European-style al fresco dining is hard to come by in Hong Kong, which makes Gaia’s unique setting a huge drawcard. Located at the edge of a Roman-style piazza complete with tiered fountains and small gardens just between Central and Sheung Wan, and with its outdoor dining area shielded by lush vegetation laced with fairy lights, Gaia succeeds brilliantly in creating a laidback and intimate atmosphere in the heart of the city. For those wishing to dine indoors, there is ample seating amid the modern trattoria-style décor, while there are also two private rooms tucked away within.
Gaia has been serving up classic Italian cuisine for more than a decade, and its menu is an assured mix of old favourites and inviting comfort food (although we were disappointed to see two dishes featuring bluefin tuna on the menu). Burrata cheese with Parma ham and homemade dried tomatoes (HK$188) is a plateful of creamy goodness well complemented by the sharper flavours of the other ingredients. Soft-boiled Italian eggs with roasted wild mushrooms and black summer truffle (HK$228) is even better, the egg yolks having a consistency close to caramel, while the earthy flavours of mushroom and truffle combine to create a moreish mélange. As you might expect, they know what they’re doing when it comes to pasta here, and the maccheroni with cured pork cheek, tomato and pecorino Romano cheese (HK$198) is al dente to perfection and comes slathered in just the right amount of sauce and chunks of meat. Ours was a little too heavy on the salt though, an affliction shared by the pan-roasted veal chop with garlic and herbs, porcini mushrooms and barley risotto (HK$448). Served on an enormous square plate, it’s hard to fault the quality of the meat or the preparation. But an excess of salt overpowered the whole endeavour and had us reaching thirstily for the nearest glass. Dessert was a far more balanced affair, thankfully. The warm chocolate pudding (HK$118) was the perfect balance of cocoa goodness – not too sweet or too bitter, too runny or too firm. Skip the cheese platter (HK$168) though. The selection plonked on our table without introduction or explanation varied between the bland and the over-salty.
Fans of Italian wine will find themselves spoiled for choice at Gaia as the restaurant features one of the largest and most diverse selections in the city. As well as an embarrassment of riches from every major region of the old country, the list also includes some rare finds from Gaia’s own private cellar. The usual and not-so-usual suspects from France are also present and well represented in a list of around 600 wines that also features tipples from Spain, Slovenia, the US and South Africa. More than 30 wines are available by the glass.
Although friendly and welcoming enough, the staff could improve the dining experience significantly by introducing the dishes and by being more alert to things such as water glasses needing refilled or customers looking to catch their attention.
A three-course meal for two people, without wine and service, costs around HK$1,400. For the setting, relaxed atmosphere and general food quality, it’s worth the money.