AFTER six years of success and acclaim, M at the Fringe is a Hong Kong institution, a restaurant which sets the standards to which others aspire and yet manages to retain a unique and well defined character of its own. The restaurant is the creation of Michelle Garnaut, who established her reputation at restaurant 1997 before confirming it with this expression of individuality and charm. M at the Fringe has this wonderful surreal quality which manages to combine a decadence bordering on pretension with warmth that lightens life's burdens and welcomes you with open arms. The dining room is like an ambitious stage set for Shakespeare's Tempest. An enormous foliage collection on a pedestal dominates its centre. Much is spoken of 'concept restaurants' in Hong Kong. Michelle's is no copy, nor is it stuffed full of nostalgia which attempts to convince the diners that they are eating in another era. The interior at M's is a work of art and that is what makes it so special. In such a setting the chef must elevate his art to the level of his environment. Dominic Stefanatos was born of a Greek father and an Australian mother in Melbourne. Like a number of other talented young Australian chefs in Hong Kong, he seeks to create a synthesis between Mediterranean traditions and contemporary concerns for freshness, health and quality of ingredients. There is a refreshing liberty to this approach. Unlike many European chefs, he does not feel shackled by the doctrines of the French classical framework and is able to be experimental and innovative in different ways. The menu at M's changes seasonally. Dishes are conceived by Ms Garnaut and executed by Mr Stefanatos. After five years at M he has great respect for his boss' palette. My guest chose the pumpkin and almond tortellini in whipped marjoram butter as a starter. Small pockets of very thin pasta stuffed with an intriguing mixture of pumpkin, roasted almonds, crumbled Italian amaretti biscuits and mustard fruits. Very inventive and spectacularly successful, our only gripe being the lack of marjoram in the buerre blanc sauce. My choice, a terrine of sweetbreads and pistachios with a sticky shallot confit, resembled an old fashioned English raised pie. Fat crumbly pastry enclosing a lightly seasoned sweetbread filling. The sticky shallot sauce, a potent reduced conserve, had a tinge of red wine. Also on the rectangular white plate was a slightly tarty aspic jelly cut into tiny cubes which served to balance the flavours. The entree menu also includes a lemon-scented risotto finished with orange fried artichokes - Ms Garnaut writes a very poetic menu - and an interesting souffle of parmesan and parsley on a hot red sauce. Having whetted our appetites we moved on to the main courses. My attention was caught by the bisteeya of duck - a layered Moroccan pie with a pile of perfumed pumpkin, inspired by a dish from Fez in central Morocco. The layers, from the bottom up, were seasoned, shredded duck breast, a crushed cinnamon and almond praline in the centre and a scrambled egg mousse cooked in the same pan as the duck and flavoured with saffron and onion on top. The layers are then encased in a pentagonal pillow of paper thin sheets of phyllo pastry and baked in the oven. The dish is served dusted with icing sugar and cinnamon, accompanied by large chunks of meltingly tender pumpkin and a pile of lightly cooked spinach. Fresh yoghurt provides a sauce. My guest settled on the vegetarian Greek platter. This consisted of some good large salty Greek kalamata olives, pickled and grilled white and purple baby aubergines, kebabs of char-grilled garlic, onion and courgette on a bed of pureed chick peas, small, highly seasoned dolmades (vine leaves stuffed with vegetables) - and spanakopita - triangles of phyllo enclosing fine Bulgarian feta cheese and spinach. Vegetarians are well provided for at Michelle's and, whenever possible, the ingredients are organically grown and supplied by a Lamma-based co-operative. Michelle's dessert menu is sufficient reason in itself to visit the restaurant. After some deliberation I picked the poppy seed galettes layered with fresh strawberries and Turkish coffee ice cream. A brilliant combination of textures and flavours. My companion, now straining at the waistline, chose Turkish coffee and Turkish delight. We felt that the coffee was not really as strong, granular, syrupy and bitter as the real thing. On reflection this was probably a blessing. Strong coffee at 10 pm could deprive a man of his night's sleep. The Turkish delight was a little disappointing. Another intriguing dish is described as 'It's all done with chocolate except for the basil ice cream'. Unable by this time to face the chocolate - a souffle, a Marquis sponge cake and a pot au chocolate - I managed to persuade Bruno van der Burg, Michelle's manager, to let me try a little of the basil ice cream. The heady flavour of the herb and fragrance were encapsulated in the creamy ice cream to astonishing effect - a real taste revelation. The wine list is comprehensive and well chosen. We opted for a Pinot Blanc 1992 from respected house in Alsace, Hugel & Fils. A fruity well-balanced wine with a flinty aftertaste lived up to its reputation. This was followed by a glass of extraordinary Essensia orange Muscat, sweet and sharp with a definite hint of marmalade to wash down the dessert. Criticism is sometimes levelled at the prices. Michelle's is a restaurant for celebrations. At $1179 for two, we got value for money and professional service. A fixed price menu is available at lunch: two courses $135; and three for $148. M at the Fringe, 1/st floor, 2 Lower Albert, Central. Tel: 2877-4000. Hours: noon to 2.30; 7 to 10 pm. Mon-Sat. Closed Sunday.