Friday, July 18, 2014

New Chef, New Menu - A Sneak Preview at Nicholini's

A few of us were at Nicholini's recently for a sneak preview of the new menu created by Chef Luca de Berardinis, who just came on board to their culinary team. It's been a while since I last set foot in the restaurant (a long story), but I think it's time to come back, as I have heard good things about the cooking of Chef Luca, who was previously at the helm of the Michelin-starred Il Milione.

This evening's menu was designed just for the occasion with all new dishes - part of that menu will be available for a one-night-only event at the restaurant in August, and the rest will be revealed as the new seasonal a la carte menu soon.

We started with a little amuse-bouche of a parmesan puff - it's a simple yet super delicious treat with the runny cheese filling. Then I was equally delighted with the first course of lentil soup with pan-seared scallop. The scallop was perfectly cooked, matched with a foamy soup made with cream and chestnut and lentils at the bottom then a dash of Montepulciano reduction on the side completed the dish. It sure looked and tasted beautifully - a reminder of "Under the Tuscan Sun" perhaps? 

The next dish was a bit fancy in presentation. The wait staff first brought out a teapot filled with dry ice and some fennel flowers to the table, and then opened the lid to let the gas out to release the floral aroma. Then the nicely plated dish was put in front of each of us, with a few pieces of roasted baby potatoes put on top of some finely diced salted cod with julienned roasted peppers and dried black olive crumbs. It's an appetizing dish with strong flavors, especially the perfectly roasted potatoes - I sure felt like I was sitting in an Italian summer garden!

Beef Tartar was my favorite of the evening. Rightly-seasoned beef was served with a runny egg yolk which was covered in bread crumbs and deep-fried. On the side it's a spread of salad greens covered with flakes of summer truffles giving the dish a mild, earthy aroma, and accented with a hint of sweetness and acidity from a citrus vinaigrette dressing. Certainly a crowd pleaser, especially in such hot weather.

We were quite fascinated at the pasta in green pea soup, which came next. The pasta - called fascarelli - looks like polenta but has that typical al dente texture of regular pasta with good eggy taste. The creamy split pea soup has a distinct fresh taste without a trace of the unwelcoming grassy feel. A light touch of mint and a small piece of bottarga was served on top, releasing some refreshing and umami flavors. I love how all these little things - all with different textures and tastes - were composed into this one seemingly simple dish. Later Chef Luca came to explain to us how fascarelli was made - he made it sounds so easy that I wanna try it at home some time!

One last appetizer course before we moved on to the entree. Ravioli with ricotta and octopus was served on top of a brush of mashed smoked eggplants, with a thick tomato based sauce (like pizza). Normally I am not a fan of eggplant - mainly because of its texture - so this presentation (with eggplant in puree form) is just right for me and I love its subtle sweetness.

I love the plating of our tuna main course. Slightly seared cube of tuna was said to be served in "potato crust", but in fact the crust was in the form of a "nest" made from finely julienned and deep-fried potatoes. On the side were chard, fava beans, salmon roes and mango mayonnaise. While I think each of the individual components were gorgeously done, overall I found it a bit crowded, especially the mango mayonnaise with its taste somewhat buried among all the other rich flavors.

Both desserts were marvelously done as well. First was a lemon sorbet with proscecco (Lo Sgroppino) followed by a warm chocolate olive oil cake with strawberry sorbet served in a beautiful martini glass. We kept saying we were so full by then but somehow we still managed to finish them both - and the mignardises at the end of our meal too (the little cup of tiramisu infused with a chili was amazing, by the way)

We had a few wines to match with the food - mainstream choices but I think they were pretty well-chosen. The Pinot Grigio provided much tangy acidity to stimulate the palate and cool us down on a hot summer night, and I always like the casual and approachable Gaja Ca'Marcanda "Promis" as an everyday sort of wine. This medium-bodied, "Super-Tuscan" is a fruity bomb that goes well with almost everything. But I think the best match of the evening was the Moscato d'Asti with both of the desserts - crisp, light, sweet, good acidity, hint of pear. One can't go wrong with some lovely bubbly to conclude our evening with, right?

Overall I am pleased with all the dishes and it's a well-designed menu - chef subtly showed off the seasonal cuisine from various regions in Italy with excellent cooking, and presented the dishes elegantly. I am looking forward to even better things to come as Chef Luca eases into his new role - and perhaps even another star for the restaurant under his belt soon? From past record I wasn't very good at predicting, but so far this one certainly looks promising.

The other pictures on my Flickr album:

Note: Dinner courtesy of Conrad Hong Kong.

When? July 10 2014
Where? Nicholini's, 8/F Conrad Hong Kong, 88 Queensway
Menu Highlights? Battuto di Manzo - Beef Tartar with crunchy egg yolks, baby salad and black summer truffles
Alois Lageder Pinot Grigio Alto Adige DOC 2012
Gaja Ca'Marcanda "Promis" Toscana IGT 2011
La Spinetta Bricco Quaglia, Moscato d'Asti DOCG 2012

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