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Saturday, March 17, 2007

San Domenico

The day: 24th February 2007, Dinner.
The place: Via Gaspare Sacchi, 1, Imola, Italy (tel +39 0542 29000)
The venue: Ristorante San Domenico
The food: Fine Italian Dining
The drinks: Very extensive list, mostly Italian and European, starting from around €40. No list by the glass

It was with some trepidation that we approached this historical temple of Italian cuisine, still the holder of two Michelin stars. Some say that the temple is ancient: but we are not put off by this, we don't care about fashions and we like classical cusine. So we went with great expectations, though also in the knowledge that we could never meet our £100 (for two) rule. But luckily we were in tow of two benefactors, Megaman and Megawoman.

The interior is lush and elegant, subdivided in several rooms decorated in warm colours, creating an intimate atmosphere. The tables are well spaced and vast, in fact almost too vast, forcing Man to raise the tone of his voice to make it reach the mega-ears of Megaman, sitting at the other end of the rectangular table (we said vast, Via Condotti please take notice). We are afraid you’ll have to make do with this brief description, as the place was full (Saturday night), and we could not take a picture of the rooms without disturbing the other diners.

Instead, here is on the left some butter with the emblem.

The usual (in Italy, that is) free welcome drink is a glass of excellent bubbly Equipe 5 from Cantina di Soave, together with the menus. Here Woman gets irritated once again, no prices for the ladies: how retro. There are two tasting menus, at €120/€125, as well as a good a la carte list, with prices in the range €40 to €70.

The selection of breads, all made on the premises, is exceptional, both in range and quality.

The selection of complimentary amouse bouche was also striking:

The top picture shows a kind of fried dough with squacquerone cheese. In the lower picture, a combination of raw swordfish, salmon with rocket puree and a skewer of mushroom and aubergines with vanilla candied orange. Rich combination of flavours, very satisfying.

But it is not over! Another complimentary soup of clams and mussels with shellfish croquette.

For both Man and Woman this was the highlight of the presents from the kitchen (and they were all fantastically good). The light crispiness of the croquette (not your usual one, but made up of tiny bits of crustacean pastry) combined perfectly with the deep flavour of the fish broth.

An atmosphere of opulent elegance has been firmly established.

Up to now we had been dined and wined for free, with a bottomless glass of the bubbly to boot: we seriously considered thanking and running then .

But instead, here are our orders. Roasted lobster (to be precise, astice) with extra virgin olive oil must and sauteed broccoli sprouts (€50) was the choice of both Megaman and Megawoman to begin their dinner.

We did not try the astice, but they looked megahappy.

We settled more modestly for a riso mantecato (read risotto for it) with Arnad suet (lardo produced in the Val D'Aosta region) and ‘strigoli di fosso’ (a wild leaf vegetable) with caramelised roast meat sauce (€40); and egg in raviolo ‘San Domenico’ with malga butter, sweet parmesan cheese and black truffle (€40). A ‘malga’ is an Alpine hut where shepherds find shelter and prepare cheese and butter with the milk from the cows grazing in the Alpine pastures. This milk is of exceptional quality.

The rice was a bit too al dente to our taste, but still this did not prevent us from thoroughly enjoying the lushness of the fat and the rich meat sauce on the palate, well balanced by the vegetables.

The raviolo was quite literally a big single raviolo filled with egg yolk, then doused in the butter and showered with the parmesan and the truffles. The egg yolk was runny. How do they do that? If you don’t want to know look away now...

Answer: bring the egg yolk rapidly to a suitably low temperature, insert in the ravioli dough, close and boil until the pasta is cooked and the yolk is just still runny.

Apart from this technique which requires precision and equipment, but which any professional chef masters, here the focus is on the ingredients, all very top quality : the physical feel on the tongue was rich, luscious, decadent. Nonetheless, tastewise it was not the most balanced of dishes, as the fat note was too dominant overall, too strong even for the intense sharp and wonderful perfume of the black truffles. We wondered whether something better could not have been done with the ravioli than copiously cover them with cheese and butter, no matter how exalted the provenance of these condiments.

