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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Ristorante Monti Lessini

The day: 22nd March 2009, Lunch.
The place: 38061 Sega di Ala (Trento, IT) (tel: 0464-671253

The venue: Albergo Monti Lessini

The food: Local Italian

The drinks: No wine list, a handful of choices are offered to you verbally.

We were saying in our scathing review last week that we are not at all snobby curmudgeons averse in to simple, rustic food...Here's an example.

After an extremely leisurely excursion (Man is recovering from another visit here) with ski racquets on the beautiful Monti Lessini (in the pre-Alps, really recommended for tranquil family outings),

our appetites were nonetheless epic. So we decided to try a simple looking local family-run restaurant, called, in a great feat of originality,

You enter and you feel at once at home, in a warm, inviting, hospitable, domestic environment:

For all the rusticity, there is even some nice touch in the 'mise-en-place'...

As we enter we immediately spot, guided by our dessert antennas, some trays with strudel and a very appetising cake, and, since we have arrived late and the room is full, we are overcome by the fear that they finish before we can have we implore the husband and wife managing the room to save a couple of slices for us...The request is accepted. Our desserts are assured. Our minds at rest, we can now focus on the other offers, mostly local and traditional dishes. We begin with some which are suitable for our appetites:

- Tortelli di monte e noci al tartufo della Lessinia (tortelli mountain style with walnuts and local truffle) €6.60
- Tagliolini all' asino (asino = donkey) €5

Both dishes are generous, generously flavoured and generously doused in butter, the unusual donkey, vaguely gamey but not quite, being the intriguing bit. Don't look for balance in them: this is really as traditional as you can get. We have noticed that in this part of Italy the cooking of the pasta tends to the overdone, and here's no exception. But in such honest, satisfying, intense dishes, we can more than take it!

We are happy but still next we have:

- Capriolo (roe-deer) in salmi' con polenta €9
- Stinco di maiale al forno (roasted pork shank) €6.50

Accompanied by two side vegetables (€2.50 each)

Salmi' is a classic preparation, involving a marinating stage of the meat in wine, vagetable and spices, and then a slow cooking in casserole. It is just perfect for game meats, and if properly executed the effect is guaranteed. This one is well executed, the only slightly disappointing bit being the polenta.
The lamb shank may not be cooked as refinedly as in starred resturants, but look at the beautiful colours resulting from this homely cooking. It has retained moistness and the flavour is really neat and pleasant.

We are now even happier, but of course we still have space for the desserts we had spotted in the beginning:

- Strudel di mele (2.80)
- Torta di noci (walnut cake) (€2.80)

These desserts do not disappoint. Oh no, they don't. The strudel appears in a terrible foto which does not render justice to its goodness, balance and perfect consistency, soft and rightly wet.
The walnut cake may look dry, and so we feared: but it was instead surprisingly soft and light, the walnuts coming out potently on your palate. Of course, in a more sophisticated establishment it would have been accompanied by some custard or ice cream or other liquid elements: but this IS home cooking!

For drinks we had a bottle of Rebo Cantina d'Isera 'Nove Sette' 2005 (good) at a very, very honest €14, a bottle of water at €2, and coffees at an incredible €0.90 each! The total is a heart-warming €58.40.

The service, provided by husband, wife and daughter, is naturally friendly but also efficient and professional. We will not say that this is a destination place which you should travel to exclusively for the cuisine. Even for a traditional trattoria, the cuisine does not, in fact, achieve the intensity of flavours and quality of materials that you find, for example, at Franca Merz's. But we WILL say that we ate very well here: not one poor dish in sight and some excellent ones, with our gluttony instinct attended to in a full and pleasant way. A nice example of 'granny' Italian cooking style in a professional kitchen, with a welcoming environment inside, and in a splendid setting outside: so, overall, a trip IS recommended for the whole package! This family has set up an intelligent and deeply honest operation, which is succesful for what we could see (packed room), and for which we'd like to congratulate them.


Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Mas de la Fam

The day: 2nd February 2009, Dinner.

The place: Via Stella 18 Ravina (Trento) (tel: 0461 349114)

The venue: Mas de La Fam

The food: (Multi)Regional Italian

The drinks: good Italian wines and interesting house wine.

Last time, while describing one of our divine meals at Locanda Margon, we promised to compare and contrast their delicacy and elegance with something less classy. As we will show you in a future post (stay tuned…) we have nothing against simple, rustic, basic, traditional, hearty food. What we cannot stand is heavy-handed, sloppy and pretentious cuisine. This is exactly what you find at a recent opening just a few dozens meters on the hill where… Locanda Margon sits.

Mas de La Fam is a converted farmhouse. The conversion has been done well, integrating intelligently a modern, ‘young’ style in the old rustic structure. A not insignificant amount of money and architectural talent appears to have been used in the enterprise.

We chose the tasting menu at €33 (three courses, excluding desert which is paid on top if you choose to have it).

The bread arrives

Not memorable but OK.

- Carpaccio di carne salada con cappuccio rosso, tortino al radicchio con salsa ai formaggi, verdure del Mas.

The carne salada is a type of regional cured (salted) beef with red cabbage, which can be served grilled or raw. Here it is raw, and it is a good specimen, well matched with the cabbage. The verdure del Mas feature some pickled vegetables of which the artichoke verges on inedible because of lack of proper cooking and preparation: it is hard, woody, horrible. The pepper and the radicchio aren’t bad, but overall this section of the dish is an explosion of oiliness and acidity. The tortino has a texturally unpleasant and rough brise’ base, but the flavour, beside the heavy hand with cheese, is agreeable - well, just so, for Woman, who still cannot get over that artichoke, while Man tries to put a smiling face over this underwhelming beginning. Overall the assemblage in this dish does not make much sense to us.

- Strangolapreti al gorgonzola and tortelloni speck e noci

The strangolapreti (traditional flour, bread, egg and spinach pasta) are a little hard but an energetic friend to your tastebuds (provided you like gorgonzola), and the tortelloni assault your palate with heavy but once again benign flavours. This is on the unrefined side of good, so what is the cheffy decoration separating the two sides doing there?

- Tagliata del Mas al rosmarino, formaggio (cheese) di malga alla griglia, with Contorni (carrots, potatoes)

The tagliata is memorably unremarkable. So we are pinning our hopes on the malga cheese. These cheeses from milk of cows which graze at altitude come often from tiny producers, so that they offer an enormous variety, each one different from the other. When they are good, they really regale you with complex and subtle aromas. Alas, this poor one has been treated so harshly on the grill that it might have been the most undistinguished of industrial cheeses.

The potatoes are amazingly greasy and heavy, and we are forced to leave them. Yes, you’ve read it right, we left something on the plate. If you have read other of our reviews, you’ll know that we can count on the fingers of half a hand the number of times we leave food on the plate. Mummy taught us so. But even imprinting has a limit ;-).

Talking of limits, we skip dessert. We’ve had enough.

A full meal here, with a bottle of wine around €20 and a bottle of water will cost you near €100. While this may seem OK by London standards, it is a lot for trattoria food in Trentino (see e.g. here and here).

The service somehow attempts to be polite but it does not have a clue, it really doesn’t. An example. When we ask about the varieties in the wine SHE is recommending us, the waitress says she does not know. With a flash of inspiration she then looks at the label, but alas, she says that the label does not help. Well, it is probably Cabernet, or Merlot. Not Pinot Noir. We look at the label and we notice with interest that it lists exactly the grapes that make up this wine.

The result of the chef’s efforts is very mediocre indeed from the culinary point of view. This is merely ordinary, with touches of unacceptable (gosh, that artichoke), and very heavy handed cuisine with a tendency to destroy flavours, but which clearly believes to be of higher standards. It is extortionate by local standards in terms of value for money. Walk up the hill, take out €50 extra euros to dine at Locanda Margon, and you’ll feel you have saved money. The final straw for us for was to see a cook with the cigarette hanging from his lip while assembling a dish. This says it all, we thought.


