Thursday, January 22, 2015

Le Calandre Massimiliano Alajmo

This is my first comprehensive review of Le Calandre, an elite Italian gastronomy restaurant located in the unassuming town of Sarmeola di Rubano (about 4 miles west of Padova). However, it was not my first visit here; my initial meal happened nearly 8 years ago. It was so good that when my wife would like to come to Venice last Fall, I had to make sure that we would have a meal at Calandre. The tall and slim Massimiliano (Max) Alajmo was the genius behind the stove; in 1994 Max took over the kitchen from his mother as well as his main mentor. Chef Alajmo also had been trained with French famous chefs such as Marc Veyrat and Michel Guerard. From his cooking, we could observe that Max integrated some techniques from them, but never actually copy their dishes. In Le Calandre, Chef Alajmo had freedom to apply his talents and ultimately in 2002, he became the youngest chef in history to be awarded Michelin's highest accolade. As a family-owned restaurant, Max ran Calandre with his older brother, the easy going Raffaele Alajmo who was in charge of the dining room and wine cellar - he served me and my parents in '06. Since the restaurants business have been expanded, these days Raffaele hardly stay put in Padova area. Hence, the Alajmo brothers appointed Andrea Calzavara as Calandre's current restaurant manager.

The decor of the main dining room was very different from my initial visit. I was told that in 2010, Le Calandre underwent a big overhaul: the major one was the dining room's interior. There were no more white tablecloths and the ambiance became (very) dark even during lunch. I would describe the new restaurant's design to be modern minimalist but stylish and elegant. To compensate the dark room, there was low lighting that's carefully directed to each table; bright enough to read the wine list and observe Chef Alajmo's creations. The Alajmo brothers believe that having a great meal is a multisensory experience; for this reason all of Calandre's spacious dining tables are made from the identical 100+ years old ash tree so that guests can run their hands across wonderfully tactile surface of the tables. However, the artistic items such as custom-made tableware, cutlery and hand blown crystal glassware were still intact. Additionally, Le Calandre had Carpe Diem offers in which at any meal period, there were limited number of people (usually for 2 pax at least) allowed to pay their tasting menu in advance and enjoy about 16% discount. Given the quality of my previous meal and rare opportunity to have price reduction at 3-star Michelin restaurants, it was an easy decision for me.   

There were 3 menus available: Classici and 2 seasonal menu. We opted for the longer version of Autumn menu called "Aut2". To begin the meal, we had cheese snacks (Parmesan 'cornetto' and gougere - delicate texture yet deep in flavor). There were also some bread and amuse following that. Then come the real stuffs ...

Capesante con agretto di mele e meringa di sedano verde (Sea scallops served with apple agretto and green celery meringue) - The sweet scallop was perfectly cooked and it's balanced by the apple 'vinaigrette' acidity and the celery perfume & delicate flavor ... very good

Battuta arrotolata al caviale (Raw Piemontese beef and caviar roll) - The velvety and light-flavored beef wrapped more flavorful seafood (squid, prawn etc.); they're enhanced by the rich lobster cream. Consume in one byte and experienced the burst of various flavors and textures. The caviar added a luxury feel, but did not contribute much to the overall taste ... interesting

Burrata di vongole (Clam burrata) - This simple creation was remarkable. The glossy burrata, made from top quality mozzarella & cream, was fresh with buttery flavor. Inside, there were fish and clams; this 'resilient' cheese was well-complemented by fragrant & slightly salty dark squid ink sauce. We were addicted to this excellent dish

10 grammi di pasta di lumache e polpo (10 grams of pasta with snails and octopus) - Served in a copper pan, the thin sheet of tarragon pasta was covered with mildly sweet pistachio sauce, snails and herbs. The green pasta acted as rich emulsion in this complex yet harmonious dish; an innovative creation from the talented Max Alajmo

Accompanied by wine: Niedrist Ignaz Sudtiroler Riesling Berg 2013 (A good and light Italian riesling with good balanced in sweetness, acidity and mineral. It went particularly well with dishes having rich sauce/flavor) 

