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Dining Out

A happy meeting

Asia, France come together at Asana

Roasted duck folded into springy pancakes with hoisin sauce. Roasted duck folded into springy pancakes with hoisin sauce. (Photos by Wiqan Ang for The Boston Globe)
By Devra First
Globe Staff / December 31, 2008
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If nothing else, it is a sign of yoga's mainstream ascent that heading into 2009 a restaurant named Asana is not a collectively run vegan cafe doling out dulse and brown rice, but rather a luxury hotel-operated expanse of exotic wood and hand-carved limestone, offering stylish French/Asian food, a Mahabharata-length cocktail list, and selections from a glass cheese cave, with equanimity-challenging prices at the high end.

An asana is a yoga pose - say, downward-facing dog, in which the practitioner's body forms an inverted V, hands and feet on the ground, heinie in the air. Asana the restaurant, in the sparkly new Mandarin Oriental hotel, inspires a few poses of its own.

There's the crane neck pose, wherein the head swivels back and forth as the eyes scan the room, cleansing breaths emanating from the nostrils at regular, exasperated intervals. The food here takes its time in arriving.

There's the designated driver salute, a combined move of apologetic head shaking while bending the right hand upward in the manner of a crossing guard stopping traffic. Alcohol is offered to guests frequently, by multiple staff members, while the food is taking its time.

But most of all, there is plateward-facing hog, in which the practitioner tastes a dish and attains enlightenment, then tastes it again just to be sure.

Asana is imperfect, a restaurant working on becoming its best self. But when the food is at its best, it is wonderful. The Mandarin Oriental, strong on service of the "Welcome back, Mr. So-and-So, will you be having a dry martini again this evening?" variety, will probably get the wrinkles steamed out quickly. There's incentive - L'Espalier, with its own cheese cave, dark wood, and emphasis on service, is right next door, as is Sel de la Terre; business travel is down due to the economy, and people are getting cagier with their dining dollars. On weeknights there are plenty of empty tables at Asana. (The hotel's M Bar & Lounge has become a hopping scene, however.)

Chef Nicolas Boutin, who came from the Hong Kong Mandarin Oriental, cooked before that in Michelin-starred hotel kitchens around France. If one could breed food the way one can horses or dogs, crossing the cooking of Hong Kong and France might just create the ubercuisine, a superior specimen.

At Asana you'll find light, tender-skinned dumplings, steamed and served with three sauces, one sweet chili, one vinegar, and one soy. Dashi with tofu, scallions, and shiitake is served with soba, a warm bowl of Japanese flavors (though on one occasion the dashi was more like lukewarm). Thin-sliced, rare beef is draped on a vibrant salad of greens, cilantro, mint, and chilies. And sweet, tender roasted duck is folded into springy pancakes with hoisin sauce.

But that's just one side of the restaurant's personality.

The menu also proffers a consomme of oxtail and caramelized onion with a little grilled cheese finger sandwich on the side. Maine lobster salad is a beautifully plated minaret of claw and tail meat, thinnest-sliced beets, and baby vegetables, crowned with a few delicate potato chips. It's food porn - looking at it elevates the experience of eating what is, ultimately, some lobster and a nice salad. There's scallops meuniere, steak frites with bearnaise, and fish and chips.

It can leave the orderer confused, particularly when the orderer has been consuming tomato caipiroskas and glasses of cabernet franc that keep arriving. Which continent to choose? Asian appetizers, French main courses? Foie gras followed by nasi goreng? Or go with an Indian outlier? (If it's the slow-cooked lamb shank with bright yellow saffron rice and a raita-esque condiment, yes - it's delicious.)

To complicate things further, there is the cheese. An excellent manchego comes with a corn arepa, arugula, and a red chili gelee that adds nothing to the flavors. Great Hill blue is made into creamy fondue, served in a little crock with bread and mod fondue forks. It transcends fondue; it's a cheese potion. And in a season of macaroni and cheese ubiquity - people are poor, thus people need carbs, fat, and comfort, the reasoning seems to go - Asana's MO'C & cheese thumbs its nose at the others. The noodles al dente, the blend of Emmental and creme fraiche nutty and tangy, this side dish is a star.

Would that everything lived up to it. Foie gras terrine one night is nearly tasteless, as is a vegetable risotto. Short rib is a bit tough, though the caramelized endive it's served with is magical, tasting like maple syrup and vanilla. The nasi goreng - an Indonesian rice dish - lacks balance. The grains are mixed with shrimp and chicken, then topped with a runny egg, but the dish mostly tastes like sweet chili paste. Oven-baked red snapper is overcooked but full of good flavors, cilantro, ginger, and scallions.

For dessert, panna cotta has a lovely, light licorice taste but far too much gelatin; it barely even wobbles. Fig clafoutis is excellent, a custardy cake with fruit and basil and lemon sorbet. Best of all is the floating island, a huge cube of meringue filled with banana and passion fruit milkshake. So much for oeufs a la neige; this is more like "TV set in the snow." To drink with dessert, lovely French press coffee - for $9. Stop the presses! (Regular coffee is a mere $6.)

The wine list is the kind that makes you want to drink wine, with interesting bottles from all over. Though some have price tags that read more like vintage years, you'll also find the likes of Domaine Caillot "Les Herbeux" ($55), a declassified Meursault from auspicious 2005, and Mt. Difficult "Roaring Meg" pinot noir from New Zealand's Central Otago ($45). For the other side of the menu, there are five kinds of sake.

Service veers between pampering perfection and benign neglect, sometimes both in the same visit; our waiters were either calling us by name and bringing us complimentary champagne, or forgetting to see if we wanted anything to eat, then forgetting to put in part of our order. You can follow your bliss at Asana. Sometimes you find it.

Devra First can be reached at dfirst@globe.com.

ASANA

Mandarin Oriental, 776 Boylston St., Boston. 617-535-8800. www.mandarinoriental.com/boston/dining/ asana. All major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.

Prices Appetizers $8-$29. Entrees $20-$42. Cheese $14-$38. Dessert $10.

Hours Breakfast Mon-Fri 6:30-11 a.m., Sat-Sun 7-11 a.m. Brunch Sat-Sun 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Lunch Mon-Fri 11:30 a.m.- 5 p.m. Dinner Sun-Thurs 5:30-10:30 p.m., Fri-Sat 5:30-11 p.m.

Noise level Conversation easy.

May we suggest Dumpling selection, slow-cooked lamb shank, seared Thai beef salad, Great Hill blue fondue, MO'C & cheese, floating island.

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