January 25, 2023

Italian omakase

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I cringed a little when I heard the words "Italian omakase" come out of Chef Paulo Airaudo's mouth. The term omakase (お任せ) has been grossly misunderstood and misused here in Hong Kong. To many Kong girls (港女) - and boys - it now refers to, specifically, a meal of Japanese sushi (and not any other genre of Japanese cuisine since, OF COURSE, Japanese food means sushi). There is at least one Facebook discussion group where people in Hong Kong discuss these type of "omakase" sushi experiences.

The Dining Austrian first introduced me to Paulo about 5 years ago, as he was discussing with local investors about opening a restaurant here in Hong Kong. My friend thought Paulo could use a local perspective. But somehow I never got around to meeting him, and while there was a chance to meet up together with the Dining Austrian towards the end of 2019 when he was in town opening Amelia, I missed that opportunity since I had to attend a company offsite in China. So our paths never really crossed...

NOI opened its doors in August last year, serving what Paulo told me is "Italian food, but modern". Not having been to Amelia either in San Sebastian or Hong Kong, I had little sense of what he serves up. The pictures I saw on social media looked kinda "Japanese", and I started to wonder if it was similar to what Goldfinger serves up at Andō.

Paulo pinged me again a few days ago, telling that he is once again in town. This was the third time he's asked me to go see him, so I figured I would make time. We landed just after noon today, and after picking up our beloved CC Dogcow and cleaning up, we found ourselves walking through the doors of the restaurant.

Curiously, our meal started in the lounge. We were first presented with a tray bearing the ingredients which would be served tonight and given an introduction. The aperitif were then served up here:

Crab - shredded Alaskan king crab with salmon roe marinated in-house. I could smell the salt from the marinade even before this entered my mouth, and in fact the crab was a little too salty for me...

Stracciatella - the stracciatella foam came with a nice citrus fragrance, obviously creamy but also a little grainy. This worked well with the lightly marinated diced raw mackerel with a slightly salty finish. In a wonton (雲吞) tartlet.

Ebi - this kinda looks like kueh pie tee to me, and I thought I heard that this was a "beetroot tart"... Anyway, this was introduced twice as being filled with "Japanese white shrimp", which was a headscratcher to me. I could only assume they took the Japanese name and translated it literally, but glass shrimp (白海老) are pretty tiny and looked nothing like the big prawn they showed us at the start. After inquiring again, we were finally told that this was botan shrimp (牡丹海老), served up with its blue eggs and some yuzu (柚子). The shrimp was likely marinated in some dashi (出汁) as there was a certain amount of smokiness and also a little on the savory side.

We were then asked to move inside, where we were seated at the counter facing the open kitchen. I guess the more substantial courses would be served here.

Buri Kaluga - normally the kitchen serves up kama-toro (カマトロ), which is the collar of the tuna. But since we had told them that we don't eat (bluefin) tuna, they served us yellowtail (鰤) belly instead. We've also got smoked dashi jelly, wasabi, N25 caviar, and some furikake (振り掛け) made with kombu (昆布) along with some perilla flowers. The yellowtail belly was nice and fatty, and I would expect that since we are in winter. The jelly came with a mild smokiness, which was just nice without being in-your-face. I gotta say... the flavor profile doesn't get much more Japanese.

Scallop - the scallop from Hokkaido was served with an apple miso jam, crunchy julienned kohlrabi, and finally some vanilla-flavored sauce that kinda smacked us upside the head...

Buri tomato turnip - we have a crudo of yellowtail in a tomato essence, which I always love for their fruity acidity along with some umami (旨味). The olive oil added a little additional fragrance and richness. Garnished with sea grapes (海葡萄), turnips (蕪), white kombu (白板昆布), and tiny dots of umekosho (梅胡椒).

Abalone peas Iberico pork - OKAAAAAAY... so in the middle of our "Italian" meal, I found myself facing a chawanmushi (茶碗蒸し), but done "Italian style" since it's more soupy with consommé made with jamón ibérico...

The teardrop peas from China were very, very nice. We also had diced abalone along with some shredded myoga (茗荷) and finely chopped chives.

Bread - this looks a little like Parker House rolls.

Served with some butter made from emulsified crème fraîche, and olive oil from Frantoio di Santa Téa in Tuscany.

Lobster pumpkin 'nduja - the lobster from Ireland was grilled and served up with beurre blanc, lemon oil, and Hokkaido pumpkin. I thought the sweetness of the pumpkin, together with the richness of beurre blanc, worked very well with the lobster. And the crunchy bubu arare (ぶぶあられ) for texture.

Pomfret vin jaune XO cime di rapa - the silver pomfret sat on top of some finger lime caviar, and served with some cime di rapa from Japan, which had been cooked with some colatura di alici. The vin jaune cream sauce came with some razor clams and olive oil. I thought the acidity of the lime caviar worked well with the cream, and the bitterness of cime di rapa was also tempered by the richness of the sauce.

Venison onion leek - the French venison came with a piece of jamón ibérico on the side, some meat jus, and "a little bit of black truffle"...

The venison was pretty raw, almost like cotton, probably the most tender and juicy version I've had in recent memory. A hint of rosemary here. Execution was just about perfect.

Pasta red uni - OMG. FINALLY! After going through NINE courses, I finally get a pasta! Chitarra! NOW it's an Italian meal... But wait! It's a freaking uni (雲丹) pasta! The sauce was made with sour cream, butter, and we've got lemon citrus to add some acidity. Pretty nice. But alas, there were tiny, tiny bits of sea urchin shell that came with the pink sea urchin (赤雲丹).

The flan - "the flan"? "The plan"? "El plan"? Anyway... this is a goat cheese "flan", with dried persimmon (干し柿), rice vinegar, and fragrant lemon balm.

Rum mole oscietra - the rum ice cream was very delicious and the presence of rum was very obvious. Got some banana with the mole that was squeezed on top, and Kaluga caviar from N25.

Now that the main portion of the meal was finished, we were once again moved to the lounge for the finishing touches. This feels very Japanese... like how it's done at teppanyaki (鉄板焼き) restaurants or at Sukiyabashi Jiro (すきやばし次郎), where desserts and after-dinner drinks are taken away from the counter.

Melon sorbet - made with Japanese melon (I didn't ask which cultivar or where it came from), tosazu (土佐酢), Maldon salt, and olive oil.

Whisky gum - the Darth Vader was made with Glenfiddich 18 Years, and were very smoky and peaty.

Lemon pie - with a touch of charcoal to make the meringue smoky.

Chocolate - reduction of soy with yuzu ganache.

Rice cake - warabi mochi (蕨餅).

I was informed that due to a licensing issue, I was welcome to BYO... so I brought along a bottle of white.

2016 Cos d'Estournel Blanc - a little oily, toasty oak. More ripe on the palate.

The chef also very kindly offered us a glass of red to go with the main course:

2018 Joseph Roty Marsannay - very fragrant with black pepper, nice toasty oak, black cherry jam. A little sharp and alcoholic on the nose.

We finished with a couple of after-dinner drinks while chatting with Paulo. It was fun to finally have met him, as he has an interesting perspective. I'm sure we will see each other again.

Limoncello - made inhouse with the zest of Amalfi lemons. Very fragrant. Very viscous as it's basically a syrup diluted with alcohol.

Americano - I usually take Negroni as my go-to cocktail, but never had an Americano that's not coffee before...

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