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Saturday, June 30, 2007

Trattoria La Cruna dell'Ago

The day: 18th June, Dinner.
The place: Via Garibaldi, 13 Villa Lagarina (TN), Italy (tel+39 0464 412245)
The venue: Trattoria La Cruna dell’Ago
Closest airports: Brescia (Ryanair), Verona (British Airways)
The food: Traditional regional cuisine with a modern take
The drinks: mainly local, some rare ones.

What a lovely little place this is: tucked away in the courtyard of an old building in the centre of this little town just outside Rovereto, this restaurant welcomes you with a profusion of plants and flowers.

In addition to a dining room inside

the restaurant also offers an “al fresco” option, with a scatter of tables in the cosy courtyard:

which we opted for.

The list is short (four choices in each section of starters, primi and secondi), but quite inspiring, and reasonably priced, with starters between €7 and €9, primi below €10 and mains between €11.50 and €14. We decided to skip the primi and go for a starter-main combination instead. We began with Marinated salmerino (a local type of trout) with salad (misticanza) and toasted pine nuts (at €9) and an Asparagus ‘cake’ with Asiago cheese fondue and pistachio nuts (at €8.50), followed by Roll of rabbit with balsamic vinegar “tiles” and Chardonnay salmon trout with almond flakes and parsley potatoes (the cheapest and the most expensive mains on the menu, at €11.50 and €14, respectively)

In the meantime, the bread arrives:

As you can see, two types, white (sliced) as well as herb rolls. It is prepared on the premises, and was rather decent.

Our starters arrive quite quickly:

The salmerino was nice: it came as a cold dish, with the flesh both thoroughly ‘cooked’ as well as moist and tender. The only negative point was that the citrus fruit (from the marinade) overpowered the pine nuts. Still, somebody from Maso Cantanghel should really pay a visit and try and learn something…

The asparagus cake was delightful: light and airy and tasty, deftly accompanied by the Asiago, with the contrast between the rich sauce and the soufflé-like cake nicely pulled off. Also very interesting the addition of pistachios.

Next, our mains

The rabbit had been boned, seasoned with herbs and rolled up, and came with a rich sauce with carrots, onions and obviously the rabbit juice. A very satisfying dish, though the cooking might have been better, in the sense that it was a bit rubbery (not up to the standards, for example, of Osteria Fior di Roccia). Also, given the diameter of the slice, and considering there was no stuffing, we started wandering about the size of this mega-rabbit…

The trout was really good, probably farmed, but it had been prepared perfectly! The flaked almonds were a really good match for the fish; also quite remarkable was the use of herbs in this dish, as well as the quality of all raw materials, with the potatoes unwilling to play a supporting role, and deserving attention on their own. Did we say already somebody from Maso Cantanghel should come over to learn a thing or two on how to cook trout?

To finish this off, we had a buckwheat tart with blueberry jam, and an almond crème caramel.

The latter was ok, though we thought that the caramel was too strong and covered up the delicate flavour of the almonds. Nice consistency, though, for this very decent dessert. The king, though was the buckwheat tart: superb: rustic, satisfying, with a very intense blueberry. The dough contained quite a bit of ground almonds, making it neither moist nor dry. Very good.

With a bottle of 2005 white Cimbrus at €11.50 (light and pleasant light) and one of water at €2, the total bill came at €65.50.

This nice family run establishment, which doubles up as a (small) B&B, is a very honest operation where to have a nice night out. The policy is that owner Simonetta Agostini conceives the dishes, which the chef then executes in the kitchen. Attention to details is evident in the careful use of herbs which are also sourced with equal attention, avoiding all those coming from near the vines at the time they get their chemical treatments, just to be sure there is no contamination. Service is also very efficient, polite and hospitable (not easy when you have to deal with tables as the impossibly-hard-to-please one next to ours, a mixture of obnoxiousness, grumpy petulance and condescendence which would have challenged the most patient of hosts!).

