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Friday, February 29, 2008

El Molin

The day: 2nd February 2008, Lunch.
The place: Piazza Cesare Battisti 11, Cavalese (Trento), Italy, tel +39 0462 340074
The venue: El Molin
The food: Creative but regionally based cuisine
The drinks: Wide choice, strong on regional producers.

When we came to Cavalese last time, it was to try CostaSalici. We could not fail to repeat the one hour drive out and up from Trento to sample the cuisine of the newly Michelin starred Chef Alessandro Gilmozzi in his restaurant El Molin.
El Molin is dialect for ‘The mill’, and the advertising standards are not infringed at all: you enter the unassuming front door of this establishment in the middle of the village, and you find yourself in a converted mill, in a varied and multilayered structure, with stairs and sub-environments, in which comfortable tables have been skilfully arranged, with long distances between them.

In fact, there are acres of space on tables themselves, well appointed and with some quiet guest for company...

While the a la carte list comprises a handful of (appealing) choices in each section, there are three tasting menus: ‘Classico’ at €47 (6 courses including amuse bouche and petit four) ; ‘Creative classic’ at €55 (also six courses with amuse bouche and petit four); ‘Surprise’ at €70 (where it is promised that the chef will display his ‘creative inspiration’). From the a la carte, starters come at €14-15, such as ‘smoked egg (‘from Paolo Parisi’, who obviously must lay signature eggs) with Polenta di Storo and Cavalese goat cheese’. Among the primi (€15) we note ‘ravioli in black of porcini mushrooms, veal tripe and Taleggio cheese’. And secondi are at €19-22, such as ‘Pork fillet in Wasabi crust, chestnusts and Rhododendron honey pearls’ (€19).

A loud and clear message comes out of the menu: use carefully chosen local ingredients, add a sprig of unusual and even exotic ones and combine them inventively, almost audaciously. We have the impression this is going to be either a disaster or a treat, no half way – at least, this is what ‘Rhododendron honey pearls’ makes us think of. Which one will it be? Well, read on!

In the meanwhile, the bread arrives:

Excellent basket, excellent bread.

While we mull on the menu, here is the amuse bouche;

It’s a ‘Polenta cappuccino’ with herring tartare in its ‘bottarga’ (eggs). Oh my. Most light, most delicate, airy consistency, great balance between sapidity and acidity (coming from quark cheese!). This being herring and polenta, just imagine what a stodgy mess it could have been. The result on the contrary is remarkable. At this very point we know that this chef is going to please us: he has laid his cards on the table, and they are good.

We go a la carte to maximise variety, and our choice of Primi is:

- Chestnut soup, tartare of squid and mushrooms, juniper foam (€15)

- Potato gnocchi, prawn in three consistencies and lentil oysters (€15)

The consistency of the chestnut soup is perfect, neither too thick nor too thin, marvellously soft on the palate. Very very tasty, with a gentle peppery undertone, and with the juniper foam doing its job with authority, lending a nice complement of ever so slight bitterness. The squids are not the tenderest we’ve ever eaten (we don’t know whether because of the cooking or because of the long journey the squid itself must have made to the snows of Cavalese), and to be frank this is a dish that we would have enjoyed even without them.

The ‘three ways’ of the prawn were these: the body of the animal almost raw, the shell pulverized, and the head mashed and made into a bisque (sauce). Unsurprisingly the flavour was incredibly intense. This was a great dish both in conception and in execution, also decidedly appealing ‘philosophically’ to people like us: we hate animal bits to be wasted. Knowing that the prawn whole was in our plate was a source of great comfort. We must admit we were so taken with the prawn that we hardly focussed on the rest (like the failure of this like all kitchens to indent the gnocchi).

For secondi we went for:

- Baccala’ (salted cod) in oliocottura, Polenta di Storo and croccante di funghi (crisp mushrooms) (€19)

- Pigeon cooked on mugo pine bark, endive and braised cabbage (€20).

The cooking of the cod was superb: tender and translucent, it looked like raw. Excellent polenta (some cheese in there?). The mushrooms were slightly more evanescent, but the rye ‘baba’ (spongy rye bread) soaked in bird jus, surprisingly soft and springy given the rye, was sensational and a stunning match to the cod.

