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Sunday, May 25, 2008

Chiesa (Trento, IT)

The day: 14th May 2008, Dinner.
The place: Via San Marco Trento (IT)
The venue: Ristorante Chiesa
The food: Modern Italian
The drinks: Italian and especially regionally based list, with a sprinkle of international alternatives, normal prices, also by the glass.

ADDED FEBRUARY 2010: Peter Brunel has now left this restaurant.

One difference between Italy and the UK is the stronger role appearances play in the former in social relations. At around 6.00pm, wearing jeans and trainers, we cross the open entrance of Ristorante Chiesa, near the Castle in Trento. After a minute of wait, a man in normal clothes emitting signs between annoyed and disparaging, no smile, comes and says :

‘Yes?’ [What the f… do you want, you miserable sods?]

‘Sorry to disturb you…’

‘Yes, actually I was eating’ [you time-wasters]

‘Sorry again, the door was open. Ehm, we’d like to book a table for the restaurant, if possible’

‘Yes, where?’ [you morons, how can you not know that there are two dining areas, one for lighter meals, and a restaurant proper?]

‘Do you mean whether we want to be inside or outside? (there is a nice garden outside the beautiful villa that hosts the restauran’). Inside’

‘OK, but not the gastronomic room, right?’ [as if two lowlifers like you could even think of going to the gastronomic room]

‘Gastronomic room?’ (our ears now pricked to the ceiling) ‘What’s the gastronomic room?’

‘You know, there’s a demanding menu, a view of the kitchen…’ [Oh Lord, why don’t you two just shove off?]

‘The gastronomic room, the gastronomic room!’ (in unison).

‘Ah, I see. OK. What time?’ [Will they be able to pay?].

‘8.15. Do you need a telephone number?’

‘No. Tonight it’s not so busy. But you are very lucky, you know, normally it’s impossible to find a place just like this, just dropping in’ [I won’t go to hell if I slightly exaggerate].

We are very lucky people. Many times in Italy we’ve been in empty restaurant rooms which are instead ‘normally’ full. So we arrive, now wearing the semblance of respectable clothes and a full smile, to the ‘gastronomic room’, greeted by our friend, now wearing a full room manager’s suit and the semblance of a smile.

We apologise again for having disturbed his dinner. ‘Not at all, not all’.

His attitude is beginning to change, and it will continue to change dramatically as the evening unfolds. More on this story later…Very nice room, this gastronomic room is simply the regular small restaurant room (five or six tables), vaulted ceiling, light colours, a modern linear feel within a historical context, including an old stove:

While we admire the spacious tables, we wonder about the reason why the view of the kitchen is prevented by a rolled down curtain. Maybe the Chef Peter Brunel, informed about our previous appearance, cannot bear the sight of us? More charitably, we think it is because, as often, we are, and will remain, ALONE: it is not nice to display a kitchen brigade that spends more time chatting than cooking.

The short menu carries enticing dishes, from both land and sea, the starters (€16-24) featuring squid, fois gras, veal, asparagus. The four primi are between €15-17.50 (a potato gnocchi with veal cheek ragout being the most enticing beside the ones we had); and the four mains, around €25-28, tempt you with mustard lamb and veal millefeuille from the land, but we’ll go for the sea. There are also two set menus, a small ‘Il miele nel piatto’ (Honey in your plate) menu at €30, and a full creative menu at €60.

Interrupting our meditation, the bread arrives:

A very nice variety, even if served from a tray (which we don’t like, but that’s a personal preference), we are particularly intrigued by the squid ink roll (the black one, obviously) with sesame seeds. The other rolls we pick (cumin, plain) were also good, as was the rye bread slice.

And shortly after we order, here is a present from the kitchen:

It’s a grilled scallop, garnished with excellent confit tomato, thin crisp corn bread slice and balsamic vinegar. The scallop is left whole (not halved) and it’s cooked almost perfectly (just raw in the core), very perfumed. A generous present.

