As you may or may not know, Liberty Private Works lost its hot chef Makoto Ono a couple of months ago when he returned to his hometown for family reasons, leaving the private kitchen high and dry for a while. When I heard from one of the owners that a new chef had been hired, serving "progressive cuisine" of the same high quality we'd come to expect from Makoto, I put my name down to try out the food in early March.
As it turned out, we were the first patrons to dine with the new chef, and ahead of the rest of the crowd, no less, as the kitchen still hasn't officially reopened. As we were technically the guinea pigs, and the menu will be slightly altered based on comments, it's not really fair to do a review, but things were so close to perfect that I couldn't resist jotting down a few notes here. Though the new chef is a Hong Kong boy at heart, his last culinary position was at Daniel Boulud's Daniel in New York, which has strongly influenced his gastronomic style.
As with before, the dinner is a set featuring seven courses, except that it rotates every two weeks or so instead of on a nightly basis (which is no biggie as no one ever visits a private kitchen more than once every couple of weeks, especially not once the waiting list kicks in). As for the menu, the Gallic influence is stronger than the Japanese, resulting in a purer experience if also less experimental.
Raw scallops with grapefruit and passionfruit foam were a great way to start the meal, light and fresh but with enough citrus zing to whet the appetite for more. We were super hungry because some people (ahem, bankers suck, ahem) were an hour late, so we hoovered this up pretty darn quick.
Raw tuna and avocado with cripsy rice was pretty divine, although seemingly out of place in this menu. I won't complain though -- the spicy sauce applied to the tuna was more aggressive that the kind you get at sushi restaurants, which was a pleasant surprise, and the puffed rice (perhaps borrowed from Daniel's menu?) added a generous texture to the combination.
The photo doesn't do this justice, but a giant raviolo filled with a liquid egg yolk sat on a bed of truffle cream, giving you the most intense attack of flavours and textures. A highlight of the night indeed. Truffle is pretty pungent taste, and in my opinion is misused and wasted in many contexts. But Liberty has a good track record with the coveted ingredient (best truffle fries EVER at Liberty Exchange) and here, too, it's used sparingly as an accent. Anything with a liquid egg yolk is a win in my book.
This salmon had a lot to live up to -- I once deemed Makoto's version to be the best I had ever had in my life as a both a pig and a food journo. And this I did really enjoy, "barely cooked" and seasoned with only a drizzle of sauce to allow the flavours of the salmon to shine through, although I do find this technique of slow-cooking at low temperatures now reminds me very much of Harlan's style; I think it's the new thing he likes to show off with at Gold.
I'll say that as competent as the mains are, it's the appetizers that really sell Liberty Private Works. This, chicken with pancetta and potato gnocchi, was an interesting blend of textures, and beautifully cooked, but a bit over-seasoned. A popular refrain at the table was "how do you want us to eat this?", a query that the chef invariably replied with "everything all together." In this case, it makes a difference -- you need the gnocchi to cut the strength of the pancetta.
Admittedly, by the time we got to the beef duo, I was pretty darn full. At the second or third course I'd thought I might need to make a stop at Cul de Sac after dinner for a pizza to fill the space, but that really was wishful thinking. To sum up my thoughts from one bite of each (the rest I fed to Chris): the short rib was on the dry side; the beef tenderloin was as the name suggests: tender.
The pastry course never was a highlight at Liberty Private Works, and that tradition sort of continues here (it's better at Liberty Exchange!) Though far from stunning, it's certainly not bad.
For an overall comparison, I'd say though the cuisine is much less exploratory than it once was, it's certainly no lower in quality. I'll miss Makoto, but as my dining companions noted, this experience was still far more enjoyable than TBLS (which I haven't gotten to try yet) and a lot more filling than Ta Pantry (after which a pizza filler IS needed). So all you need to know is this: I'll be back. And you should try it too.
Liberty Private Works will be moving to a new location in a couple of months, so stay tuned for an update. It'll be interested to see how things go when they've upgraded to a space that holds 30+ instead of just 16. After all, a private kitchen works best when it is just that -- private.