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Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Michelin guide Italy 2008

The new Michelin guide for Italy has announced its new stars. After the recent lavisheness of stars for German and Japanese restaurants (including three stars for a sushi bar in Tokyo) there is a surprising paucity of stars for a country where - we can assure you, and with all due respect for other types of cuisine - you can eat divinely well...

No matter, who cares about guides, you can always read our blog for more objective judgements...

But we want to congratulate two chefs who have been justly rewarded and whom we praised here: Walter Miori of Locanda Margon where we had a fantastic dinner just a few weeks ago,
and Piercarlo Zanotti of L'Ortica, for whom we forecast a bright future just a few months ago. Well done guys, keep up the good work!

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Number Twelve

The day: 20th November 2007, Dinner
The place: 12 upper Woburn Place, London WC1H 0HX (020 7693 5425)
The venue: Number Twelve bar and restaurant (at the Ambassador’s Hotel)
The food: Modern British with an Italian twist (or modern Italian with a British twist)
The drinks: International, shortish but non obvious, good range of prices and types, starting below £20, also by the glass and 375 carafe.


We told you already there is one guy in the trade we really trust, and now you know we mean it since, in spite of our previous disastrous experience elsewhere, we once again followed his tip off and came to Number Twelve, recently opened as the bar and restaurant of the Ambassador’s Hotel in Bloomsbury.
The weather on the night was too lousy for us to stop and take a picture of the outside, which is discrete and minimalist. The interior, softly lit, is slightly reminiscent of Addendum (another hotel restaurant), though the dining room here is probably smaller.
Four chefs animate the kitchen: Santino Busciglio (Head Chef), Stefano Motta, Filippo Giunta and Michele Tosello. Well, with such a line up (duly reported on the menu), there has to be a piece of Italy on the offerings, and indeed there is. Here, though, we have to register a complaint with whoever is responsible of the restaurant’s webpage: when we checked it out before our visit, it mentioned a set menu at £14.95 for two courses and £17.95 for three, a real deal (not to mention the advertised prices at lunch, at £13.50 or £15.50 for two or three courses). But on the night, the set menus were priced at £22.95 for two courses and £25.95 for three (albeit with a house wine carafe thrown in), and above all were only available until 7:30pm (though, to be fair, the waiter had suggested we could have it even if it was later). Well, never mind, the prices are still very reasonable; let us splash on a la carte, but it is the principle that is annoying (yeah, yeah).
Starters go from the £5.50 of Cream of Borlotti beans, rosemary scented ceps, garlic bruschetta, or the £5.95 of the Buffalo mozzarella, Italian plum cherry tomato and Basil, to the £7.50 of e.g. Devon crab salad, avocado and radish salad.
Mains include home made pasta twists, seasonal wild mushrooms and white butter sauce (and from this progression you recognise it is not sold as an Italian restaurant) at £12.95, as well as Roasted Cumbrian herdwick Lamb, garlic, sampire grass, shoulder potato cake at £15.95, overall ranging between £11.95 and £16.95.
No amuse bouche, but a nice lady with a good looking bread tray arrives: our choice of small rolls is placed neatly in a small plate in front of us - we pictured them together not to make them feel lonely…
Hey, no complaints now, it is not an Italian restaurant, so cannot keep moaning about the lack of a bread basket on the table. And, to be fair, once we make it clear that we like our bread, we get the helpful bread waiter hovering around us to make sure we have a constant supply. We do not need much to be happy.
Now let us open the dances. We begin with:
- Irish salmon from Claire island in three ways: terrine, tartare, cold smoked (£6.95)
- Seared yellow fin tuna with salt crust and warm Sicilian sweet and sour fennel salad (£5.95)

