Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Osteria Francescana*** - Modena Italy

Who, why, how?

One of our reasons for choosing Bologna over Lyon was that we could eat at Osteria Francescana. This is in Modena a short 25-minute train ride from Bologna. Osteria Francescana is owned by Massimo Bottura. The restaurant has the pinnacle of 3 stars in Michelin and has been voted as the best restaurant in the world in 2016 by the NOT prestigious San Pellegrino 50 Best Restaurants in The World Guide.

There are several criticisms against the Guide, ranging from the fact that judges don’t have to prove they ate at a restaurant, the roles of Governments in hosting critics – for example when New York hosted the event New York restaurant ratings jumped. Similarly, when Melbourne hosted the event. The lack of female chefs. The allegation that this is just a collection of expensive restaurants with tasting menus. So, the best restaurant in China is a French restaurant which is bizarre when Chinese cuisine is so huge and influential. This is not about the Guide, so I will stop here.

Bottura has been steadily becoming visible thanks to multitude of TV shows, you may recall him appearing on the weepy Masterchef Australia to teach the contestants how to make the “death dish” risotto. He has since been featured on Chefs Table on Netflix and many more.

Bottura himself has had some classic training both at Alain Ducasse as well as at El Bulli. No doubt he has created some legendary dishes, which I shall come to by and by. As the cliché goes wanting to eat there and getting a reservation are two different things. This is where it got interesting.

Osteria Francescana is a small restaurant serving not more than 25 people at a sitting. They have one seating for lunch and one for dinner. Bookings open at 10 am Italian time 3 months prior. Thus, for a table in March 2018, booking starts at 10 am on 1st December 2017. Knowing it would be difficult, HRH the Queen of Kutch and I pulled out our computers at 2.15 India time, kept our credit cards handy and decided that she would book for lunch and I would book for dinner on 17th March. At 2.30 pm i.e. 10 am Italy time the website opened. At 2.32 she got the table, I did not. By 2.33 pm the restaurant was fully booked for the entire month of March. Yes folks, 3 minutes to sell out the restaurant for the entire month. We were very very lucky. If we had not been as diligent, no way would we have got a table.

On the appointed day 17th March 2018, we boarded our train and caught a cab from Modena station and reached the restaurant. This is located in a small non-descript side street. We were early so we took a gander in the nearby streets. We saw a lovely food market but obviously could neither buy things nor browse. At the appointed time 12.30 we reached the restaurant. All tables are given for lunch at 12.30. The door opened and all 23-people entered. We were a minute late so the door shut. I rang a bell and the door opened. I kid you not!

First impressions

What happened next was comical. All 25 of us were herded into a decent sized waiting area where Man 1 took your warm clothes, coats, jackets, scarves and disappeared; Man 2 asked your name and went to whisper to Man 3 peering into a computer; then Man 2 told Man 4 “table No 3” and Man 4 whisked you to your table. This process continues till all the 12 odd tables are filled. Bizarre and childish. And we watched this entire charade repeated five times before we reached the front of the queue!

The dining room itself is very pleasant, stark and oddly somber. A brown carpet, olive green walls and some black and white pictures on the walls. A huge rather pretty floral arrangement was in one corner. Pleasant, hushed and muted. Very comfortable chairs. Large tables well-spaced with good quality table linen. Of course, there was the obligatory stool for lady’s purses. Three menus were handed out. One main menu listing both the a la carte and 10 course tasting. A separate small menu with the larger 12 course tasting and one huge wine list. We were going to order from the a la carte menu and since it was lunch no drinking for us. Just a glass of excellent Champagne and some sparkling water.

We ordered our food and settled down. First came some Brown Bread with Tuscan Olive Oil. Sharp and spicy. The bread was soon whisked away and fresh bread was brought, a basket of mini rolls of different types and very fine Grissini or Bread Stick as we know them. All top quality.

Amuse Bouche

Then up came 4 Amuse Bouche. The first was Bottura’s take on Fish & Chips called, “Tempura with Carpione.” Like a modern and refined take on “fish and chips,” this consisted of Aula, a freshwater fish, sandwiched between a light-as-air tempura crust and topped with a savory Fish Ice Cream. The combination of temperatures and textures was great. Frankly, it did what it said in as much as the base was crunchy, the ice cream was cold and mildly fishy. But, rather bland. 

This was followed by a Macron with Rabbit Mousse with a Parmesan wafer. Once again did exactly what it said, But, taste wise, unremarkable. The next was described by the waiter as a surprise. We were asked to guess what it was. If you look at the photograph it seems it’s fish, probably Mackerel, skin. In fact, it was disclosed to us as being simply crunchy bread painted with Sugar with a Cod puree inside. The last Amuse Bouche I cannot remember and the photograph was blurred. So far not so good. We have eaten far tastier Amuse Bouche in other places.

