The Hari Hong Kong hotel is home to the dining concepts Lucciola and Zoku, which embody their respective cuisines with finesse and interesting flavours. We recently talked to the chefs behind the two restaurants.
A defining aspect of Hong Kong is the passion of its residents for food. There aren’t many other places in the world where urbanities enjoy eating out as much as they do here, to the point where, when a new restaurant opens its door, a sort of collective joy pervades the community. For chef Francesco Gava of Lucciola, the newly opened Italian restaurant at The Hari Hong Kong hotel in Wanchai, this passion and the locals’ knowledge of good food are at the core of its menu and vision.
“In Hong Kong, people travel a lot, and there’s so much great food available from all over the world that their palates are very refined,” Gava tells me in his unmistakably Piedmontese accent, while we converse in Italian. “We shouldn’t change our dishes to make them more similar to local flavours. If a Hong Konger has been to Italy and liked those authentic dishes, I want to be able to recreate exactly that; not adjust them. I think that would be a big mistake.”
This principle particularly applies to Lucciola, which is, first and foremost, a classic Italian restaurant that serves seasonal dishes from all over the peninsula. In many ways, the restaurant’s menu and elegant decor remind me of some Milanese establishments that define that city’s dining culture and soul: honest and delicious food served in an effortlessly chic and yet familiar environment.
“We don’t do traditional food with a modern twist. No, we cook traditional classic dishes sometimes using new techniques,” Gava continues. “For example, the veal of our Vitello Tonnato is cooked sous vide and not in milk, an evolution of the way it’s usually cooked to elevate the main ingredient, but the sauce is the same and so are the flavours.”
The menu features comfort dishes, such as Cotoletta alla Milanese, the breaded and pan-fried veal cutlet nicknamed orecchia di elefante (elephant’s ear) in Lombardy because of its hefty size; Torta Caprese Bianca, originally from the Island of Capri and made with white chocolate, lemon and limoncello; and Spaghettini alle Vongole Veraci e Bottarga, a quintessential pasta dish found in pretty much every coastal restaurant in Italy.
Through these timeless recipes, Gava and his team celebrate the Italian terrain with fresh and diverse ingredients and earthy flavours. While most of the items on Lucciola’s menu would definitely be familiar to anyone who regularly eats Italian food, there’s a section of unexpected offerings.
“I honestly don’t believe in signature dishes, but the My Favourites section on the à la carte menu truly reflects what I love eating and my heritage,” Gava explains. “I grew up eating the Spaghetti Acciughe e Tomino Fresco, with anchovies and fresh local cheese – it’s a family favourite that most people outside Piedmont have never tried, much like the Acquerello Risotto Porri e Luganega, with sausage and rice from Vercelli, a city in my native region that’s famous for rice.”
Gava is right. I am among the Italians who’d never tried the creamy pasta dish before, which instantly became a favourite after a few bites. A simple and yet elegant spaghetti recipe like this proves that traditional doesn’t equal clichéd or predictable. Perhaps this is particularly true for a country like Italy, where regionalism and a long gastronomic history make its cuisine impressively diverse and interesting for locals and foreigners alike.
“My first memory in the kitchen is about being turbulent. I was a very agitated young man at 17, and I was not a good student … I learned everything on the job,” Gava tells me as we discuss the professional journey that brought him to Lucciola. “There’s a sort of structure in professional kitchens, which I needed, but also a lot of craziness. From a young age, you have the opportunity to create something from scratch and put yourself in it.”
From local trattorias to luxury hotels in Saint Moritz and around Switzerland, and then on to cosmopolitan kitchens in Dubai, his passion to create something delicious that stays true to its origins has always been a priority and mission. “Being a chef is a very hard and physical job, where you’re constantly judged,” Gava continues. “I loved the energy in the kitchen from the very beginning and it’s where I feel best.”
One floor above Lucciola, on the second level of The Hari, Phillip Pak, chef de cuisine at Zoku Restaurant and Terrace, had a similar start to his career. “It began when I was 17 through a friend of my mum in the US who was a sushi chef,” he tells me. “I used to work part-time, washing dishes, like they do in Japan and Europe – I learned everything from this chef and didn’t go to culinary school. Honestly, no one knows what they want to do as a teenager, but this job truly is my passion and because these days many young people aren’t trained like that any more, I feel very fortunate.”
From watching chefs stretch homemade noodles at the back of the Korean restaurants his parents opened when they moved to Colorado, to learning the basics of the complex art of sushi-making as a humble dishwasher, Pak eventually landed in some of the most prestigious kitchens in America.
“Years ago, I moved to California and worked for Gordon Ramsey. Then I went to Vail, in Colorado, where I worked in the best sushi restaurants in the city, Matsuhisa by Nobu Matsuhisa,” Pak tells me as he enthusiastically talks about his mentor and culinary hero. “In the end, I was chef the cuisine at Matsuhisa in Aspen for three years.”
Pak talks very fondly of his time working with the Japanese celebrity chef and restaurateur, whom he describes as “genuine” and “someone that always encourages you to cook with your heart”.
The expertise and nuanced culinary approach learned under the leadership of Nobu, who effectively popularised modern and innovative takes on Japanese cuisine, have been instrumental to Pak, who designed Zoku’s concept and created an ingredient-focused menu.
“There are so many Japanese restaurants in Hong Kong, so we don’t aspire to provide an authentic experience but something refreshing that keeps changing,” Pak explains. “Each dish is based on bold flavours and their development through different techniques.”
The sharing-style seasonal menu is truly reflective of Zoku’s Instagram-perfect dccor of pastel shades and velvet touches, retro-chic, tasselled lampshades, and its asymmetric origami ceiling. Dishes such as the Chilean Seabass with yuzu herb butter, sautéed brussels sprouts and oyster cream, and the Yellowtail Sashimi with yuzu, soy and sashimi, which are both delicate and bold at the same time, are representative of the restaurant’s heterogeneous interpretation of what contemporary Japanese food is.
For Zoku’s trendy terrace, set to open soon, Pak, his team and Sabrina Cantini Budden, beverage manager at The Hari Hong Kong, have come up with a selection of decadent hand rolls, like the mouth-watering Toro, uni and caviar temaki, and creative cocktails like the impeccably presented Suzie Wong with Japanese whisky, rose syrup, cucumber and yuzu soda.
“In Japanese, Zoku means clan, and, in many ways, we’re trying to build a family both with our clients and in terms of food and atmosphere” Pak explains. “I think that Hong Kong is a very tough crowd, which is great, but it makes you want to be better. It’s also very close to Japan. For me, the most important thing is to bring memorable flavours together.”
Albeit in different ways, Lucciola and Zoku both deliver the type of convivial and yet elegant experience that you’d want to come back for. This, combined with memorable flavours and an enviable setting, makes The Hari the newest dining mecca in town.
(Here shot: Lucciola’s Lucciola’s Amberjack Carpaccio with Braised Tropea Red Onions)