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Sunday, May 31, 2009


The day: 26th April 2009, Lunch.
The place:
Griesbruck 4, 39043 Klausen/Chiusa (Bolzano), Italy (tel+39 0472 847448)
The venue: Jasmin restaurant vitale
The food: Modern regional/eclectic
Airport: Verona, Brescia (BA, Ryanair)
The drinks: Interesting, strong on regional, some Piedmont and Chianti, only few token other Italian and foreign offerings, reasonably priced

(added November 2009: now a 2* promise in the 2010 guide)

The first slightly frightening aspect of Jasmin is that when you phone to book they ask what you want to eat. I beg your pardon? yes, that's right, there is no a la carte menu. You can only choose the type of menu (fish, meat, or mixed) and the number of courses. When we say you can ‘choose’ the number of courses it is a euphemism: the minimum is four. We are sure that the courteous manager (we guess, the mum of the Michelin starred chef Martin Obermazoner, though we didn’t ask) would accommodate deviations and strange requests such as having less than four courses, but we don’t try: we feel we’d be spoiling a precision machine.

So we direct our car along the Isarco valley, to the pretty town of Chiusa. We are in Sud Tirol and, although we are nominally in Italy, the environment and the language tell you that we are not. The restaurant is located in what must have been once a corner of Paradise, overlooked by a rock with the great abbey and immersed in a sea of green.

Now it is unfortunately overlooked by the monstrous motorway that slashes the forest above. We show you the pretty angle:

while here you can check for yourself how the motorway cuts through the beautiful scenery.

On arrival, you find on the table the menu, with your name on it, that the chef has concocted for you. (We actually visited Jasmin twice, once for the fish menu and the other time for the mixed menu: this is an account of our first visit, but the impressions we had in the second were punctually confirmed).

The small room is very prettily set, with the usual high-end south-tirolean mixture of Alpine rusticity and cutting edge elegance, but the four tables in such a tiny environment create an almost excessively intimate atmosphere, with the three couples reduced to whispering to each other in fear of breaking a religious-like quiet.
The bread arrives, accompanied by three types of butter (malga/alpine pasture butter, goat butter and irish butter):

Wow, ten varieties. Chef, you have found the right people for your flour efforts: they are very appreciative and impressed.

We start with a first amuse bouche:

It’s a warm quince tea, topped with cold champagne foam and with a generous sprinkle of ginger ‘pearls’ (spherification) at the bottom. The manager informs us that the pearls are the product of a ‘new technique’: obviously we don’t immediately strike people as gourmets... Anyway, this is absolutely brilliant. The champagne is ‘boiling’ to great effect. Neatly contrasted flavours, temperatures and textures are a light delight on the palate and immediately predispose you to discover more.

The second amuse is...

We have a cream of purple and white cauliflower with coffee foam, a langoustine cappuccino with cocoa, and an oyster with warm passion fruit jelly and slivers of white chocolate. Ehm, if the chef wanted to strike us from the very beginning, he succeeded. All these ingredients could have been a horrible mess, and are instead an elegant, balanced and bold ensemble. If one minor imbalance has to be found, one might point at some excessively pungent cheesiness in the cauliflower. But this is quibbling, for the cream is a warm caress on your palate. The bitter cocoa and the langoustine riskily skirt the edge of a jarring combination, but instead they are simply stunning together, in a miraculous equilibrium. And the oyster soon deflects any worry that the passion fruit might have overshadowed it: the flavours are unbelievably clear, the white chocolate softening just enough the zing of the passion fruit. This is an extremely assertive amuse, with great cooking precision on display.

So far we have moved from liquid to creamy and semi-solid consistencies, and we are fully ready for something more substantial: here is our starter:

- Wild sea-bass with ratatouille

The sea bass is accompanied by a white tomato foam, ratatouille and ‘tomato cous cous’. Man and woman after the first bite of the bass look at each other in amazement: The cooking and the material are stratospheric, with everything you want, crispiness, moistness, flavour. The ratatouille confers almost excessively bitter notes, it is very meticulously made, but the vegetables are slightly unseasonal, never a suitable match for the fantastic bass.

Oh my God, another extra ‘amuse’!

Potato cream with sour milk, leek sprouts, and Asetra caviar. Despite the ennobling presence of the caviar, this dish manages to also satisfy your ‘gluttony’ instincts, the potatoes being quite cheesy, and yet the cream while bodily is delightfully light. The caviar elevates the whole immensely, and all the flavours, once again, feel simply sculpted so clear they are.

