Posts Tagged ‘chef’

There are hordes of cooks arond the world, but few are true Chefs, and that is normal: we cannot be all great at what we are  doing. There will always be bad and great apples in a basket. It is the nature of things, it is what it is, it makes the basket …intriguing. And thinking about it, it would NOT be a good idea if the big majority of the cooks out there would be as skilled as a Joel Robuchon  (when he was cooking at Jamin), An Alain Passard at his best, A Bernard Pacaud, A Jacques Maximin, An Olivier Roellinger, etc.  NOT a good idea, for the simple fact that you won’t appreciate GREATNESS anymore. GREATNESS would turn mundane, and that is not  what you should be looking for.

I have been cooking since the tender age of 6. After more than 3 decades of cooking, being passionate about it
and being able to rival with, at my best, even the better 1 star Michelin Chefs that you ran into, I figured that I have gathered  enough experience to tell you what makes a GREAT Chef. And to tell you if you are going to be a GREAT one or NOT.

Before I get to the point of this post, I just want to tell you that I do not mean to be pretentious by pretending that I know  what a great Chef is. This blog is not about that. It is about being blunt, saying things the way they are.
Yes it is bold and rough on the edges, but again, I am not here to make friends and to please the industry with the usual romanticized BS that you will, anyways, find aplenty on the web. I collect some knowledge and in the process, I am sharing them with you for the sake of sharing knowledge.  You take it or you leave it, that is it.

There are people out there who are influencing you about anything related to food, with the sole experience of
watching couple of relevant youtube videos and sipping a drink or two with couple of food bloggers and shaking hands of people of the industry,  and yet you applaud them. That is what I call true arrogance …

So, How do you know you will be a Great Chef, How to become a Great Chef, What makes a True Great Chef?

The answer lies in the following facts:

If you happen to find virtually everything you put in your mouth …uniformly good or bad…, you know you will never be a great Chef.  You will be a cook who will cash in on the hard earned money of your patrons. And you will get away with that,  because most diners are essentially interested to spend some good time dining out in good company and lots of booze. Therefore, your skills will make no difference to them. Indeed. But at the end of the count, you are still NOT a great Chef. And will never be.

You are NOT because the most important weapon of a Great Chef is his palate. A Great Palate is like the ears of a Great Musician.  The ears of a Great Musician will identify far more varied nuances of sounds than what the ears of an average musician will be capable of. The palate works the same way. If since very small, your palate was able to effortlessly segregate what is average from what is below average,  from what is above average, from what is great, from what is excellent and is capable to identify what can be benchmark material…then right there, you had the first of the most important skills to be a TRUE GREAT CHEF!

Being able to segregate the bad from the good is not enough. You must be capable to identify what is a benchmark food item in the way that a Great  Musician will be the one who can tell you, because he was able to get the most out of his vast experience, what is outstanding to his ears.  Being able to identify a benchmark is the proof that you are passionate about what you do and have invested your time and passion in covering all aspects  of the food that you are supposed to be knowledgeable about…from end to end! It is also the proof that you were genuinely interested to know more about it, to always seek for the better iteration of it. So, passion..passion…involvement, yep, that too is part of the most important signs  of a great Chef.

You have the palate and the passion. You then of course need the skills, naturally. Skills are important, but if you have no passion,  there is no point in being a Chef. As for the palate, well, if you do not have a palate, obviously…you skills are good for something else,  but not food. If you have no palate, you will cook average food at your best, and bad food on a regular basis, or good food by …chance.

Now, you can be skilled, gifted with a great palate and are passionate about food, but if you do not know how to surround yourself with people who can pay justice to what you are doing, it goes without saying that you will not be remembered as a Great Chef.

When you meet a TRUE great Chef, show the highest  respect to her / him,  because the task to get there is obviously a daunting one.

 

Restaurant Tre Colori
Cuisine: Italian
Date/Time of the dinner: January 29th 2014, 19:00
Addr: 1696 Avenue Bourgogne, Chambly
Phone:(450) 658-6653
URL: http://trecolori.com/
Other Mtl & suroundings Italian restaurants reviewed on  current blog: Le Serpent, Pasta Casareccia.

TRE COLORI, CHAMBLY 2

I was southshore Montreal (in Chambly, 32 kms from Mtl), eating with some friends and seized the opportunity to visit a place that was highly recommended by many ppl I know.