For a trattoria 'with ambition', this place does not match the stunning excellence of Osteria Fior di Roccia (available by the way at extremely reasonable prices), but for those passing or living nearby Rovereto, it is certainly a more than pleasant stop.


Thursday, June 21, 2007

A Solo Visit To Rules

The day: 15th June 2007, Lunch.
The place: 35 Maiden Lane, Covent Garden, London WC2E 7LB (tel: +44 020 78365314)
The venue: Rules restaurant
The food: Traditional British.
The drinks: Nice and reasonably priced list, strong on French (Burgundy and Rhone Valley), available also by the (250ml) glass and the (50ml) jug.

Question: What do you do if you are on your own in Central London, you are hungry and in the mood for a good meal, and it’s already 2.40 pm when most fine restaurants are closed?


Rules, the oldest English restaurant (est. 1798!!) is open non-stop all day. Man was without Woman in London, however she has been to Rules several times. Moreover, this was the perfect chance to test our brand new teleflavourone (£19.99 at an electrician near you for the basic model): a device that allows you to beam flavours to a remote receiver while you are enjoying them. Seriously. Very handy. So this report is written together by Man and Woman, as always. Another report will however follow in the Summer after a joint visit.

The interior is decadent, warm, rich, the walls filled with old paintings, hunting trophies, mirrors, old clocks; the colours deep purple, dark brown, gold and yellow.

Confusing but charming in the manner of the house of a keen collector (vaguely reminiscent of the style of Sir John Soames’ house, for those of you who have been there).

From the moment you are welcomed there is an air of easy-going and non-stuffy formality. The crowd is pleasantly mixed: at lunch especially you’ll find yourselves brushing shoulders with crisply dressed professionals (mainly lawyers), sportily dressed tourists and maybe some eccentric elderly well-to-do. There are some private rooms upstairs for functions and VIP lunches – this is also a place for the great and the good of the establishment.

In the large main room for the mere mortals the tables are well-spaced in some areas, less so in others. It is really a perfect place for the solo visitor: they have dedicated tables for one, sufficiently spacious but where it is impossible to fit another chair, and secluded in a way that you really feel ‘at home’, you could read a paper or a book without feeling self-conscious. As you can see, the other side of Man's table was the back of the seat of the oher table:

The head Chef is Richard Sawyer, but this being an all day operation in a large restaurant, the number of staff is very large. On the menu, Rules specialises in game and traditional pies (it has its own estate for game), but you also find other meats and classics such as roast beef with Yorskhire pudding.

Man starts with a Wild mushroom and bergamot soup.

Rules’ soups have their own style: uncompromisingly thick and rich, smooth and hearty at the same time. This one was no exception. The mushroom flavour was very strong, well supported by the dense, fat structure. You can already feel the cholesterol rising in your blood stream, but this is a very, very satisfying start.

Man continues with Highland Red Deer Loin with a wilted salad of pear, walnuts, chicory and stilton (requested to be cooked medium-rare).

Great, great flavour and texture in the deer, gamey, succulent but just rightly resistant to the bite. The loin came coated in a thin film of Stilton (or did you think the red deer had green meat?), adding richness, but the cooked green apple on top provided perfect bitterness to cut through. The wilted salad was a very successful complement, giving moisture to the ensemble and creating a nice range from bitter to sweet flavours: it would also have been a good dish in itself. Woman, from the flavourone, starts to salivate....

Man concludes ‘lightly’, with Mixed Summer berries and rosewater jelly.

A perfect finish, the jelly delicate and refreshing, and the berries very good.

For wine, Man chose a 250ml glass Pinot Noir Domaine de Valmoissine 2005, Louis Latour (velvet in the mouth) at £10.95. With this, a microscopic bottle of water at £1.80 and service charge at 12.5 % the bill came to £53.94, so meeting broadly the £100 rule for two.

The service was kind and mostly correct, French style, but with one major gripe: they do not show the wine bottle to you, the glass just arrives having been filled elsewhere. And, moreover, the glass is just too full. Due to staff rotation, there is also that typical Rules phenomenon, the disappearing waiter - just when you thought you were establishing some kind of rapport, he or she is gone and another one starts serving you.

