Operetta: Italian? French? Japanese? or still finding its feet?

One of my favourite restaurants in Hong Kong was two Michelin starred Wagyu Takumi, which until recently was helmed by renowned Japanese Chef Mitsuru Konishi.

I’d heard that Chef Konishi was involved as culinary director of the newly opened Operetta in Pacific Place, but was completely surprised when I learned that Chef Konishi had made the break with Wagyu Takumi to take a more hands on approach at the more casual Operetta, as well as (rumour has it) a brand new fine diner restaurant.

We’d been watching the saga that surrounded Operetta unfold, right from the controversial decision by Pacific Place not to renew the lease of previous tenant Dan Ryan’s, through to its recent opening.  As frequent visitors to Pacific Place, the snazzy little restaurant held a mild interest, but the early reviews didn’t set the world alight.

So we waited.

The right opportunity presented itself recently when we caught up with a mate of the girl’s for lunch; looking for a casual and close spot, Operetta seemed the perfect place and so we finally made a reservation for a Sunday lunch.

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With a name like Operetta, you’d have to be oblivious to the know that it was not an Italian restaurant; what is less obvious is their approach to stretch the concept of Italian cuisine, looking to break the traditions of contemporary flavours and expectations.  Risky for sure, people love their traditions and it’s not easy to tease people out of their preconceptions when it comes to food.

Arriving right on time for our reservation, we were shown through to our seats.  The first of my many expectations about Operetta were blown away; I had no idea how big the restaurant was and how far it stretched back.  Walking by gave no indication to the size and layout of the dining room.  I’d been fooled into thinking the front bar area was the bulk of the restaurant.

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I didn’t particularly love the interior; I felt that there were too many conflicting styles that didn’t marry together.  Orange comfy chairs sat opposite velvety bench seats that seemed right out of the 70’s – with lime green seats no less!; wood paneling on some of the walls further built on that feeling and by the time I noticed the crazy wallpaper at the end of the restaurant, my feeling that I’d stepped back in time was complete.

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The booth that we were sitting in was comfortable enough though, and as we waited for our dining companion, we were given a bowl of bread along with huge menus to look over, one of which was a special white truffle menu.  We had plenty of time to peruse however, the girl’s mate PL was late, very late.  He’d had trouble getting a taxi and wasn’t too sure when he’d be able to get over.

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Super hungry and with an unmovable engagement after lunch, the girl and I decided that we’d order an entree while we were waiting, the Red Tuna Tartare with ‘Tosazu’ jelly sounding particularly appealing.  The simply presented tartare was bright and vibrant, the red of the tuna clearly dominating the plate.  Usually a dipping sauce, the Tosazu jelly surrounded the tuna, giving an extra red effect that was offset by sesame seeds and seaweed grapes.  I loved the freshness of the tuna, it was lovely and sweet, superbly enhanced but the twang of the accompanying jelly, which lingered on the palate for some time.

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By the time we’d finished the tartare, PL had arrived, so we set about introductions and chatting before making some serious decisions about lunch.  Given the menu for Operetta was wide and eclectic, it was quite amusing that the girl and PL picked exactly the same thing and I ordered one of the special white truffle options.

My choice was the barley risotto with Alba white truffle, which originated in the little northern Italian town that is renowned for its aromatic white truffle.  It was a bit pricey, but when the truffles were presented to us, and that wonderful umami aroma hit, I suddenly didn’t care so much about the price. More-so when our waiter started shaving the delicacy over my risotto, the mound of shaved truffle engulfing the plate and completely hiding any evidence that a risotto was on the plate.

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Let me just say, the aroma was intense, sensational and mouth watering; so much so that we all took turns taking in the wonderful scent.  When I finally set about devouring the dish, the earthy flavour of the truffle perfectly accentuated the benign flavour of the barley risotto.  The risotto itself was expertly cooked, but truth be told, there was too much truffle and as a consequence, the balance was slightly out.  I don’t want to say there should have been less truffle, that would be sacrilege; but there definitely needed to be a bit more of the risotto.

