If there was ever a Hong Kong locale that called to mind the charm of a Roman piazza, it is surely the open plaza abutting Central’s Grand Millennium Plaza. How fortuitous, then, that nestled amid the lush foliage and grandiose staircases lies one of the city’s most iconic Italian restaurants – Gaia Ristorante. Having first opened its doors just over two decades ago, this grand dame of the SAR’s F&B scene has more than held its own through the never-ending waves of new eateries that have risen and fallen and risen again across the intervening years.
So, in a city where restaurants open and close at the drop of a hat, what’s the secret to Gaia’s outstanding longevity? “While our offerings are not that different from many other Italian eateries in the city, after more than two decades, we’ve put together a very solid offering. We focus on fresh ingredients and classic recipes that have been tried and tested with discerning diners over the years,” explains owner Pino Piano. “More importantly, we listen to our customers’ feedback. Some of our patrons have been coming back to us for two generations now, and if they’d like something tweaked slightly, we are more than happy to accommodate them.”
Affable and charming, Naples-born Piano is a stalwart of the industry who has seen the evolution of the city’s dining scene first-hand. Recalling Gaia’s early days, he says: “Things were totally different when we first began. We were the first restaurant to introduce al-fresco dining to the central business district. Up until that point, outdoor dining could only be found farther afield in Sai Kung or the outlying islands.”
Eager to sample the fare that has enchanted the city since 2001, we begin our tasting with two appetisers – Carciofi Fritti alla Giudia and Fritto in Semolina con Sale d’Acciuga. The former is an ancient Roman-Jewish dish of flowering artichoke hearts that are boiled then deep-fried. Crisp on the outside and deliciously succulent on the inside, it’s an enticing opening act. The latter starter of fried calamari and red prawns is equally delicious. Each morsel here is lightly battered and fried before being sprinkled with anchovy salt, with an optional squeeze of lemon deftly cutting through the inherent oiliness of the dish.
Continuing with the seafood motif, our next course of Spaghetti con Gamberoni Rossi Piccanti arrives tableside. Topped with a juicy, generously sized Mediterranean red king prawn, the underlying spaghetti is cooked to al-dente perfection and ladened with smaller shelled prawns as well. The sauce, too, merits particular mention, with the tanginess and slight piquancy of the spicy cherry tomatoes serving as the perfect foil for the oceanic accents of the dish.
Onto the mains, we begin with the decadent Manzo Wagyu ‘Mayura’ all’Olio e Sale Grosso, featuring a sliced slab of wagyu sirloin accompanied by asparagus and Romanesco broccoli. Cows at the Mayura farm in Australia are given a chocolate-laden diet that is said to enhance the tenderness and flavour of their beef. Umami-laden and melt-in-your-mouth soft, this is guaranteed to be a hit with any meat-minded diner.
With our waistlines getting dangerously tight, the final course hoves into view: a beautiful plate of Spigola in Crosta di Sale alla Cipollina (an oven-baked sea bass accompanied by lemon and chives). The fish in question is, as Piano explains, first deboned then coated in a salt-and-egg white crust before being baked in the oven – a deft move that sees all its inherent flavours retained. Once unpacked, a dash of lemon and a sprinkling of chopped chives are all the garnishes required. A delicious blend of crunchy skin and fall-off-the-bone tender flesh, it’s small wonder that this signature dish has been on the menu since Gaia’s inception.
Gaia Ristorante. Unit 01-05, G/F, Grand Millennium Plaza, 181 Queen’s Road Central, Central. (852) 2167 8200
(Text: Tenzing Thondup)