Michelin-starred Il Ristorante by Niko Romito Saturday Brunch...Simply fabulous - Bvlgari Hotel, Beijing

Having been in Beijing for over a year now, I have had the pleasure of trying quite a few brunches. I have become accustomed to a very formulaic approach. It has become comfortable actually, knowing what to expect conceptually. In quite a few cases, I have also lowered my expectations of service because I guess you could say this is a fairly young brunch market and restaurants in general are still learning. However, the playbook was thrown out recently when I went to Il Ristorante by Niko Romito  at the Bvlgari Hotel for Saturday brunch. As I was met at the door by Silvia, the hotel's Assistant F&B Director and guided past a bevy of Italian chefs making last minute adjustments to the brunch, I thought to myself, "Finally, a brunch that takes me on a journey". The thing is I have had the pleasure the last few years of trying some of the most incredible brunches while in the Middle East - Il Ristorante took me back to those brunches! These are the main talking points for me after my experience

1. Service started before I arrived for brunch

I made the booking a few days earlier and on calling the hotel, everything was dealt with professionally, with none of the usual excuses about being unable to speak English. My details were taken and questions like which subway and exit to use were answered - this was so refreshing! I then received a message confirming my booking. Brilliant. 

2. The perfect venue

The restaurant is housed in the exquisite Bvlgari Hotel, a genuine haven of tranquility in a  bustling city. The hotel's entrance and lobby exudes simplicity, earthiness and none of the over the top expressions of luxury I was expecting to greet the local market. Stunning art work, a hidden check in area and complimentary candies in the lounge met my walk to the restaurant.  The restaurant itself caters for no more than 70 guests, in-keeping with the boutique nature of the hotel. This meant a very intimate brunch, a  far cry from the 300+ guests that a typical brunch has. The bar has smartly been transformed into the buffet area, ensuring that space remains a key feature of the brunch. There is also a dessert station. I am very sensitive about hotels wasting food, especially the lavish buffets in the city. I am so pleased that this buffet is much smaller but don't interpret that as a lack of variety. They have taken a more qualitative approach. 

Finally, it is essentially a story of two brunches, three if you include the terrace if you sit there. The main dining area contrasts to the bar  seating area. The former is much 'older' and quieter, as reflected in the music, while the latter is where you get that brunch vibe with more uptempo music. This is great as it allows  a space for each type of guest. No matter where you sit, be assured of massive floor to ceiling windows that afford views of the garden.

3. Chefs on the floor

I always see this as one of the most appealing aspects in a  brunch - seeing the men or women in white and on this occasion, one in black moving around the brunch, making sure quality is well controlled. I say 'man in black' because I had the pleasure of talking to Executive Chef Marco Veneruso, picking his brain about the brunch in general. One seldom sees executive chefs on the floor because of their big responsibilities in the hotel, but this was great. I also had the chance to interact with the very hands-on Sous chef, Gabriele Delgrossi ...It instills confidence in a  guest when there are so many chefs on the floor, but more than that, they are Italian. It lends that authenticity to the afternoon. By the way, there are another two Italian chefs. 

4. Food

Of course, one has to talk about the food! It is indeed an Italian feast with a fantastic range of antipasti. The cold cuts are a must, accentuated by prosciutto on melon! I need to comment on the melon - fruit is a big risk, isn't it? Sweet today and flavourless tomorrow. I have been to many brunches where a meal would have been better served if the fruit was simply not served; serving fruit for fruit's sake does not go with me. With prosciutto on melon, the dish is not only about the former. It is about both, so let me say, the melon was superb. It had the right texture and sweetness to serve as balance for the prosciutto. Well done! 

In terms of seafood, I am compelled to recommend the sea bream with tapenade - just a sublime match!

My indulgence of the day, though, was definitely the Beef tartar to the point that I made two trips to the buffet just for this. In many ways it typified Italian Dishes - keep it simple and stick to a few basic ingredients. 

I like that Chef has not compromised the integrity of the Italian brunch by pandering to his main clientele by serving many Chinese dishes. Having said that, he serves a suckling pig which has that broad appeal to guests. On another note, the biggest surprise of my day was  the Hummus and mini pita bread. I loved it. But make no mistake, this is an Italian experience!

