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Gagnaire Blurs Flavors at Mandarin: Hong Kong Dining

 

Review of PIERRE restaurant by Le-Min Lim

 

July 5, 2007

July 5 (Bloomberg) -- There's nothing quiet about Pierre's cuisine. Textures clash, colors jar, flavors collide.

The anchor restaurant of Hong Kong's Mandarin Oriental Hotel serves creations by Pierre Gagnaire, whose provocative take on French cooking won him a third Michelin star in 1993. Each dish is a dare -- familiar ingredients in alien combinations. There's the popcorn soup, meatballs in beef mousse, and white-asparagus custard with orange jelly.

So showy are these dishes that conversation grinds to a halt when they arrive at a table. Like attention-seeking children, they demand your undiluted focus. And they get it.

On one lunch visit, a young man with an American accent at the next table poked at his order with a fork -- the way a hunter might prod a still beast to see if it's dead -- and whispered, ``What is it?'' His companion, shuddering with laughter, shook her head and shrugged.

Another diner, the female half of a Hong Kong couple, greeted each dish with furrowed brows, tasting the sauce before proceeding or setting down her fork. Her companion, thumbing the keypad of a new silver Nokia cellphone, munched away happily.

I ordered the set lunch. The skewered sea snails with sautéed curried vegetables and crushed seaweed, one of three starters, was an elegant blend of exotic textures and tastes. The orange jelly topping the asparagus custard bit the tongue the way food flavoring does, giving the dish an unflattering, bitter kick.

The main course, John Dory, a deep-sea fish, came perfectly poached, sitting on a bed of butter-thickened pea-puree that offset the fillet's natural sweetness.

Mad-Cap Marshmallow

Desserts, too, came in threes. The chocolate mousse with ginger strips was a mellow and full-flavored treat, marred by a sprinkling of almond crunchies that disrupted the smooth texture. The fruit salad was a madcap concoction of diced apple, kiwi fruit, and orange, topped by a marshmallow strip that was difficult to cut with a spoon, and whose bite and flavor were woefully out of synch with the fruit.

Dinner is an elaborate affair at Pierre and speaks of Gagnaire's generosity and complaisance as a Chef. The meal began with no less than seven appetizers, from banana purée to bread- crumbed olive to spiced bread. That it was a disparate spread with no clear theme didn't disrupt my enjoyment of the delicate and witty preparation.

It went downhill from there. The chilled yabbies, a type of freshwater crayfish, had lost the natural bounce of fresh seafood. The steamed oysters and pan-fried cockles with chickpea flour mixed different cooking styles in a single dish, and ended up tasting bland. The meatball in beef mousse, announced in the menu as Wurtz of beef bouillon, a carpaccio ``cuisine,'' was an overzealous experiment that assaulted the sight with its muddy Play-Doh appearance and insulted the palate with its insipid taste and gooey texture.

Guinea Pig

I felt like a subject in Gagnaire's culinary laboratory and thought of walking out. But I stayed, convinced the meal had hit bottom. It had. The lamb with sweet garlic and the elaborate array of desserts that followed helped blot out the earlier experience.

Pierre is headed by Frenchman Philippe Orrico, who worked at the three-Michelin-starred Pierre Gagnaire restaurant in Paris.

The restaurant opened in October after a $140 million overhaul of the Mandarin Oriental, a Hong Kong landmark that recalls the city's colonial heritage and hosted the likes of the late Princess Diana and U.S. President Richard Nixon. Perched on the 25th floor, Pierre has a commanding view of Kowloon across Victoria Harbor.

Copper and Glass

Like the food, the decor is a discourse in dissonance. Wood the tone of roasted coffee-beans and black leatherette seats give the restaurant a somber air, only to be disrupted by tasseled floor lanterns and glass chandeliers. Some walls are decorated with convex mirrors, others with copper plates. A purple hanging light resembling an inverted morning glory illuminates each table.

Service varied, depending on the waiter. One head waiter raised his voice with impatience when asked if it was a good idea to order à la carte along with the set lunch. Waiter Ali Fong scoured the Mandarin Oriental's other restaurants to secure wholemeal bread. (And why don't they have it at Pierre?)

Gagnaire's edgy cuisine expands the boundaries of Hong Kong's normally stuffy luxury dining. Yet for all its innovation, Pierre doesn't pass the taste test. Gagnaire calls the restaurant every day to ask for diners' feedback, sommelier Pierre Legrandois said. My advice? Don't play with the food so much.

Pierre, Mandarin Oriental, 5 Connaught Road, Hong Kong. Tel: +852-2825 4001 or visit http://www.mandarinoriental.com/hongkong

The Bloomberg Questions

Cost? HK$450 for set lunch; HK$1,450 for set dinner.

Sound level? Hushed.

Private room? Yes.

Inside tip? Have a pre-dinner drink at the Captain's Bar on the ground-floor, a favorite hang-out for Hong Kong bankers.

Special feature? Zero-reflection windows for the view.

Date place? Yes, though you may compete with the food for attention.

Will I be back? Not immediately.

(Le-Min Lim is a writer for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

To contact the writer of this story: Le-Min Lim in Hong Kong at lmlim@bloomberg.net

© 2007 Bloomberg L.P.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.  Visit www.Bloomberg.com

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