Linguine integrali di grano duro con “cacio” di pinoli e zucca (Whole Durum wheat linguine served with pine nut "cacio" and pumpkin) - This healthy & thick linguine, dried at low temperature, was a bit too firm for my taste. The pine nut acted as "fake" cheese while the pumpkin and beef stock generated the rather intense flavor; not my favorite nevertheless pleasant & quite peculiar. The plate was unique with a 'dip' on top that's supposedly acted as spoon

Risotto al tartufo bianco (White truffle risotto) - The risotto was also served with a broth jelly and a trace of traditional 'anchovy sauce'. Massimiliano is the master of creating any risotto dish; it was creamy & the rice had perfect texture, rich without being heavy, slightly salty with a hint of acidity ... a sophisticated stuff from Autumn specialty

Risotto allo zafferano con polvere di liquirizia (Saffron risotto with licorice powder) - Max's classic and a must-have dish when dining in Calandre. The world's finest risotto; the carnaroli rice, cooked al dente and in perfect texture, was creamy and nicely absorbed the chicken stock. The saffron and liquorice powder gave balance of sweet & bitter flavor, while the added parmesan was delightful. Truly a masterpiece and probably unsurpassed as far as a risotto dish is concerned

Astice tostato con funghi e guazzetto di ricci di mare e granchi (Seared lobster served with mushrooms, sea urchin and crab) - The top quality lobster was excellent and perfectly executed. The delicious creamy sauce (with zero cream) was created from uni and kani. The meaty mushroom showed the Autumn and earthy flavors, in contrast to the sea creatures. I could easily finish another plate of this dish   

Accompanied by wine: Tenuta dalle ore mappale 77 Monte lessini 2011 (White wine from Veneto region that's blending grapes of chardonnay and pinot grigio. It's fresh and crisp, suitable for the lobster dish and pasta with nut crumbs)  

Agnello alla milanese (Lamb "alla Milanese") - Instead of the usual veal, the lamb here, breaded with crispy curry, was divine - juicy and flavorful without any trace of unpleasant lamb's perfume. The delectable meats were served with aromatic almond herb mayonnaise, fresh salad and light red beets ... enjoyable

Piccione all’aceto balsamico tradizionale (Squab with traditional Balsamic vinegar) - The high quality and tender baby squab was also accompanied by Chinese cabbage, mango, Belgian endive and sautéed chili peppers. The 'rustic' sauce was rich but not cloying, simply balanced. Almost as good as the previous lamb dish; coming short perhaps due to the gamey taste of the pigeon

Accompanied by wine: Val delle Corti chianti Classico riserva 2009 (This Tuscany red wine with smells of plums & some spices had medium body and tannin as well as round & subtle taste. Decently paired with 2 meat dishes)    

Uovo al tartufo (Truffled egg) - A great combination of egg white, white chocolate and pungent white truffle. I liked it as long as the Alba truffle last; after that it became rather monotonous - sweet and eggy. The ice cream as a side dish helped - truffle chocolate of soft ice cream had good 'crust' and flavor in order to reduce the eggy flavor

Polline (Pollen) - New dessert creation at Calandre that's "crowded" and full of surprise. Sweet, refreshing and in harmony: a combination of pistachio, elderflower/sambuca gelato, mango & yoghurt, ginger granita and willow pollen. All in one - temperature, flavor and texture variations display

Tiramisù - Max's interpretation of a classic cake, in 'liquid' form. You zip it from the "blown" specifically designed glass and be ready to savor all of the tiramisu essence in a new way and up-lifting manner. The chocolate, coffee, and mascarpone flavors can still be felt resulting a simple and stunning dessert with deep flavor. Bravo! 

During my first meal, I ordered the Classic menu and it was superb. This time, I chose a more modern and seasonal menu; I thought it's even more impressive than initial my lunch. Massimiliano Alajmo was gifted and imaginative. His versatility has enabled him to create high quality classical and contemporary dishes with ease. Although the food looked experimental and often full of surprises at times, my wife and I could testify that it was consistently refreshing, flavorful, well-executed and deceptively simple. Chef Alajmo's minimalist approach translated to the usage of only 3-4 fresh ingredients that worked well together or delectable on its own. His dishes throughout the meal were generally in a complete package: beautifully plated with appetizing perfume and more importantly profoundly delicious. I was invited to visit the kitchen before and this time you could also take a peek from the foyer. The kitchen was modern with plenty of avant-garde equipments. In spite of this advance technology, Max still produced dishes combining tradition and innovation in which the flavor was still essentially authentic Italian. 

