You’re accustomed to the MTR mosh pit. So it’s amazing how you immediately take to the chauffeur-driven Mercedes sent by The Landmark Mandarin Oriental to fetch you for a one-night staycation. You and your wife wriggle-wruggle within its leather upholstery like pups in a pillow pile as it carries you to your rendezvous with luxury – your sweet plum for 10 years of happy marriage.
You exit and the Merc’s doors close behind you with a refined, solid, comforting thunk. The woman who checks you in is personable and professional. There are exquisite floral displays, elegant stone floors, smooth service. The hotel has – what would the word be? – thunk. It is refined, solid, comforting.
Your room is larger than your entire apartment and has the look of a room in a wealthy, tasteful home. All its elements, from rugs to fabrics to furniture to lighting to plumbing fixtures, are smart. It is the style to which you wish to be accustomed.
There are switches for everything, drapes, shades, lights, TVs. When you attempt to turn off the lights, the drapes close. When you attempt to close the drapes, the lights in the bathroom turn on. Thank God there is no self-destruct switch. You’d vaporise Hong Kong attempting to turn on the TV hidden within the bathroom mirror. You sense there is an overarching scheme to these switches that you could possibly master someday, if only you could afford to stay here long enough, which you can’t. If they glowed faintly in a darkened room, this would help, as would wearing glasses.
It’s good the room has curtains and drapes because the ample windows on either corner are open to the view of neighbouring buildings, giving your room the quality of a connubial diorama. The interesting view is in, not out.
The bathroom is large, beautiful, outfitted with Cochine toiletries.
There are quibbles, of course. Your wife notes that there is no outlet in the bathroom to plug in her curling iron. The make-up mirror is chest height. There’s no night light, at least that you can find, to navigate the bathroom in darkness. You wish the toilet had an electric bidet seat. You’re greeted by a bottle of iced Prosecco and chocolate-dipped strawberries.
Champagne would hit a higher note than Prosecco (and cost the hotel only a farthing more). Nits aside, you are delighted. You road-test the sheets and pillows on the king-size bed. Posh.
Drinks at Please Don’t Tell
At 5pm, you start your evening at the ground-floor speakeasy, Please Don’t Tell (PDT), by traversing a raucous bar, ascending a stairway, entering a phone booth and pressing a particular number on a telephone, which opens a secret door.
Escorted to a shadowed corner, you order a Zuyu Collins, mixing Zubrówka vodka, Cocchi Americano, Giffard apricot liqueur, salted lime and Kimino yuzu soda. You are drawn to the apricot liqueur, a flavour you adore, but it is utterly indiscernible in the drink. In fact, the drink tastes like a pack of molten Life Savers, sweet and vaguely fruit-like, no more. It costs HK$158. Your wife has a Long Ball, mixing CÎROC vodka, lemon juice, oolong tea and Moët & Chandon’s Brut Impérial champagne with a delicate purple orchid on top. She enjoys it, “a refreshing and pretty confection”. It tastes to you indistinguishable from your drink. Another sweet glump for HK$158.
What is it with bars serving drinks that seem to be made not by bartenders but by people playing bartenders? It’s the critical difference between doctors and people playing doctors. And why the need to give the provenance of every ingredient as though all discerning people have strong opinions on the exact brand of apricot liqueur in a drink? This is stunt mixology, rooting back to the mythic line “shaken, not stirred” and bears no relation to the drink you had two years ago at Amber, seven floors up, the best wine cocktail of your life. It mixed Pinot Noir with cassis and lychee syrup (the latter two in elegant carafes so you could add to taste). Amber, secure in its stature, felt no need to trumpet the provenance of the cassis. No need to proclaim the sub-phylum of the lychees in the syrup. No compulsion to hop it up with another four ingredients. Without fanfare, it was a drink of distinction.
The bar also serves gourmet hot dogs and tater tots as snacks. You try the takoyaki tots, HK$148, covered in Kewpie mayo, takoyaki sauce, shredded nori, bonito and spring onion (once again, a long list of ingredients, as though this confers stature). The agglomerate taste is like tater tots in slightly fishy mayo. Kin to the drinks, this is gimmick food, meant to convey hipness by overlaying gourmet affect on simple dishes, a commonplace trope these days (gourmet sliders, gourmet mac ‘n’ cheese, gourmet nachos). You can even order tater tots with caviar for HK$1,488 (which you suspect is a sanity test). You’re surprised to see this at the staid Mandarin of all places. It’s like finding out that your tweedy uncle with a chair at Princeton has a teenage girlfriend who pops bubblegum.
