It sometimes feels that every chef in town has, at some point or another, worked at Les Amis. The venerable French restaurant is a kind of benediction; a stamp of approval that so-and-so can indeed cook, so come try out his new restaurant. It says something for the standards of Les Amis’ kitchen that, more often than not, this stamp is earned and warranted. And in the case of its former head chef, Gunther Hubrechsen, the association does both parties proud at his new self-named digs on Purvis Street.
Taking up a deceptively small space right next to Garibaldi (the owners are also partners in Gunther’s), the dining room – white table linen, charcoal-grey walls and leather chairs with uncomfortably low arm rests – is suitably gloomy, hinting at expense accounts, clandestine affairs and anniversary meals. At one dinner, I passed a table where actress Jacelyn Tay sat bolt upright, not a single facial muscle twitching as she poked at her plate. On my way out, the waiter whispered that her dining companion was the owner of an automotive chain – the gossip one hears.
Though the name Gunther’s hints at a German menu, Hubrechsen’s oeuvre is thoroughly French (though he himself is Belgian) – and haute French, by way of nouvelle cuisine, at that. So, the plating is considered, the plates blindingly white and muscularly constructed sauces form the backbone of every dish. And while the quality of the ingredients is beyond reproach, the portions often feel miserly, for what you’re paying. An amuse-bouche of tempura prawns was almost invisible on its silver spoon. Two small pieces of cod, barely fitting in a palm, cost $45 before taxes. And when the Brittany langoustine arrived, fragrant with butter and a heavy dusting of tarragon, my friend leaned over and whispered, ‘It’s a good thing I’m not very hungry!’ That’s fine dining for you.
Hubrechsen’s nouvelle leanings are especially evident when he encrusts a creamy chunk of foie gras with crushed toasted almonds, and pairs it with (two) gently stewed sweet cherries. At one dinner, veal cheeks were braised in a thick, mahogany-hued sauce until fork tender, the richness of the meat an earthy foil for the smooth mash and baby peas sautéed with bacon bits. With the cod – its flesh snowy white and immoderately tender – the chef dropped small Bouchon mussels into a shallow pool of heavy cream sauce cut with beer. With the disappointingly undercooked conchiglie shells, he scattered thin strips of peppery, deliciously porky Kurobuta, slashes of Parmesan and truffle juice. And, as if the Japanese infl uences weren’t enough, he unabashedly channelled the legendary Michel Troisgros and tossed perfectly cooked angel-hair pasta with garlic, seaweed and chilli.
Desserts are crafted with the same attention to detail as mains. The sabayon was a golden, liquid cloud of sunshine, pierced with macerated strawberries. The tartness of the warm plum, stained with red wine, was gently offset by an oval scoop of vanilla ice cream; while the chocolate cake split open to reveal a gorgeous, bittersweet lava.
Still, despite the kitchen’s unquestioned technical prowess, you’re left with an unsettling ennui of having seen it all before. And sometimes, as with the foie gras and frothy mushroom soup, you have – at Les Amis. There remains, too, niggling irritations that prevent Gunther’s from being a truly first-rate restaurant or, indeed, one that justifies its high prices (an average three-course meal without wines will set you back $100). These included too-loud music, reverberating acoustics and the waist-coated staff’s uncertainty with the (very small) menu.
At the very minimum, one expects an absolute familiarity with each dish. For example: at a dinner, I was surprised by the unexpected flash of peanut butter in the incomparable mushroom soup. The waiter returned from the kitchen and assured the table that it was pure mushroom, but came back a few minutes later with confirmation that yes, there was peanut butter. On another occasion, no one knew where the ossetra came from until the smooth maître d’ glided up and murmured, ‘It’s farmed in France. It’s very good’. Oddly, soup was served with a dinner spoon rather than a soup spoon, while the warm towels dispensed at the beginning of the meal left my hands, on two separate occasions, with a sickly smell of half-dry clothes, requiring a separate trip to the washroom. At this level of dining, these slip-ups all count – even if the cooking is as technically skilled as Hubrechsen’s.
Further information on Gunther's here.