It feels like a long way, already, and yet we are only at our first course:

- Sesame ravioli with red Sicilian prawns on pumpin cream, green apple:

Sweetness and voluptuous richness in this dish (almost a vanilla flavour, maybe the ravioli have been cooked in cocoa butter, and certainly the oil is of black sesame), on the verge of being too fat. The pasta has a very interesting texture. The quality of the prawn is supreme for Man, while Woman finds it a notch down, but they agree on the excellent cooking. There is also much generosity in the quantity, adding to the overall impression of unabashed lusciousness.

Ready for our main:

- Amberjack with river watercress puree, Vesuvio tomatoes

In this dish it’s small but crucial details that count: the ‘lime caviar’, the sesame coating... and with the fish (almost raw) we are again in the stratosphere, and so, this time, also with the vegetables: the `crescione' (watercress) is an excellent sweet match. But also, once again, a hint of excess unctuositiy.

Next, we are brought some sorbets as a predessert, and we are invited to guess the flavours ourselves:

We like the game, as well as the playful chromatism. Before we tell how you we went with the guesses, let us say that these sorbets were a true joy to eat, a great assortment. Now we are finished and it’s exam time… brrr. We and the couple remaining at another table (ther were six covers in all on that Sunday lunchtime) are very worried not to pass: it is clear that if the chef wants us to guess he is sure to find us out in some embarrassing blunder. And the situation turns out to be worse, for the other couple simply bottles up and you faithful reporters now have to shoulder the entire responsibility. For the green one we guess ‘some tangy fruit like orange and some herbs, like basil’, and the true answer is basil and lime. Not quite, but the manager looks impressed nonetheless – clearly she has seen much worse... For the white one we guess ‘ricotta and and coconut’, and the true answer is mozzarella and coconut. Damn! Close again, but the chef has managed to trick us (it was bloody good, by the way). The last one feels so simple that we see another trick coming: ‘small wild fruits’, we say, to be general and parry surprises, and it turns out that they are wild strawberries as we thought (yeah, yeah).
We feel we have passed the exam, so now we can proceed to the dessert.

- Medlar fruit with blanc manger, coconut souffle', blanc manger ice cream

Ok, we notice a crème fraiche ice-cream, a hazelnut mousse with nespole (medlar), blanc manger with goat milk and almonds, a strawberry ‘ragout’ with chocolate ‘fritto’, a coconut souffle’, and a nespole juice. They are all very good, very well-made, original and nicely presented: a triumph of assorted flavours which leaves Man completely and utterly satisfied. Especially the acompanying nectar of nespole is an extremely nice touch.
However, Woman complains about the lack of more ‘robust’ consistencies, and Man has to agree that a truly balanced dessert would have featured some more crunchy and floury sections. Actually, it has been a theme throughout the meal: maybe the chef likes best soft, creamy consistencies.

The petit four conclude what for us was a very large meal:

Excellent, accompanied by a good coffee.

With a (1 Litre!) bottle of water and a Chardonnay Alois Lageder (we think, but we are going from memory) at around €34, the total comes to €162. For such a large meal with such materials, this is a very reasonable price.

The service is conducted by ‘mum’ with courteousness and smiles but also with a touch of distance and a lack of genuine warmth. There is a feel of everything being a bit mechanical, from the way the dishes are recited to you to the way questions are answered (this may be compounded by a language problem). There is no sense that in the room staff really care for or understand what the chef in the kitchen is pursuing. On our second visit, there were also unacceptable delays and lack of a proper pace during the meal, also in view of the fact that there were again only very few (eight) people to serve. And the helping waitress was terribly awkward. On balance, we venture to say that this restaurant has a service problem, relative to its obviously high ambitions.
The cuisine itself, however, is spectacular. Martin Obermazoner is a chef of frightening precision and ability. His dishes give an impression of total control and almost maniacal attention to details. As we have had occasion to remark already, his flavours are marvellously clean, despite coming from combinations that reveal a taste for complexity, opulence, and also boldness. This chef stretches the palette of flavours using all modern techniques, but without overdoing it. And the hints of playfulness and the obvious generosity make it all more human. But is has to be said that depriving the customer of choice pushes control-freakery a bit too far for our taste, and it also gives the chef an ‘unfair’ advantage compared to other colleagues that have to take more risks for the sake of putting his customers more at ease. Commercially, too, it looks like a strange choice, for you can only go to Jasmin if you are prepared to have a gargantuan meal, never simply to relax. In conclusion, we felt that the only obstacle to an otherwise totally deserved second star –which may well arrive- lie in things that are around the dishes, certainly not in the dishes themselves. At least once, however, try it: it is definitely not an ordinary culinary experience.


Monday, May 18, 2009

Fish and Chips

It's always nice to go to a place which belongs to the category of 'The best in the UK for...'. This time it's, unusually for us, fish and chips!

Anstruther is a nice costal village in the East Neuk of Fife, Scotland, and the the celebrated venue is imaginatively called 'The Anstruther Fish Bar'.

