Piedmont has a special place in my heart.
I have very fond, nostalgic memories of Alba and the surrounding wine-growing regions of northern Italy when Bryan and I visited a couple years ago during white truffle season (the best!). Not only is the entire region absolutely stunning (definitely check out Barolo and Barbareseco!), the food is unique and absolutely delicious.
It's been awhile since I've had any northern Italian food, which is why I was thrilled to discover that La Piola, a restaurant focusing on Piemontese cuisine, had many of the special dishes that totally reminded me of my trip in 2015.
Despite the fact that its in a trendy happening location (which always makes me suspicious of food quality), Bryan and I were both tickled and pleased to discover that the food is quite authentic (one of the owners is Piemontese!) and very, very good.
We started with a traditional Alba style veal carpaccio topped with celery and shaved Parmigiano cheese ($138 HKD). Northern Italy definitely focuses on meat over seafood based on their geographic location, and all different forms of raw meat are enjoyed regularly. During truffle season, carpaccios like this would most certainly include an option for fresh, shaved white truffles.
Despite not including truffles, this version was still delicious, and the celery and shaved Parmigiano were nice additions to the soft and tender slices of veal.
In general, I have found that tomatoes in Hong Kong just aren't has tasty as the fresh, summer tomatoes we get in the US (or even our higher quality green house tomatoes). Having said that, the tomatoes in this dish were good, and we appreciated the variety that was offered. Each type of tomato had its own characteristic flavor, with the green tomato being the most tart. The burrata, imported from Italy, was luxurious, creamy, and delicious.
During another visit, we ordered the bruschetta with tomatoes, basil, and extra virgin olive oil ($88). We were really surprised at the portion size, which was huge compared to US standards. It was perfectly enjoyable, but I was pretty filled up after eating one and a half of these long toasts topped with tomatoes.
The most predominant pasta in the Piedmont region is called tajarin (pronounced tie-a-REEN), recognizable by its ribbon-like texture and deep yellow color. It is intensely yellow because it is only made with egg yolks (no whites!).
This is how the story goes: once upon a time, local winemakers in the Barolo/Barbaresco region used egg whites as a fining agent to help remove fine particles in the wine. As a result, their families were often stuck with lots of egg yolks that they had to use up. Viola! Grandma ended up inventing the 40-yolk egg pasta, or tajarin (that’s 40 egg yolks per kilogram of flour).
The homemade tajarin with Luganica sausage at La Piola was legit. The pasta had good texture and the sausage was flavorful without being overpowering. It reminded me of a phenomenal version of the dish I had in Nieve, Italy a couple years ago, where the chef made a version of this white Langhe ragu sauce based on family recipes.
This one definitely brought back memories of that dish.
Their agnolotti brodo, small handmade meat-filled dumplings served in a chicken-broth, was also delicious.
Similarly, the homemade pappardelle with wild boar ragu ($168) was really nice. We loved the excellent thick and chewy pasta as well as a intensely flavored sauce that didn't feel that greasy due to the use of wild boar (which is quite lean).
We were pleasantly surprised with how much we enjoyed our main course, a whole tuscan sea bass (branzino) baked in a salt crust ($286). The menu warns that if you order this, it will take at least 25 minutes to cook. We had no particular plans for the evening, so we were happy to order it.
After we had finished our starters, the server came by with the entire fish which had been baked in a cake of salt that was around 2-3 cm thick. We watched him as he gently and painstakingly removed the salt and fileted the fish for us. He even tried his best to remove every single small he saw, and he almost 100% successful (we found a few tiny bones but it wasn't a big deal at all).
I was afraid this dish would have very little flavor, but I was wrong. The fish was super tender, and the salt plus a splash of lemon really brought out the natural flavors of the fish. It felt super healthy to eat, yet delicious at the same time. We polished off the whole fish with no problem, and felt really good afterwards.
The French beans that accompanied the dish were cooked well, with just a bit bit of crisp left - which is the way I like it - I hate soft and mushy green beans).
During a second visit, the salt-baked version of the fish had been replaced with a simple oven-roasted version of the fish. Though it was still tasty, I missed having someone filet and take out the bones for me, ha ha . . .
For dessert, we tried the traditional Piedmont bunet, a chocolate and amaretto pudding ($90), together with a lovely glass of chinato (they have several varieties and will be happy to recommend their favorites). It was nice, with a deep, dark chocolate flavor that wasn't too sweet.
To finish off our meal, we sampled a trio of their citrus sorbets, including grapefruit, lemon, and orange. They were really nice and refreshing, with bright, natural citrus flavors and not too much sugar.
We left feeling satisfied yet not heavy. On top of that, we had enjoyed a wonderful trip down memory lane while feasting on several dishes that are quite representative of the region.
All in all, I was very pleased with our meal and both of us would not hesitate to return. We really enjoyed the fresh homemade pasta as well as the expertly cooked fish. The starters were very tasty, and there wasn't really anything wrong with our meal. Service was excellent, and everyone spoke perfect English.
La Piola Wan Chai
62 Johnston Rd, Wan Chai