All the ingredients, but none of the… um… ingredients
If there’s one thing that kept me going this last onerous year, it’s been the thought of unfettered fine dining. The promise of spunking the equivalent of a family holiday to Phuket on two hours and seven courses of pure indulgence, I’m not ashamed to say, represented the brightest light at the end of a very dark tunnel.
And so, I expected nothing less than perfection from my first post-lockdown meal, in which we were celebrating Mrs. A’s birthday.
And I found it.
I found exquisite service, faultless fare, and diners aghast in an orgy gluttonous excess. But recounting that experience (Le Petite Maison) will have to wait for another day, because I’ve just had the misfortune of dining at The Aubrey.
‘The Aubrey’, I hear to you gasp, ‘that’s hottest opening of the year thus far. Tatler loved their fully comped meal, Lifestyle Asia had a wonderful time at the chef’s table’.
Yes, it is, and I’m sure they did. But alas, I most certainly did not. And if you’ll bear with me, I’ll recount why.
But first the restaurant itself. The interior is a post-modern interpretation of a geisha’s wartime boudoir. And it really is rather beautiful. We entered through a dimly lit wood panelled corridor adorned with intriguing works of art; we were led past the gorgeous art deco bar, past the intimate harbour view booths, past the unique omakase bar, past the kitchen, past the gossiping staff and into a windowless private room.
Evidently, the room hadn’t been booked for a Yakuza finger circumcision (or whatever normally happens in these rooms), and so the misfortune was all ours. For twenty minutes Mrs. A and I were the only patrons in the area, which provided ample time to dissect and debate the saliva-inducing menu.
We debated the the provenience of the oysters, how many sushi plates to order, whether to order a salad (a short debate that one) and how much cash to splash on meat. One thing not up for debate was whether to order their signature dish, the Kagoshima Wagyu Sando.
It was the first thing we ordered, only for the poor hapless waitress to inform use that they’d just run out. That’s fine, it happens – it shouldn’t do on the first sitting on a Saturday night – but you smile through gritted teeth, move on, and make your way through the dishes that were available.
Our oysters arrived unadorned with a small bowl of rice vinegar, two significantly larger that the others. They had apparently just run out of oysters with Irish ancestry (grit your teeth, move on).
The sushi was an absolute triumph. Plump, scarcely deceased and utterly scrumptious. We should have ordered more.
Our starters were both pretty good. The Charcoal Chicken Karaage is designed to resemble a dry lump of coal, while the interior is moist with thigh juice. It succeeded on both counts. A bowl of daikon cubes provided a nice tart accompaniment.
It was as we were chewing our way through the coal and cubes, our meal took a precipitous turn. A couple who had now joined us in the windowless room, been informed about the Sando and asked for an explanation form the manager.
He sauntered over and, in full earshot of Mrs. A and I, said “don’t worry guys, I’ve got you. I’ll make sure a sando is brought to you”.
I gritted my teeth, I tried to move on, I couldn’t. I left the table to seek an equivalent explanation and was told, “oh, sorry sir, it just so happens that another table cancelled a sando order the very minute it was leaving the kitchen, which is why we could accommodate the other table”. I was dumbfounded.
Sadly, those of us without the surname Kwok or Kadoorie, cannot expect the very best experience when dining in a top hotel restaurant. It’s naïve to suggest that establishments such as The Aubrey don’t save their best tables for those with trust eight-figure trust funds or hold back depleting dishes for Insta-celebs with five-figure followings. But to be presented with my own unimportance in such stark fashion was, quite frankly, offensive.
To his slight credit, the manager realised the error of this bare faced lie. 45-minutes later a piece of steak in bread arrived at our table.
It wasn’t Wagu. It wasn’t even Japanese. They’d found a piece of American steak in the back of a fridge and slapped it between some bread.
Watching my wife do battle with the sinews of a flailing piece of raw cow was not the evening I had planned.
To spend the equivalent of family holiday to Phuket on two hours and seven courses to be left offended was not the worst thing. No, the worst thing is the guilt and shame that comes with letting down my wife down on her birthday.
All that guilt and shame was manifest in our short taxi ride home. Mrs A turned to me and gave me benevolent smile of mocking sympathy. It was a smile of; you know I love you darling, thanks for trying, but perhaps let me make the booking next time. Although it’s a smile I know all too well, it’s a smile that still cuts to the core.
It’s a smile that I would have gladly presented to the manager if I had it in my repertoire. But that’s beside the point.
The point is this. If you’re planning a trip to The Aubrey (and I wouldn’t necessarily discourage you – you never know, they may have ordered enough ingredients and it might be the managers day off) do so with a little pre-planning.
Make sure you demand a good seat. In true Hong Kong fashion, the space is crudely subdivided, and your experience will be much the worse if find yourself on the wrong table.
Phone ahead a reserve the dishes you really want to order. This removes much magic from the experience, but also removes the prospect of disappointment.
And finally, if you have a problem, complain and complain loudly. It’s deeply uncomfortable, but it may be the only way to ensure a pleasant experience.