*RESTAURANT IN MODENA, ITALY*
MUST ORDER Pasta al pesto; five ages of Parmigiano Reggiano; Foie gras popsicle
AMBIANCE You will never forget the face of Edith Piaf
WOULD I GO BACK? If I came back to Modena, I’d go to Casa Maria Luigia instead
Much like its (now iconic) coral facade on a nondescript street in Modena, Osteria Francescana is fairly unremarkable inside. It’s got those classic round tables blessed with white cloths, set politely apart under lighting good enough for the reading-glasses-in-bed types. The celebrities are seated with the tourists, and everyone is welcomed as a friend.
Head chef Massimo Bottura was blissfully present on the evening of our visit, and he spoke to each table of guests individually, in the generous manner that World’s Top 50 customers have come to expect. At 290 euros a head, for eleven courses (plus bread and snacks), you’re either a serious foodie, or a banker.
One of the many expectations I had walking into Osteria Francescana was a dose of stellar Italian bread. Bread starters can really set the standard of the meal for me, and this was no exception. Here, we had three types of bread.
Hot bread sticks, like none you’ve tried before, have been hand-rolled thinly into half-a-metre lengths, without too much salt. They were WARM, too! Eventually, after the waiter brought out the third bundle of sticks, we had to ask them to stop (a case of too little, two lards). Greed didn’t stop us there. Along came the sourdough and the rye, sat down beside us, and could’ve tightened Little Miss Muffet away (into a Big Miss Muffin).
I’ll run you through the snacks, which are quite a mouthful by themselves. One of my favourite dishes of the night was a carpione ice cream (which tasted like balsamic ice cream, but actually involves onions, carp, sugar and vinegar), softening an underlying disc-tower of aula (fish) tempura chips. There’s a tiny macaron stuffed with rabbit and a cacciatora sauce of tomato, bell peppers, onions and wine. ‘Ceci n’est pas une sardine‘ mockingly looks just like the silvery body of a sardine. It’s dried bread, stuffed with a traditional green sauce and covered with a metallic, edible powder. Borlengo is a strip of liquid Parmigiano Reggiano, with lard, garlic and oregano.
Then we start on the more substantial dishes. What appears to be a simple sashimi dish turns out to be ‘grilled hamachi in abstract’. It’s smoked Amberjack, and a sauce of tomato, lemon and basil. There are sprinkles of iced, powdered mozzarella, with burnt lemon. Japanese influences take shape again, this time in a swirl of spaghettini with clam sauce, sea urchin and scampi. The urchin is creamy, but there’s no doubt the pasta slides along itself more slimily than usual.
The meal is studded with a few boring dishes, which play on their own concept more than on the tastebuds of the diner. They all come with separate sauces, poured individually at the table by the waiter, which is designed to impress you, but built up a greater contrast between my flavour-charged expectations and the richness of the sauces. ‘Autumn in New York’ is a green-coloured dish of smoked vegetables and creme fraiche, with a burnt apple dashi poured on top. ‘Wagyu no Wagyu‘ warns you of your disappointment; where the wagyu-looking dish is actually pork belly, marinated pork heart and fallow deer; fresh horseradish and watercress; and a ponzu sauce poured on top.
What seems similar to King Prawn and caviar is dubbed ‘we are still deciding which fish to serve!’ The dish decides to be turbot, stuffed with scallops, and covered in two powders: one of oyster water and one of kelp. The black, caviar-like sauce is turbot broth; with trout and turbot roe; and shallots.
But now I’ll talk about my favourite dishes. Pasta al pesto is a custardy conquest; a flan of Parmigiano Reggiano, enriched by pine nuts, seasonal vegetables and basil oil. Topped with mint and basil, the second-most- worthwhile broth of the night was this one, made with fermented pasta and vegetables poured on top. The Most Worthwhile Sauce prize is awarded to a reduction of roasted guinea hen and laurel powder, poured on top of three roasted potato ravioli, imitating Japanese gyoza.
Easily the best of all the dishes is the last of the classics Bottura has left on the menu – ‘five ages of Parmigiano Reggiano, in different textures and temperatures’. Bam! 24-month-old cheese. Bam, again! 30, 36, 40 and 50 months go by. Hot, cold, soft, crunchy and creamy elements finally deliver the complexity you’ve been waiting for. Surely no one has captured the essence of parmesan like this.
Similarly, ‘la vie en rose’ delivers the red meat you’ve been waiting for. If you’re bloodthirsty, you might be irritated that the red fluid on the plate is actually beetroot. I can’t say that fallow deer fillet from the hills of Modena beats wagyu (especially when we didn’t get any wagyu earlier). But I can say that I appreciated this dish because of a tiny, thumb-sized endive (onion) on the side of the plate, marinated in a vinegar of cherries, raspberries and pink pepper. The endive is stuffed with laurel, onion and sweet and sour radicchio. Just when you didn’t expect to read the phrase “poured on top” in this review again, there was a sauce of maraschino cherries infused with cherry blossoms poured on top.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment was the simplicity of the desserts, which weren’t correspondingly simply delicious. The best feature of ‘in defense of nature’ was the rosemary sorbet centrepiece. Lost on me was laurel powder, oak syrup and rose granita. More of an artwork than a dessert, a glittery, red origami piece (made of potatoes) pierced the ice cream like a gramophone. I am biased against the second dessert, a rum baba, because I have always disliked strongly alcoholic sweets. This ‘tribute to the Amalfi Coast‘ is soaked in verbena and lemon syrup. The best part was that unlike other rum babas, it was stuffed with a tomato-y, ricotta cream, basil, oregano and olive oil. It would have been so much better without the alcohol.
Visit time: July 2019