Sunday, June 13, 2010

M is for Marvellous View, Mediocre Food

Over 20 years ago Michelle Garnaut opened M at the Fringe in Hong Kong, one of the first few independent restaurants in the city that was not attached to a hotel. It quickly became a favourite with its no-nonsense dishes, quirky decor and personable service.

Then over 10 years ago she started M on the Bund, a stylish homage to Shanghai's art deco look, also bringing a similar menu to dinners in the Chinese financial capital. This place, which inhabits a former bank, has also become popular mostly due to its fantastic view of the Bund and Pudong on the other side.

And now over a year ago, Garnaut has taken over Beijing with Capital M. It's located at the beginning of Qianmen Street, which I can now report has practically filled up its empty store-front spaces and looks more lively, with more flowers planted in giant urns and Starbucks and H&M next to domestic shops like Quanjude and silk stores and tea houses.

Thanks to some signage that pointed how to get into the building, my friend and I went up to the third floor to be greeted with some dramatic decor again harking back to the 1930s. Most of the tables inside were empty, as all the diners wanted to take advantage of the wonderful views outside. We were seated on the patio area which was laid-back and breezy, and not a single mosquito bite either, considering these pesky pests love my blood.

However, despite being seated and many wait staff milling around, it took some time before they even seemed to take notice of us and offer water and menus. Did they think we were just going to sit around and become part of the furniture?

Finally water was poured into our art deco glasses and we were able to peruse some menus. The dishes were all handwritten and interestingly enough had no Chinese characters to help some local customers understand the menu. It's already decided what kind of clientele would be here, and many last night fit the bill -- young professional 30-somethings from abroad or those who have travelled overseas frequently and had a good command of English.

Not long after we started to dig into the bread basket, our appetizers arrived. I had M's Gravlax, cured salmon with dill and Aquavit, a Scandinavian spirit, served with a sweet mustard sauce and very thin toast.

The salmon was fresh indeed along with the dill; the plate was also dressed with edible yellow flowers. I didn't care too much for the brown sauce, preferring to eat the salmon straight with a squeeze of lemon.

Meanwhile my friend had the Lebanese Meze platter, complete with artfully sculpted dollops of hummus, muchammara (hot pepper dip), labneh (soft cheese from yogurt), falafel, and dolma with fattoush and pita bread. Perhaps he shouldn't have chosen a dish he could have eaten elsewhere for a fraction of the price, as he seemed underwhelmed by it.

As we ate the skies gradually got darker, and the buildings by Tiananmen Square began to light up. It was an interesting contrast to look at Communist architecture from the 1950s while dining on Western food.

After a short wait our mains arrived. M's Crispy Suckling Pig is a signature dish my friend had to try. Three giant squares were presented on the plate, with a small scoop of stewed broad beans and zucchini gratin. The skin was very crispy, but not enough meat underneath to make it a satisfying dish.

I ordered the Slow-baked Salt-encased Leg of Lamb on a bed of green beans, with a whole roasted garlic, and rosemary roasted potatoes. It also came with some gravy, which was a touch too salty, but the lamb needed it because parts of it were too dry.

A nice touch was the finely mashed potatoes at the bottom of the dish, along with the roasted garlic whose cloves were so soft, they spread easily on bread.

The portions were just about right to leave enough room to try some dessert.

But here my choice could have been better. I had "It takes two to Mango", which was a pastry cup filled with thick cream whipped with mango sauce which wasn't very interesting. The plate was also decorated with cubes of mango jelly and the mango garnished with a sliver of mint.

My friend's dessert was better with the Croccanta Cioccolata, a Sicilian chocolate terrine with a scoop of marscapone ice cream that was rich and had a nice flavour with finely chopped nuts and candied fruits.

It was a bit of hit and miss with the menu, and the whopping 920RMB ($134.64) for two made us feel like we were paying more for the privilege of sitting outside and admiring the view than for the food.

Perhaps Capital M is more for those who want to be seen than for those who want to eat. No doubt the view is fantastic, eating above the fray of plebians below. But for those who want some serious nosh should look elsewhere than this otherwise beautiful restaurant.

Capital M
3/F, No. 2 Qianmen Pedestrian Street
6702 2727

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