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Lupa in Central – Mario Batali hits Hong Kong!

The hotly anticipated Italian restaurant Lupa, by Mario Batali and his partner Joe Bastianich, finally opened its doors a month ago, much to the excitement of the Hong Kong crowd who crammed themselves into the new LHT Tower in Central for the opening party (we’re told it was like a rave!).

Mario Batali, the internationally recognised Italian chef, has already built up a formidable portfolio of successful restaurants in New York, LA, Las Vegas and Singapore, but LUPA will be his first test of the Hong Kong climate and palate (with a further two restaurants, including a steakhouse upstairs and something in Causeway Bay, to open over the next year). Executive Chef Zach Allen heads the kitchen, bringing diners his and Mario’s version of New York Italian cuisine.

The space Lupa occupies is pretty fantastic. There’s La Terrazza, the wonderful open terrace which gives us a good view of the bustling Queen’s Road Central and the main dining area which sprawls over 5000 square feet and is all dark wood and dim lighting, with an open kitchen and a compact bar area which ends up becoming the cold-cuts section for the lunch buffet. The décor is rather reminiscent of that in restaurants used by the characters in the Godfather movies, which I found more austere than intimate or cosy. This feeling was compounded by the interesting statue of Romulus and Remus suckling at a Lupa (Latin for She-wolf) that appears to have been casually plonked in the middle of the restaurant (from eBay apparently!).

Lupa was already doing a roaring business when Rach and I went to sample the lunch in the first days of its official opening. The very reasonably priced lunch menu offers a Chef’s Buffet with a selection of vegetables, seafood, Italian Salumi, breads, salads and desserts for $168, with the option of adding a soup, a pizza or pasta dish, or a main course for an extra charge ($30, $50 and $90 respectively).

There isn’t a designated buffet area per se, so they set up two small tables plus the bar area on which to balance plates and bowls of food. It was madness with people trying to negotiate past the statue to the various sections, so bear in mind that going for lunch at peak times might not be the best idea for a relaxing meal!

There was a good selection of salads and vegetables on offer, which were wonderfully prepared and delicious. I’m a huge fan of Italian salads, so I would be quite happy to have the buffet selection on its own without any additional dishes. Rach pronounced herself a particular fan of the lentils and we really enjoyed a cucumber and mint salad too. There were less cold-cuts to choose from, but all were of an excellent quality, especially the salami which I wolfed down (pardon the pun) with gusto.

Rach and I were able to have a pasta, pizza and a main course to try, and we chose the garganelli with oxtail ragu, the funghi taleggio pizza and the braised pork shoulder.

The oxtail ragu sauce was rich and full of meaty tomato-ey flavor, but it wasn’t thick enough for my liking, nor was there nearly enough of it (lunch portion, perhaps?). The pasta itself was a little on the firm side but the chunks of oxtail in the sauce made up for it with its tender texture.

The pizza is only available at lunchtimes or out on La Terrazza in the evenings, which I find slightly annoying given how good it turned out to be. The funghi taleggio pizza was scrumptious, the base was chewy yet crisp, the dough had a lovely ‘give’ and I adored the generous gooey cheese and the amazing mushroom aroma.

The braised pork shoulder was an alarmingly dark colour, but once I cut into it, the succulent meat peeled away. The pork was dressed with a chili dressing, which packed a spicy punch and gave the dish some dimension and depth. I liked the addition of the cucumber, which was a fresh and crunchy contrast to the pork.

The desserts from the buffet were cute and dainty. There was an interesting chocolate banana bread pudding, which should have been served with custard; it was a tad dry, especially after it was left out for the duration of the lunch hour. Along with chewy chocolate chip cookies (which Rach attempted to stash in her bag for later!), a blueberry cheesecake, a delicious panna cotta and a rich chocolate cake, there was an utterly sublime lemon torte which impressed me with its amazing consistency, lovely sharp citrus flavour and a crumbly base.

Lupa has some room for improvement. As with most new restaurants, the improvement is usually to do with the overall efficiency in the running of the establishment and with the service. I can’t say that the service was stellar and the hostess didn’t seem to be overly concerned with welcoming diners, seeming more confused than we were! That aside, the lunch was very promising indeed and the food we had was of a high standard; however, a quick glance at the dinner menu tells me that Lupa isn’t the place for a budget-friendly foodie! Then again, with all the hype over Batali’s arrival, did we ever expect it to be?!

Lupa 3/F, LHT Tower, 31 Queens Road Central, Central
2796 6500 www.diningconcepts.com/lupa/index.php

La Terrazza is open in the evenings only.

Check out more food-related writings from Michelle on her blog, Chopstixfix!

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