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Dressed in black leather, astride your Vincent Black Shadow, you roam the darkness of Mordor, Gotham, now Hong Kong, seeking the supreme rib that is more powerful than all others. It isn’t pork or beef ribs you’re after, but a more rarefied and regal rank of ribdom, lamb: unctuous, slightly gamy, simultaneously tender and chewy, crisp, very difficult to make well, most delicious of all done right. Whose lamb ribs are Lord of all? You shall bend a knee to this rib and only to this rib vow fealty. No, not lamb chops. That’s a different matter altogether, and you have already given your oath to New Punjab Club’s tandoori prodigies. It would take a mighty lamb chop to dethrone them.
Engine snarling, defying speed limits, no seconds to spare, you go to Lao Zhang Gui Dongbei, CRFT PIT, Brut!, then FRANCIS.
Lao Zhang Gui Dongbei’s lamb ribs are tasty but greasy, and though supposedly boneless, your teeth encounter bits of soft bone here and there, which put you off like eggshell in an omelette – worth ordering but not transformative.
CRFT PIT’s pastrami is mighty, but their lamb ribs are tubby like bellies at a sports bar. This restaurant doesn’t nail the meticulous trimming, the ridiculous time at low temperature needed to melt out almost all the fat and loosen the meat from the bone before raising the temperature (or broiling) to crisp it.
Onward you race, shooting sparks in the gloom. The last time you ate Brut!’s ribs was over a year ago. Since then, word is that they’ve changed their saucing, and you return to try their new version. Tragically, you find they have just gone from ribs to chops. Why? Apparently, the chef’s whim. Retrospectively, Brut!’s ribs were nothing less than superlative: buff, tender, lamby, crisped, scrumptious. They were dusted with cumin and served with blackberry relish. They so deranged you with pleasure that you grasped the edge of the table not to collapse.
FRANCIS’ ribs, still thankfully on their menu, are every bit equal to those you remember from Brut! They’re orange glazed, with pesto and yoghurt sauces. Gnawing them, you suppress an impulse to joyfully bleat.
Back upon your beast, you’re pensive. You might have bent your knee to Brut! and FRANCIS, twin masters. But Brut!’s ribs are memories now, receding in the current of time. Is FRANCIS alone worthy of your bent knee? You restlessly prowl the streets, brooding, gunning your engine at stops, scattering pedestrians. Some unknown force or instinct prevents you from returning to your lair. It pulls you towards Graham Street. Why?
There’s a throbbing sound in the distance that spools louder and louder into a deranged howl. Frightened faces turn. A black Norton Commando hits a bump, flies over a taxi, power-slides in front of you, screeches to a stop, kickstand-parks, and a Bond girl in full leathers, black of course, dismounts. She removes her black helmet, and out spills a nimbus of blonde curls. Lipstick? Chanel Siren. Mascara? Chanel Noir. Perfume? Chanel Cristalle. It’s the Danish mafia! They’ve finally caught up with you!
It’s your wife. You park alongside. No words spoken, the two of you step down a short stairway into 121BC. 121BC? Could this be a time portal?
It’s a restaurant. Are there lamb ribs on the menu? Inshallah. Yes! You order them. They won’t be ready for half an hour. Fine. You’ll wait with an Aperol spritz. It is the best Aperol spritz you’ve ever had. This is because, unlike all others in your experience, it only has two ingredients – Prosecco and Aperol – no seltzer. From now on, you will only make your Aperol spritzes this way, as should all mixologists of right mind. Seeking a sipper to hold herself until the food arrives, your wife orders an Americano made with Bèrto Vermouth Rosso, Bèrto Bitter Amaro and soda water. She loves it! You companionably nibble small black olives, chubby green ones, citrus peel, grissini.
Your first course of Brussels sprouts, Parmesan custard, lemon and pickled chilli arrives. The Brussels sprouts are cut almost through into quadrants and deep-fried so that they blossom. This crisps and caramelises them at the same time, bringing out their sugars. The Parmesan custard is luscious like a zabaglione, brilliant in juxtaposition. The thin slices of pickled chilli (which taste like Peppadews) are an inspired accent. You love it, but you do wonder if a few strands of saffron in the custard might not loft this dish higher yet.
The lamb ribs with balsamic vinegar and rosemary do not announce themselves through their beauty or with elaborate garnishes. They’re just a dark, tangled mass of bone and meat in a puddle of dark sauce, with some salty, sharp, bitter greens on the side (which happen to be delicious). You taste the ribs, and it’s as though you’ve touched a live wire. You’re numb and paralysed. You cannot believe it possible that a rib, or anything for that matter, can be as delicious as these ribs. The meat is fall-off-the-bone tender, but at the same time it is condensed almost like jerky or, considering the sauce of reduced balsamic, candied jerky. What’s more, although the meat is tender, the outer surface is crisp. You suspect they were cooked and then deep-fried. Your server confirms this. Rosemary, with its piny aromatic, has never been put to better use than as a garnish for this dish.
