June 22, 2011

NOT VIP treatment

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We have finally come to my actual birthday today, and I've chosen to go back to Pierre with Tigger to celebrate.  Pierre has always been among one of my very favorite places in town, and the old team had always treated me very well.

But the front of house team completely FAILED tonight.  Was the service not friendly?  Yes, they were smiling.  Did they not greet us courteously both when we arrived and when we left?  Yes, they did.  And there were occasions when they came and addressed us by name, uttering "Mr. A this" "Mr. B that"...  but there were simply too many mistakes.  Perhaps they seem small and insignificant to the average diner, but for those of us picky eaters - and I am proud to admit to being one - these are simply unacceptable for a restaurant inside a 5-star hotel, with 2 macarons and a world-famous chef as the mastermind.

Wine service has always been a pet peeve of mine.  I have, time and again, chastised waiters for being over-eager as they try to pour an entire bottle of wine out in one go.  Trained servers should have some knowledge about the wines they are serving, and realize that it's never acceptable to try to finish a nice bottle of wine in the space of 15 minutes - regardless of how many bottles were being served.  Just because I didn't bring a bottle of Lafite or Petrus doesn't mean that my wine is plonk.  Us wine lovers want to take our time so that the wines can open up nicely - we don't quaff our wines.

Tonight our waiters once again tried to refill our glasses as quickly as they possibly could.  We had a long and (what I hoped to be) relaxing dinner ahead of us, and I only brought a single bottle of wine to dinner.  Tigger and family don't drink much - one is usually driving and another is still breast-feeding.  As VIPs of the Mandarin, I am absolutely certain that the restaurant and hotel staff know my guests aren't big drinkers.  So, with only one bottle of wine in sight to last the entire evening, why is it that the staff was so eager to finish the bottle?!  And even after I chided him to not pour a lot of wine into the glass - and refusing a pour myself - he still kept on filling the glasses for everyone else when there was already enough wine in them... 

They did eventually get the message, I think, because no one dared to pour another drop of wine for the next hour or so...

1970 Egon Muller Riesling Scharzhofberger Spälese - classic nose of petrol, white flowers, honey, lemon and minerals.  I am lucky enough to be able to drink this 3 times within the last month, and I'm now convinced that this is a wine that should stay in the ice bucket and not allowed to get too warm...

There were a few amuse bouches, but no explanation given.

Pretty yummy - it's deep-fried, after all - but again I had no idea what I was eating.

The waiters then brought out the first course for the others who were taking the set menu, laid down a spread of 5 different containers in front of me, and proceed to walk off.  No explanation whatsoever of the food we were about to eat.  I was absolutely stunned... to the point where I kept staring at our Asian waiter in amazement, but he didn't get the message...and probably thought I was trying to make a pass at him...  I finally gave up and motioned for him to come over, and asked him to explain what he had put in front of me...  This is sooooo out of whack with the norm, because Gagnaire always serves his courses in multiples, and an explanation is always needed so that the diner doesn't keep staring at the bewildering array of plates and bowls while being totally lost.

Bell peppers - with little bits of perilla leaves (紫蘇).

Tomato marmalade - actually made with caramelized onions, too.

Blackcurrant jam with anchovies - failed the "does it taste good" test... Too salty and too sour at the same time...

Marshmallow with beurre blanc sauce - this was OK.  I can't remember what's in the spoon in the background...

I decided not to do either of the set menus, choosing instead to focus on specific ingredients.  With that in mind, I started with something called Around the French pig.  How could I NOT choose something like this, knowing my love for this particular farm animal?!  This came in four separate interpretations...

Around the French pig: bouquet of Culatello ham - this came on a serving dish that was shaped like a tagine but seemingly functioned like a Korean BBQ grill...  As usual, I left my table manners at home, and picked up the ham with my fingers.  Not bad at all...

Cooked ham, air-fried sausage, lettuce heart, liquor vinegar and mushrooms pancake - this was pretty delicious, as I always love a good terrine.  The air-dried sausage was good, and I really liked the mushroom pancake at the bottom.  Slices of summer truffle and a drizzle of aged balsamico completed the dish.

Suckling pig terrine with seville orange, shrimp salad flavoured with sherry, fresh herbs, zucchini pickles - yum-my.  Definitely more tender than the last terrine.  The raw shrimps were nice, and slightly "cooked" by the acid in the seville orange sauce.

Crispy pig's ear and cuttlefish - very pleasantly surprised to find this on the menu.  The cuttlefish slices were a little more chewy, and the breadcrumbs were coated with squid ink.

