Saturday, 23 April 2016

Va Bene - from LKF to Sai Ying Pun

I never managed to get to Va Bene when it was in its Lang Kwai Fung home, although it had very much been on my radar.  

Recognised as the original Italian trattoria in Hong Kong, the famous restaurant was one of the few places in the notorious LKF where you could escape the madness at any time of the night for a more-than-decent-meal.

Located just off Queens Road West in Sai Ying Pun, the new Va Bene seems just a little out of the way, and while not too far from PoHo, it required a little bit of an effort to find the place. Veering off QRW and down Wilmer Street, I was surprised by the size of the very sleek and modern looking facade.  There was no missing the place, bright neon pulled us in like a beacon!

Our penchant for arriving early saw us as the first diners to be seated, and we were placed strategically at one of the tables that were visible from the huge plate glass window that ran the length of the street frontage.  Our theory for many restaurants, is that the better dressed diners are always placed within sight of the street, with scruffy diners hidden out back.  This seemed to be on the money, over the course of our meal, we continually paid attention to where diners were being seated.

Menus arrived and were huge rectangles of black cardboard with literally dozens of superb looking contemporary and traditional dishes.  The first thing that jumped out was the very reasonable prices, a rarity in many Hong Kong restaurants.  The next was the quirky combinations of ingredients that would either go smashingly well together, or possibly be a train wreck.  Knowing that the menu had been put tougher by Two Michelin starred chef, Enrico Bartolini, I was punting on the former!

With all of the amazing looking ways to kick off the meal, the girl and I both had our eyes on the same starter, so a little compromise was needed.  Finally settling on the "Capesante, nocciole e limn"; a ceviche of scallops with hazelnut and lemon, I was delighted when the beautifully presented plate arrived.  It couldn't have been easy to prepare the perfectly round serve of scallops, but the effort was appreciated.  The incredibly fresh scallops were topped with a hazelnut puree and lemon curd, the sharp contrast of the lemon harmonising perfectly with the sweet flesh.  Texture came from the some 'crisps' sitting on top, providing just the right amount of crunch.

The girl ended up with the "Novo cremoso, asparigi, parmigiano e caviale di tartufo"; soft runny Italian egg with asparagus, parmesan and truffle caviare.  The slow cooked egg sat atop the green asparagus, which had been sliced into thin pieces, with a quenelle of truffled caviar carefully placed on the egg.  Croutons were provided for extra texture, and once the egg cracked open, the croutons soaked up the creamy yolk to create little taste explosions.  Egg and asparagus are such a classic combination, and it might be said, very popular on HK menus right now; but the addition of truffled caviar was a stroke of genius!  The saltiness from the caviar and the umami flavour of the truffle were a sensational balance for the astringent asparagus and creamy egg.

Now, you might be wondering which of us originally wanted the scallops, and which wanted the egg; Unfortunately, I'm going to leave you guessing!  (add a comment at the end of the post if you think you know which one I wanted!)

A trademark of all great Italian restaurants is keeping things simple, using a few ingredients wonderfully to highlight the flavours.  One of the most iconic of pasta dishes is the spaghetti carbonara, and it would take a brave chef to mess with one of the classics.  But mess with it chef Enrico did.  The "spaghetti alla carbonara"; spaghetti with pork cheeks and "carbonara" sauce sauce was very different from the creamy pasta dish you'd normally expect.  The thick spaghetti was served 'al dente', covered in mounds of freshly shaved parmesan cheese and a sauce that distinctly lacked the creaminess that tradition dictates.  There was a strong pork flavour from the cheeks, but there wasn't a heap of pork in the dish, which was a little weird, although the pork cheek was a lovely departure from pieces of bacon.  Overall, it didn't really look like a carbonara, but was super tasty none the less.

I'd been too undecided when looking at the pasta options, and while I'd considered the signature dish of lobster with a curry sauce, eventually went with a super simple margherita pizza.  I'd liked the look of the pizza oven, so was hoping for a really traditional pizza with bags of sweet tomato flavour.  It was halfway there in that it looked lovely, the tri colours of the Italian flag clearly on display.  It just fell a little short though, the tomato base lacking a little flavour and the mozzarella cheese a little less creamy than I'd have liked.  The base was crispy and had a great flavour though, and the only thing keeping the pizza from ticking all the boxes was a little more punchy sweetness in the sauce and maybe a little more cheese.

We decided not to sample any of the delights on the dessert menu, manly because there was nothing that really jumped out at us and said 'pick me!'.

Throughout our visit to Va Bene, we were visited by just about all of the wait staff and managers on hand to ask how we were going and if we were enjoying the meal.  This was mostly appreciated, but meant that we were told what the special of the evening was a couple of times, and while the pork belly sounded good, felt bad when we told the restaurant a second time that we would be skipping the special on the evening.  In fact, the manager seemed super disappointed when we passed on the dish!

While I'd never been to Va Bene at LKF and had no comparison point, I really loved our visit, the food was great and affordable and the restaurant cool and funky.  Centred around a bar area, the dining room had the feeling of cool spaciousness and most seats had a view of the partially open kitchen (particularly good for watching the pizza oven)

I was particularly enamoured with the olive oil dispensers at each table, which closely resembled retro oil dispensers that wold have been used to add oil to a 1930's racing car!

Va Bene is a great spot serving contemporary Italian fare, it's definitely a place that I'd imagine returning to.  Interestingly, now that we're at Wan Chai on the 'blue' Island line, it might just be a little easier for us to visit!

The Pizza needed a little more punch with the sauce, and I'd have liked a little more melted mozzarella 
Crusty bread, slightly toasted and those funky oil dispensers
Love the lighting in Va Bene - very unique
All the well dressed customers ended up at the front of the dining room?!
The central bar - a drink before dinner?!
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