Monday, March 16, 2009

Menu Bollicine Locanda Margon

The day: 14th January 2009, Dinner.
The place: Via Margone, Ravina, Trento, Italy (tel +39 0461 349401)
The venue: Locanda Margon
The food: Modern Italian with a regional slant
The drinks: On this occasion, exclusively bubbly.

ADDED FEBRUARY 2010: The Lunelli family has now sacked Walter Miori - apparently they were not making enough money...which destroys the best of marriagies.

The association between Chef Walter Miori and the producers of one of the elite Italian bubblies (Ferrari spumante metodo classico) always had the features of a marriage made in gastronomic Heaven. We already reported from that Heaven, but this time we want to tell you about its most distinctive offspring: a ‘bubbly’ menu (menu Bollicine), four courses with bubbly pairings. While the Lunelli family (the owners of Ferrari) simply need to make their product available, creating such a menu is always a challenge for a chef: let’s see how Miori copes with it.

The bread arrives in its usual glory:

The next time you think you’ve had a good bread offering, please cast your mind back to this... Eight varieties plus grissini, all home made, all supremely fragrant and good. In our experience this is unbeaten.

And an off-menu amuse-bouche appears

It’s a Cream of Jerusalem artichokes, dill flavoured salmon, croutons. Very, very balanced, smooth, the flavours and temperatures caressing your palate, the delicacy well clear of evanescence thanks to the concentration and quality of the Jerusalem artichokes and the body from the rightly judged fatness in the cream and the olive oil, the salmon and the croutons. This was accompanied by the opening bubbly that features in the starter proper of the menu:

- Sarde in saor con spuma di polenta bianca(Sardines ‘in saor’ with white polenta foam)
- Ferrari Maximum brut

These sardines in the traditional Venetian preparation offer a startlingly decisive, almost risky, start to the journey: the sardines are bodily and intense, their exuberance softened by the sweet polenta and the unadvertised but crucial stewed red onions with pine-nuts and raisins (typical, however, of some version of the 'saor'). So this becomes a sweet-acidic feast that pleases your eyes first (look at the gracious minute decorations) and then delights and opens your appetite. The bubbly accompaniment is discreet and unobtrusive, though its voice struggles to make itself heard among such bold flavours.

The primo is a

- Lasagnetta alla vaccinara (oxtail) con patate schiacciate
- Ferrari Perle’ 2003

The nice thing with great chefs is that they can surprise you. We’d never have anticipated an oxtail lasagne to be presented in this way. It is somehow destructured, with potatoes at the base, on which the oxtail ‘ragout’ rests, alternated with a lasagna sheet and finally covered by two more lasagna layers sandwiching some white bechamel. On the side, a ‘cannolo’ made of Trentingrana (the local response to Parmigiano cheese) and filled with a creamy foam of the same. Just describing the ingredients gives away the richness and variety in this dish. Yet despite the potential for heaviness (hard cheese, oxtail, bechamel), what strikes you here is lightness, the oxtail having been treated very elegantly, with no trace of excess fat either in it or in the bechamel, and with the Trentingrana present in the right amount. The cannolo is really a stroke of genius, because it adds both a crispy and an airy texture to the dense creaminess of the lasagne, as well as a backbone of refreshing acidity. But there are other elements adding further dazzling layers of flavour and textures, the herby note of ‘crescione’, the sharp comfit cherry tomato, the crunchy powder of dried pea skins and potatoes…our heads spin! So it is that a simple and very rustic dish has been transformed into a refined, complex ensemble (the next time we’ll show you for contrast an example of heavy-handed cuisine…). One of the best primi ever, interesting, for those of us interested in Italian cuisine, also because of its fusion of local and non-local traditions (Trentingrana and oxtail? You won’t find it on many tables!). The accompanying bubbly is more structured, darker in colour, and is a very, very good match.