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 The girl and her buddy had been a little boring and chosen the homemade Fettuccine with traditional Southern Italian meat ragù.  Now I’m definitely assuming that the ragù was made with beef, and not the more traditional horse meat; but whatever the protein was, it was rich and full flavoured, hints of its tomato base shining through with the meaty taste.  While the sauce was delightful, there were a few problems with the fettuccine, mostly due to the fact it was a little thick, and as a consequence was under cooked. Not so bad that it was inedible, but enough to comment on and detract slightly from that wonderful ragù.

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Interestingly, the menu described the dish as a ragout, which is more traditionally associated with French style stew; where ragù is Italian and more generally associated with pasta (although not exclusively).  So, there was a little contradiction that probably needs to be resolved; a Japanese chef with a specialty in French cooking and a menu that describes the dish as traditional Italian…..

Even though we were running a little late for my next appointment, we decided that dessert was definitely on the cards; and this time we each ordered something different, leading to a little more diversity.

First up was PL’s Millefoglie, an Italian version of the traditional French dessert (the mille-feuille) and it looked quite spectacular on the plate.  Borrowing a little from the styling of the world’s top restaurant, Osteria Francescana, there was a splatter of bright red coulis decorating the plate, along with some lovely saffron pastry cream sandwiched between a couple of pieces of pastry topped with fresh mango, saffron and finished off with a blood orange sorbet.  The dessert was fresh and creamy, with punchy flavours from the blood orange sorbet; although there was perhaps a bit of an imbalance with the saffron, leading to a feeling that the dish was a bit spicy.

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The girl chose a slightly more traditional Italian dessert, the vanilla pannacotta.  The very busy looking plate was less than traditional though, the pannacotta topped with fresh fruit, a strawberry tuile and squares of marshmallow; a berry coulis surrounded the pannacotta like a moat.  You can tell a great panncotta by its wobble, and while there was a good amount of wobble with the Operetta version, it was largely diminished by being covered.  Never the less, it was a delicious dessert, the sweet dessert balanced by the fresh fruit and coulis, and texture from the tuile.

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My dessert was quite interesting, in that it looked kind of old school in its presentation, achieving that stacked look that seems to be making a comeback.  A creamy coconut tapioca was covered with a mango cake, fresh mango and finished with a near perfect sphere of passionfruit sorbet.  I’m really digging tapioca at the moment, so found the creamy concoction with the little spheres of cassava root quite refreshing, especially when paired with the slightly sharp hit from the passionfruit sorbet.

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There were clear signs of the French slash Japanese influence of Culinary Director chef Mitsuru Konishi, there were huge elements of Italian head chef Fabio Sgro evident too.  A young chef who’d previously worked in a number of well regarded Italian restaurants, including Restaurant Marcela (one star), where he was the executive Chef and L’Albereta Gualtiero Marchese (three stars).

However, there were also clear signs of a restaurant that hadn’t quite found its feet yet either.  The eclectic menu covered a wide range of options that looked and sounded interesting, but were maybe a little too diverse and challenging for its Pacific Place location.  With seemingly minor errors with the description of some of the items on the menu, possibly as a result of language and translation issues, it was hard to gauge exactly what the restaurant’s style was.

Japanese, French or Italian; or maybe I’d missed the point and we were looking at a blending and fusion of three the world’s most popular cuisines?

Either way, there were enough signs that pointed to Operetta starting to carve out an identity and find its place in the world.  I liked the flavours of my selections, there were a heap of extra menu items that I’d be interested in trying and the prices were reasonable from chefs the caliber of Mitsuru Konishi and Fabio Sgro.

Given its close proximity to my apartment, and the fact that it’s right by my local cinema, I’m more than likely going to be back for more.  It will be interesting to watch this place over the coming months and years!

http://www.operetta.hk/

@FoodMeUpScotty

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