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Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Osteria Francescana (Modena)

(Visited October 2012)

A pity that we could only find a spot at this uber-celebrated temple of Italian cuisine at a time that was only a few hours before the return flight to Scotland. A trip just for them, a maximum of three hours at Osteria Francescana: will they vanquish the natural fear of disappointment that always looms when stratospheric expectations are set? Bottura is not allowed to go wrong...

Let's see. Luggage in hand, the first customers of the day, we ring at the bell of the shut door with some trepidation, a few minutes before the opening time. A rule abiding non-Italian couple (a metaphor there?) standing in the vicinities resolves to follows us.

When, three hours later, we come out of the same door, we definitely have learned a lot about modern Italian cuisine.

We ordered the regulation classics menu at 140 euro that Chef Bottura himself offers to twist and 'integrate', quite substantially as it happens, according to your taste. It may seem common hospitality, but as you may have experienced yourselves there's more than one multistarred venue where instead rigidity reigns supreme. And here in the Osteria they do not care a jot about us taking photos of the food, their food is not too precious (hear, Alajmo?). Or about how you are dressed. It's good to see that the name Osteria is not  a mere gimmick, and that some of that spirit survives even in the unavoidable three star formalism.

Here are the dishes that you must have seen photographed and described one thousand times on the internet. Please bear it the 1001th time.


We learned, for example, how full avant-garde with eyes on the future can be rooted in terroir and tradition as firmly as an oak. We learned how Japanese ideas can brush shoulders with our Italian tradition in a subtle, classy way, with, light, clear, harmonious flavours, as in the first three dishes, Aulla tempura with frozen carpione, the Eel glazed with saba ('cooked must') and onion ashes; and the Homage to Thelonius Monk, justly revered as one of the greatest cod lovers in history. He would have loved this sublimely cooked one.

We didn't quite learn, but we had a glamorous revision lesson on how modern technique can put to the service of tradition, as in the bollito non-bollito (head, cheek, tail, belly, trotter and cotechino), evoking, if you are Italian, many memories and beating them all. And even better, perhaps, in the compressione di pasta, the literally multilayered flavours taking you in new sensorial territory, Royale de de foie gras combined with humble beans.

The 'little finger' tortellini (requested by Man) are more solidly traditional, but even here there's that special touch, the lightest of creams (panna d'affioramento) that suddenly makes many controversies on whether cream should be used in tortellini look silly: this is the solution, stupid! (best tortellini, ever, for the record - and Man has been raised on them in Bologna).

And the foie gras lollipop, one of the earliest Bottura creations, must be in the Hall of Fame of modern cuisine: it's hard to top the aged balsamic and foie combination, and the texture contrast.

Think pink is a pre-dessrt that was meant to please women and indeed it seemed to strike Woman more than Man, so Bottura got it right... 

The dessert, called `Oops I dropped the crostata' is simply beautiful, it really is one of the dishes that most compellingly provoke comparisons with visual arts, and has Man looking transfixed at it. It is very well made, with an airy crust, it is good and pleasant, yet Woman doesn't eat with her eyes alone... terms of flavour, we'd humbly say that it doesn't feel at the pinnacle of the art of patisserie in the same way as the rest of the meal felt at the pinnacle of the art of cooking.

So, while we leave the Osteria in a rush (a mere three hours didn't allow us to eat in a really relaxed way, plan near four hours from entering to exiting if you want to be in total relax), let us mention the service. We've seen complaints that it's stiff and sullen, but for us it was perfect. They graciously accommodated what they probably thought were some idiotic remarks by us on the wine, taking actions they thought unnecessary, and they were efficient, unpompous, relaxed. Some of them even almost smiled sometimes! The great man himself is part of the service as he goes around the tables to discuss and advise on the menu, and he does it smoothly. If he became tired of being a great chef, he might consider a career in the front room :) And we were impressed that he was on duty on a Monday lunch the day after his (50th) birthday.

Prices must the be some of the kindest in the world for a three star restaurant, and with this generosity.