Our choice of primi was:

- Risotto with pineapple foam, green apple, fennel, chervil, and roasted trout (€17.50)

- White asparagus Zuppetta (soup) with lobster and parsley emulsion (€15)

The risotto is not the best we’ve ever eaten. Man and Woman agree it is undercooked. But they part on their judgements of the rest: Woman finds apples and pineapple working surprisingly well and the trout excellent in its crispy and salty skin. Man is not ravished by the flavours (while not disliking them), which are anyway too many (he compares it unfavourably with a much better risotto, also with apples, recently tried here). The chunk of trout is generous and good, but the fish is dry, probably a cooking oversight. Overall, the dish is OK but misses the ambition it expresses with its beautiful looks.

The zuppetta, also very beautifully presented, offers delicate flavours, the asparagus combining very well with the parsley foam. The soup itself has a vaguely gluey texture. The lobster is disappointing, lacking both the freshness of the sea and flavour; and being also a little hard. The material does not seem up to scratch, and we muse that we would have liked this soup more without the marine addition: one of the many cases of ‘more is less’.

While we wait for our mains, we apologise with the manager for having disturbed his dinner: ‘absolutely not, it was my fault.

And then comes a quite literal sweetener, another complimentary offering from the kitchen:

It’s a grapefruit sorbet with small fruit cubes served in a perfectly transparent cup (no smudges, see how it is done, Lo Scrigno del Duomo?).

This is a real hit: fresh, pleasant, sweet but not too much and very balanced.

Here are our Secondi:

- Sea bass trio: roasted with ‘pequillo’ peppers; steamed with cous cous; tartare with Malossol caviar (€28)

- Lobster, boiled with mint, and with burrata and crispy vegetable chips (€25)

The seabass trio is very enticingly conceived and most elegant. But especially, it delights us with a perfect cooking technique. The roast bit was an example of how it should be done; the cous cous with the steamed bit (nicely wrapped in courgettes) was simply exceptional; and the caviar and tartare (served in the caviar tin) were a buttery delight for the palate. Such a great, light and clean flavoured dish would have deserved a top notch seabass, which, in our opinion, was absent from the party. So we enquired with the manager about the pedigree of the animal (after apologising for having interrupted his dinner) and sent him for an expedition to the kitchen. He returned with the following information: the seabass was raised in a ‘natural’ farm, meaning that it is located near to where river meets sea, and where the fish (‘branzino di valle’, valley seabass) naturally lives. It’s less fat than its off-shore brother, and ‘of better quality’. Be that as it may, the dish required a more flavoursome fish, which, we believe, in turn requires it to be wild (unfortunately we have imprinted in our memory a recent fabulous seabass at Locanda Margon).

The bowl containing the lobster is beautiful (the mise en place and presentation is exceptional in this restaurant), but extremely awkward. Not a big problem, of course, but the lobster itself is again substandard, effusing very scant flavour and disappointing in texture. A pity, because it came with an (unadvertised) orange foam that worked very well, and the accompanying vegetables were most lightly and elegantly fried. The burrata was lusciously good, too, adding some welcome fat substance to the dish.

We apologise with the manager for having disturbed his dinner: ‘absolutely not, it was my fault because I forgot to lock the door’.

Oh, but what is that, yet another present from the kitchen: a (white) asparagus bavarois.

Topped with grated coconut, this was beyond delicious, as intriguing as it was good, rightly fat (beside the coconut note also the dark chocolate stick), and smooth, and fresh, with that asparagus flavour keeping you on your toes and the crispy dried lemon putting just the right punchy dot...
come on, continue like this!

We’ll soon find out: here are our desserts:

- Chocolate Tortino with quark ‘mantecato’ (€11)

- ‘Surprise’ from the chef (€we’ll never know…read on)

The surprise is a sugar wafer, chocolate mousse with dark beer foam and strawberries. Very, very good: the match between the light and different sourness of chocolate and beer is fabulous. The mousse itself is well made, and the wafer is quite delicate. A classy, imaginative and well-balanced dessert.

The chocolate tortino may not be very original (so many chefs have it on their menus) but when it is as well prepared as this one was, it is endlessy fascinating. Moreover, this exemplar was perfectly paired with apple puree. The ice-cream is also light and fine, a pity that some of the nut bits in the base were stale (as it happens), the unwelcome flavour marring the enjoyment a little.