Ok, let us get this out of the way: thank god there are only four chefs in the kitchen: since each of them must have seasoned the salad in the salmon, if there had been any more the salt crust would have been on it, not on the tuna (the manager, reminding us of those politicians professionally forced to defend the indefensible, tried valiantly to persuade us that the salt was needed to create a ‘contrast’. We admired the effort). Having said that, this was really the only (minor) fault in a truly excellent dish. We followed the suggested progression, with the terrine first: luscious, moist, tender chunks of salmon in their gelatine, beautifully melting in the mouth with a controlled eruption of flavour. Next, the cold smoked rolls reined in the fat a little, and cleaned the mouth with the pleasant smoky and tangy flavour and the very fine julienne of vegetables, preparing you for the grand finale of the salmon tartare, rounded off by the dill sauce and the roe. An extremely agreeable ensemble of soft textures.
The same goes for the simply presented seared tuna: the fish itself had been cooked flawlessly indeed, tender, both delicate and potent, with finely cut veggies and olives making the dish airy and light. Above all the very finely sliced fennel lent a very fresh taste. Interestingly, in spite of all of the acidic tones and the lightness, the sweet and sour treatment of the fennel and the fact that it was cooked, made this after all a rather comforting dish, contrary to the coldness that the picture might suggest.
Well, a good and classy start, now we were really in a good mood.
As mains, we went for:
- Roasted rabbit, Jerusalem artichokes, spaghetti of carrots (£13.95)
- Scottish red leg Partridge cooked in two ways, Savoy cabbage, pancetta, foie gras, bread sauce (£14.95)
The rabbit, a very sound, stark, balanced dish, with a tasty, neat reduction, was really good, rolled with herbs inside, and cooked very well, with the meat retaining its moisture. The Jerusalem artichoke quenelles were rather rich, but very “indulgent”, and anyhow balanced by the carrot ‘spaghetti’, which we found a refined touch.
In comparison, the partridge was still good but somewhat less to scream for, the flavour or the meat tamer than expected, a touch dry and perhaps a bit overwhelmed by the bread sauce, strongly flavoured with cloves. A rather exuberant, less balanced dish, with strong flavours and bold matching. These left Woman cold, with Man much more appreciative, notably (once again), of the fine reduction.
By now, going for dessert was a must. We opted for:
- Dorset bell heather, honeycomb semifreddo, baked figs (£5.95)
- 70% Vahlrona chocolate mousse, hazelnut biscuits, vanilla sugar syrup (£5.95)
Now Woman is not one for semifreddo, nor for mousse, so going for them is really a kind of a test (for instance, the excellent buffalo ricotta mousse with candied artichokes at Latium). Well, we are glad to report that both dessert passed with flying colours!
The honey semifreddo was simply superb, and the tender “croquette” of almonds on which the fig was sitting married the semifreddo with relish. Just simply good.
As for the chocolate dessert, the mousse brought much pleasure, as one would expect. But what was really bordering on the divine were the (unadvertised) rosemary ice cream, the hazelnut biscuits and the vanilla syrup. These are the kind of dishes that one keeps reflecting on afterwards. Rosemary ice cream with chocolate, would you have ever believed it would work? Very good.
All the above was accompanied by a surprise complimentary glass of Muscat de Frontignan (which, in case you are curious, would have set us back a very honest £4.75 each).
Finally, a nice selection of petit fours:
We were impressed with the two flavoured polenta pyramids, one chocolate and one lemon (so much so, in fact, that one of the lemon pyramids was already missing by the time we took the picture…Man, would you mind being more patient next time, please?).
This restaurant has the great habit of offering wine by the carafe (like Arbutus). With a 0.75, bottle of water at 4.35, a 375 ml carafe of fine French Chardonnay Les Templiers, VdP des Côtes de Thongue (2006) at £8.75, and a 375ml carafe of Tuscan Sabazio Rosso di Montepulciano, La Braccesca (2005) at £13.00 (also good), our total bill including service came at most reasonable £91.52.
Number Twelve is a fine establishment. The service is very professional, at the same time friendly and not intrusive, attentive but not overbearing. The cuisine delivered by Chef Busciglio and his team is very accomplished, impressing us for its lightness and yet carrying intense flavours, classical in conception but with many marks of joyful originality. Woman wished they marketed themselves as a fully blown Italian restaurant, joining the ranks of our favourites (search around the blog if you don’t know yet what they are…) in bearing the standards of fine Italian dining in London. Man, on the contrary, is fascinated by this kind of ‘hybrid’ cuisine, a ‘very London’ experience that should be of interest to Italians and non-Italians alike. Be that as it may, thanks to our friend for tipping us off; though now this is all getting a bit more worrying for our finances, as it feels very much like we’ll have to be back here!