It’s  an institution down there in the city of Chambly, opened since 1967 with a generation of Italian families (from Calabria)  at the helm. As always, I like reading reviews before going to a place, but most of the bad opinions sounded like personal vendettas against that place, whereas most of the glorifying reviews sounded over the top for a place of this caliber. So I quickly erased those from my memory. After all, your best judge is your very ownself, lol The place has a classic Italian elegance interior décor (minus the pricey material like marbles), white tablecloths, paper napkins on the tables (although, those were of good quality).

TRE COLORI, CHAMBLY - MARGHERITA

The ppl who did recommend TC to me  have raved about the Pizza, so I ordered a Pizza Margherita (as always, it’s in the simple and authentic  little things that I want to see you walking the walk..never with the  flights of overdone /overloaded pizzas…lol) . Being a long time fan of Pizza, particularly the Neapolitan ones, I do naturally favor wood-fired pizza ovens (At Tre Colori, there’s no wood-fired pizza oven on the premises), though it’s of course not  synonymous with  a better pizza (you have the tool, but then you need to use it skillfully). Tre Colori’s Pizza Margherita is certainly nowhere close to Bottega’s levels –but again, who does in Mtl??   Everytime I hear about a Pizza place in Mtl that’s supposedly better than Bottega, I  try it…and time after time, the suggestions turned out to be sad jokes!!!!! and NOPE…I won’t start un-realistic comparisons to what’s done in Italy, at say, a place like  Da Michele in Napoli. We are not in Italy!  — but for a Pizza that does not benefit from the advantage of nice wood-fired aromas (they use the deck oven you’ll find at most Pizzerias in town) , it was actually good:  it still featured some of the characteristics that gets close to a Neapolitan Pizza, such as a tender center, nice puffy crust edges, the proportion of dough Vs sauce pretty much well balanced,  the mozza of good quality and the homemade tomato sauce as good as you’ll get from most  good pizzas in town .  This fared  actually way better than plenty of Pizza places that oftently appear on most rundowns of top 10 best Pizzerias in town. 7/10 by Montreal  & surroundings standards.

TRE COLORI, CHAMBLY - spaghetti a la calabrese

Then Pasta (spaghetti) alla calabrese – Here using capicollo and homemade tomato sauce, though using  sardines in place of capicollo would have somehow imparted a much more Southern Italian/Calabrian touch to that pasta (listen, I am not saying this to sound interesting or ‘connoisseur’, I do not trade on those grounds. This touch would have provided that dish with more genuine flavors, which would have elevated it from a standard pasta dish to something more ).  Still, tasty enough, the doneness of the pasta to the bite as it should and the homemade tomato packed with superb tang of fresh acidity.  By Montreal standards, a proper 7/10.  Good.

TRE COLORI, CHAMBLY - Tiramisu

Went for their Tiramisu, $6. YEP..I know, some find it  too cliché to stick to  the T at an Italian eatery, but ‘cliché’ is not part of my vocabulary. Those simple items that have been around for so long, I like them because I’m interested to see how far you can get them to shine. Tiramisu is indeed easy to make, but a startling one will always be hard to get by. I realized that when even one of my favourite Italian tables in Montreal, Bottega, had a Tiramisu that was indeed good, but not stellar. And god knows that Bottega’s kitchen is not your average / ordinary kitchen. Presented in a glass, Tre Colori’s has the relevant mascarpone/eggs mix blending appetizingly with the coffee flavor, and this was as good if not even a tad better (though not conceived the same way: this one had a first creamy layer, then you had the cake part in the middle, whereas the I had at bottega was mostly a cake) than  the one I had at Bottega.  Among the better Tiramisus you’ll get in  Mtl.   8/10   PS: The well known ‘Italian lobster’ dessert, widely found in Southern Italy, would have brought a  ‘special’ dimension in that otherwise safe list of desserts (essentially composed of the Tiramisu and couple of chocolate-based desserts – you can see that menu online).