Inasmuch as they’re utterly amazing, you know it’s unworthy for you to contemplate improving them. But you can’t help wondering what would happen if the ribs were rolled in coarse toasted rice powder, like that sprinkled on Thai larb, just before deep-frying. Is it conceivable that this would add an extra layer of sandpapery crunch, making them even more fabulous? Or is this one bridge too far? Only the utmost love, and perhaps your wife’s dangerous aura, prevents you from snarfing down more than half the ribs, even though you’re older, bigger and your birthday is just six weeks away (which should entitle you to more).
Bass with lemon aioli and bottarga (the dried, salted roe of a fish, often mullet or tuna, typically grated over dishes or sliced thin as an accompaniment). The bass is pristine, cooked perfectly à point and, better yet, the skin is deliciously crisped. The lemon aioli gives the citrus required, and the grated yellow bottarga pops of salty umami, the taste equivalent of stepping on bubble wrap. Alongside is a salad of sautéed leek and lardons. The lardons would have been better crisped.
You drink a lovely 2014 Terrazze dell’Etna Carusu Etna Rosso Nerello Mascalese. It’s served in a bird-like carafe that your wife covets. You enquire, but the restaurant doesn’t sell them. Nor, sadly, can you find them online. Would any reader know where to get one? It would make such a nice surprise gift.
For dessert, you order a ricotta panna cotta with passion fruit sauce and two scoops of house-made ice cream: salted caramel and pistachio-almond.
You love panna cotta and adore passion fruit sauce, but this panna cotta does not work. The ricotta is antithetical to what a panna cotta should be, which is pure creaminess wobbled by gelatin. It brings granularity and its flavour does not enhance. Neither of you finish it.
Actually, were the Parmesan custard that comes with the Brussels sprouts sweetened and thickened, it might nobly replace it. Most ice cream is actually custard. Giuliano Bugialli – the great scholar of Italian cuisine, forgotten now by most – asserts that one of the finest Italian ice creams of ancient lineage is Parmesan. The recipe is in his classic cookbook, The Fine Art of Italian Cooking. And, you must add, so is his addictive recipe for arborio rice ice cream.
The salted caramel ice cream contains ice crystals, as though it was in the freezer for too long or had been partially defrosted and refrozen. You send it back. The pistachio-almond ice cream has a lovely taste of pistachio, but you detect no almond. Given the mildness of each flavour, you don’t understand why they were mixed.
Perhaps employees didn’t show or it’s an economy measure, but the restaurant is understaffed, servers almost running. As soon as the restaurant is full, the service becomes ragged. Your main server is Spanish, and you admire her grace under pressure (Ernest Hemingway’s definition of courage). Your kind bartender-sommelier is knowledgeable about mixed drinks, though by his own admission knows little about Italian wines. Your wife, family sommelier, tastes three before choosing the fourth, a generosity of the restaurant you appreciate.
The interior of the restaurant, completely underground, reminds you of hepcat joints in the Greenwich Village of the 70s. All it needs is a folk singer up front and a squeaky microphone. The exhaust fans in the open kitchen at the far end aren’t up to handling all the kitchen smoke, which pools like a weather system.
The food at 121BC ranges from so-so to stunning. Stylistically, it deals in broad brushstrokes of vivid primary flavours like a culinary Gaugin: the intense balsamic glaze on the ribs, the bottarga dotting the bass, the pickled chilli garnishing the Brussels sprouts, the Parmesan custard. It does not aspire to tweezed garnishes, cross-cultural ingredients, intricacy or subtlety.
The meal costs HK$1,540, which, considering the cocktails, carafe of wine and dessert wine you order, is par for Hong Kong.
You slowly nurse a vin santo split between you (which is all you should have ordered for dessert) and, when alcohol levels subside, exit. Helmets on. You hesitate, turn to face the restaurant. Your knee tenses, wavers, shakes. You bend it. Engines still hot, you mount your steeds. Kick-start. You’re off like wraiths in the night.
One rib to rule them all
One rib to find them
One rib to bring them all
And in the darkness bind them
Rating (on a scale of 0 to 5)
121BC was particularly hard to rate because you had one transcendentally great dish, two very good dishes and two that were sub-par (one you didn’t finish, the other returned). Below is your best attempt.
Food: 3.5 (ribs alone: 5)
Overall value: 3
LG/F, Hilltop Plaza, 49 Hollywood Road (enter via Graham Street), Central, 2672 8255, book online
In order to review objectively, David Greenberg does not solicit or accept comped meals and anonymously reviews restaurants.