Fact: Hong Kong people love Italian food. In this city, there’s never a shortage of patronage for the Southern European country’s home cooking. From sloppy budget eateries to fine dining – we’re the home of 8 ½ Otto e Mezzo Bombana, the first Italian restaurant outside of Italy to obtain three Michelin-stars. And although us Hong Kong folks can’t claim to be experts in Italian food, we can definitely claim enthusiasm in our range and (let’s face it, sometimes butchered!) interpretation of it, evident in the huge selection we have on hand. Not surprisingly, with enthusiasm comes a certain amount of fastidiousness so our demand for Italian food has spawned speciality regional eateries from Neapolitan pizzas to modern Sicilian restaurants. And now, the folks behind Catalunya have opened up the city’s first Venetian bacaro, with the talented Enrico Bartolini – Italy’s youngest two Michelin-starred chef – at the helm of the kitchen.
High walls of alcohol
Perched right next to the escalators on Caine Road, Sepa (which means ‘cuttlefish’ in Venetian lingo) has all the features of a typical Venetian tavern: it’s amid a maze of small streets, a little hard to find (almost all locations in Venice are hard to find save anything by Saint Marco’s Square) and is fronted by a humble door opening up to high walls stacked to the ceiling with alcohol. Then there’s the food, which consists of mainly small plates, typical of Venice. The water city, with its unique landscape and history of sovereignty, has inspired a cuisine bearing characteristics atypical to the rest of Italy. Many of their plates dish out seafood from the Venetian lagoon and there’s emphasis on transportable grains (polenta and risotto) as historically the port town was, and still is, an influential hub for European import and export. Another notable feature of Venetian cuisine, also taken from its days as a major port town, is its preference for small bites, no doubt a derivative of Spanish tapas (one of the bigger diasporas which settled in Venice during the 16th century).
And the small plates at Sepa are an absolute delight. The Venetian style chips ($68) – long cut polenta – are crispy fried and served with a heavenly truffle mascarpone sauce, so tasty we’d gladly dip our own fingers in it to clean the plate. The beautifully presented beetroot tartare (pictured above, $98) consists of little morsels of creamed beetroot mixed with tuna, encased in a beetroot jelly pod – one-bite delights. A bacaro is also about the drinks, so we dive into the Venetian martini ($138). Served with a curl of lemon rind, the drink hints at Venice’s history as a hub of the spice trade, with notes of saffron and anise, rounded off with the bitter taste of vermouth. Another tipple, the refreshing Florindo mojito ($108), is served in a stainless steel goblet packed with loads of mint and ice. The artichoke flavoured bitters leaves a smooth strong taste on the back end that leads the drink back to the Mediterranean, the native place of the artichoke plant.
Our eyes also catch the series of four focaccia ‘bomba’ on the menu – palm-sized round breads with a variety of toppings and fillings like Parma ham and anchovies. We plump for the more luxurious mortadella, ricotta cheese and truffle filled ‘bomba’ ($138) and we fall in love. The warm bread wraps the fragrant filling like a duvet around us on a winter’s morning and we’re transported to cooler weather and lazy Sundays.
We order the veal cheek ravioli ($148) for our main. The pasta is thin and eggy with gloriously soft beef cheek for filling. The accompanying sauce is rich in flavour but light in consistency and teases out the flavour of the dumpling without compromising the pasta’s al dente texture. A strong dish through and through. The only bump in the metaphoric road in our journey of Venetian dishes are the fish fries ($168), a hodgepodge of fried seafood (shrimp, cuttlefish, marginal amounts of fish, with the occasional piece of polenta) in a cone. The batter is delectably light and crispy, but when the description of a dish specifies ‘fish’, we can’t help but feel a little cheated as we munch on a piece of fried cuttlefish.
Our spirits pick up with the desserts as the crème brûlée ($78) pleasantly surprises us. The cherry sorbet is blended with the custard, resulting in a light-as-air base hiding underneath a crunchy caramel top. We also test out the classic Italian tiramisu ($98). Sepa’s version has a good balance of cream and cake, but we wish the coffee liqueur was a little stronger, just to cut through the heavy marscapone flavour.
All in all we feel that Sepa does the Venetian bacaro justice. The cocktails are strong and bold and the bites are delicious. Hong Kong’s lovers of Italian food will definitely embrace another Italian concept and flock to this tavern for its unique food and speciality cocktails. Luckily, we don’t need to fly over to Venice to find it. Lisa Cam
Verdict: Classic Venetian small plates for sharing
Sepa 61 Caine Rd, Mid-Levels, 2521 9800; sepa.com.hk.