First course

Now is where the real action starts. Our First courses. HRH the Queen of Kutch had ordered a Bottura classic – “An Eel Swimming Up the Po River”. According to Bottura this dish represents what an Eel would experience and see if it was so swimming. The plate comprised two Eel fillets marinated and basted with Saba, a form of Balsamic Vinegar and served with two purees, Polenta and Lemon. HRH the Queen of Kutch loved the dish. The Eel was well cooked, moist, flavorful and the two purees spot on. She was pleased.

My starter was another Bottura classic. “Five ages of Parmigiano Reggiano in Different Textures and Temperatures” to use its full name. Parmesan is produced locally I.e. in this region. We have eaten the Soufflé Suisse at Le Gavroche which is really legendary. This dish beats everything hollow. It is sublime. Its conceptualising and perfection took Bottura years, and it shows. Here a dish of Parmesan is prepared in five different ways. 24-month aged Parmesan is prepared as a mousse, 30 month aged as a foam, 36 month aged as a sauce, 40 month aged as a Tuile and the oldest, 50 month, as a Parmesan “air”. The sauce is the base and the other textures piled on top. The Mousse is cold so that gives you a bit of a start when eating. This was an exceptional dish. It is presented as a piece of abstract art in shades of white. The dish was a real Umami bomb. It was not salty as we know the taste of salt but it was savory really really savory. Impossible to give you a comparable taste a sort of combination of Marmite and Tonkotsu Ramen. In a word, Masterpiece.

I cannot stop waxing lyrical about the 5 Ages of Parmesan. We know a cheese soufflé, where you have 3 textures of cheese, the soufflé, possibly a cheese sauce to add into the soufflé and possibly a layer of cheese on top of the soufflé gratinated. To elevate this dish to 5 textures with 5 types of Parmesan is the work of a genius. Imagine putting this dish together in the kitchen. You require perfect co-ordination between many cooks so that all 5 textures are ready at once. Mind boggling.

The Pasta Course

 After the starters it was time for the Pasta courses. A bit of background here. We all believe we know what dumplings are but few of us realize how many things are in fact dumplings. A dumpling, simply put, is small pieces of dough normally a starch enclosing a filling. The whole assembly is then cooked in a variety of ways viz: steaming, frying, sauté, bake and so on. Examples of dumplings – the Polish Pierogi, Ravioli, Tortellini, Samosa, Kachori, Momo and Dim Sum. Dumplings exist in several cuisines.

A question often is asked as to which are better, the myriad Western Pasta dumplings or the even more myriad Oriental dumplings like Sui Mai, Wontons and so on. One very popular dumpling is from Shanghai known as the Xia Long Bao or Chinese Soup Dumpling. Here highly flavoured pork jelly is filled in the wrapper. When steamed the jelly melts and the dumpling is eaten whole and hot. The magic is in the dumpling being bitten into and the flavourful soup filling your mouth.

The dish I ordered was simply called “Ravioli of Leeks, Foie Gras And Truffle”. This was in my view a dish of genius, once again. Yes, there was a Ravioli keeping to Italian roots. The “stuffing” if one could call it that, was, Foie Gras and Truffle which had been treated with the same technique as a Xiao Long Bao. When you ate the Ravioli you had liquid Foie Gras flavoured with Truffle flooding your mouth. The Ravioli were served with a Veal Jus reduction with Barolo Wine a classic French sauce. The whole dish crossed continents several times and came out as a triumph. An Italian Ravioli but with a Chinese cooking technique [of using jelly in a dumpling] made with luxury French & Italian ingredients - Foie Gras and Truffles served with a very French sauce. This was excellent. Fusion or amalgamation and mixing up of cultures done very intelligently. Unfortunately, all this brilliance was dimmed somewhat by the garnish of burnt Leeks. Those are the grey grass like bits you see in the photograph. The burnt leeks were very strong tasting. Either there was a mistake in having the leeks burnt a bit too much or there were too many for garnish. I did redeem the dish by scraping as much of the burnt leek off as possible.

HRH the Queen of Kutch ordered her favourite dish – Tortellini En Brodo. This is a dish that is typical of the Emilia Romana Region in which Bologna and Modena are situated. Tiny Tortellini are made wrapping them around the little finger and the shape is that of a baby’s navel or belly button. Tortelloni [note the difference in spelling] are larger and less delicate. The filling is usually Pork, cheese and often has Prosciutto or Mortadella. These little dumplings are cooked in a clear broth like a Consommé and served piping hot. They are delicious and real comfort food. HRH the Queen of Kutch had had these on our last visit to Bologna some 7 years ago and has been dreaming of having them again. She did have a very good version at Safran Zunft in Basel. She also had this dish a day earlier at Restaurant Diana in Bologna. Now here was a legendary Chef giving you a classic dish. Would it be sublime. Alas, no. The Tortellini En Brodo were very good, but sublime? Was it worth paying 70 Euro for this? Absolutely not. I guess we were at fault here. How much can a homestyle dish be elevated? Look at it differently, how much better can you make a Lassi? After improving the quality of the milk, the improvements are after that miniscule. Similarly, here, after improving the quality of the stock and possibly the fillings, there is not much increment. But do look at the photographs to see the difference in the dish at Safran Zunft and Osteria Francescana.

