Esquire Food Discovery of the Year: The Mandarinís Meatless Marvels†
Virtuoso vegetarian even better to eat than to Instagram. Prepare for conversion experience.
If you’d invited me in 2017 for vegetarian food, I’d have balked and rolled my eyes at you. But Mandarin Grill? That should be a safe bet. Okay! The flagship restaurant of Mandarin Oriental Kuala Lumpur is redolent of slow-roasting chunky meats over fire. I have no beef (ha ha) with vegetables and indulge in a salad now and then, but I really can’t go a day without biting bigly into something hefty. But now, I’m not so sure. What gives?
Mandarin Oriental has its standards to upkeep, and it does. Signature elements are echoed in every Mandarin property so you feel at home wherever in the world you enter one. Even the familiar fan lapel pin worn by staff primes me to expect special treatment. Dinner at Mandarin Grill is just that. The oversized, plush leather chairs, avant-garde lighting, the fire glowing playfully, all reiterate its reason for being. The interior design is all warm orange and muted tones, creating a fuzzy, classy embrace that cocoons you throughout dinner. If you speak fashionista, there’s velvet and cashmere; ditto the ambience of the Grill.
Sebastian Barcudes, Argentine, is the new-ish chef de cuisine who joined in early 2017. He's picked up his share of awards in a 12-year career that includes the Burj Al-Arab’s Al-Muntaha Restaurant under Bjorn Alexander Panek for three years. Barcudes is a soft-spoken man whose youthful looks – and transcending talent – belie his 34 years, as I’m about to discover...
I have the privilege of eating a feast for the eyes; behold, bonsai architecture, so much care, attention to detail and no little skill. More so, the Mandarin Grill Summer Salad is alive, every bite a confirmation of the chef’s sensitivity to the source of the ingredients. But you know what, back up on the soft-spoken part because... Barcudes spent some time at a Shaolin temple in Henan before coming here. Perhaps to prep for KL’s finicky fine dining scene? It might explain the precision in his methods and elevated skills.
Over the course of my love affair with an Italian, I have eaten many burratas. This queen of Italian cheeses, literally meaning “buttered”, burrata is a canny little thing. Eaten fresh, it’s creamy, gentle on the palate with a tinge of the savoury, and pleasingly satisfying. If yours is not-so-fresh, you wonder why they bothered coming up with a heavier version of mozzarella - which it is vehemently not. Burrata deserves a place of honour among all cheeses; it should be crowned the non-sweet, non-fattening equivalent of chocolate. In Italy, in true-blue, mama and papa cheese shops, burrata is sold and eaten warm, fresh from the pot, straight into one’s salivating mouth.
I’ve had my fair share of burratas in KL so trust me when I say that Barcudes’ burrata made me sit up and take notice. Mille scuse – I’m sorry, but his is categorically better than those in most Italian restaurants in town. Plated to impeccability on a bed of tart orange compote, sharp arugula and a tender balsamic reduction, the little plops of burrata were made prettier adorned with crinkly candied orange slices, almost like a little fascinator beckoning to you from a very comely woman’s crown. I know I know, I run afoul of waxing lyrical about just a burrata but seriously, if there was only one dish you could afford to eat at the Grill, tis the burrata. Served three on a plate, it almost makes for a full meal.
There is the Parihuela, a Peruvian seafood bisque with prawns and bits of corn. I will find out later this is a recipe close to chef’s heart, served to him by his grandmother when he was a child. The broth fills your palate with a hint of spice, savoury without the brine one of the usual seafood bisque, while the corn bits give every spoonful substantial bite. The proof is in the prawnning; modestly served on the sea of bisque, the crustaceans are entirely self-possessed and need no additional flavouring.
The Grill’s name conjures up images of thick, sizzling meats, but Barcudes’ vegetarian options are unexpectedly delectable, and maybe even more instagrammable. (I know, I know, but let’s be real here: who among us hasn’t gone somewhere just so we could post a picture of been there, done that.) I can’t help but want to eat every dish served to my vegetarian companion. The enchanting bed of Summer Salad, the vanishingly good Asparagus Soup with Truffle Dauphine and garlic foam, and froth-covered Mushroom Risotto; all so tantalising I vow now to return solely for the vegetarian course.
Capping this evening is Textures of Valrhona, a creation of dreams. I mean, three types of Valrhona chocolate – Guanaja 70%, for the mousse, ice cream and shapes; Jivara 40%, for the cremeux; and Gianduja 35% with hazelnut. Again, beautifully rendered with artful whirls of pure chocolate on the plate, a scoop of heavenly in-house chocolate ice cream on one side and chocolate mousse on a solid chocolate éclair on the other. Come to think of it, if I ever had a daughter, I’d name her Valrhona. Gracias, Chef Barcudes.
Reservations, Mandarin Grill, Mandarin Oriental Kuala Lumpur, (603) 2380 8888