I have always heard good things about Nicholini’s at the Conrad, even to the point of hearing that it is considered one of the best Italian restaurants in town. It has recently appointed one Michelin-starred chef Luca de Berardinis, formerly at Il Milione, so I was eager to put it to the test and see if it was in fact up there amongst the best.
Like most of the Conrad hotel, the décor at Nicholini’s seems a little dated, yet somehow not in a bad way. With shades of gold and bronze, romantic lighting and tables spaced nicely apart, there’s an air of elegance that is both old fashioned and charming. There’s usually an inclination to prefer modern and trendy décor, but there’s definitely a time and a place for the not so modern and trendy too.
Chef Luca’s menu officially launches next week, so we were excited to be amongst the first to try it. Our tasting menu consisted of around eight small courses. Most of these dishes will be on the a la carte menu, but there are a few which won’t be. These select few will actually be available for one night only, on 9th August, when Chef Luca teams up with English bass-baritone Christopher Purves, to create a five-course opera-inspired dinner menu.
To get us started, we were served a little Parmesan puff. I don’t often say much about the amuse bouche, but this one really deserves a mention, as the soft flaky pastry gave way to an unexpected burst of sweet, nutty Parmesan cream that took us all by surprise.
The first of the tasting menu dishes was ‘Capesante Rosolate,’ a pan-fried scallop and lentil soup with chestnuts and Montepulciano reduction. This was wonderfully light yet earthy, with a perfectly cooked scallop.
The Baccalà was one of my favourite dishes of the evening. The salted cod fish was very simply served alongside some red vinegar flavoured potatoes, sweet roast peppers and crumbled black olives, which all came together beautifully. A teapot with fennel flowers and dry ice was served at the same time – not to be consumed, but so that we could enjoy the scent with the flavours of the dish. Personally, this was a little lost on me, as I didn’t feel it enhanced the dish in any way, but each to their own.
The Battuto di Manzo, or beef tartare, was a really interesting take on this classic dish. The beef was nice and lean, cut into decent sized chunks, topped with a crunchy egg yolk that was still perfectly runny inside. I thought the addition of quite a generous serving of truffle would be a little overpowering, yet these black summer truffles were lovely and mild, so as not to outshine the flavour of the beef itself.
I was also impressed by the Crema de Piselli, a lovely cream of green pea soup with tiny chunks of handmade pasta and flakes of salty bottarga.
On the menu, both the Caponata di Melanzane Affumicate and the Tonno del Mediterraneo sounded incredible. In both cases, however, I felt that there was far too much going on at one time. The flavours of the aubergine dish were each delicious on their own, but together seemed a little muddled. Likewise the tuna dish was beautifully presented, yet also a little confused.
The first of the desserts, or ‘pre-dessert’ as it was presented (there should always be a pre-dessert!) was a traditional Italian Sgroppino, a delightful lemon and Prosecco sorbet, with lovely chunks of lime zest that really brought out the flavour.
The dessert proper was a warm chocolate olive oil cake, sitting on a bed of strawberry sorbet and cream, with a dash of aged balsamic vinegar. This was not only beautifully presented but out of this world delicious. The chocolate cake was light and fluffy with a decadent molten centre, whilst the strawberry sorbet was refreshing and slightly tart.
After all this food we almost turned down the biscottini and cioccolatini that were served with our tea… but that would have been both silly and rude!
Service was hotel-standard excellent, as I had expected. Prices at Nicholini’s obviously reflect the setting, service and quality of the food, so expect to spend around $800 per head, excluding wine ($450 if you go for lunch). It’s certainly a place for a special occasion, for those times when you want to get away from the usual haunts and step into another time and place.
8/F, Conrad Hong Kong
Tel: +852 2822 5777
FYI, the first few courses, not including the amuse bouche are only available on 9th August at the Flavour of Opera event. This dinner will be priced at $1288 per person, or $1588 with wine pairing.