Monday, December 22, 2014

Dal Pescatore Nadia Santini

As one of the most legendary restaurants in Italy, dal Pescatore was founded in 1925 as a simple trattoria by the (great) grandparents of Antonio Santini. Located in the village of Runate at Mantova province, the dal Pescatore did not take off until the talented lady named Nadia Santini took over the kitchen and ultimately received 3 Michelin star 1996 and managed to keep it until now. Amazingly, Nadia never cooked professionally or worked in any famous restaurants before. Since the late 90's, Nadia Santini, along with Bruna Santini - her mother in law, received an extra hand from her son, Giovanni who was generally in charge of the appetizers. Essentially, dal Pescatore is a family restaurant serving mainly traditional Italian cuisine (with some modern influence) using fresh, seasonal and top quality ingredients that were cooked with care and executed in high precision; of course, the food tasted delectable as well. The Santini family even grew some of the vegetables and herbs to be used at the restaurant on their own premises. Given the restaurant's remote location, literally in the middle of nowhere, reaching here could be quite a challenge if you don't drive. The nearby stations - Canneto sull'oglio and Piadena - were small and both even closed on the day we're having lunch. Thus, we had to call the restaurant for a taxi. It was a cold and windy Saturday; eventually after 15 minutes waiting - perhaps they had difficulties to find any taxi, Giovanni stopped by and gave us a ride to the restaurant after he finished running his errant in the town. It was not a short trip from Modena, but we were glad to finally reach dal Pescatore and be able to savor its authentic and classic dishes. Having tasting menu was a must and we opted to skip the cheese course and had it replaced with an additional appetizer.   

Terrina di Astice con Caviale Oscietra Royal e zenzero marinato (Lobster terrine in champagne gelatin served with Oscietra caviar, pickled ginger and spinach) - The dish had the most attractive presentation for our lunch and it was solid. The lobster was tender & tasty, the caviar was in good quality & briny and the jelly was refreshing; all elements worked quite well together

Insalata di Faraona in agrodolce con salsa all'uva fragola (Guinea fowl salad in sweet & sour sauce served with pomegranate and carrot) - The warm guinea fowl (both white and dark meat) was perfectly cooked. The 'chicken' was enhanced by sweet & sour dressing as well as some simple vegetables and fruits. Another pleasant starter

Tortelli di Zucca, Amaretti, Mostarda, e Parmigiano Reggiano (Tortelli of roasted pumpkin served with almond biscuit, watermelon mustard, nutmeg and Parmigiano cheese) - dal Pescatore's signature dish and deservedly so. It seemed simple, yet profound and very delicious; both rustic and savory. The pumpkin's sweetness balanced the cheese's saltiness; excellent texture and flavor contrast. Generally, I don't like pumpkin, but this dish by Nadia Santini converted me into pumpkin "fans". My favorite dish here

Risotto (Vialone Nano) con fonduta di Parmigiano Reggiano e Tartufo bianco d'Alba (Risotto using Vialone nano rice served with melted Parmesan cheese and shaved Alba white truffle) - A specialty of Piedmont delivered with superb ingredients. The risotto had a nice texture and was not too rich; the truffle added the necessary 'extra punch' in flavor and aroma. Surprisingly, this dish was similar to the one I had in l'Arpege - perhaps it's a classical dish after all

Accompanied by wine: Anselmi San Vincenzo 2013 (dry white wine from the Veneto region; it was crisp, clean and medium body with round pear & lemon fruit - nicely matched the lobster dish)

Branzino alla piastra con guazzetto agrunato, pomodoro confit e olio extravergine toscano (Grilled Sea bass in simmered crushed citrus with Tuscany olive oil, tomato confit and artichoke) - The 'perfect white' sea bass was firm and mild. The aromatic 'sauce' and nicely done tomato & artichoke added enjoyable flavor and complexity. Like it