Rules has had its ups and downs over the years (it has had more than two centuries to do so!) and now it definitely seems to be on the up. Gone are the days of grumpy service for which it was 'renowned'. The whole operation has adjusted to the times (even the website has been revamped), and it is a little miracle of logistics with legions of staff working in it and enormous numbers of customers served daily. The raw materials are spectacular. The cuisine is traditional and relatively straight, but executed to high standards and with a distinctive richness. One always feels relaxed at Rules: It is a great place to go, alone or in company.


Thursday, June 14, 2007

Ristorante Novecento in Rovereto

The day: 9th June 2007, Lunch.
The place:
Corso Rosmini 82, Rovereto, Italy (tel +39 0464 439644)
The venue: Ristorante Novecento (Hotel Rovereto)
Closest airports: Brescia (Ryanair), Verona (British Airways)
The food: Traditional regional cuisine with a modern take
The drinks: Mainly local.

Our last few weeks in Trentino...we venture South of Trento to try 'Novecento'. This is the restaurant of of the Hotel Rovereto, unsurprisingly to be found in Rovereto: a pleasant town near Trento, in the direction of Verona, along the Adige valley at the latitude where the Marzemino wine is produced. The family who runs it is from Mantua (Mantova), and the cuisine (Chef Andrea Iseppi) reflects both their origin and the local tradition.

We eat in a nice veranda, in 'Liberty' style, overlooking a small patio (where other tables are located) and very bright and airy, perfect for the approaching Summer. There is a sense of relaxed and easygoing elegance:

On the menu two four-course set menus, an Asparagus menu (our choice) at €44 (or €52 with wine, water and coffe included); and Menu Trentino at €42 (or €48 with wine and the rest). The latter offered 'Carne salada (traditional cured beef) carpaccio with rucola and grana cheese; bread gnocchi on a Casolet cheese fondue; saddle of roe deer in Mercuria red wine; apple strudel with castel Noarna apples (more on Castel Noarna below). These dishes also appeared as individual items a la carte.

All primi are around €12 (we mention a classic from Mantova, Pumpkin tortelli), secondi from €16 to €20 (we note a salmerino - local type of pink trout - with aromatic herbs at €18).

As we said, we both (uncharacteristically) opted for the tempting asparagus menu. It will be accompanied by two glasses of wine, both from Castel Noarna: a Sauvignon 2004, and a 'Mercuria' (Lagrein and Cabenet with a smaller proprtion of Merlot) 2004. Both excellent. Castel Noarna is a very reputable wine producing estate, around a beautiful castle on the hill overloking Rovereto (if you are planning to get married, holding your ceremony here could be an idea - this according to the entertaining and urbane manager in the Castello, who, when we visited later just during a wedding reception, was emphatic that even we will get married one day...).

In the meanwhile the bread arrives:

Home-made with organic flour, both plain white, and with darker types (which we could not identify and, shame on us, forgot to ask). Good, especially the 'focaccia' style dark one.

Our starter was 'crispy grouper with saffron flavoured fennel.

Very good and good looking, with the coating really crispy and the panfrying well executed. The saffron fennel was a pleasant touch, and so the dill-flavoured oil. The cherry tomatoes freshened the dish. The fish itself was not too flavoursome, but overall this was a balanced, varied and delicate dish. A promising start.

We continue with the primo, Home-made pasta stracci with asparagues:

The pasta was very well made indeed, thin and with a 'nervy' personality. The asparagus was not very prominent, but once again the dish came off pleasantly overall, and in generous portion.

