A dear friend of mine, Pino Piano, is co-owner of The Gaia Group, which owns a host of restaurants under its umbrella — 13 to be exact! I met Pino decades ago when he arrived in Hong Kong from The Rainbow Room in New York City, to oversee Va Bene, one of my favorite Italian restaurants at the time.
While the old Va Bene is no longer — a new Va Bene will soon open — our friendship withstands time and distance. I am invited to dine at several of Gaia Group’s restaurants, along with Bernice Chan, food writer for The South China Morning Post, one of my closest friends in the world, and godmother to my son.
We begin our adventure at Gaia, an Italian restaurant located in the heart of the business district, Central. It’s been 13 years since I last visit Gaia but apart from a few tweaks to the decor, the restaurant remains chic with an outside patio which draws crowds both day and night. A fabulous bread basket arrives including foccaccia and soft grissini. Don’t overload even though it’s hard to resist.
We share Burrata con Pomodorini Freschi e Secchi (HK$178/USD23) to start. I love the semi-dry tomatoes which possess a slightly more intense flavor than the fresh grape tomatoes on the plate. The arugula adds a little freshness on the palate.
Cosse in Brodo Piccante di Pomodori del Piennolo (HK$208/USD27) is a mussel dish swimming in a rich spicy broth of flavorful Vesuvius tomatoes — San Marzano is a type of tomatoes from Mt Vesuvius.
Next, Carciofi Fritti alla Giudia (HK$128/USD16.50), or fried Roman0-Jewish artichokes arrives. I love the crispy exterior coupled with the soft, slightly bitter taste of the artichoke heart.
A salad of Smoked and Fresh Tuna Carpaccio with chicory tips, capers and anchovies help cleanse our palates. I find this salad extremely pleasant, pairing the fresh salad element with a luscious salty carpaccio that melts in my mouth. I don’t see this on the menu, so I’m not sure if it’s a special, or if Pino requested it.
White truffles are in season, so there is nothing more fitting than ending with Tagliolini con Tartufo Bianco Pregiato e Parmigiano (HK$548/USD71), a dish of homemade angel hair pasta with butter, cheese and shaved white truffles (5gm of shaved truffle) to share. Truffles are best served with something simple, and the pasta with a simple butter and cheese sauce is the perfect vehicle to showcase these aromatic truffle shavings.
We finish with three desserts, but my favorite is Pannacotta con Vin Brulee alle Spezie (HK$98/USD12.65) an incredible panna cotta with star anise infused red wine jelly served in a wine bottle cut in half down the center.
Fast forward a week later, and we are dining at IVY located at IFC Mall. Pino is telling us about his other restaurants and upon realizing that I’ve never been to Isola, also located at IFC Mall, suggests we eat two meals that evening. Bernice and I glance at each other and finally offer to have dinner at THE IVY, and finishing with dessert at Isola.
IVY is a pleasant restaurant, with comfortable surroundings, offering French Riviera-style cuisine. I’m not 100% sure what French Riviera food comprises, however, I’m guessing it is heavy on seafood since it’s on the coast of France.
Our meal starts with a delicious Fresh Crab Salad (HK$228/USD29.40). It is all plump, sweet crab meat served in a crab shell. It is unadulterated, allowing the crab to shine. It is quite tasty and I enjoy the natural flavors of the crab with only a little lemon.
Beef Tartare (HK$218/USD28.10) is interesting with paprika mayo and cornichons. A beautiful orange-hued organic egg with a little cheese is served alongside. I take it and scrape every little morsel onto the beef, mix and scoop a little onto the crisp bread slice. Beautifully seasoned and the texture is spot on.
Our next dish of Warm Prawns in Olive Oil (HK$198/USD25.55) is delightful in its simplicity. Sweet prawns are served only with olive oil, basil and lemon. The prawns have a great texture with only hints of accoutrements to help lift its flavors to the fore.
Sea Bream Carpaccio (HK$188/USD24.25) is amazing! Thin slices of sea bream is topped with fennel, pickled beet root and perilla possessing absolutely incredible flavors together. Not only is this dish beautiful, but it tastes even better than it looks.
One of my favorite things to eat is Escargot 6pc (HK$188/USD24.25) and here, it is prepared with garlic butter, pastis, parsley and almond flour.
Our main courses arrive next starting with Wild Mushroom Risotto (HK$298/USD38.45). While risotto is not necessarily French, the wild mushrooms are. Asparagus adds crunch and the parmesan, a lovely umami-filled saltiness.
Sea Bream en Papillote (HK$468/USD60.40) is a perfect item to share witih your tablemates if you like fish. A whole sea bream is wrapped in parchment paper and roasted with rosemary and lemon chive. The paper is opened table-side and you can either serve yourself, or the staff is happy to help you with it. Once again, simple, not overly dressed, allowing the fish to shine.
We finish up here and walk upstairs to ISOLA, an Italian restaurant under the Gaia Group located on a floor above IVY. It is stunning. The sprawling space includes a huge outdoor patio affording diners a view of the Hong Kong skyline. When I sit down, I find out that Pino has already ordered three desserts, one of which is panna cotta — my favorite!
Panna Cotta “Frappuccino” Nutella Mousse (HK$98/USD12.65) is absolutely insane. I love the perfectly textured panna cotta, sitting in the cold frappuccino and pralines mousse.
Next is an interesting dessert — Fighi al Cartoccio Nella Loro Foglia, Gelato alle Nocciole, Mosto d’Uva (HK$168/USD21.65) — roasted figs arrive served in their leaves, with a scoop of hazelnut ice cream and saba wine poured table-side. The figs are soft, gooey and warm. I love this!
Il Nostro Zuccotto alle Nocciole e Tartufo Bianco (HK$208/USD26.85), though decadent, is a bit of an overkill. I thought the hazelnut dome Zuccotto style was absolutely delicious and complex on its own. I can’t understand the white truffle shavings on the dish and brought it up to Chef Omar. He didn’t quite answer my question, but my guess would be that the public is obsessed with white truffles when it is in season, so why the hell not.
I also meet Chef Marco Sacco, two-star Michelin chef of Piccolo Lago, who is showcasing the white truffle promotion menu at Isola that evening — Gaia Group often invites top chefs from the world over to guest chef at its restaurants. Regardless which Gaia Group restaurant you choose to dine at, you can be sure the cuisine will be authentic.
181 Queen’s Road Central
Tel: +852 2167 8200
Shop 2075, Level 2
Tel: +852 2383 4028
1 Harbour View St
Tel: +852 2383 8765
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