The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.” – G.K. Chesterton

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Al fresco Italian: dinner @ ISOLA and lunch @ Joia, HK

Italian restaurants are dime-a-dozen in urban Hong Kong, but al fresco dining isn't. The main reason is the climate - there are only brief periods during spring and autumn when the weather is pleasant enough for outdoor eating; but summer is usually too hot, humid and plagued with typhoons, and you just don't dine outdoors during winter. Space in this crowded city is another issue, and until recently, outdoor eating and drinking were often too restricted or prohibited. Al fresco dining is something I'd admittedly taken for granted back when we were still living in Perth, where the weather is perfect almost all year round, and space is not an issue. Fortunately for us, shortly after our move to Hong Kong, we managed to have two al fresco meals within weeks of each other. I've grouped these two dining experiences in one post because they happen to belong to the same restaurant group, Gaia Group, and because they both feature upscale al fresco dining.

ISOLA bar+grill, IFC Mall (Central)

ISOLA bar+grill is an Italian restaurant that occupies two floors of the IFC mall with sweeping views of the Victoria Harbour. If al fresco dining is not the usual in Hong Kong, then waterfront al fresco is even rarer! We had dinner here with one of Rob's colleague who was in town on business, which gave Zak and I a chance to catch up with D because we didn't get to when we were still in Tokyo. D had eaten here previously and liked the food, and it was a convenient location for a weekday dinner, near their office and our temporary apartment when we were still at the Four Seasons.

ISOLA's open kitchen: a couple of the chefs saw the camera and took the opportunity to pose:

The restaurant interior has an airy, spacious feel with a stylish yet minimal decor so as not to detract the attention away from the gorgeous views and lovely dishes. Service was professional, and my only gripe was the fact that our waitress never got back to me about my enquiry regarding allergenic ingredients in the bread that came with the complimentary bread basket. The menu offered a good variety of antipasti, pasta and stone-baked pizza as well a number of grilled, broiled and roasted items. Simple and rustic northern Italian is the food theme here, but the quality of the ingredients really shone through. There was also an impressive wine list, and both Rob and D got a glass each of a red, the name of which I have forgotten. We enjoyed our meal in the warm but windy outdoors (Typhoon Megi was forecasted to reach HK in a couple of days, but thankfully that super typhoon never did).

We got a Trifola Pizza to share: black truffle, crescenza, mozzarella and mache leaves. The thin crust were baked to perfection, both cheeses complemented each other and the mache added a lovely peppery accent to the pizza. I felt that it could do with just a little more black truffle though.

Specks of black truffle on the pizza:

Rob ordered the Carré d`agnello arrosto alle erbe con funghi e carciofi (roasted rack of lamb baked with aromatic herbs, mushrooms and artichokes), which he enjoyed. I only had a couple of bites from his plate because I know how much Rob likes lamb (and how much I don't) and it was pretty juicy and not too gamey.

Roasted rack of lamb:

I much prefer to go for seafood, and went for the Merluzzo gigante arrosto arromatizzato al pane d`erbe (oven broiled black cod with aromatic lemon, basil, parsley crumbs served with sautéed mix vegetables). This was really good. The simple preparation and presentation ensured that subtle sweetness of the cod wasn't overpowerd, and I relished every bite of the juicy cod.

Juicy black cod:

To finish the meal, we shared Crispy Vin Santo cannoli with ricotta, pistachio and candy orange mousse which was on the daily specials menu. I loved this - everything from the lovely crispy shell to the smooth and creamy nutty centre. Simply divine!

Delicious cannoli:

It was a pleasant experience, and I would love another opportunity to go back to ISOLA and enjoy the al fresco dining in calmer conditions. It was also great to see D again who is now based in the New York office.

Joia, Elements Mall (Kowloon)

Shortly after we moved to our apartment near Elements, we invited Rob's aunt and her family (who are residents of HK) to have a look at our place, and then head over to Joia for lunch. This Italian restaurant is located on the rooftop dining area of the mall (named Civic Square), which contains several other restaurants and bars. We ate at the Mexican and Spanish restaurants in Civic Square before, and we were only too happy to have an opportunity to dine at another restaurant on the rooftop garden. Joia is a more modern counterpart to ISOLA, serving a more contemporary style of northern Italian cuisine. The antipasti and dessert buffet on weekends are a popular choice with families living in the nearby apartment complexes. The service was just as professional as ISOLA, and I greatly appreciated the fact that when I enquired about allergenic ingredients, our waitress went to get someone from the kitchen who was well-informed about the food ingredients.

Carbs in various bread forms: focaccia, sticks and sliced, served with olive oil & balsamic and a couple of other dips:

Rob went for the Il Branzino Cotto al Sale Grosso Profumato al Limone e Rosmarino (oven-baked whole sea bass in a rosemary and lemon-scented rock sea salt). I think he enjoyed it - fresh fish and produce - but was rather underwhelmed. Perhaps it was too simple a dish?

Is it really a whole sea bass if the head is not there?

I haven't eaten lasagna in a while, and I ordered the La Lasagnetta con Gamberi, Capesante e Carciofi in Crema Verde di Zucchini e Tartufo Nero (lasagna with prawns, scallops and artichokes in zucchini cream and black truffle). It would be fair to say that it was not what I'd expected. The lasagna sheets more closely resembled an eggy crêpe that had a chewy texture that required some careful effort to cut through. It was beautifully presented, the seafood were delicious, and the truffle shavings added a lovely earthy flavour to the dish. Nice idea that would probably work better with less gluten, but I must admit that I did feel cheated out of the lasagna I wanted.

Chewy lasagna:

Rob could not resist ordering dessert, of course, and he got a La Panna Cotta al Pepe di Sichuan con Granita di Mandarino e Croccante di Grue (Sichuan pepper panna cotta with mandarin granita and crunchy cocoa beans). He was intrigued with the idea of using a spicy pepper in a dessert, and so were the rest of us. The verdict? Well, the panna cotta was nice enough, but there was too much of the sweet mandarin granita which overpowered the subtler tasting cream. I couldn't taste any spiciness in this dessert.

Not-so-spicy Sichuan pepper panna cotta:

Joia is a pleasant restaurant, but it just doesn't compare to its sister restaurant ISOLA. Service was more attentive, but the food was only so-so. The weather was perfect that Sunday to have an outdoor lunch, but our table was ill-placed under the umbrella and half our table was in the sun throughout the whole meal. And it would be hard to beat waterfront views. Perhaps next time we'll go for the popular antipasti buffet because the spread looked pretty good and it is quite affordably priced too.

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