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Fine cantina and enoteca from Down Under
It’s not the first time we’ve heard of 121BC. In fact, the cantina and enoteca in Sydney, Australia, is so popular that, over a year after its opening, there’s still a line out the door on any given evening. With this success under his belt, restaurateur Andrew Cibej – who also helms fellow Sydney restaurants Vini and Berta – has cast his wine magic here in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong’s 121BC takes a slightly different approach to its Aussie sister – a marginally larger (although, it must be said, still intimate-feeling) space seating up to 50 people, with a leaning towards osteria rather than the wine bar/cantina focus – but in the substantive areas, it retains all the trademark hallmarks of the original. The food sticks to the swanky concept of Italian-style shared plates and the extensive wine list is again curated by Giorgio De Maria, who was awarded Gourmet Traveller’s sommelier of the year for his work with 121BC Sydney.
The whitewashed interior gives a tavern-like feel, with a long wooden table taking up most of the dining room floor and a few bar stools lining the walls. Unlike its Sydney sister, you can book in advance here in Hong Kong – and you should, because every night that 121BC is open, it’s filled to the brim with merry patrons buzzing with conversation and sharing plates.
On the blackboard is the menu, which changes weekly depending on the produce available. We’re certainly intrigued by rustic items like roast broccoli, beetroot and mozzarella salad or the hanger steak, but we choose more esoteric items to see what surprises the former head chef of Vini, Dan Johnston, has in store.
Given how central we’ve heard wine is to 121BC’s concept, we also peruse the impressive, expansive list. The wine selection focuses on Italian biodynamic wines sourced directly from the producer, and, eager for a tipple, we order a few by the glass to match our culinary choices.
We begin with a 2009 L’Arco Valpolicella Classico Superiore corvino ($90) to go with our starting course of grilled polenta ($70) and octopus, zucchini and olives ($150). Unfortunately the wine arrives when our second dish is served, but we’re glad it comes. The vintage is light, fruity and smooth, and goes wonderfully with the zesty octopus salad. The octopus texture is amazing, crunchy to the bite before giving way to a soft, creamy centre. The polenta is also fantastic, charred to an almost toasty crust, while the shaved parmigiano on top brings out the taste of the grain.
For something more hearty, we plump for the rotolo braised lamb with roast pumpkin and rosemary ($160), and pair it with the 2009 Guttarolo Lamie delle Vigne primivito ($65). The full-bodied wine is heavy on the tannins but provides a tartness to cut the rich lamb pasta.
We finish with the fig and hazelnut tart ($100) that comes with a generous topping of fresh figs and we combine it with the cherry-flavoured Praesidium Ratfia ($70) dessert wine. The wine’s cherry flavour is sharp and potent, and enhances the caramalised hazelnut crust of the tart. This is a match made in heaven. Indeed, we’re impressed by the superb wine-food matches of every course – undoubtedly a reflection of a great sommelier and a magnificent wine list.
The food and wine at 121BC is phenomenal, as is the marriage of the two. This is definitely a rising star in the Hong Kong dining scene and, given its promising start, may even one day outshine its Australian relatives. Lisa Cam
121BC 42-44 Peel St, Central, 2395 0200; 121bc.com.hk. Opened Tue – Sat, 5.30 – late.