Madam Sixty Ate is a fascinating woman indeed. Truly the perfect hostess, she is inviting and kind, welcoming her guests with open arms and encouraging them to feel right at home. She is always full of exiting stories about her adventures around the world, recounting her trips to far away places where she indulged in food and wine, never too shy to try new flavors. The characters she has met and the dishes she has sampled on her many adventures influence her own cooking, for which she has a very creative flair. Welcome to her living room.
Stepping out of the elevator onto the 1st floor of the trendy J Senses complex, the guest is greeted by a portrait of Eliza the Pig, one of the characters of the fictional Madam’s tales. The foyer leads to a chic, yet cozy lounge and bar adjoined to an elegant dining room and a balcony which overlooks the passing trams of Wan Chai’s Johnston Road. The menu is mainly Modern European, classic dishes with a creative twist, and the wine list is just as adventurous as the restaurant’s namesake herself.
In the interview that follows, Nellie and I discuss the mythical creature, Madam Sixty Ate, whom the restaurant is named after and how her stories influence everything from the every-changing menu, to the décor, to the wine list. I learn about why the wine list at MSA tends to lean more towards New World wines and how these wines pair with the very powerful, defined flavors one encounters within each dish at Madam. She describes to me the physical arrangement of the wine list and let’s me in on why the restaurant only serves wine in Riedel glasses (whose various shapes are also explained on the wine list): because dressing up a wine in the right glass is like picking out the perfect pair of shoes to go with an outfit.
Finally, Nellie suggests one of Madam Sixty Ate’s current signature dishes, a wonderful whole lamb which is served in various different ways and she recommends a somewhat unusual wine pairing, the 2010 Descendientes de J. Palacios “Pétalos del Bierzo,” a 100% Mencia from Priorat, Spain. An exiting, unique and truly adventurous pairing from the Madam herself!
I am Nellie Ming Lee. I am the sommelier for Madam Sixty Ate and I am a certified sommelier with the Court of Master Sommeliers. I’ve managed the wine program here for the past 6 months and, as a sommelier here, not only am I talking about wines with the guests, we’re also talking about food, what interests a guest in a dish and also the appropriate glass of wine to go with it.
This restaurant has a very unique name. Could you please explain the story about it? Who is this Madam character that seems to appear on the menu?
Absolutely. Madam Sixty Ate is a mythical woman who travels, writes and loves to explore the world around her. She has a great flair for cooking and also, if you’ve noticed from the menus and the paintings we have around the restaurant – these are things that really inspire her. There’s a story behind them. And I guess the name Madam Sixty Ate – if you’re a lady, of course you’d like to be referred to as a “madam” because it’s a sign of respect and we like to think that we treat everybody wonderfully here.
Please tell me a bit about the concept behind the menu at Madam Sixty Ate. What type of cuisine do you offer? Is it more of a lunch or dinner menu?
I think what we do here can be either lunch or dinner. I think the room is wonderfully light and open during the day and in the evenings, you know, you just feel like you’re hanging around in somebody’s living room almost; it’s home. At Madam Sixty Ate, we really try to make the space feel like a really comfortable home, where people are more than welcome to drop in any time and just relax and enjoy themselves. The food that we do here I would describe as Modern European. So basically classic, old techniques, but really using the flavors and the influences of the world that we have around us in Hong Kong and also those from Madam’s travels. You know, when you travel, you always find some flavor or color or taste of something that’s really wonderful, and we try to bring those influences back with us into the menu.
For example, the fish with the cauliflower tail that I’ve seen the photo of?
Yes, there’s always one fish dish which features cauliflower somewhere in it as a detail.
And the décor at Madam Sixty Ate, how does it reflect this concept?
I think the décor is meant to be comfortable. It certainly is colorful. We do want to have the classic dark panel room with dark chairs. It’s really sort of meant to be like a room.
And a bit eclectic as well?
Yeah, absolutely. We have these pillows and a couch, if you want to have a little snooze after dinner… Some people do that.
And a bit about the wine list. Is it made up of mostly New or Old World wines? Is any particular region given preference?
There’s not any given region that has preference here. I really do try to balance New World and Old World. I think we probably lean more towards New World wines here, given the fact the cuisine is “new European” and we do have a lot of unusual flavor components in some of the dishes that we do here. Any region given preference? Perhaps maybe Australia, Spain, not so much Italy….American wines are a pretty big feature of what we do here.
So mostly New World?
Yeah, a little bit more leaning towards New World here.
And how would you say this wine list complements the cuisine? Is there a good match between them?