There is something humble and low key in this glorious Osteria that we find deeply charming. It's hard to imagine Italian cuisine coming better than this. There is a unique combination of creativity and clarity of conception, perfection in execution, intelligent use of technique, and rootedness in the terroir, that make Francescana unbeatable in this domain.Returning to try other dishes is not merely a desire, it is essential.


Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Lunching at Briciole (London)

(Visited September 2012)

In this and the next two posts we go back to the real vocation of our blog: Italian food. We want to show you various embodiments of it that we've sampled in recent travels, from the simplest trattoria to a certain 'Osteria' which in fact offers the best high end Italian dining in the world...

Our Italian gastronomic mini-trip London. Briciole, which opened less than a year ago (reviewed here) is now in full flow and continues to serve simple, authentic fare that if you closed your eyes would make you think you are in Italy. Like these tagliolini with broccoli and ricotta

 or these pappardelle with (a very generous amount of!) a succulent ragu'

Pasta is very well made here - not surprising given that the mothership is Maurizio Morelli's Latium.

The polpette in 'pizzaiola' (featuring great tomatoes) and the  sausages continue to be addictive

It is only with an enormous exertion of willpower that you can stop eating them. 

But just as you do...temptation is behind the corner, this time in the form of more exalted seasonal delicacies: fresh, chunky porcini, playing their earthy magics with a succulent, properly cooked (i.e., little) tagliata of Galloway beef

 Italian cuisine is strongly produce based and we like the idea of getting the good things that can be sourced where you are, rather than being obsessive in sourcing exclusively Italian products. This Galloway was great and this was one of the best tagliate we've had.

Briciole is fantastic value for money for food, but it is a veritable Heaven for the wine lover. We know of no other place in the UK where wines are so kindly priced. So it happens that you can drink stuff which would break the bank in London fine (and not so fine, too) dining restaurants, while here it just requires that extra effort:

 On the alcohol front, there are other interesting temptations. Needless to say, we succumbed. This time it was a Sambuca and a liquorice based concoction where the core aromas leapt at you with marvellous clarity and intensity

Briciole is a place that it's easy to love, when you're in the mood for the sheer joy of uncomplicated Italian cuisine, be it a bite from the gastronomy corner or a full meal. 

And if  you want something fancier in terms of cooking and presentation, remember, Latium is still there...

(Our usual reminder for posts like this that read a bit like ads: we always pay for the meal - although as also always happens everywhere, loyal custom tends to be acknowledged with some extra "attention" ;-) ).


Saturday, October 6, 2012

Simple but gorgeous: seafood platter at Ondine

(Visited June 2012)

Saturday lunchtime is the most convenient time for us to forage in Edinburgh, and this time with a ... ahem.. busy week ahead for our stomachs we fancied something light yet tempting and rewarding - well, we are in Scotland, blessed with fantastic seafood, so that had to be the answer. Ondine was a no-brainer. Our excuse this time was to compare their seafood platter with the one at the Seafood Restaurant.

As we've showed before, the room is light and airy.  

The operating table is ready with all the necessary implements nicely lined up.

First however we needed to get in the mood, so we started with some oysters and tempura squid with Vietnamese sauce. 

In hindsight, we should have gone for oysters "nature" instead of the fried version: at the first bite we realised that the plump, juicy beauties (six of them in a portion) would have been happier if showcased on their own, especially as both the batter and the accompanying sweet and spicy sauce were basically the same as for the excellent calamari. 

Still, pretty good, though unexpectedly the calamari stole the show at this initial stage.

Then, in comes the Roast Shellfish Platter - it is choke full with seafood, from lobster to crab, mussels, langoustines, cockles, razor clams, you name it, it's there. The picture don't do justice to the generosity of the platter, below you have our two views:


We should not compare this with the seafood platter at the Seafood Restaurant, which is served cold, and is equally sumptuous and generous - yet the hot version ticks all the boxes for us.

A perfectly decent treacle tart with clotted cream and a summery fruit salad with "rock" honeycomb closed proceedings. 

A real a pity that this place is closed on Sundays, which would make it easier for us to come more often - you lucky Edinburgh dwellers should not miss the opportunity for a beautiful, and yes, light-ish lunch.

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