Hong Kong’s best signature dishes: sea urchin, wagyu ribs, flower crab and special strawberry dessert

Richard Ekkebus, of Amber, may be taking his bestseller off the menu, but the majority of city restaurants let the customers decide whether a great dish should still be served or not

PUBLISHED : Friday, 13 May, 2016, 7:01am
UPDATED : Friday, 13 May, 2016, 7:00am

Time is fast running out for those who have yet to try the signature sea urchin dish at Amber. It will be taken off the menu after May 31, even though one passionate local food blogger likes it so much he has launched an “Occupy Amber” campaign as a small protest. Richard Ekkebus, culinary director of the restaurant at the Landmark Mandarin Oriental hotel in Hong Kong’s Central district, is looking forward to the end of the month with mixed feelings.

While the dish, featuring Hokkaido sea urchin in lobster jelly with cauliflower, farmed caviar and crispy seaweed waffles has attracted many diners to the two-Michelin-star restaurant over the past 11 years, Ekkebus feels it’s time to move on.

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“Some guests come in and say the menu is always the same, and there are others who will ask, ‘Where is this dish I like so much’? We as a restaurant have to decide – do we want to continue doing the same thing or do we want to evolve?” he says.

While dishes are created with the hope that diners will enjoy them and come back for more, chefs we talked to say they are never sure which one will become a signature dish, and that it’s the customers who decide.

Jowett Yu of Ho Lee Fook found out the hard way about a year after he opened the funky restaurant on Elgin Street in SoHo.

“One night we completely sold out of our roasted wagyu short ribs and I had to turn people away, which was difficult. People left when they found out they couldn’t have the short ribs. It was a lesson learned,” he says. “I had to rethink the supply chain because practically every table orders this dish.”

He believes there are several reasons diners crave Ho Lee Fook’s most popular menu item. “It’s sweet, salty and spicy, it’s a lot of fun to eat because it’s not just a piece of steak. It’s a very visual dish and when people are waiting to get into the restaurant, they see the open kitchen and the food being prepared, they get even more hungry,” Yu says.

The wagyu short ribs is the one dish Yu says he probably will never be able to take off the menu, although ironically, he can no longer bring himself to eat it or even prepare it any more – he has two staff to make the dish, from butchering the meat to marinating and cooking it.

He was surprised that the most expensive item on the menu would be the restaurant’s signature dish, saying, “It’s a double-edged sword – it’s a good thing people come back for it, but the bad thing is that I can’t take it off the menu, kind of like David Chang at Momofuku [in New York] never being able to take the pork buns off his menu.”

Over at the ICC in West Kowloon, the kaiseki menu at two-Michelin-star Tenku RyuGin has always featured the hot and cold dessert pioneered by the restaurant’s chef/founder Seiji Yamamoto in Tokyo.

The delicate dessert uses whatever fruits are in season. At this time of year, the fruit is typically strawberries, which are made into a cold ice cream powder encased in a blown-sugar shell that looks like an extra large strawberry. Guests then crack it open with their spoon, before the server garnishes the dessert with a spoonful of hot strawberry jam.

“Compared to other dishes, this dessert is very special,” says chef de cuisine Hidemichi Seki. “Guests think this is a fun dish because of the hot and cold temperatures combined together and it’s a surprise for first-time guests who don’t know how to eat it,” he says.

While Yamamoto has taken this dessert off the menu in Nihonryori RyuGin in Tokyo, making it available only by request, it is here to stay in Hong Kong – at least, for now.

At The Chairman on Kau U Fong in Central, the dish that diners have been talking about since the restaurant opened in 2009 is the steamed flower crab with egg white.

“Having a good dish is not enough – it needs to be magical,” says owner Danny Yip Kwok-cheung. “Many restaurants you go to, the next day you forget what you ate; but a year later you will still remember what a really good dish tasted like.”

He explains that it’s the sweetness of the flower crab – caught wild, not farmed – combined with the fragrant smell of the hua diao rice wine and smooth texture of the steamed egg white that makes it such a popular dish.

“It’s a very honest dish because it’s natural,” Yip says, adding that chicken fat is mixed with the egg white to make it even silkier, and that clam juice is added for more sweetness. He stresses that no salt is added.

“We thought it would be a good dish, but never thought it would be this popular because it’s quite expensive,” he says. Customers need to order it weeks in advance.

He reports that customers used to get angry if they pre-ordered the crab and the restaurant was not able to get it for them. “It is caught wild from the ocean, not farmed,” Yip says, but adds that these days, seafood suppliers will set aside the larger crabs for the restaurant so they have a more consistent supply.

Back at Amber, Ekkebus is adamant the Hokkaido sea urchin dish has to go. “We feel the evolution of the restaurant is important to keep us relevant. We don’t want to be the restaurant you take your grandparents to,” he says. “We want to work on other beautiful dishes and have a break from the uni and have more diversity. This will push us to be more creative.”

He will say goodbye to the dish during a food collaboration with Singaporean chef André Chiang (of Restaurant André in Singapore) at the end of this month, but the sea urchin dish will live on – just not at Amber. Perhaps fittingly, it will be on the menu of Korean-American Corey Lee’s new restaurant, called In Situ, in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in California.

Last year, during a “four hands” collaboration at Amber, Ekkebus showed Lee (of the three-Michelin-star Benu, in San Francisco) and his team how to make the dish. The recipe and technique were even filmed on video, which is why the Dutch chef feels the iconic dish is safe.

“Corey is a phenomenal chef, a great technician. He has replicated the dish and made it the exact same way,” says Ekkebus. “So if you still want to eat the sea urchin dish, you can make a long trek to eat it.” bernice.chan@scmp.com