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Best Eats: Aqua Roma, One Peking Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, Hong Kong
We first visited Aqua Roma, the dramatic Italian restaurant operated by the Aqua Restaurant Group at the top of One Peking Road in Kowloon, eight years ago, shortly after it opened. It remains a destination restaurant for the city. You can find the building, as we noted then, because it still looks like a giant electric razor, stood on end.
Aqua has some of the most dramatic views of the harbor of any restaurant in the city and it’s worth going for the views alone, though diners should call early and make sure to request a window table. Some sort of optical illusion makes it appear to be almost atop the Star Ferry terminal despite the fact that it’s three blocks away.
The restaurant is part of a complex that is the signature outlet for David Yeo, an imaginative Hong Kong-based entrepreneur who now has some 30 restaurants including the Aqua Luna, a 45-passenger sailing junk that plies Victoria Harbor. He also operates restaurants in Beijing and London and is about to open one in Paris. We have eaten in several Aqua outlets and they have all been original and mostly visually striking.
Aqua Roma, for instance is part of a three-restaurant complex atop the One Peking tower. It shares space with the Japanese Aqua Tokyo and Hutong, one of the most striking restaurants in the city or perhaps anywhere else, for that matter, being composed partly of an honest-to-god hutong – a residential alley hauled down from Beijing and installed on the 28th floor of a skyscraper. Hutong’s menu was a Chinese food revelation then and presumably it remains so. We have gone back and never been disappointed. In particular Yeo’s restaurants have years of service behind them that gets it down to an art that many establishments don’t meet. In addition, although Aqua Roma and Aqua Tokyo together seat 160 diners, the room is arranged so that it doesn’t feel that big.
About Aqua Roma. The restaurant underwent an expensive makeover last year and was recently named the best Italian restaurant in Hong Kong by the Ospitalita Italiana awards endorsed by the Italian Chamber of Commerce, a considerable achievement considering that there must scores, perhaps hundreds of Italian restaurants in Hong Kong, most of which claim to be the best Italian restaurant in Hong Kong.
Aqua Roma now has changed executive chefs with the arrival of Giuliano Decasto, who immediately before moving to Hong Kong was chef at two of Singapore’s Italian restaurants, Il Lido and Forlino. He is a native of the northern Italian city of Turin and cut his chops in Umbria, Tuscany and Veneto. He worked in the three-star Ristorante La Calanddre in Padua and also worked under the foul-tempered Gordon Ramsey in London Last week, Decasto served up a tasting menu designed to show off his culinary philosophy, which he describes as an ambition to combine and transform simple Italian ingredients into complicated dishes. But before that, diners were served with an Aquatini, a substance that would make a regular martini drinker blanch. An Aquatini contains Absolute Citron vodka, Curacao and sweet and sour mix. There may be Midori. A warning to dedicated martini drinkers: don’t go there. This will coat your teeth.
As for the tasting menu, if it’s complicated he’s after, he certainly met his standards, starting with a Bluefin tuna tartar that turned into a mélange of lime segments, green apple coulis, fresh herbs and Pommery mustard that made it difficult to find any tuna whatsoever. It seemed needlessly complicated. That was followed by an agnolotti – veal shank-stuffed ravioli in porcini sauce with shaved truffle – that returned a bit to reality,
Diners are given a choice of cod fillet glazed with orange caramel on a roasted salsify and a martini sauce that didn’t get us any closer to the swift hammer blow to the back of the head that a real gin martini can impart. The alternative for the main course is beef cheek, slow-cooked, atop a fresh herb potato puree. Having sampled both, we go for the cod. The orange caramel is pleasantly piquant. We found the beef cheek to be a bit cooked too long. But that might be just us.
Then on to desserts, by this time floating in a considerable amount of wine to try to get the Aquatini coating off our teeth. The almond mousse with pear and red wine heart, glazed with chocolate and accompanied with a cinnamon stick, was pleasant enough.
Maybe, it’s just the Deveauxean palate, but northern Italian food to us has always depended on relative simplicity and extreme freshness. Decasto has gone off in a new direction that we probably wouldn’t follow. But appears that the Italian Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong has. So we’ll be charitable. At least go for the view.