Sunday, September 16, 2012

Restaurant Review: Lupa

Location: LHT Tower, Central
Type of food: Italian
Rating: ** (2.5 out of 5)

Born and raised in Seattle, Mario Batali is an American celebrity chef – "American" being the operative word here. Batali is not Italian; he just happens to have an Italian name and cooks Italian food. Contrary to popular misconception, his restaurants serve fusion (read: Americanized) food rather than authentic northern Italian cuisine. Ask anyone who is actually from that region. Just the same, Americans flock to Batali's restaurants and revere him as the arbiter of all things Italian. Two of his famous restaurants in New York City, Babbo and Lupa, are packed to the hilt all year around. Dinner reservations at Babbo are made months in advance. With over a dozen restaurants, numerous television shows, cookbooks and even his own line of kitchenware, the heavy-set chef in orange Crocs has done very well for himself.

Lupa by Mario Batali at LHT Tower

The news that Batali would set up his first outpost in Hong Kong generated considerable buzz in the local culinary scene. Lupa, which literally means “wolf” in Italian, is located on the third floor of the LHT Building above the GAP store. The restaurant is meant to be a trattoria, which is less formal than a ristorante. That's why the interior is understated and tastefully casual, complete with hardwood floor, wall-to-ceiling windows and an outdoor patio. The modern décor is in sharp contrast to the rustic country style of the original restaurant in Greenwich Village, New York. Lupa is also meant to a Roman restaurant, which explains the ubiquitous motif of the Lupa Capitolina, the famous statue featuring twin brothers Romulus and Remus sucking from the udders of a she-wolf. The symbol of Rome is printed on the restaurant's business cards, wallpaper and even serving plates. Fearing that the cultural reference would be lost to its Asian patrons, there is even a life-size replica of the bronze statue in the middle of the dining hall. Subtle the restaurant is not.

You can't miss it

I went to Lupa for a business lunch last week. The prix-fixe lunch plus a bottle of Pellogrino water costs $350 per head. The set menu features an appetizer buffet, which to me means two things. First, Batali had been warned by his local partners that every restaurant in Central must have an all-you-can-eat lunch buffet to pander to the banker crowd – it is a Hong Kong thing and so just roll with it. Second, the first course isn’t going to be that good. It would be just the same buffet at Isola, H One or Bistecca: boring and predicable. And it really is. As for the main courses, my colleague and I ordered the braised lamb shoulder and the guinea hen. Both were disappointing. The lamb was mushy and overpowered by other ingredients, and the chicken was overcooked and dry.

Sloppy cooking notwithstanding, the service at Lupa is not bad. The staff is unintrusive yet attentive. Because I was on a carb-free diet, I declined my colleague's invitation to visit the dessert buffet (which is also part of the lunch set), although that didn’t stop him from bringing back a plate full of dolci for himself. Selfish bastard. When I asked for the check, the waiter said to me gently: “No dessert for you today, sir?” The mere fact that he noticed I had skipped the buffet was impressive. Following that positive experience, however, was a truly bizarre one. On my way to the washrooms, I spotted the head chef standing by the salad bar telling his staff to refill this and tidy up that. But he was no ordinary chef -- he was a rotund, pony-tailed Caucasian man wearing a white uniform and, you guessed it, a pair of orange Crocs! There he was, a Mario Batali impostor out and about to create the illusion that the celebrity chef is actually there! Subtle the restaurant is most definitely NOT! 

Batali's signature orange Crocs

Despite all the fanfare, Lupa is a mediocre restaurant that lacks imagination and excitement. I wish they would pay more attention to their food, instead of trying to drill into our heads that it is a Roman restaurant by a famous chef. To be fair, however, I didn’t try any of the pasta dishes because of my strict diet and I also didn't go there for dinner, which offers a much more extensive menu than lunch. But I am not itching to return to Lupa any time soon, not until management has worked out all the kinks. At this stage, the only thing going for Lupa is the Batali name. The celebrity chef is committed to making a foothold in Hong Kong. His second restaurant, a high-end steakhouse called Carnevino, just opened at the same building, and a third restaurant is scheduled to open in Causeway Bay later this year. Like it or not, those orange Crocs are here to stay.

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