For mains, Megaman and Megawoman went both for Scampi (langoustines) del Quarnaro with pureed broccoli (clearly the chef likes broccoli with his crustaceans), deep fried baby squids and Modena balsamic vinegar. Megaprice too: €70 each. At this point we thought they would have been much better off by going for a set menu. But, being Mega, they don't even ponder such petty details. Here is a photo of the langoustines:

To be fair, megaportion too. We didn’t try the whole dish but we managed to steal one piece of langoustines, and it was one of the best Man ever tried. Woman enjoyed it too (note by Man: she's clearly learning British understatement).

Man ordered lamb chops ‘cooked two ways’, roasted with thyme and fried in bread crust, with cheese croquette and caramelised cauliflower ‘pudding’ (crema cotta). Woman went for roasted duck breast in Sangiovese sauce and black Taggiasche olives. Both came for a 'modest' €40. By the way, the Taggiasche olive lobby must be very powerful, we don’t seem to be able to go anywhere that does not have them on the menu.

The lamb came with an unadvertised single sliver of deep-fried potato and potato mash, useful to soak up the meat sauce. Again a generous portion, three large chops (two roasted and one deep fried) of succulent young lamb. And again the quality of the material was in evidence. Woman though that the ‘bread crust’ (a thin piece of dough) made that chop a bit too heavy as the crust soaked up the fat from the chop. Man appreciated the variety of textures, but he, too, found the overall dish on the heavy side (don’t forget the cheese), and a touch too complicated. Given the quality of the ingredients, they could have spoken better for themselves.

The duck, despite its nice gamey flavour, was less successful. The saltiness of the olives combined with the excess salt from the vegetables garnishing the dish was unpleasant. Still, very well-presented, as all other dishes. Here is another angle:

While perusing the long dessert list, the petit four are served.

A great variety, nice looking and nice tasting.

By now we were a little full and wondering whether we should actually have dessert. Megawoman had a selection of sorbets.

Megaman had vanilla ice-cream with balsamic vinegar (a request off-menu and accommodated without fuss), while Man requested (still off-menu) a variation of the same: vanilla ice-cream with cooked must (locally known as ‘saba’ or ‘mosto cotto’) . Woman chose from the menu a ‘pianoforte’ with Piedmont hazelnuts, pistachio ice cream and zabaione cream. The total price for these 4 desserts was €90. Here are our two:

All desserts came accompanied with a ‘cat tongue’ shaped like a fork. Great, inviting and humourous presentation which exudes all the enjoyment the pastry chef must experience in conceiving and preparing the dishes. Among all the countless good things, the pistachio ice-cream was the best the fussy Woman had had in ages.

Megaman was driving his megacar and therefore had to be content with a minidrink. The rest of table had a bottle of Donnafugata Mille e una Notte. With water, the drinks came to €59. The megacouple also had two coffees at €3 each. The total came to well above our budget per head: €555.

Let us make it clear: this is a place with outstanding cuisine, of great generosity, which is capable of reaching on occasion very high pinnacles. But would we encourage the foreign guest to make this one her choice to have a sample of the top of Italian cuisine? We are afraid not. This is a restaurant with very high prices that must be judged by very high standards, and on this basis there are too many details that make it fall short of the mark. The general impression conveyed by the dishes is of strong, bold rich flavours that could do with more lightness of touch, and show signs of over-elaboration not justified, in our humble opinion, by a creative base . We would have preferred a bit less opulence and a bit more restraint. The cooking, we thought, was not always faultless. The same can be said for the service, which while nicely cheerful, down to earth and unfussy - especially considering the clientele it caters for - gave a certain impression of tiredness and distraction: the manager was heard shouting over the phone from an adjacent room, and a waitress was stopped just in time from pouring the red wine in a glass containing another liquid. Finally, making you pay €5 to park is distinctly inelegant. No doubt many will enjoy partaking of this experience of grandeur again and again, and good for them. We wish all the best to this unique restaurant and we hope it will stay for centuries. For our taste, this was an interesting and rewarding experience that added yet another building block to our fine cuisine learning exploration. But not one we would want to repeat, even ignoring the budget.


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