These desserts, already exceptional in themselves, became even more unforgettable because they were combined, courtesy of the manager, who by now was REALLY in the mood to please us, with two fantastic offerings: a Recioto di Valpolicella, and, especially, a phenomenal Pedro Ximenes (we did not note the producer, but it was a 1971). Chocolate with PX is one of the most sublime combinations Man and Woman enjoy on this earth, so by this time they were in love with the manager, and apologised for having interrupted his dinner.

The petit four generously followed, despite us having no coffee. Look how nicely they are presented:

With a bottle of Chardonnay Gottardi 2005 at €30 (good though possibly not as good in the white department as their Pinot Noir is in the red department) and a mineral water at €7 (yes, this restaurant has one of those pretentious water lists), the bill comes to €122.50. Very good value, we think, very good value indeed. And now, dear reader, while we are looking at the bill while writing these impressions, we realise what happened: they did not charge us for the desserts!! Thank god we left a generous tip, we’ll see how to redress this mistake. Overall, the dinner would have cost us about €140-145, in line with the top restaurants in Trento.

The service was relaxed and kind, almost entirely carried out, with efficiency and precision, by the room manager himself. From the rough and rude start with him at 6.00 o clock, we have moved to a friendly and informative conversation. He is a young but experienced professional, with much service abroad (Bermudas, London, St. Moritz…). He treated us very well, so it is hard saying negative things…but we would kindly suggest that it is crucial that chef and service staff work closely, so that every waiter knows what is in the dishes and is able to describe them with exactness to the customer.

What to say of the cuisine? In principle, this could be a great restaurant. Chef Brunel has been able to display, with some ups and downs –mostly ups- very great ability on occasion, with both a remarkable inventiveness, an impressive technique and a knack for presentation. He seems particularly strong in the sweet department. Nevertheless, we feel there is still some pretentiousness and lack of focus in his offerings, giving the typical impression of somebody who is trying too hard. A little relaxation, a little simplification, a little more evenness would go a long way to improve the experience. But, especially, if you go for this type of cuisine, you cannot afford any compromise whatsoever on the choice of materials: you cannot wow your customers with foams if what is underneath is not top notch. The raw materials definitely need improvement, at least as far as fish is concerned (who knows, maybe we would have had more luck with meat). We used the word ‘generous’ several times, because there is a clear philosophy at Chiesa (owned by the powerful local Chiesa family, by the way) not merely to satisfy, but to really pamper the gastronome, with elegance, many extras and generous (there we go) portions: maybe, however, it would be better to focus resources on the absolute quality of what is in the main dishes, because there are the flavours and textures that will linger in memory for a long time. In conclusion, on the basis of our visit, so far Chiesa does not appear to have quite attained overall the level of the starred restaurants around in the same price range, but we believe it has a great potential to do so and even to surpass some of them. So we’ll need to check again for progress at some point…


Sunday, May 18, 2008

El Barba

The day: 9th May 2008, Dinner.
The place:
piazza S.Maria Assunta, 2 - 38027 Malè (TN)
The venue: El Barba
The food: Regional Italian
The drinks: Local

Maurizio Boscolo is a chef and a blogger. As a blogger he runs Bistro Chez Maurice, and as a chef, he runs El Barba, a trattoria in the beautiful Val di Sole. For a long time we’ve wanted to sample his take on regional cuisine and so here we are, after a twisting and scenic one and a half hour drive from Trento, through the Val di Non before the Val di Sole, happy to have dodged the murderous Friday evening drivers that infest these roads. Maybe after our dinner it will be them who are afraid of us, who knows…

There is a nice outside space overlooking the central square of the village, but it’s still a little chilly at these heights to have a whole dinner outside, so we go in. We are, and will remain, the only customers in the simple and warm L-shaped room.

The menu has few dishes, but all enticing without exception. Primi go for €8.50, mains are in the range €14-16, and desserts are at €5, so within about 10%-15% of the best value for this type of establishment in the region (e.g. this and this), and even with an added service charge of €1.50 per person they remain low on a national scale. A great value four course surprise menu at €25 tempts us greatly, but for variety and diet reasons we prefer to go, as we most often do, for our own three course selection a la carte.

