Italian via Hong Kong, yet the taste is anything but diluted
“We can do and make anything in Hong Kong because there are no restrictions in importing ingredients, allowing for great freedom in the kitchen,” said Paolo Monti, the partner and chef at Gaia Ristorante, a refined and glamorous Italian restaurant located in the heart of Hong Kong ― Queen’s Road Central. Gaia is one of six restaurants operating in Asia under Gaia Group, which is based in the city.
The well-known Tuscan chef’s adventure in Asia started in 2001 when he joined Gaia, after working in hotels and teaching secrets of Italian cooking in the United States. He says currently there are 25 Italian chefs, including himself, working in Hong Kong, where the world’s most expensive white truffle was auctioned off in 2005 by the Toscana restaurant in the Ritz-Carlton Hong Kong.
“Now all the hot shots in town rush to Italian restaurants for white truffles,” Mr. Monti said.
Nicholini’s, in the Conrad Hong Kong, is one of several restaurants in Asia to have won the Insegnia del Romano, the annual award given to the best Italian restaurant outside of Italy, placing Hong Kong at the pinnacle of Italian cuisine in Asia.
The Italian aroma made with such a sharp competitive edge can now be tried right at the center of Seoul, at The Parkview restaurant inside the Shilla hotel. The special buffet meal, which runs until Sept. 26, at the restaurant features Mr. Monti’s specialties, some of which are also available a la carte. During the promotion, lunch buffet for adults is 41,000 won ($45, plus 10-percent service charge and 10-percent VAT) and 27,000 won for children under the age of seven; the dinner buffet is 45,000 won for adults and 29,000 won for children.
Mr. Monti says it’s almost impossible to prepare the exact same dishes outside of Gaia due to many restrictions imposed on obtaining and cooking the right ingredients, yet the ingredients for main dishes he has found here, such as monkfish, cod, Australian lamb, wagyu beef and Italian herbs, were just fine.
Two cold dishes ― tuna carpaccio with avocado, paprika and lemon oil (available at the buffet) and lobster salad with melon and avocado (28,000 won) ― were vibrant both in colors and tastes, although I wasn’t much fond of limp iceberg lettuce tucked under the lobster meat. Red tuna, drizzled in lemon juice, was sliced thicker than usual; the tangy lemon juice, tender meat and avocado made a refreshingly light starter.
For hot dishes, though, Mr. Monti, a compact man with a goatee, began darting around and between several work areas, shouting in English, “Garlic!” “Olive oil!” “Plate!”
As Mr. Monti, who has remained a traditionalist in cooking Italian dishes, roasts crushed garlic in a green pool of De Cecco olive oil, his Korean assistants took snapshots and notes. He says he simply doesn’t believe in fusion cooking, dismissing Italian pasta made with soy sauce or miso paste as nonsense. “I’d rather work with whatever’s available and make it real Italian,” he said.
The cooked fettuccini was quickly brought back to the hot frying pan to be cooked again in the by-now meaty olive oil. “Chopped parsley!” he cried, and a handful of green is tossed in. “Cheese!” and the powder wrapped the noodle. More olive oil at the end.
The concoction was one of overwhelmingly complex flavors, rustic yet sophisticated, from roasted pork and garlic, aromatic herbs, earthy mushroom, lightly pungent cheese to only subtly fruity fettuccini that was perfectly toothy. For a dish made in a flash like that, it must be served personally, he stressed.
For this promotion, the hotel’s sommelier prepared two whites (2004 Ecco Domani Pinot Grigio and 2004 Collebello Toscana) and two reds (2001 Leonardo Chianti Reserva and 2004 Leonardo Chianti), but Mr. Monti said the Chianti would be too strong (“You won’t taste the sausage then”) and suggested the Toscana white (10,000 won per glass), chilled, for the pasta.
Do not miss Mr. Monti’s risotto cooked with porcini mushroom, parmesan cheese and coffee ― yes, coffee. Sprinkled with ground coffee right out of the barrista’s machine, this creamy, brown and aromatic Italian treat, made, not with arborio, but with 100 percent Korean rice, promises to be by far the most inventive yet delicious Italian affair for all lovers of Italian cuisine. Sipping a dainty cup of tasty Cova espresso by the end of the meal, I got pensive ― thoroughly impressed with what “invention” can mean in contemporary Italian cooking.
English: On the menu, spoken
Tel: (02) 2230-3374
Hours: Noon-2:30 p.m. for lunch; 6-9:30 p.m. for dinner for weekdays and Sundays; for Saturday dinner, 5:30-7:20 p.m. or 7:40-9:30 p.m.
Location: The first floor of the Shilla hotel; subway station line no. 3 Dongguk Univ. exit 5
Dress code: Elegant or business
by Ines Cho