Sella di Capriolo, salsa al Cabernet e mirtilli neri (Saddle of Roe served in Cabernet sauce, mashed potatoes and blueberries) - Including this dish, I was lucky to have eaten a few excellent and satisfying venison dishes during this trip. This one was tender, delicious and profound with rich taste from the Cabernet sauce and the deer's juice. The side dishes were not bad at all. An excellent example of a well executed top quality game dish in the Autumn 

Accompanied by wine: Gillardi Langhe 2006 (a good full-bodied merlot from Piedmont in ruby color with ripe tannin. It had black cherries and red currants nose and flavors) 

Torta di Amaretti (caffe, panna, croccante, zabaione) - Almond cake served with coffee, cream and sabayon. An impeccable dessert! The torta was moist with superb flavor & aroma as well as having lovely texture. All elements were fine and every byte was a pure indulgence. I doubt I would consume a better version of Ameretti torta in the future

Meringa alle Mandorle con Pistacchio e Zabaione al Marsala (Meringue served with Pistachio cream, toasted Almonds and sabayon of marsala) - My spouse's dessert. The meringue was fine; the top notch one was the bright marsala sabayon with distinct wine and yolk flavor. The almond provided some texture variation. Overall, I enjoy it though not as good as my torta with Amaretti
Petit fours - My best mignardises outside Paris this year. The magnificent array of sweets consisted of dark chocolate, raspberry tart, coffee profiterole, cannoli, dried orange skin covered with chocolate and mini biscuit. A good way to end the meal

Unlike other Italian elite gastronomy restaurants I have been, dal Pescatore served dishes with less (parmesan) cheese and cream/butter, yet they were still flavorful & rich, but more importantly not heavy. The food was classic and deceptively simple like a home cooking - a kind of stuffs we can eat regularly without feeling overwhelmed; I truly enjoyed the delicious dishes having clear and harmonious flavors and were prepared using the best local produce. The service, while efficient, none of the servers really took interest to know the guests more. They never asked about the food; simply did their "minimal" tasks of bringing the dishes, explaining them and clearing the plates - no more communication beyond that. Even, our only conversation during the meal with Antonio Santini, the restaurant manager-owner, occurred after I had complained about the initial red wine by the glass (villa minelli 2008), served by the younger sommelier, contained a decent amount of sediment. Mr. Santini immediately apologized and replaced it with the red wine mentioned above. We experienced our warmest welcomed when we visited the kitchen and met with the Italian haute-cuisine living legend, Nadia Santini who's also accompanied by Bruna and Giovanni. Nadia genuinely greeted and thanked us for visiting the restaurant from afar. The dining room (and reading + waiting room) was very spacious, beautiful and elegant; it was quite a busy afternoon with more than 20 people coming here for lunch. In spite of its location, dal Pescatore has maintained  its status as a grand restaurant offering superb gourmet experience, in which any true gourmand should make a pilgrimage to visit once in his/her life time. It's certainly qualified as one of the very best Italian restaurants in the world. For my wife, without a doubt, it was her favorite dining place in Italy. Readers are welcome to see the dishes we had here: Ristorante dal Pescatore in Nov '14

Food (and Wine): 96 pts

Service (and Ambiance): 93 pts

Overall: 95/100

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Fat Duck Heston Blumenthal

There will hardly be any doubt if the Fat Duck has become United Kingdom's most legendary restaurant since the last decade. The chef proprietor Heston Blumenthal, the molecular gastronomy genius, is the main reason for all of this. A self-taught chef, Heston is capable of executing immaculate old school technique and combining it with modern cooking using scientific or experimental approach resulting in plenty of spectacular and memorable dishes. Currently, Chef Blumenthal is at the height of his popularity; as a celebrity chef, he has his own TV show and his empire has been growing year after year. In order to keep the top notch quality at the Fat Duck, Heston appointed Jonathan Lake, a native of Ontario as the head chef. Jonny leads a brigade of about 40 chefs who relentlessly work and produce excellent dishes regularly. Chef Lake's curious mind always tries to find different ways to do things, invent new dishes and sometimes even improve the signature items. The term perfection seems to be a work in progress here; the pursue of excellence just never stops.