The secondo is a Beef fillet with asparagus:

The portions continue to be generous, as you can see! The beef and courgettes (yes, courgettes) were good, but the potatoes a little too greasy. Strangely, they had not asked how we wanted the beef cooked, so out of principle we will say that we would have preferred it rarer. Ah, we forgot to mention the asparagus: they were there, and in good quantities, but must have lost a bit of flavour in the trip from the kitchen

To conclude, a Mint parfait

Well presented, but far from successful in our judgement. The parfait had an unpleasant 'crystallized' texture. Woman, terribly disappointed, also thought that the strawberry sauce did not fit the other flavours. Man on the contrary was as usual swayed by the colour match...We agreed that this was a marked fall in standards compared to what had come so far.

But this was not the end, from now on we continue down the abyss: petit four lacking any variety, and a little industrial-looking:

Accompanied by one of the worst coffes in recent times!

The bill is easy: two set menus with wines at €52 each makes €104. An extra glass of Sauvignon was offered.

It was a pity that this meal had a sort of descending feeling to it, the best dish being the starter and the worst the dessert. Psychologists will tell you that this is not the best way to leave a good overall impression... but we'll try to be objective and rational. The hotel boasts of its cuisine and proclaims its restaurant a venue for the Rovereto foodies. We can see that Mr. Iseppi has talent and, although the 'sweet' part was a real disaster, the other dishes were good and nicely presented. Nonetheless, there was a certain lack of memorableness, a lack of true impact in the flavours. We think, and we may be wrong, that this is due to the less than excellent choice of some raw materials (e.g. the lack of a clear flavour in the asparagus within the asparagus menu is a little disconcerting). Maybe -just a conjecture- the chef does not get all the support he needs to express himself - certainly, far from promoting him, his name has to be extracted from the (nice) waiters. The prices are reasonable, but we feel that in the increasingly excellent Trentino restaurant choice this pleasant establishement needs to step up a gear and correct some serious unevennes in its performance.


Friday, June 8, 2007

Osteria Fior di Roccia

The day: 15th May, Dinner.
The place:
Via Nazionale 2, Lon di Vezzano (TN), Italy (tel +39 0461 864029)
The venue: Osteria Fior di Roccia
Closest airports: Brescia (Ryanair), Verona (British Airways)
The food: Traditional regional cuisine with a modern take
The drinks: only local and short, but with evident care (all wines are described)

Have you ever been back to a place where you have lived now occupied by somebody else? Scaled down, this is the feeling we got when coming to this now “Osteria” Fior di Roccia, living in the same premises as former Michelin starred “Restaurant” Fior di Roccia (Chef Walter Miori). Same room, much of the same décor, even the same glasses, but different tablecloths, different disposition of the tables, different decorations on them…weird feeling, but still a very pleasant room.

The place is now run by the Menestrina family, with a young and enthusiastic brother and sister duo running the show: chef Michele king of the kitchen and his sister Cristina staffing the dining room.

The list is very appetising, and very reasonably priced. Starters, which include carne salada and cheese rolls, are between €5 and €7, primi between €6 and €7, mains in the €8.50-11 range and desserts not more than €4, not to mention the four course set menu, a steal at €23.50. Ah, and you can wash it all down with house wine by the jug, which we did, with half a litre of very decent Merlot from reputable local producer Castel Toblino at €3 (we could also have gone for Nosiola, also from Castel Toblino, for the same price). In fact, the wine list offers a limited but careful selection of local wines, distinguished by micro-geographical origin (Valle dei Laghi, Lake Garda, etc.).

The bread arrives:

Our nice hostess was keen to point out that this was made on the premises: on the night it looked like variations on a similar focaccia style-dough, pleasant though perhaps a bit too evenly oily. We should add, though, that on subsequent visits there was a larger variety of doughs and shapes, all equally good.

In an ‘Osteria’, we were surprised by the complimentary greeting from the kitchen made up of a slice of “polenta smalzata” (polenta grilled with cheese) and a crostino with trout mousse, with a couple of leaves of lamb’s lettuce and tomatoes on the side.

The mousse was very light and airy but still very tasty. The polenta was pleasantly smoky, a delicious way to start.

