The Epicurean's Atlas: 8½ Otto e Mezzo Bombana
ADDRESS Shop 202, Landmark Alexandra, 18 Chater Road, Central, Hong Kong
U mberto Bombana is a remarkably modest man for a three Michelin-starred chef. He has shared top billing by naming his restaurant for another artist, his fellow countryman Federico Fellini, or rather for one of Fellini’s greatest films, the 1963 classic 8½ (Otto e mezzo in Italian). Bombana claims to have no idea why he has been crowned the “king of white truffles” and made a Worldwide Ambassador of the White Truffle by the Enoteca Regionale Piemontese Cavour in Italy. But he is not from Alba, the centre of that sought-after tuber’s home region, nor from Piedmont at all: he was born in Clusone, 150 miles northeast in the province of Lombardy, which also, he says, “has a great tradition of food and hospitality.” Still, from the perspective of Hong Kong, where he has lived and worked since he moved there to open Toscana at the Ritz-Carlton in 1993, that is close enough to count. And no one who dines there between September and December, which is white truffle season in Italy, will be left in any doubt as to how he earned his title. Add to that the fact that, when it received its three stars in 2011, his restaurant became the only Italian establishment so honoured outside his (and Fellini’s) homeland, and his humility becomes even harder to understand. He may not like to think of himself as a gastronomic superstar, but the people who eat his food are entitled to disagree.
Located on the second floor of an upmarket shopping mall in Hong Kong’s Central district, 8½ Otto e Mezzo Bombana, like its name, harks back to another time. The bar area is warmed by wood; the main restaurant has a glittering mirrored ceiling. There is a walk-in wine cellar housing several thousand bottles and an ageing room for hams and cheeses. The giant ceramic tomato at the dining room entrance is both a cheery reminder of the style of the cuisine, should anyone forget, and an indication of a commitment to seasonal produce that extends far beyond truffles. “I want to express my culture in my food, to make sense of Italian flavours and Italian technique,” Bombana says. So at 8½ Otto e Mezzo Bombana, there is pasta made to perfection, delicate Sicilian prawns and perfectly formed panna cotta.
“I want to express my culture in my food, to make sense of italian flavours and italian technique”
The wine list, overseen by Head Sommelier Kenji Torres, who is an advanced sommelier in the prestigious Court of Master Sommeliers, leans toward the mother country. Around 70% of the wines come from Bombana’s homeland, with the famous Barolos, Amarones and Brunello di Montalcinos that diners in a three-star Italian establishment would expect, but also unsung niche cuvées and coveted rarities such as “Where Dreams Have No End” Chardonnay from Jermann in Venezia Giulia or Gaja’s sought-after Langhe Sori San Lorenzo. Bombana takes great interest in food and wine pairings, not just for his beloved truffles (“Anything with high acidity cannot work,” he says) but as part of his commitment to championing Italy. “That,” he says, “is my love and my passion.”
Bombana came to Hong Kong via Los Angeles, where he worked at the famous Rex Il Ristorante, which he calls “the most beautiful restaurant I’ve ever seen.” (Fans of the film Pretty Woman may remember it as the place where, during a smart business dinner, Julia Roberts’ character sends a snail in its shell flying straight into the hand of an unflappable waiter.) But the seeds of his interest in Asia may have been sown in the 1980s, when Japanese ideas on simplicity and flavour started to filter into Italy: “You start to experiment, maybe you put some soy sauce in a dish…” This curiosity sent him on a journey that culminated in his current position as a symbol of Italian hospitality, and the chef does his best to keep those wellsprings flowing, despite being almost 6,000 miles from the source.
Bombana may fly the Italian flag, but he also takes full advantage of the great produce on his doorstep – and of an attitude to gastronomy that clearly works for him. “The whole of Asia is growing amazingly, the people here are very curious, they love food,” he says. They also love wine and talent and, between them, Umberto Bombana and Kenji Torres are doing their best to provide all three. “I want to create a whole experience, from cocktail to coffee,” says Bombana, and the Michelin inspectors are far from being the only diners who feel that he has done precisely that.
Photos by Paul Yeung/South China Morning Post via Getty Images, Dickson Lee/South China Morning Post via Getty Images, K. Y. Cheng/South China Morning Post via Getty Images