Review: The 2017 Taste of Hong Kong Festival

Praise be to God, for the 2017 Taste of Hong Kong has descended upon us! For the second time, the greatest food festival in the world is hosting some of the city’s biggest and brightest names in the culinary industry. Yes, the entire event may seem a tad excessive – a popularity contest determined by sheer gluttony and shameless wealth – but it is utterly fantastic and I love it. This year’s participants boast a total of 10 Michelin stars, and includes some of the city’s best and brightest culinary destinations.

Amber Sea Urchin

I loved Taste of Hong Kong since it’s maiden debut in the city (well… one year ago, but still). I love it because of the energy and passion of the crowd. You really get a sense that the people attending are really passionate about the morsels of food they put into their mouths, even if said customers reek of expensive cologne and dollar bills. Secondly, it really does showcase the best that the city has to offer. How often do you cram multiple Michelin starred restaurants into one harbour-side venue? You get to meet and learn from the best chefs in the city through open forums and cooking demonstrations, as well as the opportunity to eat some of the best plates of food in the city. Third and most importantly, Taste of Hong Kong allows me to visit restaurants I would normally have to sell both my kidneys and my left testicle to afford. Those who follow Wong Eats Hong Kong know that I do splurge on food (such as the tasting menu at Tippling Club in Singapore), but there is still a limit as to what I can afford. Things like Amber’s 9 Course Degustation Menu, ‘reasonably’ priced at HK$2068 per head, is miles out of my budget, especially when I want to keep both testicles intact at this moment. While Taste of Hong Kong is very expensive, it allows me to venture into a world of Michelin stars and Asia’s Top 50 restaurants without sacrificing any body parts or internal organs. Sampling Amber’s phenomenal Hokkaido Sea Urchin w/ Sea Lobster Jelly, Cauliflower, Caviar and Nori Crisps (pictured above) last year changed my perspective on gourmet food completely. So to say I was excited for this year’s festival would be the understatement of the year, and even the heavy rain could not dampen my enthusiasm for the event.  Along with three gluttonous friends, we set off for Taste of Hong Kong 2017 with the sole objective of sampling as much food as our stomach’s would possibly allow.

While there were a few misses, most of it was fantastic and it was a lot of good fun. I did skip several restaurants due to the fact that their menus were less appealing than their competitors, or simply because the restaurant was horrible  (see Kaum by Potatohead). So without further ado, here is a restaurant-by-restaurant review of the 2017 Taste of Hong Kong:

Amber

Honestly, Amber was the main reason why I decided to re-attend this year’s Taste of Hong Kong, as the uber-expensive establishment is universally regarded as the best restaurant in Hong Kong. Located in the Landmark, Mandarin Oriental, the Richard Ekkebus helmed restaurant holds two Michelin stars and is ranked 3rd in Asia according to The World’s 50 Best Restaurant list. In last year’s festival, Amber blew the competition away, winning the best dish of the competition with its fancy duck dish (it also blew me away with its uni dish). While the restaurant shifted its approach towards this year’s festival, preferring to showcase ingredients from the Kyushu region of Japan rather than simply serving dishes on the restaurant’s famed tasting menu, it once again won best dish of the event with its Miyazaki Wagyu beef dish.

Amber Restaurant Week
Top Left: Fukuoka Line Caught Spanish Mackerel, Cured & Torched, w/ Miyazaki Hyuganatsu (HK$120) ; Bottom Left: Miyazaki Beef with Kyushu Red Cabbage & Dulse Slaw, Pepper Berry Béarnaise (HK$280) ; Top Left: Freshly Shucked Ebisu Winter Oyster w/ Plum & Beetroot Granité, Black Pepper ($120) ; Bottom Left: Fukuoka Clams & Wakame Velouté w/ Bannou Negi Infused Extra Virgin Olive Oil (HK$120)

