It is all change, yet c'est la même chose, at Asiate, the signature 35th-floor restaurant at Mandarin Oriental, New York that has heart-stopping views of Manhattan's Upper East Side and Central Park. Last summer, however, the dining room closed briefly for a restyle – a touch of cosmetic surgery, if you will.
Asiate's 1,500-bottle 'wall of wine'
Like the best facelifts, the watchword here was 'subtle'. If you are extremely familiar with the restaurant (with its hugely loyal following, a lot of New Yorkers as well as regular visitors to the city know Asiate very well indeed), you would still have to look twice to see what has been done. 'Has it, or hasn't it?' you might find yourself asking, while scrutinising the floor or ceiling, the light fixtures or the furniture, for telltale signs. The memory plays tricks: the famous 'wall of wine', one of the first walls of wine in a genre that has now become something of a parody of itself, looks new but isn't, although I admit it does seem somehow fresher, sparklier. And it is proof, as if proof were needed, of how ahead of the game Asiate was all those years ago.
In fact, there are new hardwood floors, reupholstered chairs, a gorgeous new patterned carpet in the raised central section of the restaurant, which, like the (unchanged) tree-branch chandelier above, plays broadly to the Central Park theme. Strong on pinky red, the booths, observed my lunch companion, would make a great lipstick shade – the dash of colour introduced by award-winning design firm HOK is certainly striking but, this being Mandarin Oriental, it is in restrained good taste.
Executive chef Christian Pratsch, who oversees Asiate
Turbot with jasmine, baby turnips and mushroom consommé
There have been other, more intrinsic changes, too. Last year, Mandarin Oriental, New York saw the departure of long-time executive chef Toni Robertson (now ensconced at Mandarin Oriental, Singapore), while Asiate's chef de cuisine, Angie Berry, made the difficult decision to leave a few months later. With so much change in the air, it would have been almost opportune for Mandarin Oriental to relaunch Asiate entirely, but other factors militated against any dramatic redirection.
First, one suspects, Asiate's regulars – devotees of the restaurant's winning American fare, with its zingy Asian influences – would have resisted any change; a superb review by GQ magazine's respected restaurant critic, Alan Richman, in April last year, confirmed Asiate's enduring appeal and the contemporary relevance of its unique cuisine. Second, and significantly, the rest of the team was still intact, needing only a new commander-in-chief to conduct the show and drive it onwards and upwards.
Enter chef Christian Pratsch, whose recent appointment as executive chef seems to have refired and galvanised an already exceptionally coherent and committed staff. A well-built, friendly guy with a sweet smile and no discernible edge (which cannot always be said of great chefs), Pratsch is a man of the sea. He grew up in Hamburg, northern Germany, and joined the German navy as a chef, before finding his way into the kitchens of some of the world's greatest cruise liners, including, most recently, a two-year stint aboard The World, a 'residence at sea' from which owners fly back and forth as it circumnavigates the globe every couple of years.
We do what our guests like. That's why they come back
Pratsch has had happy periods working on dry land, too, but he seems to have found his natural home at Mandarin Oriental, New York, which with the Hudson and the East River in its sights satisfies his love of water, while its elevated service culture resonates with his thinking. 'When you look at the great hotel groups, only a few take as much pride in what they offer as Mandarin Oriental,' says Pratsch, proudly.
With responsibility for the entire hotel, like any executive chef, he must obviously devote himself to all the various, and important, Food and Beverage departments. Many an excellent chef has thrown in the towel when faced with the laborious but vital detail of a room-service breakfast or an afternoon-tea sandwich in the lobby lounge, but chef Pratsch clearly gets the brief.
Overall responsibility for Asiate, however, must rank as one of the job's highlights for Pratsch. With perfect timing, having just landed on the scene, he was involved in how the restaurant would be perceived, as well as choosing all the new china and glass. And in a fairly radical move, he simplified the lunch menu, making it shorter and more accessible: the basic concept of offering prix fixe and tasting menus has remained the same, although lunch can now be a lighter affair, with only two courses instead of three, should you prefer.
Chef Pratsch plating a dish with one of his team
Pumpkin gnocchi with crispy chestnuts and autumn squash caponata
Interestingly, it still comes as a surprise to many well-travelled (and well-heeled) visitors to New York to discover that some of the Big Apple's fancier dining establishments, and fancier hotel restaurants, do not open their doors at lunchtime. But Asiate has always been synonymous with a lunchtime opening – with this triumph of a room's exquisite light pouring in from two sides, from floor to ceiling, how could it not?
As you would expect, there is an attention to detail in both the menus and the surroundings. I have written a fair bit recently about the demise of the linen tablecloth in some of the world's top dining establishments, and wonder if chef Pratsch subscribes to the view that we want to eat more simply these days – that it is all about The Taste. 'A clean white tablecloth still speaks for cleanliness, for sharpness. It's also about simplicity,' he says, going on to explain that simplicity and fine dining, which might seem as if they are polar opposites, actually go hand in hand.
