My love for all things Italian knows no bounds. No matter where my journeys will take me, I am sure little Italy will have a special place in my heart. On food, there is nothing pretentious about the cuisine, for what you find is something both hearty and heart-warming, and one which takes pride in delivering richness in almost intricate simplicity. It is little wonder then that even in a roast duck-filled holiday in Beijing I craved for pasta, more than I thought I should and more than I expected myself to be, and for that reason alone I found myself in one of the best places in China that could possibly satiate that intimate longing - Cèpe at Beijing Financial Street's Ritz-Carlton.
Cèpe is a modern and posh Italian restaurant which prides itself in quality food and service that one would naturally expect from The Ritz-Carlton. Its setting, sleek and classy, is also at once cosy and even romantic, and is perfect for that special occasion you've been trying to plan all along. Pure love.
There is nothing more welcomed than a warm Bread Basket to whet your appetite. From the all-too-familiar fragrant foccacia to the crisp breadsticks and to the soft and supple ciabatta, these breads were quite simply a delight to have and to indulge leisurely in.
The Amuse-Bouche arrived in the form of a smoked amberjack atop a small bed of greens and a piece of herb-crusted bread. It was delicate and pleasant.
Zuppa di funghi porcini con castagne e rustico di ragu’ d’anatra al tartufo
Porcini mushroom soup with chestnuts
That Cèpe was named after porcini mushrooms, a traditional mainstay in Italian cooking, was no coincidence or gimmick. Chef de Cuisine Eugenio Iraci takes this ingredient seriously, and even oversees a mushroom humidor which houses a premium selection of dried and fresh mushrooms. The marks of care and quality was immediately evident from the Zuppa di Funghi Porcini, as it bore the rich flavour of the mushrooms from the very first spoonful. Thick and savoury, this soup is undoubtedly one of the best mushroom soups that I've had the honour of trying.
Linguine con astice, pomodoro fresco e basilico
Linguini with Boston lobster, fresh tomato and basil
"Sorry, what was that?" I asked puzzledly, as the well-groomed Italian manager leaned forward and suggested something in Chinese.
"Oh," he blinked, and then grinned, "Would you like to have some black pepper?"
Chuckling, I nodded and watched as he sprinkled some pepper on the pasta. When he was done, I thought it would only be gracious to address him in a way more familiar to him.
"Grazie," I smiled.
Taking an about-turn, he looked at me and laughed, "I speak to you in Chinese, and you speak to me in Italian."
"But I'm not Chinese, I mean, I'm not from China," I explained, "I'm from Singapore".
"Ah, Singapore, you come all the way here? On holiday?"
"Yes, but I'm missing Italian food... a lot." Then I added, "Been having too much Peking ducks as well."
Nodding, he smiled, "Then you must enjoy dinner tonight."
And boy, did I.
The Linguine con Astice was nothing short of amazing. It may even be possible that this is even better than Otto Ristorante's rendition of the Boston Lobster Linguine. While similarly done to al dente perfection, the pasta scored on its rich sauce which was thick, sweet and most importantly of all, authentic. And although I ordered a serving for one, it seemed to me like a whole lobster was used, but not that I'm complaining of course. Firm, juicy and fresh, the chunks of lobster were simply delicious. At one glance this dish looks simple, but each forkful was a magical weave of flavours, and pure pleasure.
Apple Crumble Tart with Vanilla Gelato
"Can I get you some dessert then?" the same Italian manager offered as he wheeled in the dessert trolley.
I paused. Desserts are always difficult.
"I can't decide between the tiramisu and the apple crumble," I admitted, "But I'm leaning towards the crumble... I think."
"Ah, the apple tart." His eyes twinkled and he made small wave at the tart as if he was a magician. "I know the best way to eat it."
I knew what was the best way I would eat it, but I wanted to be sure. "Tell me."
Clasping his hands, he said, "I'll warm it up till it's really hot, and then put a delicious scoop of cold vanilla gelato on the side."
This man knows his desserts too.
"I would love that please," I smiled.
And true enough, the Apple Crumble Tart with Vanilla Gelato turned out to be a winner. The tart was crisp on its ends but not overly crumbly, while fresh caramelised apple slices adorned its middle like priceless gems on a crown. The cold and creamy vanilla gelato, so beautifully dotted with vanilla beans, matched the hot crumble tart wonderfully.
"Excuse me," I waved to the waiter, "You left out my dessert in the bill."
The Chinese waiter took a look at the bill, frowned and disappeared for a moment with it. When he returned, he was smiling, "Our manager would like you to know that desserts are on him. He hopes you liked the dessert."
"Oh, I loved it," I said, as I got up, "But please, let me see him so I can thank him personally."
In all Italian warmth and hospitality, the manager put whatever he was doing aside and shook my outstretched hand with both of his. "If you return to Beijing, please come again," he said, "And maybe, try more desserts next time."
We exchanged cards, and with all honesty I said I hoped to return to Cèpe someday. Turning the card, I looked for a name - Alberto Michieli. A true Italian gentleman indeed.
This was definitely one of my best meals of the year.
110RMB for the Zuppa di Funghi Porcini
325RMB for the Linguine con Astice
90RMB for a glass of Italian white wine
60RMB for a bottle of still water
* Prices subject to 15% service charge.
The Ritz-Carlton Beijing, Financial Street
Xicheng District, Beijing.
Pictures taken with the Canon EOS 500D.