Frenchman Olivier Elzer cooks in one of Hong Kong's most elegant dining rooms — its spacious tables are set well apart, and the cool interior tones and motifs of designer Andre Fu add to the ambience while also letting diners concentrate on and revel in the chef's creations.
Elzer, formerly of restaurants including Abbaye de La Bussière in Burgundy and Hong Kong's three-MICHELIN-starred L’Atelier de Jöel Robuchon, is today culinary director of one-MICHELIN-starred L’Envol at The St. Regis Hong Kong.
In the position since September 2017, the thoughtful, dedicated native of Alsace-Lorraine seems to relish constantly challenging himself, especially given the huge range of diners' palates in Hong Kong.
"Every chef can play it safe and be very strong by always doing the same dish, and having the dish come back every season," Elzer muses. "Some other chefs like to put themselves on the edge of the cliff, take the risk, keep changing, and that's tough because you're putting yourself in a position where people can criticise you. When you create a dish and everyone says 'wow', this is another level — you get attention."
What makes this challenge even more interesting in cosmopolitan Hong Kong, says Elzer, is that everyone has different palates: "We have Westerners, Chinese, Japanese guests and many more, so you have to please them all."
Elzer is clearly someone more interested in relentless creativity than keeping things easy. "I could play it safe," he admits. "But I've been here 11 years and my customers know me well, so I think I owe them to reinvent myself, to bring new dishes." His latest creation — just off the pass as we speak — is a combination of monkfish with foie gras, bacon and apricot, he points out.
But amid his myriad novel creations, one dish has enjoyed enduring popularity.
He says, of his signature Brittany Razor Clams “À La Marinière” With Pressed Maison Nordique Caviar Cream: "These extra-large razor clams come from Brittany. We cook them like a mussel marinière, with shallots, thyme, rosemary. We get the juices, add some olive oil and lemon juice, reduce it, then use the best part called the tongue and slice it on the side. There are five bites, in sequence. All the ingredients are French, underneath the juice is the razor clam where we add cream."
The dish is light and refined and features as its highlight a beautiful presentation of 10g of caviar in two textures, including pressed caviar.
"It's always a joy when you come to a restaurant to start with some caviar, it puts you right away on the good track to having something nice, but I also respect the fact that a starter should be a starter," says Elzer, who believes he is the first chef to use pressed caviar in Hong Kong.
Pressed caviar is made using a historic process from Russia and Iran. Every 1kg of pressed caviar is produced using 6kg of caviar.
He continues: “Only a few producers make pressed caviar, and each of them has a slightly different way of production. You can get more creative with pressed caviar. I also like it for its concentrated flavour. You lose its round texture, but it becomes more intense. It gives the dishes flavours and textures that never existed before.”
"People love caviar here in Hong Kong," Elzer observes. Caviar has been available on the signature menu since the restaurant's beginning, and 60 to 70 per cent of guests order it or add it to the lunch menu as a supplement, he adds. "I want to use French caviar in a French restaurant, so we choose to use the Siberian sturgeon, which is raised in the French regions of Aquitaine and Sologne."
"I've loved caviar for a long time, from the days when only wild caviar from Iran was available. I've known my supplier from La Maison Nordique for more than 20 years and I always feel it has to be on the table for fine dining. This is modern fine dining with all the class and elegance but also a casual feel, to feel comfortable, not stuffy, old-style French, but a modern approach," Elzer further explains.
“In my signature dish we have two textures of caviar - imperial Sologne French caviar, razor clam for crunchiness and acidity because we cook it with white wine and lemon juice, then underneath you have the caviar cream, something that not many people know.”
On the palate, it's sublime, a perfect combination of textures and flavours, a triumph of world-class seafood produce. Elzer lets the flavours sing, without too much interference, respecting the integrity and terroir of ingredients.
There's also an undoubted sense of culinary theatre in shaving the pressed caviar in front of diners - almost like an aquatic truffle.
The pressed caviar in particular is a revelation - and a reminder how even seasoned diners can still embark on exciting and new culinary journeys with chefs like Elzer leading the way.