Ooh, something is coming which we hadn’t read on the menu…

Our first thought is that the slices at the base are courgettes. Instead they are revealed to be asparagi. Asparagi, delicately concentrated, also constitute the filling for the ravioli, and how do you think they match the ‘mazzancolla’ (langoustine)? You are right, just perfectly. And the mazzancolla itself is stunning in flavour, impressive in cooking (we learn it is cooked in cocoa butter). The garnish is a bisque of the mazzancolla with asparagus: as you can see, this dish is amazingly clean looking and clean flavoured. Despite the absence of a copious sauce it does not lack any moistness. This is modern cuisine of true class. Class, like in the Perle’ bubbly, of which we get a second [or is it a third? :)] helping and we really begin to like… Because yes, we should say that we thought the pairing would be a single glass, and perhaps in most other places this is what one would have, but not here, in the sense that each single glass appears to be bottomless!

We are ready for the main:

- Faraona (guinea fowl) arrosto con mosaico di verdure
- Perle’ Rose’ 2003

This faraona is a classic Miori style dish, the cooking of the meat as accurate as ever, yielding no hint of dryness, all tasty moistness; the vegetables expressing a deep, kaleidoscopic fantasy of flavours; the trademark crunchy wafer bread, in one version with poppy seeds, and in the other with dried flowers; the clean, elegant reduction. We just relish and rejoice in the dreamy goodness of this dish, but we suspect others might have wanted a punchier finale, in line with the punchy sardine opening. In terms of food/bubbly combination, the rose’ with the guinea fowl might be the best so far.

And, with some sadness that we are nearing the end, we are at the dessert:

- Souffle’ alla ricotta di capra (goat cheese ricotta) con pere al vino
- Ferrari Maximum demi-sec

The souffle’ is delicately hearty, with a distinct egg flavour, the goat ricotta suffusing it with a subtle aroma, which combines majestically with the pears on the other side of the dish. The vanilla in the ice-cream (also with a strong eggy whiff) simply bursts out with all its flavour.

Ah, not over yet, look at the petit four:

good and nicely assorted, but what stands out is an unusual coffee-cup of zabaione flavoured with Maso grill, the house passito wine. Delicious.

The cost of all this? An amazing €70 for each the four courses with bubbly pairings, plus €3 for the water… One does feel as if he has won the lottery.

The service is warm and cordial but not obtrusive, the waiters always ready to put their intimate knowledge of every dish at your disposal. You really do feel pampered here. Reflecting with a cool head on this meal (it is too easy to be carried away by bubbly inflated enthusiasm…), we can only confirm that Miori stands out on an entirely different level in the array of our Michelin starred experiences. There is no way that cuisine of such imagination, consistency, precision and complexity can fit within a single star. And the value for money is simply unbelievable. Going to Locanda Margon is more than going to sample a restaurant: you really feel you are being treated with the passion of somebody who invites you at his own place. One episode testifies best of all the character of the man. At the end of the meal, while conversing with Franca Miori (who manages the front room and the external relations with smiling efficiency and warm courtesy), we spotted Walter Miori in the kitchen, obviously tired at the end of service, yet armed with cleaning spray, and energetically helping to clean the stoves himself (incidentally, if all kitchens are clean at a certain level, this one is maniacally clean). It is this humility and total dedication to his kitchen that shows up in one dish after the other, one visit after the other. We fail to remember one single instance of a below par or sloppy offering. Stars or no stars, long it may continue!


Monday, March 9, 2009


The day: 4th March 2009, Dinner.

The place: 72 St James Street, London SW1A 1PH (tel: 020 7408 1440)

The venue: Luciano

The food: Italian

The drinks: Interesting wine list, heavily Italian. Also by the glass.

 THIS RESTAURANT HAS CLOSED (as this review concluded, 'Perhaps the bar is its most useful part. It’s hard to see a bright future for the rest.'...)

