If Mercedes-Benz had a restaurant, what would it look like? CHRISTINA KO hops in for a spin
WELCOME TO THE Me Generation. The generation for which “selfie” is a term with a dictionary definition. In which someone's personal social-media feed can be as authoritative as the voice of The New York Times. In which your browser cookies know you as well as your best friend does.
Today, that which is personal is king. Faceless multi conglomerates reach out to customers with slang and conversational diction. Customisation is no longer an extra; it's a foregone conclusion. And the glamour associated with the minimal, the impersonal and the aspirational is slowly ebbing, replaced with all that's raw and relatable. That much is evident on first peek at Mercedes Me, the Maximal Concepts-helmed restaurant and bar that's about as far from a luxury-car showroom as you can get. Sure, from the street you can peek in and the space appears to boast shiny white floors, digital touchscreens and a single special car on display. But that's almost as far as the expected Mercedes-Benz influence extends. Down a few steps it's a whole new world:weather chairs may be fashioned from the same material as the seats in an AMG model, and copper finishes may pay homage to the metal from which the vehicles are forged, but the vibe is warm and unpretentious, like a living room, just not your living room. Floorto-ceiling shelves are artfully arranged with knick-knacks and coffee-table tomes (about Mercedes, but oh well). One wall is peppered with picture frames showcasing black-and-white photos from the brand archives, neatly aligned but with just a little bit of uneven spacing to enhance that perfectly imperfect effect. It's so very unexpected for the German car brand that although the design isn't groundbreaking, it is.
“We call it a clubhouse for Mercedes-Benz fans,” explains Peter Larko, who heads up Mercedes' PR and marketing activities in Hong Kong. “It's not necessarily just for customers, but for people who want to come closer to our brand. It's supposed to be a cosier, warmer environment, where you want to be and spend time – it should be a second home.”
It's certainly becoming a second home to Edgard Sanuy and Malcolm Wood, the restaurant's executive chef and Maximal's founder and culinary director respectively. As the group's corporate development chef for the last two years overseeing product research and menu development at sister establishments like Limewood and Fish & Meat, Sanuy is finally getting his hands dirty in his own kitchen, and put some 60 recipes to the test before honing them down to two pages' worth of small plates and sharing platters.
The cuisine, like at many of Maximal's Western restaurants, isn't specific to a country, taking influence and ingredients from around the globe and applying them in a Hong Kong context – that is, creating something for a sophisticated dining market that's seen it all, eaten it all, and spat out everything that isn't up to par. Explains Wood: “Mercedes has its heritage in Germany, but it's a global company, it's offering a product on a global scale. We didn't want our food to be tied down to one country, we wanted to reflect on Mercedes' brand being prevalent in many different countries.”
“We really liked that when they make a car, they take talent from all over the world,” adds Sanuy. “They take pieces from all over world. And they need all that to make a good car; they couldn't make it based on one single place. To make a good menu, we take the best products from all over the world and we build a menu.” For his raw-food focused compilation, Sanuy turned to the Japan, Spain and Peru for the bulk of his guidance, with the more modestly portioned dishes stealing the show.
Something as simple as the Chef's Special Oyster Selection allows Sanuy's deft understanding of textures and flavours to shine. Three preparations cohabit the plate: one, with salmon roe and ponzu, is salty and explosive, redolent of a splash in the sea. Another, with tomato foam and habanero, offers sweetness and spice and everything nice. And the third, topped with a mint and coriander granite, is as clean and refreshing as a mojito on a hot day.
Elsewhere, the simply named Sea Urchin allows the eponymous ingredient to consort with a bite of fig (so ripe it looks suspiciously like raw beef, but isn't), a sprig of oyster leaf and a thin little nori cracker. It's that typical marriage of crunch and goo, but elevated with bold seaside characters. There are some dishes that tread more traditional territory – a jamon croquette that retains a recognisable pellet shape; crispy salmon skin chips that wouldn't be out of place at any izakaya as a side dish to a big bottle of sake – and then there are those creations that Sanuy clearly took pleasure in subverting. Huevos rotos – Spanish broken eggs – get a neat visual makeover served inside a duck-egg shell (“A broken egg inside a broken egg,” he says, chuckling). And one of the best burratas you'll come across in the city sees its typical acidic partners of peach, cherry or tomato churned together in a sauce, keeping the flavour balance but offering a textural play.
More off-menu items will be available to patrons who dine at the bar, behind which Sanuy will hold court. It's also home to a fairly sophisticated cocktail assembly line. “We'd like the drinks to surprise in the sense of the technique used to make them – more theatrical, because our bar team is on display, they're viewed by every seat in the restaurant except for three,” says Wood. “We go through all the steps burrata. and heritage. Each mixologist is performing, and we divide the bar into three sections and each section takes care of two or three [drink types] each. With our Old Fashioned, for example, we stir it for five minutes, or 300 times.”
Nothing says indulgence quite like a cocktail that requires enough hand-mixing to give a bartender carpal tunnel. Which is what makes the Mercedes-Maximal union such a successful partnership – the automotive manufacturer may know how to get people from place to place in style, but Maximal knows what to do with them once they've reached their final destination. It takes something quite special to get this generation to flip their selfie cameras to face the outside world, and Mercedes Me just might have what it takes to convince them.