Zafran is part of HK’s Aqua restaurant group, offering Spanish cuisine in a relaxed restaurant and DJ lounge, although with more formal plate presentation than its tapas title suggests.
The entrance is on the busy stretch of Wyndham Street, well positioned for carrying on at the likes of 6 Degrees, Solas and Wagyu, (which, I gleefully didn’t…) and fondly referred to by my husband as “cougar alley”. Friendly doormen man the reservations list before escorting you down a lantern lit stairwell into the restaurant where two dining rooms are separated by a large open kitchen. This is always a confidence booster and ideal for inquisitive (nosey) diners such as myself and I was excited (albeit slightly nervous) to see spiky sea urchins littering the counter top.
While Zafran has been open for some time, last night celebrated the infrequent reunion of Chef Pedro Samper, flown in from the Basque country, with Catalunia born Chef Jordi Valles, currently resident at Beijing’s auspicious Agua restaurant. The pair manned the decks for two nights this week (September 17th and 18th), hence the evening’s title Cuatro Manos (four hands).
Having studied in Galicia as a student, (admittedly more in bars than eateries), and travelled throughout Castile, I was excited to taste the cuisine from Spain’s other two regions. A bit like certain parts (no names mentioned…) of the British Isles, these like to remain fiercely independent and retain their identity in terms of cuisine as well as politics. The menu was therefore separated and clearly delineated in terms of Basque and Catalan dishes.
We kicked off with a classic plate of Iberian ham, washed down with a pleasingly generous G&T while perusing the 8 course set menu of small individual portions. If you were hoping for rusticity with manchego strewn wood blocks, this is not your place.
Seafood dominated the first course, where we tasted a trio of bites, kicking off with a smoky and crisp cep carpaccio, then moving from right to left on the plate, as recommended by the waiter. I stepped into the bacalao with some trepidation as this salted codfish is rarely my go-to when ordering but this was one was milder than usual, and besides, the romesco sauce was sweet, velvety and reassuringly balancing of the bacalao’s inherent “fishiness” (technical term).
Catalonian sea urchin was by far the star of this show (with erizo de mar translated cutely as sea hedgehog), served as a fresh and delicate mousse in its prickly shell decorated with a sweet beetroot crisp that could pass off as candy. This was one of the highlights of the meal although I could have lived without the salmon roe, which indeed I did. The second round continued to impress with tender, sweet Boston lobster pieces served in a watermelon gazpacho containing plump Basque almonds.
You can take the chef out Spain but it would appear paella is a harder dish to eliminate(!) so we were pleased to see a pork based paella rather than the usual seafood variety, with flawlessly executed rice flavoured with saffron and smoked paprika. My friend nearly asked for seconds…
Following this was a climactic Basque dish usually served at festival times: a slow cooked oxtail in a “milk & thyme essence” which translates as possibly the finest mashed potato ever infused with an unlikely but highly successful fresh herb. Joel Robuchon was famed for his (butter intensive) mash and this was certainly up there in the rankings. If only there had been a little more of it, although I can’t admit to be starving at this point. The sweet radishes also provided some crunch and balanced out a very fine main course.
Moving onto desserts, what girl doesn’t revel at the prospect of two rounds of these? First up was “Pa, Vi & Sucre”, which I can more crudely describe as sweet chunks of toast floating in a chilled mulled wine with a ball of orange blossom ice-cream. Tart it certainly was and a sure pallet cleanser, which I appreciated, although my dining companion found this chef’s family dish a little too sugary.
Struggling (enjoyably) onto course 8, the mood turned molecular and a little theatre was brought to the table in the form of liquid nitrogen smouldering from orange pieces inside a glass. There was nothing edible about this, its purpose being merely to shroud us in its aroma while we tucked into pudding round 2. However, possibly due to a slightly over-enthusiastic AC unit, the smell was very faint, but we certainly enjoyed the drama, so thank you!
Just as we winded down with our final glass of dessert wine, the last course perked us up with popping candy exploding in the mouth alongside juicy redcurrants and more elusive (by default) panna cotta.
We left with full tummies but not overly guilt ridden with carb consumption, which is always a bonus, and since a school night, managed to hail taxis swiftly instead of succumbing to the magnetic draw of HK’s nightlife, as is my usual fate. As I type this at 7am the following day, I am awfully glad that was the case.
The set menu was $560 a head excluding 10% service and included 3 different Spanish wines paired with the dishes. Since the last two nights were an exceptional meeting of these two native chefs, it’s impossible to return for the same dishes, but if it’s any reflection of Zafran’s usual offering, I would be thrilled to go back.
Basement, 43-43 Wyndham Street
Tel: +852 2116 8855