When Mandarin Oriental renovated the flagship Central hotel, many loyal customers were relieved when institutions such as the Chinnery and Captain’s Bars survived virtually unchanged. Not so the Mandarin Grill. After much debate, the dark bottle green and white den was opened up, illuminated by big windows over Statue Square. Instead of the white linen-enveloped tables and chairs tucked into nooks and crannies, which made it feel like you were being served meals in bed with the curtains closed, tables were spread out. Gone was the feeling of clubby intimacy, with the exquisite buffet on the right replaced by an open kitchen with visible and audible chefs working away. It was all a bit of a shock for the colonial die-hards, but not surprisingly, the hotel was trying to update things. And they were right. Imagine the response now if you proposed a new restaurant, with blacked-out windows, no natural light and tables so close together you could light your neighbour’s cigar without getting up. That’s how much times have changed in a decade.
But by and large the food stayed the same. I ate there a few times, and regardless of the décor, the Mandarin Grill still served the best roast beef, steak, oysters and lobster bisque anywhere.
So after a gap of a few years I was looking forward to dinner there a few Saturdays ago. I sat down and was hit by an icy blast of air conditioning. Anticipating this, the waiter raced over with a woolly shawl. Why do this? Why not just have a comfortable temperature? The table looked bare. No knives and forks and laid with only basics for bread. We wondered if this was in case Chinese diners requested chopsticks and they didn’t want to have to swop the western cutlery. But this was a minor detail. My companion scanned the menu, but no smoked salmon and roast prime rib of beef. Right on cue the maitre d’ bounded over: “Would you like your usual smoked salmon and roast beef, sir?” we were impressed. He had left Hong Kong more than two years ago. It was just like the old days, in came the cart, salmon was expertly carved at the table, with minced egg yolk and egg white and all the bits. But first came the amuse bouche, a little tree with deep fried olives dangling from its branches. Delicious and yes, trendy. Next came the roast beef trolley, groaning under a whole slab of beef. Perfectly cooked with Yorkshire pudding, roast potatoes and lashings of gravy. It was so good but so huge I had to doggy bad half of it.
So far we had ordered off piste – neither regular smoked salmon nor roast beef were on the very short menu. Question: if you were not an old regular, would you know - or would you be offered the off-menu items? Back to the actual menu: descriptions are now minimalist and a trifle obscure. “Salmon and Caviar” are merely: “organic, Scottish, home smoked, cedar wood, king crab, bagel, egg, for two.” “Sirloin” is stripped to: “US, brandt, organic, forestier, maitaki, cep black, mash, trufle jus.”
Desserts err on the funky side too. “Light bulb” is “coconut, pineapple, glass.” I was none the wiser. “Strawberry” is described as “Japanese, fresh, ice cream, soil.” Yes, soil. Turned out to be strawberries and ice cream mostly, and very good. Then the petits fours arrive, looking like a child’s sunflower arrangement. Everything is edible, we are told, from the flowers, which are biscuits, to the green moss, which is sponge cake. All very funky indeed.
So time for a quick call to the executive chef, Uwe Opocensky, on holiday back home in France, to find out what he’s up to with his deep fried olives and edible gardens. After six and half years at the Mandarin, he thought it was time to liven things up, he explained, to keep up with the times. “So yes, we have changed quite a bit. While retaining the classics of roast beef and lobster bisque, we changed our cooking style from being quite traditional to being quite current and staying on the current trend.”
This means a smaller menu, for the best, freshest, seasonal produce. “We have some very special products that are not that available around the world or only at a very high price, he added.
So how has this gone down with the old guard? He still gets the old traditional diners and they still want their chateau briand, which they order beforehand, but they are also very happy trying new things out, it seems. “But these people are not any more that frequent in Hong Kong and we have another crowd now and they are very happy and surprised at what we have changed.”
Tastes are seasonal now, he says, with asparagus recently very popular, along with salmon and caviar, and sirloin, hot and cold chocolate dessert and banana split. There’s still a healthy mix of guests and diners from outside.
And what about not laying the table? “I’m not a big fan of disturbing the guests and if you set the table beforehand and people only order a main course and you have to take it away. Better to wait and see what the guest orders instead of replacing the cutlery three times,” said Chef Uwe.
Right now, he’s trying new ideas on regulars and is guided by their feedback. But rest assured: the Mandarin Grill still remains an institution. And the roast beef is still the best.