The restaurant was (very) quiet during lunch, only 7 people showed up occupying 2 tables; Andrea simply greeted guests at the beginning and bid them farewell towards the end, he was nowhere to be seen in the dining room. During the meal, we were served by 2 'junior' staffs who did a good job especially the young sommelier was very diligent - he knows the wine and the dishes well, almost always available around the dining room and even helped clear dishes in several occasions. Overall, the service, though not really personal, was highly satisfying. Staffs did the basic right (not as polished as when Raffaele was leading the dining room) - dishes arriving at good pace, never late topping up the water and wine, relaxed and hospitable. Massimiliano Alajmo came to the dining room a couple of times and despite his stature, he was always interested in listening to the guests' feedback. He might not be as popular as the eloquent Massimo Bottura, perhaps due to Massi's modest personality, but in my opinion, he's the most talented and the best chef in Italy. Once, Chef Alajmo even said that he just showed the ingredients to guests instead of creating anything (dishes). In spite of his success, he did not let it stay too long in his head. With such mentality and desire to keep improving, we probably have not yet witnessed the full potential of Massi's skills - sky is the limit. What a stunning lunch we had and Le Calandre's is the first and only Italian restaurant (thus far) that I can comfortably recommend someone without reservation. For pictures, please click the following link: Le Calandre in Fall '14

Food (and Wine): 97 pts

Service (and Ambiance): 94 pts

Overall: 96/100 

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

L'Ambroisie Bernard Pacaud - 4th visit

Time flies. Summer of 2007 marked my inaugural visit to the temple of haute cuisine named L'Ambroisie, situated in the middle of appealing Marais district. This classic restaurant was a splendid 17th century townhouse and it's currently the longest running dining place in Paris with a 3-star Michelin (Chef-patron Bernard Pacaud attained the red guide's highest rating in 1988 and has kept it since). While some think the old-fashioned food at L'Ambroisie is boring, I thought whatever dishes serve here represent one of the highest level of cooking in the world. Bernard Pacaud has perfected his culinary skills of French traditional gastronomy. There was no non-sense; the dishes have consistently been flawlessly executed using seasonal and fresh produce. The result was delicious and intense classical dishes that were neither heavy nor cloying. Forget about deconstructed or molecular stuffs, also do not expect any dish to be split into 3-4 bowls; the masterpiece on the plate was deceptively simple and people should have no issue recognizing the 3 to 5 ingredients used. Yet, in this "minimalist" approach, it's nearly impossible to improve further upon any dishes served to guests. I heard that similar to the case of Michel Bras, Bernard Pacaud is probably semi-retired these days as his son Mathieu Pacaud has become more active in the kitchen and public. Mathieu's name also appears at the bottom of the menu. 

It's widely known that L'Ambroisie is probably the only 3-star restaurant offering no degustation menu option. The a-la carte was nicely divided to about 5 items each in appetizers, fish/seafood, meat/poultry and desserts. It's always good to follow the guidance of Monsieur Pascal, the loyal and professional maitre d'hotel of L'Ambroisie. Unfortunately, I 'rebelled' this time - I did not follow his idea of ordering the famous scallop dish with broccoli and Italian truffle. The reason was simple: I was on a mission to savor all of Pacaud's seasonal lobster dishes. Unlike my previous visit, I was not eating alone this time (finally). Moreover, this fabulous meal was for dinner instead of the usual lunch. Here are the dishes we savored in the middle of November 2014.

