Despite the constant barrage of restaurants shuttering, re-launching and opening in Hong Kong, there are many which fall through the cracks and escape my beady, greedy eye. With no little irony, one is a place ten minutes walk from home which last week served up one of my best and most memorable meals of 2017 (alongside Arcane, Haku and Gough´s on Gough).
Given its location, it´s perhaps not wholly unsurprising that it´s fallen off the radar of many dining fans whom I´ve since spoken to. It´s in Happy Valley, never an especially hip or sexy neighborhood, in a steep angled street that you would easily walk by without giving a second glance. (Incidentally I love the fact that Happy Vally was named with black humour by British soldiers, because it was in fact a malarial swamp where many of their comrades had died). The Valley isn´t especially renowned as a gastronomic destination, but that´s why it´s the perfect locale – once you visit Angelo´s, you´ll want to keep it all to yourself.
It´s compact, neutrally-decorated in modern tones and occasional photos of la bella Italia. In line with many excellent restaurants, however, the environment is largely irrelevant as the sole focus is squarely on the plates. And oh my, what plates. The man behind them carries the sort of culinary pedigree to merit more fame and much more of an ego, but Angelo Aglianó seems happy to avoid the former, while completely avoiding the latter.
If Joël Robuchon, by a long way the world´s greatest chef, with far more Michelin stars to his name than anyone, were to say that my risotto was “the best he´s ever eaten”, you´d forgive me for thinking I am the dog´s coglioni. If Robuchon were to then make me his only non-French chef anywhere in the world to run his legendary Atelier restaurant (In Taipei, after stints in Paris, Monaco and Hong Kong), then I´d politely suggest everyone else give up and go home.
Aglianó has done both – and then some. The Sicilian, from a fishing family, has the perfect, modest philosophy: “Doing a simple dish is much more difficult than doing a complicated one”. Hence, on walking in to his Locanda for dinner, (they only open for dinner) the kitchen is open-plan, nothing to hide as he and his young team deliver exceptional executions, one after another.
Carpaccio with arugula, parmigiano, artichoke and light mustard sauce was a lovely light start. Impeccable ingredients and assembly.
Then perfect burrata, gently weeping milky tears over San Marzano tomatoes which tasted like they had been picked that morning, the whole glorious ensemble topped with anchovies and a Sicilian sun-dried tomato paste called capiliatu.
Next Busiate Trapanesi, a type of twisted macaroni, typical of western Sicily, unsurprisingly from the town of Trapani. I´d never hard of this dish, let alone tried it, the sensational texture and bite under shaved homemade bottarga (dried cod roe), with snips of dill and lightly touched tuna. I love dill, but on pasta? Brilliant, fragrant. It goes beautifully with fish so of course it goes beautifully with fish on pasta.
You need to order everything, most of all the risotto. Robuchon was right. It was utterly sensational, the best I´ve had anywhere, including across Northern Italy – stand back Cipriani in Venice, Combal Zero in Turin and even the home of risotto, Milano. Sicily is as far from the home of risotto as you can have in Italy, so why is Angelo´s so remarkable? A clue may be here, talking about how riso col zafran was a pilaf style rice dish popular with the Jews and Arabs… of medieval Sicily. It morphed ultimately into the classic Risotto Milanese and became a Northern Italian dish, but clearly technique with rice was born in the Sicilian DNA.
In fact Angello does a Milanese with osso bucco which looks even more sensational and technicolor than the version I had, below, with fresh porcini mushrooms and Fontina cheese. Lots and lots of Fontina cheese. You need to order this. Twice. What makes it standout is that all the flavours and ingredients are distinct and noticeable – but somehow also all complimentary as parts of a whole. I have no idea how he does it.
Then after the pasta or rice, always in Italy comes the pesce or carne. Well actually both, for the table of four to share. First a beautiful bit of mackerel with tomatoes and capers and some red onion. That´s pretty much it. Remember what he said about simplicity?
Then the savoury conclusion to a sensational dinner, a prime wagyu rib with roast potatoes and vegetables. If this is the Italian idea of a Sunday Roast, I may just move to Italy. With a jar of horseradish sauce.
To wrap, of course, tiramisu and cannoli. Both are again Angelo´s philosophy, doing the simple things beautifully. The tiramisu is his mother´s recipe. It´s wonderful. He later pops by to explain that he doesn´t dust his with cocoa, because who wants a mouthful of cocoa? His solution is to grate 70% cocoa chocolate, instead.
Then the cannoli which are extra crisp but with bite because the shells have been made with pork lard, as they should be. They are in Sicily, so they are in Happy Valley.
Locanda dell Angelo isn´t cheap, but nor should it be. You pay $188 for burrata, $300 plus for meat and fish, $288 for that risotto – but then again, a seafood risotto at, er, Dan Ryan´s is more than $200. And somehow I don´t think Joël Robuchon called that one the best he had ever eaten.