Dinner at SOMM
At 7:30pm, you ascend to wine bar and restaurant SOMM. It is a jewel box of carved wood, leather and crafted metal with a central, curved bar. It rings with laughter, making it somewhat difficult to hear, and you must lean close to speak. A charming French server – you take to be manager – describes the menu. He has a sophisticated understanding of the wines and food. Per romantic ritual, you each order a glass of Ruinart Rosé champagne (at HK$290 a glass) that is served in exquisite Austrian Zalto stemware, each delicate piece art itself. You’d buy this stemware, except that its maintenance would cost you more in anxiety than the aesthetic pleasure it gives. The champagne is delicious, though perhaps unequal to its exospheric price (you could buy three or four fine bottles of champagne in the States for the cost of these two glasses). Of course, the price includes the use of the stemware, which you see online in the neighbourhood of HK$480 apiece.
Sourdough bread is served, the same as Amber’s, with salted French butter. It is so good you could imagine returning just for it alone.
You order homemade pork pâté en croute and foie gras with pickled cabbage and raspberry. Often the croute, or crust, in this concoction is inedible, serving only as a shell for the pâté within. In this case, it is not only edible but delicious. The clarified aspic on top – challenging to make – is delightful. The pâté is quite good, though you think the foie gras, undoubtedly included as status catnip for customers, is too mild to assert its flavour within the pork pâté itself (your wife, on the other hand, feels that the foie gras lends a creaminess to the paté and adores it). What would really elevate this pâté in your view would be the inclusion of some pistachios and currants or dried sour cherries macerated in brandy. The side of pickled cabbage and raspberry is great though; if they left the raspberry out, you’d hardly notice.
Next, Lozère lamb leg, borlotti beans, piquillo pepper and extra-virgin olive oil. This is a handsome cylinder of lamb cooked sous vide to a perfect medium in a sauce of chopped piquillo pepper, tomato and borlotti beans. Lamb jus is added at the moment of serving. Sharp intelligence informs this dish, but it doesn’t work. The beans, pepper, tomato – a traditional Spanish or Basque combination – are by themselves delicious. But the jus simply gets lost in this bold mixture. One or the other should be served, not both. The lamb is perfectly cooked, but so mild to be almost devoid of flavour. Had it been salted or seared (preferably both, like lamb chops), it might have brought forth a charred, lamby flavour to contrast with the sauce. And then to make it worse, your wife’s portion (though not yours) is laced with silver skin (tough, unpleasant membrane), which she (nor you) can abide. Tenderloin would have been a better cut.
Potato and black winter truffle gratin dauphinois is a potato gratin with Australian black truffle. Alas, the truffle, which entices you, is virtually flavourless. So this is no more than an unremarkable potato gratin, tasty enough.
The tomatoes in the dish of fruit tomatoes, watermelon, myoga and basil salad are, by themselves, delicious. But you feel they’re in altogether different keys of sweetness from the watermelon. You’ve heard of them mixed before, but somehow they don’t work here. Perhaps a salty element like feta might bind them. The myoga, or Japanese ginger, is flavourless.
For dessert, you have a Grand Marnier baba with Earl Grey Chantilly and citrus fruits. It’s good, but you would have preferred it with rum, which is classic. And you would have preferred your own small cake with the flavour and texture of its crust in contrast to a slice from a larger cake. You cannot detect the taste of Earl Grey in the Chantilly cream whatsoever, although you do like the small crescents of fresh citrus.
They give you a slice of delicious strawberry tart and ice cream as an anniversary gift, which you appreciate. And they finish the meal with warm financiers flavoured with orange blossom, if you remember correctly. They’re utterly scrumptious.
In sum, you like the restaurant design, you like its buzz, you like your knowledgeable server, you like your champagne and the stemware, you sense a very high-functioning culinary intelligence behind the food, but it’s loud and your meal doesn’t gel. It is not worth anywhere near the price of HK$2,059 (25% of which is deducted, thank goodness, at checkout as a staycation discount).
Breakfast at SOMM
You sleep in late next morning and wake to CNN and good joe from the in-room machine. The hotel robes are remarkably comfortable. The rain shower is powerful. You don’t know how you have managed to survive up to this point without a television hidden inside your bathroom mirror. You have a few problems with the Internet. The hotel deals with them patiently, swiftly, effectively. You return to SOMM for late breakfast.
