Mandarin Grill, one of Tatler's top 20 restaurants in 2020, reopened its doors on November 11, 2020 after an eight-month-long hiatus induced by Covid-19
Mandarin Grill Reopens With A More Courageous Menu
While some were preoccupied with Single's Day sales on 11.11, the Tatler Dining team was busy testing the waters at Mandarin Grill in Mandarin Oriental, Kuala Lumpur. The brand spanking new menu, which executive chef Luigi Stinga has been raring to release for months now, takes diners on a tour of Stinga's Italy—no Vespa required.
Albeit Mandarin Grill's long absence from March 17 through November 10, 2020, Stinga saw a silver lining in the situation; it was finally time for him to explore his new turf and with it, Malaysia's tasty local cuisine.
"Since moving to Malaysia, I had barely left the hotel, but during lockdown I had the opportunity to try many special local products," he gushed. "As typical of most chefs, I tried to think of ways to incorporate my findings in new creations."
Channelling his restless energy into productivity, Stinga came up with the following new dishes and more:
Starting with stuzzichini (small, often deep-fried snacks) and antipasti aka appetisers, a multi-course meal at Mandarin Grill is a window onto the true heart of Italy.
"What you call a 'baby pizza' is Montanara, a street food found in Naples," chides Stinga playfully. Served in a dim sum basket the size of a drink coaster, the deep-fried, bite-sized treat with tomato sauce, parmesan and basil is the perfect way to line your stomach before that first sip of Prosecco.
Next up, the slow cooked organic egg with smoked Scarmoza cream, salsify and fresh black truffles is an education on the humble egg's many uses in Italian cooking (beyond Carbonara). According to Stinga, "The idea is to transform a 'poor man's ingredient' into something sophisticated." And sophisticated it is. Showered with green, pink and black powders spun out of dry kale, sweet potato and vegetable carbon, the delicate dish receives rave reviews all around. He or she who eats such eggs every day is a happy camper.
Not your nonna's pasta
One of Italy's most celebrated artists, Federico Fellini excelled at filmmaking due to his ability to see the poetry of everyday life. The Academy Award winner is famous for quoting the following:
Life is a combination of magic and pasta.
A childlike sense of wonder too, filled Chef Stinga the first time he sampled beef rendang; thus was born Mandarin Grill's homemade Cappelletto Ripeno di ‘Beef Rendang’. Despite our initial excitement for this, the beef-stuffed parcels recall an unconvincing Venn diagram; perhaps some distinct dishes should never overlap. What helps it scrape by is the robust mushroom broth that's poured tableside, both for theatrics and to save the servers the trouble of balancing hot bowls of soup atop trays.
Leaving more of a strong impression is the Cacio e Pepe. Our initial misgivings about pairing delicate sea urchin with Italy's most peppery pasta are swept away by a whirlpool of sea spray, minerality—namely iron and zinc—and a healthy tinge of warm spice. Because uni is largely seen in Japanese cuisine here, many a Malaysian might mistake the pasta for a Japanese-inspired dish, but know that sea urchin is just as popular in Southern Italy.
"Italians enjoy the fresh roe as it is or over pasta," confirms Stinga.
We've known it since our first taste of Stinga's cooking in 2019: the chef adores his deconstructed desserts, and so do his customers. In fact, Stinga's tiramisu is the only dish from his last menu that has escaped obliteration. What brings the entire dessert together is bittersweet single-origin chocolate sourced from Chocolate Concierge. "I was like a baby in a candy shop," says Stinga of his first time at the cacao farm in Pahang.
Chocolate too, finds its way into Mandarin Grill's vanilla panna cotta with kumquat, which looks nothing like any panna cotta we've ever had. "Once you've had a panna cotta, you've had them all," says the chef. "The least I can do is to present its familiar flavours in a new light."
A third dessert, one involving dried ice and a dash of drama, can be found on Mandarin Grill's menu, but the best way to discover it is to dine in yourself.
- PhotographyKhairul Imran