When news of a three Michelin-starred chef opening a restaurant in Hong Kong comes out, you are torn between wanting to eat everything on the menu and wanting to keep a tight hold on your credit card. When the three Michelin-starred chef is Jean-Georges Vongerichten, you fear even more for your credit card. Thankfully, however, Jean-Georges’ Mercato, which has been impressing diners in Shanghai for a number of years, offers authentic Italian food without the crazy high price tags.
The restaurant is housed on the eighth floor of California Tower, adding to the melange of popular restaurants already in this building. It’s a stunning space designed by the same team that designed the Shanghai restaurant, Neri & Hu. Red bricks, rustic woods and steel structures with beautiful hanging lights give it a comforting yet modern feel. Platters of fresh, colourful vegetables amongst all this bring you back to the idea of a bustling market.
The menu is designed for sharing, as, in my opinion, food always should be. After some freshly-baked Italian breads with olive oil, we tucked into some burrata with heirloom tomatoes and basil. As evidenced by my recent trip to Italy, a good meal does not need to be fancy – all you need are good quality, fresh ingredients, and here that is exactly what we got. The tomatoes were sweet, tangy and full of flavour, whilst the creamy burrata was one of the best I’ve had.
Despite a few protestations around the table, I insisted we try the house-made ricotta with strawberry and olive oil, which was pretty fantastic. The ricotta was beautifully smooth and delicate, pairing perfectly with the tart strawberry jam, which together, spread on the thick slices of grilled bread, created something rather magical.
The lightly-fried calamari were a little greasier than I expected them to be, given they were described as only “lightly-fried”. Regardless, the squid had the perfect bite to it and I was very fond of the accompanying spicy tomato sauce. I just wished there had been more squid to go around!
Mercato’s semi-open kitchen contains a large wood-fired oven in which its pizzas are baked. We decided to go traditional and tried the tomato, basil and fresh mozzarella pizza. The base, though not super thin, was light and crispy, and seemed quite rustic both in appearance and flavour. Add to this fresh, good quality ingredients and you need little more. I also appreciated that the pizza was quite small and not too filling, as this was still only starters!
I wasn’t overly enamoured with Mercato’s panko-crusted eggplant Parmesan. Despite being very tasty, I found the deep-fried breaded aubergine a little heavier than it needed to be – but that was just my opinion, as everyone else adored it!
The star of the show was without a doubt the crispy beef short rib, of which thankfully we ordered two between the six of us. This had the texture of Chinese-style crispy shredded beef, cooked in an incredible smoked chilli Chianti glaze that gave it a lovely balance of sweet and salty.
The polenta fries that accompanied the beef were nothing special, but the spicy crackling cheesy polenta fries that we ordered as a side dish were amazing. We also had the oven roasted asparagus and the crunchy potatoes with garlic and herbs, both of which were simple yet pleasing.
It has become almost essential for us to end an Italian meal with tiramisu. Jean-Georges’ version is a modern take on the classic favourite, presented as more of an ice cream sandwich. The flavours, however, were as traditional as they come and had a delicious balance of chocolate, cream and coffee.
When I see the words “salted caramel” I just cannot resist. Mercato’s sundae with salted caramel ice cream, candied peanuts and popcorn was incredible, offering a lovely harmony of sweet and salty flavours with wonderful textures. Try and stop me ordering this one again.
Service wasn’t amazing, but neither was it bad, and the staff were friendly enough. Dinner for six, including cocktails, beers and wine came to less than $850 a head, which actually took us all by surprise (pleasantly), considering the location, the quality of the food and the chef’s fame. This is the first Jean-Georges restaurant I have visited and I sincerely hope it’s not the last.
8/F, California Tower
32 D’Aguilar Street
Tel: +852 3706 8567