Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Mott 32, Central, Hong Kong (Alissa and Don Eat Asia)

In the lead up to our 2015 trip to Hong Kong, I happened to be walking through the local supermarket when I noticed the latest issue of Gourmet Traveller fortuitously featured an article about new restaurants in Hong Kong. The informative article featured a number of restaurants we had heard of and were considering booking tables for, with one in particular catching our eye. Named Mott 32 after the location of New York's first Chinese convenience store, the restaurant's eye popping interior design and the promise of unusual and luxe Dim Sum was enough to convince us to reserve a table for our visit, and it served as our last meal in Hong Kong before catching our flight back home to Australia.

Walking into this subterranean restaurant buried within the basement of the Standard Chartered Bank Building in Central, one is struck by how magnificently beautiful Mott 32 is. There are many restaurants throughout the world that have attempted this highly contemporary mix of retro Asian iconography with a Post-Modern Industrial edge, but I can't think of any restaurant that Alissa have visited that has achieved what Mott 32's design team have done here. Look at the detail of the above private dining room with Murals stencilled onto the walls, Chinese porcelain on shelves next to intentionally faded Chinese characters painted onto the exposed concrete walls and - my favourite touch - the giant Abacus hanging from the ceiling. This is a restaurant that has put a lot of effort and money into its design concept and has seen it through with a near unheard of dedication. If only we could have taken photos of the bathrooms, easily up there with Vue de Monde as one of the most impressive we have seen!

After passing by the bar and many private dining spaces, Alissa and I were sat at a table in the main space (see first photo above). After being wowed by the restaurant's beauty, service started inauspiciously. The wait-staff seemed young and inexperienced, and highly unfamiliar with the etiquette of hospitality. A few hovered awkwardly behind us as we chose our dishes, with a few continuing to do so afterwards. Worse was still to come. Having ordered Supreme Phoenix Tea - a not entirely cheap Oolong we had tried at a tea tasting just the day before - we were appalled to have our leaves burnt by staff who clearly didn't know how to pour tea correctly, with one staff member later in the meal topping up Alissa's cup, leaving half of the water in the steeping cup and then coming back later to top up Alissa's cup with an utterly bitter brew. With Mott 32's menu prices coming close to the 3 Michelin Starred Lung King Heen, Alissa and I could not help but compare the utterly professional service of the latter against the former, and we wished they'd perhaps spent it a bit more money on great staff as well as the design budget.

After the hovering service and the over-steeped Tea, Alissa and I were slightly concerned the food itself would follow suit. Thankfully this was not the case, with the Dim Sum service starting with the very strong Kurobuta Pork, Soft Quail Egg, Black Truffle Siu Mai. To begin with, the use of Kurobuta Pork resulted in a Siu Mai of great texture and flavour that would have been a strong performer in its own right, however it became the best Siu Mai I've eaten to date thanks to the use of the Quail Egg and Black Truffle. The Quail Eggs gave the dish a delicious, custard-like creaminess that was a perfect vehicle for the dab of Black Truffle Puree on top to work its flavour magic. Truly superb.

Given the slight absurdity of Australians eating South Australian Lobster in Hong Kong, Alissa and I decided to go with the more conventional King Prawn Har Gao. Conventional as they are, Har Gao are a benchmark Dim Sum dish and Mott 32's version was very impressive, with a perfectly made semi-translucent skin and a filling of perfectly cooked prawns that resulted in a dumpling of exquisite juiciness. This was better than Tim Ho Wan's already exceptional take.

The same could not be said of Mott 32's take on the Signature Crispy Sugar Coated BBQ Spanish Teruel Pork Bun. Alissa and I have eaten this style of Pork Bun in no less than three Tim Ho Wan's in three countries as well as Lung King Heen's more deluxe take, and we agreed that this was the least impressive version we've tried. To begin with, the Buns were considerably smaller, and were noticeably less sweet than Tim Ho Wan or Lung King Heen. To me, the great genius of this style of Bao is the fact that it took the crispy top from a dessert Pineapple Bun and then filled it with Pork, and the lack of sweetness here seemed to lose some of the 'meat in dessert' charm that the dish usually has. Additionally, the size difference resulted in a ratio of filling to bun that didn't seem quite right. These were fine enough, but the use of more expensive Spanish Pork and a higher asking price compared to Tim Ho Wan didn't seem particularly worthwhile.

Next, we tried the Kurobuta Pork, Crab & Caviar, Shanghainese Soup Dumplings. These Xiao Long Bao were well made, with the Pork and Crab filling within having a good texture about on par with Din Tai Fung's standard offering, but below the amazing quality of the Xiao Long Bao at Lung King Heen. The addition of Caviar however was a very clever and worthy addition, providing a nice, salty and fishy pop to the proceedings. Definitely worth an order if not exactly essential.

The Assorted Seafood, Kau Choy (Chinese Chives) Dumplings were probably the weakest dish of the meal. When ordering them, we were expecting something a bit more like a Jiaozi, and while the idea was similar, we felt it weighed a bit too heavily towards the vegetables over the seafood. These were nice enough, with a well made skin that was given a nice golden toasting, but we would have preferred to have ordered a different dish in hindsight.

Our final Dim Sum order was the Honey Glazed BBQ Spanish Teruel Pork Cheung Fun. The Cheung Fun itself was well made, with that  signature soft, slippery texture, and the BBQ Pork filling was also very nice. We did think however that the splash of oil and sauce on top was a bit stingier than we would have liked, and a more serious drenching would have made an already excellent serve of Cheung Fun even better.

Careful not to over-order so we could leave room for dessert, Alissa and I inevitably caved in to the lure of the Barbecue Prime Iberico Pork with Yellow Mountain Honey after seeing it ordered by a nearby table. Although the Siu Mai and the Har Gao were definitely strong performers, this incredibly deluxe dish was the star - and unquestionably the best Char Siu we've had. The Iberico Pork was cooked to soft, melt in your mouth perfection that was suggestive of Sous-vide, while still maintaining a a nice barbecued exterior, complete with the most delicious glaze of Yellow Mountain Honey. Salty, sweet and umami, this was a true pleasure to eat - a truly essential dish.

The Verdict: Excellent +
Beyond being a particularly beautiful restaurant, there were some serious highlights to our meal at Mott 32. The Siu Mai, Har Gao and the Char Siu were all benchmark-setting dishes of outstanding quality that were better than Tim Ho Wan and every bit the equal of Lung King Heen. These dishes made Mott 32 entirely worthwhile visiting. While some of the dishes were not quite as impressive as that triumvirate, there were no bad dishes per se. It is a shame then that the restaurant was so thoroughly let down by the seemingly inexperienced and poorly managed front of house, as it definitely put us in a bad mood to have staff hovering over us for much of the start of our meal; having our tea burnt only added to the lack of professionalism and negated the value of the restaurant having such a prestigious tea list. With a look that is utterly on-trend and a kitchen putting out really delicious food, Mott 32 has a lot of potential to be a great restarant. Once they get service staff worthy of the food and surrounds, they will really be a force to reckon with. Until then, I say just grin and bear it - that Char Siu is so good, it's worth the irritation of burnt tea leaves.

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