The pigeon was a complex dish indeed, displaying a great mastery of cooking techniques. The breast was just seared, then finished ‘en cocotte’ served in bird sauce, have a look:

The thigh had been boned, then braised with pancetta (similar to bacon). The innards had been made crispy (‘in croccante’). The experience starts with the pine bark perfume, which you could fleetingly capture when the cocotte is uncovered for you by the waitress: it is a flirtatious delicacy. Then you bite into the thigh ‘cylinder’ and you are in a heaven of concentrated flavour. Only to be amazed a few instants later by the cooking of the ‘piny’ bit, the breast. The crispy innards, while lacking memorable flavour, finish marvellously an authentic tour de force of consistencies. Needless to say the vegetables were perfect, too. A dish of real technique giving real emotion.

After a while a pre-dessert arrives:

It is a Yogurt Meringue with sambuco (elderberry) jelly. The meringue is in fact siphoned cream and yogurt with meringues on top and ‘popping’ items on the bottom whose name escapes us…As playful as delicious.

And finally for the desserts:

- Strudel of puff pastry (€10)

- Our Zelten … (€11)

Traditional strudel is not made with puff pastry, but with a butterless ‘pasta matta’ (this being the name given to any ‘non-coded’ dough). This tradition is under threat though, as in shops more often than not you find ‘fake’ strudels with puff pastry (so much quicker to prepare if reaching for industrial puff pastry in the freezer), and this disrespect for tradition makes some chefs quite displeased. You need to know this to understand the provocation implicit in this innocuous and classical looking dessert. We are not sure we like puff pastry in strudel, perhaps a remnant of our own principled objection, but at any rate, this was comfort food with a great balance of flavours.

Zelten is also a traditional regional cake, a rather compact mix of sugar, nuts and dried fruits reminiscent of Certosino. The suspension points in the menu are very appropriate here, as the original is literally taken apart down to its constituent part, and re-assembled. An interpretation that won’t win over those who, like Woman, want their dessert to cuddle them, it is nevertheless an interesting and cerebral take on tradition. This deconstructed version has Man, ever the intellectual, completely falling for it: the dried slivers of fruits are intensely flavoursome, stuck in a rewarding vanilla ice-cream, the whole resting on ‘crumbs’ of short crust, lined by (if we remember correctly) sticks of dried figs. There is a lightness and elegance in the architecture of this dessert, completely overturning a much heavier preparation, that one cannot fail to admire even if he is left cold.

And now really finally, the petit four in their full glory:

We don’t know where to begin, so we won’t; let’s just say: fantastic.

With a bottle of Pinot Nero Vignolet La Cadalora (2002) (Fair) at €28, two cover charges at 6.00 (a bit old fashioned, this), a bottle of water at 3, and two coffees at 4.00, the total bill came to €130, underscoring how honestly priced the dishes are.

The service was not really put under pressure: on a Saturday, in a touristy village (ski slopes are a stone’s throw away) there was only another couple beside us in the entire restaurant. At any rate, it was friendly and relaxedly professional. The chef in fact becomes part of the service as he comes out to take orders, explain his dishes or seek reactions to them. But what about what really matters, his cuisine? This is a chef who is brimming with ideas, almost uncontainably so. There is a hint of quirkiness and over elaboration in his creativity, a desire to surprise, which we imagine he may have struggled to control; but it being supported by both a massive base of technique and an evident passion for his dishes, the result is a well-shaped and mature style. The vocabulary of regional tradition is deftly organised by the syntax of modernity. The cuisine here is playful, precise, imaginative and – we appreciate this a lot - light: no heavy sauces, none of the heavy preparations typical of the region. In a nutshell, we were impressed by chef Alessandro Gilmozzi, a ‘researching chef’ that hasn’t lost touch with the land where he lives and works and draws many of his materials from. Unless you are definitely looking only for ‘straight stuff’, we cannot recommend enough that you pay him a visit (and no, we get no royalties!).



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