April 3, 2014

Shadows of Gagnaire

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I can be pretty harsh in my assessment of a restaurant, often getting miffed by the poor service provided by inadequately trained or dumb staff.  I've trashed my fair share of restos in this space, and over time I've come to realize that it's a big reason why some people bother to visit this lil' blog.  I've also realized that whenever I write a piece that's negative, the people connected to the resto - PRs, managers, owners - do find out about it.  So I'm no longer as "anonymous" as I wish to be...

So it was that a few days ago I found a message in my inbox, coming from Restaurant Akrame.  I had been less than impressed with my last visit - especially regarding the service.  They obviously read it, and took the occasion of Chef Akrame Benallal coming to Hong Kong to invite me back for a "media tasting".

I debated about whether or not to accept the invitation.  I usually turn down the few invitations I receive, as most of the time they're really not all that interesting.  Snob?  Why, yes!  I am!  But this time... Akrame did just get his second macaron in Paris, and he did get a macaron within a year after he opened - something apparently previously unheard of - so there's gotta be something about this guy.  In the end I decided that I wanted to see if things would be any better with him in the house.

I arrived and was led to my designated table upon announcing myself.  As I was trying to get settled in, the waitstaff asked if he could take my jacket and hang it up.  So... they had been informed of my last visit... As I was sitting in a proper chair today, I declined his offer and just hung it on the back of my chair.  I was also offered a stool for my bag, even though I didn't mind having it on the floor.  I Love Lubutin would be proud.

We started a little later than expected, and I know the Wommer and I were both starving by the time the first nibbles arrived...

The amuses bouches were practically identical to my last visit:

Olive chip with Greek yogurt

Squid ink and sesame crisp with smoked eel
Cheese crumble with salmon roe and lime
Celery and anchovy

Carrot with carrot purée and carrot gelée - with grapefruit sauce and sprinkled with powder made from carrot leaves.  Pretty good.

Sautéed cuttlefish with leek soup, deep-fried leeks and watercress purée - this was a wonderful dish.  I love how the cuttlefish has been cut to thin shreds, and this somehow reminds me of another calamari dish I had the pleasure of having several years ago at Pierre - created by the same person Chef Benallal trained under.  The leeks - both pan-fried and especially the deep-fried shreds at the top - really made the dish.

Crab meat with black rice crispies, spinach purée, seaweed and Black olive vinegar sauce - also pretty delish, especially the mix of textures thanks to the rice crispies.  The flavors of the seaweed worked well with the rest.  Also a dish where I see Gagnaire's influence.

Gillardeau oyster with "hot mayo" in charcoal powder - this was really good.  There was something about the combination of the richness and acidity of the mayo working so well with the minerality of the oyster... or maybe it was the Japanese activated charcoal powder that provided the magic.  The brunoise of carrot and green apple added crunchy texture.

Pan-fried scampi with asparagus, asparagus sauce and watercress purée - simple, good but nothing special.

Poached lobster with potato foam and passion fruit sauce - the lobster came half-cooked, then was dunked into a jar with lobster consommé, mint and coriander to finish the cooking process.

Then the lobster was placed on top of the potato foam, which was sprinkled with shreds of deep-fried leeks.  Gotta say I wasn't a fan of the combination of passion fruit sauce with the potato foam... felt like the acidity was clashing with the milk-based foam.

But the lobster itself was perfectly cooked, and delicious in its own right.

The consommé was served in a small cup, and tasted surprisingly a little smoky.

Pan-fried cod with amaranth seeds, squid ink and olive sauce - the cod itself was pretty delicious, with perfect execution.  The squid ink and olive sauce was pretty salty, and there was a "swoosh" which tasted like balsamico.  The interesting part was the grains.  The cod was sitting on a bed of cooked Kamut Khorasan wheat as well as amaranth seeds - which the chef described as "the future".  The Kamut was pretty chewy and nutty.  There was also a layer of deep-fried amaranth seeds on top of the cod.

Our palate cleanser was tarragon ice cream with Campari gelée.  I can understand the gelée, which was truly bitter from the Campari.  I was a little surprised at the strong flavors coming from the tarragon, but I guess they were cooling and refreshing.

Slow-cooked duck breast with quinoa, brown butter foam, yogurt sauce, hibiscus sauce and duck jus - the duck breast was tender and succulent, very delicious.  But somewhat disturbingly, the muscle fibers of the interior seemed to rip apart without me having to cut it with my knife.  I don't think I've seen it happen like this before... except in braised meat.

Finally we got to the desserts, which were all served together as usual.  Come to think of it, it's how Gagnaire serves his desserts, too.

Pineapple with charcoal ice cream - I've seen pictures of this posted by others.  I honestly don't know what to think of this, because - again, quite honestly - I don't know what charcoal is meant to taste like...

Coffee crème brûlée with caramel foam custard and chocolate - this was very yummy.

Chocolate mousse

The petits fours at the end included lemon cookies and madeleines.  The madeleines were not bad, but I wished they were slightly more moist.  I took the dark chocolate with sea salt home, as it came in very handy during my last trip to Tokyo...

Compared to last time, this was a much happier meal.  There were certainly more surprises this time, and the little touches of Gagnaire were more evident.  Many thanks to the restaurant for this invitation, and for Chef Benallal for giving us a taste of what it's like to visit him in Paris.

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