The best just got even better. Our restaurant correspondent tried all nine bars and restaurants in the fresher, brighter Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong, to find out whether you can improve on perfection. Yum yum, dim sum – and so much more besides…
When Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong announced a £75 million renovation, I, like many others, feared the winds of change. What would go and what would stay? Which of the great restaurants would remain and which would be culled? Which friendly faces would be replaced by unfamiliar new ones? As I have always slept like a baby between Mandarin Oriental’s linen sheets, and eaten like a king in its myriad restaurants, these issues weighed heavily on my mind. And I knew I was not alone.
Detail from a mural in Man Wah at Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong
A bonsai tree in Man Wah
Then, in September 2006, the covers came off and the grande dame pronounced herself ready for inspection. And do you know the most remarkable thing about this ‘renovation’? At first one doesn’t notice a thing. You step out of your cab and enter the lobby (where, as the late, great, Patrick Campbell put it, ‘flocks of snow-white gloves fly to open doors’), and there is a moment of immense relief as you realise nothing has changed. Then, slowly, it steals up on you. The black marble is still there, the chandeliers are still there, but there is a palpable feeling of freshness about the place. Like all the best facelifts, Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong’s is barely perceptible. It just feels younger, sexier, and absolutely ready to take on the younger competition.
In the guest rooms, of course, it’s a different story. There, change was needed, and you will certainly notice it: new bathrooms, exquisite materials, the latest (but always unthreatening) technology. As for the restaurants and bars, Mandarin Oriental has been faithful to its tenets, stuck to its guns, retained the traditional and well-loved, revived the tired and embraced the new with a vigour that is typically Hong Kong.
A waitress lays tables in Man Wah, high on the top floor
Omaha prime corn-fed beef tenderloin at the Mandarin Grill
I start my MO gastro-tour in the Captain’s Bar where we play spot the difference over pre-prandial martinis which arrive, bone dry, within two and a half minutes of ordering. Has the Captain’s Bar changed, and if so, how? I like to think I have an expert’s eye but even I cannot tell. All I can say is that it feels refreshed, restored, but imperceptibly so. This is just as well, because this bar is not just a Mandarin fixture; for many it is one of the world’s great bars, and change does not enter into its wood-and-leather lexicon. And when we return after dinner, the barman mixes a Brandy Alexander so d-d-divine it would have Brideshead’s Anthony Blanche proclaiming from the rooftops. Ah yes, this feels like the ‘old’ Mandarin, all right, and yet it has a new aura of excitement.
Assorted steamed vegetables are arranged in a familiar fan shape
A waitress in Man Wah wears a uniform inspired by traditional costume
It’s the same story at Man Wah. Located on the top floor of Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong, Man Wah ought to have a preservation order slapped on it, along with Government House and the Legislative Council Building. As I walk in, I have exactly the same feeling as I had when I first ate here more than 20 years ago – the feeling of being in exactly the right place at the right time. Mr Fodor had written in his 1984 guidebook that Man Wah was the best restaurant in Hong Kong, which made it ‘probably the best Chinese restaurant in the world’. That’s not a line you forget. Man Wah didn’t disappoint me on my first visit and I sensed right away that it was not going to disappoint me now. Yes, it has been under the knife, but you have to wonder at the skill of the surgeon. Local rosewood is set off by Shanghai-pink tablecloths and the ceiling is a sea of Chinese lanterns. Just when all of Hong Kong seems to be going no-holds-barred postmodern, the clever people at Mandarin Oriental have taken Man Wah back to the future.
And goodness, you eat well here; everything from the impossibly grand whole dried Yoshihama abalone and oyster sauce or double-boiled Imperial bird’s nest soup with fish maw, to the humble but mouthwatering roast golden chicken with vegetable leaf. Every weekend lunchtime there is classic dim sum – pork buns, crystal dumplings, traditional Jin Ling salty duck – and not-so-classic dim sum, like crispy lobster and conpoy dumplings in supreme soup, or witty baked pineapple puffs with roast duck.
A modern chandelier lights up Pierre at Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong
Sautéed fillet of sole with green vegetables in black-bean sauce, a signature dish at Man Wah
The room is overseen by the wonderful John Chan (you’ll recognise him from the Grill), the napkin rings are made of tiger’s eye and the chopsticks are handcarved. And if you feel like digging deep (well, deep-ish, really, because the price/quality ratio at Man Wah has always struck me as eminently fair), you can drink some of the world’s great Rieslings and Gewürztraminers, and all with a view of Victoria Harbour. Magic.
Mandarin Oriental has this sixth sense about timing – perhaps it’s an Eastern thing. They have an uncanny knack for anticipating what’s going to be big (just look at their new and projected hotel openings over the next year or two and you’ll know where you should be heading to work and play), and they know what can be safely discarded.
The extensive wine cellar at Pierre
Man Wah’s 25th-floor neighbour Vong was, frankly, looking a bit tired. Black plates have a shelf-life, after all, and food on a stick feels distinctly passé. The space is now taken up by Pierre, as in Pierre Gagnaire, who gives his name and exceptional modern French cuisine to the new restaurant. Anyone familiar with Pierre Gagnaire in Paris or Sketch in London will already know the thrill of Gagnaire’s dishes – fabulous pairings which have no right to work but do, as if some fantastic alchemy is going on. Then, into the already substantial pot, you have to add the incomparable views of the Harbour, Hong Kong Island and Kowloon by night.
