So lucky to be lucky

May 30, 2017

 

"Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity"

 

                                                                            (Seneca the Younger)

 

Yes, this is only an easy paraphrase of Seneca on Demetrius the Cynic's teaching for wrestlers, but sometimes a chance knocks on your door so loud so you just cannot ignore it, especially after you have prepared for it for so long. There are people who believe in a big plan of a divine entity, some are in favor of a predestined fate. I prefer to be a dull one shrugging his shoulders and believing that this is just a lucky coincidence.

And such a coincidence led me to the position of being offered to get an already booked table in Osteria Francescana, the three-Michelin stars restaurant of the awesome chef Massimo Bottura in Modena. Just to be clear about how lucky I got let me remind you that the restaurant consists of only 12 tables and a reservation is made 3 months ahead, not to mention that the reservation was made while the restaurant ruled over the William Reed Business Media company's "50 Best Restaurants in the World" list. To make sure that I wouldn't feel totally lucky, just a week before getting to the restaurant the new list was declared and Osteria Francescana slipped to the second place, not that this stopped me from going anyway because hey, you don't get so lucky so often!

The first time I was in Modena I ate a delightful lunch in the "little sister" Franceschetta 58 and promised myself that my next time, in the smallest of the three cities in Emilia-Romagna's "food mountain chain", I would climb to the top. It was even a happier occasion since my partner in dine was the lovely R. who agreed to sacrifice herself and help a friend in need with a table for two at the best restaurant in the world.

Gates of heaven

 

Exactly a minute to 8pm we were standing in front of the restaurant's door and before R. managed to take a photo of its sign – still, we are in a tourists' attraction – the door opened and we were welcomed by Giuseppe "Beppe" Palmieri, the sommelier and maître d' who has accompanied Bottura since 2000. His welcoming "Good evening" helped us to cross the threshold into the dark-grey painted and almost with no ornaments reception hall. A tunnel of suited waiters decorated with "Good evening, good evening" led us straight to the table. How did it happen? How we got here? I couldn't decipher it in real-time, but as the evening went on I think I found out the secret behind Osteria Francescana.

{A side note: along the dinner and after it I thought of different angles to compare it with the experience I had in Noma, but in order to respect each of the two separately I won't write them here}

We were the first to sit next to one of the four tables in one of the rooms, its walls also painted dark-grey, its windows are curtained and art pieces placed around it. Only after we found out that this was the "Damien Hirst room" and two of his works were in front and above us. On our way to the table we passed by a combination of two other pieces: Tourists by Maurizio Cattelan and Gavin Turk's Bin Bag. This culin-arty diffusion became Bottura's mantra as he explains in his book Never Trust a Skinny Italian Chef: "…the kitchen started a dialogue with contemporary art… I shared ideas with artists. I fed them and they fed me".

On our way - and above us. On the header is one of Hirst's Spin Paintings which was given to Bottura

 

Wide tables, white tablecloths, shiny glasses and gold linen plates with two menus: one is big, bright and colorful containing the "Festina Lente" ("hurry up slowly") tasting menu – "only" 9 courses, and also à la carte option for the luckier who can pop in once in a while for a non-formal visit. The other menu, in a grey cover of course, is named "Tutto". Everything. And everything means for Bottura a trip along the Emilia-Romagna region which brought him up as a person and a chef to be the best in the world.

R. suggested, rightfully, to take the tasting menus - one of each, but as I guessed we were answered by Palmieri: "We strongly recommend choosing only one menu for everyone at the table". And when an Italian who was born in the deep south of Italy - even if it's not Sicily - strongly recommends you something, it's probably an offer you can't refuse.

A great offer, isn't it?

 

Then it was clear. Osteria Francescana welcomes everyone with a big hearty hug, but she wants something in return (it's not the money, it's definitely not the money): it wants to dominate the experience and it wants the patrons to give in. It will decide the order and pace of the courses; the sense with which they will follow them and what the patrons will think while they are in and after the experience. The patrons will be detached from the outer world and be put in a calm dark-grey bubble while the colors and other sensations will appear with the dishes. They won't understand how they got to the table and where the menus came from, but if they need any help to decide - the grey color of the Tutto menu as a part of the bubble will lead them to the right decision.

Therefore we took the right decision and chose everything. One copy of the menu was left "to help you follow the dishes", and right before we started the sommelier Luca Garelli helped us to blend in with a tall glass of a bubbly Franciacorta. After toasting to whoever booked the table - we rested in the comfortable chair and waited for the show to begin.

 

Last preparations

 

Here it comes.

