Rolando Redux

What’s it like to be the only four customers in a brand-new high-end Italian restaurant, surrounded by a corps of eight superbly trained waiters, eating a meal prepared by one of the most exciting chefs in Hong Kong? It inspires a certain nyah-nyah-nyah to the less fortunate, is what it’s like.

We dined on linguine with lobster in a Sorrento lemon ragout of prawn heads braised in vodka with baby tomatoes and basil with orange and lemon zest. We enjoyed a beetroot tart with a crispy orange and horseradish foam. We munched with delight on a wild mushroom bruschetta with black trumpet “ice cream”. All this can mean only one thing: Rolando Schuller, the short, rotund Austrian culinary genius, is back in town.

Schuller first came to Hong Kong in the 1990s to run a tiny Happy Valley restaurant called Alfred's Deli, where he served dishes that captivated a growing audience of financial buccaneers and corporate high-fliers including Richard Li. Streets outside the tiny café were perpetually clogged with Ferraris, Porsches and Jaguars.

His food could be wondrously simple an appetizer of New Zealand deep-sea scampi, for instance, shelled and dunked in ice water, then dredged with flour to give them a crunchy exterior, sautéed briefly in olive oil with garlic and reinserted back into the shells to appear on the plate almost as if they were alive. Other dishes included light duck- filled ravioli with gorgonzola. A specialist in desserts, Schuller produced a phenomenal chocolate flan as well. His popularity spread so fast that he was encouraged to take on partners and operate two restaurants at once – Roland’s Terrace and Chez Roland.

Exhaustion and the pressure made him give them up, he says, and he simply left town. He went first to the Michelin-starred Don Alfonso 1890 near Naples and then to the Christina O, the yacht named after the late oil-marinated Greek princess Christina Onassis.

When Schuller first returned to Hong Kong, he opened a catering service for high-end customers. But the lure of operating his own restaurant was too much. Thus Aspasia, named for the mistress, inspiration and advisor to Pericles, the Athenian statesman and warrior, who kicked out his previous wife to make room for her. Aspasia is scheduled to open in the Luxe Manor, a boutique hotel still under construction in Knutsford Terrace in the Tsim Sha Tsui district of Kowloon.

Luxe Manor is designed to compete with the exclusive 54-room Philippe Starck-designed Jia in Causeway Bay, equipped as it is supposed to be with everything from flat-screen televisions to free pressing service for rumpled travelers’ shirts. Although it was scheduled to open before the end of the year, it is taking longer than the owners, Hysan Development Co., anticipated.

While plenty of work appears yet to be done on the hotel itself, Aspasia is largely finished and was looking for customers to practice on. Hence the special menu and the hovering service staff watched by a sharp-eyed captain. Finding it right now is an adventure, since there are no signs up on the hotel yet. It is a matter of calling Rolando on his cell phone so that he can find you and lead you in. And there, spread out in its glory, with plenty of purple décor and couches for reclining when necessary, is what inevitably will be among Hong Kong’s top Italian restaurants.

During his overseas hegira, Schuller transformed his dishes into new shapes and appearances. Where previously at Chez Roland and Roland's Terrace the menu was classic Tuscan, he has veered off in new directions. One dinner last year when he was a guest chef started off with a tiny amuse-bouche in a shot glass of pureed white asparagus with egg white and cream turned into a foam using carbon dioxide gas. Suspended in the foam were shards of slightly sugared parma ham crisped in the oven. That was followed by a ``cappuccino'' with a single biscotti which was actually a soup of emulsified beans, pine nuts and ricotta cheese, topped with a ricotta foam to imitate the whipped cream on a cappuccino, then dotted with chocolate. The biscotti was actually an Italian panzarella filled with smoked mozzarella cheese.

Then came a braised Roman artichoke stuffed with bread crumbs, garlic, anchovies and mint, topped by a single sautéed scampi surrounded by a feather-light liquefied mozzarella cream. A seafood pasta followed, developed out of a classic recipe found, Schuller says, in the ancient Jewish quarter of Rome, that included squid, prawns and other shellfish.

The final main course was two lamb riblets crusted with bread crumbs, pecorino cheese, basil and orange and lemon zest. On the side, instead of a usual sauce strong enough to match the taste of the lamb, was a graceful ricotta gelatine in which appeared tiny peeled and braised white asparagus stalks, their flavors doubly enhanced with a light stock made partly of the asparagus peels and sautéed with parma ham and olive oil. Accompanying the lamb were paper- thin crisps made of eggplant and pumpkin brushed with olive oil and baked.

Then the dessert - lavender ice- cream topped by a “salmon caviar” that turned out to be a strawberry puree mixed with agar-agar and other substances, then extruded through a syringe, drop by drop.

Although Schuller intends an uncompromisingly Italian menu, some of these touches survive at Aspasia, ranging from the beetroot tart with its orange/horseradish foam, to the wild mushroom bruschetta. A “tomato water” is actually a thin tomato consommé supporting langoustines and clams. Gnocchi are interspersed with cubes of beef cheeks. A linguine takes on a striking new flavor with shaved artichokes, tiny cubes of beef and pork cheeks sautéed in oil and garlic until crisp. They are braised with a sauce made of the boiled heads of prawns, vodka, baby tomatoes, basil and orange and lemon zest with a bay leaf.

It is always dangerous to be unrelentingly positive but with Aspasia, diners have a great opportunity to see a reinvented and reinvigorated chef in action.