Actress Bernice Liu talks about her second career as a winemaker over Italian dishes at Va Bene

Andrew Sun

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 March, 2016, 10:43pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 March, 2016, 10:43pm

Bernice Liu Bik-yee has long been familiar with Va Bene restaurant. "I loved its old location," she recalls. "It was right in the middle of Lan Kwai Fong, in the middle of the busy-ness. Lan Kwai Fong is always packed and crowded, but Va Bene was like a small hideaway.

"It was one of the first places to have real Italian pasta that was al dente, and the tomato sauce wasn't sour. I'm allergic to dairy, so they used to make me a white wine sauce with roast garlic mashed in so it had a creamy texture."

It seems appropriate, then, to invite the former TVB star to revisit Gaia Group's iconic Italian restaurant in its new location at SOHO 189 on Queen's Road West in Sai Ying Pun. Gone is the old rustic and intimate trattoria - now it's high ceilings and urbane industrial chic.

"The new place is a lot bigger, but I see they are trying to keep the same privacy touches with the curtains separating the private rooms," Liu notes.

The real question for Liu is whether the menu captures the same magic of its former incarnation from 20 years ago. While many female models and actresses claim to be gourmands, the Canadian beauty has the credentials to back up the boast.

She grew up surrounded by food. Liu's father ran a Chinese restaurant in Canada, and her uncle cooked French food for a living. Born and raised in the port city of Prince Rupert, British Columbia, shucking oysters and fishing for salmon and trout was second nature for the former tomboy. This explains her appetiser choice - capesante, nocciole e limone (scallops, hazelnut and lemon), a meticulously arranged seafood carpaccio dish.

"This is really good. The taste of seafood is something I grew up with," Liu says. "The hazelnut gives it a creaminess, and there's a puree that is quite citrusy. It's like one big scallop pizza. I don't know how they did it, but it's quite nice.

"For me, I've always enjoyed food. In the entertainment industry, you're always too skinny or too big. I was considered 'big and healthy'. I used to dance and did Taekwondo, [and also] boxed at university at a competitive level, so food was important because I needed the strength. It's how you give yourself energy. I just did an action movie, so I had to make sure I had enough muscle mass to hold a real machine gun. They did a protein and carb breakdown for me, otherwise I might [have fainted]."

In recent years, Liu has put her palate and creativity towards another passion - wine. Much more than a connoisseur, Liu has become a winemaker, developing her own small vintage in Napa Valley and Bordeaux under the label Bellavizio ("a beautiful mistake").

"My wine journey started in 2008, when I was shooting a movie in Vancouver. It was one of the snowiest winters ever, so we had to stop shooting. During those few days, I took a trip to Napa. I had never been before. We just went to all these boutique vineyards and wineries, and it really left a mark on me. It's been an obsession for the last seven years.

"My first wines were chardonnay and merlot, but very quickly I progressed to Bordeaux. My mentor said: 'If you really love wine and you want to learn more, you have to go to Bordeaux'. So I went. The very first chateau I visited off the plane was Chateau Petrus. That spoiled me."

The next course is risotto alle rape rosse e salsa gorgonzola (risotto with beetroot and gorgonzola sauce), a signature of chef Enrico Bartolini. The crimson plate of Arborio rice is visually striking and delicious, with the slightly sweet and earthy beetroot countering the richness of the rice and the punchy goat cheese. Because of her dairy allergy, Liu opts for tonno scottato servito con marinatura piccante (seared tuna served with spicy pepper and sweet onion sauce). It's actually not very spicy, but the capsicum salsa is nice. Full marks go to the fantastic buttery slices of toro tuna.

Although wine is now her primary passion, Liu admits she is not about to give up acting anytime soon. After all, it's what pays for her somewhat expensive winemaking hobby. Lately, she has been shooting different shows and dramas in China, Malaysia and Singapore. She is also expanding her business interests as a partner in the bar Racks as well as a private central kitchen called Crft.

"I won't give up acting," she says. "For me, [my interests] complement each other. After a hard day's work, you want to go for a good meal. Now, I have places to take my friends. Eating is a present to myself after a long day at work."

As for lunch, the food so far has been terrific, but as a brand-new restaurant Va Bene's service is still a bit spotty. Despite Liu explaining she is lactose-intolerant, the server still suggested a dessert that turned out to have dairy in it.

The sorbetto di pompelmo e rosmarino, olive nere e gin (grapefruit sorbet with rosemary and black olives and gin) doesn't resemble traditional sorbet, looking more like cold soup. The flavours are unique, and the dish refreshes and cleans the palate as opposed to serving as a sweet finish to the meal. But after checking with the chef, it was confirmed that the dessert contained cream, so Liu had to pass on it.

However, she was too preoccupied with Va Bene's wall display of wine to be concerned about missing dessert. The rack is open and exposed to changes in temperature, so she worried how the bottles and its content would react to such varying conditions. The former Miss Chinese International is indeed an oenology nerd.

"Winemaking satisfies the science side of me," Liu says. "When I went to university I was pre-med, so I studied biology, chemistry and math. These were my strong points, so that sparked my passion and my wine journey.

"Year after year, I find something different. It's the same with acting. We look forward to awesome projects and excellent scripts. Whether we're the lead or not is not as important. It's about whether something of Bernice gets to appear in this character. And you want to try different things. Wine is the same - every year it's different."