Right at the beginning we were served with some pointers to the idea that stands in the grounds of Bottura's cooking:

The restaurant's version of fish'n'chips based on Aula, a freshwater fish from the northern Italy area, found itself trapped in a crispy tempura. On top of it laid a Carpione ice-cream, marinade based on vinegar and mainly used to lightly cure fish similar to Aula. It was a great start since the tongue and palate romped between the textures and temperatures and let the brain complete on its own the final form of the dish.

We were also served with tiny pillows filled with a cod paste - softer than goose feathers pillows, macarons with rabbit stew - maybe to remind us that we were right before Easter, and a stripe of lardo sprinkled with parmigiano and truffles flakes.

They were tiny but served the cause of giving hints and flashes of flavors which whooshed inside the mouth and vanished, only to raise curiosity before the next course arrived.

Small ones to start with

 

Here is the next one: a small lettuce heart with shrimp, squid and oyster chips – each one in its original color and flavor and only the texture was so different from the sea where they came from and cracked like the extra fresh lettuce. The plate was stained with pink and black drops, signs of shrimps and squid ink, and just before we started to eat Giuseppe "Pino" Cesario, the waiter who accompanied us along the evening, leaned over and sprayed from a perfume bottle sea water or sea-scented freshwater while grinning: "Not Chanel 5" and sliding outside from the scene. And if all rivers run to the sea it doesn't really matter, right?

Notice the surprising plate which is attached to the table with only an artistic but practical curve

 

We remained at the coast of the Adriatic Sea with Mediterranean Sole, as the menu said. But is it only the name of the fish which was the center of the dish? Perhaps it's also "sole", the Italian word for sun? Maybe it's even a deliberate error and it was meant to write soul? We were too busy concentrating in the plate – a perfect fish, if anyone thought otherwise – wrapped in an extra thin paper that dissolved while touching the tongue and as we were told it was dehydrated sea water sprinkled with black salt. How did Bottura managed to produce paper from water and did he find the solution for the rainforests crisis? It's still a mystery to me.

A dry sea

 

Delicately we turn to land: a bowl with 30-days miso marinated goose liver aided with dark-green / dark-purple seaweed and hot ponzu sauce. Each ingredient in this dish, the delicate melting goose liver, the slippery seaweed and the deep sauce, had its unique texture and taste, and all of them managed to create a very tasty earthy harmony.

Deep

 

Something about bread. The first plate that was served was a bowl covered in a napkin which managed to keep the warmth of the four soft and perfect bread wedges. Between the first and second course were served some more buns and long grissini that were so fresh and crispy that I think we could easily pass the whole evening only with them.

Perfect

 

We are already in the mainland and here is "Green over brown over black", three flavors and colors of risotto: herbs, chicken and squid, while Pino proudly explains us that unlike a traditional risotto here there is no use of butter or parmigiano. The way the plate was divided directed us to taste each of the different types of risotto separately and feel them clearly. Don't worry about the butter or parmigiano – the flavors were so sharp and clear they didn't need them to keep the flavors on track.

 

Risottos

 

As a lesson from the past I preferred not to pick the wine pairing – my palate is not sharp enough when it comes to wine, especially in a monstrous wine cellar as Osteria Francescana's, and after the third glass it would become even blunter. Somehow we've managed to get to 5 glasses and I won't forget the one that arrived from the opposite side of Italy, from the area of Vittoria in south Sicily: Arianna Occhipinti's wine route started when she was 16 years old with her winemaker uncle, and 8 years later she released her first wine to the world, a gentle red one which stood against the aggressive massive wines that usually come from the island. We were served with Occhipinti's white wine SP68 after the road (Strada Provinciale) that leads from Vittoria to the vineyard. It consisted of a dazzling smell of grapes – almost under the verge of rotten, but together with a somewhat flat taste that leaves the main room to the food. That was a great pairing of a bold wine, not just because its name and label which reminded me of… beer.

By the way, the wine pairing menu has also one beer in it, another one of Bottura's games around the three Michelin stars.

A wine dressed as a beer

 

Going on the other side of the pond – at least conceptually. "Autumn in New York – in spring" is such a light dish I wouldn't mind to have more and more of it: silky pea cream and nice slices of asparagus under seasonal herbs caressed by goat milk and green oil. This dish whispers "seasonal", and the only question is – which? Although the staff tries to give the easiest atmosphere, Osteria Francescana is still a restaurant that respects its three stars. That's why I was confused a little hearing a delicate easy-listening jazz-blues music right at the beginning, but just as Pino finished his explanation of the dish and repeated its name, like a sign was given and the volume was lightly turned up, exactly to the level so the jazz singer could give us a multi-sensual experience all saying "New York".

