Nothing is quite what it seems in this Italian restaurant, which serves up imaginative food and live jazz in Hong Kong’s industrial heartland.
*Featured in Crave’s October 2016 issue
Text by Cherrie Yu, food photos by Samantha Sin
We discovered Cadenza in the unlikeliest of places – a shiny black block of a shopping mall among the tatty old industrial buildings of Lai Chi Kok. Formerly a bar and lounge inside the Greater China Club, Cadenza has been reborn as an Italian restaurant with an interior reminiscent of a gentlemen’s club, a bar and a million-dollar sound system that pumps out live jazz on Wednesday to Saturday nights.
Helming the kitchen is passionate executive chef Juanjo Carrillo from Catalonia, Spain. He started cooking at 16 years old, entered Spain’s top culinary school Hofmann School of Barcelona, married his pastry teacher and opened two restaurants in Catalonia before arriving in Hong Kong three years ago.
Despite the fierce competition, Carrillo enjoys the intensity of Hong Kong’s dynamic dining scene. “Hong Kong is like a paradise for us [chefs],” he says. “A wonderful place for work because you can find products from around the world, and the high level of competency makes you think about so many things; to make a change, to make something special.”
On his menu are traditional Italian dishes with a few twists of Carrillo’s making, such as an elegant zucchini roll filled with red lobster and red pesto, and deep-fried risotto balls with beef cheek ragout, black truffle sauce and foam.
Some of his most memorable dishes are desserts, which arrive looking like something out of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Panna cotta is presented like a popsicle, with cream, caramel (instead of sugar) and gelatin coated in molten milk chocolate. An experimental glazed ruby red apple turns out to be cheesecake.
“Trampantojo, or to trick the eye, is a saying in Spain that means it looks like something, but it’s a fake,” he says.
“In Hong Kong, you must adapt to everything quickly: learning about the new products, making changes to the menu. I’ve already added many items that weren’t on my original menu, such as Sydney oysters and Hanwoo beef to satisfy customers’ palates. Now I’m planning to add a lemon meringue and baked Alaska [with my personal touch] to the menu. I hope customers will like it.”
1. Tomato Tartar
Presented like steak tartar, this vegetarian version was made from tomato baked for an hour with herbs, olive oil, sugar and pepper. The velvety tomato melted in the mouth and carried herbaceous notes of rosemary and thyme. It arrived with sides of parmesan foam, house-made capers and Tabasco dressing. Eaten together, every bite was packed with umami and left a spicy aftertaste that gave the dish a nice kick. Utterly delicious, this was one of the most memorable dishes of the evening.
2. Scallop Carpaccio
Hokkaido scallops were cut so paper-thin that each slice was translucent. Pools of almond foam coated the mouth with a smoky taste, while diced green apple gave the dish a nice crunchy texture. Drizzled lightly with truffle oil and topped with specks of truffle, the flavours were robust, elevating the dish without overpowering the natural salinity of the seafood. The result was a medley of flavours in each mouthful.
3. Spaghetti Aglio Olio and Mediterranean Red Prawns
Carrillo tops a dish of spaghetti with red prawns from the Mediterranean, red prawn stock and a simple aglio olio with chilli flakes, garlic and olive oil. The al dente pasta was cooked just right and steeped in rich crustacean flavour, with a kick from the chilli. Though small, the red prawns were cooked beautifully with just the right amount of firmness, and slightly briny. We ate each forkful with joy.
4. Grilled Homemade Semi-dry-aged US Prime Ribeye
Carrillo dry-ages prime ribeye in the restaurant for 21 to 40 days. Lean but tender, the steak arrived still rosy in the middle – just the way we like it – and sufficiently beefy. Bay leaf sauce had the consistency of mustard, and a sharp, bright flavour that bordered on astringent. The potato wedges shone, with crispy, almost flaky skin and a fluffy interior that Carrillo achieved by first poaching the potatoes, then freezing for 24 hours to retain the tenderness, and deep-frying until crispy.
5. Surprise Egg
Easily our favourite item of the evening, the dessert “egg” arrived nestled on a green bed of pistachio and green tea crumble adorned with elderflowers. Using a mould sourced by his wife in Barcelona, Carrillo created a runny “yolk” of fruit purée (70 per cent mango, and 30 per cent passion fruit) and a “white” of light, sweet coconut mousse, encased in a white chocolate shell. Each bite was heavenly. The tartness of the aromatic fruit purée cut beautifully through the creaminess of the mousse to make a balanced dessert.
Unit A, 10/F, D2 Place, 9 Cheung Yee Street, Lai Chi Kok
Tel: 2743 8055