Within the pantheon of the greatest pasta dishes you’ve ever eaten is the fettucine ai gamberoni imperiali (fettucine with shrimp) at Giovanni Pina in Central (there are other branches at K11 MUSEA in Tsim Sha Tsui and NINA MALL in Tsuen Wan). The fresh pasta – from a combination of 00 flour, semolina and whole eggs – was rolled by rolling pin and sliced by hand. Unlike many mushy rivals, it had remarkable bite, and its sensual, irregular shape was optimal for adhering sauce. This dish was not at all the same old, same old farm-raised shrimp and reduced cream à la Red Lobster. You’re pretty certain it was based on intense shrimp stock or glaze made with sautéed shrimp shells, with tomato and cream then added (it was hard to get the details of what goes into each dish because of language difficulties). Strained and reduced, it was served with whole, deveined shrimp, heads on, imported from Italy. You’re pretty sure they were blast-frozen the instant they were hauled ship-board, losing no flavour or texture. It was super-shrimpy- funky-scrumptious. Pontificating pasta pundits say you should never put Parmesan on a pasta dish containing seafood, but you wanted it here.
Their French fries were not amongst the best you’ve ever had. They were the best. Though just double-fried, they somehow managed to outclass the excellent triple-fried bad characters at Jean May and Rubia. You don’t know how they did it, but it’s undeniable (you wonder if there was some kind of coating on them that enhanced their crispness. No one could tell you). They came hot, greaseless, with extravagantly flavourful truffled mayonnaise. Tour de force!
Your meal actually started with polpo alla griglia (grilled octopus) and affettati e formaggi (platter of Italian cold cuts and cheese). The grilled octopus, served with salad, was quite good, but you’re almost positive it wasn’t done over charcoal, which would have lofted it higher. Nor was it crisped, charred or blistered lightly, which is what you believe this dish requires for maximum flavour, as they do it at Machneyuda – where the servers match you drink for drink – in Jerusalem. There was a romesco sauce with it that you liked so much you wanted more.
The cold cuts, mortadella, prosciutto, pepperoni, were excellent standard fare. There were two cheeses that you thought were too mild and too similar. On the side were wonderful pearl onions slow-cooked in balsamic vinegar (you think) that at first you mistook for stewed figs because they were so sweet.
Still, their hand-sliced Ibérico ham would probably have been a more interesting choice. You could see its hoof peeking over the windowsill of the glass-enclosed kitchen, beckoning you.
The bread was only fair, nowhere near killer like Amber’s or Levain’s or Bakehouse’s or Brut’s or MONO’s. This surprised you, given this restaurant’s bakery chops.
For the meat courses, they gave you a box of knives from which to choose. Your knives were sharp and had heft, which you liked.
Your wife ordered Wagyu al foie gras (filet mignon medium rare with seared foie gras in a blackcurrant sauce). The dish didn’t click. Ordered medium rare, it came (as confirmed by your gracious server) medium well done, which by itself will ruin any fine piece of meat. The foie gras was slightly overcooked (it should have come au point) and oddly flavourless, which was baffling. There was also some sinew remaining in it that put your wife off. The sauce was too sweet and the taste of blackcurrant indistinct. Some fresh currants strewn over at the last moment would have helped in this respect.
You had costata di agnello al pistacchio (rack of lamb crusted with chopped pistachio), plated artfully with a melange of vegetables and mashed potato. You asked for the lamb medium rare, but it came medium (probably because it kept cooking on the plate from residual heat), which may seem trivial, but it isn’t. The sauce, based on some kind of reduction, was tasty though not memorable, as were all the other components. Doneness aside, the dish was good, not great. A more interesting sauce – for instance, mint – would have done it wonders.
You felt the food could use more salt. In fact, salt might have been the missing ingredient necessary to enliven the foie gras. There’s no salt (or pepper) provided on the table. Instead, they bring an elegant glass cloche containing a stone of pink Himalayan salt that looks like an idol in a shrine. The server dons black gloves (salt-grating gloves?) and grates it onto a plate, which they then pour over the food. The restaurant clearly has ambitions of elegance with this, but the process is far too clunky. By the time you flag down a server, they don gloves, bring the salt over, grate it onto a plate and pour it on your food, your food has cooled. And then, what if you want more salt? The process must repeat. A salt grinder or small bowl of salt really belongs on the table. A pepper grinder too. Please.
You split three desserts. You adored the rum raisin gelato, notable for its silkiness and the rumminess of the raisins.
You got two pastries, a Saint Honoré and a Grazia, a dacquoise with vanilla mousse and cold, semi-candied strawberries. Both were as beautiful as Christmas tree ornaments. And both were less than exemplary.
The Saint Honoré supposedly contained Grand Marnier. Though you and your wife paid sharp attention, you couldn’t detect its taste. It was a bit dry.
The Grazia was sweet, but neither of you could distinguish any specificity of flavour. It was sweet with a flavour you would call unidentifiable/non-specific, certainly not vanilla. You felt it was slightly over-gelatinised. It was described as a dacquoise. In your experience (and this is confirmed when you check online), a dacquoise is a pastry made with layers of crisp meringue. Perhaps in Italy, dacquoise has another meaning. Though the two of you were keenly attentive, you could detect no meringue whatsoever.
The restaurant is top-cabin, as though you’re sitting in a high-end, inside-out hatbox. It reminds you of the tony restaurants in the flagship department stores of New York City (e.g., Macy’s) of your childhood, the kind of restaurant where little girls sported patent leather Mary Janes and their moms’ fur stoles and expensive perfumes intermingled. In your mind, this is the sort of restaurant that Eloise’s mother would have taken her to when she’s in town (you do know the classic Eloise picture books, don’t you? If not, read them, pronto!).
The servers wore earpieces, as though they were moonlighting as Secret Service agents. They were distinctly gracious and helpful. You’re used to being assigned one server, and in this case, it seemed as though several helped interchangeably, like they had overlapping territories. This was mildly confusing when it came to calling upon a server for help. You couldn’t quite figure out exactly who your server was.
High culinary intelligence animates the kitchen. The spectacular pasta dish couldn’t have been made elsewise. However, based on your small sampling, it seems possible to you that the restaurant hasn’t quite got its groove yet when it comes to precision cooking meats or saucing. They’ve only been open a short while, which could be why.
You would have predicted spectacular pastries. After all, pastries are this restaurant’s calling card. Maybe it was just chance, but yours were meh.
There are many more menu items that might well be spectacular, including the fish dishes and pizza. Based on what you ate, you advise aiming for the pasta and gelato (and it’s vital you get the frites). Then revel in the swanky setting, and you’ll have a top-tier Italian meal.
Rating (on a scale of 0 to 5)
Food : 3.5
Overall greatness: 3.5
Restaurants are intuitively rated within their particular realms. So Michelin restaurants, pizza places and stand-up sandwich joints are judged against like restaurants, not each other. A 5 for a high-end restaurant is not meant to be the same as a 5 for street food.
From my website, here’s how I rate food: “I believe the quality of a restaurant’s food is vastly more important than any other factor. Even if I love a restaurant’s food, I’m very conservative about giving out 4s or 5s. I reserve 4s for food that is uniformly excellent. Preponderantly excellent tends to get a lower score. 5s are for food that is uniformly stunning.”
This meal was comped.
G/F, Two Chinachem Plaza, 135 Des Voeux Road Central, Central, 2755 1088