Our primi (which we managed to order.after a rather long wait) were Polenta dumplings with guinea fowl ragu’ (at €7); and Nettle canederli in Trentigrana crust with Casolet cheese sauce (at €6.50):

The dumplings were very flavoursome, perhaps slightly too salty, but extremely satisfying. The ragu’ itself was abundant (as Man likes it) and excellent, with a “resolute” taste which went well with the rustic polenta dumpling.

But the winner was the other dumpling preparation, the nettle canederli. The “nest” of Trentingrana (hard cheese similar to Parmesan), nicely crispy in contrast to the softness of the rest, interspersed with poppy seeds, gave way to the moisture coming from the velvety melted casolet on which it was sitting. The canederli themselves were gorgeous, with plenty of nettle, which managed to assert itself over the cheeses. This is comfort food, not for the fainthearted - we began to think a lunchtime visit might have been more appropriate Anyway a really stirring dish.

Next, our mains: Stuffed rabbit rolls (at €11) and Trout in “Storo gold” .

The rabbit had been cooked very well, tender and moist. Like for the previous dishes, a rather glutton-teasing combination, a thick cut with the veal sausage flavoured with thyme an assertive stuffing. A nice touch was the tower of finely chopped veggies.

The trout was more delicate: finely coated in polenta di Storo and fried, it was sitting on a “polite” mash of celeriac and potatoes. The trout itself was moist, tender and delicately scrumptious. Presentation clearly matters, though the herbs flavoured droplets of oil were not too intense in flavour, rather more in scent. An elegant little dish.

Of course we managed to find room for puddings: a Soft shortbread tart with ricotta cheese and cherries on light yogurth sauce (€4), and a true classic, a Warm Apple strudel with cinnamon pears and vanilla sauce (€3.50).

The ricotta and cherries tart was good, delicate, though Woman would have preferred more cherries in the stuffing. This could have been a hearty dish, instead it turned out light and balanced.

The strudel was to scream for. A simple, classic dish with the cinnamon pear variation, playfully well assembled, varied and balanced in taste and consistency, with the more uniform apple “mash” of the strudel contrasted by the pine-nuts, as well as the more chunky pears outside. Again, presentation gives away that the chef wants to be noticed, and the dried slice of apple was good, too.

With a 1 litre bottle of water at €2, the final bill came at €47: no, that is not a typo, we do not mean €74, we really mean forty-seven euros, that is just above £30 to you and me for a three course a la carte meal for two. Ok, we did not get a bottled wine, but throw another €10-12 euros difference for that, and you still end up with a quality/price ratio that approaches infinity. And if you did not get that from the pictures, the portions are really substantial.

One thing you should be warned of is that waiting times are really long, which is not surprising if you think that there is often only Cristina staffing the room. It may be that this is enough given the constraints in the kitchen, who knows, but if you were to come and visit this place, as we hope you’ll do, be sure to come in a relaxed frame of mind and ready to have your conversation skills tested. Count on spending at least two hours (possibly a bit more) for a three-course meal. Should the conversation falter, you can always roam around and pick one of the several traditional cuisine books lying here and there...

But we certainly do not want to leave you with a sting in the tail: this place is a great new addition to the restaurant scene in the proximity of Lake Garda. The dishes are all imaginative and well-presented takes on traditional recipes, blending rusticity and sophistication in an intriguing way, and revealing a young chef who is talented and creative (as well as nicely humble and down to earth, his cuisine a reflection of his personality). Remember, too, that this is the very beginning of this enterprise: in our subsequent visits (yes, we are that keen!) we already noticed evolution and small changes in the cuisine. We feel we will hear more about Michele Menestrini. We wish Osteria Fior di Roccia all the luck it deserves!


Saturday, June 2, 2007

Salt cod at Latium

In our last short trip home to London last week we tried Trenta as you know: but could we fail to stop by at Latium? Of course not.

Among the usual spectacular dishes, we liked an off-menu welcome by sous-chef Massimo (the boss Maurizio being off duty that night):

Salt cod in a tomato broth, garnished with nuts and raisins.

The chef can trust that the kitchen is in good hands when he is away...

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