Manière de rouget (Prized rock-fish) – The red mullet and its inherently sweet flesh & crispy skin was served with light veal juice and velvety puree of celery, apple and squash; a generous amuse

Blanc-manger d'œuf mollet à la truffe blanche d'Alba, émulsion de cèpes (Half-cooked / simmered egg served with Alba truffle and emulsified of cep) – The perfectly soft-boiled egg had soft but firm white and orange runny yolk; delicious. It's enhanced by the nutty flavor from the mushroom's emulsion. The fragrant cep (both cooked and raw ones) and intoxicating white truffle added some complexity and beautifully complemented the overall flavor. Possibly, I have found an egg dish that's actually better than "L'Arpege egg"

Fricassée de homard au potimarron et châtaignes, sauce à la diable (Mixture of stewed Brittany lobster served with pumpkin puree, chestnuts and 'peppery' sauce) – Finally, Pacaud got the right texture of the tasty blue lobster (quite tender for the tail and rather firm for the claw). The dish in "glowing" color was rich, intense (but not heavy) and complex but balanced. I could taste the variation of sweet, nutty, & slightly spicy flavors altogether. Excellent .. along with lobster + star anise sauce, this was my favorite homard dish at L'Ambroisie

Tourte de canard au foie gras (Pie of wild duck and its liver served with salad and veal juice) – An ethereal game-season pie; the duck (breast, thigh & buttery liver) and veal 'stuffing' were perfectly executed; as expected, they're succulent and flavorful. The salad was essential to reduce the meat's intensity. Last but not least, the airy pie with its crust were flawless and very pleasant. It will be a tall order for someone to improve upon this remarkable "pithivier" 

Reine des reinettes en boule nacrée, sabayon au calvados du Domfrontais (Spherical of 'pearl' sugar served with apple variations, pistachio and apple brandy sabayon) – The latest dessert creation of the restaurant. The sphere was light in both texture and taste; the sweet flowery sorbet was not too heavy and good nutty pistachio taste. Not too bad, but unlikely to be considered among L'Ambroisie's classic in the future

Soufflé chaud au pralin, coulis de mangue au kirsch de Fougerolles (Hot praline souffle served with mango coulis and wild "cherries brandy") – A traditional French dessert with some harmonious sweet flavor variations. This fluffy souffle was light and airy with partly gooey in the center; the taste was just right. The only drawback was probably the lack of ice cream on the side, otherwise this old-fashion dessert was really good 

Tarte fine sablée au cacao amer, crème glacée au moka (Chocolate cake served with mocha ice cream) – A simple yet profound dessert made with only chocolate and sabayon. Bernard Pacaud was truly a genius. His thin crust/ganache and creamy chocolate in the middle were meticulously prepared; as a result, it's wonderful. The mocha ice cream would intensify and add an extra layer of bitter or dark flavor. Personally, I prefer to combine this timeless tart with the rich vanilla ice cream 

I had a half-bottle of red wine - 2010 Domaine Alain Michelot nuits St. Georges 1er cru (pure and full-bodied in the palate with deep nose) and my spouse drank a glass of Billecart-Salmon brut rose. Different from the quiet lunch, L'Ambroise during dinner was very busy, in fact it was surprisingly a bit noisy. It was a full-house, even the third/private room was occupied by a big group. In spite of this situation, the hospitality shown to us was somehow the best one I've ever experienced. Mr. Pascal was, as always, professional, elegant and focused. However, unlike my previous visits, he's more relaxed and much warmer this time. He smiled more often and chat with us in a few occasions; at the end of our meal, he even encouraged us to re-visit during Winter to savor the legendary roasted Bresse chicken with black truffles butter. There was also a younger staff who still recognized me, even though my last visit was more than 4 years ago, and his English has improved tremendously. Perhaps, it's true after all that, L'Ambroisie is the kind of restaurant where diners eat better and feel more comfortable after several visits. The chocolate dessert was actually the complimentary of the house and each of us received a portion. I'm very satisfied with this meal in terms of both food and service; it was without doubt my best experience at L'Ambroisie. This unique French institution, in my not-so humble opinion, is among the greatest restaurant in the world and deserved more than just the 'normal' Michelin 3-star. I will definitely would love to return here in my next visit to Paris as long as the humble and genius Bernard Pacaud is still in the kitchen. For the dishes' pictures, please visit this link: L'Ambroisie in Autumn '14   

Food (and Wine): 98 pts

Service (and Ambiance): 96 pts

Overall: 97.5/100