Being in a group of 4 allowed us to order everything on the menu, and also allowed us to minimise costs.  The Miyazaki beef dish was a delight; it was a perfect balance of richness and acidity. The rich buttery beef, charred on the outside and perfectly medium rare in the centre, melted in the mouth. The fattiness of the wagyu was harmonised by the acidity of the pickled red cabbage, created by fermenting red cabbages from Kyushu with daikons (Asian radishes) for two weeks. The pepper berry sauce was fruity and light, and provided a nice acidulated edge to the entire plate. The entire plate was seasoned with a minimal amount of salt, with the chef Ekkebus preferring to add flavour to the dish in the form of seaweeds and horseradish instead. It was an innovative, yet strangely rustic dish, and a worthy winner of best dish of the festival. The oyster with a cooling, refreshing beetroot granité was also a triumph. Amber sourced these particular oysters for its mineral-rich flavour, as well as its dense, meaty texture. The creaminess of the oyster was cut with the refreshingly tart granité, and the little cubes of beetroot added a touch of sweetness and crunch. The Fukuoka clam and wakame velouté was lovely and warm, perfect for a cold and rainy day. The sweetness of the clams paired well with the velvety smooth kelp and potato velouté, while the bannou negi (Japanese spring onions) infused olive oil provided a bit of a spicy kick to the bowl. Finally, the Spanish mackerel dish was also delicious. The mackerel is served two ways: the dorsal fillet was cured before being blowtorched, while the fatty, succulent belly was presented in the form of a tartare. To cut the richness of the fish, Amber has accompanied the fish with Hyuganatsu, a Japanese citrus that is a crossbreed between orange and yuzu. The fresh citrus flavour meshed well with the oily fish, and the dish tasted as great as it looked.

The thing is, while Amber did not showcase dishes on its signature degustation menu, the aim of Richard Ekkebus and the rest of the Amber brigade was to tell a story, to show people the ethos behind the restaurant, as well as the suppliers from Japan who provide the restaurant with top quality ingredients. You really do gain an appreciation for the producers, as well as the restaurant itself, after listening to Ekkebus and the Amber team speak about the lengths the restaurant goes to in order to secure the finest ingredients.

Yardbird

Yardbird Katsu Sando

Yardbird first rose to prominence in the Hong Kong culinary landscape with their straightforward take on Japanese Yakitori (Grilled chicken skewers). Yardbird was an immediate success, ranking 45 in the 2014 Asia’s Top 50 Restaurants List. Two sister restaurants followed suit – the small, expensive Japanese joint Ronin, and the fantastic hipster sandwich deli Sunday’s Grocery (RIP, you will not be forgotten). In memory of Sunday’s Grocery, I ordered the Katsu Sando, which was the closest thing to a perfect sandwich to me. Despite Sunday’s Grocery being there no more, it was great to see that the team behind Yardbird can still make a fantastic sandwich. A succulent, juicy piece of tonkatsu (Deep fried pork cutlet) was sandwiched between two fluffy pieces of Japanese milk bread. The savoury, salty sauce added oomph to the dish while the sharp, acidulated coleslaw provided balance. Not pictured was the Sweet Corn Tempura (HK$50), a signature from Yardbird. It arrived piping hot and crispy, with an airy light batter and juicy, sweet corn filling. It was a clever dish, and was also fantastic value compared to many of the other dishes at the festival.

While I am not a huge fan of the ultra-hipster yakitori joint, Matt Abergel and the Yardbird fed me well. I can’t lie, the Katsu Sando really made me miss Sunday’s Grocery. I hope they re-open it soon.

Tin Lung Heen

Tin Lung Heen Restaurant Week
Left: Steamed Dumplings w/ egg custard & purple potato (HK$50); Right: Barbecued Iberico Pork w/ Honey (HK$90)

Tin Lung Heen is a two Michelin starred Chinese restaurant located in the Ritz Carlton Hotel (yeah that screams ‘pretentious’ in caps lock), and like Amber, the Michelin quality was apparent. The Iberico pork loin was dark, lacquered and sticky. It has been roasted low and slow until the meat falls apart upon the slightest hint of pressure and the fat begins to melt. It is succulent and tender, with a sticky, sweet glaze and just a hint of smokiness from the lovely charred bits. It is everything roast pork aspires to be, and even though it costs HK$90 for two small, measly pieces, I am glad I paid. Sadly, the same could not be said for the steamed dumplings. The dumpling case was rubbery rather than being gelatinous and soft, and the filling was bland, betraying its vibrant colour. Never mind this and come back again for the glorious Char Siew. 