It was actually my first trip to England. During this visit, we only had one full day that happened to be on Tuesday in which my wife and I had the opportunity to dine at the Fat Duck. Honestly, I did not expect to be able to secure a table here. On one sunny afternoon day in Asia, exactly 2 months prior to our lunch, I was trying my luck in front of my laptop. Surprisingly I was able to get a table for two at lunch despite having an average internet connection speed. I then hurriedly filled in the necessary info, including the CC for guarantee ... voila, we received our lunch confirmation a few minutes later - sort of a dream come true. The restaurant is located in the small village called Bray. We quickly recognize the simple cottage house building to be the famous restaurant when we saw its famous logo hanging above the High Street board. Inside, the dining room's decor was quite simple and 'humble' when compared to other Michelin 3-star places particularly the ones in Europe. The ceiling is not high in both floors, the space is not that spacious (its capacity is around 42 guests only), the wooden beams look old; I also noticed a few abstract paintings on clean white walls. Nevertheless, the restaurant is well maintained with high quality of cutlery, glassware and linen. Anyway, the star of the show in any restaurant visit has to be the food and the Fat Duck performed spectacularly. Only one menu available: the 14-course tasting menu. Without any further delay, here what we had during lunch:

Nitro poached aperitifs - An aerated mixture made of some infused egg white, poached in freezing liquid nitrogen to produce 'meringue'. I opted for Vodka and lime sour flavor; it was fresh with tangy lime fragrance and flavor. My wife chose Tequila and grapefruit; an awesome way to awaken our senses and clean the palate. It's not a new experience for me as I had similar experience even with more unique flavor (earthly wild herbs - taste and smell like grass in rainy days) from Maison Marc Veyrat

Red cabbage gazpacho served with Pommery grain mustard ice cream - An interesting and savory 'cold soup'. It was kind of creamy with clear flavor and clean after taste. Good and refreshing

Jelly of Quail and Crayfish cream served with Chicken liver parfait, oak moss and truffle toast - The dish is a tribute to Alain Chapel. Initially, there was 'smoke from cold liquid' with oak fragrance; to accompany it, we ate a thin film strip flavored with oak and moss. Then come, the real deal: the quail jelly & crayfish cream (+ liver & peas) was simply ethereal; it's smooth and intense, every layer was consistent and delicious. The truffle toast was crisp and earthy; a perfect way to balance the cream. One of the best dishes for this lunch

Snail porridge served with Iberico bellota ham and shaved fennel - Heston's famous dish. The porridge (made with long oats grain) was in the right temperature and texture, more importantly flavorful. Everything was just right; from the succulent snails & rich parsley + garlic butter ('green broth') to the zesty & crunchy fennel as well as salty Spanish ham - gorgeous! 

Accompanied by wine: Matosevic Alba Antiqua (fresh and rather 'powerful'; this white wine worked well with intensive fish/seafood)

Roast foie gras served with Barberry, confit kombu and crab biscuit - The foie gras was creamy and its richness was just perfect for my palate. It worked well with the 'tart/sour' taste from the barberry puree; the flavor from the thin crab biscuit was surprisingly quite strong, but the kombu didn't really enhance anything for me. A well-executed and satisfying dish with some unusual combination

Mad hatter's tea party: Mock turtle soup, pocket watch and toast sandwich - A good presentation and interesting interaction with the staff at the beginning. However, I was not impressed with the dish; better to see than to taste. The broth (beef stock), 'egg' (turnip jelly) and other things were just Ok. Contrary to popular belief, I sort of like the sandwich (a mixture of bone marrow, butter, truffle, egg & mayo). A nice theater that lacks substance

"Sound of the sea" - Another Heston's legendary dish. I liked the 'sound' from the iPod shuffle (sound of waves, wind, sea birds etc.) but felt 'interrupted' whenever I consumed the food. The sashimi, consisted of octopus, yellow tail & mackerel, would've been impressive had I had limited experience of consuming top quality raw fishes in Japan. The edible sand was tapioca while the salty foam was made of seaweed & vegetable stock. Good presentation and ideas, but the food flavor was just alright

