The oldest hotel in Hong Kong is The Peninsula. It is an institution that dispatches a fleet of green Rolls-Royces to meet its privileged guests at the airport and sends a valet to their rooms to unpack their bags. The hotel's lobby, one of the world's last bastions of colonialism, is an ornately vaulted room in which tiffin, the quaint Anglo-Indian meal, is still served. The hotel's restaurant, Gaddi's, has long been considered one of Asia's finest French kitchens.
The new Peninsula in Beverly Hills has a lot to live up to. The management does not take this responsibility lightly. Traditions are respected here. Valets bow you into a lobby of monumental proportions. You pass a new bar that looks old and then head into the Belvedere restaurant, where a fleet of captains, waiters and assorted maitre d's and managers descends upon you, anxious to satisfy your every whim. Can they explain the menu to you? Would you like a few suggestions about the wine list? They press little amuse - gueles upon you--the chef wishes you to have these before you start your meal. One night it is individual spoons, each holding a single smoked mussel in a curried mayonnaise. Another night, it is a light scallop mousse in a sesame sauce. When the captain sets one of these dishes before you, he murmurs softly, "With pleasure." If you are not of a colonial bent of mind, the combined weight of all this can be oppressive.
The tables, of course, are commodious, the sound level civilized. There are candles and flowers on the table. When, one night, a strolling guitarist came ambling into the room, causing the occupants of the large table next to ours to burst suddenly into song, our captain felt compelled to offer an explanation. "See that man?" he whispered apologetically, gesturing with his nose. "That's the second-richest man in Hong Kong." He sounded faintly grieved, as if he thought such displays unseemly.
But while rowdiness may be frowned upon in this sedate dining room, the menu is anything but dull. If you are looking for average hotel food, you will be disappointed. Chef Akira Hirose likes bold flavors and unorthodox combinations. When they work--as in the lobster with caraway essence (a dish that read like pure poison to me)--they are astonishingly delicious. When they don't--as in the filet of salmon that arrives buried under an avalanche of lavender--they are awful. But good or bad, this food is never boring.
The chef is at his best when he is using Asian accents in his Western dishes. He layers Sonoma foie gras with an aspic made of Chinese black mushrooms; the liver is especially soft and sweet when set against the aggressive flavor of the mushrooms. And there's a visual corollary to the flavors: The pinkness of the liver is emphasized by the darkness of the aspic. He makes carpaccio his own, too, drizzling it with a sauce made of wasabi and then decorating it with so many colorful vegetables it looks like some wonderful dessert. He takes a simple consomme, a strong and elegant broth he calls "double-boiled chicken essence," and floats two little ginger-laden ravioli in them to create a Western won-ton soup.
Other appetizers, however, are less successful. The angel-hair pasta with chiles, olive oil and sun-dried tomatoes sounded interesting but was, to me, just dry and downright weird. Chilled jumbo shrimp arrived in a gorgeous pyramid surrounded by ribbons of cucumber, but the shrimp were as hard as bricks. And a tangle of delicious sauteed mushrooms came on a limp pancake made of potatoes and carrots.
The entrees were equally variable. Rosemary-scented rack of lamb came with smoked elephant garlic and little tartlets made of shiitake mushrooms, potatoes and zucchini. It was a wonderful twist on a classic dish. And marinated sesame chicken with shiitake mushrooms is a dish I'd go back for--a generous and delicate melange of chicken surrounded by steamed bok choy and black mushrooms in a wonderful soy-and-sesame broth. And that lobster in caraway was shockingly good, the tender meat taking on a whole new range of flavors you'd never suspect it contained.
But if the lobster had the stuff to stand up to caraway, grilled salmon simply wilted in the company of all that fragrant lavender. And while the baked Dover sole in herb brioche crust was a fine new look at a grand old dish, the breast of duckling in Cabernet grapes, a new and potentially delicious dish, just didn't work. Twice it came out of the kitchen gray and overcooked.
Specials--there are always specials--are best when they're in the East-West mode. My favorite was a red snapper that was crusty on the outside, creamy and soft inside, served with sesame-drenched pasta.
But while there's a lot of excitement on the menu, little of it is visible at dessert. The best I've tried was a special Napoleon made of layers of crisp cookies and homemade coffee and vanilla ice creams. I liked the fresh fruits and berries, but the touted "star-anise broth" was almost imaginary. I was also disappointed in the chocolate ganache cake with orange sauce and a rather heavy lemon-meringue tart.
The food is often good, but at these prices the primary reason to visit the Belvedere is for the sheer correctness of the service. And, unfortunately, that correctness sometimes falters.
Consider my final visit to the restaurant. My guests arrived ahead of me. They were shown to a table outdoors. When they protested that they wanted to sit inside, they were brusquely told, "This is your table." There was worse to come. When the maitre d' noticed that the party was not complete, my friends were told to vacate the table they didn't want and to sit in the bar until everyone arrived.
We arrived. I was recognized. We were immediately led to a large indoor table and showered with smiles.
This, I think, would never happen in the original Peninsula. Service, when it is really correct, is the same for everyone.
The Belvedere in The Peninsula Hotel Beverly Hills, 9882 Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills; (213) 273-4888. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner daily. Full bar. Valet parking. All major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $52-$120.
Recommended dishes: foie gras with mushroom aspic, $18; carpaccio, $10.50; chicken soup with ginger ravioli, $6; lobster with caraway, $35; sesame chicken, $21; rack of lamb, $26.