Café Gray Deluxe

Cafe Gray Deluxe Restaurant Week
Top: Braised Wagyu Beef Cheek, Mashed Potatoes, Beets, Pickles & Sour Cream (HK$110); Bottom: Brittany Diver Scallop, XO emulsion, Amalfi Lemon (HK$160)

Café Gray Deluxe is one of those restaurants that you hear a lot of, but never actually go. By all accounts, it is a fantastic, highly formal and highly expensive venue serving modern renditions of Western food, but then again, I wouldn’t know. Partly, this is due to the fact that we are spoilt for choice in Hong Kong, but also due to the fact that it charges Michelin starred prices without actually boasting a star under its name. Nevertheless, both dishes served by the restaurant were good, particularly the beef cheek with mashed potatoes, pickles and sour cream, which was rewarded runner up dish of the festival.  The Wagyu cheek was braised until the strands of meat are transformed into a sticky, gelatinous mess. It was rich and succulent, with a hearty sauce, and was accompanied with a velvety smooth potato puree chock full of butter. Unfortunately, there was not enough of that tart pickle or sour cream to cut through the richness of the entire plate. The scallop dish, served on a half shell with dots of lemon gel and edible flowers, was a delight to look at. The scallop, the size of a baby’s clenched fist, was perfectly seared and sweet. However, I felt that the XO emulsion clashed with the lemon, producing a slightly acrid, bitter after taste. Simply removing one of the two jarring elements would have made the dish much better. But then again, I would happily pay just to eat a scallop of that size again.

Rhoda

Rhoda Restaurant Week
Left: Wild Hertford Ox Heart Tartare, Egg Yolk Puree (HK$50); Right: Spaghetti and Meatballs, Mangalica Pork Pig Skin Spaghetti (HK$120)

Rhoda is one of Hong Kong’s hottest restaurants, where Chef Nate Green, formerly of 22 Ships, serves comfort food with a modern twist. I was at Rhoda the night before Taste of HongKong, and can vouch for the quality of the restaurant (Full review coming soon, but oh that soothing, pitch perfect cottage pie). While every Instagram ‘foodie’ in the city drooled over the Braised wagyu short rib, bone marrow and caviar on a piece of toasted bread, I was more intrigued by the Hertford ox heart tartare. If you have been following this page, you would know that I absolutely adore offal. It is the essence of an animal – undeniable proof that the animal lived, breathed and moved. Heart is a fantastic cut of protein to use, especially with a quick sear over high heat. But I have never tried raw ox heart, and I must say I was rather worried (there is a reason why the Japanese government banned raw liver sashimi across the nation, and you know the Japanese will eat anything and everything). The tartare itself was exceptionally gamey, rich with the metallic taste that comes with every single cut of offal. It was also chewier than regular steak tartare, with the texture closer to latex rather than protein – which was not a good thing. However, I quite enjoyed the taste of the entire plate; the sharpness of the gherkins balanced the gaminess of the beef, while the smooth egg yolk puree lubricated the entire plate and added a touch of lusciousness. I had high hopes for Rhoda’s take on the classic spaghetti and meatballs, as I thought that substituting pasta with strips of pork skin would provide even more texture to an otherwise mundane dish. But instead, the pork skin ‘spaghetti’ was gelatinous and soft rather than al-dente and pasta-like. It basically melted into the dish and added nothing of note. The sauce itself was over-seasoned, and the meatballs were too dry for me. While Rhoda is a fantastic restaurant, the spaghetti dish was quite disappointing. Maybe I should have followed the crowd and ordered the short rib bruschetta instead.

Arcane

Arcane Restaurant Week
Top: Hamachi Carpaccio W/ Jicama & Fennel Salad, Soy & Ginger dressing (HK$50); Bottom: Sauteed Potato Gnocchi with wild mushrooms, Fresh Black Truffle (HK$180)

As I made my way to the Arcane booth, one particular lady was squealing exasperatedly at the maître d’ that she was just served the best plateful of gnocchi in her life. Well, thanks a lot, now how am I supposed to order anything but the gnocchi? Arcane, helmed by former two Michelin starred chef Shane Osborn, is one of Hong Kong’s top restaurants. The quality of the chefs were apparent. Slices of fresh hamachi was served with a light salad tasting of aniseed, while the simple soy and ginger added an Asian flair. It takes a very brave chef to serve up something so simple in the greatest food festival in the city, and I applaud chef Osborn for it. The gnocchi, fried with butter, was also good, with a crisp exterior and a soft, pillowy inside. The combination of wild mushrooms and fresh truffle shavings provided a strong, earthy umami kick to the pasta, while grated cheese added a lovely salty element. The lady was correct, they were the best gnocchi I have ever eaten, until I made my way to Kei next door…

Kei Restaurant

Kei Gnocchi
Gnocchi with Black Truffle & Iberico Ham (HK$180)