Our Toptable booking calls this restaurant (unlike their business card) ‘Luciano – Marco Pierre White’, showing a burning desire to emphasise the association with the great and prematurely retired chef. It remains to be seen whether he should also be equally proud of this association…(we aren’t sure, nor sufficiently interested to find out to be frank, whether he is part patron or he just acts as a consultant).

Located in monstrously wealthy St. James, the interior is suitably chic in both large rooms, the first mainly occupied by a large bar area, and the other comprising the restaurant proper, the wall displaying many photographs of scantily dressed women, the floor made of nice wood planks. We sit at the corner end of an impressive leather upholstered bench, with soft lights and an abat-jour on the table. The tables themselves are very close to each other, but thanks to the vast space you will only be forced to breath your neighbour’s breath when the restaurant is completely full, which looks quite a feat.

The menu offers many simple Italian classics, mostly overpriced. We will be choosing from a restricted Toptable special menu which offers three courses for an enticing £21.95.
The bread arrives.
The accompanying oil is of high quality, slightly citrusy, probably Tuscan. The bread itself pleases us with some variety: ciabatta, olive bread, casareccio, rosemary, walnuts and raisins. And we cannot complain about the quality, either.

No amuse bouche, of course, and so we move straight to our first courses:
- Soup of the day
- Cold beef salad with mustard sauce

The soup of the day turns out to be a Ribollita which, for those of you who don’t know, is a traditional rustic Tuscan thick bean soup. It ought to ooze rich flavour. This one doesn’t. It is strikingly unmemorable, a typical product of soulless cooking, though not at all unpleasant, except for the slightly undercooked beans.

The beef salad is supported by the good core raw material. The unadvertised ungraceful, lame rocket mountain is redolent of 90’s memories. The parmesan is also surprisingly lame. The mustard fails to light up this dish, which is however not unpleasant thanks to the beef, and to a style that, while soulless, at least does not lack balance.

For both dishes, the portions are generous.
At this point the waiter tries to take away our unfinished bread basket. We almost faint. After making our need for bread (especially having skipped pasta) clear, the waiter will come back with a new full basket, and even with fresh olive oil. Nice touch, and even half a smile!

And here come our mains:
- Rib-eye steak.
- Chargrilled tuna with rocvket and tomato

What a good steak, the rare cooking as requested allowing the beef to express its full flavour and texture! It really is very good, and compares more than favourably, for example, with the one we had here. But the chips, oh dear, the chips, what a disaster. Typical mushy texture inside of defrosted and badly cooked stuff. Well, you too can probably tell from the picture. MPW would not like that.
Like the rib eye, the tuna, too, is good, perfectly cooked so as to be moist and succulent, and even excellently seasoned. There are no horrible chips to spoil the feast here, just once again the banal rocket salad. Were the advertised tomatoes there? We think not, and much better this way.

And finally, our desserts:
- Ice cream selection
- Torta del giorno

The ice-cream (vanilla and chocolate) is just OK, the vanilla exceedingly sweet and the chocolate lame. Uhm, to be fair we are being generous: this is just passable.
The cake of the day is a chocolate tart. The crust is good, crumbly, the chocolate is ifairly deep, though it leaves a burnt aftertaste. For the vanilla ice-cream, see above.

Overall, including a Dolcetto D’Alba Parusso 2007 at around £30 and a bottle of water, the total bill comes to £91.69 thanks to the special deal. Otherwise, you’d be looking very far North of £100.
This venue has a service problem, at least on the night we were there. The manager is utterly charmless and useless (we spare you the details), and the waiters, while professional and kind overall, look so sad that you wonder whether the manager tortures them before and after the service.

