Saturday, June 5, 2010

Lots of Room for Improvement

When Brian McKenna was the chef at Blu Lobster, the western fine-dining restaurant at the Shangri-La in Beijing a few years ago, I was wowed by the molecular gastronomic feast he presented. Dishes were deconstructed, refreshing liquids presented in test tubes. It made dining an unforgettable experience.

So when he left to set up his own restaurant, there was a lot of expectation and anticipation for something great. It was supposed to have opened in time for the Olympics, but that came and went, and then it was supposed to open in April but that month came and went.

Finally it was expected to open in mid-May so I tried to make a reservation for the end of the month. However I was told over the phone that the restaurant was "full". How about the week after? Full. I couldn't get a reservation until two weeks later, which was today. A friend of mine told me this was strange as she had gotten word that the place wasn't open until last week.

What was going on? Was it eventually going to open?

ROOMBeijing was definitely open tonight, and it's located on the third floor of the Yintai Centre in Guomao, a slick shopping center and office space that's filled with brand-name boutiques like Hermes, Giorgio Armani and Ermenegildo Zegna, but have no customers.

The dining area is a strange mix of sophistication and off-beat art. The white tables are brightened up by comfortable chairs of various colours, and then there is modern art everywhere, including a giant mural of orchids, some of which stick out in 3D. Behind and above where we sat were the creations of a Korean artist, who had sculptures of dogs and a baby boy in a dog suit complete with a penis. We were told by one of the wait staff that the child was modeled after McKenna himself... probably a hint of his enfant terrible inner child?

To the side was an open galley kitchen, and and above that tons of wine bottles stuffed in rectangular holes. That seemed like the only sophisticated part of the restaurant.

Then we were handed the menu, which was actually a set menu at 300RMB ($43.92) per person. We were told that the restaurant still hadn't officially opened yet, so we were stuck with a parade of courses that were served "family style", a concept that was apparently the first in Beijing for a western restaurant. Right.

Even before we finished perusing the menu the starters were given to us, a bowl of delicious olives marinated in olive oil and lemon, babaganoush, bread sticks, seasoned cashews and banana chips.

Then we were served a mixed salad complete with chopped tomatoes, watermelon, pineapple and beets, topped with a poached egg. We also had a small plate of salmon marinated with beets which was not particularly interesting in terms of flavours.

However, we were then presented a whole roasted chicken which would be sliced up for us in the kitchen, and it was delicious, though it reminded us of Cantonese soy chicken. Nevertheless, the accompanying fries generously sprinkled with paprika were good, and a small salad. It also came with glutinous rice that was cooked in the same sauce as the chicken. That also sounds like another Cantonese dish...

Then the lamb chops came -- only two, for three people -- with a small pot of Irish lamb stew with thinly sliced pieces of lamb with carrots and potatoes. The lamb chop portion was soon rectified, when another one came naked on a plate. The lamb chops were nice and juicy, though not much flavour, in retrospect.

During this time service was pretty good, constantly filling our glasses with water... only after I had insisted on "ordinary water" and not the bottled kind which was 50RMB ($7.32) for a small bottle, and it wasn't even Evian either.

After our dishes were cleared, we were treated to a bizarre dessert of "spaghetti" made of white chocolate with a raspberry sorbet garnished with various berries like blackberry and blueberry. However, the "spaghetti" was very difficult to not only put on our plates but eat as well, and it didn't taste like white chocolate either. It was a sad attempt at being innovative.

We were also presented with a "fruit tree", a silver tree with branches sticking out that were decorated with cubes of fruit like strawberries, watermelon, pineapple, apple, dragon fruit and cantaloupe. We could dip them into sauces of strawberry, mango and vanilla mixed with sugar. However, it was difficult to get the fruit with forks; you had to use your hands which was not quite hygienic.

Dry ice emanated from the "pot" and after it dissipated in the air, it continued to gurgle which was a strange noise to have at the table.

We seemed to be the only table that had practically finished our fruit tree; others that were not finished were taken back into the kitchen. Did that mean that we were eating someone else's recycled fruit tree with a few more fruits added?

ROOMBeijing's motto is "Creating food with atmosphere". We saw a strange atmosphere, but not much creativity in the food. After all the hype, expectation and anticipation, the restaurant definitely fell short. It seems like too much effort was put into details other than the food itself.

Dinner for three including a 10 percent service charge was 990RMB ($144.95).

Apparently the full menu of some 40 items will be served soon. Who knows when that will actually happen...

Floor 3, Yintai Centre
2 Jianguomen Wai Dajie
8517 2033

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