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Restaurant Reviews: Lupa by Mario Batali and Strip House by Harlan Goldstein
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Born and raised in Seattle, Mario Batali is an American celebrity chef – “American” being the operative word here. Batali is not Italian; he just happens to have an Italian name and cooks Italian food. Contrary to popular misconception, his restaurants serve fusion (read: Americanized) food rather than authentic northern Italian cuisine. Ask anyone who is actually from that region. Just the same, Americans flock to Batali's restaurants and revere him as the arbiter of all things Italian. Two of his famous restaurants in New York City, Babbo and Lupa, are packed to the hilt all year around. Dinner reservations at Babbo are made months in advance. With over a dozen restaurants, numerous television shows, cookbooks and even his own line of kitchenware, the heavy-set chef in orange Crocs has done very well for himself.
The news that Batali would set up his first outpost in Hong Kong generated considerable buzz in the local culinary scene. Lupa, which literally means “wolf” in Italian, is located on the third floor of the LHT Building above the GAP store. The restaurant is meant to be a trattoria, which is less formal than a ristorante. That's why the interior is understated and tastefully casual, complete with hardwood floor, wall-to-ceiling windows and an outdoor patio. The modern décor is in sharp contrast to the rustic country style of the original restaurant in Greenwich Village, New York. Lupa is also meant to a Roman restaurant, which explains the ubiquitous motif of the Lupa Capitolina, the famous statue featuring twin brothers Romulus and Remus sucking from the udders of a she-wolf. The symbol of Rome is printed on the restaurant's business cards, wallpaper and even serving plates. Fearing that the cultural reference would be lost to its Asian patrons, there is even a life-size replica of the bronze statue in the middle of the dining hall. Subtle the restaurant is not.
I went to Lupa for a business lunch last week. The prix-fixe lunch plus a bottle of Pellogrino water costs $350 per head. The set menu features an appetizer buffet, which to me means two things. First, Batali had been warned by his local partners that every restaurant in Central must have an all-you-can-eat lunch buffet to pander to the banker crowd – it is a Hong Kong thing and so just roll with it. Second, the first course isn’t going to be that good. It would be just the same buffet at Isola, H One or Bistecca: boring and predicable. And it really is. As for the main courses, my colleague and I ordered the braised lamb shoulder and the guinea hen. Both were disappointing. The lamb was mushy and overpowered by other ingredients, and the chicken was overcooked and dry.
Sloppy cooking notwithstanding, the service at Lupa is not bad. The staff is unintrusive yet attentive. Because I was on a carb-free diet, I declined my colleague's invitation to visit the dessert buffet (which is also part of the lunch set), although that didn’t stop him from bringing back a plate full of dolci for himself. Selfish bastard. When I asked for the check, the waiter said to me gently: “No dessert for you today, sir?” The mere fact that he noticed I had skipped the buffet was impressive. Following that positive experience, however, was a truly bizarre one. On my way to the washrooms, I spotted the head chef standing by the salad bar telling his staff to refill this and tidy up that. But he was no ordinary chef -- he was a rotund, pony-tailed Caucasian man wearing a white uniform and, you guessed it, a pair of orange Crocs! There he was, a Mario Batali impostor out and about to create the illusion that the celebrity chef is actually there! Subtle the restaurant is most definitely NOT!
Despite all the fanfare, Lupa is a mediocre restaurant that lacks imagination and excitement. I wish they would pay more attention to their food, instead of trying to drill into our heads that it is a Roman restaurant by a famous chef. To be fair, however, I didn’t try any of the pasta dishes because of my strict diet and I also didn't go there for dinner, which offers a much more extensive menu than lunch. But I am not itching to return to Lupa any time soon, not until management has worked out all the kinks. At this stage, the only thing going for Lupa is the Batali name. The celebrity chef is committed to making a foothold in Hong Kong. His second restaurant, a high-end steakhouse called Carnevino, just opened at the same building, and a third restaurant is scheduled to open in Causeway Bay later this year. Like it or not, those orange Crocs are here to stay.
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Harlan Goldstein may not be as world renowned as Mario Batali, but within the culinary circle in Hong Kong, the New York-born chef and entrepreneur is a big shot with a big attitude. After a short stint in Beijing, Goldstein moved to Hong Kong in 2004 to become a private chef for the super-wealthy, earning the nickname “Chef to the Tycoons.” What followed was a meteoric rise to culinary stardom. With a little help from property magnate Walter Kwok, he became the chef and co-owner of a string of successful F&B ventures including Harlan’s, H One, G Bar and the Box, all upscale hangouts at the IFC that cater to the white-shoe banker clientele. But a nasty falling out with his business partners in 2008 severed his ties with his namesake restaurants. His first solo act, Tuscany by H, lasted only two years. Down but not out, the self-proclaimed “mad chef” got back on his feet and now owns two restaurants in Lang Kwai Fong: Gold (a hipper reincarnation of Tuscany by H) and Strip House.
Opened this summer, Strip House is located on the fifth floor of Grand Progress Building in Lan Kwai Fong. It is one of the many new steakhouses that have popped up in the city in the past 24 months, perhaps a result of the carb-free diet movement. I went there for lunch with four carnivorous friends this week. The first thing that hit you is the strip club-inspired interior, a design predicated on a bad pun. The black-and-red palette, combined with vintage portraits of pin-up girls from Hollywood’s Golden Age, is meant to recall the decadence of a New York night club in the 1940s. While most restaurateurs would go for the more romantic Jazz Age, Goldstein prefers post-WII America, the time of Harry Truman and George Marshall. Either that or he just really likes the movie Casablanca.
Despite its tongue-in-cheek, low-brow décor, the prices at Strip House are anything but. Steak lunch sets start at $288 (rib-eye) and go up to $468 (Brandt Beef). As is obligatory for every restaurant in Central, Strip House features an appetizer buffet. And so like lemmings to the sea, my friends and I lined up at the buffet counter and came back with the same boring pile of cold cut and salad. I wish the kitchen would bring me a simple consommé or mushroom soup instead.
After the stodgy appetizers came the entrees: our rib-eyes. The cut's tenderness and intense flavors blew everyone at the table away. Finally, there is a steakhouse that knows how to cook a steak! And it was no fluke. Goldstein explained his secret techniques in a recent magazine interview. Rejecting the traditional dry-aging method (fermenting the steaks in open air) as outdated, Goldstein seals the meat in airtight bags and let it age in its natural juices for weeks. He calls it “wet-aging.” And instead of grilling the corn-fed beef on charcoal, he uses a high-powered gas grill with lava rocks that cooks at much higher temperatures. The result is steaks that are tender, juicy and sinfully delicious.
Service at Strip House is decent, although the staff can be a bit aggressive. Our waitress kept pressing us to open more bottled water, even after we already ordered four bottles for the five of us. Half way through the meal, Chef Goldstein made an appearance from the kitchen, albeit looking rather smug and grouchy. He walked right past our table to talk to the VIPs at the corner and disappeared into the kitchen again. He made eye contact with me and my friends but there was neither a smile nor a nod. What a way to make an impression.
Strip House is a good try. The steaks are brilliantly executed, but the décor renders a major disservice to the quality food. The striptease theme is a strange choice for an upscale steakhouse. Rather than playful and edgy, it comes off as tacky and sleazy. I don’t think I can take my business client there without them making assumptions about my character. To make things worse, the urinal in the men’s room is literally a pair of giant red lips, giving new meaning to the phrase "in-your-face." Sometimes miscalculations beget miscalculations.