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Tuesday, April 24, 2012

La Parmigiana (Glasgow): Fine old school Italian

(Visited: early April 2012)

Our first time in Glasgow. Anticipating a hearty meal, we take a longish zig-zag, up and down walk through the urban hills from Queen Street train station to the West End. 

Step in La Parmigiana and step back in time. 

There is an old school feel here, from the waiters to the decor to the menu. Strangely, we have good vibes.

The bread is simple and well made, and above all its taste is very decent - and freely re-supplied.

No amuse bouche, what's that?, we are immediately in medias res with Chargrilled Minch Scallops, with Lime & Olive Oil and Salad: served with their vivid orange coral attached, one feels really, really stupid never eating this perfectly good and beautiful part of the animal in fine dining restaurants - ok, the coral's texture is somewhat grainy, but it is the flavour that matters.

The scallops are fresh, they are precisely cooked, they are big plump and sweet, and the condiment strikes the right balance between oiliness, tanginess and a hint of bitterness from the rocket.  This is simple but real cooking.

The other primo is a Tagliolini with Dublin Bay Prawns, Courgettes and Fresh Tomatoes

You can see from the tomatoes and the cutting of the courgettes that we are not in fine dining territory here, but hey, the pasta is well made, very eggy, just lacking a bit of bite (in the sense of not being as elastic as it should be), in its rich tomatoey sauce that strikes and delights your nose even before your palate, deeply flavoured by the seafood, present in copious amount - at least ten prawns: how much should we pay to have this quantity in a fine dining London or Edinburgh venue? (Here, just a very fair £11).

For our first main, we go for a 'classicissimo', here described as Brodetto Di Pesce Alla Sambenedettese, a fish broth in other words, one of its infinite variations (the name suggests a recipe from the East coast of central Italy)

The seafood has given its soul to the broth and some of it is naturally exhausted and less soft than ideal. But what a feast of flavours! Cuttlefish, lobster, mussles and vegetables: soaking the crispy bread in the strongly aromatic zuppa is pure messy joy.

And from the rustic cacciucco to one of the classiest fishes on earth: a Turbot (the fish of the day from the market):

The fillet of turbot is fresh, if not from today then probably from yesterday, and also very nicely cooked, we guess pan-fried (the waiter could not help on this). At £22, what stonking value for such a lovely piece of fish.

The mains were served with separate potatoes and vegetables, quite good (even the potatoes, that from the look of it seemed of the "prefab" kind). 

 For desserts (around £6 each), we go for real classics, a Zabaione with Marsala

and a Tiramisu

The zabaione definitely has the boozy kick and goes down a treat, while the tiramisu, in a "sliceable" version - not as luscious and creamy as we would have preferred, but good, and there is a real show-stopper in the plate: the suavely intense cappuccino ice-cream (which would not have made much sense with a "cream galore" tiramisu version).

The coffee deserves a special mention. 

They made one of the few proper espressos we've had in a public place in the UK, including the top fine dining venues. We aren't talking about the quality of the coffee itself, which was merely good, but about the actual making of the espresso, with its proper thick foam that is so hard to get elsewhere. Man liked it so much that he accepted the kind offer of a second one.

Service, like the food, is old school Italian: very attentive and obliging, even though a bit disconnected from the kitchen operations.

The bill on food is very reasonable: for our pair of three (generous) course meals with coffees the total was £82. The drinks however are generally steeply priced (with some exceptions), with London/Edinburgh style markups on wines, especially the lower priced ones, and a meagre 0.75 litre of water at £4.20. The coffees themselves don't come cheap at £2.80. So with a £63 drink part of the bill we ended up paying quite a bit, but at least drinking a nice and expensive but not overpriced (one of the exceptions we spotted) Cervaro della Sala 2009, a lovely blend of Chardonnay and Grechetto.

La Parmigiana does nothing fancy, its recipes are simply the time-tested recipes of Italian tradition, but well made - how good trattorias used to be (though these are admittedly not trattoria prices). Even without special finesse to the preparations, the ability of the cooks to bring out very neat flavours and to keep the ensemble balanced and not too heavy really shines here. It looks so simple, yet why is it so rarely seen? How many mediocre, pretentious, stilted Italian meals have we endured in supposedly fancier, more modern places? This is certainly very far from a Morelli level of refinement, yet we thoroughly enjoyed our simple lunch. This would be a perfect Italian local if we lived in the Glasgow West End (and we'd also try their lunch offer at £15.50).