Decorated in burnt cherry and midnight blue, the interior has vast curved banquettes just for two – unspeakably romantic. Waiters are dressed in wing collars and frock coats – very Artful Dodger – and ‘typical’ pre-desserts (called petits-fours here) might comprise grapefruit and chilli sorbet, or chocolate with arugula. Of course, in anybody else’s hands, this kind of cooking could lapse into farce, but Gagnaire is a maestro and his dishes – gâteau de foie blond with creamed grains, or popcorn soup, perhaps, followed by Dover sole with polenta Béarnaise – each accompanied by their little satellite saucers, are arresting as well as amusing. If you think Gagnaire is a serious chef, well, of course he is – but never too serious to put seven kinds of potato on his menu, from faintly ridiculous plain steamed potato to sublime pommes mousseline with foie gras.
A delicate chocolate soufflé served at Pierre
Between Pierre and Man Wah you find the M Bar. Not fashionable, exactly, because ‘fashionable’ implies a temporary state, and M Bar is a permanent and wholly wonderful fixture on the Hong Kong scene; no, it’s way beyond fashionable. It’s both very hot and very cool at the same time, something you can really only say in English, and somewhere you want to be, no matter what. And Angus Winchester’s cocktails – Negronis to make you groan and the best Manhattan outside Manhattan, that’s for sure – keep winning this exceptional bar new friends.
Which brings me to the Mandarin Grill. What can you say about the Grill? Of all the hotel’s nine bars and restaurants it is, perhaps, the one that is most emblematic of the Group. It’s certainly the one that Mandarin Oriental was most concerned about changing.
Sir Terence Conran was called in to do the job. The most controversial aspect of his makeover was to remove the panelling and reveal vast windows (even some quite long-serving Mandarin staff didn’t know there were windows behind the panels), so that the Grill now has views over Statue Square and Chater Garden. It feels less clubby, certainly, but the Gerard D’Henderson murals and the Pullman chairs have been retained, and somehow the integrity of the Grill environment remains.
Fruits de la mer with snow crab, prawns, oysters, mussels, clams and marine lobster
The revamped Mandarin Grill
At the Grill bar, the signature cocktails are Marys. Again, Mandarin is ahead of the game because, let’s face it, martinis are a bit ubiquitous these days. Marys are where cocktails are going – brilliant mixes like the Red Snapper (the Paris original made with gin) or the Xex, with a Japanese wasabi shot. Conran has also designed a beautiful ceiling for the Grill, which is meant to look like scallop shells but, by a happy coincidence, looks more like a vast sea of Mandarin fans. And he has installed a signature crustacea altar, the like of which you have probably never seen, so that on the day of my visit I could have had my choice of snow crab, Maine lobster, Andaman prawns, Little Neck clams or Tasmanian black mussels, to say nothing of the 17 kinds of oyster, including varieties from Galway Bay in Ireland, Fanny Bay in British Columbia and Smoky Bay on the Eyre Peninsula in Southern Australia.
The Mandarin Cake Shop is a sort of Cartier for cakes, with utterly fabulous confections
The counter at the Mandarin Cake Shop
For years the Grill has had legions of regulars and fans who regard it almost as their private dining room, so any change was going to evoke strong feelings, which is why the hotel regards it as a special success that the ‘new’ Grill has been particularly well received. And as if to reinforce the point, at the next table to us is a gentleman who, I am told, has been coming to the Grill to eat every weekday for the past 15 years, and here he is, back at his regular table after the renovation, happy as a sandboy with his tenderloin of beef and a glass of claret.
Meanwhile, if you want to shut out the daylight and enjoy relative seclusion, the Chinnery Bar carries on as it always has. It’s cosy and rather clubby, still the place to enjoy a single malt (there are 200 to choose from) and, if you’re so inclined, a plate of fish and chips or steak and kidney pie. Has the Chinnery gone under the knife? You would barely notice the change – but you know and I know it just feels somehow fresher.
Le Rouge at Pierre includes red-pepper jelly, foie gras and red tuna
The cake centrepiece at the Mandarin Cake Shop
We stop by the new Café Causette, formerly The Café, now relocated to the Mezzanine. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, because The Café, I gather, was originally called Causette when the hotel opened in 1963. And yet… and yet there have of course been changes. The old Café was, not to put too fine a point on it, a bit bog-standard hotel-coffee-shop – could have been anywhere from Bremen to Boca Raton – but the new restaurant is simply a joy. You enter via the Mandarin Cake Shop – a sort of Cartier for cakes, where utterly fabulous confections sit in glass cases like priceless museum pieces – and walk the walk along a line of tables bathed in light to where the room opens up to creamy marble, rattan and beautiful blond wood. It is delicious to look at.
The world and his wife – or boyfriend – seem to be lunching at Café Causette. It has that centre-of-the-universe feel about it. Staff are snap-to-it and the Asian and Mediterranean menus run happily in tandem. You can eat a Greek Salad, Vietnamese spring rolls, a club sandwich or a bowl of Singapore Laksa virtually round the clock, or just come in for a cup of coffee or a Coke, and no one bats an eyelid.
Table setting at Café Causette
Chargrilled satay skewers
Meanwhile, I forgo the pleasure of breakfast in bed for at least two morning visits to the Clipper Lounge, which in my view offers the best breakfast buffet I have seen anywhere in more than 30 years of travelling, and where afternoon tea is taken as seriously as a state banquet.
I have heard the claim, often repeated though it may be apocryphal, that Mandarin Oriental’s restaurants will prepare any dish that has appeared on their menus in the last 30 years, should you desire it. But what could you possibly want that is not already on the menu? I suppose what they are trying to say is that MO has real restaurants staffed by real people, not by so-called celebrity chefs, or ogres, or automatons, who refuse to boil an egg or add salt or soy if it is not written in the rubric. In other words, ask and ye shall be given. Isn’t that what Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong has always been about – usually before you have even asked?