Begat by parents who then spent the next 60 years recuperating from the ordeal, mainly separate from each other (and in good measure from their children), you were raised by dogs. This imprinted you in unique ways that sorely burden your wife. On the good side, having been modogamous, you’re thoroughly monogamous. You’re loyal, you protect, you fetch, you’re affectionate. On the bad side, you tug at your lead, snap, track mud, make inappropriate noises, make messes of mythic proportion. You’re animalistic in a way frowned upon by the Pope. And you steal food – meat in particular – from plates. You’ll have no truck with Impossible meat. You want the real thing, preferably gobbets that you’re prone to tearing off with hands and teeth alone. And woe to he or she who comes too close while you’re eating.
Thus you find yourself at Associazione Chianti, an Italian steakhouse, for your birthday dinner. Your wife, impelled by her love to take a major risk, has allowed you off lead. She carefully monitors you though. Who knows, at any moment you might grab an entire prosciutto between your jaws from the big red slicer and start tearing around the restaurant at top speed chased by the chef swinging a cleaver.
Black Sheep Restaurants thoroughly understands the culture and theatre of food. Patrons not only visit to eat, but to be cared for and entertained. You arrive somewhat early, and the entire staff are in a pre-dinner huddle, but a waiter immediately breaks away, warmly greets you, leads you to a table and takes your drink order, nestling you into the fold. Soon the restaurant fills, which, considering it’s early on a Wednesday night, is a tribute to its allure. You’re pleased to see not only couples and social groups but also families with younger children. Such a mix creates the best buzz of all, essential to an optimal experience, like a Sunday dinner.
As you sip your Prosecco, you eye the interior, which bears no relation to any restaurant you’ve ever visited in Italy. It actually seems to be a riff on the Bronx Italian restaurant in The Godfather where Michael Corleone shoots Virgil Sollozzo and Captain Mark McCluskey. Old-fashioned cleavers hang on the wall. There’s a pleasant sense of impending bloodshed that is just right given the meaty meal ahead. The place would be apropos for mob hits.
They bring a perfect bowl of chilled crudités, including fennel, radicchio and jicama, and two dips, oil-salt-pepper and what you think your server called almond dip (maybe you misunderstood him, and he meant something else). You strain to catch a taste of almond, or any taste, but the dip is utterly flavourless.
You’re also served addictively delicious garlic knots, freshly baked dough knots flavoured with lots of garlic and prosciutto. Had the entire meal consisted of just these, you would not have left unhappy.
Drinking a lovely Tuscan red, Pio Cesare Barbera d’Alba, priced fairly at $708, you start with an insalata Cesare (Caesar salad) and a platter of salumi misti (cured meats). Served commonly at Italian restaurants, it’s interesting that this salad originated (probably) in Tijuana, Mexico. This version, based brilliantly on chicory, is delicious, but you wish the garlic and anchovy were stronger. You sense they were dialled down to accommodate those with timid palates (though your wife, who can handle a lot of torque, says that it’s just right). Maybe a restaurant has no choice but to do this. If this is so, you think the salad should be offered “mild” and “wild”. Also, you wish that it was prepared tableside, as was once commonly done (à la Mad Men) and is still done at Carbone (at least the NYC branch) and many Vegas restaurants.
The cured meats are tasty but standard stuff that you can get at any number of Italian restaurants. These meats would be much more special if they were house-cured and if a little creativity were applied. Why not an item from goose or duck or lamb? For instance, duck prosciutto (which is insanely delicious) is of Italian lineage. Likewise goose prosciutto. Certainly Black Sheep has the chops to pull this off.
Tagliatelle with artichoke. Fresh pasta is the devil to make well. It tends strongly to mushiness. Theirs, made solely with 00 flour and egg yolks, is outstanding, with a satisfying bite. Had they come by with a chunk of Parmesan and a grater to dust the pasta, as they used to do at serious NYC Italian restos (when waiters weren’t aspiring actors but dignified lifetime professionals), it would have been better yet.
We ourselves are mainly steak. And given the average body mass index these days, most of us are well-marbled Prime. In fact, with our massages and alcohol intake, most of us are A5 Wagyu. So there can be nothing more natural than eating steak. It’s us. Associazione Chianti’s steaks are dry-aged – 20 days, if you remember correctly.
Many the bistecca alla Fiorentina you’ve wolfed in Tuscany. Usually, you’ve had it accompanied by grilled provolone, hockey pucks of provolone banged over glowing charcoal until it’s semi-molten and bubbled and blistered on both sides, served with superb bread, usually charcoal-grilled itself. This is common at small village restaurants in Italy. You’ve never had it at a big-city restaurant though and wish that Black Sheep would bring it on board.
Your wife, who’s eaten here once before and felt her steak had been just a bit too bloody, orders a filetto (filet mignon) between medium and medium rare. You order a costata (rib-eye, your favourite) medium rare (which, in your view, is the only way to have steak). You also order salsa di manzo, a Chianti and peppercorn sauce.
It is the charred, caramelised exterior that makes steaks great, far more delicious in your view than prime rib or beef Wellington, which are are mainly (or entirely) without it. The Maillard reaction accounts for this. It’s also what accounts for the outstanding taste of toast, toasted marshmallows and roasted vegetables, something to do with amino acids and reduced sugars.
Both your steaks are Maillard reaction exemplars, charred deliciously over their entire surfaces. Your steak is accurately cooked, your wife’s not quite, coming out medium and consequently too dry. But, then again, filet mignon, which is less fatty than many other cuts, tends to dryness.
The salsa di manzo is tasty but, in your view, needs to be reduced at least 20 per cent more to be more of a syrup, more concentrated in flavour. And you think it would be better with whole green peppercorns, fresh if possible.
Along with your steaks, you get broccolini in a bagna càuda sauce. You love bagna càuda (a fondue of garlic, anchovy and olive oil, sometimes butter and cream) and wear a medical bracelet telling emergency responders to only put bagna càuda in your IV feed. This is a good bagna càuda, but again a bit mild. Broccolini is good, but broccoli rabe (which is distinctly more bitter) would have been better to your taste. You sense a caution in the kitchen to sometimes dial down when you wish they would dial up.
For dessert, the two of you split a dacquoise – a cake made with layers of meringue and whipped cream and, in this case, studded with berries and chocolate – and it’s phenomenal, memorable. It’s your birthday, and four servers come up and sing a birthday song (to be frank, you forget what it was…. you’d been drinking), but it is spirited and fun and you appreciate it.
Though not perfect, the meal was excellent, and – the food, service, decor, fun, all knit together – had just the right heft for a birthday. At $2,989, it wasn’t cheap, but considering the Prosecco, the mid-priced bottle of wine, the outstanding steaks, the handmade pasta, the consistent high quality and the cost of doing business in Hong Kong, the price was fair. You would happily return. Associazione Chianti lives up to its excellent reputation. It is a paragon of Italian cuisine.
Docile from overindulgence, you depart. Good dog.
Rating (on a scale of 0 to 5)
Overall greatness: 4.5
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.”