Header image: Andō beef tartare with Kristal caviar (photo credit: Andō Facebook)
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Oil from olives grown on thousand-year-old trees. Bread created in consultation with one of Spain’s eminent bakeries. Tomatoes from a farmer in Japan who has single-mindedly spent his life perfecting them. Rockfish taken from a depth of 500 metres. Ethereal glassware.
Tableware fit for an art gallery. Exquisitely crafted Japanese chopsticks you pick from an elegant box. Handmade steak knives. Cards drawn by a local artist, each one symbolising the story behind a particular dish. You choose the one you think matches what you’re eating, which elicits from your server the correct match and underlying story.
A small stool for your wife to place her pocketbook. Cold, scented towels before and after the meal.
Chairs pulled in and out. Napkins refolded when you leave the table. Crumbs swept frequently. Warm, personable, thoughtful, stylish service. A muted interior that reminds you of a fine gift box, inside out. Andō serves treasures. It makes you feel treasured.
The food is Japanese-Spanish, though in this internationalised world, those can’t be hard distinctions. What strikes you is not the food’s derivation but the cooking technique. It’s virtually neurosurgical. You see Chef Agustin Balbi in the open kitchen using tweezers. He squeezes miniature bottles of rarefied, vividly coloured oils. The number of fine details that go into a dish – construction and ingredients – is often startling. It’s no exaggeration to say that the style is pointillist, many (many, many) little dots of detail combined to create a splendid entirety. It is not food that smacks you upside the head with brash flavours. Nor does it try to snag eye time with improbable vertical towers, smoke-filled cloches or flames. In order to get this food’s greatness, you must pay attention to subtleties of flavour, nuances of texture and novel combinations of ingredients.
You start with remarkable sparkling Eric Bordelet pear cider from 300-year-old trees. The taste of pear is distinct. Balanced, precise, exhilarating, it goes perfectly with your first dish, beef tartare.
Beef tartare has wide provenance, probably Russian originally. Andō’s version has a delicate Japanese sensibility. Though “sashimi grade” applies to fish, that’s what this beef is, fine to the highest degree. It is 21-day dry-aged Angus beef from Argentina with yuzu kosho (yuzu zest and chilli pepper), lime and lemon zests, soy sauce, crispy shallots, clam dashi, a cupola of Kristal caviar (harvested in China), within a ring of chive oil. Somehow, the zests and sweet, crisp shallots, which texturally play against the beef and salty caviar, loft this rendition above all others. It is capped by purple blossoms as worn by a meadow goddess. Such flavour. Such artistry. Such detail. Beyond belief.
Tomato-strawberry soup-salad showcases stunningly flavourful tomatoes and strawberries. It is topped by a helical filament of spun sugar, incomparably fine. Like a good marriage, their flavours are joined and separate at the same time. A compound and a collaboration. This is a dish to savour, even contemplate. Your wife passionately loves it, her favourite of the evening. She would not have objected to more such dishes. It comes with an Italian orange wine, 2017 Selvadolce VB1, the only orange wine you’ve ever liked. Usually, you’re put off by tannin overload, but here there was none. Your wife, family sommelier, pronounces it “brilliant”. You’re haunted by the regret you didn’t ask for a second glass.
Now, a rant. You’re hardly a clothes horse, but as you look around the room, you are amazed at how casually many of your fellow diners dress. Questing for notches on their Michelin belt, some look like they’re dropping into McDonald’s for nuggets. A fellow nearby you wears shorts, T-shirt, trainers. One comely lass, dressed as a Catholic schoolgirl, places a plush dinosaur on her handbag stool. Probably her BFF. You eye your wife as she struggles with the impulse to accidentally drop-kick it across the room. These are folks who would wear yoga pants and text at their mother’s funeral. In your view, they are not only disrespectful to the restaurant, a culinary temple, but to other customers as well. There are standards to uphold.
Raw fish arrives in nesting, hexagonal dishes. They open a box containing handcrafted chopsticks to choose from.
The sashimi: akami tuna with smoked soy sauce and yuzu kosho, carabinero prawn with shrimp-oil sauce
and piquillo pepper, hamachi with menegi and ginger sauce, scallop with negi and white soy sauce,
hamachi with akegarashi and chilli
A mouthful each, it is edifying to compare flavours and textures. You adore the scallop (such purity of flavour), the hamachi with ginger sauce (startling in its freshness) and the tuna (complemented brilliantly by smoked soy sauce). You’re served sake. You know little about sake and can only say you liked it. Probably you would have liked a dry Reisling more, but you respect Andō’s sourcing.