One companion picked the $39 special daily menu, which comprised of a minestrone soup, lamb chops that came with pasta simply sautéed in olive oil and garlic  +  a lemon granitée (he shared  some of his soup, lamb chops as well as granitée with me) . The minestrone soup  was  an average one (5/10), but the lamb chops pertained to a standard you won’t get to enjoy that oftently at any restaurant level in town and one that would make a great Michelin star restaurant really proud. It was a lesson on  how flames, exploited dexterously,  can lift up the taste of meat to levels that our palates tend to ignore  because most do not bother about taking ‘the granted’ (no one should miss grilled lamb chops …) and turn it into the  ‘not that granted‘  (…but few can make one this delicious). There’s certainly no scarcity of lamb chops in town, and I do not know if they do it this well on a regular basis, but those we were enjoying on this evening were simply sublime in all accounts (the meat enhanced by superb grilling flavors but in an exciting palatable  way that few can achieve, the seasoning bold and perfect, even the texture of the cut/quality of the chop  was flawless), exciting  lamb chops that will be remembered as long as my memory serves me right (9/10), the accompanied pasta achieved to proper al dente doneness though a tad too garlicky according to the person who ordered the lamb chops (I did not sample the pastas, but  this buddy knows his food so I trust his judgement) , then a lemon granitée  of great finesse (7/10) –  the third person  took a small  all dressed Pizza $11  (6/10 They call it All’Americana , dressed with pepperoni, mushrooms, green peppers, bacon, brick cheese — not bad at all, from bites that I have sampled,  BUT I found the Margherita to better showcase the good level of skills of this kitchen)  as well as some cheese au gratin French bread $5 (again, surprisingly average considering the skills displayed on the better dishes of this evening 5/10).

Service:  Service (by two young ladies) was flawless, though I had a booking experience (over the phone) that I thought  pertaining to ancient times. The gentleman who picked the phone left me on hold for 5 minutes, acted as if he was seriously taking my reservation (name, phone number, etc), but when I arrived at the restaurant, the waitress told me that there was no reservation (she actually never looked at the reservation book) for that evening. Basically, the dude over the phone knew that for a wednesday evening, they do not take reservations but instead of informing his customer, he preferred enjoying his moment of smartness. As usual, no drama and there are certainly worst things in life, Amen, lol, but that kind of behaviour is certainly not what a customer should  be looking forward to. At the restaurant, the service was of great standards so that unecessary episode is long forgotten as well as forgiven.

PROS: The top flight lamb chops of this evening. I do not recall having enjoyed a better one in Montreal, the amazing service by the two young ladies.  The operatic Italian music and overall charming classic  ambience…Truly felt like being in an episode of the Sopranos (some may not like it, but I DO!) ;p Tre Colori is not the discovery of the year, far from that, but it does certain things better than plenty of places enjoying   far more visibility / credits.

 CONS: To me, it’s a place that has its strengths  (clearly, if you tell me that this is an average kitchen, then I do not want to know what you perceive as good, lol,  cause those lamb chops I had on this evening are everything you want, certainly not average. Same for the Margherita Pizza, the Tiramisu….simple items I know, but many still miss them whilst they did not),  but there were sparse factors that left me underwhelmed (but not to the point of dramatizing neither)  and that  I did not find  consequent with their fortes: the episode about the reservation as detailed in the ‘service’ section of current account, the  napkins –which although of good quality — took away a bit of the purpose of the beautiful classic tablecloth’d table, the average minestrone soup, the average  bread, the pasta that’s fine but a tad less impressive than elsewhere. At least, here, I can say that I was more satisfied than not and I can certainly tolerate what I’ve perceived as less enchanting (thanks to their better dishes which clearly would send many other supposedly superior kitchens to shame, thanks to that sublime service of those two young classy ladies, thanks to their pride and perseverance at remaining true to what they’ve always been instead of  running laughably after trends).

The list of wines  flows through several pages of a very pretty winebook, essentially Italian wines (on their web site, you can have a good idea of the wine offerings), with prices ranging from the very affordable (for eg, around the  $30/$40) to its far opposite. There was already a bottle on the tables, apparently the restaurant’s ‘coup de coeur’ of the moment, according to my waitress, and you are free to opt for it or not. I chose their  ‘bottle of the moment’, a 2011  Apaltagua Envero  Carmenere  from Chile (online retail price around $16, sold $45 at the restaurant), one  kind of red wine  I favor for its fine medium body of dark fruit aromas (the plums, in particular,  coming through nicely towards the end of this evening’s tasting with an enjoyable round mouthfeel). The bottle of wine opened perhaps at 1 degree under room temperature, though I am confident that  this was just a rare minor  omission, and I can’t really complain because my  waitress was very classy in  asking if  the temperature was to my liking. To which I replied that it was fine since I did not want to pass as the  ‘’’smart ass of the moment’’ in front of friends who were there to simply have fun and not bother about such details. Again, the waitress and the  house are not at fault at all as those things happen even in grander houses and it was up to me to let them know.