Finally, one of the weaknesses of a buffet concept is that after a couple visits to the buffet, the surprise element is gone. As  humans we want to be wowed constantly! That is why pass-arounds as a concept is so important. We ended up having Calamarata with eggplant and tomato sauce. Sadly, though, there was just the one pass-around. In a   2 and 1/2 hour brunch, it would be nice to see 2 or even 3. I am quite happy to have a smaller buffet if it means there are those surprise elements when I see the trolley coming. 

Admittedly, I seldom do sweet desserts at brunch, happy to stick to a cheese course, but the dessert selection at Il Ristorante's brunch had me reaching for a fork. Classics like Tiramisu and pistachio-filled Cannoli are a must, but so is the mousse pictured below. That is one of the prettiest desserts I have seen in a while - kudos to the pastry team! As for the mousse...so light! Living in a time of social media and name dropping, I am pretty sure these are the most photographed at brunch :-) 

5. Bubbles, more bubbles and even more bubbles

The Saturday brunch by default offers a Spritz package consisting of Aperol and Campari for an excellent price of 158RMB. Trust me, a Saturday afternoon sipping Aperol Spritz is  not a  bad way at all to while away the time. However, the Sunday brunch package includes  a mid-range bubbly option at 398RMB. Because it included my favourite Italian sparkling, the Ca'del Bosco Cuvée Prestige Brut, it was offered on request - I appreciate it when restaurants think outside the box. This turned out to be a fabulous choice. The Ca'del Bosco is as good as many a glass of champagne I have had. Seriously, it is very good. It is not often that I am more excited about a sparkling wine than a champagne, but this day I was. Incidentally, the rest of the package is not too shabby. 

Bellavista Alma Gran Cuvee Franciacorta DOCG, Lombadia, Italy NV  
Ca'del Bosco Cuvée Prestige Brut, Franciacorta DOCG, Lombadia, Italy 
Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label Brut, Reims, Champagne, France NV 
Perrier Jouët Blason Rosé, Épernay, Champagne, France NV  

This is quite an impressive line up of bubbly. Because they are all so distinct, each one offers the palate something different. Finally, the price point is such that it is worth living on peanut butter sandwiches the next week!

6. Service

Service at restaurants in Beijing are for me, a work in progress. It is not uncommon to encounter Swiss hotel school-trained staff who lack the confidence to back that up with sass and attitude on the floor. It is as if many of them live between the pages of a training manual. At this brunch, however, I saw enough to suggest that this restaurant is not plagued my many of the service issues encountered elsewhere. Of course there were a few things that I did find strange, like trying to pour the Ca'del Bosco in my Perrier Jouet Rosé glass or pouring the last few drops of bubbly in a glass without anticipating to bring a new bottle. Nonetheless, these are issues that are easily corrected. For me there is one act of service that I look to in order to see where staff are at: Do they replace cutlery unsolicited once they have cleared plates? An unequivocal YES! This is the first time at a  brunch in Beijing that this was done, consistently. Service, overall, is alert and even engaging at times. 

Overall Verdict

This is the brunch, that for me, sets the standard so far. While my journey continues, it has raised the proverbial bar very high. The brunch promises an Italian experience and delivers that. It is a luxurious brunch - I have to mention the Dibbern china, Zwiesel glassware and of course Bvlgari branded silver - but it is in no way ostentatious. The food is abundant, in that typical Italian fashion, without being wasteful, while the drinks, well, what can I say? However, it is the human factor that pushes the brunch to another level. Silvia and Chef Marco lead their respective teams by example, engaging guests and taking a genuine interest in the happenings of the day. As good as food and wine are, the human touch supersedes everything! 

Edit: The restaurant was awarded one star by Michelin on 28 November, 2019. 

The lowdown

Il Ristorante by Niko Romito Brunch,
Bvlgari Hotel Beijing
86 (10) 8555 8555
Il Ristorante by Niko Romito

Buffet 398 (slightly scaled down from Sunday)
Free flow of spritz 158
Seafood plate 198

Buffet 618 (incl lobster and caviar)
Free flow of Ferrari 298
Free flow of Bellavista, Cà del Bosco, Veuve Cliquot and Perrier Jouet 398
Free flow of Dom Perignon 1988

Brandon Stoltenkamp