Salmon poached in a liquorice gel served with Artichoke, vanilla mayonnaise and golden trout roe - An amazing dish! The 'buttery' salmon in its natural flavor was perfectly cooked; it collided in harmony with the bittersweet liquorice, enhanced by delicately sweet trout roe & vanilla mayo and acidic/bitter grape fruit. The artichoke was of good quality. Try to savor the burst of many flavors from the Scottish salmon and its supporting elements as long as possible in the mouth - exceptional! This kind of stuff made my long journey and effort felt paid off

Umble pie: Red deer, pie fluid gel and truffled spelt - By itself, the venison (probably cooked sous-vide) was divine, moist and importantly delicious. The chervil root and star anise/fennel sauce enhanced the already fantastic meat. Unexpectedly and possibly even better was the spelt risotto (sorry Chef Robuchon, yours was not on par with this) served separately. The risotto, topped with puffed spelt & having aromatic truffle aroma, contained the flavorful deer's 'sweet bread'; this gave rich and creamy spelt even a more stunning taste. Incredible! I would spend good money for this kind of food and obviously, the Fat Duck didn't offer UK's most expensive tasting menu for nothing

Accompanied by wine: Bernard Dugat-Py Bourgogne Cuvee Halinard (a good red Burgundy with strong tannin; it has complex flavor, intensive aroma and long finish)

Hot & iced tea - Drink straight at the position the waiter put this tea. As the name suggests, when I drank this palate cleanser, I could taste distinctly the hot and cold tea at the same time side by side. A cool sensation with good taste. The difference in viscosity was sufficient to twist the supposedly "simple" (lemon) tea

Eggs in verjus, Verjus in egg - The egg shell (made of white chocolate) was placed on top of biscuit & jelly. Inside the shell was some kind of ice cream/yoghurt. The yolk and biscuit/jelly should acted as verjus (unrefined green 'grapes') producing bitter sour flavor to balance the sweet and crunchy 'shell + egg white'

Botrytis cinerea - In short, this dessert was about wine grapes in several forms; they're served with cinnamon, 'snow' and raisin. The presentation was marvelous with great attention to details. The kitchen showcased different flavors of wines in different textures, shapes and colors. It's fun and witty but not that delicious

Whisk(e)y wine gums - Gums with strong whisky flavor. I don't drink whisky so I could not really comment much on the taste authenticity. Again, another well presented dessert ..

"Like a kid in a sweet shop" - There were 3 things here: Aerated chocolate mandarin jelly (airy with intense taste), Apple pie caramel (sticky, chewy & tasty) and the Queen of hearts (white chocolate with sweet tart and strawberry jam - the most interesting one) - an incredible dining adventure has come to an end.

It has been a while that I have not experienced any meal like this: the dining experience provided more than just incredible food - it's also fun, entertaining, and creative. Heston Blumenthal managed to 'bring' guests out to the forest, beach, wonderland etc. There were a few dishes that's more of a show, but overall the it's been a memorable culinary journey with plenty of delicious things to eat. From crayfish cream & snail porridge to liquorice salmon & umble pie, Heston showed his amazing talent in delivering complex dishes by applying both modern and classical technique. My spouse decided to abstain from alcohol that day, so she opted for a juice made of romano pepper, strawberry and ginger. Even, she said it was sensational and ingenuous. The service was professional and performed with high precision. The staffs were clearly passionate and knowledgeable; given the restaurant setting, they were also charming and made guests feel relax and comfortable throughout the entire meal. The Fat Duck did not offer the most expensive menu in England (prior to the arrival of the Araki at Mayfair) for no reason. The experience is nothing short of remarkable. It was really up to the hype, and at some moment it exceeded our expectation. Note that both Heston and Jonny were not in the kitchen during our lunch, yet the sous chef and his team were able to producing complicated dishes after dishes that were flavorful and balanced most of the time. A meal to remember indeed. For pictures, please click the following link: The Fat Duck in Nov '14  
Food (and Wine): 97 pts

Service (and Ambiance): 94 pts

Overall: 96/100