TRE COLORI, CHAMBLY 3Conclusion: Conclusion: Montreal having a big Italian community, we are lucky to have plenty of eateries doing really well. I do not understand the recent report  of a local food journalist suggesting that there are RARE authentic Italian restaurants in Montreal. So what is Tre Marie then? Da Enrico? What is Pasta Casareccia ? Villa Armando? Di Menna? And there are actually a good dozen of other ‘authentic’ Italian restaurants that I could add to that list!  I am not even mentioning my favourite Italian places here. All those places providing flavors as close as possible (for a restaurant that’s several continents and oceans  away from Italy)  to their genuine versions in Italy.  And YEP, guess what, it’s a country that I know well, too!  Do those places stop existing as soon as there’s  a new trendy restaurant in town (that food journalist was reporting about a new Italian table ) ?? LOL. Now, you’ve guessed it:  Tre Colori’s 40 years in business with real experienced Italian Chefs at the helm commended that I go there with, in mind, the expectations that their  local peers have already set. In that regard, my meal here was  of really good  level by local standards. 7/10 as an overall score,  the  pasta dishes of this meal were almost (almost, I wrote)  as good as it gets in Montreal/surroundings, the lamb chops I was having on  this evening will be the new reference against which I’ll judge other examples of those in town. I’d have sampled only the lamb chops + Pizza Margherita + Tiramisu  and the overall score would be higher than a 7/10. The only reason I am not scoring the whole meal higher has to do with the weak minestrone soup + au gratin French bread (the heights attained by the lamb chops of this evening, as well as good standard of the Tiramisu/Pizza Margherita suggesting  that it was reasonable to expect a bit more from even simple items like that minestrone soup and the  gratin French bread (it’s not un-realistic expectations: startling minestrone soups do exist), and, I found the pasta  perhaps a tad less impressive than at, say, Pasta Casareccia (though, let’s set this straight right away: they are NOT  bad at all neither).    Next time, I want to test their risotto (it was not on the menu, but the waitstaff told me that you  can ask for it and they will oblige)  as well as other varieties  of the pastas   to get a more complete impression of this house.  Prices are fair, portions generous.  Certainly a genuine  finding for me  (just skip the items that are usually too mundane like the minestrone zuppa, or else, I am afraid you’ll miss the point), though not one that blew me away, but  ”to Ceasar what pertains to him”:  what matters most  to me is that they’ve proven how far they can go, which answer came in the form of  the exciting lamb chops, really good Tiramisu and Pizza Margherita.

