Cantina: Honest Italian Fine Dining in Central's Colonial Cavern of Tai Kwun
October 27, 2022
Its moniker the Italian word for “canteen,” the ravishing Cantina is a far cry from any typical cafeteria. Standing where the Police Headquarters once occupied, the historic location uses the colonial-style interiors to their full advantage, stunning every guest the moment they step up to the outside building.
Headed by executive head chef Andrea Mura, Cantina’s full-bodied menu encompasses fantastic offerings culled out of regional Italy, from the northern parts all the way to the coasts of the south. Fresh produce traditional to the nation are honoured through longstanding recipes and elevated with a contemporary flourish. Serving lunches and dinners during the week, and switching to brunches and dinners over the weekends, the establishment is a standout in the Central area for all sorts of occasions.
Venue and Atmosphere
Perched along the square of the Tai Kwun Block 01, the cushy Cantina dining room is wedged between sister restaurant The Chinese Library and ever-so-sleek The Dispensary bar. Glinting light fixtures beam down spotlights over dinner tables complemented by textured walls and seating in matching silvers.
The building’s preserved wooden fixtures and floors add a character and timeworn touch to the venue, an anachronistic detail that has been transformed to seamlessly fit the tone of the spacious restaurant. The low-key lighting at play during dinner service hours makes the place a prime meeting place for casual off-hour drinks and shared dinners in good company. Elegant French windows afford guests seated along the wood framed booths a glance outside to the bright lights of Central, and a spot for the liveliness of the Parade Grounds soaking through during brunches and lunches.
Food and Drink
After a warm, gold star Italo-welcome to our booth table, the tasting began with some small bites that set the tone to come. Sent to the table on a platter that could have easily been mistaken as an abstract paperweight, the homely Chickpea Fritters with Lime Mayo (HK$118) were the edible equivalent of a hospitable greeting.
The squares were sorely crunchy and carby, with a zing of zest from the dabbed-on lime mayo. The refreshing Albacore White Tuna Crudo (HK$138) that followed gave a similar show of sweet-and-sour colour in its honey and calamansi dressing, along with a kick from the sprinkling of chilli and almonds. Arranged into a flowering disc with stripes of green accompanied by dots of scarlet, the dish is a splendid sight.
An unmissable course of almost any Italian restaurant, enter the pasta varieties. Highlighting the Rigatoni with Tomato Sauce, Eggplant and Salted Ricotta (HK$218) and Spaghetti with Sicilian Red Prawns and Burrata (HK$278), the humble tomato sauce was given a stage on which to shine. In both, handmade pasta is cooked to al-dente perfection and portioned off into an elegant morsel occupying the centrepiece of the shapely dishes, exciting the visual senses.
Despite the former being a vegetarian dish, the richness of the cooked eggplant, savoury cheese, and thick sauce beautifully meld to give the flavourings more volume and depth. On the other hand, the spaghetti plays into a contrasting lightness, letting the supple prawn and delicately creamy burrata uplift the bright notes of the tomato. It is exactly this lightness that makes it an apt precursor to the starring mains of the evening—Milanese Breaded Veal Cutlet (HK$478) and Salt baked Mediterranean Sea Bass (HK$438).
Fragrant with the lingering butter used to shallow fry the item, the Milanese veal cutlet is deftly flavoured with rosemary and sea salt. The seasonings sink into the meat through the butter transfusion that seeps into every mouthful of the tender young beef, proficiently treated to melt in your mouth.
Wheeled out on an assuming tray, the sea bass makes an appearance ensconced in a layer of salt packing that’s lit up into a great flash of blue flames. The fish is then unearthed from its densely baked coat to reveal a soft and exquisite fillet packed with an inviting marine aroma accompanied by the slight char inherited from the flambé. A squeeze of lime and a spoonful of the accompanying vegetables caponata to complement with verdant shine.
In classic Italian fashion, the meal would not be considered complete without a heaping serving of Tiramisu served table side, which we will never fail to reserve our second stomach for. Opting for the Pistachio (HK$118) variant after weighing our choices of a Classic (HK$118) versus the Hazelnut (HK$118), we were met with the familiar luscious mouthful of dense, sweet cream. Never venturing into overpowering sweetness or cutting pungency as the result of a customary liqueur base, with a layer of robust nuttiness from the pistachio, it was an all-rounded bite that ended the meal on a great high.
A gem amongst the stunning Aqua concept dining rooms lined up along the upper Tai Kwun block, Cantina stands as a gorgeous yet intimate cavern where you will find a display of all the classic flavourings that make Italian cuisine so wonderful. Combining the flourish of fine dining with a comforting palate that makes the most out of authentic ingredients and techniques, Cantina is a modern interpretation of no-nonsense Italian cooking.
We recommend ordering for the table, and selecting the Chickpea Fritters with Lime Mayo (HK$118) to begin with. Then get ready to hunker down on a sharing Milanese Breaded Veal Cutlet with Fried Rosemary and Sea Salt (HK$478, 450g) or Salt baked Mediterranean Sea Bass served with Vegetables Caponata (HK$438), alongside the Spaghetti with Sicilian Red Prawns and Burrata (HK$278) to mellow out with the zest that only a hearty traditional red sauce can bring. Before rounding it all off with Table Side Tiramisu (HK$118). Best enjoyed when doled out and passed around in mellow cheer, family-style.
With Thanks and In Partnership with Aqua Restaurant Group Ltd.
This food review is based on a complimentary media tasting provided by Cantina. The opinions expressed within represent the views of the author.
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