Casa Cucina & Bar, a new eatery hidden away in vibrant Sai Ying Pun, promises to whisk diners away to summertime in the Med.
If manners maketh the man, then the chef maketh the restaurant, especially in Hong Kong, where the dining scene can be rather fickle, and where concepts are often designed to last just as long as the public’s attention span. However, now and then, a venue opens that breathes fresh air into the city’s culinary scene – some are grand affairs, with big names behind them, and some are works of passion, forged by creative souls determined to make their mark. Sai Ying Pun’s new Casa Cucina & Bar is the latter.
That’s not to say it doesn’t also possess good looks – the three-level venue is a whitewashed respite from the many tones of grey that make up the Hong Kong Island neighbourhood – but it’s the devotion behind the eatery that’s sure to draw in the hungry like proverbial moths.
The new standalone restaurant is the creation of accountant-turned-executive chef Anthony Cheung, a gentle yet determined soul who taps into his extensive experience at the side of some serious heavy hitters – think graduation from The International Culinary Centre in New York, followed by six months at Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s two Michelin-starred Big Apple restaurant and a further four years with Richard Ekkebus at Amber.
At his first restaurant, Chef Cheung steps back from fine dining and instead embraces the simplicity and reverence for ingredients of the Mediterranean, delivering deceptively simple and perfectly executed Cicchetti-inspired fare that’s both comforting and intriguing. This is more about a young chef chancing it all and embracing his passion than one trying to make a name for himself, and the inevitable winner is the diner.
The venue itself is an interesting space; a former warehouse, the 66-seat restaurant effortlessly evolves through the day. New arrivals are welcomed at a spacious ground floor space dubbed the Social Room that turns from chic cafe to stylish nightspot, complete with leather chairs, polished marble tables, a list of innovative signature cocktails and a resident DJ.
On a mezzanine above is the restaurant’s main dining room, which is modelled on an Italian family kitchen, one where the stove is never cold and where the air is always perfumed with the aroma of fresh ingredients. This welcoming space is dressed in Venetian plaster, stone and parquet floors, and the pastel hues favoured by Italian seaside villas.
Finally, a private loft-style dining space with its own cocktail bar is nestled a level above, making for the perfect space for intimate celebrations feasts like ours. Geometric light fixtures, an inspiring art collection, subtle but very effective branding (Casa hand sanitiser anyone?) and a double-height facade draw the three unique spaces together to perfection, combining them without defining them.
The result is a venue that transcends the conventional restaurant format and instead becomes a destination in itself, a place at which to meet and to socialise, for the local community and those intrigued by the neighbourhood’s rapid roller coaster ride towards gentrification.
On the night of our visit, the new eatery was already doing a steady trade and we made our way past busy (but socially distanced) tables up to the loft space, where we kicked off with a round of Bloody Mary Martinis (above), an infinitely elegant and transparent take on the classic brunch staple, with tequila, triple sec, and clarified tomato and red pepper juice. The cocktail has just the right amount of heat to make it mellow and endearing (the tequila helped) and was an instant favourite, especially when paired with the sharing starters that followed.
These ranged from beetroot salad with toasted hazelnuts, avocado, sherry dressing, and lingering touches of citrus; delicate Hokkaido scallop carpaccio (above) with pineapple, ogonori and yuzu; Fritto Mista, deep-fried mixed seafood married with a house-made sundried tomato aioli; and a platter of bruschetta with fermented tomato water, burrata with semi-dried Datterino tomatoes and fermented tomato coulis, and fresh arugula lovingly wrapped in bresaola ham and sweetened with a touch of balsamic vinegar reduction.
The chef’s subtle but effective use of fermented tomato and citrus in its many pleasing forms not only showcased the fresh ingredients used in each classic combination but also helped ensure each was light and lingering on the palate, acting as the perfect overture to heavier dishes to come.
These included a perfectly cooked Shimeji mushroom risotto with burnt butter, grated Grana Padano, spinach and trumpet mushroom foam; soul-soothing duck ragu pappardelle with chicken liver parfait, vin jaune and Parmesan; and oxtail ravioli (below) with hearty beef jus, Parma ham, fresh arugula, and a Cacio e Pepe sauce.
Perfect for sharing, these pastas – all of which are made fresh on the premises – are a meal in themselves. Each showcased time-honoured technique – with prep time for some lasting longer than an office workday – and the result was intense yet balanced flavours executed with elegance and diligence.
For something even more substantial, we tried our hands at the slow-cooked and stuffed whole calamari with crab meat, Puntalette and sea urchin, which more than made up in flavour what it lacked in striking presentation (the black-as-night squid ink and Chinese-style dried octopus sauce did tend to drain away any colour from the dish); oven-roasted grass-fed lamb rack with brined green peppercorn, roast potato, and a lingering touch of Madeira; and a sizable hanging tender Steak Tagliata with beef jus, mashed potatoes, and confit vine tomatoes that was perfectly cooked and ensured we would be rolling rather than walking home.
Of the mains, the true winner for me was the Cod Acqua Pazza with black cod, Datterino tomato, fresh clams, olive and parsley. A classic dish that translates as “fish in crazy water”, chef Cheung replaces the recipe’s whole fish with seared fillets, which are then simmered in a brilliant and slightly zesty tomato sauce. It was a highlight in good company.
It’s not easy to leave room for dessert with dishes like this to tempt you but if you do, Casa’s choices (there are only two but they’re both hard to resist) consist of a rustic rendition of Tiramisu, that heavenly Italian staple of mascarpone, espresso, Amaretto and Kahlua; or silky tofu panna cotta, which takes its inspiration from Hong Kong classic tofu fa and incorporates fresh tofu, light soy sauce, and toffee-like red sugar.
Casa is exactly what a neighbourhood like Sai Ying Pun needs; a restaurant with enough variety to keep regulars entertained, enough innovation to make it worthy of a cab or tram ride from beyond, and spaces enough to cater to every diner, from those grabbing a coffee or a light lunch, to groups making the most of relaxed dining restrictions.
We couldn’t think of a better welcome to the summer ahead.
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