ImageDisons qu’il sait passer du beau geste (son ‘message fétiche’ à qui veut bien l’entendre)   à de la belle cuisine, le Chef Passard. Je viens de faire, en Septembre,  un autre repas mémorable à L’Arpège (et ce, malgré que je n’y avais pas posé  les pieds depuis belle lurette). Au départ, ce fut mitigé :  des tartelettes de légumes  ridiculement miniatures. Mais comment font-ils, ceux qui ne cessent de louanger ces tartelettes … c’est comme si que je vous servais une goutte d’eau et que vous en ressortiez ébahi. Ébahi par quoi? Ces tartelettes, du moins celles que j’avais à ma table, sont trop petites pour etre proprement appréciées. Puis, ce Coquetier liqueur d’érable dont l’apport vinaigré  fit carrément voler toute  notion de goût en éclats. La pédale tonale continua à manquer d’aplomb sur  L’Arlequin de légumes (amer!) et des ravioles au bouillon sans interet (dommage, car la créativité et le sens du détail furent du rendez vous) .  Ah, j’oubliais…la langouste..le homard..appelez cela comme vous voudrez, mais de grace…..et là je m’adresse à toutes les grandes tables…oubliez ca, svp!  Ca n’arrive presque jamais à la cheville d’une simple langouste grillée!!! Et puis..et je sais que ceci va faire chier à mes compatriotes…mais Oui, malgré que j’ai moi aussi le bleu, blanc et rouge gravé sur le coeur….j’ose et je dénonce: nos langoustes , ouais, ca passe.  Mais on est loin du gout  marin et mémorable des langoustes des Caraibes ou de l’Océan Indien. De ceux là, Oui..je peux entrevoir l’effet surprise et mémorable en bouche.  Mais là…on est loin du compte!  Peu  importe,  tout cela fut vite oublié lorsque le grand Passard se mit au piano (à prendre dans son sens figuré car j’imagine que c’est plutot un travail de brigade comme dans tous les grands restaurants, surtout avec les deux salles complètement pleines): T-bone d’agneau au gout remarquable, Pigeon roti rappelant que le talent de rotissier du Chef n’est pas un vain coup ‘marketing’, risotto de mais et gazpacho à longuement faire émoustiller les papilles …et j’en passe. Impression finale: de nos jours, on a  tendance à louanger le tape à l’œil, à tel point qu’ils se font de plus en plus rares, meme à ce niveau, à comprendre que manger c’est d’abord faire plaisir aux papilles (papilles..mot que je répète volontiers…car  malheureusement …elles sont  souvent oubliées…) . Le reste n’est qu’accessoire, pour moi. Ce repas à L’Arpège a rempli sa mission primaire de renouer le client avec la notion du pur plaisir gourmand. À ne pas oublier la fantastique jeune sommelière Tchèque, aux accords inspirés .  Lorsque  L’Arpège se livre comme il l’a si bien fait lors de ce repas (je m’en contrefiche, lol, des moins bons coups tel que l’Arlequin de légumes..pour moi, un grand repas réside dans sa capacité à laisser comme impression finale…un souvenir impérissable de plaisir profond) , il ne s’agit pas que d’étoiles…mais presque du firmament. Voilà une brigade qui a compris que la cuisine sans brin de folie, ca ne vaut  rien! C’est cher, c’est sur…mais alors qu’on se munisse d’un sens du détail (je parle d’un VRAI sens du détail..pas de la petite ‘jugeotte’ approximative…) et qu’on me réponde à cette question si simple:  combien sont-ils à faire si bien, avec si peu? À bon entendeur, salut!

Ma petite ‘épopée’ (lol) sur ce repas en photos et textes (en Anglais): https://michelinstarfinedinings.wordpress.com/2013/09/22/larpege-paris/

Restaurant L’Arpège
Type of Cuisine: French (Alain Passard’s own interpreted classic French cuisine)
Michelin Stars: 3
Event: Lunch on Tuesday September 17th 2013, 12:30
Addr:  84 Rue de Varenne  75007 Paris, France
Phone: 01 47 05 09 06
URL:  http://www.alain-passard.com

 

This meal at L’Arpège could be perceived as a crash or a triumph depending on who you are as a diner. A crash if you think of a restaurant as that robot that’s supposed to read in your mind and feed you with the exact bites you want, which I think would be a naïve approach to dining. A triumph if you understand that a meal needs to be judged on the back of the heights it can reach, not in terms of this is good, that is less good and that is a bit better. Then, there’s also this important observation to make: there’s a reason some restaurants deserve their rank as a 3 star Michelin   (needless to stress that   this is a strong 3 star when it ‘’touches the sky’’’ as it did on that meal. Thinking otherwise would reveal a deep lack in the understanding of what  cooking should  really be about). And that reason is the same that makes a Porsche, a Lamborghini or a Ferrari all well praised cars: the details! You can love or hate them, but it does not matter, as  at the end of the day …they are effortlessly capable of heights, here and there,  that  their peers can only  dream of !

Before getting to the point, just a quick overview of some of the latest main changes in France’s restaurant scene:  as most know, Yannick Alléno has left Le Meurice (this was not a surprise since it was no secret that Chef Alléno was  looking for some new challenge).  It will be interesting to see if  Le Meurice will keep its 3 stars when next year’s Michelin stars will be published (though, according to Gilles Pudlowski, Le Meurice will benefit from Alain Ducasse’s association — click here for that article) . Not that I will miss Yannick Alléno (I am not a big fan of Chef Yannick Alléno), but he at least has proven to be capable of  pulling off   proper French haute 3 star Michelin standards . The legendary Marc Veyrat, a chef that I never had the chance to get to know, made a comeback (See Gilles Pudlowski’s article on the return of Chef Veyrat).

