Sunday, 31 May 2015

SEPA - the Venetian Experience

While I was away on business, my better half had snuck into a little Venetian restaurant on the edge of SoHo that delighted her.  How did I come to this conclusion?  Well, she didn't stop talking about the cute little restaurant and the amazing food on offer.  Of course, I needed to check out a place that left such an indelible mark my girl.

SEPA: Bacaro Veneziano, is a cute little bar & restaurant located on Caine Road, just underneath the escalators in SoHo.  It's hard to miss from the street, from an amazing looking wall mural along the side of the building to the stone fronted facade that could easily have been transported from Italy.  The distinctive blue stones and the style windows that remind me of an old tavern, SEPA certainly stands out.

There is a stand out in the kitchen of SEPA too, with world recognised Italian chef Erico Bartolini at the helm.  With a history that included the issuing of two Michelin Stars, the youngest Italian chef to do so for his restaurant Devero in Milan, the lure of Hong Kong became too much.  Like a number of European Michelin Starred chefs, Erico made the move to front Hong Kong's first Venetian style restaurant.

The menu at SEPA, which translates into 'cuttlefish' in the Venetian dialect and a popular ingredient in Venetian, was an interesting blend of traditional cuisine with a hint of local flavour. Sectioned off in quite an unusual manner, you read from side to side, the menu is very much designed for sharing, with practically every item intended to be shared.  Compiled from a series of boxes, each item is listed in Venetian then translated into English, thankfully making it easier to decide on what we'd eat.

Our first share plate was quite interesting, the very visually appealing beetroot and tuna tartare with Jerusalem artichoke sauce was a bit of a dichotomy for me.  I loved the look of the little purple balls of beetroot and tuna, designed to look like little fruit, but the flavour and texture was a little odd for me.  My initial thought was that they were a little too 'fishy' and the usual strong flavour of beetroot was completely lost, but upon reflection, it was the texture that didn't work for me.  Blended to a puree, the texture was too fine, I'd much preferred to have seen more texture, with chunks of beetroot.  Admittedly, they might not have looked as good, but the flavour and texture would have been more palatable.

Next up was another raw dish, this time the tuna carpaccio with grapefruits and sauce, which were dainty little packets of flavour presented on a square slate.  The finely chopped tuna was placed on incredibly think crackers, then topped with truffle and cheese.  Each was a bite sized treat that was fresh and full of flavour, but I found that the cracker was a bit dry and there wasn't enough moisture in the dish to balance.  Perhaps a little dollop of a mayonnaise would have brought the whole dish together and elevated the starter from pretty good, to great.

My main was a complete mystery to me, in fact, I wasn't really sure what had been placed in front of me.  I'd ordered the risotto al salto with Venetian soft shell crab, with the latter being the only recognisable element of the dish.  In a continuation of my culinary learning, I found out that a risotto al salto is actually cooked differently to a traditional risotto.  Instead of being creamy and runny, the al salto version is usually made from leftovers and then pan fried to form a golden crust.  Once I recovered from my initial shock, I was able to appreciate the dish.  The risotto was still creamy inside, but it had an outer crust that reminded me of the crust at the bottom of a great paella.  The soft shell crab was the highlight of the dish though, it was quite sweet and delicious.

Our last main was a duck tagliatelle and was one of the specials from the night.  We were back on track with a dish that looked exactly as expected, beautifully fresh pasta with chunks of dark, gamey duck flesh.  The huge bowl of pasta was expertly cooked and had a rich sauce that enhanced the thin strips of al dente pasta.  It was good, really good and before long, it was completely devoured and all that was left was an empty plate with a little bit of left over sauce that was crying out for some crusty bread.

We were pretty full, but wanted dessert, so we decided on grabbing one dessert to share, the double chocolate cake with mango sauce.  I was a little confused about how mango would go with double chocolate, but it all became clear when the double chocolate included white and dark and the mango was a puree.  The dessert looked great, with a ladder of tempered white chocolate sitting atop.  It tasted great too, with the blend of white and dark chocolate providing a sweet hit (white) and bitter hit (dark) of chocolate that worked brilliantly with the mango sauce. Upon further reflection, and feeling like we'd missed out, a dessert each might have been a better option.

There was no mistaking we were in a Venetian based restaurant, the interior was a nod to pretty much all of the well known (and lesser known) cultural institutions.  Masks that were inspired by the well known Carnival of Venice, were everywhere, just waiting for customers to don and then break into festivities.  Drink coasters were designed around the characters in the famous Venetian play 'Servant of Two Masters', which doubled up as looking really cool on the table. Lastly, the staff were dressed in the traditional black and white horizontal striped sailor suits worn by the gondola drivers well known in Venice.

I'm not 100% sure that the food on offer was truly reflective of Venetian cuisine, there were certainly shades of traditional Italian on offer, but I've not been to Venice to compare...  Something that I will have to rectify at some point.  

While I thought the food was nice, I wasn't completely blown away by it either, with a couple of little issues that (in my mind) detracted.  The texture of the beetroot and tuna tartare and the off balance tuna carpaccio most notable.  I didn't really like the risotto al salto, but that was completely my issue, as it was cooked well and just didn't meet my expectations of a risotto - so I take that one on the chin.  The pasta and dessert were pretty darn delicious thought, so they were a great way to finish a meal.

What we did love, was the vibe in SEPA, which was alive with great music and friendly staff.  At some points, it seemed more like a bar that served food than a restaurant with a bar, which was not necessarily a bad thing, but if you were looking for a nice quiet spot to have a meal, you might need to reassess your options.  If you're looking for a funky spot with a great vibe and awesome tunes, then SEPA is going to be right up your alley.

I think I will go back for another sampling of the SEPA food, there was enough in my first visit to add it to my list of 'revisit' spots.  Probably on a Friday night when walking home, after all, it is on my route...

The bar was pumping and the chandelier was made up of commedia del arte masks
The interior was quite cute and had an old world charm
The texture on the beetroot and tuna tartare was not to my liking, but they looked great
The tuna carpaccio was great, but just needed a little moisture to bring together
An interesting style of risotto, I learnt something from the meal!
Transported from Venice in the heart of Hong Kong

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