With the very many different components that go into a single dish (and each one of those components that you see in the dishes here have very strong, defined flavors), I look for wines that, basically, stand up to that. So, sometimes Old World wines don’t really work, especially if they’re very young. But New World wines from different regions with slightly more fruit and with a bit of bottle aging, ones that can actually show a little bit of elegance, complement well what we do here.
And the wine list, how is it physically arranged? By variety or region?
I decided, because of what Madam Sixty Ate does, – she pulls her flavors from different parts of the world – I didn’t want to have a wine list defined by German, Italian, French, Australian… So the wine list is more identified by grape profiles. I have the Sauvignon Blancs together, the Rieslings together, the Chardonnays together. And then for our reds, I have the classic Bordeaux grapes together and I also have what I call “grapes from warm places,” so that’s the Shiraz’s, Tempranillos, Sangioveses… And, just because Madam herself is quite adventurous, I also have a page with different grapes from different places.
I’ve noticed that the wine list begins with an explanation of the different forms of the Riedel wine glass. Why did you choose to include this on the list?
We really believe that everything is always enjoyed more in its appropriate setting, so we do want to only use Riedel glasses here; even the water glasses are of a Riedel water template. Dressing up a glass of wine in the right glass is really, for Madam, is like putting the right pair of shoes with the right outfit. The glass of wine, it feels better and tastes better. It just feels great.
And Madam can’t be seen with anything less than the best?
And I also noticed that you have a brief description of something called the “O wine tumbler.” Can you explain what this is?
Yes, the O wine tumbler, I think Riedel came out with them a few years ago. They are meant to be slightly casual, a little bit easier to use, not so formal. So, we use the O tumblers in the lounge and also on the terrace. The O glass tumbler basically has a bowl with the same shape as the matching glass, without the stem and the base.
It stands on its own without the stem. But it still has different forms depending on variety it’s used for?
Yes, different shapes. The Chardonnay tumbler is very round, the Sauvignon Blanc is like this [more oval] and the Cabernet tumbler is like that [more wide], and the Shiraz tumbler is a bit taller – that’s generally because Shiraz is usually higher in alcohol, so by serving it in a taller tumbler you’re giving the alcohol a bit more time to dissipate.
Does the champagne flute its tumbler?
No, we only use the classic champagne flutes for everything.
Have you noticed any trends on the regions that the restaurant’s clientele seems to order from the most? Is there any country that seems to stands out, perhaps because it matches the food best?
I can’t say that there’s an actual trend, per se, because our menu evolves constantly. It’s not that we change the menu once a month, but it’s almost every week that there’s a dish on the menu that gets redesigned a bit, shall we say. So it’s a constantly evolving menu, and some weekends I find that everyone seems to want to eat fish, other weekends everyone seems to want to eat duck and drink Pinot Noir. So it’s as Madam would say, “Just enjoy whatever you wish.”
The same applies, I assume, for varieties. There’s not one specific variety that stands out the most?
If there’s one grape variety that is very popular here, I would say it’s Pinot Noir. It’s probably one of Madam’s favorite grapes. And for whites, we don’t really seem to stand in any one place. Some days a Sauvignon Blanc, other days everyone seems to only want to be drinking Chardonnay…
Our signature dish, at the moment, because our menu changes constantly, I’m going to say is the head-to-tail lamb. We actually have a whole lamb which we butcher ourselves. For that dish, you get cuts from different parts of the lamb and each cut is prepared differently. It comes with a really fun broccoli-stuffed macaroni. The first time people see it, people always think, “Wow, how did the broccoli get into the macaroni?” It’s nice to present a dish like that, one which gives people thought and makes them wonder how the broccoli gets into the macaroni. The way we do it is we puree and siphon each macaroni with broccoli. That is also done with the green olive, almond and lemon puree. Even though most people think of lamb as a very rich, hearty, meaty dish, here it’s actually quite the opposite with the lemon puree that actually lightens it and gives it a nice tart finish.
With that, my favorite wine pairing would be… I think the classic pairing with lamb, people always think of Shiraz, but I actually try to encourage people to be a little more adventurous with a wonderful wine that is made by Palacios which is 100% Mencia, from Priorat, Spain. With Mencia, people always go, “Hey this is very interesting, I’ve never had that!” Well, you can have it at Madam. It’s a great wine because the way we do the lamb is obviously a very unique way of presenting the dish, and it’s great when you can actually have a customer who trusts you enough that you can give them a very unusual wine pairing with it as well.
Well I’d definitely trust in the Madam to pair my dish well.