Ba-ba-ba-du-bap

 

We're still in Italy and one of the pasta types of the region is called Passatelli and composed of bread crumbs, egg and parmigiano. Not the usual pasta recipe but one which serves Bottura well while serving it in an almost crystal clear tomato consommé and sprinkling basil leaves on top to create his unusual version of… pizza. You should use your imagination really hard to imagine pizza, mainly because the tomato flavor was dominant – and great, and didn't leave place for reaching out to the other flavors of the dough. Yet it's an important – yes, important – dish because it demonstrates well the idea of Bottura's cooking: deconstruction and reconstruction of famous Italian dishes without moleculuzing them ,or at least not so defined as in other places.

No, not a pizza

 

And suddenly out of the grey came out Bottura himself for his visit and chat around the tables. Although I knew this would happen all I managed to say were some true clichés like "how honored", "how happy" and "thank you". C'mon! Is this what I had prepared myself for?! Where were all my questions about cooking and food conceptualizing gone?! I guess there's no other option but to ask them all when I will finally interview Bottura sometime along my new career. Of course, it didn't stop us from asking for a photo and the staff was already around, Pino took the cellular and with a trained hand took two perfect photos while everyone is smiling. Five seconds and it's over.

 

Back to the menu and to one of Bottura's signature dishes: 3 * 1 * 5 – three characteristics of Parmigiano-Reggiano spreading over five ages, five textures and five temperatures. A warm and liquid cream of 24 months (younger than that and it's still not a Parmigiano-Reggiano), demi-soufflé – 30 months, cool mousse – 36 months, a cracker – 40 months, and foam made of 50 months old cheese water! Do YOU remember where you were more than 4 years ago?!

Like in the passatelli-pizza one Bottura is breaking a dish to its ingredients and building… well, the same. Same same, but different. We couldn't avoid the will of power when Pino finished explaining the dish with a dramatic pause which was followed by: "This dish is made only with two ingredients – Parmigiano… and time". Getting off stage and leaving us smiling to ourselves, he like ordered us to give the photo its caption. So here, for Pino:

Parmigiano… and time

 

Here came the most "meaty" dish - "Camouflage Pigeon": a pigeon's breast roasted to perfection hiding under roots and leaves, roots that were cut as leaves and creams extracted from these roots and leaves. Each color on the plate was deep and heavy and carried within the essence of the taste from which it was extracted: yellow carrot, beetroot and basil. The best of this dish was the pigeon leg, a snack I wished I had 20 more of. But I didn't.

 

The leg…

 

It's spring time: petals of finely sliced white asparagus topped with hollandaise sauce and lemony meringue anthers. A light dish that quickly vanished and maybe suited more an earlier stage of the evening, unless its use is to replace a sorbet, in which case it's perfect.

 

In bloom

 

Oh no. The next one was a baked apple without its content, but when you lightly hit and break it you'll find inside foie gras and fresh truffle. Moral corruption? Maybe. Tasty? For sure! Does it mean that we're heading towards the desserts and the end of the evening? Let's not think about it.

 

Corrupted apple

 

Maybe to distract us from that thought together with the apple were served two other desserts which caused us not to give our full attention to any of them: popcorn, which I don't remember anything about, and the other signature dish of Bottura - 'Oops! I dropped the lemon tart!, inspired by Ai Weiwei's Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn. A lemongrass and zabaione ice-cream bursts out of what used to be a small tart, and next to it lined in a total contrast to the mess on the plate shattered candied caper, lemon, apple and a drop of hot chili.

 

Ai Wei Oops

 

Some more sweets to ease the pain or prolonging the pleasure as much as possible:

Croccantino of foie gras topped with hazelnuts and almonds was as you think this combination would be - excellent,

Another "camouflage" dish, but this time "A hare in the woods" - a small circle of rabbit stew under coffee, chocolate and herb powders,

And a gesture to the town of Vignola which is located not far from Modena - a cherry sphere (and Vignola's cherries are considered to be the best in Italy) filled with cherry liquor and placed on crumbs of Barozzi cake, a cake which is baked in the same bakery in Vignola for more than 150 years.

 

Small ones to finish with

 

The day after we went again to the restaurant for completing the photo set we missed the evening before, and by the door we met a nice Dutch family, parents and two daughters not more than 12 years old, that arrived for the same purpose. We were taking their photos, they were taking ours, and in the short conversation we found out that they also were at the restaurant with us. I couldn't help but to think about how lucky the girls were that their parents took them to eat and experience the number one restaurant in the world. For that kind of luck I had to wait some decades, but when it finally arrived I grabbed it fiercely and enjoyably gave myself in to Massimo Bottura's will of domination.

 

Osteria Francescana

Via Stella 22, Modena

www.osteriafrancescana.it

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