Black Sheep Restaurants are well known for creating eateries whose various elements weave together to form a colourful narrative: Their latest restaurant, a Tuscan-style trattoria which opens this week, tells the story of the group’s beginnings, a nostalgic tip of the hat to the Italian-style steakhouse where co-founders Syed Asim Hussain and Christopher Mark first crossed paths, and to a region that’s since inspired many a meal at their restaurants. Popped up surreptitiously next door to their New York pizzeria, Motorino on Ship Street, Associazione Chianti may be a mouthful to pronounce, but the name is thankfully the most complicated thing about the restaurant, where easy conversation and wines flow.
Associazione Chianti is helmed by Executive Chef Josh Stumbaugh; like other chefs in the Black Sheep family, Stumbaugh has spent time making the rounds around the BSR portfolio in preparation to steer his own ship. Prior to that, he cut his teeth as head chef of Barbuto, a now-shuttered Italian eatery located in the West Village of NYC. His take on Florentine classics come across as simple and unfussy: from the handmade tagliatelle laced with truffle to a rustic trio of crostini. Fresh, seasonal ingredients power a menu that’s defined as cucina povera, a mode of cooking that relies on simple preparation of the best ingredients found across the region, with an emphasis on prime cuts of protein.
In true BSR fashion, it should be noted that a meal doesn’t begin at Associazione Chianti without a greeting from your very chipper server that’s as bright and cheery as the Tuscan sun. They’ll rattle off a list of the ‘house rules’, which go as follows: 1. A steak less than 3 inches tall is a carpaccio. 2. Pasta should always be eaten with a fork, never twirled on a spoon. 3. Ever meal shall be accompanied with a glass of red wine.
This last mandate is easy: The wine list, found on the succinct one-page menu (food on the front, wines on the back), roams freely through the Italian countryside, from full-bodied Piedmont Barbera to crisp whites from northern Trentino Alto Adige, and of course, dry and earthy Chianti harvested from the rolling vineyards of Tuscany. We count less than 10 bottles priced over the HK$1,000 mark, with a good portion hovering between HK$500–600 — not at all bad for the well-curated offering. Close connections with growers around Italy have allowed BSR to keep the wine list affordable and bespoke — the latter extends to the restaurant’s own private label wine, a complex Chianti Classico.
These relationships with local producers are central to why Mark and Hussain hold this restaurant close to heart: In addition to first meeting at a Florentine-style bistecca in Hong Kong nearly a decade ago, they’ve since travelled extensively around Italy and Florence in particular (the Tuscany capital is also the muse for their Elgin Street bar and café, Stazione Novella). Much of this time has been spent seeking out and building relationships with Italian producers and artisans — their prized ingredients informing a menu that embraces a true ‘farm-to-table’ ethos.
Accompanied by fine wines and smiling service, a meal at Associazione flows freely over the course of several hours, grazing over shared plates of premium Italian produce. Our tasting commenced with a complimentary dish of warm nodini, soft bread knots studded with nubs of salty prosciutto, and pinzimonio, an array of colourful raw veggies (tomatoes, fennel, cucumber, red endive and carrots) paired with a creamy dip. It’s an act of generosity that lifts our mood in the same manner as the welcome basket of parm and spicy salami at Black Sheep’s LKF Tower restaurant, Carbone.
A platter of crostini misti (HK$118) are a wonderful way as any to kick off the meal, with three rustic bruschetta weighed down with assorted toppings: ripe juicy tomato with chopped shallot and chives, cannellini bean puree with sofrito, and our favourite, a silky smooth chicken liver pâté sprinkled with fried shallots. Other tempting selections from the antipasti and salads include triangles of pecorino al fieno (HK$168), the chalky cheese drizzled in thyme-infused honey; Tuscan-style steak tartare (HK$178) and mixed chicory leaves brightened with an anchovies, parmesan and lemon dressing (HK$158).
The Primi section ensues with a handful of homemade pastas and a hearty minestrone soup. The garganelli would be even more wonderful had the ridged, cylindrical pasta been rolled out thinner to ensure the centre was cooked through, but the Chianti beef ragu it’s burrowed under is fantastic, simmered down for 4 hours to ensure fall-apart tender beef, enriched with red wine and lifted with fresh herbs.
A golden twirl of tagliatelle is slicked with white truffle butter and anointed with fresh truffle shavings; once the season is over for the fragrant tubers, diners can resort to the classic combo of prosciutto, peas and mint (HK$188). The other two pastas — hand-rolled pici and plump tortelli stuffed with sheep’s milk ricotta — are also HK$188, a reasonable price given the generous portion sizes.
Of course, the pièce de résistance at Associazione Chianti is the bistecca — the beef cuts here are from free-roaming Idaho cows and are dry-aged in-house. We tried a 10-day Bistecca alla Fiorentina, which was just starting to develop the intensity and funk of dry-aged beef (naturally, those visiting later can look forward to older and more intensely flavoured meats). With minimal salt and pepper, the formidable crust on all sides of the T-bone extracts flavour from a robust housemade dry rub of shiitake mushrooms, thyme and rosemary, the intense sear giving way to a rosy medium-rare on both the fillet and ribeye. A small selection of sides (HK$58-68) includes spinaci (‘overcooked’ in the classic Tuscan style with olive oil, lemon and garlic), roasted potatoes, and fagioli shot through with citrus.
The restaurant’s facade is designated with big block letters on Ship Street, with neon-lit signs and glass display cases mimicking the look and feel of an Italian butcher’s shop. Inside, decor is relatively sparse, relying on the glow of tall flickering heavy wax candles at each table and bulbous pendant lights hanging in rows overhead to create the intimate, romantic ambience of a Tuscan trattoria. Bottles of wine line wooden shelves along one wall, while a centre bar cart is stocked with a basic selection of spirits (pro tip: ask the bartender to whip you up a classic Negroni, jazzed up with a few drops of chocolate bitters). In the back is a glass display case, where ribs and assorted cuts hang on meat hooks, daring you not to indulge your deepest, primal instincts.
Perhaps most satisfying is the price point: pastas cost less than HK$200, there’s complimentary aperitivo bites, and the massive Bistecca alla Fiorentina, which could feed 3 or 4, is a steal at HK$1,188. A glass of Chianti, a steak and good company spell pleasure in a way that’s most fundamental to Florentine food culture — a tradition that Associazione Chianti captures here with authenticity and soul.
Associazione Chianti is now open daily from Tues–Sun from 6–11pm (last order at 10:30pm).