Eat and be happy in Wan Chai.
Text by Tiffany Chan, food photos by Joe Kwong
Our first question to Christian Talpo, co-owner of northern Spanish restaurant The Optimist, is obvious: who is the optimist? “The optimist is all of us,” he replies. Talpo and his partner, Manuel Palacio, opened Italian restaurant Pirata in November 2014 with enormous success. This year they’ve gone a step further, taking over the lower levels of the same building for a second rather more ambitious concept.
“A lot of people didn’t believe there could be a busy restaurant on the top floor of a random building in the middle of Wan Chai. So we had to be optimistic that we had the experience to pull it off. We’re optimists in the purest sense, and this restaurant is for people who think outside the box, who want to try new things and live life to the fullest.”
If living life to the fullest means joining friends at a high table at The Grill on a Tuesday night to hunch over a whole 1.8kg turbot grilled to perfection or a juicy Galician rib-eye amid the pungent smoky aroma from the charcoal grill, then The Optimist achieves just that.
Northern Spanish food differs from that of the south, Talpo explains, in that the ingredients are key.
“The cuisine in the north centres around the product, rather than the skill of the chef,” he says. “The south is very arid – blasting sun all year round. The north is a lot cooler with four seasons, so the produce is fantastic. Vast pastures produce quality beef, and the Atlantic Ocean is around the corner, so the seafood is also great.”
Diners order whole monkfish, sole and turbot by weight for executive chef Alfredo Rodriquez to grill in a besuguera fish pan cleverly designed with an internal rack to protect the delicate fish from the harsh heat
of the grill.
“Manuel is from the north of Spain. He says, ‘this is what we do in San Sebastian, in Bilbao – we have a whole fish, add olive oil, garlic and chilli and we grill it.’ So it was clear to us from the beginning: we were going to have a charcoal grill, and we were going to grill things.”
Yet, the core concept of the restaurant is not the grill, the ingredients, or the chef, Talpo says, but the simple pleasures of having fun and eating well. “It’s funny that I say that because this is something that should be at the core of every restaurant. We don’t want to pigeon-hole ourselves and be just another Spanish restaurant, when we are so much more than that,” he says. “If you leave hungry and not happy, then we have failed. Isn’t it great when all this food comes to the table, these massive steaks, the seafood platters, and you’re talking to your friends? Sometimes restaurants forget what they’re all about. Sometimes they don’t feed you.”
Reflecting a bit of Japanese influence, the tuna tataki was seared beautifully, with charred edges and a vibrant red centre. The tuna was thick enough to absorb the silky almond soup underneath and topped with delicate slithers of tgarashi chilli. Yet even the large amount of cream underneath does not mask the freshness of the tuna, which positively shone. We would have preferred less soup, but it was a delicious starter nonetheless.
Seafood Rice “Arroz Caldoso”
When it comes to Spanish rice dishes, most of us are familiar with the beloved paella. Caldoso is essentially soupy paella, the rice and seafood bathed in a flavourful broth. On our second visit the restaurant changed it slightly, baking the rice in the broth on a charcoal grill, which resulted in a layer of crispy rice. We liked how the rice soaked up much of the broth, imparting a great depth of flavour, and found ourselves scraping the crispy bits off the pan.
We knew the ribeye would be delicious as soon as we saw it. With a beautiful char on the outside, rosy-red in the middle, the 1.2kg 45-day dry-aged Rubia Gallega Galician slab was tender and juicy with a distinct beef flavour often lacking even in the most renowned steakhouses. We appreciated the generously thick slices, and the liberal use of sea salt that took it to the next level. Simple as it was, it was delicious.
Alfredo’s Warm Apple Pie
More tart than pie, the dessert’s puff pastry is flaky, beautifully blistered, and crispy in all the right places. In the centre, paper-thin slices of green apple are warm and soft, making a delicious contrast to the flakiness of the pastry. A bit of old-school theatre is involved, with warm vanilla sauce poured over the centre of the pie in an ever-expanding pool of cream. Warm, flaky, soft and sweet, chef Alfredo’s apple tart is one of the best we’ve had in the city.
Wild Whole Grilled Turbot “Guetaria”
The arrival of the turbot presented quite a spectacle, eliciting elongated “oohs” and “aahs” from guests around the table. Indeed, it was enormous, weighing a staggering 1.8kg. The flat fish is simply seasoned with olive oil, garlic and chilli, and grilled whole in the besuguera pan. The fish was just firm enough, but needed more salt to lift its natural flavours. Overall, we liked the simiplicity of the seasoning, for it allowed the fish to shine.
G/F-2/F 239 Hennessy Road, Wan Chai
Tel: 2433 3324
*Featured in Crave’s December 2015 issue