Review date: January 19, 2015
As this is only a 3 day pop-up, I’m not scoring the dinner.
Chefs rarely fail to deliver interesting interviews. Always driven, always passionate, always worldly, occasionally temperamental. Above all it’s the stories they pick up along the way as they move from one country to another, seguing from a high-pressure Michelin-starred kitchen to a pop-up, before taking in an awards ceremony and then overseeing a birthday dinner for a billionaire.
Often there’s a twist along the way, such as with Peruvian Diego Muñoz. The gently-spoken but engaging 38-year old is a true culinary superstar in South America, chef at the prestigious Astrid y Gastón in Lima which recently topped the San Pellegrino awards of best 50 restaurants in Latin America. But even he can’t predict every eventuality, such as one of his two sous chefs not realizing he needed a US visa in transit, therefore rendering Muñoz one person down (out of a total team from Lima of three) for his pop-up at the Landmark Mandarin Oriental.
You wouldn’t know it off the back of a memorable dinner however, one replete with unfamiliar ingredients and techniques. Peruvian cuisine has been en vogue globally for some time now, with a number of restaurants in Hong Kong specialising in it. With respect to them, Muñoz is the real deal however and light years ahead of anything they serve.
Ceviche is the classic Peruvian culinary export (although Ecuadoreans tell a very different story), as Muñoz reveals that originally raw fish and seafood was left only in salt and chillies. Limes were not native to Peru and so ceviche only truly arrived with the Spanish conquistadors, a dish subsequently refined with techniques from the influx of thousands of Japanese to the country. As such, ceviche embodies Peruvian cuisine, the seamless integration of global techniques and flavours allied with a bounty of domestic produce.
Dinner starts with a selection of amuses-bouches, the two most memorable of which are an ode to Japan of sea urchin with seaweed and then sarza de patitas. The latter is pig’s trotter, the ultimate beer snack of crunch and salt and what tasted like vinegar combined with the gelatinous and well-exercised flesh, the whole glorious mouthful juxtaposed with delicate petals.
The ceviche is the true menu opener and arguably what diners over the three night installation are looking forward to most. Muñoz chooses scallop, oyster and caviar as the ingredients, but it’s the leche de tigre or ‘tiger’s milk’ which clinches it. It’s essentially the marinade in which the seafood is cured, a cocktail of lime juice, red onions, seasoning and rocoto chillis, one of Peru’s more than 300 varieties and the only one with blacks seeds. It’s an exceptional bowl, the mix of strong flavours somehow rounding each other out so as not to be overpowering. It also explains why it is sometimes served in a shot glass as a hangover cure, after a night out in Lima on the pisco.
The maritime theme continues with a ‘fish sandwich’ that brings a small, intense rectangle where exterior bite yields to flaked fish inside. What seems like freeze dried cheese of some sort accompanies it, but that was just the table’s best guess.
Peruvian asparagus was next. As Muñoz explains, these precious white batons are shipped out for export so he had to convince local farmers to sell to his restaurant. For the pop-up, the Mandarin imported them all the way from Lima to Hong Kong, along with hundreds of pounds of other produce.
After swopping his engineering degree for the Cordon Bleu school in Paris, Muñoz latterly embarked on a remarkable culinary adventure that saw him work in top kitchens in destinations including the US, Australia, Canada, France and Spain. Along the way, he counted legends such as Massimo Bottura, Andoni Aduriz and Ferran Adrià as his mentors. Indeed when El Bulli finally closed its two doors, he persuaded the sommelier and front of house to join him in Lima.
The groundbreaking ingredient pairings and innovative thinking championed at El Bulli are one of Muñoz’s calling cards and throughout dinner he continues to surprise, not least in the next course of lobster chupe, a sensational play on a classic South American stew :
The final course before three tastes of dessert was seco de cordero, translated as the slightly unappealing ‘lamb dry stew’. Muñoz explains that this was a dish from Peru’s northern coast featuring freeze-dried pumpkin, a sauce made from chicha (fermented corn drink) and the only nod to Asia Pacific in some comically-perfect New Zealand lamb.
Astrid y Gaston, his Lima restaurant in a 300 year-old hacienda, delivers a 360 degree sensory experience to diners. The art on the walls, the music, the specially made tableware is all chosen to sync with the menus. Each dish tells a story and one of them is served at the Landmark, namely his ‘strawberry and milk’ which evokes the condensed milk of his youth. The individual ‘pips’ of the milk flavouring must take an eternity to assemble.
Chocolate comes next with lúcuma, an Andean stone fruit and caramelized shards of nuts:
The final dish of an epic dinner is the chirimoya, or custard apple. The presentation wasn’t the most appealing, but the eating was sublime. The fruit is the equivalent of AOC certified and delivers not only a perfect balance of sweetness and acidity, but also a remarkable natural creaminess, more than living up to its name.
I was invited to experience this fascinating new culinary destination by the Mandarin but other diners paid $2,880 per person, which included wine pairings with each course. The dinner runs for three nights only, but hopefully Muñoz will be bringing his undeniable talents and sensational Peruvian produce back to Hong Kong before long.
The Landmark Mandarin Oriental, 15 Queen’s Road Central, Hong Kong. Tel: +852 2132 0188 http://www.mandarinoriental.com/landmark/
Astrid y Gaston, Av. Paz Soldán 290, San Isidro, Lima 27 – Perú Tel:+511 442-2775 http://www.astridygaston.com/?lang=en