Review: Theo Mistral Is A Triumphant Return To Simple Italian Flavours
Back in 1984, Mistral was three years into operation in its current location, the basement of what used to be the Harbour View Holiday Inn—now the Intercontinental Grand Stanford. The restaurant was included in the very first edition of Hong Kong Tatler’s annual dining guide (then titled Hong Kong’s 100 Best Restaurants), lauded for its “well priced and varied menu” of dishes from Italy, but also Spain, the south of France, Portugal and Greece.
While it may not make for a particularly riveting read (“The home-made pastas and pizzas are both excellent. You can select your own topping for your pizza.”) it puts into context just how long Mistral has been a part of Hong Kong’s dining scene. And yes, the homemade pastas and pizzas are still very much excellent—particularly the former.
An expertly made ragu is a fine thing if done right, and the version here—the pappardelle con ragu di Manzo—is luxurious on the palate, the tender strands of meat plump with rich tomato sauce that is deeply flavoured from slow cooking. The wide pasta has bite, and has clearly spent enough time in the pan at the end to soak up the flavours of the velvety ragu.
Celebrity chef Theo Randall, who lends his name to the restaurant, may be a Brit, but has an Italian spirit honed from a childhood and adolescence spent travelling around Italy with his food-loving parents, which naturally translated into a career in restaurants. Perhaps most famously, he ended up joining one London’s most iconic Italian restaurants—The River Café—in its early days in the 80’s, where he stayed for 17 years (with a one year stint in between working with Alice Waters of Chez Panisse) before opening his own restaurant, Theo Randall at the InterContinental, also in London.
The River Café changed the conversation around Italian food in Britain by placing the emphasis on excellent producers, seasonality, and simple dish preparations—things that we take as a given today. This philosophy has been a thread throughout Randall’s culinary career also, and is evident in dishes such as the insalata di granchio—a fresh crabmeat salad that combines the sweet, delicate crustacean with Florence fennel, lightly bitter dandelion leaves and briny Sardinian bottarga. The portion is generous, and each element plays its part—though I'd say the bottarga was lost in the fray.
During a press preview, a dish of roasted guinea fowl was on the drier side, but the layering of flavours—including prosciutto, thyme, lemon zest and the earthy depths of both porcini and portobello mushrooms—was what convinced us to give it another shot. This time, the bird was cooked so that the skin crackled pleasingly under the knife, and the meat was still juicy within. The tangle of Swiss chard and crunchy pagnotta bruschetta offered a pleasing contrast between the elements on the plate. An all-Italian wine list is easily navigated, ranging from light-bodied and juicy reds and crisp, refreshing whites to richer and fuller-bodied options to stand up against the big flavours of the dishes.
The portions here are most certainly on the large side, rendering the classic three-courses-per-person a bit of a challenge even if you have a healthy appetite—and we were grateful for the advice of the staff, who stopped us from ordering more than we could feasibly eat. We had to save room for dessert, they insisted, and so we had room to sample the Amalfi lemon tart. Flavour-wise, it is sweet and sour in just the right measures, but the texture of the filling could use improvement, being more gloopy than light and silky like the best lemon curds.
Overall, Theo Mistral is a solid restaurant. It may not aim to impress you with technical feats or culinary wizardry, nor surprise you with wildly inventive flavour combinations. What it does do is lure you with the promise of thoughtfully constructed dishes that tell you a story of a proper Italian cucina, with just enough touches of modernity to keep your attention. The Mistral name has survived more than three decades, and we have a feeling that it will continue to delight for many more to come.
A meal for two with wine and service: around HK$1,300
How we rate
Each of our reviewers score restaurants based on four main criteria: setting, food, service, and drinks, taking into account more than 35 different points of reference including manners of staff, usefulness of the wine list, and whether or not the restaurant makes an effort to be environmentally aware. 5/5 indicates an exceptional experience; 4-4.5/5 is excellent; 3-3.5/5 is good to very good; and 2.5/5 or lower is average to below average. Before visiting a restaurant, the reviewers will book using a pseudonym and do not make themselves known to restaurant staff, in order to experience the venue as a regular guest—if this is not possible, or if we are recognised, we will indicate this in the review.