Unless you’ve been hiding all summer, you’ve no doubt heard the hype about the opening of new Northern Spanish restaurant, The Optimist. Brought to us by Christian Talpo and Manuel Palacio, the same duo behind popular Italian restaurant Pirata, The Optimist takes up the first three floors of that same building on Hennessy Road.
Enter at street-level to a stunning bar with a high ceiling, natural materials and lovely textures. The team wanted to bring over a Spanish designer to give the place even more authenticity. This is therefore Rocío Martínez’s first Hong Kong gig, but after the amazing job she’s done with The Optimist, I’m sure there will be many more. Green ceramic tiles and green metal structures alongside leafy plants and hanging baskets give this bar a sort of indoor-outdoor feel, taking you a million miles away from busy Hennessy Road. Although it’s brand new, it almost feels as if this bar has been around for years, as there’s a familiarity that is instantly welcoming. The bar doubles up as both a standalone destination to come for drinks and snacks, or as your first stop for a cocktail (try the French Kiss) before heading upstairs for dinner.
The second and third floors are where the eating happens. As you head up the stairs, you’ll notice a random collection of framed vintage pictures and objects. These are The Optimist’s collection of things he’s encountered on his travels. Further up, the vintage maps lead you to where the real eating happens, on the third floor. You’ll smell the grill before you see it. The asador-inspired restaurant’s motto is “we grill things”, and that is exactly what they do. The idea is that there’s a market-style display of seafood, meat and vegetables for you to ogle. Once you’ve made your selection, the chefs throw it on the giant charcoal barbecue and make their magic.
This therefore isn’t just your average Spanish restaurant serving tiny tapas. The menu is still designed for sharing, but portions are generally much, much heartier. That said, there are also a selection of familiar tapas, such as the ham croquettes to whet your appetite. These were a perfect balance of crispy and fluffy, served on a bed of crunchy chips.
The tuna tataki wasn’t at all what I was expecting, and yet it was beautiful. The tuna was incredibly fresh, served atop a thick, creamy almond soup with whole almonds and spicy ito togarashi.
Manuel surprised us by treating us to a pot of clams in salsa verde. My other half rarely lets me order clams, as he can’t stand the gritty texture that is far too often present in clams. These, however, were plump and meaty without so much as a hint of grittiness. The gorgeously green broth with white wine, garlic and parsley was good enough to drink on its own, or as the perfect dip for the crusty white bread.
The grilled squid was absolutely delicious and cooked to a perfect, bouncy consistency. Lightly brushed with pesto, the squid carried its own lovely flavour that paired beautifully with the onion purée and crunchy fresh veggies.
Although what we’d had so far was more than enough, we couldn’t resist sampling the 500g chateaubriand. This was cooked to a perfect medium-rare that simply melted in the mouth. Unfortunately, however, it was slightly lacking in seasoning. This cut of meat usually comes with potato gratin, but we were more intrigued by the potato and pancetta cake, so we swapped it in. Have you ever watched one of those Buzzfeed videos of ridiculously amazing bacon creations? This was one of those. Between each layer of thinly sliced potatoes was a layer of crispy, salty bacon, whilst the outside was an incredible lattice of interwoven pieces of bacon. Ridiciously good.
We also couldn’t resist the eggplant fries – sticks of crispy, fluffy deliciousness, served with honey and garlic-kimuchi sauce.
For dessert, the flan wasn’t our favourite, but we loved the caramelised brioche “torrija”. Here, the warm brioche was so light and fluffy with a satisfyingly crisp layer of caramel on top. Since I’m not big on coffee, I did find the coffee ice cream a little too strong and personally would have preferred something a little more subtle.
Service was very personal and efficient throughout our meal, with staff ready to give their own personal suggestions. The Optimist certainly isn’t a cheap eat, so be prepared for quite a hefty bill. Without including drinks (there was no liquor licence when we visited) and with a few little treats from Manuel, our bill was still $700 a head. We did, however, eat far more than was necessary and had a truly enjoyable evening. The Optimist is a refreshing change to the Spanish restaurants we’re used to here in Hong Kong. It’s built with passion and dedication to create a restaurant that is sophisticated yet never pretentious and is guaranteed to impress.
G/F, 239 Hennessy Road
Tel: +852 2433 3324