A well-crafted dinner at Va Bene Italiano makes for a wee night.
I must have read it somewhere from a prodigious food critic: you can tell a lot by what a restaurant serves in its bread basket. Is it fresh off the oven oozing hearty aroma? Is it delightfully chewy with a springy softness or freezing hard deprived of life and moisture? Despite the fact that I always find bread at the start of the meal counterproductive – it fills you up and takes a touch of finesse to be good and not spoil the entire meal – the artisan pastries at Va Bene Italiano really get the taste buds flowing. If anything, we have a head start.
On a recent evening, I’m invited to try out the ristorante at Festival Walk. The upmarket shopping mall in Kowloon Tong has no shortage of high-end restaurants and Va Bene – whose name means “very good” in Italian – makes a handsome addition to the bunch. The pristine tablecloth, sleek leather upholstery, and dimmed tone speak of “upscale” and the lovely menu is clearly fashioned for the sophisticated foodie crowd.
The bakery isn’t the first to make its entrance, the scallop carpaccio ($188) precedes it. A crudo (Italy’s answer to sashimi) appetiser selected by the kitchen, the briny, melt-in-your-mouth scallops, pooled in olive oil, wind up a haze of distinct celery, fennel and green apple flavours. Relying more on the quality of the seafood than on any particular culinary skill, I love it for the delicate, naturally saccharine taste, sans any hint of fishiness.
We’re seated in a round booth table amidst a candlelit dining room, fronted by a semi-open kitchen where patrons can peek in to watch the chefs whipping up a storm. Seven to eight chefs who seem to be affiliated with the kitchen operation, hover in the station, and there’s a real commitment to service: our host occasionally checks in to see if everything’s alright; in between dishes, plates are cleaned up in a whirlwind.
After a sublime primi course, the fresh clams in spicy tomato sauce ($238), with the right amount of heat, is more standard issue, though the white wine/tomato base is expertly calculated. You’ll be forgiven to want to lick the bowl clean. The Hokkaido sea urchin tagliolini ($238) that ensues hits all the sweet spot: the long strands of pasta, which is all homemade, soak in the enticing sea urchin gravy, redolent of the sea.
It’s a weekday and as diners start to fill up the table, I need to lean in awfully close to my diner buddy over the forthcoming pan-fried dover sole ($298); it’s difficult to be heard above the jazzy soundtrack and also because of the jostling in the adjoining cooking area – the boisterous conversation from a table of women and men in designer clothes wafting over the rest of the place; I may have spotted a TV celebrity in a table across me, too.
But back to the fish. Dover sole is pricey for several reasons: it’s one of the noblest fish in the sea, right alongside the turbot; it’s fried and tastes sweet, and a lot more compelling when dunked in Taggiasca olive sauce. The serving cannot be more minimal: a skinned whole wrapped by a rich mix of roasted broccoli and cherry tomatoes. Just as any skilled chef would tell you, a simple but delicious cuisine is often way more challenging than elaborate ones.
And then there’s the crème brûlée ($138). Every quintessential Western restaurant has it on the menu, but this one is beautifully done, tasting like rich, smooth layers of custard beneath a gratifying crisp sugared shell. It leaves me yearning for more.
So does Va Bene live up to its name? Amid the happy chatter, the mouthwatering fragrances and the conviviality of the evening, it does.