Favorite Eats: Carnevino Hong Kong

Mario Batali, the New York-based chef who is usually described as ebullient or ubiquitous or both, has just opened his second Hong Kong restaurant, Carnevino, and apparently is about to open his third. The first, Lupa, opened earlier this year in the new LHT Tower on Queen’s Road Central, downstairs from Carnevino. The third is to be in Causeway Bay, and all three are described as a way-station to China where Batali, as many a refrigerator salesman before him, believes an even bigger fortune lies once he opens yet more establishments, according to other media.

Batali may have to eat his own weight in pasta every day to stay alive. At last count, with partner and close friend Joe Bastianich, he was operating 22 restaurants in an arc that stretches from New York to Las Vegas to Los Angeles to Hong Kong to Singapore – an empire that is starting to rival those of Alain Ducasse or Nobu in size. At the same time he has found the time to appear on 17 television shows, often with that other fast-moving foodie, Anthony Bourdain.

The two are developing a television series on Italian cuisine and culture. He has been featured in films and the online game World of Warcraft. Nor is that all. Bastianich, Battali and Liaia Bastianich operate three wineries in Italy as well. Their flagship Italian eatery in New York, Babbo, is as de rigueur as the Empire State Building or the 98/11 memorial.

Although Batali’s roots are in the western United States – he was raised in the Seattle area – he seems to have pretty well shaken the ferns and hot tubs from his orange shoes. He originally trained at the famed Cordon Bleu in Paris before leaving for several professional kitchens before he ended up working under Marco Pierre White, perhaps London’s most famous chef. Then it was on to a series of three-star French restaurants before he eventually moved to Italy where he apprenticed in the kitchen at La Volta to seek to master traditional Italian cooking.

Most – although not all – of the restaurants Batali has scattered across the US and Asia were born out of this traditional Italian style. Carnevino – steak and wine, get it?— is no different. It opened earlier this week to a horde of hungry journalists who gobbled mini-hamburgers and various hors d’ouvres while polishing off bottle after bottle of Batali’s signature wine, produced under his own label.

Carnevino has its roots in Batali’s Las Vegas Carnevino steak house and in fact the Corporate Chef, Zach Allen, who supervises the kitchen in Hong Kong, spent eight years in Las Vegas (and 10 years previously with Batali in New York) before moving here. The restaurant was conceived in consultation with the people who designed his the Las Vegas model, and seems to owe something to the design – primarily a chandelier in the main dining room that, for better or worse, by day bears some stylistic resemblance to one of those rustic wagon wheel jobs that you see in ostentatiously western restaurants – although the management assures us that when it’s evening and the lights are low, it’s perfectly tasteful.

Otherwise, it’s all sleek dark wood, wooden floors and spare, modern design, seating a total capacity of 142. No carpets to deaden the crowd noise. Tableware is branded with the Carnevino design, as are the stemware.

Carnevino appears to have been designed for the hordes of fang-and-claw investment bankers and other denizens of the financial world, red meat eaters all, who have thronged Central for lo these many years. Indeed, as the deadbeat journalists were being turfed out precisely at 7:30 with longing glances at the dregs of the wine bottles, a brace of Gucci’d junior moguls were already making their way up the escalators. The press release announcing Carnevino’s opening says you take Exit D2 from the Central MTR station. It is not likely that the bankers were down on the MTR with the sweating masses.

Although as often happens when the markets go dead, the sweating masses may get their own back. A great many of the masters of the universe are probably about to be sentenced to two or three years of enforced idleness at the beach house in Phuket.

While Carnevino may be a steak house to the bankers, it is not a steak house for the boys from Brokeback Mountain. Carnevino doesn’t have a particularly extensive menu, but it has a relatively expensive one, and certainly a sophisticated one. The dry-aged ribeye, a massive 38-ounce (1 kg) chunk of meat for two, goes for HK$1,568. Dry-aged New York Strip for one weighs in at 18 ounces and sells for HK$768. The others descend the weight and cost scale down to a mere chunk of wagyu for HK$268.

There are cheaper steaks, of course, and a handful of non blood-and-muscle dishes for the fainter of heart – a roast chicken with truffles and semolina alla romana, a filet of Branzino with a tasty-looking white bean and pesto ragout, a whole roasted garoupa for two at HK$888.

There’s a set lunch menu that lets the diner get out the door for HK$238 for an appetizer and a main course, ranging from the Carnevino burger to classical Italian dishes such as cannelloni to beef cheeks slow-cooked in red wine.

The restaurant carries a wine list of some 300 bottles, most of them Italian. Reservations are recommended, along with smart casual clothing, unlike Batali himself, who is famous for appearing in knee-length shorts and his trademark orange shoes.