Cuisine-wise, we fail to see the point of Luciano. Nothing except for the chips was totally bad, something was good, most was deeply average. At full prices, it would not make sense to head there, we think, given the many superior Italian choices nearby. This is neither a destination venue, nor a proper neighbourhood restaurant. The very plain and unimaginative food is trattoria style, a trattoria in the middle of St. James’, at St James’ prices and, especially, without much of the flavour impact you’d find in a real trattoria (though, we repeat, we found some trattoria generosity in the portions). Marco Pierre White surely does not advice on dish presentation. We leave it to him to decide what this establishment is. Perhaps the bar is its most useful part. It’s hard to see a bright future for the rest.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Bollito Misto at Osteria Fior di Roccia

‘Bollito misto’ (let’s say ‘Mixed boiled meats’) is one of the great classics of Italian popular cuisine: an assortment of ‘plebeian’ cuts of meat and poultry cooked in broth. We enjoyed an interpretation by Michele Menestrina at this great little joint overlooking the dreamy Valle dei Laghi (Lake Valley) which eventually leads from Trento to Lake Garda.

To stimulate our appetite (really no need, since we need to recuperate the usual 1000 metre ascent in the snow - with ‘ciaspole’, also known as snow rackets - of the previous day), a little present from the kitchen, a trattoria amuse bouche:

It’s a ricotta quenelle with radicchio and walnuts, on a slice of toasted pan brioche. Delicious, the delicate sweet, bitter and acidic flavours from the components, and the textures, just perfect to set our taste-buds on full alert.

The bread arrives:

Always home-made, always very good, this time also with some radicchio rolls, a first for us here.

And now, ladies and gentleman, we begin:

- Gran bollito misto.

An array of sauces is brought to the table. From left to right we have radish, fig mustard, ‘peverada’ (a traditional sauce from the region: breadcrumbs from bread toasted in the pan, bone marrow long cooked in stock, some stock itself), then a classic ‘salsa verde’ (green sauce, parsley based), and finally a tomato sauce. Even without waiting for the meat we unceremoniously begin to pick and try…Then…

A warm dish is brought to you with a potato and a stewed finely sliced onion. Taste-buds on even fuller alert.

Then the copper container…

…from which you yourself will pick the pieces to put in the plate. It’s nice once in a while to eat stuff in the order that you bloody prefer, each piece with the sauce you bloody want, with nobody hovering to tell you how you must eat.

Let’s open it:

We have a chicken leg, two tongues cooked in two ways, (‘salmistrata’, kind of corned veal tongue salt cured; and 'normal'), both veal and beef muscle, and ‘cotechino’ (home-made of course, no industrial shit here). The ox-tail which is normally there is missing today, and has been replaced by the second tongue. Now, let’s just shut up and eat, this is fabulous!

In the end, we certainly do have the space for the dessert of this set menu

- Budino di pane e mela Golden con caramello di Schiava Nera (Steamed bread and apple pudding with Schiava Nera (a local wine) caramel).

Excellent, this choice of a dessert characterised by local ingredients and rooted in tradition, in keeping with the rest of the menu. But Menestrina is a missed chef patissiere, his desserts always so intense and balanced, and this dessert is truly on a different plane. Just look at the presentation.

All was accompanied by a local wine, a Rebo at €17 (more on the Rebo wine at some point) and water, a full litre bottle of it, that extinct animal, at €2.50. The whole menu (all you’ve seen above) cost…€23. Yes. Including proper tablecloths, amuse bouche, bread, smiling service and ambience. This must be the best quality for money on earth (we think of St. John’s in London, of all the rave around it, and the star, and the prices, and we somehow feel that the world is crazy).

We love, love meat. And so this was for us a fabulous treat, a vigorous interpretation of popular heartiness, but with refinement of presentation, a kaleidoscope of flavours and attention to cooking and the choice of cuts and materials (true, this last feat facilitated by a dad in the butcher’s trade who gives a willing hand!) that reveal the true chef behind the stoves. For this year, we think bollito is gone: Spring is upon us (even if here in Trentino we were under snow yesterday). What will Chef Michele be putting on the new season menu? Be sure we will find out…


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