The bread arrives:

OK, we see that Chef Maurice does not specialise in we’ll focus on the dishes…

For primi we had chosen:

- Tortelloni with asparagus, zucchine and casolet (local cheese) sauce (€8.50)

- Tris of Canederli (local dumplings) (€8.50)

Since virtually everybody in the region makes canederli, in all sorts of preparations, this trio is a nice way to try to differentiate the dish from the rest of the pack. The resulting range of flavours is interesting indeed. One version is of six small specimens in a delicate (almost too delicate) broth. Then there is a giant specimen with lucanica (local sausage) in butter, which is very satisfying in its restrained assertiveness. And finally the ‘martian’ (green) specimen with casolet (local cheese) in the dough and presumably herbs conferring the vivid colour, also very flavoursome.

The dough of the tortelloni is quite ‘resilient’, but cooked rightly, and most importantly it contains excellent asparagi. The casolet sauce is once again delicate. A nice touch in this dish are the small cubes of crunchy courgettes, which provide something to do for the teeth and increases above the average the vegetable content of a tortelloni preparation. A good dish.

Our secondi are:

- Baby Pork shank with ‘miele di melata’ and olive oil potato puree (€14)

- Grilled venison fillet with asparagus (€16)

The shank is really satisfying, very tender and moist, cooked in its own protective fat, with an intriguing shade of light but aromatic sweetness provided by the ‘melata honey’ (not produced by a flower but obtained directly from a tree, or better from the insects that transform the tree sap). Note also the beautiful colour. The puree is unfortunately not so successful, quite gluey in fact, we are not sure what went wrong there.

The venison comes, as usual in Trentino, from neighbouring New Zealand (we didn't ask but of course it was previously frozen - like almost everywhere else, and we challenge you to distinguish the difference from a 'fresh' one). In its simplicity this dish shone in glory, the venison's flavour and juiciness forever sealed in by excellent cooking, accompanied by tasty asparagi, but above all, garnished with Guerand salt in perfect dose (after our own redistribution among the venison pieces...) , a gift for the palate. This is what real trattoria cooking is about, forget opprobria like this (in Italy) or this (in London).

And here are our desserts;

- Linzer pie

- Apple and chocolate pie

Well, we come slightly down to earth after the mostly excellent experience so far. The cakes are quite similar in appearance and feel: they are by no means bad, in fact they are good in a rustic sort of way, but they are quite dry and therefore feel somewhat stodgy. We can see them as a good dunk in the milk at breakfast, say, but as a dessert they are in serious need of some liquidity and moisture: we would humbly but dterminedly encourage Chef Maurice to add an ice cream, a cream, a syrup, some fruit...In the meanwhile, Woman glares at Man sarcastically: she had wanted to try the (presumably lighter) mousse (we think Chardonnay mousse in fact, or was it Moscato?), while Man had insisted on trying the two cakes, arguing that 'these alcohol based mousses are 95% of the times disappointing'. He looks quite coy now.

So Man, not wanting to end in this way, asks very unusually for a little grappa, not knowing that there will be more to come in the alcohol department. With the grappa (€3) ends the paid part of our meal. Adding water (0.75 litres at €2.60), a bottle of Pinot Nero (2005) Istituto Agrario San Michele All’Adige at €23.10 (it was advertised as a 2001 and came as 2005, but the atmosphere was too pleasant and relaxed to point out the ‘detail’…), the bill comes to €88.70, not the absolute best value in the region but most certainly good value for this quality.

Being the only guests, we took Chef Maurice away from his nightly blogging duty, and we were offered, now lounging in the coolly agreeable outside air, a fantastic and original ‘amaro’ (a herb alcohol infusion) which caressed the nose with a complex mix of sweet spices and zesty, orangey notes, before hitting the palate with its fresh, bitter punch in a dense consistency. And also a very pleasant conversation.

Pinot noir, grappa, amaro...maybe it will really be the other drivers who are afraid of us...(don't worry, we are in fact very careful on the distribution of alcohol intake between driver and passenger).