Sunday, November 18, 2007

A little wine discovery: Negrara

Whatever one thinks of Italian wines, one attraction of Italy for the oenophile is the incredible variety of half-forgotten local grapes. We have recently discovered a new one, courtesy of Cristina Menestrina of Osteria Fior di Roccia. It's called Negrara:

Produced in Trentino, deep dark red in colour, perfumed, vivacious with nice acidity and some tannic grip but overall quite soft and round on the palate, this grape is 'piede franco', i.e. not grafted on American root stock like the vast majority of European grapes to protect them from phylloxera.

Certainly not your standardised international wine, this specimen was produced by reputable producer Pravis and came at 16 Euros at the Osteria, which we found very resonable indeed for the quality and the sheer interest.

It accompanied, among other things, some simple and rustic but spectacularly good 'chestnut gnocchi with pine nuts and raisins' made by Chef Michele Menestrina:

Incidentally, the Menestrina siblings continue to make impressive progress and to produce great (and great value) eating experiences: if you are near Trento just go and try for yourselves. There will definitely be more about the Osteria on this blog next year when we visit Trento again.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Latium's 4 fish ravioli = Best UK pasta dish 2007

See here for the background. At the end of yet another enthusing dinner at Latium last night, we learned that the Craft Guild of Chefs and Restaurant magazine jury has picked Maurizio Morelli's dish as the winner among the three finalists: congratulations!

That is indeed a great dish, but Morelli makes many others, including some brewing novelties on ravioli as desserts - stay tuned...


Sunday, November 11, 2007

Locanda Margon (Trento, IT)

The day: 3rd November, Dinner.
The place:
Via Margone, Ravina, Trento, Italy (tel +39 0461 349401)
The venue: Locanda Margon
Closest airports: Brescia (Ryanair), Verona (British Airways)
The food: Modern interpretation of regional Trentino cuisine
The drinks: mainly from Trentino Alto Adige and Italy with some foreign choices (especially French), at all prices and with very honest markups

In Italy for a week, we are deep in ‘Lunelli-land’, among the vineyards that produce Ferrari, one of the best Italian ‘metodo classicofizzies (i.e. champagne, but the French prevent us to call it that). The Lunelli family bought the vineyards three years ago from the previous owners, and they are also behind the “Surgiva” water found more and more often in Italian restaurants both in Italy and in London. Spumante, water and now… fine food. In place of the old ‘Marlene’ restaurant, a new sparkling building surrounded by vines and more vines. It is not all that easy to find along a very narrow road – if you think you are lost, you are probably heading in the right direction. And here, chef Walter Miori, holder of a Michelin star for many years at his previous lovely Fior di Roccia, has opened his new enterprise last September, obviously together with his charming wife Franca, as usual in charge of the front room. Will the Mioris be corrupted by the move to a more ‘corporate’ environment? Will the brushing shoulders with the rich and powerful of the region destroy the old family atmosphere? Let us investigate…

The restaurant has a fantastic position, a terrazza in the midst of vineyeards, on the hills overlooking Trento and the Adige valley. Inside is a sober and elegant dining room, in mostly light tones, and with an adjoining all year usable conservatory which is full of light (the pitcure is darker than reality).

The menu has a lot to offer: Starters, all at €16, include eel from lake Garda marinated in grappa and served with a terrine of sardines and grilled vegetables; Primi, all at €14, include moka orzotto (i.e. barley treated risotto style) with rosemary; and cabbage canederlotti with Puzzone di Moena cheese and truffle butter. Mains are all €25 bar for the traditional Trentino dish of carne salada and beans (these from Lamon), at €20, and include for instance the jar of luccio perca (a type of pike) and prawns in a saffron broth. A selection of cheeses is also available at €15. In addition, there are set menus, too. Being where Ferrari is produced, there is a “Bollicine” (i.e. bubbles) menu at €65 per head, made up of five courses each accompanied by a suitable bubbly. Then there is the 5 courses “surprise menu” at €50 per head, with dishes chosen by the Chef on the night. Can you possibly guess what we went for? The drawback is that we did not know what dishes were about to come, so we describe them as they arrive, not with the ‘proper’ names that the Chef might have conceived for them.

