When Bernhard Mayer became executive chef of the Four Seasons Hotel London in April 2002, the appointment raised few eyebrows in catering. After all, the German-born chef was very much part of the Four Seasons family, having been executive chef at the Regent Hong Kong and the Regent Jakarta, both Four Seasons-managed properties.
What did come as a surprise, however, was the refocusing of the menus at Lanes, the hotel's restaurant, from the French classics of Eric Deblonde to something more Asian-influenced.
"I cook very light food, using very little butter and cream," Mayer says. "I go in for a light nage with a little oil to go with starters, and a stock or vinaigrette with the main courses." Starters, consequently, tend towards seafood and vegetarian options and, though steeply priced, rely on labour-intensive preparation that belies the straightforward descriptions.
The signature starter of seared diver scallops with pineapple carpaccio and sweet chilli (£16.50) is a case in point. A light sugar syrup with fresh coriander and lemongrass is gently heated and poured over the thinly sliced pineapple. The remaining syrup becomes a base for a mild Thai dressing poured over rocket leaves.
The scallops are the easiest bit: seared for two minutes, halved and arranged over the plate. "You have the bright yellow of the pineapple, the golden brown of the scallops, the green of the rocket," Mayer says. "There's fantastic colour and simple taste."
The lightness of Mayer's approach means that several dishes are flagged as "nutritionally balanced, healthier fare". One such plate is a main course of roasted turbot and langoustine resting on a bed of sautéd watercress and crowned by tempura enoki mushrooms (£31).
Again, it's accompanied by a clean-tasting sauce, a saffron miso that Mayer describes as "like a reduced consommé", thickened by a reduction of bamboo shoots, carrot, mooli and dried black Chinese mushrooms. "It looks very attractive," Mayer says. "It's the best-selling dish, even though it's the most expensive, and it always stays on the menu."
However, the majority of dishes on the spring menu, introduced on 1 April, will have been removed by the start of the summer menu in June. "As soon as I can get something in season, I put it on the menu," Mayer says. Rhubarb is a current favourite ingredient, for a fortnight accompanying roast medallion of beef and pan-fried foie gras with black bean sauce (£29.50), and now teamed with wild salmon, pak choi and vinaigrette (£31).
One benefit of changing dishes regularly is that Mayer's customers will never get bored with the choice of nine à la carte starters and main courses, and eight desserts. There's also a Mediterranean-leaning lunchtime buffet and a three-course daily menu priced at £36, including coffee and half a bottle of house wine.
Nor have the "Lanes classics" been forgotten, with a short list of solid hotel fare such as roast rib of Blairmore beef with Yorkshire pudding (£25) appearing alongside Mayer's more modish offerings.
But it's the Asian-influenced dishes that have proved most popular with the middle-aged, business-oriented clientele at Lanes. Lunches are often fully booked, to the tune of 50 diners, with evenings slightly quieter.
One reason for the high level of repeat bookings is Mayer's approach. He talks to all his customers at every service, on some days taking 40% of the orders himself. It's through this personal contact that Mayer is stamping his personality on the hotel restaurant. "That, and the cooking," he adds.
Lanes, Four Seasons Hotel London,
Hamilton Place, Park Lane W1A 1AZ.
Tel: 020 7499 0888www.fourseasons.com
BOXHEAD: what else is on the menu?
* Roasted sea bass fillet with crabmeat salad and chilled gazpacho, £17
* Wild mushroom essence with rabbit tempura and coriander, £8.50
* Coconut soup with spiced lemon grass and assorted seafood, £9.50
* Seared rare yellowfin tuna with Oriental mushrooms and honey-pepper dressing, £26.50
* Soy-poached suprême of corn-fed chicken with angel hair pasta, £19
* Pan-fried veal medallion with osso bucco won ton and baby courgette, Marsala sauce, £28
* Chilled red berry soup with yogurt-ginger sorbet, £8
* Vanilla panna cotta with rhubarb compote, £8
* Earl Grey tea and chocolate delight with coconut sorbet, £8
"To bring out the flavour, freshness and colour of exotic fruit, marinate with coriander, mild chilli, ginger and lemon grass before cooking. For a more European taste, marinate seasonal fruit such as rhubarb and strawberries in grenadine and vanilla."
By Ben McCormack