Not only is this the 2009 winner of Yet Another Meaningless Food and Restaurant Competition, but it is also patronised by some of the Great and the Good. This last fact is generally also a poor, sometimes indeed a contrary, indicator of the quality of a venue. So, being in the vicinities, we decided to try for ourselves.

The first challenge for us is getting to grips with the the pronunciation of the word 'Anstruther'. We fail miserably. Let us just say we are happy this is not a radio broadcast :)

Once inside, there is the advertised permanent long queue for the takeaway section. It's not TOO long only because it is an indistinct Wednesday night - at weekends you have to stand the best part of an hour, but we jump it anyway because we are Italian and we don't do no queue..., ehm, no, actually because we decide to sit down in the unreconstructed 70's dining area: plastic tables, cheap lighting, Heinz tartare sauce, tattered menues...

The interesting touch is a screen showing images of fishing, a reminder of the harsh conditions fellow men have to endure to bring fish eventually to our table. This puts us in an expectant and respectuful mood.

The bread arrives:

uhm, ok, let's not build too much on this...

While we wait, we have time to brush up our knowledge:

We have dressed crab, battered haddock with chips, mushy peas, and coleslaw. We can't be more conservative than that.

We expected the seafood to be very fresh and we were not disappointed. Indeed, the crab was very good. As for the haddock, was it the most flavoursome seafood we've ever had? No, it wasn't. Was it good? Yes it was. And the batter was really excellent, light and airy and fried well and in the right proprtion to the fish. The only real disappointment came from the chips, truly unremarkable. Not much to be said for the peas, either, while the coleslaw was rather good.

The prices are honest, each large course setting you back far less than a tenner, or about 20-30% less if you eat take away. The staff are cheerful and polite. When in the vicinities again (more on this story later...) we will probably be back, also to try their interesting looking ice-cream section. But we are also keen to try their (even cheaper) competitors: we are wondering whether we can really taste a difference between the best fish and chips in these fishing villages along the Fife coast: can it really be the case that their sourcing and their abilities in preparing a batter differ so much?

While mulling over this question, should you feel like a 'latte', cappuccino society has arrived here too...


Thursday, May 7, 2009


It’s that time of the year again…

...when, here in Trentino, you can enjoy that fantastic local delicacy, white asparagi, cultivated in sandy soil and expressing a very interesting ethereal, sweet and sour, mineral flavour.

The most famous variety come from Zambana - but we begin to think that they command an unjustified ‘brand’ mark-up on other equally good varieties…

We buy ours from our own trusted supplier Giuseppe

whom we introduced to you last year

These ones

come from Romagnano (another well-known area along the Wine road (Strada del Vino)) and are marvellous. We spare you a detailed ‘recipe’. Just boil them and then add some form of –preferably peppered to our taste- eggy and/or cheesy condiment/accompaniment, and you’ll be happy. Often we cook the top half this way and we finely chop the bottom half to make a pasta sauce. But really, their taste is so delicate that even with just a touch of olive oil and salt they are a treat.

Not that our beloved Giuseppe lacks the slightly more ‘herby’ diferently coloured varieties: look at these beauties:

The asparagus season is short – yes it can be prolonged a bit for commercial reasons, but the quality peak is a fleeting moment of magic. Let two weeks go by, and it will be the onset of a tragic decline. So we go around to see what restaurants do with them…

We visited again Costa Salici, partly to check whether the potential we spotted a couple of years ago has been translated into some concrete progress. Alas, no. The same as last time: some great dishes and great ideas coupled with some sloppy execution and poor materials. No matter. Let’s see their

Asparagus Menu (€44)

Tartare di trota fume’ con carpaccio di asparagi bianchi croccanti (you can understand without translation, right?)

This was a fully satisfying amuse bouche, deftly playing on textures and the successful marrgiage between the delicate flavours of the trout and the pleasantly acidic asparagus.

Vellutata di asparagi verdi con gnocchetti di pesce persico (perch)

The vellutata in itself was OK. The gnocchetti with pesce persico were an absurdity, in that the fish flavour was impossible to detect.

Cavatelli con moscardini (baby-octopus), capesante (scallops) ed asparagi

Ouch. One advice: if you offer noble seafood, either use top quality, or take it off the menu. And do not serve poor pasta.

Asparagi bianchi e gamberi (prawns) in tempura giapponese:

The tempura is light, well-made. But (ouch) again see above on the seafood. Actually, though, the surprise bit of battered seabass was excellent.

Gelato agli asparagi con passata di fragole:

And this was the only stroke of genius and the only really, really rewarding and beautifully served dish. We wondered if they have a separate chef de patisserie here. Anyway, it’s good to end on a high note…


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