Saturday, 19 March 2016

Mandarin Grill and Bar - the perfect lunch?

I suspected that I might like the Mandarin Grill and Bar.  Having all of the hallmarks of a great restaurant helps: Michelin Star, world class home in the Mandarin Oriental and a head chef that trained under arguably this century's most innovate chef, Ferran Adria of El Bulli fame.  Yep, there was a fair chance that I was in for a beauty of a meal.

But I've been wrong before!

I have a love-hate relationship with Michelin Starred restaurants for lunch, love the fact that in Hong Kong you can access a Michelin restaurant for around quarter their usual price.  Hate the fact that more often than not, the star chef is not presiding over lunch time service and you're never sure if the meal will be at the same standard as a dinner.

With a reputation as an innovative chef, Executive Chef Uwe Opocensky has had the opportunity learn from more than just one master, having also worked with Anton Mosimann and Alain Ducasse. That reputation was the key ingredient for the Mandarin Grill securing its Michelin star in 2009, and more importantly, keeping the menu and restaurant fresh while maintaining the gold standard of a Michelin star.  I could think of no better place to have lunch with some colleagues - secretly hoping those lunchtime blues wouldn't become a factor.

Surprisingly, my dining companions had beaten me to the restaurant and were seated by the time I arrived.  I say surprisingly because I've a reputation for being early to dine and I felt just a little weird coming to the table last!

I guess one of the benefits of being last to the table was that things moved pretty quickly from that point, our super friendly waitress bringing over some bread for us to snack on.  I was suitably impressed when she brought over what at first appeared to be a bottle of perfume, but actually turned out to be olive oil. Exquisite olive oil too, Chateau d'Estoublon - Huile D'Olive, which had a beautiful pepper flavour that complimented the bread perfectly.  I also loved that there were two bread selections, a crusty sour dough and a sweet brioche that just soaked up the olive oil so well.

Our menus were presented and we had the option of the standard menu or the amazing value lunchtime prix fixe - three courses for a superb HK$638.  I hesitated only slightly when I saw some of the delectable offerings on the standard menu, swayed almost by the lovely looking items, but at the end of the day, sanity prevailed and I went for the better value option.  Especially since there were equally delicious looking options at a fraction of the cost!

First course was an easy choice for me, selecting the white asparagus with Japanese ham and slow cooked egg.  My breath caught when I saw the simple yet beautiful presentation of the three ingredients, there was nowhere to hide with this dish and first impressions were super positive. The perfectly formed egg sat on the three asparagus spears with the ham casually surrounding the golden yolk.  The colours were magnificently offset by the matt black plate, they were striking. I almost didn't want to break into the yolk, but my desire to devour the dish was overwhelming. The creamy yolk was seasoned to perfection, yet the saltiness from the ham was really appreciated too and combined to balance out the ever so slightly acidic asparagus.  It was the ideal start to a three course meal for me - it left me wanting to lick my plate.

There was a choice of chicken, fish, vegetarian or beef for main, so no surprises when I went for the grilled US tenderloin with charred shallot, textures and colours of carrot a bordelaise sauce and smoky mash on the side.  Like my starter, I was impressed with the presentation of the tenderloin, the pink of the medium rare grill acting as a beacon calling for me to dive right in.  I'll start off by saying that the beef was incredibly tender with lovely flavour, which was helped along by just the right amount of seasoning.  The bordelaise sauce was interesting, but there probably wasn't enough sauce to really impact the flavour of the beef - a good thing?  I'm not really sure. There were roasted carrots on the plate, that were (I think) purposefully over roasted to enhance the texture and flavour, it worked nicely.  I wasn't a huge fan of the charred shallot and really didn't like the smoky mash at all, the texture was grainy and the flavour didn't sit well on my palate.  It wasn't a huge issue though, it was served separately in a copper pot, so I could largely ignore the mash and focus on the star of the dish, which was that tenderloin.

I was excited about my dessert, which was simply called raspberry, but had a sub line that confirmed that it would be a pavlova with cream and coulis.  I had a suspicion that it wouldn't be a traditional pavlova, a suspicion which was confirmed when a dainty and pretty dessert was placed in front of me.  The round of meringue was firm and crunchy and had fresh raspberries sitting inside, topped with a raspberry sorbet.  The meringue was sitting on a bed of vanilla cream, which had flecks of vanilla seed throughout.  It was almost too pretty to crack into, almost!  Once I'd smashed the meringue, I came across the raspberry coulis, which was central to the dessert and helped balance out the very, very sweet meringue and sweet cream, the tartness being much appreciated.

My dining companions had a slight variance on my meal, with the clam chowder selected as an alternate entree, the monkfish selected as an alternative main and the yuzu selected as an alternative dessert.  Given the nature of the lunch, I didn't sneak across and sample any of the other dishes, but the comments were that the chowder was a little too salty, the monkfish superbly cooked and very tasty and the yuzu dessert being a revelation.  There was a universal agreement the the mash that came with the tenderloin was not great, especially when compared to the benchmark of mash - Joel Robuchon.

As far as lunch time specials at Michelin starred restaurants go, I have to say my Mandarin Grill and Bar experience could be just the tonic to change my mind about the merits of a cheaper meal.  I was incredibly happy with my meal, both from a value perspective and a quality perspective.  I'm not sure if Chef Uwe was in the kitchen, but it wouldn't have surprised me if he'd personally cooked each of my courses!

It's fair to say that I was impressed with my meal, even though there were a few quibbles from my dining companions when comparing a HK Michelin starred restaurant to a European equivalent. Not a huge issue for me, I definitely thought the meal was at the right standard, especially my starter - just lovely.

It wasn't until I was leaving to head back to work that I took a moment to look round the Sir Terence Conran designed space that I realised how smart the Mandarin Grill and Bar actually was.  The interior was both relaxing and contemporary at the same time, the perfect space for a business lunch, and of course it was not surprising that there were a bucket load of suits in the room, doing just that (I  guess I was one of them).  There was an open kitchen where the oyster bar was prominent, along with the chefs preparing much of the meal, a feature I always love in a restaurant.

Service was great, with the smartly dressed wait staff knowing exactly how to interact diners who were engaging in important business deals and topics.  I barely noticed that they were there, but my water glass was always full and our plates were cleared immediately once the last of us had finished their course, a great sign for sure.

The Mandarin Grill and Bar is a spot that I'll most certainly be back to, and soon.  I loved the ambiance and the food, which was just what I'd normally eat when given a choice (a slight modern French influence).  Good honest food with lots of flavour, presented wonderfully - you can't ask much more than that.

My Entree, Main and Dessert were bang on the mark

Some lovely warm madeleines came with the bill - lovely
And of course, we had some to go as well

The Mandarin Grill and Bar

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