Updated: Dec 17, 2020
Mandarin Grill recently reopened its doors by inviting a number of writers from the media and independent writers like myself to experience the restaurant's latest chapter. Currently helming the restaurant is chef Luigi Stinga, a talented Italian chef that I've had the pleasure of meeting once as well as having sampled his cooking when he first arrived in KL to take over operations a year ago.
I sampled a tasting lunch menu on the day of the review, five dishes that gave me a curated peek into the fantastic Italian fare with a contemporary touch that Luigi and his team have centred the à la carte theme around. I really enjoyed what I tasted at Mandarin Grill, as the food showed a level of finesse and mastery of marrying local and international flavours that are becoming more common with the rise of an increasing number of newer restaurants in the food scene.
Do take note that the portions featured here are intended to be smaller than their menu counterparts.
Eggs, ever the versatile ingredient and vital to making so many things taste great whether it takes the spotlight or acts as an accomplice, is perfect for the first dish. My meal began with a savoury start – slow-cooked organic egg, smoked scamorza cream, shredded salsify, and fresh black truffle (RM60). After fasting for over 12 hours, this easy-on-the-palate dish was just what I needed to break fast.
Each gratifying spoonful was a contrast of smooth cheese with a slightly grainy texture, almost akin to porridge. That added smokiness filled my olfactory system with a delightful umami aroma. At the same time, a nutty crunch from the salsify (a root vegetable that's related to a parsnip) provided a lightly sweet textural shift. Not sure if I'd had salsify before, but it reminded be ok arrowroot chips, the same ones you snack on during Chinese New Year celebrations. The addition of fresh black truffles, as you can already guess, imbues the dish with an elegant earthiness.
This was a divisive dish and a chef's speciality – homemade beef rendang cappelletti (a circular ravioli) with a beef and mushroom broth (RM72). The other writers on my table, including myself, enjoyed this but I overheard one or two diners who didn't quite enjoy this mod-Malaysian take on classic Italian dumplings. I can see why they may not have liked it, but I did, and I'll tell you why.
You'll want to pop the whole cappelletti in one mouthful with this one, each bite a mix of pillowy soft pasta, surprisingly delicious rendang with a melt-in-your-mouth texture that goes POW on the palate, and a hint of ginger that lingers in the background. The broth provided a light agent to balance the spice bomb that was the rendang. Yet, even with such a heavily spiced dish like rendang, the flavours were never lost on me, and I could still taste everything as intended.
I was quite impressed with the last dish, but it became immediately apparent that the next pasta serving won hands down after I lapped it up. Cacio e pepe (RM155), the classic pasta dish that features only pecorino romano and black pepper (Sarawakian in this case), was simply superb. Luigi used chittara taglioni for this dish, an egg pasta typically found in the Abruzzo region of Italy that gives off a denser chew. The bright, intense black pepper gave the dish energy and freshness to counter the cheese's weighty, flavourful tastes. Luigi could have merely served the traditional cacio e pepe and I would have been one happy diner, but he took it to the next level by adding 12gm of sea urchin. Wow. The rich and gentle umami flavours worked wonders with the rich and bold pecorino romano, creating a harmonious and intense savoury tang that made this an instant classic for me. You need to try this.
The main course had to wave the restaurant's flag proudly, and a relatively straightforward dish of lamb, white spring onion, potato, and black lemon (RM192) led the charge here. The mild sweetness of the white spring onion was quite prevalent here, while the flavour of the lamb had a hint of game bolstered by the onion's sweetness and softened by the mash at the bottom. The meat itself was tender and perfectly charred on the outside, giving a satisfying chew. Fermented black lemon shavings added a low profile zestiness to the dish to round things out rather neatly.
I'm not one for deconstructed dishes, but when done right, I can appreciate the idea behind the reasoning for taking each element of a dish apart and re-presenting it in a different light. Mandarin Grill's tiramisu (RM40) is thankfully not deconstructed for the sake of visual appeasement. The dessert itself was light while still retaining the core qualities of what makes a tiramisu a tiramisu, sans alcohol, of course. I enjoyed the mix of coffee cream, mascarpone and lashings of cocoa powder, but I will admit that I missed the addition of marsala wine.