It's 9pm on a Friday night, mere minutes from the gnarled streets and frenetic energy of the ancient Marrakech Medina, yet a million worlds away. The bar – crisply tiled in mustard and chocolate zellije (hand-cut Moroccan tiles), with gold velvet chairs – is buzzing. Master mixologists shake up Passion Fruit Millionaires (dazzling creations of whisky, passion fruit and grenadine) and Kumquat Daiquiris (aged rum, kumquat and lime). Without batting an eye, they even conjure up an off-menu drink called The Last Word (chartreuse, gin, cherry liquour and lime), which my friends, a chef and a mixologist from esteemed craft cocktail bar Weather Up (whose outlets are in Brooklyn, Tribeca and Austin), request. It could be New York, or Paris, or London, but it's not. It's the latest venture at Mandarin Oriental, Marrakech, which hasn't paused for breath since it opened its doors in the summer of 2015.
Ling Ling's outdoor terrace
The Red City's much-anticipated arrival of Ling Ling for Chinese fine dining and cocktails has had the country's movers and shakers hot under the collar for months – so much so that the celebrated little sister of Chinese super-restaurant Hakkasan (which has 12 outlets around the world, including in London, Dubai and Miami) has Moroccan food lovers flocking to the opening from Casablanca (three hours) and Rabat (four hours). I travelled for eight hours from Fez to be there because, while Morocco has plenty of branded five star hotels, it's the first time it has welcomed a serious player to the restaurant scene anywhere in the country. It feels not so much like a restaurant opening as a revolution, a game changer that's going to put Marrakech on the map as the country's culinary capital.
While most cities around the world have their share of fairly uninspiring Chinese takeaways, authentic Chinese cuisine is serious stuff. Of the myriad regions, Cantonese tends to be the most sophisticated, largely due to the time, effort and technology expended to achieve it. Like Japanese food, there is a profound level of artistry in its execution, from the way you hold a knife and cut a vegetable, to the preparation of a duck or a silk-textured dim sum wrapper, to the blazing furnace required to fire a wok to optimum temperatures. Indeed, one of its hallmarks is that it's quite dangerous: extreme cooking if you will, which, like most of the world's truly great cuisines can seem deceptively simple.
Dim sum delicacies
A wok, for example, should hiss, smoke and spit like a volcano about to blow, thus exuding an irresistible aroma long before the dish reaches your plate. A few minutes in the elegant dining room, where two-storey-high windows provide views over the property's ornamental pools and weeping willows, proves this to be true, as tantalising smells that could drive you half mad emanate from the kitchen. It is an ancient, but calculated, formula for ensuring your juices are adequately flowing, your digestive system prepped for the fireworks to come. And because the preparation of each ingredient is so meticulous, right down to the size of the spoons and ladles that add oil, seasonings and stock, no wok dish takes more than a minute to make. Dim sum are steamed over simmering vats, keeping the insides plump and juicy and the wrappers tender as satin, while powerful pressure steamers like monstrous washing machines cook fish to flaky succulent perfection. As for the sourcing of ingredients, it verges on the OCD.
The restaurant interior
After head chef Lau Su Kiean had tested just about every duck available in Morocco and Europe, he concluded he would have to bring them in from China. The fat, you see, wasn't conducive to getting the crisp skin and succulent flesh that is essential for Peking duck. After stuffing the bird with aromatics, he seals the cavity with a long steel needle, rubs the skin with sugar, and fan-dries it for eight hours before roasting at 140ºC for precisely 56 minutes. The seeds for the necessary, but hard-to-find, herbs and greens were also sourced from China and are being nurtured in the hotel's organic garden nurseries.
Clearly, opening a Chinese kitchen in a country where the cooking methods and techniques tend more to the long and slow, and the produce, while invariably excellent, rarely veers from established Mediterranean crops, was a bit of a risk. But this intriguing partnership has paid off. Chef Lau worked at Hakkasan Dubai for four years before the group transferred him to Marrakech to spread his magic, which, as well as procuring equipment that had never been seen here before, involved training up his largely local staff in Chinese culinary fine art. 'I've got a young, extremely motivated team,' he told me just after breakfast on the day of the grand opening, 'but, basically, they had to forget everything they'd learned and start again. Every aspect of the process – product, seasons, equipment, presentation, people – must fall into place to get this very pure, yet modern, cuisine right.'
Ling Ling's bar
Built on authentic flavours and presented with wow factor, the cuisine at Ling Ling has a contemporary edge, yet it pulls some surprise punches. Chef Lau, assisted by chef Andy Toh Chye Siong, who also came from Hakkasan Dubai but to help with the opening, has included Iranian caviar with his beloved duck, as well as jasmine tea smoked beef ribs and silver cod marinated in champagne. He seduces and grabs your attention with theatrical attention to detail.
Strategically, of course, it's a no-brainer. As the world changes at an inordinate pace, Morocco galloping along with it, dining experiences have to develop alongside. And Mandarin Oriental, Marrakech's pioneering fusion of Islamic (at the flagship Mes'Lalla restaurant) and Chinese cuisine places it right at the forefront of 21st-century dining.