Estro started off as a blank canvas, a venue space in the heart of Central snatched up before a culinary concept was even conceived. It was by a chance introduction that JIA Group’s Yenn Wong met Chef Antimo Maria Merone, who was stopping over in Hong Kong to visit his wife and got stranded amidst the chaos of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Estro is Chef Merone’s first independent restaurant in partnership with JIA Group, a culinary homage to the finesse of Neapolitan cuisine. Born in Naples, Chef Merone comes from a farming family and learned at a young age to appreciate the flavours of fine Italian ingredients. He earned his culinary stripes at Berlin’s Vai Mó before heading back to Italy to study new Italian cuisine under Gualtiero Marchesi at ALMA in Parma. The opening of L’altro in Hong Kong brought him to Asia, and his culinary skills were affirmed when the restaurant quickly achieved a Michelin star. He then spent almost six years at Umberto Bombana’s 8½ Otto e Mezzo Macau as Executive Chef.
The Italian word estro translates to “inspiration”, and the ethos behind the name is to inspire diners to think beyond the stereotypical pizza and gelato that are usually associated with Neapolitan cuisine.
The stunning venue, designed by André Fu in is his signature organic, mineral tones, evokes the warmth and vibrancy of the Italian countryside. Cosy alcoves painted in earthy tones by celebrated French artist Elsa Jeandedieu offer intimate tête-à-tête dining, while a large private room allows plenty of space for gatherings and celebrations. There’s a Chef’s Table within the kitchen that gives ringside seats of all the action, though even guests seated in the main dining room have ample views of the open kitchen. A Roman-style coin printed with a QR code provides diners with an interactive way to view the menu, also saving paper in the process!
Only tasting menus are on offer at Estro, taking diners on a comprehensive journey of Neapolitan cuisine, and we enjoyed the six-course tasting menu ($1,480/person) for our dining experience. To begin, a trolley with a selection of olive oils, ranging from light to heavy in flavour, was wheeled to our table alongside a basket bursting with an array of freshly baked breads. We chose the strongest-flavoured olive oil with vibrantly spicy notes for dipping. In addition to the indulgent focaccia, our favourite from the bread basket was the bread knots, which crumble like pastry and are a popular aperitivo bite in Italy.
Tomato Homage is an ode to Chef Merone’s love of tomatoes. As a child, he often wandered into the family garden to savour the sun-ripened tomatoes on the vines. The selection in this course ranges from a chilled shot of tomato water made with four different varieties of Italian tomatoes, to a fluffy tomato bun, to a summery diced tomato tart, to rehydrated tomato skin with salted cod. We particularly enjoyed the tomato water, which tastes like distilled summer sunshine and has a tart and umami undertone.
The intensely flavourful white bonito is given more brininess with the addition of capers, olives and caper leaves. Dollops of creamy buffalo ricotta round out the savouriness of this dish, and the microgreens and fennel pollen add contrast and fresh, zingy flavours.
The langoustine comes with various cauliflower textures, ranging from roasted florets to purée. The shellfish was perfectly cooked, retaining its bouncy texture without a hint of rubberiness. The natural sweetness of the seafood is further magnified by the cauliflower textures and sweet, buttery sauce. We were thankful to have had the cauliflower purée to mop up every last drop of that addictive sauce.
The ink gnocchi features miniature light and pillowy morsels of pasta tossed with tiny dices of cuttlefish and sweet peas. The sweet pops of the petits pois contrast well with the meaty texture of the cuttlefish, all against the backdrop of an intensely umami squid-ink sauce. We particularly appreciated the spicy notes of the sauce.
Don’t be fooled by appearances! The Vesuvio ragù Genovese might look like a humble pasta dish, but it is anything but. Each bite sent rapturous waves through our brain, with the toothsome, al-dente eliche pasta gripping onto a sauce made with slow-cooked Montoro onion and tiny, melt-in-the-mouth tender dices of beef short rib. The onions are stewed for 12 hours to achieve a concentrated flavour intensity, and the taste of this dish is perhaps best described as pasta tossed in the most aromatic sweet onion soup.
The sea bass with Japanese blue mussels and Romanesco is given a bath of vibrant green sauce tableside. The original sauce, made from parsley and seawater, uses organic flavours to accentuate the delicate, buttery fish.
Our dining companion chose the other main option on the menu, beef tenderloin with Cardoncelli mushroom. The tender beef, which was cooked to a juicy, blushing pink, is almost dwarfed by the giant meaty mushroom. Pumpkin purée and mushroom zabaglione add earthiness to the dish, further accentuating the richness of the beef.
Called hazelnut Rocher, this dessert goes far beyond the iconic gold-foil-wrapped chocolate ball. However, the flavours of this dish are indeed inspired by the classic chocolate treat; a childhood favourite of the chef, he used to pluck Ferrero Rocher from his father’s pocket.
Filled with a creamy custard sauce and accented with caramel, the delicate Sweet Ending is light on sugar, making it taste guilt free… almost.
Made to order on-site, the toasted pistachio gelato is intensely aromatic – akin to a love child of mousse and butter owing to its incredibly creamy texture. We almost licked the bowl clean!
So what did we think of our meal at Estro? Well, let’s just say that we made a booking for a return visit before we even left. Estro is a rare, unique glimpse into the finesse of southern Italian cooking, challenging diners to go beyond the surface of this much-loved cuisine. Each dish was flawlessly executed and infused with flavours that we still think about and crave over and again.
2/F, 1 Duddell Street, Central, book online
This write-up is based on a complimentary media tasting provided in exchange for an honest review and no monetary compensation. The opinions expressed here represent the author’s.
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