Honestly, I have never heard of Kei before. My knowledge of the French culinary scene, outside of monoliths like Passard, Robuchon, Ducasse and Gagnaire, is somewhat limited. Kei is the eponymous two Michelin starred restaurant of Kei Kobayashi, a Japanese man that has honed his craft in some of Paris’ best restaurants. While the image of a Japanese man serving up French food may be amusing to some, it is not out of the ordinary. Japan has been sending its best chefs overseas for over half a century, and now, most top kitchens have at least one Japanese chef in its brigade. Perhaps, to mock my ignorance and lack of knowledge, Restaurant Kei served me what may very well be the dish of the day. The gnocchi with truffles and Iberico ham was truly a phenomenal dish, a perfect marriage of big, bold flavours. Pieces of gnocchi, poached in salted boiling water for less than a minute, were the lightest and airiest potato dough I have ever tried. They practically disintegrated in the mouth. Strips of intensely salty Iberico ham added a porky, nutty element, while slices of shaved truffles perfumed the dish with an earthy, mushroom fragrance. Best of all was the cream sauce, rich as a Middle Eastern sultan, full of cream, cheese and truffle. It was luscious, velvety and packed a walloping punch. The sauce was so good that my companions and I found ourselves lapping at the bowl, fighting for the last drop of liquid. This sounded and looked like an exceedingly heavy dish, but it was actually well balanced and perfectly judged. This was the best plate of gnocchi I have ever eaten, and will linger in the mind for a very long time.

Duddell’s

Duddell's Restaurant Week
Left: Steamed Garoupa w/ Egg White Pudding and Huadiao Wine (HK$120); Right: Pork Dumpling w/ Black Truffle (HK$50)

Perhaps it was because I just had a revelatory food experience at Kei’s, and everything I ate afterwards paled in comparison to that stunning gnocchi dish, but I really felt that Duddell’s was a let down, despite it being a recipient of two Michelin stars. The garoupa with egg whites and Chinese wine read fantastically well, after all, who says no to tender pearls of fish perched on a bed of silky egg white pudding. However, everything was overwhelmed by the bitterness of the over-reduced huadiao wine, which was a shame as everything else was expertly cooked. The fish was tender and fresh, while the egg whites had a lovely ‘panna cotta’ wobble to it. It also looked stunning, with the colours of the edible flowers matching nicely with the blushed pink fish. The dumplings, or siu mai as I should say, were well made but nothing extraordinary. I have been always skeptical of the inclusion of truffle in Asian cuisine, as the pungent flavour of the fungus easily overwhelms the delicate flavours of Cantonese cooking. Here though, this was not an issue, as both flavours mingled seamlessly. The dumpling skin was also paper-thin, an indication that the chef was highly skilled. But in the end, it is hard to get too excited over two pieces of dumplings.

Mercato

Mercato Ricotta
House made Ricotta w/ Strawberry Jam (HK$80)

Mercato is the first Hong Kong venture of mega chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, serving up rustic Italian food in the centre of Lan Kwai Fong. Good things have been said about their home made ricotta cheese with strawberry jam, but ultimately, I found the combination a bit odd. Everybody knows that strawberries and creamy ricotta go hand in hand in desserts – hell, strawberries and black pepper go rather well too – but I do have to draw the line with olive oil and toasted bread ‘soldiers’. It was a confused appetiser-dessert hybrid, and sadly the entire thing did not jam in tune. Still, it requires tremendous skill to make ricotta this creamy and the strawberry jam was intense and fruity.

Desserts

Taste of Hong Kong Desserts
Left: Marshmallow Coated Chocolate Ice Cream from 2/3 Dolci (HK$70); Right: Tiramisu w/ Limoncello

To cap off a wonderful day, we finished Taste of Hong Kong with a tiramisu from Tosca, as well as a toasted marshmallow ice cream from 2/3 Dulci. The tiramisu was a showstopper. The mascarpone cream was light as a feather, while the limoncello added a lovely citrus zap to an otherwise heavy dessert. The ratio between limoncello and cream was also perfectly judged by the chef. It is a humble, rustic dessert, but done fantastically well. The marshmallow chocolate ice cream was more gimmick rather than gourmet food, but it does appeal to the child in you. It was fantastic fun licking off bits of marshmallow from one’s fingers. But the combination of chocolate ice cream and type-2 diabetes sweet marshmallow was too much sugar for me.

Verdict

Taste of Hong Kong

So there we have it, a summary of every single thing I ate in Taste of Hong Kong. This is the longest column on Wong Eats Hong Kong, but I really enjoyed reminiscing about the fantastic plates of food I had at the festival. Last year, I had a revelatory food experience, and I can honestly say I experienced one this year as well. While Taste of Hong Kong is bloody expensive, it is honestly one of the best festivals in the city, and I cannot wait for next year.