker, its dash of aged rum lightened with raspberry and lime. Premium spirits include rare vintage Scotches and rum, and wine listings, especially those by the glass, are in perpetual change, particularly in the dynamic area of the New World.
Regarding wine, the restaurant’s head sommelier, John Chan – the only ethnic Chinese sommelier in a two-Michelin-starred restaurant in Hong Kong – is keen on an alluring constant: the carrying of lesser-known quality bottles. He changed the by-the-glass selection when he joined Amber to include more wine from Italy, which he believes pairs better than many French varieties with tomato-laden dishes. He has also featured wines from Lebanon and successfully requested the producer of Josmeyer Le Dragon Riesling 2010 (a delicate, non-sweet biodynamic wine from Alsace) to custom-make magnum bottles for Amber. Another talking point is Carm Douro Touriga Nacional 2009, which, free of sulphur dioxide, is a light-bodied red from Portugal’s most prized grape variety.
Red amadai, fennel and orange confit, bottarga grated new potatoes, bouillabaisse and Manni olive oil emulsion
Naturally, Ekkebus is also involved in the wine selection, so that it complements his dishes. One of the main-course signatures to consider ordering is red amadai with fennel and orange confit, bottarga (salted
fish roe) new potatoes, bouillabaisse foam and olive oil emulsion – texturally, two airy foamed sauces play with the crispy seared skin of the meaty fish fillet, and the pungent bouillabaisse is tempered by the zesty citric orange. For a more robust dish, you might choose Bresse pigeon – the breast is grilled and the leg is minced and it is prepared as a crépinette ball, with Pommery mustard, Comice pear and jus gras. Pigeon is always on the menu, but, in the summer, the fruit content might change to peach, and although many of the dish’s ingredients are French, the grilling is inspired by trips to Japan, and the soft fruit and mustard elements are drawn from the Italian condiment mostarda di frutta (fruit in mustard syrup).
The three-course set lunches change frequently, as fresh ingredients such as white asparagus or truffles are only available seasonally, but it also keeps listings lively: Ekkebus points out that 40-50 per cent of lunch diners are repeat guests. Undergoing regular changes, too, the Weekend Wine Lunch pairs six courses with four wines on Saturdays and Sundays.
It is only natural that Amber will perpetually evolve. Yet, says Ekkebus, there is one key trait that he learned from his childhood experiences in his grandparents’ restaurant all those years ago that will remain a constant: to always keep hospitality and a pleasurable dining experience as priorities.