Monday, April 16, 2012

Locanda Margon (Trento): Love and genius

(Visited March 2012)

We know Locanda Margon very well. We had gotten quite friendly, due to or long custom, with previous chef Walter Miori (read there if you want to know about the Lunelli (= Italian champagne Ferrari) connection), who will always stay in our memory for the many culinary emotions he gave us. Thanks Walter.

Since a few years ago the time of Alfio Ghezzi (previously sous chef of Andrea Berton's of renowned Trussardi alla Scala) has come, and, OK, maybe we are just culinary whores, but in truth we have enjoyed some memorable dinners at the 'new' Locanda as well.

But truly memorable.

Once you get over the rather sombre lighting of the room in the 'salotto gourmet', it's a feast. The seats are so very comfortable, the tables wide and very well spaced. It is indeed a 'salotto'. This is pure, almost embarrassing, comfort. The room, though, is dark as we said, so unfortunately the pictures are particularly grainy, and do not make justice to the food.

Even before you choose, and then while you wait, you are treated to a dizzying selection of amuse bouches that span an incredible range of flavours, textures and produce - here we only post a couple, but the number and variety will bowl you over.

left - trout roe crostini; right: liver bonbons
left - trout roe crostini; right: liver bonbons

top: carambola  "alpine star" with casoulet cheese; bottom: trentigrana nests with asparagus
There are too many to detail. There are terroir based crunchy polenta with goat 'robiola' cheese, and a 'stella alpina' with casulet cheese . There's an ingenious tempura mortadella with apples and Perle' (one of the house champagnes). There's a deeply impressive crispy Trentingrana cheese with warm asparagus. There's a truly punchy liver (of what? can't remember) bonbons. And some more delicate crostini with trout roe.

You think that was all we had before the meal proper? Naah.

There are also the lighter snacks, like the trade mark multicoloured crispy rings in various flavours, and the breads. This is almost overwhelming, and you know you are in for an extraordinary experience, as beside being pretty and catchy, you can already see there's real substance to this food.

So many dishes a la carte are attractive that the first decision you make is that you need at least three visits to get a complete picture.

At two extremes of conception, we had an ethereal ziti pasta with capelonghe (razor clams),

 which was stunningly clean, sharp and clear in flavour (lemon and a very special oregano from Sicily), a true geometry of pleasure; and a powerful, earthy main of hare Royale with rosemary parsnip


that was prepared in the classic Royale style but in a way we'd never quite seen before, the moist 'polpettone' enclosing the supremely well cooked saddle, achieving pinnacles of deep flavour thanks to the foie gras and the innards. This is Koffmann's level stuff...and we don't mention the name of the master in vain...The parsnip and rosemary though (and this is the only negative note for this dish) were blandish and thus overwhelmed, a pity.

We also had a potato cannelloni, crema di salmerino (local trout), ginger and liquorice

a complex dish, a difficult dish in a sense, with cutting edge, daring flavours, that first startles you, has you suspended as if from a cliff of the surrounding mountains, but ends up in total harmony and peace. 

Oh my god, will we have to use the word 'genius'?

The other main was a mullet

pretty as a picture (prettier than OUR picture!), with an exceptional bisque, simply a great dish.

The petit fours arrive in French style before the desserts, and like the amuses, they overwhelm you:

The oh so amusing trademark pizza macaroon, the tarte tatin. the tiramisu, the torroncino, the hazelnut pralines...Is there no end to plasure?

No, for the deserts are on their way:

Biscotto foresta nera (black forest), liquorice and fiordilatte icecream

Rhubarb icecream and beetroot with "uliva 1111" olive oil and mini pop-corn

1111 oil being poured

The desserts are just perfect for our complementary tastes, Man loves fruit and veg based desserts without too much sweetness and with some sharpness. He thoroughly loved the balance of flavours and the imagination achieved in this one, with the excellent olive oil poured on the spot (even, ever the cynical and gimmick-allergic one, overcoming the mild irritation for an olive oil called 1111 because it is produced in this number of bottles: who T F cares?).

