December 12, 2014

The most anticipated return of the year

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It's been way, way too long.  Up until a little more than a year ago, Caprice had been my favorite fine dining restaurant in town - a position it has steadfastly held for about seven years. But after the departure of Chef Vincent Thierry (who went to the Land of Fake Smiles in search of new adventures) followed by the departure of maître d' Jeremy Evrard (who joined Philippe Orrico at Upper Modern Bistro), the place had lost its mojo.  Both the food and the service had gone downhill in the second half of last year, and after yet another less-than-impressive lunch on the day before new chef Fabrice Vulin landed in Hong Kong, I stopped going altogether.

Early feedback on the new chef's cuisine was mixed, which made me hesitate about a quick return.  Nearly a year later, I finally began getting some more positive reports, and figured it was probably time to go and check things out for myself.  So once again I rounded up some of the most discerning palates in town, and booked a table for lunch just two days shy of the anniversary of my last meal here.  The amazing thing is that, despite all of us having been huge fans of the restaurant, not a single one of us have been back at Caprice since the new chef arrived.

The receptionists no longer recognize me by sight, but as I made my way to our table I saw a familiar face from afar.  One of the Sebastien twins - Sommelier Sebastien Alleno - came over to greet me.  It was good to see an old friend.  The other twin - Sebastien Boudon - has now taken over as maître d' after Jeremy's departure, and is also a familiar face... well, at least he knows who I am.  And I was also glad to see Timothy, who came over to say hello.  It was kinda heart-warming...

Things have certainly changed in the last year - even the bread selection.  Gone was my old favorite sesame roll - replaced by a couple of new and rather tasty options.  What hasn't changed is the Bordier butter.  It's been so long since we were last here that the new staff had no clue about the particular preferences of this crowd... and it took them a while to realize that there's no point in putting unsalted butter on the table, since nobody touches it...  They eventually caught on.

I had certainly been having my fair share of rich meals in the past month, so I was more than happy to take it easy by having the two-course set lunch.  À la carte can wait.  At least that was the plan.  But as I have remarked to friends before, if you wanna control your intake, you shouldn't visit restaurants where they know you...

Our first amuse bouche came quickly.  Beetroot custard, with some Chilean sea bass, mayonnaise (and truffle?), along with diced Granny Smith apple, pine nuts, and topped with slices of beetroot.  Pretty interesting melange of flavors and textures here.  The richness of the mayo was countered by the acidity of the apple, and the earthy flavors of beetroot balanced out by the ocean flavors from the sea bass.  So far, so good...

L'artichaut violet, la truffe blanche d'Alba - our second amuse - which was really an appetizer - was a (violet?) artichoke salad and a raviolo with Colonnata pork.

Artichoke cream is then poured into the bowl, and Sebastien came over to shave some white truffle for us...  Loved this dish.  The raviolo was a little too small, so it was a little underwhelming.  But the artichoke cream had that nice acidity to cut the richness and get you going, although it almost overpowered the white truffle, if you could believe it...

French tourteau crab jelly, potato leek salad and Vichysoisse - what a beautiful dish!  I always love the flavors that tourteau crabs offer, and here the shredded crab meat is encased in gelée.  Since this was surrounded by Vichysoisse - which is something I really love - it was only fitting that it came with a potato and leek salad on top.  Very, very delish.  The quenelles of tarragon cream coated the inside of one's mouth with a lovely fragrance, naturally...

La langoustine royale - this was an unexpected treat that the kitchen sent out.  The langoustine tail, cooked à la plancha, was curled up into a not-so-little ball, and there was a langoustine raviolo with caviar on top

There was also a nice selection of mushrooms - including chanterelles, trompettes de la mort, and shimeji.  The watercress coulis came with shreds of lemon zest, and also what I thought was a lemon citrus cream which provided both acidity and fragrance.

Canadian lobster, king prawns, squid, fregola sarda in a shellfish bouillon and Avruga - OK, so I did it again... I'm a stupid, salivating Pavlov's dog.  The words "fregola" appeared before my eyes and I ignored every other dish on the menu.

The lobster, squid and king prawns were pretty decent.  Somehow I wasn't quite happy with the texture of the fragola, but the shellfish bouillon was something I could have drunk 3 bowls of.  Slurp.

Stuffed cabbage with wild boar, duck foie gras and autumn truffle - Fergie was kind enough to share a little bit of this with me, knowing how much I - like the rest of the table - liked wild boar.  Or was his kindness really stemming from his desire to pass on some excess calories to me?  Anyway, not surprisingly this was pretty rich, and although I could see the strands of gamey wild boar in every mouthful, the taste was dominated by the foie gras and truffle...  The one little slip-up was that the rich jus wasn't brought over until most of us had dug into this dish, and by that time I had decided it'd be too much for me to take.  As yummy as this was, I'm sure if I had ordered this as my main course, it would end up sitting like a rock in my stomach for the next 8 hours...

In a move that shocked my dining companions, I took neither cheese nor dessert.  I was sure that I had consumed more than enough calories today, and actually sat around and watched the rest of the table try to make a dent in the massive amount of cheese that Sebastien sent our way.  I stood unmoved while the Great One dug into the Cabri Ariégeois that she asked for... as Fergie kept spooning Mont d'Or... as people made excuses for why they kept using their knives or fingers to trim off bits of Coulommiers fermier or Brillat-Savarin fermier.  Another day.

I did nibble on the mignardises...

So... thumbs up or thumbs down?  Well, it was a resounding YES!  ...and I'm not trying to mimic a certain monosyllabic food blog.  The dishes certainly seemed well thought out, the flavors were all there, and no real fault with execution.  Notwithstanding that big lump of stuffed cabbage, we felt that Chef Fabrice Vulin seemed to lean more towards "fine dining" compared with Vincent.  Not that Vincent's food wasn't top-notch, but despite his years spent in restaurants with Michelin stars, we all thought that deep down he wanted to do something a little simpler.  The presentation of the dishes today showed that Caprice is now making a move towards the top end of the spectrum, and perhaps looking to narrow the gap between itself and Amber - my current favorite for fine dining in Hong Kong.  I look forward to more visits next year and see how things develop.

Some final words of apology to Sommelier Sebastien Alleno... Despite having had a crap morning at work, and this being Friday and all, I still had client calls in the afternoon... so I turned down his kind offer of wine.  He did complain about "feeling useless" around me, so I'd better make it up to him next time!

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