Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Guest Chef at Nicholini's

I walked into a full house at Nicholini’s at The Conrad Hong Kong on a Monday evening, joining a group of food lovers for a special “four-hands” tasting dinner featuring guest chef Massimo Spigaroli (of Antica Corte Pallavicina restaurant) from the Emilia-Romagna region and Nicholini’s own chef Luca de Berardinis, of course. Our evening began at the lounge just outside the restaurant, where booths were set up for some pre-dinner snacks with canapes and wines passed around. Naturally, my attention turned into both booths manned by the chefs of the evening, Chef Massimo behind the charcuterie counter, and Chef Luca tending the cheese table featuring collection from their own Wine and Cheese Library.

Chef Massimo was considered one of the best in the trade of raising the special breed of pigs himself and aging and curing the meat in his special cellar for extensive period of time to create the best salumi. Of course, there’s none better than culatello, coming from the rear leg of the pig. One only need a mere smell of the thin slices, perhaps with a nibble to truly understand why this is considered the best of the best. A few years ago by pure chance I came across his culatello for the first time at Salone del Gusto exposition in Turin, fell in love with that immediately and filled half my suitcase with many of their products to bring home to (and shared with some friends later on)

A couple of weeks ago I also happened to try some of that plus the lardo from Chef Massimo as part of our charcuterie platter at the dinner at Neighborhood, and tonight we had the full-on spread of salumi of various kinds presented by the chef himself. How lucky I was to be able to taste not once but twice of such fine meat in quick succession. The meat was soft and tender, intensely flavorful but well-balanced, with a hint of almost sweet taste and floral fragrance. With just a few plateful of these and some fine cheeses I was happy already.

We then slowly moved to the private room by the side of the main dining room, where we were presented with a 6-course tasting menu, with Chef Massimo and Chef Luca taking turns to present their dishes. All of them were pleasant, starting to the parmesan puff as amuse-bouche to the pastry snacks served with our coffee at the end, and everything in between. Our first course of small pieces of eel gently smoked and marinated with vinegar, then paired with a couple small shrimps, raisins and sprouts for that interesting contrast in flavor and texture.

A few more seafood dishes arrived in sequence, including the umami-loaded pasta dubbed the "carbonara of the sea", with sea urchin, lumpfish caviar, bottarga and salmon roes providing the creaminess and rich flavor.

The hen ravioli by Chef Massimo was another straight-forward classic dish but well-executed. Three pieces of raviolis in a thick pasta dough hand-wrapped like a Chinese jiaozi dumpling in a deep dish with the rich, finely-chopped chicken meat, then cooked and served with baby spinach and the velvety saffron cream sauce, in true northern Italian style. In a similar fashion, the pork main course was prepared using a simple set of ingredients. The meat - probably coming from the belly near the rear with good layering of fat - was marinated and brined, then slow-cooked sous vide for 15 hours.

An interesting line-up of wines coming from all across Italy were picked to pair with our courses. The young Etna Bianco from Sicily was full-bodied and laden with minerals, which worked well with the rich seafood courses. The couple bottles of red wines came from Emilia-Romagna, the home region of both chefs, both predominantly Sangiovese, but I was surprised by the rich tannins of the 2006 Tauleto. Overall I thought they were well-chosen for the food served.

(Dinner was by invitation)

When? January 16 2017
Where? Nicholini's, Level 8, Conrad Hong Kong, 88 Queensway, Hong Kong
Menu Highlights? Parma Black Pig, Smoked Eggplant Puree, Roasted Peaches
2014 Thurnhof Sauvignon 800
2015 Girolamo Russo Nerina Etna Bianco
2013 Vin de Romans Chardonnay
2013 Tanuta Mara “MaraMia”
2006 Tauleto Sangiovese
Arcass Cascina Chicco  Vendemmia Tardiva
Antica Corte Pallavicina:

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