Service is provided with domestic friendliness and directness by Maurizio’s wife Mara. Chef Maurice is a gentle, thoughtful and intellectually curious man, and all these characteristics are nicely reflected in his take on traditional cuisine. There is much lightness and delicacy also in the heartiest and most generous of his regional dishes (OK, some desserts excluded…), and a little nice touch, a little surprise is always behind the corner. We know that his daughter is specialised in something that can be translated as ‘herb science’, while his son works in a Paris restaurant, and both of them no doubt will contribute thoughts and materials for Maurizio’s variations on the Trentino classics. You can spend a very pleasant evening indeed at El Barba (and if you speak Italian and you come to the restaurant off season, be aware that Maurizio is an engaging conversationalist, too!).


Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Thank god there was this

On our dreadful night at Brunello there was a comforting thought, that in a couple of nights we would be in for uncomparably better. Let us be specific.

From the Oxford English Dictionary (online):



4. Natural ability or capacity; quality of mind; the special endowments which fit a man for his peculiar work. (Now only with mixture of sense 5.)

5. (Only in sing.) Native intellectual power of an exalted type, such as is attributed to those who are esteemed greatest in any department of art, speculation, or practice; instinctive and extraordinary capacity for imaginative creation, original thought, invention, or discovery. Often contrasted with talent.

In sense 4 the word had come to be applied with especial frequency to the kind of intellectual power manifested by poets and artists

… The difference between genius and talent has been formulated very variously by different writers, but there is general agreement in regarding the former as the higher of the two, as ‘creative’ and ‘original’, and as achieving its results by instinctive perception and spontaneous activity, rather than by processes which admit of being distinctly analyzed.

So, what is genius? Below is a possible answer:

Lamb strips with on ‘puntarelle’ with anchovies dressing and hazelnut. Simplicity and sophistication. Puntarelle (the green veggies on which the lamb strips are resting) in anchovy dressing are a classic of Roman and Latial cuisine. The tender strips of lamb with anchovies are not: do their intense tastes clash? Of course not, with a helping hand from the hazelnuts. While anchovies are often seen in rich French/English lamb casseroles and stews, their use here is all Mediteranean lightness and freshness. Pure genius. And no prizes for guessing where we ate it.


Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Brunello at the Baglioni Hotel (London)

The day: 23rd April 2008, Dinner.
The place: Baglioni
Hotel, 60 Hyde Park Gate, London, SW7 5BB
The venue: Brunello Restaurant
The food: Italian
The drinks: Rather wide list, expensive.

Warning: if you are of an aesthetically sensitive disposition and suffer of a weak heart, don’t enter here. As soon as you pass the porter-opened door of this 5 star hotel, you enter a kitsch fantasy, with water games, flat arches serving no apparent purpose, middle-eastern style decorations, gilded table mats and the like. A sort of upscale (and in our opinion less successful and humorous) version of LMNT. All a little cheap looking, however, and a lack of tablecloths, which somehow surprises us. Also in view of the fact that judging from the wine list, where you are hard pressed to find anything at a reasonable price, this place must be patronised by people who, unlike us, are not cheap bastards.

The chairs, armchairs in fact, are really comfortable, and the tables are spacious and with a decent margin from the neighbour. The menu is quite short and not particularly inspiring; nevertheless we have an open mind since, as you know, Italian cuisine can perform at its best even in the simplest of dishes, provided the ingredients are good and the skill is high. Let us check this out. For primi we note bla bla.

The room manager asks us if we want the wine list. We say yes, but that will be the last time we see him: we simply disappeared from his radar, and we had to strive to catch the attention of the (only) other waiter to get some wine at the last minute. Distraction and inattention in the service will be a theme of the entire evening.

In the meanwhile, the bread arrives.

