Hubert Burda Media

THE REAL DEAL

CHRISTINA KO discovers some artful authenticity at the Mandarin Grill + Bar, which presents its Art Basel in Hong Kong menu this month

THE REAL DEAL

BEFORE THE AGE of Instagram, before it was normal to own a sous vide machine at home, before Heston Blumenthal was a television sensation, Uwe Opocensky was making little miracles at Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong.
And it’s to his credit that in today’s democratised dining era, where bench seating is acceptable and messy small plates are the height of chic, that he has stayed faithful to his highly conceptual, exceedingly meticulous tasting menus, with all the song and dance and props and pomp associated.
It’s been five years since Opocensky began doing art-themed menus to coincide with Hong Kong’s annual art fair and, contrary to expectation, it’s become more challenge than chore. “It always gets harder. People have got expectations. But this year the ideas came out quite quickly. It normally doesn’t happen this way. It’s luck and time,” says the chef. “Modern art is quite difficult to express in food. The most important part is that it’s delicious. If you can make a story around it, that’s the bonus.”
This year’s dishes take you on a journey in time to ancient China, bringing back relics that have almost become relegated to knockoff knick-knacks thanks to touristdriven replicas that flood the likes of Temple Street; Opocensky’s renderings elevate them once again to their original, rarefied status.
The first course, for example, includes pieces of jade laid upon stone – salmon, scallop and hamachi wrapped in a yuzu jelly that’s coloured the most viridescent shade of emerald, greener than Astroturf, greener than envy itself. Each piece of seafood is painstakingly selected and cut to the appropriate size to resemble the precious stone that inspired it, and the jelly covering is tinted using all-natural vegetable colouring sourced from organic produce – contrast that considered approach with the tubs and racks of mass-produced, mass-marketed jade ornaments found at street stalls.
Opocensky works with a development team at his disposal to realise his concepts and menu. “They go off and play around and when they came back with the first jade stone I thought, this works.” So while the end effect is often a testament to stunning science and presentation, Opocensky works as most other chefs do – starting with the ingredients. In the case of the jade, it was a no-brainer. “Seafood,” says Opocensky, “is always a pretty safe bet for Hong Kong. What we get from Japan is pretty awesome stuff, so it was an easy decision to go with that.”
The starting point for another dish, called Scroll, wasn’t actually the miles of curling paper that populate Cat Street, waiting to find homes on a wall in someone’s house, but a sample of paper bark from Australia sent over by a supplier some months before Opocensky began thinking about the art menu. “We started to experiment with that ... a year ago, and then when I looked at it, it just made perfect sense, because you can roll it up like a scroll.” On top of the scroll is a beautiful serving of cod, sprinkled with sorrel flowers that are, quite unbelievably, foraged in Hong Kong. Opocensky met “a foraging lady” months back, who shepherded him over to Lantau and Cheung Chau for expeditions that revealed new finds such as wild pomegranates that are “small and sweet, not too acidic” – you’ll see those in a menu further down the line, perhaps.
Like good art, fresh produce in Hong Kong takes some talent and perseverance to find, but it’s a task far from impossible. “People always think Hong Kong doesn’t have much to offer. It’s yes and no,” explains Opocensky, “but you need to look a little bit.
“If you work with farmers here it’s a little more difficult, because the way they look at produce is what can go quickly, is easy to maintain and easy to sell. So they have their water spinach and all of that.”
Thus far, it seems what’s on the menu provides more fun for the kitchen staff and chefs than for the customer. That stops with the next two courses – a main and a dessert, served simultaneously.
The title alone implies interactive elements: Spot the Difference. “There are five,” says the chef. Is there a prize for finding them all? Or perhaps eating the dishes is reward enough?
Two black frames arrive at the table with images of beetroot painted in sauce or something sticky and edible. A block of beef stroganoff is placed artfully on one plate, and when you’re done with that, a helping of Black Forest gateau is set gracefully upon the twin platter. They’re mind-trippingly similar.
And there are similarities, too, between a row of imposing terracotta warriors that arrive at the table to end the meal, and that opening work, the jade stones. These arrogant stony faces have much to be haughty about – they’re impeccably done in a concrete-coloured chocolate, and when decapitated bleed a pale yuzu ice cream that harks back to the green jelly coating at the beginning of the meal.
“This was our first idea,” Opocensky says. “I went through the market in Sheung Wan ... and I bought two of them, and we thought it would look cool if you had a lot of them, like when you go to China to see them.”
As with the soldiers built to protect the grave of China’s first emperor, it would be a waste for only patrons of the Mandarin Grill to admire this army, so they’re also gracing the meal trays of those flying first class on Cathay Pacific this month. “They’re going to be airlifted to New York, but you’ll have to fly first class to see it,” says Opocensky. It’s worth it, no doubt, for art’s sake.
 
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