As I see it

Restaurant Review: Otto e Mezzo

PUBLISHED : Friday, 02 November, 2012, 11:05am
UPDATED : Friday, 28 December, 2012, 2:15pm

I used to have an easy answer when someone asked me to name the best Italian restaurant in town. I would say, without hesitation: Toscana at the Ritz-Carlton. Executive chef Umberto Bombana, a.k.a. King of White Truffles, succeeded where so many have failed in elevating hearty Italian cooking to haute cuisine. The pasta dishes at Toscana were always cooked al dente to effortless perfection. But because all good things must come to end, Toscana closed down in 2008 when the Ritz was demolished for redevelopment. It was a sad day for foodies across the city.

Two years later, Bombana found a new home at Alexandra House and opened Otto e Mezzo. Named after Federico Fellini’s iconic comédie noire, Bombana's second act is meant to be less informal than Toscana, although the food was supposed to be just as good. In 2011, The Michelin Guide Hong Kong gave Otto e Mezzo two stars. The following year, the guide bestowed the restaurant a third star, making it one of the two restaurants in Hong Kong awarded the top rating (the other one being Lung King Heen at the Four Seasons) and the only Italian restaurant outside Italy to have won three stars. Having achieved culinary stardom (literally), the restaurant requires weeks of advance booking and a much longer wait if you want a dinner table on the weekend. The overwhelming success led Bombana to open a branch in Shanghai's ultra-chic Rockbund area this past June.

I never got sucked into the whole Bombanarama, in part because I’m too cynical these days to get starry-eyed over A-list restaurants, and in part because many friends have been to Otto e Mezzo and told me not to bother.

Last week, I finally paid them an overdue visit and went there for lunch. At 12:15pm on a Wednesday, the restaurant was packed to the hilt. It was a clear sign that, two and a half years after it opened, it is still the “it” place in Hong Kong. We were seated in the main dining hall at one of the C-shaped booths. The décor is well-appointed and tasteful, but it lacks the oomph of a top-notched restaurant. After all, this is supposed to be the best Italian restaurant outside Italy. Although the staff are not unfriendly, they come off as stuffy and inattentive. I asked for lemon to go with my sparkling water and the waitress brought back a single slice and dropped it into my glass, ignoring all the other glasses on the table. The same thing happened when I asked for parmesan cheese for my pasta. A different waitress showed up with a grater, gave my dish a few shavings and started to walk away. That's when I said to her, “Excuse me, I’m not the only one having pasta at the table, am I?” She needed to be taught a lesson.

Warning: objects in picture are smaller than they appear

(Warning: objects in picture are smaller than they appear Photo: Jason Y Ng)

I get it, service is not their strong suit. So let’s move on to the food. I ordered the veal salad for appetizer and for main I had the homemade tagliatelle with pork ragu. They weren’t the most exciting choices but I needed something simple to compare the food at Toscana with. The veal was overwhelmed by the creamy dressing and was otherwise unmemorable. The pasta tasted good but was nothing to write home about. I know it’s lame to taste a dish and say “I can cook that myself,” but this time it was for real. I make a better and less greasy tagliatelle. All around, the portions were pitifully small. I know it’s also lame to eat at an upscale restaurant and say “I need to grab a cheeseburger after this,” but this time it was for real. I was hungry after paying nearly $400 for the prix fixe lunch.

Given all the awards and superlatives Otto e Mezzo has won, they can’t blame me for having high expectations. But the restaurant falls far short of what a three Michelin star restaurant should be. It confirms my belief that The Michelin Guide is simply a marketing tool for restaurateurs and that their ratings are arbitrary and unreliable. It is possible that to properly experience Otto e Mezzo, I have to go there for dinner and try one of the expensive, truffle-heavy dishes. It is also possible that the restaurant was excellent when it first opened, but complacency and hubris have taken a toll on the quality of food. Whatever it is, the restaurant left me with only one thought: I miss Toscana.

This review was originally published on Jason's blog "The Real Deal".