Lai Chi Kok is not quite heralded as a famed dining hub of Hong Kong, but for those in the know, it's looking like extraordinary foodie things are quietly stirring in this industrial corner of Kowloon. Home to high-end, private supper society Greater China Club and one of its fine dining options Cadenza, Shanghai-styled Ten on the Bund, genuine Taiwanese hole in the wall Cheng Banzhang Taiwan Delicacy and Tang2 (hot on the heels of the various 'Tang' dining successes), LCK has become a worthy destination. Add newly opened Si Simply Italian to the mix and you're spoilt for choice.
A modest, open and airy interior reflects the cuisine and fare served up by Chef Massimo Santovito, who lives by the philosophy of 'simple but not easy', a notion evident in his cooking. Along with owner Paolo Sala, they are determined to introduce Hong Kong diners to unpretentious Italian dishes, using high-quality ingredients at an affordable price point in order to combat the fine dining connotation that the cuisine carries in our fragrant harbour. Along with a regular menu, Si also offers an all-organic menu, boasting dishes that are no less impressive. With a CV as varied as Cafe Deco Group, ilBelPaese and Hotel Panorama, as well as 30 years' experience in Italian gastronomy, it's safe to say that we felt very comfortable in Chef Santovito's hands.
Organic cold cut platter
The highly regulated, exquisite Mora's ham took Chef Santovito over six months to successfully import to Hong Kong and made us appreciate our starting platter of organic cold cuts ($228) so much more. Made from a rare breed of pig of which there are fewer than 1,000 in total around the world, this is a product smoother, healthier and more intense in aroma than your usual Parma ham. Along for the ride were slices of mortadella, rustichello coppa seasoned with clove and cinnamon and black olives to pare down the meaty flavours, but let's be honest, the Mora's ham stole the show by a mile, so let's just have us a whole platter of that next time, shall we?
Our first taste of authentic Italian in Lai Chi Kok was closely followed by Si's vitello tonnato ($118), a dish of cold sliced veal fillet dotted with a tuna, caper and mayonnaise sauce. We loved Chef Santovito's detailed explanation of the preparation process, which includes wrapping the tenderloin in cling film, poking holes in it to allow it to breathe and braising it in water spiced with shallot, cinnamon and star anise, before serving it up with a creamy white dressing made of finely blended tuna, anchovy, caper and a hint of shallot. Not only did the mildness of the tuna flavour completely take us aback (we fully expected a much fishier taste), but the tenderness of the beef was unparalleled. So far, so delicious.
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Chef's handmade gnocchi
A challenge we always face with aubergine Parmesan is the waterlogging of the aubergine; homemade by a kitchen dabbler or professionally served up in a restaurant, it usually ends up at our table a droopy, soggy sponge – which we're not that picky about, but sometimes it's nice to not have to dig through an oily swimming pool to get to the goods. While others have combatted this by serving it as a whole log of aubergine instead of the traditional, sandwich-esque creation, Chef Santovito presents a cleaner, modern version of aubergine Parmesan ($88), plated like a slice of lasagne. Tried and tested and skilfully executed, the research behind creating this dish is a prime example of food science coming to the rescue. Delicately thin slices of aubergine require much less cooking time and absorb less oil in the cooking process, and to circumvent the aubergine's moisture-releasing properties, the slices are soaked in salt water and laid out to dry prior to baking. The result is light, with a remarkably meaty flavour, and drenched in just enough tomato sauce without the usual puddle of oil pooling underneath.
Artisanal and handcrafted is the name of the game, from the chef's handmade gnocchi ($168) to the nougat we had for dessert. The dark brown organic wheat gnocchi is toasted and powdered by local bread makers in Italy and retains a naturally pillowy consistency. This felt like quite a heavy dish despite its small portion and very mild potato flavour, and we didn't end up finishing it, to our dismay as seasoned plate vacuums. Nevertheless, we highly recommend it as a must try – we haven't encountered gnocchi quite like this elsewhere in Hong Kong, and the sweet tomato sauce, made from Piennolo tomatoes exclusive to farms around Mount Vesuvius, is a rare gem.
Risotto with veal bone marrow and saffron
Not only does Chef Santovito display uncanny creativity with reinventing traditional Italian fare, but he also shows fearlessness in concocting new recipes. His risotto with veal bone marrow and saffron ($178) is inspired by the famed osso buco dish, served on a beautiful bed of rice that harks back to a Milanese risotto. Although the most common form of risotto is made with arborio rice from the Po Valley, Vialone Nano rice was instead chosen for this dish for its lower water absorbency. We applaud the use of a pre-made broth of saffron and veal bone and absolutely loved the creamy consistency of the smooth and fragrant risotto, especially with a generous dollop of bone marrow on top, but the dish could have done without the superfluous gold leafing – all it did was get unpleasantly stuck to our teeth.
Read more: New Restaurant Review: Cadenza
Hazelnut semifreddo with fresh fruit
The labour-intensive hazelnut semifreddo with fresh fruit ($98) was a dreamy treat with a mousse-like consistency, a wonderful alternative to ice cream on what felt like a hot summer's day, with its nutty and sweet flavours nicely complementing each other. An espresso cup of pure, molten Belgian hot chocolate ($48) and some homemade nougat ($180) ended our lunch on a decadent note.
We were shocked at the affordable pricing; for all the imported and highly regulated organic Italian ingredients used, we were prepared to shell out a lot more. Not only do we applaud the evident skills, technical expertise and historical and culinary knowledge that Chef Santovito possesses in regards to Italian cuisine, but we also tremendously appreciate the regional journey he took us on by making available to us lesser-known dishes that we have rarely had occasion to try before without paying an arm and a leg. We will absolutely, definitely be back for more; the trek to Lai Chi Kok hardly daunts us when there's food this delicious at the end of the rainbow.
Shop G03, G/F, D2 Place TWO, 15 Cheung Shun Street, Lai Chi Kok, 2370 9022
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; she's so stubborn, it's not like you could tell her otherwise anyway.