By: Claire Locking
On a wet and grey Tuesday, it’s a delight to be greeted at Carnevino with the words ‘Life is beautiful, isn’t it?” This cheery welcome comes from Andrew Zimmermann, General Manager of Mario Batali’s latest offering perched above Lupa in the LHT Tower on Queen’s Road Central.
Like many of the staff at Carnevino, Andrew has come from across the pond in California and is infusing his US-style hospitality across his whole 140-seat domain.
Mario’s other recent opening, the aforementioned Lupa, has suffered some reports of poor service, but you will find no such complaints here. From the efforts of David our excellent waiter to the recommendations from the sommelier, everything is close to perfect.
But what about the food? This is one of a number of new steakhouses opening across the city and here at Carnevino the art of cooking meat is taken to a new level. For some reason I can’t fathom, it is against the law for meat on the bone to be imported to Hong Kong from the US, so to perfectly recreate the Carnevino experience and quality of the original Las Vegas steakhouse, Chef Zach has to test over 140 cuts of steak in one month on his arrival from the Nevada desert.
After a whole lot of chewing and swallowing, it was deemed that just one supplier had made the grade. Based in Gippsland in northern Victoria, this supplier’s meat is now served exclusively in Carnevino’s Hong Kong outlet.
The commitment to excellence has also extended to a storage facility in Kowloom – here, the Carnevino secret recipe and formula for perfect dry-ageing is put into practice, resulting in what I and my fellow diner hope will be the most tender and flavoursome morsels of meat ever to pass our lips.
We kick off proceedings with two of the chef’s signature dishes, crispy calamari with pickled chillies, lemon and spicy tomato, and braised and seared octopus with house-made limoncello and radish. Both of these so-called appetisers come in enormous portions so we could easily have stuck with one but the combinations of flavours and textures in both are unusual but sublime. I particularly love the seared flavour of the octopus combined with the tart limoncello.
We leave the choice of steak to our host who obviously knows his meat. What finally arrives is what can only be described as a ‘hunk’ of prime beef. It’s a 38-ounce (over a kilo) of 70-day dry-aged ribeye, obviously designed to share. The meat is carved at your table into very substantial slices and comes with a selection of salts, from shrimp salt from the Philippines to black volcanic salt from Hawaii.
The beef is tender and flavoursome – so much so that we leave the salt alone. This huge portion doesn’t come with any sides, but we try the creamed corn with lime salt. It’s laden with garlic and surprisingly healthy because nothing close to cream is added in the cooking; it’s all created from the corn’s natural juices.
Non-meat-eaters will inevitably have to cope with the sight of fellow diners digging into bloody feasts, but you will be able to choose something lighter, from half a roasted chicken with semolina cakes to charred summer squash cannelloni. We sample the branzino fillet which smacks of Mario’s Italian roots with its combination of Mediterranean white fish, bean ragout and basil pesto.
The dessert menu is small but perfectly formed with everything from pannacotta to chocolate torte, along with an extensive selection of artisan cheeses. We’re persuaded to try the bombolini, mini doughnuts filled with lemon curd and served with blackberry compote: divine, especially accompanies by a chilled glass of sweet Moscato d’Asti Biancospino.
One thing I’ve neglected to mention is the condiments that come with your breadbasket on arrival. The butter selection includes something entirely new to me: lardo. This looks a little like bread and dripping but I was assured that it’s a healthy alternative to butter, with lower saturated fat and cholesterol. Delicious, too!
Kicking things off with something called lardo gives a pretty good indication of a restaurant’s focus. And Carnevino is indeed a place where not a second’s thought should be given to the waistline. Instead, indulge in a few of the finer things in life: American-sized portions of perfectly cooked meats, remarkable Italian wines and decadent desserts.
I agree, Andrew: life certainly is beautiful!