Like the quality of wine and beer, the quality of bread has radically improved in recent decades. We are in the midst of a bread renaissance. Young bakers have apprenticed to masters, educated themselves in undergirding science, abstracted what makes bread great, then leveraged all this into making even greater bread. Andō has three breads created in consultation with a bakery in Spain: black-olive-walnut, cereal, seaweed. There are three butters: sardine, pine nut and one made with an intriguing 100-year-old salt from Hong Kong.
The bread is pre-baked in Spain, then brought back to life in their oven. Each bread has its own reheating recipe with a certain humidity level, reheated at a given temperature for a specific amount of time.
You respectfully disagree with Andō’s approach. Though their food is part Spanish, there’s no such thing as Spanish bread. What you think they really should seek is supremely delicious bread. Any bread pre-baked, frozen, shipped and reheated cannot be as great as fresh local bread. Levain makes phenomenal bread. Bakehouse and Bread Elements make great bread. Probably some local bakeries would collaborate.
The journey tilts Spanish. There are few more difficult culinary challenges than sautéing skin-on fish fillet. The flavour-loaded skin must be crisped, the meat cooked au point. Andō does this with nonchalant ease. The fish is kinki, a rockfish bright red from eating shrimp, caught at extreme depths, 200–500 metres. It is served in a two-tone romesco, part flavoured with black olive, on top of nanohana, young shoots of the rapeseed plant (delicious, slightly bitter).
They bring a platter with two steaks. You choose which you’d prefer for the course ahead, Argentinian Angus beef from La Pampa or Kumamoto A4 Wagyu beef.
You go Argentinian, your wife Wagyu. They arrive rare beside asparagus purée with a foil of sweet pickled Snow Lotus pepper. There’s a sauce from roasted beef bones and spring mountain vegetables. There’s a perfect fiddlehead fern, most elusive of greens, atop. You love it. Your wife wishes she’d been given the option of having hers medium rare. You both wished for more char. Both of you preferred the Wagyu. You wished for a bit of salt to waft over, perhaps that 100-year-old HK salt. You’ve never had finer beef.
The French steak knives have heft. Handmade by Roland Lannier, the handles are resin over Scottish tartan. Lannier is an aficionado of punk music, comic books, knives. Check his website to grok the vibe.
The beef is accompanied by a glorious, oaky Spanish red, Bodegas Pagos de Matanegra Vendimia Seleccionada 2010.
Memory can be food. Food can be memory. Food we make can honour those who made it for us, resurrect them. You make a dish of fried matzo and egg that brings your beloved bubby to mind (somehow, in particular, you remember her gnarled hands stirring). You roast goose, honouring your grandpa and father. Pea soup is your mother itself. So with deep heart you understand how Chef Balbi links his food to life stories. Your favourite dish is a soup he calls Without Lola, referencing a Spanish soup his beloved grandmother made. The broth is house-made clam dashi. It is filled with Yumepirika rice (cooked separately so as not to starch the broth), small, delectable chunks of squid and cecina (cured Spanish beef). There’s a green uplift from chopped Italian parsley. Memorable, moving, so good!
Dessert comes with a glass of Japanese booze based on sake. The two of you would have preferred a botrytis wine. Nerikiri wagashi is a small sphere of bean paste as made by a fine artist. Inside is coffee mousse, Japanese whisky, a crumble of honeycomb. It is edible fine art.
There are additional desserts served with excellent cappuccino: caramelised white chocolate with nuts, sakura mochi with sour cherries, Japanese strawberries, passion fruit chocolate, mango saffron tart (which jangles you with pleasure).
Chef Agustin Balbi
The servers dress nattily with pocket squares. Many fine HK restaurant servers are automatons, usually excellent, but not humanly interactive. Andō’s are warm and welcoming, distinctly friendly, responsive to your questions. Such is the culture of the place. The sommelier is a pleasure: knowledgeable, articulate, enthusiastic. Eating at Andō is an intensive culinary immersion, a journey really, particularly if you give the food the sharp focus it deserves. Here is a restaurant, informed by enormous experience, intelligence and heart, for true gourmets. Andō serves treasures. It makes you feel treasured. It is a treasure.
Rating (on a scale of 0 to 5)
Overall greatness: 5
There is only one dinner tasting menu option available at Andō (no à-la-carte menu), which is priced at HK$1,688 per person. This meal was comped.
1/F, Somptueux Central, 52 Wellington Street, Central, 9161 8697 (WhatsApp), book online
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