There are certain countries which just do things better. The Japanese excel at sushi, the French at haute couture, the Americans at blockbuster films and the Italians at fast cars… and opera… and ice-cream… and pasta… and just food in general! Long lunches are longer, coffees are stronger – even the coastline’s in the shape of a super chic stiletto boot! In fact, Italy is one of those countries that excels at all the really great things in life.
Somehow the Italians even manage to make even the most mundane of everyday tasks more glamorous. Take buying a bottle of wine. If you’re in Hong Kong, that involves a trip to the off-license, fluro-lit supermarket aisles or in truly desperate times 7-Eleven, where you’ll dither over an uninspiring selection of wine while a bored shop assistant looks on. The Italians meanwhile nip to their local enoteca, where they’ll linger over a couple of glasses of wine and graze on little plates of deliciousness while they decide which bottle to buy. Wine shopping with scrumptious snacks – now that’s civilization!
Luckily a wandering Australian gastronome and his Italian sommelier sidekick have taken pity on us Hong Kongers and decided to pep up Peel Street with its very own enoteca. But 121BC is much more than a wine shop. While it’s undoubtedly an excellent spot to nab an unusual bottle of something alcoholic, it’s also our new favourite spot to hang out over a glass or two, grab lunch or dinner or just generally perch at the bar feeling chic and Italian.
The small but perfectly formed restaurant has cosy-cool down pat. The lighting’s warm and low, a dark wooden communal dining table runs the length of the space and a chalk-scrawled circular blackboard spells out the plates of awesome awaiting you. In fact, from the second you push open the glass door to be greeted by a wall of happy chatter you can’t help but feel mellowed and relaxed; this is Prozac in restaurant form!
The menu focuses on simple Italian classics that make the most of whatever great quality ingredients are available that day. Pasta, grissini and ricotta are homemade in the 121BC kitchen and other ingredients are locally sourced wherever possible. The portions are the perfect size for sharing – small enough to order a gluttonous array of, but big enough to make sure you get several forkfuls of your favourites. Better still, the vast wine list not only features an exciting panoply of carefully curated, biodynamic wines but also serves a whole host of them by the glass.
We started off with bite-sized ravioli fritti stuffed with homemade buffalo ricotta. The rich, creamy cheese encased in light, crisp shells was the perfect accompaniment to an icy cold glass of sparkling wine from Tuscan biodynamic winery, Casa Caterina.
Next up, more homemade ricotta – this time served with zucchini and chilli in a dish far too decadently delicious to be called a salad! Our champagne flutes were whisked away and replaced with glasses of amber-coloured Fiano – a briny, smoky, almost spicy wine from the volcanic highlands of Campania.
As we moved onto a Northern Italian Grignolino d’Asti, we tucked into some of the best gnocchi I’ve eaten outside of Italy, served with braised beef cheek and mushrooms and topped with crispy fried sage leaves.
Continuing the carnivorous theme, our next course was a perfectly cooked, juicy, hanger steak that we gobbled down while sipping on a Sardinian red (exact details are a little hazy by this point in the wine consumption…).
Last but not least was a side of baked fennel, white bean and salsa verde – a dish that elicited such high praise, our next-door diners promptly ordered their own portion despite declaring themselves groaningly full!
Stuffed to bursting point ourselves, we miraculously discovered our second wind when dessert was wheeled out. The ricotta panna cotta with espresso caramel and almonds is a house specialty and was insanely good.
The chocolate and hazelnut budino with cherries was oozy, rich and even more ambrosial when paired with my new alcoholic obsession, Ratafia Praesidium – a liqueur made by brewing Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Praesidium wine with cherries.
I may or may not have tipsily left with a few of bottles of this liquid bliss tucked under my arm, humming Nessun Dorma under my breath… and thinking that growing to Pavarotti proportions may be quite likely now that 121BC has come to town!
121BC G/F, 42 Peel Street, Central, Hong Kong
2395 0200 www.121bc.com.hk
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