Before this, though, we are offered a glass of Ferrari brut. And when here they say ‘May we offer…’ be reassured that they really mean ‘offer’ (listen, Malga Panna...): beautiful, so much so that we’ve got to show it to you!

Here we are, the bread basket arrives:

and what a sight, the signature potato and flour “brushstrokes” (the thin slivers you see towards the back) sitting proudly with all manner of rolls. Sumptuous. Oh, and here we go with the first surprise in the surprise, a little present from the kitchen:

- Chestnuts soup with ‘cappone (capon, i.e. a rooster castrated when 60-70 days old, slaughtered when about 6-7 month old), chestnut bites and Garda extra virgin olive oil.

Sweetness is the dominant note, but in case it is too much, in comes the cappone. The soup is quite thin, and the neutral background of the cappone is ideal to provide additional texture. The olive oil is delicate like the overall dish, a pleasant and unobtrusive start to the dinner, tuning the palate on the sweet register for the next dish.

Here comes the first entry proper of our surprise menu: a ‘Liver triptic’ made up of the following:

- Foie gras with ‘mostarda’ pears

- Foie gras terrine with green tomato comfit and thyme sauce

- Pate’ de volaille on a Tropea onion comfit with balsamic vinegar sauce and vanilla seeds

The above were accompanied by sliced warm pan brioche.

This was a superb dish. The first treat was mostly ingredient driven: the foie gras of superior quality, the pears perfectly cooked and seasoned (though maybe the piquant hit of the mustard did not come out with full intensity as might have been intended). The terrine had a smoky undertone, and was also simply excellent, with good acidity from the green tomatoes. The pate’ perhaps a tad too sweet in itself for Woman, ‘corrected’ by the salt flakes on top. The accompanying just warm pan brioche slices were slightly crispy outside and most light inside, a very suited complement to the rich trio. Overall, this was a quite sublime expression of a full range of sweet notes, almost a dessert for a starter, in an array of decadently soft consistencies, balanced by hints of tangy and smoky notes: a dish yielding a sense of great harmony, and attractively presented.

It is looking good, and the next item to appear is:

- Buckwheat “Half moons” Altoadige style with spinach and ricotta filling, with butter sauce and Grana cheese slivers

Again a delicate, balanced dish, with some grip courtesy of the humble but crucial poppy seeds and the buckwheat of the dough. The ricotta was a little tamed by the flavoursome spinach. No question about the quality of the butter and the grana, which conferred a hearty regional soul to the ensemble.

Now a question sneaks in: foie gras, butter sauce, grana, this is all quite fat, but the dishes turn out light, they leave your palate clean: how does he do that? Well, no time to ponder on this, here comes the next surprise:

- Baccala’ (i.e. salted cod) chunk (thankgod we do not have to write menus) on black eye beans guazzetto (soup).

A lighter (and welcomly so) dish in the sequence, the cooking of the baccala’ was unbelievable, so moist and tender it was that it felt as fresh cod. The dried matchstick size endive (an ingreedient used in several dishes) and potatoes on top were playful, an excellent saffron sauce caressing the beans in a simple and graceful combination, making this a classic dish.

But the mains are not over yet: after fish, a little bit of game:

- Quail stuffed with ceps and chestnuts wrapped in pancetta, with a thyme sauce, carrots and crunchy mangetouts.

Ok, we may be boring you by repeated use of the same adjectives, but this was yet again flawless cooking of the bird, with the stuffing seamlessly binding to it. Also very pleasant was the interplay between the sweet pureed carrots and the mangetouts. Note the trademark crunchy aspect on the top (attending to the chewing instinct is important to Miori). We missed a little some punchy reduction of the kind we are used to in other top Italian restaurants that have incorporated French techniques, but the flavour of the quail meat itself was very full. As usual, Chef Miori’s hand is very delicate, concocting a traditional dish (stuffed bird) interpreted in a modern, clean and fresh way.

And now for the final surprise, another trio consisting of:

- Lemon leaf crème brulee

- Gianduia (hazelnut chocolate traditional from Piedmont) mousse

- Liquorice pannacotta with vanilla extract.

