Embla: Trailblazing Contemporary Scandinavian Fare in Sheung Wan
When we heard back in 2021 that the widely beloved Nordic upscale bistro formerly known as Frantzen's Kitchen was closing at the end of the year, we were bereft to see the Scandinavian staple, a rarity in our city, leave the gastronomic scene. Thankfully we were reassured that Executive Chef Jim Löfdahl would be returning in the new year with his new fine dining venture in the exact same location but with a brand new name, revamped interiors and a remarkable culinary concept that has elevated Nordic haute cuisine to heights which have never before seen in Hong Kong. We ventured into Upper Station Street to check out the newly renovated restaurant and sample their Autumn Menu so that we could finally share with you something we already had an inkling about before we'd amassed definitive proof, why Embla dominates the Hong Kong gastronomic scene in a league of her own.
It's no secret that Scandinavian cuisine is one of the most mysteriously underrated and unfamiliar cuisines to many people including acclaimed 'foodies' themselves and particularly outside of Europe. And it's a baffling fact to wrap one's head around especially after having had a proper taste of the regional food or better yet, having experienced firsthand the artful and dynamic mastery that comes into play in New Nordic cuisine, prevalent all around the scandicities like Copenhagen, Oslo, Stockholm and Reykjavik. Your writer here is an unabashed, starry-eyed lover of New Nordic fare for a variety of reasons. It is wholly unique and unlike any other fine dining concept in Europe where the idea and practices of Modern European gastronomy more often than not adhere to French cooking methods and standards to some extent. New Nordic uses heritage-traditional cooking techniques like smoking, pickling, drying and preserving their food, and it strictly abides by the maxims of using seasonal and local produce and ingredients through sustainable practices. The entire ethos is centered around bringing authentic, traditional dishes of Scandinavia, once thought to be bland and characterless, into the enterprising 21st-century culture of haute cuisine with innovative twists, showcasing the finest pick of local and organic produce possible without compromising on standards and authenticity in any aspect of their craft. The final result is an inspired and exquisite culinary journey that simultaneously brings you to the core of Nordic agriculture and the prominent flavours that define their cuisine as well as up to new altitudes of sensory experiences.
With a more Nordic than-ever contemporary menu to change 4 times a year, reflecting the sincere significance of seasonality in the restaurant's concept, and authentic Nordic ingredients as well as wines and liquor exported from the Northern European sub-region, Embla and its team stand alone as Scandinavian haute cuisine pioneers atop a summit which they reached through a path they carved out themselves. The interior design embodies that sophisticated and understated minimalist style the Scandinavians are renowned for, with midnight blue matted walls against powder blue sofas, blending seamlessly with rustic, textured wooden flooring as well as rich walnut upholstery. The open kitchen countertop is made of gorgeous, earthy marble and the lighting is warm and romantic. What Embla has created is a sophisticated, intimate and inviting space bringing design and atmospheric elements from up north for their patrons to step into with the option to dine with a front-row seat to dinner production or a more private booth table.
Smoked eel, pickled herring "Gubbröra", eggs, dill, chives, oscietra caviar and crisp bread
A great way to discern whether or not an establishment implements the devil in the details is through menu items like its bread, the amuse bouche and the sauces. When we are wowed by something as simple as crisp bread with an outstanding crunch, it sets the level and direction for the experience. Gubbröra in Swedish translates to 'old man's mix' and though the real origin story behind its name is unknown, it's presumed that the name came about from being a generally popular dish with the old men, suggesting the significant traditional value and taste tied to it. The pickled herring, eggs and a variety of herbs are the usual ingredients to be found in the Gubbröra but here the smoked eel and oscietra caviar are added into the mix to lend a gorgeous sumptuous texture and an extra layer of depth in the smoky, savoury and pickled flavours.
Salmon cornet "Gravlax", red apple, vendace roe and horseradish
A notable feature of the New Nordic Movement is the incorporation of nature into the flavours and aesthetics of the dishes and we noticed an inspired integration of earthy tones and ingredients like the seeds and grains as a bed for presentation among the first two starters, blending immaculately with the earthen-like marble counter and channeling autumnal energy into their visual concept. Topped with vendace roe, the smallest roe in the world found in the freshwater lakes of northern Europe, the gravlax cured salmon is a delicate and oaky tasting, full-fleshed fish that is topped with savoury caviar bursting through in satisfying pops, as well as a bold helping of piquant horseradish whilst the cornet, lends a gentle, sweet crunch.