Get over the gimmicky oil name, this dish did deliver - the playfulness of the popcorn, the acidity of the rhubarb and the sweetness of the beetroot all came together. But for the stuff of comfort move over to the Black Forest.

Woman plunged into the chocolate emerging from it only quite a while later and looking blissful. The licorice was perfectly balanced, the sponge fluffy but firm, the morello cherries just perfect, and the creamy parfait linking all the flavours: really good.

The service, formal but not too much, strikes all the right keys. The sommelier accompanies you with grace whether you want to spend like a cheap bastard or like a Russian oligarch (the only negative, at least for us, was the champagne trolley at the beginning, which we find too pushy). Everybody is well briefed on the dishes.

The bill stayed within the 200 euro with a bottle of wine at 50 euro and a bottle of water, which is a very good price for this quality (and quantity!).

Despite being fans of the previous chef as we said, and also a bit suspicious in the beginning, Alfio Ghezzi's cuisine has completely convinced us over the years: He is not a youngster (listen who's talking...) and there is real maturity in what he does, there is a real depth of culinary culture in his dishes, a deep respect for local tradition and for classical, mostly French, techniques combined with an equal mastery of all modern contrivances and an exuberant creativity. He can also carve a chicken...

If there is a restaurant that could be the first to obtain two Michelin stars in Trento, this is it, so superior it is to its starred nearby competitors, and so comparable in quality to other two-starred places we've visited. Ghezzi has found a perfect local niche where to shine and become a beacon well beyond the confines of Trentino.


Thursday, April 12, 2012

Maisha (St Andrews): Coming crashing down to earth

(Visited March 2012)

After a great sequence of seafood eats (here, here, here and here), we felt we had enough in the bag that we could risk it, and enter this Indian eatery offering some suspiciously low priced set menus, and specialising in seafood, that we had passed and ignored many times in a little St Andrews alley.

It wasn't grotesquely bad. 

While the initial chutneys were a little tired, we had some edible fish dishes. Even if definitely far from exciting, at least they were original, reflecting local influence: it's not so usual to find haddock tandoori

and crab curry

on an Indian restaurant menu.

A spinach and a cauliflower bhaji were extremely greasy but overall well above acceptable.So was the rice.

Service was polite and efficient and the price (around the £50 mark with two beers for what you've seen) is adequate for the quality, while nobody could ever complain about the quantity.


Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Salice Salentino Candido Riserva, I Satiri, 2006

Sometimes one hits on a really interesting everyday wine. Here's a recent discovery:

A beautiful hearty Negroamaro, with morello cherries, smoky notes and a kind of bittery chocolatey finish in evidence, it seems to us a real bargain for 7.99 at Majestic Scotland.

Suggested pairing: Barcelona 3 - Milan 1 (it works both for the jubilant and for the desparing).


Thursday, April 5, 2012

Seafood platter at the Seafood Restaurant (St Andrews)

(Visited early March 2012)

Just a nibble beforehand to get some strength (nice bread by the way)...

Here are the weapons. Ready to go?

Go go go!

This is the seafood platter at the Seafood restaurant in St Andrews. We managed to catch the very last langoustines on offer for the day, so the other platter (yes, we had two entire platters between the two of us - we like our seafood as you may have guessed form recent posts) was missing the noble animals (and also had a reduction of £5 on the reasonable £50 that it costs).

Served cold and accompanied by a perfectly decent mayonnaise, everything was extremely fresh, caught on the day

 the crab, the mussels, the clams, the langoustines, the lobster, the prawns, the oysters. The quality was good, though we have some reservations on cold cooked clams and mussels At any rate, we gobbled up everything with gusto

and despite our voraciousness the enterprise took us quite a while due to the work required on the crustaceans (it was, however, helped by some gentle prep by the cooks). Ok, it was not the greatest seafood dinner ever (see our recent experiences in Seville and London for a start), but it was definitely a very enjoyable one, and good value too. 

More on the Seafood restaurant when we have a more standard meal.

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