My main course focused on sole and langoustine, which I fear would not be everyday ingredients once I'm firmly planted in Taipei...  This came in three parts:

Sole, girolles and langoustines: roasted sole deboned then flavoured with shaved lemon, fresh coriander, baby spinach leaves.  Button mushroom salad - the presentation immediately reminded me of one of the signature dishes from Can Roca.  Execution was very, very good, with a nice sauce made from the fish itself.  The "button mushroom salad" had paper-thin slices of the mushroom.

Girolles and langoustines casserolle with Rivesaltes sweet wine - this was very delish... the sugar from the wine worked very well with the girolles... and of course the langoustines themselves were just naturally sweet.

Diced fillets of sole with lemon caviar and segments - the sauce was definitely on the acidic side, but I didn't mind as it helped to balance the heavy cream...  Very nicely done.

I was pretty full by this point, now regretting the fact that I took in some bread so I could enjoy the Bordier butter - especially the piment d'Espelette flavor - but I couldn't leave this place without having some of Nicolas' desserts!  I was presented with the dessert menu, left to think about it while the others waited for their cheese course.

And it took a good 10 to 15 minutes - just before the cheese course was served to the others - for anyone to come back and check on me.  I was kinda curious why I would have to hold on to the menu for this amount of time... 

Wild strawberry Sirocco: vanilla Sirocco, raspberry and sweet red peppers marmalade, Malabar light custard cream - this was VERY interesting, as you don't normally expect to be tasting piment d'Espelette in a dessert... and it combines well with the raspberry and strawberry flavors but somehow adds that extra little tingle on your taste buds.

Wild strawberry millefeuille - I was a little stunned when the plate was laid down in front of me.  For a minute I thought this was actually some new, stylish presentation of a millefeuille... until I looked underneath the top layer and confirmed that there was pastry cream on the underside.  Basically, somewhere between the kitchen and the table, the top layer of the millefeuille had slipped and fallen off, but the staff hadn't bothered to do anything about it, and decided to serve it to me as-is.  I can honestly say that I have never been served a "fallen" millefeuille, EVER.  After seeing me fume for a minute, Tigger called over one of the waiters and told him.  The waiter offered to get me a new one, but what's the point?!  The damage is already done and you've already told me you don't care about presentation!

Some people might read my little rant and think I'm over-reacting.  After all, the millefeuille would taste the same regardless of how it was presented.  The food would taste the same regardless of whether someone bothered to introduce the ingredients or not.  But the reality is that all those little details mean the difference between a good and a great restaurant, between Michelin stars and no stars.  Places like Pierre - with two Michelin stars to boot - should care about every little detail.

Exactly two nights ago while dining at Caprice, I was discussing this very issue with Chef Vincent Thierry.  I was telling him how lucky he was to have such a great front of house team in addition to the team in the kitchen, because it makes a world of difference to the diner.  I even mentioned the experience Resident Froggie and I had at Amber a couple of weeks ago, where the front of house similarly failed and marred what should have been a perfectly good dining experience.  I was utterly disappointed to have a similar experience tonight at Pierre, which has always been one of my beloved restaurants in town... one whose reputation I have vigorously defended against countless naysayers.  Nevermind that we had a VIP in our dining party (not me), nor the fact that - unbeknownst to them - they had just ruined a birthday dinner for me.


hkFashionGeek said...

I actually have the opposite pet peeve from yours re wine service. A lot of waiters tend to pour teeeny amounts, barely a mouthful and you really can't enjoy the body of the wine with such a small mouthful.. I wonder if it's a guy/girl thing or there just isn't decent wine service in this town at all.

Peech said...

I have NEVER met a waiter who only pours a tiny mouthful into my glass... where are these people? Very often I prefer to pour the wines myself so I can control the amount of pour.

Anonymous said...

I had fantastic food at Pierre and your menu looks like a menu set no?
I had great service but I think they still need time as it's they first place in asia. I understand that in a 2 Michelin stars restaurant you have a high expectation, but for me, Pierre and Amber are the 2 best place for food in Hong Kong.
That's true that the service in Caprice is great, but about food, I'm more into the 2 restaurant that I said just now.

PS: fantastic wine that you choose. I never try the 70, but would love to know about it.

Peech said...

I think in terms of food we each have our own preferences, and that's fine. Both Amber and Pierre have been open for about 5 years now, so I don't know how much more time they need to get things right... It's actually the staff turnover that brings down service quality, and the lack of training for new staff. The fact that it happens in 2-star restaurants inside the Mandarin Oriental group is a little surprising.

Cherub said...

A big fan of your blog, sad you'll be leaving the shores of HK and leave us bereft of your expert opinions on vinos, food, service and, of course, the funny (and often correct) rants

Hope to share a meal some day. Heading off to elbulli so all your prior views came very handy!

Peech said...

Enjoy your meal at El Bulli!


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