In the lift, you are warmly greeted by staff who happen to be within. Warmth is ubiquitous here.
Excellent coffee with a small pitcher of hot milk. Pineapple juice for your wife. Orange for you. Neither is freshly made, which you think is a jarring lapse, for nothing less will do. Marriages have foundered on this reef.
You start with last night’s remarkable bread toasted, your wife with a croissant that she says is its equal. With each comes a small cone of the same butter as last night, but unsalted, as well as three luminous jams (from Alsace, you’re told): sour cherry, pear and raspberry. Bliss!
You order a Belgian waffle with Dingley Dell Cumberland sausage, crispy hickory-smoked bacon, HP Sauce and maple syrup. The HP Sauce is similar to, or perhaps even the same as, Lea & Perrins steak sauce, which you know from the States. You never would have thought it would go on a waffle along with maple syrup, but it does. This is fabulous. Your wife has dark cereal bread with crushed avocado and poached cage-free egg, green vegetables and pistachio salad. Delicious again! There are perfect, sweet, fresh-shucked peas mixed with the avocado, a few haricots verts and slices of al-dente baby asparagus.
You finish with half a perfect avocado sprinkled with sea salt, your wife with two piano keys of house-made hash browns. Yum. More coffee. Breakfast costs about HK$640, free per the staycation deal.
The pool and bubble bath
In a food stupor, but intent to extract the maximum from your stay, you head back to your room and suit up for the pool. It is on the fifth floor, next to the spa, near a superb gym, entirely indoors with a narrow skylight. You kick a few laps, doze a little. The pool lacks the excitement of a rooftop pool or, better yet, a rooftop infinity pool with a pisco sour waiting at your chaise. You grow bored.
You return for your in-room bath experience, which is a prodigious bubble bath – better suited for children than adults – in your large circular tub. If you visit again, you’ll skip this.
Checkout at 4pm is gracious and easy. Given what you pay, you think that a Benzmobile home would not be out of line, to bring closure.
Your room (upgraded) is HK$4,730 with service charge. The cost of Please Don’t Tell is HK$510. The hotel covers HK$500 of this. Dinner at SOMM is 25% off, coming to HK$1,591. Breakfast is covered. They pick you up in a Benz (saving you HK$100 taxi fare) and comp a bottle of chilled Prosecco and chocolate-dipped strawberries. The total cost for the whole shooting match is HK$6,331, much more expensive than your typical per-day vacation cost elsewhere, even factoring in airfare.
You feel the speakeasy is someone’s clever idea beneath the dignity of the hotel. You dislike it.
SOMM’s dinner disappoints. The restaurant obviously has enormous potential, and you’re hopeful they’ll snap things right.
SOMM’s breakfast is terrific. You could live on their toast and jams. Please serve fresh-made juice.
The hotel component of the staycation comes out to roughly 75% of the price. You give the hotel itself a solid A. The food component, comprising about 25% of the cost, ranges from bad to okay to excellent. Though it’s misleading to average these ratings, you give the food an overall C+. Therefore, weighting everything, you give your staycation a B – good, not excellent.
For those to whom price is irrelevant, this may be fine. For you, to whom price is relevant and food paramount, this nettles. You had a pleasant time, but feel you overpaid. After all, were travel possible, the two of you could have flown to Vietnam, stayed at a nice hotel with a rooftop pool for two days and eaten scrumptious chow for about one day’s cost here.
You think that if you ever staycation again, you’ll lobby for a hotel with a rooftop pool. And you’ll go à la carte, choosing a less expensive hotel that’s almost as good (Hyatt, say) and perhaps off-premise restaurants you know are reliably great (such as New Punjab Club, Brut! or even Amber). This would give you more of what you want at a better price.
You don’t regret coming, but you would not return. For well-heeled folk though who like to relax and shop or tenderise in the spa, and who don’t worship their bellies as do you, this deal may give the thunk they crave.
Rating (on a scale of 0 to 5)
Please Don’t Tell
Overall value: 2.5
Ambience: 4 (it would be a 4.5 but for the poor acoustics)
Overall value: 3.5
Ambience: 4.5 (acoustics were no issue at this time of day)
Overall value: 4
The Landmark Mandarin Oriental
Overall excellence: 5
Staycation at The Landmark Mandarin Oriental, start to finish
Overall excellence: 3.5
15 Queen’s Road Central, Central, 2132 0188, email@example.com
In order to review objectively, David Greenberg does not solicit or accept comped meals or staycations and anonymously reviews restaurants and hotels.