Usually when a chef as internationally acclaimed as Umberto Bombana comes to a developing place like Beijing, it’s only short-term. Chefs of his calibre usually do a promotional stint at a hotel restaurant, stroll around the Forbidden City and promptly jet back off to wherever they came from. So Bombana, the only Italian chef to win three Michelin stars outside of Italy, surprised us all when he set up his own restaurant in town. Surprised, and delighted.
Bombana founded Hong Kong’s celebrated Italian restaurant 8 ½ Otto e Mezzo in 2010, stunning the folks at Michelin, who gave it two stars that year and upgraded it to three in 2012. Also last year, the Miele Guide crowned Bombana ‘Chef of Chefs in Asia’ for his artisanal yet contemporary Italian cuisine. Of course, like any ambitious chef who strikes it big, he decided to franchise. Shanghai was first, with a branch regarded among the top Italian places to eat in the city. Now there’s Opera Bombana, which has set up shop in the contemporary-art-lined Parkview Green mall, and, like the Shanghai branch, it is excellent.
Even if you know nothing about chef Bombana’s success, Opera Bombana tells you everything you need to know as you sink into a cream-coloured chair in his accessible new digs; a spacious arrangement of glass, brick and dark brown wood. It’s a lot to take in, with private rooms and an original Monet upstairs, a wine cellar and bar on the first level, and an outdoor space for pre-meal cocktails. The drinks alternate between classical Italian and simply classic, with dress-shoepatrons sipping everything from negronis (68RMB) to herbal, refreshing mix-it-yourself rosemary and thyme gin and tonics (68RMB).
The brief, well-curated menu, executed by former Sureño chef Marino D’Antonio, maintains an emphasis on rustic Italian cooking – meals as made by a rather cosmopolitan village grandmother. And here, that means mountains of great bread. Dough master Giuliano Pediconi uses only imported Italian flour in the on-site bakery, where three ovens – bordered off from the diners by a display of semolina flour and cracked wheat – create perfect bread to eat in or take away (perhaps to a picnic; see Food feature). Finish your doughy ciabatta and have a soft focaccia farcita arrive within a blink of an eye, ready to dip into a constantly refilled olive oil dish. Rest assured: this will surely fill you up if you are worried about your money’s worth.
Throughout the meal less is more. There’s not much to look at in the paper-lined bowl of fritto misto (138RMB), which are thick, burly cuts of squid and shrimp, salted and squirted with lemon. But a restaurant this flawless doesn’t need to resort to thoughtless, silly gimmickry.
Antipasti lead seamlessly into the rest of the offerings, in particular the delightfully al dente pastas. Thick-cut noodles are bathed in a savoury mushroom ragout in the papardelle (128RMB). Bombana’s signature tagiatelle (188RMB), textured and layered with sea urchin and courgette, re-establishes the chef’s mastery.
The same stands with the rest of Opera Bombana's mains, separated into cuts of meat, seafood and straightforward grilled options: think grain-fed tenderloin, rib-eye and sirloin. These belie the skill that goes on behind kitchen doors. Cuts of medium-rare tuna (278RMB), for instance, are seared on the edges while retaining a clean, natural flavour amid neighbouring fruity capers and olive sauce. The pork belly and cheek are so rich and meltingly soft they could be mistaken for butter if not for the thin, crispy skin that crackled with every satisfying bite.
As we savoured a velvety, decadent Opera Cake (68RMB), flecked with gold leaf to accentuate its richness, the manager came and asked if we had any suggestions. We couldn’t think of anything to improve. But our two cents for any potential diners? Cook at home for the next week. Everyone should have a little money saved away for a seat at Opera Bombana.