Unique Food Trails: Loh Lik Peng recommends rustic adventures in Italy
From monkfish in the mountains and ossobuco in the supermarkets, the hotelier-restauranteur and his family love eating local and authentic.
Think "ski holiday" and the food images usually conjured up are those of carb-laden plates and hearty stews.
But for hotelier and restaurateur Loh Lik Peng, the gastronomic highlight of a recent ski holiday with his family in the Dolomites of northern Italy was, rather surprisingly, seafood.
The dishes served at the humble family-run Rifugio Emilio Comici ("rifugio" means “refuge" or "shelter" in Italian) in Val Gardena were so delicious that Loh and his family – wife Min Lee and kids Conor, seven, and Cassidy, three – returned for another two meals during their stay.
“Live lobsters, scallops, oysters, everything was really good!," gushed Loh. "They had some of the best monkfish I’ve ever had. I was amazed to find it in the mountains. They told me that produce was all local and from the nearby Venice coastline.”
FEASTING (AND COOKING) IN VAL GARDENA
The Lohs tried seafood salads with generous portions of octopus, prawns and lobsters, and tasty pastas cooked with lobster and roasted porcini mushrooms. The fresh and lightly-seasoned monkfish fillets were, in Loh’s opinion, cooked to perfection, while the lemon sole, pan-fried in butter and served bone-in, was also excellent.
“It was simple preparation but clearly done by a very skilled kitchen team,” Loh told CNA Luxury.
Reservations are recommended or be prepared to wait very patiently for a table.
Val Gardena is a valley located in the Dolomites, a stunning UNESCO World Heritage mountain range in the northern Italian Alps. It has three villages – Ortisei, Santa Cristina and Selva Val Gardena – and besides Italian and German, the inhabitants also speak Ladin, a language older than Italian.
Culinary gems like Emilio Comici were gleaned from locals, namely the ski instructors. “It is apparently quite a legend among them,” said Loh. “Other food recommendations were from Irish friends who regularly ski here. The rest is a mixture of research and taking a chance on a place that looks decent.”
Another recommendation: Rifugio Fodom, where, after a morning of skiing, Loh ejoyed a mammoth slab of medium sirloin – “It must have been about 400 grams!” – and a regional speciality of sausage patty, mixed mushroom, polenta, and a slice of grilled local hard cheese.
As the Lohs usually travel with their young children, they prefer apartments with kitchen facilities and nearby supermarkets. On this trip, the produce at their local supermarket became the inspiration for home-cooked meals as dad discovered very reasonably priced rabbit meat, cheeses and Parma ham.
“It was just €15 to €20 (S$23 to S$30) per meal to feed a family of four heartily!” said Loh, who whipped up a slow-cooked rabbit casserole with white sauce made from €10 wine. Leftovers were turned into a delicious fettucine dish the next day.
He also made a slow-cooked beef ragu, sneaking in plenty of vegetables such as carrots, celery and courgette for the kids, as well as a huge pot of ossobuco cooked in a red wine and tomato stew with heaps of garlic, onion, celery and carrots.
'SERIOUSLY TASTY' VERONA
Verona was another delightful place for Loh, where there were so many good restaurants to try that he did not attempt to cook at all. One was Osteria Casa Vino, teeming with locals, and home to the best pasta Loh ate on the trip: Fresh tagliolini tossed with cuttlefish, prawn and aromatic herbed crispy breadcrumbs.
At Michelin Plate Trattoria I Masenini, a cosy traditional trattoria near the Castelvecchio castle, he had a local speciality, a “very delicious” bigoli pasta with sardines and crispy breadcrumbs followed by crispy suckling pig. Lee had her favourite tartare and a lamb shank, which Loh described as “seriously tasty”.
When it comes to meal choices, Loh says that his wife usually leaves the decision to him. “For her, eating is more of a function, but for me it is a different thing,” said Loh. “She is quite happy to indulge me although in some ways, she’s the more adventurous one as she eats virtually everything. She even ate sea worms in Korea, which I don’t even want to try!”
The couple had a date night in Verona at one-Michelin star Ristorante Il Desco, a 30-year-old legend on the Verona dining scene, said Loh, who loved the 14th-century dining room and the excellent meal service. “The tasting menu was creative with great produce and clever touches. Scampi tempura and creamy sweet bread were among my favourite dishes.”
As papa and mama had their food thrills, travel troopers Conor and Cassidy were happy to tuck into their favourite pizzas and carbonara pasta at every meal.
For Loh, exploring the unknown is part of the fun when unearthing great eats.
“It does not have to be fine dining because I often travel with the kiddos, but it needs to be tasty and nutritious," he said. "I think it’s just making the effort to find good eating places wherever you go."