Toasted brioche, pork chin, potato emulsion, ramson capers, garlic and herbs
Cooked for 24 hours in order for the meat to reach its full potential, the pork is succulent, wonderfully fragrant and practically melts in the mouth teasing the palette with briny capers and pickled onions atop a fluffy brioche bed. The real gem of this dish is the juice concoction made up of the rare and one-of-a-kind cloudberry and a touch of apple served on the side in a teacup. The amber-coloured cloudberry is said to be the most sought-after Nordic fruit for it thrives and grows only in the harshest environments of the arctic with a notoriously long waiting period for the fruit to be able to replicate. Having traipsed around a few Scandinavian cities myself without ever having had the honour of chancing upon the coveted cloudberry, you can imagine my elation when I saw it on the menu. Blended with a splash or two of apple juice, the cloudberry drink created a delightful acidic-sweet pairing to the rich pork brioche.
Roe deer tartare, ättika emulsion, semi dried carrots, deep fried lichens, browned butter and parsley
As we'd opted for the Nordic Inspired Beverage Experience, we were introduced to a crisp, dry sparkling birch sap wine harkening from the Jämtland region of Sweden to accompany our following course, the roe deer tartare, one of their signature dishes. Vibrant and arresting, the dish is plated in such a way it wholly encompasses autumnal and forest inspiration, particularly with the entangled fried lichens on top. The roe deer tartare is charred and the petals of carrots are semi-dried to release the vegetable's natural sugars with atrial emulsion. Adding in the gratifying texture of the deep-fried lichens as well as the smoked, blanched parsley puree enriched with spinach, the combination of each ingredient is one exquisite and refined ensemble of natural, unparalleled flavours and sensations. Shortly after the tartare came a crowd-pleasing, simple yet sublime sour milk bread made with rye, spelt, barley oats and a serving of homemade butter.
Langoustine, caramelised cabbage soup, sautéed spinach, rapeseed oil & chestnuts
There's no dish that screams nostalgia and the irreplaceable goodness of home cooking like a soup and what dish could be more tempting to try as the temperature gradually drops and the days start to shorten than a cabbage soup with luxurious Scottish langoustine?
Resting on top of sautéed spinach, the langoustine bursts with rich and full flavours, enhanced by the natural sugars from the caramelised cabbage broth and the buttery, sweet chestnuts and the airy froth on top is mastered to an art.
Celeriac fondant, preserved truffles, smoked tea scented with pea soy & fermented onion bouillon
To best enjoy the celeriac fondant, we were introduced to a delightful Danish organic orange wine, the Vexebo Vin Solaris 2017, a delectable, citrusy liquid with notes of pear and apple. For me, this course is where the Executive Chef's creativity and dominion over his craft unprecedentedly take over. Presented as bold, striking and simple with a perfect foam dome perched atop gorgeous dark truffles and butter mushrooms over a golden, deep umber onion bouillon. An all-encompassing sensory experience with a taste of wonderfully unique and foresty flavours from the smoked lapsang tea which permeates into each ingredient, wrapping the whole dish in a sweet, smoky aroma akin almost to pine wood with the indulgent onion bouillon elevating the velvety sweetness of the celeriac.
Wild turbot, butter poached clams, sea buckthorn velouté, chanterelle purée & leek
One of my preferred fishes, the lean and fleshy turbot rarely disappoints, but bathed in a cold-pressed creamy, tart yet slightly fruity sea buckthorn velouté, the mild yet meaty marine protein reached new levels of favouritism for me.
The peppery and woodsy chanterelle purée enforced those deep autumnal flavours whilst the clams lent a lovely extra layer of texture to the firm in contrast turbot.
Pigeon breast, beetroot, roasted onion purée, jûs and liquorice
The other main course, the pigeon breast, is an exquisitely tender, succulent meat with its temptingly vibrant blushed-crimson-pink meat within peeking out from under a perfect sear on top. A rich and flavoursome jûs made from the pigeon carcass and an aromatic roasted onion purée bursts with caramelised sweetness to compliment the robust tangs of beetroot and the elegant, gamey meat.
Lingonberry sorbet, poached grey pear, Norwegian brown cheese and oat cookie
To round off our Nordic evening, it seemed only fitting to see lingonberry incorporated into our final course – a tantalisingly refreshing, tangy-sweet sorbet combined with a harmonious saccharine taste of poached grey pear and indulgent, honeyed Norwegian brown cheese. Don't forget to take a bite out of the freshly baked 'fika', dainty financiers to be enjoyed with coffee or tea. A palatable and delicate dessert that perfectly balances out an extensive multi-course menu.