Like all great chefs, Pratsch gives credit to his team, a kitchen brigade of more than 60, speaking 20 languages between them, and a front of house staff, many of whom have been with Asiate since the restaurant opened over a decade ago. He looks for people who respect the standards, or the 'pillars', as he calls them. 'We do daily line-ups where we discuss everything – who's coming in, how we can do better… while all the time I am thinking how to keep my staff motivated.' There is, undoubtedly, something 'shipshape' about chef Pratsch's approach – a result of his maritime training, I would venture – which corresponds neatly with Asiate's Asian sensibility. He also strikes me as a kind and fair boss, which in turn makes for a happy restaurant, something you palpably feel as a guest.
Roasted cauliflower with toasted almonds, cheddar and beer Béarnaise
Long Island duck with pomegranate, savoury granola and cardamom jus
As for the food, it is on a roll, which is remarkable considering the recent changes. Under chef Pratsch, a kind of culinary dream team is at work, experienced enough that the show runs on oiled wheels, but with enough fresh ideas between them to keep the restaurant feeling young and lively. Executive sous chef Amy Thompson, known in-house as well as to a number of regulars as the Queen of Comfort Food, is responsible for Asiate's famous weekend brunch, although the expression 'comfort food' doesn't do justice to her creativity, remarks Pratsch. People come from far and wide for her 'Rooted Plate' brunch, where sweet and savoury are given more or less equal billing, and eggs and protein compete on equal terms with pulses and vegetables.
Executive pastry chef Paul Nolan, meanwhile, who trained at Westminster College in London and came to Mandarin Oriental, New York eight years ago from the city's legendary 21 club, oversees all of Asiate's desserts. He understands the importance of drama to create the memorable last impression. 'Fine dining,' chimes chef Pratsch, 'is an experience where guests need to be entertained.'
And the wine programme, which has always struck me as positively enlightened in a city where food and wine pairings have sometimes seemed a little – how shall we say? – conservative, continues to absorb you as it develops. Even the way the wine list is laid out grabs you, inviting you to move beyond, or at least to the limit of your comfort zone, and always with pleasurable results. Checking out the list for this article, I was pleased to see that sake and shochu have been recently 'promoted', now sitting pretty above half-bottles and jeroboams.
Asiate, on the 35th floor overlooking Central Park
Asiate's menu, just like the restaurant, changes yet stays the same. If that sounds like a contradiction in terms, it isn't. Some of the dishes have been on the menu since day one, in one form or another, the ingredients simply reworked or assembled differently for the sake of variety. The restaurant, too, is faithful to its locale, a champion from the get-go of, say, Catskills salmon, Long Island duck, and cheeses from Vermont. I'm a fan, also, of that wonderful Sparkling Pointe 'Brut Seduction' (from Long Island's North Fork), which always seems to say to me, 'Yes! Welcome to New York!' In fact, it was at Asiate that I first tasted North Fork wines.
This is not to say there aren't innovations. New menu fixtures include crudo and tartares, both of which have been extremely well received, and I'm convinced I can see a wider variety of fish, often more simply cooked, than I did on the menu a few years ago. On a dazzlingly white, round plate, echoing chef Pratsch's fixation with clean lines and simplicity, a starter of snapper is presented in translucent slices. The snapper has an almost creamy quality to it, while the aloe, cucumber and jalapeño it is served with are not there for decoration alone. They add astringency, crunch and a touch of heat respectively, in what combines to be a winning dish.
In another appetiser, of squid ink risotto, smoked chilli is introduced to lift the dish to an altogether higher level, the subtlety of the smoke serving to enhance the creaminess, the luxuriousness of the rice. Turbot, meanwhile, that real prince of fishes, is pan-seared, skin-side up, with jasmine and baby turnips, a kind of bittersweet counterpoint to the lustrous fish; and with a mushroom consommé infusing the dish with an umami woodiness it grows seductively complex – not quite the simple serving it may have seemed at first glance.
The central dining space, with its decoration inspired by exotic oriental orchids and its 'tree-branch' chandelier
Vegetarians fare well, too. A sensational dish of roasted cauliflower, pink, white and green flesh, tossed with cheddar and toasted almonds and a beer Béarnaise is a kind of X-rated cauliflower cheese. And I would leave home (well, almost) for the pumpkin gnocchi, with crisp chestnuts for crunch and an autumn-y squash caponata, again playing a strong sweet and sour, texture-rich hand.
At the end of the day, though, or even at the beginning of it for that matter – because Asiate also does the ne plus ultra of breakfasts in Manhattan – it's all about giving guests what they want. 'It's not half luck, half brains,' emphasises Pratsch. 'We do what our guests like. That's why they come back.'
He is mindful, too, of the competition. 'You eat so well in New York that my wife and I haven't had a bad meal here yet,' he says, which may sound overly generous – or plain lucky – but coming from the mouth of a great chef, certainly gives you pause for thought. 'To put it plainly,' he goes on, 'with Per Se in the same building as Mandarin Oriental and Jean-Georges across the street, at Asiate we can't afford to rest on our laurels.'
And, with that, he rests his case.