First Bite: Asana at the Mandarin Oriental

1227203758Hotel restaurants serve many masters.

They must whip up eggs barigoule and intricate oatmeal-bowl extravaganzas for the power-suited traveler. They’re obliged to turn uncontroversial lunchtime fare into the appropriately fancified likes of Kobe Burger Three Ways and Deconstructed* Caesar Salad (more often than not “*with three grilled Santa Barbara spot prawns, add $18“).

Hours later, the balancing act becomes even harder. The corporate accountants want to lure in the expense accounts seeking steakhouse standards. The marketers want dinner plates that resemble minimalist still lifes that square up with the glitzy multimillion-dollar décor and $40-a-pop price point. The chef, bless his palate, just wants to create magic.

It was amid such a cacophony of mandates and mantras and focus-group-addled wisdom that Chowder first sampled the cuisine at Asana, the Mandarin Oriental Hotel‘s “signature” restaurant, a bustling, undeniably swanky scene on the ground floor along Boylston Street. A restaurant that, through no fault of its own, is doomed, from the outset, to play third fiddle to Chef Frank McClelland’s adjacent (and one floor up) L’Espalier and Sel de la Terre, two beloved known-quantities that have a ready-made fan base.

The good news: In many respects, Executive Chef Nicolas Boutin has managed—even at this early stage—to negotiate such treacherous terrain with panache. Yes, at first glance, the menu looks like a disaster, an earnestly schizophrenic attempt to fuse steakhouse, French, unabashedly ’90s-style Asian fusion (one of Boutin’s specialties), and a radical locavorous bent that the corporate suits have correctly divined as a Hubside obsession to be reckoned with.

Just weeks after Asana’s opening, one can eat rather well there. Two first-course dishes were virtually flawless. A gorgeously simple bowl of consommé boasted a supple, luxurious body thanks to a long simmer with oxtail, plus beautiful aromatics and sweet notes from caramelized onions, served with a two-bite croque monsieur on the side.

The other starter was raw Atlantic salmon lightly, subtly, marinated with citrus and dill, served with crème fraîche and baby potatoes, drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil (the expensive kind), and sprinkled with flaky sea salt. The potatoes could have been seasoned up a bit more, but otherwise the dish was perfectly tuned and elegant. (And Chowder hates bad crudo dishes with a passion. Seriously.)

Where Asana can stand some work is in some of the underwhelming mains. Gorgeous sea scallops were seared to only a faint golden color, and as rich as scallops can be, the lean, bracing bed of sweet citrus salad they lounged in was meant for a more prominently caramelized (and/or butter-laden) inhabitant.

Likewise, Roasted Milk-Fed Veal Loin came out nicely seared, but the meat itself, though tender, was underseasoned and devoid of characteristic flavor. (It might as well have been pork tenderloin.) The buttery orange carrot purée the veal sat on has become something of a fall-menu cliché. But thankfully, the shelled sauté clams, gingerly placed in a row on top of the veal loin, has not yet made its way into the local culinary argot.

Service was absolutely perfect. The décor, frankly, may be better than L’Espalier’s generic digs, just upstairs. The chef has serious chops.

Now he just needs some time (and freedom) to rein in the menu a bit and create the magic he’s clearly aiming for.

Chowder’s verdict: Give it a month.