Mediterranean colours for cafe

PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 January, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 09 January, 1998, 12:00am

Conjure up images of the Mediterranean and - give or take the odd stretch of ugly sprawl - sandy beaches, blue sea and inviting restaurants tend to spring to mind.

Unfortunately, the buildings surrounding The Med Cafe in Hong Kong offer all the ambience of the 'other' Mediterranean - the one of tasteless towerblocks and gaudy shopfronts.

The restaurant's location - tucked away in Fashion Walk, a shopping cut-through in Causeway Bay - is hardly inspiring, although to be fair, effort has been made to make the area more congenial.

This same attention to detail spills over into the restaurant. Doors that fold back frame an inviting interior of tasteful Mediterranean-style wooden furniture and terracotta-tiled floors. The only aspects out of place are a rather odd mural, inspired perhaps by a meadow, and the absence of customers on a Saturday evening.

No matter. This is the new kid on the block and, as always, irritating licensing laws preventing alcohol being served contribute to the low-key feel.

We started off with two alcohol-free cocktails, one of which was the house special. Querying their contents elicited a shrug of the shoulders from our otherwise helpful waitress.

Fruit punch in both, we gathered eventually, with egg in one. They did not sound inspiring but when the drinks arrived they were refreshing.

After ordering, we dipped bread rolls into what looked like pesto sauce; it was overly tart and needed a liberal dose of pinenuts and herbs to soften the flavour.

For starters, mussels ($68) steamed in their shells with smoked tomatoes and a mixed herb and white wine sauce sounded too good to pass up, particularly as the shellfish were flown in fresh from New Zealand.

The eggplant with traditional ratatouille ($53) baked with cheese also sounded a winner.

My companion pronounced the mussels delicious, citing the subtle taste of fresh herbs. They were perhaps a bit tough, but the flavour was wonderful. The eggplant was equally splendid. One half of a large tear-shaped eggplant was generously smeared with a nicely textured ratatouille and topped with tangy cheese.

The main courses were also difficult to fault. The salmon pimiento ($140), consisting of a grilled fillet with roasted pepper salad, was light yet filling.

The meat fell away at the touch of the knife. Only the accompanying salad disappointed, with the peppers tasting as though they had been preserved in a jar rather than being freshly roasted as the menu suggested.

We chose the chargrilled lamb kebabs ($155) to test how well the accompanying grilled polenta - a tricky dish to serve at the best of times - was prepared. The whole ensemble passed with flying colours.

The lamb chops came slightly rare, as requested. The polenta was perfect - crisp on the outside and moist inside. The ratatouille served with it, unfortunately, was slightly cold.

Actually, it was not just the ratatouille that was on the chilly side. The air-conditioning in the restaurant felt as if it was jammed on the highest setting. This was probably the reason all our dishes went cold so quickly; a pity, because the food was actually very good.

For desserts, we chose the marsala cannoli with a ricotta, marscapone and fruit filling served with a poached orange in a Grand Marnier sauce ($70) and the flourless chocolate cake with blond and rose grapefruit sorbet ($52).

The cannoli - biscuit-like pastry fried in a tube shape - was a riot of colour and richly tasting. It did not disappoint, although we agreed we preferred ricotta cheese in a more savoury dish. The cake was moist and hummed with a dense plain chocolate flavour. The sorbet went beautifully with it.

Overall we found the service erratic. One minute we felt like we were being rushed into giving our order, the next we were hard-pressed to find anyone who would bring coffee. However, these kinds of shortcomings are easily rectified.

Our one real quibble is that in a town which seems to overflow with restaurants serving Mediterranean-influenced cuisine, what can another outlet offer to set it apart from the rest? And herein lies The Med's strength - its food. Although it is not a bargain, it is prepared well, thoughtfully presented and using fine ingredients. In Hong Kong, where mediocrity runs rampant, it deserves to succeed on this alone.

The Med Cafe and Restaurant, G/F Shop C1, C2 and D1, Cleveland Mansion, 5-7 Cleveland Street, Causeway Bay, Tel: 2881-1900, Hours: noon until midnight In last week's review of El Pomposo, a photo of Petticoat Lane was inadvertently used. The Post regrets its error.