Best of Hong Kong: Food, Glorious Food!
Poularde from Bresse: Chicken with braised savoy cabbage, chanterelle mushroom and Alba white truffle from 8 ½ Otto e Mezzo Bombana, Hong Kong
We love food: the tastes, the aromas, the textures, the flavours. And one of the most diverse places to experience food, from the street right up to the stars – Michelin Stars, that is! – is in Hong Kong. And this is the perfect time of year to do it, too. October and November in the city are particularly busy for foodies to vist: hungry travellers will satiate their appetites at the Hong Kong Wine & Dine Festival (26 – 29 October, 2017) and the Hong Kong Great November Feast, a month-long foodie event happening all over the city.
But there’s one chef that really caught our eye on our last visit, and he’s not even from Hong Kong: Chef Umberto Bombana, the man behind 8 ½ Otto e Mezzo Bombana – the first and only Italian restaurant outside of Italy to have been awarded 3 Michelin stars – who came to the city more than two decades ago. “I was working in Los Angeles, and I knew the chef of the Ritz Carlton there. He told me they are going to open the first Ritz Carlton in Asia, and one of the restaurants would be Italian. He asked me then, ‘do you want o go run the restaurant?'” More recently, Bombana has just been awarded the Order of Merit from the Italian Republic (OMRI, Ordine al Merito della Repubblica Italiana). It is Italy’s highest ranking award.
And it was here, in Central, on Hong Kong Island where 8 ½ Otto e Mezzo has been located since 2010 that Bombana began his Asian odyssey. “I didn’t know much about Hong Kong,” he tells me over tasting plates of his signature dishes. “But I had been in California for awhile, I was seeking a new experience and I was curious to see Asia and about the history of HK; it was still British then; and very interesting to me. I didn’t plan to stay here forever, but I was young and why not?”
Why not, indeed. But being in California, ingredients were fresh daily right outside his door. “I came to Hong Kong with my pasta machine under my arm. I thought, okay, at least I can make fresh pasta. I didn’t know what kind of ingredients I could find here. And I was the executive chef of the Italian restaurant at the Ritz Carlton in Hong Kong. Brand new; and I got to build the menu myself.”
But pasta? Noodles here in Asia are steeped in tradition, a culture that goes deep. “But I wanted to keep the Italian identity, because when people come here, they already know noodles,” he notes. “But they want to try pasta. There was no point for me to mix it up. I keep my authenticity with fresh and artisanal pasta. I make the fresh pasta here and I buy artisanal pasta from directly from Italy.”
Italy provides Bombana with many ingredients for 8 ½ Otto e Mezzo Bombana (the name was inspired by famed Italian director Federico Fellini’s 1963 autobiographical film, 8 ½). Olive oil and tomatoes; but he also points out, Hong Kong is right between Australia, California, Europe, so you can get ingredients from all over the world fairly quickly. “I use poultry from France; artichokes from California; vegetables from Milan, beef from Australia, but it’s all around HK. Everything is 12 hours away.” Also, he works with a University of Hong Kong professor who has a farm between here and Shanghai. “He has the natural, purest area with good water. It’s an opportunity for the University to grow fruits and vegetables in the most natural way.”
You said that something made you stay in Asia, I ask him. “The restaurant at Ritz Carlton was successful, and I enjoyed the work,” he replied. “But then I met a Chinese lady, and then you build a family and then you don’t leave. That’s the complement. Work and family. I have children and, yes, they both cook.”
“I love Hong Kong. I like the energy. And I’m somewhat privileged,” says Bombana. “I work in the best place, the best area, people support me, in a beautiful location. I’m in Heaven! And I designed this space. We like the room to give a warm welcome and to allow you to enjoy your experience. Just warm and relaxed.”
And the bar here is quite popular, he adds. And, with stocking more than 1,300 labels of Italian wine alone, it’s no wonder. “We focus on Piedmont region, where all the Barolo is… and it’s just fun to collect wine and have it to propose it to the guests! If you like wine, you want to read this menu. Some customers have a passion; they’ll spend all evening researching and reading the menu.
This is the most expensive real estate in the world, he adds, “so I have to use the space for every occasion. Coffee, lunch, dinner, the bar… Then, the main dining room, which is a little more formal, so the entry point to this space is very, very important. And come for a cocktail, too! When people come to my restaurant, I want them to feel warm and relaxed.”
So I bring the chef back to a warm memory. Do you still have your pasta machine, I ask? “I have two,” he smiles. “I bought a bigger one!”
Click through for a photo journey of Chef Umberto Bombana’s signature dishes and 8 ½ Otto e Mezzo Bombana in Hong Kong.
Vivian Vassos: Is there an ingredient you discovered here in HK?
Umberto Bombana: Abalone, the delicacy of Hong Kong. But this is my interpretation of the protein, in the Italian way – very Mediterranean flavour: caviar, confit of sweet pepper and tomato. Red abalone from New Zealand, and I cook it slowly and do it in a carpaccio, so this is my interpretation of a protein that we don’t use in Italy (abalone) but served in an Italian way.
VV: Where is the octopus from? And I detect an aroma of oregano, before I taste.
UB: This is a female octopus that they catch for me in Italy. I cook it with roast artichokes, citrus, capers and artichoke puree. Now’s the season for artichokes in Italy; here, I cannot find any artichokes. Ingredients play a huge role. We change the menu very very often because of that. Not everything, but many things. First I poach the octopus, and then I roast it.
Truffles – on everything, including Gelato (above)
VV: What’s your favourite thing that you like to cook?
UB: It’s what the people are always asking for: the octopus, the abalone, the truffle pasta, these are all signature. And lamb, although seasonal, is very popular. And I have an aging room with all the hams. The pasta is made with a “tangerine” egg from Japan, [so more of a yellow-ish hued pasta]. I analyze the flavour of truffle. What it reminds me of. So I make a stock for the pasta, to help the flavour of the truffle come out – mushroom, aromatics, toasted bread, butter and parmesan. Parmesan is like salt, it’s the umami that comes out. With a Barolo, it’s beautiful.
October and November in the city are particularly busy for foodies to visit: hungry travellers will satiate their appetites at the Hong Kong Wine & Dine Festival (26 – 29 October, 2017; and the Hong Kong Great November Feast, a month-long foodie event happening all over the city.