If you’d spent any time in Central in the last few months, you couldn’t have missed him. An enormous hoarding with the self-styled ‘celebrity chef’ Harlan Goldstein’s face in terrifyingly large format. Subtle it wasn’t, but then again this was a man who challenged Gordon Ramsay to a celebrity boxing match via Twitter. That’s celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay with 3.4 million followers, facing up against celebrity chef Harlan Goldstein with…er, 774.
Goldstein has now gone, kicked out by his owners, ZS Hospitality. The official reason was ‘Health concerns’, the oldest line in the PR playbook and one that has never been believed. Ever. In much the same way that those drying out in The Betty Ford Clinic or at The Priory are suffering from ‘exhaustion’.
What was almost more astonishing was how and why the owners agreed to partner with him in the first place. One thing about two of the block’s previous residents – La Piola, the former ground floor Italian and the oddly-named bar Blackbrd – was that they both seemed genuinely popular, thanks in part to antipasti and outside spaces. Regardless, it was decided to get rid of these incumbents and replace them with four – count’em – restaurants from Harlan. Four?! Had they heard of the word hubris? Clearly not. And by all that is sweet and holy, did they not do any due diligence? He also split with his former partners, Worldwide Dining Group, just last year, following another split a few years back.
To his credit, he must have had serious skills of persuasion. He also has a number of fans, both among diners and bloggers, some of whom in the food writing community have gone uncharacteristically quiet and low key in recent months. So open they did, two venues, Ee Da Le and My Tai Tai – with Mamasita’s Cantina and Eat Me Drink Me yet to launch (at the time of my visit). Alongside another local food writer, I was invited to try the Thai kitchen My Tai Tai. It turned out to be a lunch without parallel.
If the music was too loud, that only shows that I’m getting older and crankier, while there were some cute design touches such as piping clad in Thai fabrics. Service was sweet and attentive – all the front and back of house team are Thai – and the other tables were busy by the time one o’clock came around, even if it looked briefly like a cult with six office guys on three tables all in blue shirts, no ties.
The food was, frankly, pretty underwhelming. Not bad, but just not able to stand above every other mid range Thai joint in Central. A Thai beef salad had seen better incarnations, while a green papaya salad ($128) was more tooth-achingly sweet than anything else.
Sweet & sour soup with prawn, lime leaf and chilli was much better, but at $148 it needed to be. That’s almost 15 quid in post-Brexit Britain. (Obvious PR photo alert)
Steamed black cod with minced pork, spring onion and coriander ($268) made for a good combination but overall the flavours felt muted, tweaked for sensitive palates, without the classic Thai rollercoaster ride for the palate. From a former Michelin-starred chef (Gold, now also closed, home to one of the best desserts I ever ate), you’d expect at least a couple notches above the ordinary – memorable, innovative plates.
But the food paled into insignificance with what came next. A walk upstairs to check out the Cuban bar/restaurant ‘Mamasita’s Cantina’ allowed us to meet Harlan himself. He was, putting it mildly, in a state. By turns flattering, lecherous, contradictory. He boasted of having pulled twenty hour days – and certainly looked that way. Given his appearance – and some of the bizarre voicemail rants he left on the phones of certain Hong Kong food writers – you’d also guess that what he was taking to sustain himself was stronger than Red Bull.
It was only a few days subsequently that the announcement was made about his parting ways with the management company. No one wants to see a project fail – and certainly not if people have their jobs threatened. The good news is that my Tai Tai remains open, as do the other venues, just without the ‘larger than life’ presence looming over them. It’ll be most interesting to return and see how the menus – and atmosphere – may change as a result.
As for the man himself? This being Hong Kong, everything and anything is possible. One thing you should never underestimate is his power of reinvention.