Modern French: In the country renowned for its rich, unapologetically decadent cuisine, famous for classic dishes the likes of blanquette de veau, foie gras terrine, and confit de canard, vegetarianism may sound almost like a dirty word in the French dictionary. French culinary history has an all encompassing respect for all elements of gastronomy, and they certainly do not shy away from animal protein and rich fats. Try being a vegan in France, and you will likely starve.
However, Monsieur Joel Robuchon, the chef with the most Michelin stars on his chef whites, is challenging our perception of French cuisine with a revolutionary vegetarian menu based on the ethos of his newest cookbook - Food & Life. Written in collaboration with Dr. Nadia Volf, the book explores the therapeutic qualities of food that goes beyond daily sustenance. In his cookbook's opening statement, Monsieur Robuchon stated that "for more than 40 years, I have been passionate about treating my guests. Today, my pleasure is doubled: I know that I am also taking care of their health".
As perks of the job, we were treated to a preview of the brand new Food & Life menu, available in two weeks at the three Michelin-starred L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon in Landmark.
Our six-course tasting menu began with Robuchon's famous bread basket, an intoxicating bouquet of freshly baked bread from their in-house boulangerie. It was a practice in the highest form of self restraint not to polish off the entire basket. Some of our favourites included the Comte croissant, the walnut bread as well as the subtlety sweet chestnut bread.
As an amuse bouche, we were treated to crispy globes of quinoa filled with potato cream and dotted with smokey, slightly spicy piquillo mayonnaise.
Our first course arrived in the form of "invigorated" tomato candies with citron olive oil and curcuma. The "invigoration" pertains to the sweet, refreshing gazpacho that gushed from the delicate sugar coated tomatoes, rolled in toasted cherry tomato powder. True to Robuchon's signature meticulousness, the base of the plate was brushed with a light sheen of clear tomato jelly, accented with jewel-like dots of basil, tomato, and gazpacho cream. Tiny shiso leaves and micro greens balanced precariously on dollops of tomato.
A work of art, for both the palate and for the eyes, arrived next in the form of a beetroot, avocado and apple salad crowned with fresh herb salad, green mustard sorbet and delicate shiso flowers. This was the perfect summer dish to combat Hong Kong's unrelenting heat, and the cucumber beetroot balsamic dressing added a refreshing sweet tangy creaminess to the whole composition. The bouquet of fresh tarragon, parsley and chives provided balance to the richness of the avocado, and the green mustard sorbet reminded us of dill pickle. We could have polished off scoops of this sorbet effortlessly on a hot summer day!
What is a French meal without petit pois? These sweet pops of fresh green peas paired beautifully with a glaze of spicy raw radish and velvety almond veloute. As the almond veloute was poured into our bowls table side, the aroma inspired us to make the most unusual comparison, to Beijing dumplings! The fragrant, almost "dough-like" aroma of the hot liquid smelled exactly like the freshly boiled dough wrappings on juicy dumplings. The richness of the almond veloute was undercut by the sweetness of the peas and the pea shoots.
The hero of the meal was the succulent white asparagus with miso emulsion and Espelette pepper. Incredibly sweet and tender, the juicy asparagus paired beautifully with the slight fermented aromas of the miso as well as a dash of spice to heighten the senses. The fresh zing of purple shiso leaves added dimension and flavour contrast.
By this point, we were bursting at the seams, despite the light vegetarian menu. We only had ourselves to blame since we scarfed down most of the bread basket!
The risotto with pimientos and vegetable couscous came to our table encased in a delicate glass dome. With a flourish of the hand, the dome was whisked away to unmask the mesmerising aroma of saffron. Japanese pearl rice was used for the risotto, which reminded us more of congee rather than the Italian staple. We adored the crunchy texture of the "ice vegetable" greens as well as the tiny florets of broccoli, but felt that the robust briny flavour of the nori competed, rather than complemented, the saffron. The parmesan cheese foam added a touch of silkiness, although we would have preferred the use of arborio rice for that creamy, slightly al dente texture.
We concluded our meal on a sweet note with strawberry sorbet and cherry confits over puff rice and pistachio cream. The dessert arrived looking like a mini edible garden, with plenty of contrasting textures and flavours to capture our interest. The tartness of the sorbet made for an excellent palate cleanser.
And of course, there were plenty of bon bons and macarons to entice us when it came to the petit fours.
Verdict: Light, refreshing, and healthful, this is the perfect menu for summer. The variety of vegetables used, as well as the weaving of complementary flavours and textures, made this menu feel more substantial than what one may perceive for an exclusively vegetarian menu. Priced at $1080 for the tasting menu, we would say it's well worth the price tag.
L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon, Landmark Atrium, Central, 2166 9000