I recently visited The Mistral restaurant, located in the InterContinental Grand Stanford Hong Kong, to speak to Sommelier James Wong about the award-winning wine program of the restaurant. We discuss the modern Italian cuisine offered at The Mistral as well as the traditional Italian interior, the walls accentuated by the ceramic bowls shared by restaurant members of the Unione Ristoranti del Buon Ricordo all over the world. James described to me the 80% Italian wine list and let me in on some of the consumption trends that he has noticed among his customers, as well as his observations on how these trends have changed throughout the 23 years that he has been working at the InterContinental Grand Stanford Hong Kong.
When asked to suggest a signature dish and wine pairing which bests represents The Mistral, he chose the Roast Rack of Lamb and Amarone Classico Masi Costasera. He also described to me The Mistral’s famous chocolate cake, rated one of the Top 6 Best Chocolate Cakes in Hong Kong, and recommended with it either a Prosecco or a Moscato d’Asti.
Our interview follows:
My name is James Wong. I work in the Italian restaurant, The Mistral in the InterContinental Grand Stanford Hong Kong, as the restaurant’s Assistant Manager and Sommelier for the hotel.
How would you describe the concept behind the cuisine at The Mistral?
At The Mistral, the cuisine is modern Italian, mainly from the region of Umbria. So our cuisine is modern, with the northern regions of Italy represented more than the southern regions.
And what about the décor of the restaurant? How does the décor reflect the concept behind the cuisine?
Our restaurant has 30 years of history and a classic décor to match, but the dishes and preparation are modern. We display bowls on the wall from the Buon Ricordo Association. Different restaurants under this association have different signature dishes which are illustrated on these ceramic bowls. The Mistral is the only Buon Ricordo member in Hong Kong. In Japan, there are 1-2 members. Outside of Asia, the U.S. has members and Italy as well. The idea is that the guests are surrounded by the plates and can visit other restaurants that have their plates up featuring their signatures dishes. It is a kind of souvenir for the guest, something to help them remember a wonderful experience.
And the wine list, is it made up mostly of New or Old World wines and is any one region given preference on the list?
Our wine list is 80% Italian wine and the other 20% is made up of international wines. The main purpose of the wine program is to complement well the concept behind the restaurant. Also, most of our guests ask for the wines of Toscana, because they are famous around the world and they like it very much. Something about drinking these wines, or French wines like Bordeaux, it gives them confidence.
Is there any other region within Italy, which is very popular besides Toscana?
Toscana wine is divided into two types. Those with an original taste is maybe a Brunello or Chianti, in which one type of grape is used in the traditional production method. The other type is the Super-Toscana, which is made up of multiple grapes blending together, giving the guests a higher expectation, a deluxe feeling.
Have you noticed any trends in what your clients tend to order the most, in terms of regions?
The guests seem to prefer the Old World wine to the New World wines, because when they are spending money, they want to be confident in what they’re getting, they want more history behind it. The guests know a bit more about the traditional Old World wines and their superior qualities. Northern Italian wines sell a lot, especially from Piemonte – Barolo, Barbaresco, etc.
How is the wine list physically arranged, by region or variety?
Our wine list is set up by region, then by branding. By region, we arrange it from North to South. For example, for Gavi di Gavi, we have from the lighter ones to the heavier ones, making it easier for the guests to choose.
And the Sommelier Recommendations, how do you pick those?
These are monthly recommendations, which we also rotate by season. In the summertime, we choose white wines and in the wintertime we choose heavier red wines. We choose the labels by supplier. They provide the product and we choose monthly specials by season.
And a bit about your clientele, are they mostly made up of locals or international guests?
Mostly international. We have two major types of clients, hotel guests and businessmen. Mainland Chinese guests – not so much. There are tourists during the summertime, mostly local guests and businessmen during the winter. There are a lot of Americans and Europeans who come because the style of the restaurant fits their preferences. Locals will come also for friendly gatherings.
Do guests seem to order more the wines that they have heard of or do they consider what they are eating, and pair to that?
Many of the guests want to try the wine by itself first. Some guests only drink one type of wine, for example a Pinot Grigio or a something from the Piemonte region or only red wine, Barolo or Barbaresco or Brunello. Other types of guests like to choose many types of wine to match the different dishes, or to match the signature dish of the month. For example, next month we will have the lobster and we will recommend to the guests a Pinot Grigio to pair with it.
How long have you been working here?
Have you noticed any trends in the way in which people order has changed throughout time? Do they order the same way now as they did 5 years ago?
Previously, the guests did not know wines as well, so they only ordered wines by name. Sitting in an Italian restaurant, they would order a bottle of Chianti or a bottle of Barolo, very simple. But nowadays, because guests know more than before because of iPhones and iPads, they are more concerned about the details behind the wine. So, for example, if they order a Chianti, they will say, “I will have a Chianti Antinori 2007 or 2006, actually don’t give me the 2006, I don’t like that one” – something like that. The guests are more concerned about the quality and the position of the wine in the wine world – how many points Robert Parker has given them, for example. Also, they are concerned about the descriptions on the label of the bottle. For example Valpolicella, “only good for the ladies, easy drinking.” Not for the guys…
If you could pick a signature pairing of a dish to a wine, which would you pick and why?
I would choose the marinated Roast Australian Lamb. This cooking method of roasting compresses all of that wonderful flavor. Controlling the quality while roasting is not easy. Cooking too fast could result in lamb that is too dry, while cooking too slowly makes it difficult to keep the juices inside. I would pair that with the Amarone Classico Masi Costasera, a wine that comes from the Veneto region of Italy. The two create a great harmony when paired.
I’ve heard that you’re also very famous for your chocolate cake. It has been named one of the Top 6 Chocolate Cakes in Hong Kong. I was wondering what wine you would pair with this?
Chocolate cake is a dessert item which comes at the end of the dining experience and is usually ordered by guests who are celebrating something. So the birthday of a girlfriend or boyfriend, or an anniversary. We match it with Prosecco. Prosecco is the famous Italian sparkling wine, so it is a good match to the cake. If you match red wine to the cake, the flavor will become a bit more dry, more sour. If not Prosecco, our special recommendation is a wine from Piemonte called Moscato d’Asti. That kind of wine is a sweet sparkling one with a very low 5% alcohol content. Moscato has a lot of tropical fruit flavors, something like mango, lychee, peach…. And this matches the chocolate cake very well. Whatever we pair to the chocolate cake should be a little bit bubbly, something that invokes in you the feeling of fireworks.
I’ll definitely be getting those for my next special occasion! Thanks for your time, James.
The Mistral – InterContinental Grand Stanford Hong Kong
Address: Basement 2, 70 Mody Road, Kowloon, Hong Kong
Tel: +852 2731 2870