Few would doubt that Amber has been one of Hong Kong's most important fine-dining restaurants of the past decade. Helmed since its inception 14 years ago by Richard Ekkebus, the restaurant has been on Asia's 50 Best Restaurants and World's 50 Best Restaurants lists, and has two Michelin stars.
Despite his charms, Hong Kong's conservative diners didn't instantly warm to the Dutchman's cuisine at the beginning, but Ekkebus eventually became the standard bearer of using Japanese produce, such as abalone and sea urchin, in a non-Asian setting.
Amber is going to reopen tomorrow after closing in December last year for renovations, but an upgrade in the design (led by Adam Tihany, who was also Amber's designer the first time around) is just one part of the sweeping changes that have come to this Hong Kong establishment.
The new Amber menu
Before the reopening, Ekkebus’s team had been travelling and cooking all over the world, and they returned to Hong Kong last month to prepare in earnest, in a test kitchen not far from Amber. The team created around 50 new dishes for the new menu, which will be completely free of dairy and refined sugar.
While dietary concerns have been on the rise in kitchens all around the globe in recent years, Ekkebus’s decision was less about trends and more about Hongkongers' diets.
He says that almost half of Amber's guests were already requesting dairy-free meals. “We would be scrambling to make these alterations. [Lactose intolerant guests] were getting a diluted experience. It makes sense to eliminate diary because most Asian people are lactose intolerant."
Highlighting the flavours
Perhaps inspired by Asian cuisines such as Cantonese (the main influence in Hong Kong) and Japanese, he is focused on highlighting the innate, natural flavours of ingredients, and showcasing them from his perspective. Take, for instance, a dish he demonstrated in his test kitchen - a delicate yellow disc, painstakingly created by dehydrating and pulverising fresh Okinawan corn, which is placed atop a corn purée. Getting to the purée requires the diner to shatter the hard-earned disk, like the caramel on a crème brûlée.
The purée is smooth, creamy, and intensely sweet, and yet it contains no cream, sugar or any additions - it's a celebration of simplicity, and the purity of nature's bounty. Ingredients such as kombu, soy beans (for house-made tofu), and cold-pressed plant oils were abounds in the test kitchen.
Vegetables are at the forefront of Amber's new direction, says Ekkebus, who has been championing environmental initiatives the past few years. "Besides being the right thing to do from an ecological perspective, the plant kingdom is more interesting than the animal kingdom."
Ekkebus calls it “essential cooking”. "[Previously] at Amber we already had a light touch, and I just feel that that's the way forward for us,” he says.
The destiny of the iconic sea urchin
The chef, who in his early days in the profession spent some time studying nutrition, says he wants his diners to leave with a "sense of nourishment and fulfillment, not a food coma or a food baby."
Although trained in French technique (working with the likes of Pierre Gagnaire and Guy Savoy), Ekkebus turning his back on French fundamentals like butter might seem like sacrilege, but he believes it's the way forward for himself and Amber. "If you don't like it, that's fine as well, I don't need to tick everybody's boxes," says Ekkebus.
Amber's dramatic pivot isn't the only radical change that's coming to the Landmark Mandarin Oriental, the hotel in which the restaurant is housed. Also within Ekkebus's purview, as culinary director of the hotel, is a whole new restaurant next door, a wine-focused bistro called Somm, which will offer over one hundred wines and sakes by the glass, as well as thousands more by the bottle. Joining these are Sushi Shikon, the three-Michelin-starred sushi restaurant overseen by Tokyo's three-starred Sushi Yoshitake, and Kappo Rin, serving highly seasonal kappo cuisine.
There's one thing that isn't changing at Amber - sea urchin is still on the menu, although even that iconic dish won't escape reinvention.