Saturday, July 28, 2012

Lupa (Hong Kong)

July 2012

3rd Floor, LHT Tower, 31 Queen's Road Central, Hong Kong
Tel: +852 2796 6500

Lupa is one of Mario Batali's new additions to his Italian food empire. Carrying the same name as another of his restaurants in New York (of which we have heard good things and are meaning to try during our next trip there), the concept of both restaurants centers around serving traditional Italian cuisine in a casual and hip environment. Located right in Central, and in a corner building along Queen's Road Central, it is highly accessible to the bustling business and tourist crowd in the heart of Hong Kong CBD.

Truth be told, we were slightly apprehensive about our visit there, having read rather unflattering reviews about its service and having not been overly impressed by any of the Batali restaurants we have eaten at (albeit only the ones we have tried in Singapore). That said, with the notoriously hard-to-please Hong Kong dining crowd and the high regard New Yorkers seem to regard the Batali restaurants in their city, we thought it was worth giving a try.

It was a Saturday night and the restaurant was buzzing with energy. With ambience not dissimilar to a modern New York steakhouse or brasserie, loud contemporary music was played and there was loud laughter and chatter from a predominantly youngish clientele (from the wine or their attempts to try to be heard over the music, or both) in the fully packed but dimly lit dining room. This was definitely not the place for a quiet meal.

From a short but decent wine list, we selected an excellent 2006 Brunello di Montalcino by Il Poggione and settled down to pick our food from a one-page menu. This was not the usual trattoria menu but included quite a few rather eclectic and interesting dishes. The waiter was very helpful in giving us recommendations and helping us to decide on our orders.

Grilled Radicchio with Scamorza - bitter lettuce with smoked mozzarella and balsamic: Not the most visually appealing but an excellent starter. It was the ideal balance of taste and texture between the saltiness and chewiness of the cheese, the bitterness and crunch of the lettuce and the sweetness and acidity of the balsamic vinegar. It was clever, unusual and very enjoyable.

Octopus and Celery - olive oil braised octopus with celery and chili: The other starter was also pretty good. It was again a contrast between the crunchiness of the celery and the chewiness of the octopus. The very strong taste of the celery also complemented the nicely grilled octopus slices as well, although we felt that the octopus could have done with a bit more salt (as the celery slightly overpowered it)

Corzetti with Rabbit Ragu - coin-shaped pasta with rabbit, cured pork belly and sage: This was discs of pasta (it looked like unrolled spaghetti) cooked in an amazingly delectable meat stock with very tender rabbit meat and some pork belly. We really loved this, as it was simply yet very well done. The portions though were quite big and there was actually a lot of pasta in this dish (hard to tell just looking at it).

We noted that when the waiter took our pasta orders, he specifically asked us if we wanted our pasta done al dente or a bit more cooked. We thought it quite impressive that he asked. We perceive that many diners in Asia still prefer their pastas overcooked and soggy (no disrespect to them, it's ultimately a matter of preference) and as a result, a number of Italian restaurants in the region cook their pastas this way to appeal to the masses. Many an Italian chef who we know of start their early days in Asia cooking pasta the authentic Italian way but are very soon forced to change as too many guests end up sending their pastas back to the kitchen for being 'undercooked'. It was very nice of our waiter here to ask us for our preference without any presumption on his part.

Black Spaghetti with 'Nduja - spicy pork sausage with mint and almonds: Another dish which looked quite unappetising but tasted better than it looked. This dish we felt epitomised the authenticity of the Italian cuisine in this restaurant. In our experience (limited only to Northern Italy, admittedly), a lot of focus is placed on the pasta itself, i.e. its taste and texture, and sometimes the sauce or accompanying meats are there to enhance the pasta and not the other way around. In Asia, the common view is that pastas are merely the base on which sauces or the other ingredients are expressed (pretty much like how rice is regarded), resulting in a lack of appreciation of the art of making and cooking pasta. In this dish, there wasn't much of anything else; there was some minced spicy pork sausage, a hint of mint and almonds, but what this dish was really all about was the squid ink pasta cooked simply in olive oil and perfectly al dente. Admittedly this was not a dish for everyone but we found it very memorable.

Crispy Duck with Salsify and Saba - confit half duck with grape vinaigrette: This was humongous. An entire half of a duck turned up in front of me on a plate. It was terribly delicious though, and was roasted to a crisp perfectly with a nice doneness for the meat inside. No sauce was required for this dish as the duck could hold its own. As good as it was, I struggled to finish it (especially after the massive corzetti pasta I had before that), and it was a portion fit for two.

Veal Saltimbocca - pounded dutch veal with proscuitto, sage and spinach: My wife claimed that this was the best satimbocca she had ever tasted. It was tender, juicy and the parma ham draped over the veal enhanced the flavours.

Warm Cappuccino Cake - hazelnut crumble, condensed milk gelato: We never have very high expectations for desserts in Italian restaurants (unlike the French, they don't have the same flair for it and very often don't even have dedicated pastry/dessert chefs). This dessert was quite good but took a bit of work. The cake was coffee flavored and had oozing molten chocolate in it, but in order to get the cappuccino taste, it had to be eaten together with a scoop of the thick milk ice cream.

Final Thoughts: Our meal here exceeded expectations and we truly enjoyed the food and dining experience at Lupa. Service was really good (probably the best amongst the 7 restaurants we dined at during this 6 day Hong Kong trip), and everyone from the front desk to the waiters and sommelier was warm, friendly and knowledgeable. One observation though: we noticed that our waiter persistently laid out the cutlery for the next course even before and while we were still eating our current course. This happened for our main course and dessert and though it didn't really bother us very much, we found it strange.

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