A valiant attempt

PUBLISHED : Friday, 19 September, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 19 September, 1997, 12:00am

The transformation of clubby French Pierrot into trendy gold-and-spice Vong has been touted as something revolutionary on the Hong Kong culinary scene.

It is a radical move, although the Mandarin Oriental's other colonial relics - the Grill and the Chinnery - remain intact. The lift button still defiantly bills the top-floor restaurant as Pierrot.

By jettisoning the caviar and decadent concoctions reminiscent of another era and ushering in the millennial mantra of Asian-accented French dishes, the venerable hotel has bowed to change and thrown in its lot with a younger, breezier breed of the Hong Kong elite.

Has this changeover worked? Alas, only partly: given the advance hype - a tall order for any restaurateur - too many failings mar the evening.

The wretchedly low-ceilinged space which accommodates the restaurant is a non-starter: it handicapped Pierrot and has remained to haunt Vong.

Diners feel oppressed despite the burnished gold and recessed lights which, depending on taste, appear either richly decadent and exotic or hopelessly 70s.

The room's inadequacies are highlighted by nudging tables. Portly gentlemen, who looked at ease in Pierrot, are not shoehorned into clean-lined wooden chairs. And the tendency of said gentlemen to smoke heavily.

Air flow is poor, and even early diners are soon spluttering over their neighbour's smoke. Diners reserving seats are not asked if they wish smoking or non-smoking, although this may have been an oversight.

The wine list is less inspiring than one would hope for from a newcomer: roughly half the wines hail from the New World, and the list is confusingly categorised by grape variety rather than region.

In its favour is the decent selection of wines by the glass, including (unusually) one from Alsace - the region that produced Jean-George Vongerichten himself.

There are also hideously priced trendy cocktails alongside a more reasonable $78 selection.

The waiters are scrupulously polite, but off-putting in their sheer number. The men's uniforms - dark shirts with epaulettes and buttoned to the neck - repel; the women, in tight-fitting grey shantung cigarette pants and jackets, fare slightly better. All this could be waved aside if the food were magical and on occasion it was: exquisitely conceived and executed dishes using the finest-quality produce.

In this category go the tuna spring rolls with soy-bean coulis: the robust fish is enhanced by the almost-wheaty, creamy sauce. Also near perfection is Vong's slow-baked salmon (fish still opaque and meltingly soft) in a spiced sour broth of tomato and galangal.

Cooking is seldom this well judged in Hong Kong: all ingredients are allowed to shine and marry up in a ripe bloom of tomatoes, spiked with the sour and sharp spices of Asian cuisine.

Starters brought to the table gratis are also a lesson in subtlety and taste: chilled cucumber soup (served in beautiful tear-shaped bowls) and crisp rice crackers with a piquant crunchy peanut sauce make for a promising start.

But other dishes miss the mark: tiny lobster rolls would be delicious, with crunchy cress and a rosemary and ginger dip, but for the ginger overkill.

Conversely, the foie gras with ginger and mango is underwhelmed by ginger. This dish can be the peak of luxury on a plate, but on Vong's first night playing to the paying public it was over-oiled and over-salted, relying on the mango to counteract the richness of the liver.

Sea bass served on a mushroom-rich broth disappoints by being just too bland: the fish is perfectly cooked, but its accompaniment lacks the tartness or spice to give it a kick.

It is unforgivable to serve up a poor version of this dish, which can be had at half the price - steamed over ginger and soya sauce - at any number of local restaurants.

For those with a sweet tooth, the desserts veer more towards the freakish than the plain innovative. White pepper and liquorice were not made to be transformed into ice-cream.

Vacherin pavlova consists of a textbook chewy meringue - but most diners will feel cheated to find its interior contains no more than a scoop of sorbet. Worse, the waiter had promised 'fruits and cream'.

Dinner is far from cheap, of course: even sticking with a couple of glasses of wine will send the bill into the $1,200 region.

Too many things niggled, although most of these may have been teething troubles. I hope Vong will introduce some of the desserts it experimented with before it opened, including one of the most intensely chocolately dishes this side of paradise.

Vong, Mandarin Oriental Hotel, 5 Connaught Road, Central. Tel: 2522-0111, Hours: noon-3pm; 6pm-midnight