This was ok, apart from a structural defect: this is not a basket but a board. Sadly, boards are notoriously flat. With the bread in precarious equilibrium on it, either the waiter must have superhuman equilibrium skills, or the bread will fall off the board when served,

which is exactly what happened. And now the waiter’s dilemma: touch the bread with his own hand to put it back in place (shock, horror!), or leave it on the table? In the event, our young apprentice decided to randomize, picked one up and let the other flat. For future reference, as way out of the predicament we recommend the use of bread ctongs, which no doubt the Baglioni chain can afford. But, you, know, the basket has been invented so long ago for a reason…

Our primi arrive:

- Pasta ('scialatielli') with Vongole (£9.50)

- Linguine with Crab (£9.50)

The pasta with vongole. Ohmygod. This is truly terrible. Bad oil, the pasta of an absurd consistency (clearly the dough has not been worked enough), the clams completely insipid. The only discernible taste in the dish is that of raw flour. Yes you read us right, raw flour. The clams are served in the shell, and no side plate is offered to remove them from the dish, so that we use the bread plate. We remind the gentle reader we are in a 5-star hotel.

The pasta with crab is not as bad as the other dish, but it is completely dull. The tagliolini are verging on the abyss of overcookedness, there is again a lack of flavour and the trade-mark poor quality fat.

Our secondi:

- Sea bass (£24.50)

- Grilled Sardines (£16.50)

The sea-bass is cooked correctly. But no flavour in the fish is detectable, so that the bitterness of the crispy side becomes dominant. This is because the fish is of low quality. A farmed, possibly not even fresh, fish, for £24.50, the cost of a menu at Latium. Congratulations. Oh, and the bed of greens on which the fish rests is stringy and hard, difficult to cut with the fish knife provided.

The true horror story is reached with the sardines, though the dish is nicely assembled. This dish will be enjoyed by those of you whose idea of fun is to spend an evening in the semi-darkness trying to locate and remove all the tiny bones from the fish, or from your mouth as the case may be. The sardines are in fact served just gutted but not boned. This is a hard fish to clean if you have to do it blind. We would have happily offered to fillet it ourselves in the kitchen, assuming they do not keep it in darkness to reduce expenses. Again, no plate was offered for putting the damn bones away (when we asked, the waiter looked compassionate). The vegetables (chicory with red grapefruit) were the only relief from this misery.

We share a dessert:

- Cannolo Siciliano (£7.50)

Incredibly, this was good. Good flavours, decent materials. At last! Maybe, given the low cost of a dessert, here the chef has a freer hand.

With a bottle of Muller-Thurgau Girlan 'Valzer' 2006 at £ 30.00 (good) , a very expensive .75 litre of Panna water at £4.95, and the steep food prices the dinner is going to be not only bad but harmful for the wallet, too. But as always when we go overexpensive places we deploy our secret weapon: a 50% discount, which brings us to a total bill (including 12.5% service) of £77.30 (the total would have been £102.45, having skipped, remember, a dessert).

The service was a disaster. Apart from the disappearing manager we told you about, several other small episodes followed. This is one of those places where staff insists on keeping your bottle away from the table. Fine. But then we don’t want to spend long minutes waving in the middle of our meal because our glasses are empty: just give us the bloody bottle! And, for a place with a wine list that pompous and that expensive, we demand (something we normally could not give a damn about) that the wine is served correctly: for example, bottle held visible and forward when they make you try it, instead of held sloppily almost behind the waiter’s back. Sorry mates, if you want to play the ‘high class’ game with your wine prices, you’ve got to hire a proper sommelier, or at least to train your waiting staff properly, or (what we suspect is the real problem) to motivate them and to support them adequately.

If the service was a disaster, in beautiful symmetry the cuisine was a disaster, too. Nothing redeems what we ate there, which was not worth a cheap Italian trattoria, let alone the 5 star prices here. We imagine the chef, Andrea Vercelli, must be highly constrained by the management in what he can buy and what he can do, because no self-respecting chef would willingly serve such sub-standard food, in such a venue, of his own will.

This restaurant cannot possibly continue in this way. Something has gone horribly wrong. Probably a classic corporate management cock-up where, instead of trusting and enfranchising the professionals in the room and in the kitchen, some bean-counter wants to micro-manage everything. At the moment this establishment is good only for wealthy show offs with tumescent wallets, plastic taste-buds and a complete ignorance of what Italian cuisine is about. All the others, avoid.


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