In Man’s words, this dessert was a cathedral: powerful in its masterfully presented, uncrammed variety of themes and flavours. The three main components were just the backbone, all around were the sweet tanginess of the pomegranate grains and the passion fruit here, the darker tones of the pistachio and the cinnamon bark there. The crème brulee and the gianduia mousse were luscious. The liquorice pannacotta (in the glass) was an authentic stunner: so intense, fresh and edgy, perfectly smoothed by the thin layer of vanilla sauce on top.

Finally, a tray of petit four varied in assortment (from torrone, to chocolate to fruit) ending a very remarkable dinner.

With a bottle of Hofstatter Pinot Noir at €29 (resveratrol is good for you) and two 0.75 litre bottles of water at €3 each the total bill came at €135, that is around £90.

What a memorable dinner it was, both for the individual dishes and for the carefully paced sequence (which got its very final full stop with a fragrant and very dense home made liquorice Vov when touring the kitchen). Mrs. Franca Miori at ease commanding the dining room with the help of two capable and charming waiters, the service has retained the intimate and relaxed style we were used to, with just a touch more of formality. In the kitchen, chef Walter Miori is a supreme interpreter of the modern take on Trentino’s regional cuisine, at the same time caringly preserving and adapting the tradition His dishes are balanced, rich and at the same time almost miraculously light. An experienced chef, with complete and precise command of his dishes, he is also a professional of great integrity who takes no shortcuts whatsoever on execution and materials. And, for somebody who has held a Michelin star so consistently for so many years, he is a refreshingly down to earth man with an obviously undiminished passion for his job. Now in this more elegant dining room, the lovely setting in the vineyards and the relaxing views on the Adige valley, we wouldn’t be surprised in the least if the stars came in twos…but, whether the official recognition comes or not, Locanda Margon is an obligatory stop for the gourmet and the lover of Italian cuisine.


Tuesday, November 6, 2007

The Dutch love their cheese!

With only a few hours at your disposal, how do you gauge the general gastronomic level of a city?

Of course, by peeping into the markets and delicatessen shops.

This is exactly what we did in Amsterdam, while strolling around from a canal to the next. Contrary to expectations, we were not much impressed by the breads (maybe we were just unlucky), but the cheeses...the cheeses were another story. Let's take a look in here, for example:

Hi, we are two cholesterol conscious saddos and we are not going to buy anything, but could we please take pictures of your beautiful products?
Thank you very much.
Oh, yes:

Plenty of varieties and a joyful display, with fantastic chromatic richness:

Dutch cheeses but not only Dutch:

Cheeses and more:
And more, even with a 'mediterranean' slant:

During our walk we encountered several other equally appealing delicatessen shops, equally well stocked with cheeses. The good Amsterdam people seem to have it quite better than in London, where the density of good delicatessen is much lower.


Friday, November 2, 2007

UK best dishes: you read it here first...

We are very happy: our fave Latium restaurant is among the three finalists for the Restaurant Magazine UK Best dishes award, in the 'Best pasta dish' category.

As you know, we've enjoyed Maurizio Morelli's Four fish ravioli many times... This is what we had to say on this blog:

'The ravioli are sublime. They come in the following order: squid ink raviolo filled with monkfish with a hint of courgettees; spinach raviolo filled with brill and a hint of carrots; saffron raviolo filled with salmon and a hint of spring onions; and finally tomato raviolo filled with tuna and a hint of peppers. All dressed with butter (not as yellow as in the picture), diced tomatoes and seabass roe. The thin black dashes you see on the plate are also squid ink. This could seem a dish with too much going on: in fact, it is beautifully coherent, with a progression of intensity of flavours, and combinations of pasta, fish and herbs that match each other delightfully.'

Well...the inspectors of Restaurant Magazine definitely have good taste!

Another dish in the final that that we've had the fortune of enjoying is in the Cheese plate category: remember our visit at Quirinale? Despite a mixed evening with ups and downs, we wrote:

'Now the real king of the night, the cheese plate...The escalation from the ricotta to the Fausti’ going through the robiola was a journey through one thousand flavours. The meal did conclude on a high note '.

Once again, not bad, Restaurant magazine...

A tip for next year? Semplice has a phenomenal cheese trolley...

And a plea: We want the bread basket category!!


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