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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…


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