After receiving the Art of Hospitality Award at Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2019 for their restaurant 8 ½ Otto e Mezzo Bombana in Hong Kong, Umberto Bombana and Marino Braccu tell us how they set about crafting a personal experience for every diner (and get them to book to come back)
Chatting casually to chef Umberto Bombana and general manager Marino Braccu about 8 ½ Otto e Mezzo Bombana, it transpires their idea of what makes a great restaurant isn’t what you might expect. No question can be answered in the singular: everything they consider unique about their Hong Kong home is the subtle integration of many moving parts, which together create that elusive “hospitality experience” they have ironed out as smoothly as the starched white linen on the tables in the dining room.
Braccu, who as general manager and host is the driving force behind the restaurant’s hospitality, calls it ‘closing the circle’. “Many restaurants can work with only two or three elements, but to close the circle, you need more,” he begins.
“We make sure that the experience starts with a great receptionist, so that the booking is made in the best possible way. Then, when the customer arrives, we have an outstanding mixologist who makes the cocktails, then there’s the wine list, the food that chef Bombana proposes, the service, the vibe of the restaurant. You don't need all these elements to make a restaurant work, but to create a great experience, you absolutely do,” says Braccu.
8 ½ Otto e Mezzo Bombana's bar and dining room
8 ½ Otto e Mezzo Bombana is, in fact, the only spot that has been voted on both the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants and Asia’s 50 Best Bars lists, highlighting the team’s effort to achieve excellence in all facets – but receiving the Art of Hospitality Award was still a surprise.
“Honestly, we didn’t expect it,” says Braccu. “We are surrounded by great restaurants and they all provide wonderful experiences, but we have always had this feature that when the customer comes, we pamper them and spoil them. We make sure that even at a three-Michelin-starred restaurant, people can relax thanks to the great service and great experience, which is unusual.”
“We have a responsibility now, because people will come and want to see what we do in the dining room,” he continues. “We don’t have to do more nor less than we did before, we have to be ourselves, keep the same standard and do quality service as we have always done.”
Exporting the spirit of Italian conviviality to Hong Kong, Bombana set up 8 ½ Otto e Mezzo Bombana (named after the chef’s favourite film by Italian director Federico Fellini) nearly a decade ago – it celebrates its 10th birthday in January 2020. “The best thing is that in 10 years, we have never had an empty table. We keep on renewing ourselves, otherwise the restaurant wouldn’t last 10 or 20 years, and it wouldn’t become an institution,” says Bombana.
Homemade tagliolini with mushroom jus and Alba white truffle
The idea of continuous evolution is also key to its success. “In Hong Kong, you can't give the perception of being in stalemate. You always have to show that you are moving, even if – and especially when – the restaurant is going well,” agrees Braccu.
The Italian duo highlights that at the restaurant, nothing is ever stationary: the bar chairs are regularly renewed, the cutlery refreshed, the porcelain changed. “It’s a sustained search for unique products and for developments in the kitchen, as well as the research that Marino does into the wines as sommelier,” says Bombana.
As for the food, Bombana describes it as “world-class, signature food with great-quality ingredients”. The menu is refined and precise and, when in season, always featuring one of Bombana’s favourite ingredients: white truffle. The chef was among the first to introduce the product to Hong Kong and the restaurant has a reputation for serving generous portions.
From delicate burrata cheese ravioli with cherry tomatoes, aubergine and basil, to mains such as the ultra-tender veal tenderloin with parsley gnocchi and green vegetables, the dining experience combines a nostalgia for traditional Italian cooking with the will to innovate – finishing with stand-out white truffle gelato. And it’s all stitched together by the seamless service.
“It’s a combination of so many things, a sense of taking care of people from the moment they walk through the door until they have their coffee and leave,” says Bombana. “The goal is that when they leave, they make a reservation to come back.”
Header images: Braccu and Bombana collect the Art of Hospitality Award on stage at Asia's 50 Best Restaurants 2019, the dish Baby Lamb from Aveyron
Catch up on all the highlights for the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2019 events in Macao: