Up in the air without a paddle

Pearl on the Peak, the stylish Australian restaurant that opened last December, has a star chef, attractive décor, some of the most spectacular views in Hong Kong, and a relatively sparse clientele, which is strange to say the least since it lies athwart the migration path of a river of tourists making their way up the hill from Central. Pearl on the Peak is two flights directly up the Peak Tower from where the tram arrives every seven minutes, bearing 150 or so tourists who stop, get their picture snapped with a waxworks figure of Bruce Lee, browse the trinkets and apparently head directly for Burger King.

That is both a problem and a blessing for the operators, Max Concepts, which is owned by the Maxim’s chain and developed the restaurant at great expense. Possibly because they believe they will be trampled by the hordes of tourists coming up from Central, and partly because they don’t like to walk that far, peak residents themselves don’t seem to turn up much. A recent Friday lunch, which ought to bring out both the Ladies Who Lunch, otherwise knows as tai-tais, and the business crowd from Central, saw only a handful of tables filled.

That means diners can enjoy their white almond gazpacho with a grilled king prawn floating on a croustade, a tagine of organic, wonderfully aromatic French poissin, or very young chicken, and Moroccan cous, largely at peace while savoring what may be the best view from any of Hong Kong's vertiginous hills and one of the most magnificent harbors in the world. In fact, if you get a table close enough to the northwest corner, it's almost enough to induce vertigo, suspended as you are over the side of the mountain.

But it also means that, given the location and the rent, the owners had better get some bodies through the door. Possibly because they want to discourage the walk-in trade, the entrance is rather off-putting. Instead of having an inviting entry complete with attractive host or hostess clutching menus, there are a couple of swinging doors that look like they lead into a storage area or the restroom. Either for that reason or others, the lunchtime traffic –which ought to be heaving, what with the hundreds of people going by –is sparse.

It’s hard to judge from just a couple of visits, but the evening crowd seems a bit light as well for a restaurant with one of Melbourne’s most celebrated chefs, Geoff Lindsay, whose Pearl in Melbourne has won a flock of awards and got the affable Lindsay named Australia's chef of the year by The Melbourne Age's Good Food Guide.

Inside there are tables to accommodate 100 diners, as well as an open-air balcony. In Hong Kong's gelatinous summer, the balcony can be sweltering, although at night it's habitable. In a gesture to the peak's residents, both leashed pets and smokers (unleashed) are allowed on the balcony, which seats 30. That still is only incentive enough to bring in a handful of the peak’s affluent dog walkers.

The main dining room is spare, with ultra-modern decor and polished cement floors befitting the space-age revamp that goes with the Peak Tower, one of Christendom’s truly dreadful buildings architecturally, one jammed with astonishing varieties of kitsch. The restaurant’s seating is inordinately comfortable, however, with deep chairs that – unlike the upholstered chairs in many restaurants – don’t make you feel like you’re 10 years old again and resting your chin on the tablecloth. The view, through 3.65-meter windows, can bring gasps from diners, even supposedly jaded residents, as Hong Kong begins to light up in the evening – provided the smog-ridden air clears enough to allow the other side of the harbor to come into view. On two recent visits, the air was unexpectedly obedient, delivering up vistas all the way to the New Territories. Service is quick and attentive and the staff are dressed in the now-obligatory black.

The menu, which at the end of June turned to a summer edition, was designed by Lindsay to take advantage of a far wider array of foodstuffs than can be found in Australia, he says. When he comes to Hong Kong, he says, it reminds him of his grade school youth, when he used to have a small set of colored pencils and the kid next him had the 12-pencil box. Then there was the really rich kid who had the 72-pencil box. There is so much international produce flown in here, he says, that it's like owning the full 72-pencil box set.

Lindsay does four menus a year, bringing in many dishes from Pearl in Melbourne. But, he says, the variety and freshness of the ingredients here inspires new dishes. He does exhibit concern about the so-called food footprint, which is beginning to preoccupy the more depressing environmentalists – that the jet fuel expended to bring food from the four corners of the earth is contributing to global warming, making eating local a virtue.

For Hong Kong, that would mean a menu of rocks, sticks and pink dolphins.

Food footprint or no, Lindsay's Pearl on the Peak menu is international, as befits Australian cuisine, which is some of the most exciting in the world today. We have pointed out before that ever since the country's White Australia policy disappeared 20-odd years ago, the influx first of Europeans and then Asians has brought huge changes to Australian cuisine, a development to be thankful for. Twenty years ago, dinner by and large consisted of the infamous one meat, two veggies, all overcooked and covered with white sauce. But the confluence of a wide variety of different cuisines has produced a gastronomy that rivals California's in its freshness, diversity and originality. In fact, while Californian chefs such as Alice Waters and Thomas Keller have taken the Western culinary world by storm, Australians can hold their own against many of them.

Thus there are appetizers like linguini, which Lindsay makes with powdered porcini mushroom mixed into the pasta flour and served with white and green asparagus, truffle butter and healthy chunks of shaved black truffle – really healthy chunks of fresh black truffle. The tagliarini are stuffed with crayfish from Australia - tagliarini, in fact, almost resembling siu mei rather than the heavy Italian variety, or angel-hair pasta soaked in a bisque with medallions of lobster from Boston. Other dishes include pearl- producing oyster (pinctada maxima) meat flown in from Australia or Japan, a specialty for which the Melbourne restaurant won its name.

Pearl on the Peak features a strong degustation menu. Lindsay says they are growing in popularity, as well they should be. Tasting menus give diners the chance to graze across a wide variety of dishes.

The wine list is relatively strong, with about 100 different labels. The Cloudy Bay sauvignon blanc, of course, goes down without any problems, as does the Yabby Lake pinot noir, which is complex enough to be interesting.

The restaurant's publicity department suggests an average spend per diner at HK$200 for lunch and HK$600 for dinner. Our dinner party hit just about that level, although one of the party was a non-drinker, meaning that if she had demanded her share, the bill would have gone above that. But we extend our thumbs skyward. Tourists, arise.

Portions of this article first appeared in the Weekend Standard of Hong Kong.