Above Tortellini En Brodo at Osteria Francescana 

Venison Consommé with vegetables and Deer Chestnut Ravioli at Safran Zunft

The Main Course

HRH the Queen of Kutch ordered another of Bottura’s classic dishes “Lobster with Double Sauces, Acidic and Sweet”. A baby Lobster Tail, perfectly cooked mind you, was served with two sauces, the white and acidic sauce was made with Riesling in a traditional manner, while, the Red or Sweet sauce was made classically with Lobster Shells – much like a Bisque. This dish posed two problems for HRH the Queen of Kutch. First, she was quite full from the previous food. Second, the portion was large and she proclaimed the dish as unexceptional. I did taste the Lobster. I thought it was wonderful and would have happily eaten it. I could concede that it was possibly less inspired than the previous dishes.

I had ordered “Suckling Pig Served with Pickled Vegetables and Villa Manodori Traditional Balsamic Vinegar”. Do have a look at the photograph, this is possibly the most visually beautiful plate of food that I have ever been served. Every dot and every sauce on the plate had full taste. Some were warm some were cold. The vegetables were perfectly pickled. However, I have two issues with the Pork. The Pork was cooked Sous Vide i.e. in a bag at low temperature in a water bath. This changes the texture of the meat. Further, Pork is fatty and it is this fat that gives Pork its magic. With a Suckling Pig you don’t have much fat and then when cooked Sous Vide you loose more fat. The unctuousness of the Pork was lost. Secondly, my idea of Pork Crackling is the texture should be like glass shattering or a very crisp potato wafer. Unfortunately, this Crackling did have crispness but the brittleness of the crackling was more biscuit like. So, I was a little disappointed.

The Dessert

“Oops I Dropped the Lemon Tart” is Bottura’s most iconic dish. Its influences run far and wide and you can see versions of this modern classic in many menus. Here again the dish is one of genius, as they say a mash up. Inside is a Lemongrass Ice Cream an Oriental flavour used to make a very Italian dish Ice Cream. This is served with a very Lemony and extremely well-balanced Zabaglione. As garnish you have Candied Lemon, Capers, Lemon Thyme and a few drops of Chilli Oil. The “Tart” part is represented by sheets of pastry. Visually this is stunning. Taste wise even more so. An excellent finish.

Petit Fours

Once the meal was over we were offered coffee which we declined. Petit Fours were served, excellent Chocolate with Caramel liquid centres, top quality Cherry filled Chocolates and a couple of others. The Petit Fours were better than the Amuse Bouches.

Our thoughts

For the positives, no dish was a dud. The weakest were the Amuse Bouches and then the Tortellini En Brodo. The strongest dishes were the Eel, Parmesan, Ravioli and Oops the Lemon Tart. The Lobster and Suckling Pig were slightly below par.

Bottura is a very very good chef and quite a few of his dishes have become icons in the true sense of the word. It is not often where you go to a restaurant and are served not one but three or five iconic dishes, totally new being literally invented by the Chef. The Parmesan, the Ravioli, the Oops, the Eel and several others which we did not eat are truly unique. Full credit.

What was wrong. Certainly, without doubt the service. Very slick, no question about that, but, no humour no laughter, no conversation, no interaction, no "did you like this"? In fact, when HRH The Queen of Kutch left her Lobster unfinished, there was no reaction from the staff. This is unusual. The service was just too formal and stiff, certainly efficient, but soulless.

The malarkey with everybody entering at 12.30 and the door being shut was simply that, bullshit. The charade with the escorting to tables was similarly off-putting and I thought should have been better handled.

We believe the restaurant takes itself too seriously, they should lighten up.

A thought or two to end

We had ordered a la carte which meant 4 courses – Starter, Pasta, Main, Dessert. Obviously, portion sizes are larger if you order a la carte. Looking around we saw that most tables had ordered the 10 or 12 course tasting menus. Many with wine pairing.  Portions were smaller than a la carte. Ordering the tasting menu meant that you would get a taste of each of Bottura’s most famous dishes. That is one way to experience a restaurant. It also meant that the meal would take up to 4 hours.

The other thought I leave you with is do not be misled by the fact that the restaurant seats only 25 for a meal. I suggest you do some basic maths. Assuming that most people order the 10 or 12 course meals while just a few like us order a la carte, you could average that all 25 guests would have 10 courses. That folks translates to 250 dishes of very high-end food for lunch and another 250 for dinner. 500 plates of food a day! Add to that the high level of prep required for the 4 Amuse Bouche and 4 Petit Fours. This itself means 400 portions of just Amuse Bouche and Petit Fours, if my maths is correct. This is a serious volume of food to create every day.

Of course, think about the number of plates and glasses that will be required at every service.


Was this meal worth the effort and cost? In our considered opinion, nope! While some dishes were exceptional, the more ordinary ones and the soulless service let down the restaurant terribly.

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