In an article of  Le Figaro about the 2013 Michelin stars of France, the article can be found here, my attention went to a comment from Cath98.  She writes about the elitism of most of those Michelin star Chefs, which is actually not the reason I mention her comment here (people  always think that what others do wrong is  elitism/bad/etc,  then when they  get to replace the wrong ones,  they inevitably end up doing the same thing… but done differently..lol…one elite is always replaced by another..elite,…if you have hard time getting this, think of Fidel Castro –he was reproaching Battista to stick to power..humm….. ). What I found interesting though is her comment about the militant-less attitude of most of those big Chefs.  She is absolutely right: how on earth, do you rise to such heights and have just the average BS speech about terroir/local produce  to content yourself with? I am all for the terroir, have fought for it since my tender age, but we all got this one  by now! In the UK, a chef like  Gordon Ramsay fights for wise fishing (ref: his actions against abusive shark consumption).  So, Michelin star Chefs, especially in France:  ” au violon,  il est temps de jouer  d’autres airs …svp“”!

 

Paris remains one of world’s REAL finest gourmand destinations, indeed – With the incredible exciting gourmand destinations like San Sebastian, Barcelona, San Francisco,  Madrid, Rome, Tokyo, London, Hong Kong,  stunning non upscale food that can be found in Ecuador, Taiwan, Malaysia,  I was starting to fear that my dear Paris just could not handle a candle anymore to its world gourmand competitors.  But the 4 recent visits here is re-assuring:  for sure, if you do no search at all and simply push open the door of whatever eatery you find on your way, you will inevitably be disappointed. Do not forget: this is one of the most visited cities of the globe, so fake cooks abound to grab their  share of the cake.  On the other hand, Paris finest eateries  easily justify  the position of Paris as still a REAL world gourmet destination, and I’ll name a few that have absolutely seduced me recently, on my 2,3 recent visits to Paris:  La Table D’Aki (Chef Aki was the fish cook at 3 star Michelin L’Ambroisie for the past 20 years. He now has his own fish-centric bistrot where the technique remains 3 stars for anyone seriously familiar with the matter, the setting is of the bistrot type and I find the price reasonable given both the quality of the produce and skills . This, for me, along with Bistrot La Marine in Cagnes sur Mer,  is currently the idea of what I have of a #1  seafood French classic bistrot anywhere around the globe), Officina Schenatti (one of the finest Italian bistrots outside of Italy. No surprise here: Chef Ivan Schenatti has been, for a long time, the mastermind behind Emporio Armani’s haute dining. He now has has his own little bistrot with bona fide skills oozing where it should: in the plates. To continue with  the theme of the great Chefs who are enoughly humble and respect their  customers (they are the few remaining GREAT ones who are found where they are expected: in their kitchen  instead of showing off  huge ego by delegating their incapacity to work seriously to name bearers),  I’ll drop a word on the very popular  L’Ami Jean: there is nothing like this anyhwhere else around the globe. YES, it is full of tourists, barely no locals. But who cares?? It is the food, ….! Rfaol! I love Chef Stéphane Jégo rustic food, because when his rustic rich French basque-inspire food is in its prime (not always, based on my experiences there) , it is divinely delicious. That is all that counts for me. The hordes of tourists have obviously got it. And locals do not flock here because it is a bit too $$$ for most French.  I am no exception: it is $$  for  me too, but I’d rather wait and spare a bit of money, eat a great rustic bistrot  meal here, once in a long while,  rather than attending  several  laughable attempts at what a bistrot might be.   L’Ami Jean has its drawbacks and they need to be repeated to anyone that does not know this: it is cramped, it is noisy, it is not the best place for a romantic meal. But I love it!   Another keepers: Restaurant Kei as well as Le Sergent recruteur .   I should not hijack this article on L’Arpège to those findings, but to be brief, other findings that make of Paris one of world’s very best:  Sola (A 1 star Michelin that would be 2 or 3 anywhere else; needless to add more. But what a gem of world class Japanese/French cooking and there is more to this place), the Pithivier of Eric Briffard at Le Cinq (Le Cinq is a real 3 star Michelin that has officially just 2 stars) , the Lièvre à la royale of Pierre Gagnaire/Senderens  (remember:  the best of French classic food being rich by nature, it shines in its full glory during game season).  Nah, you won’t find anything close to those anywhere else.  Last but not least, one of world’s current most talent Chefs, David Toutain, seem to be interested by a return on the food scene.

ARPEGE, PARIS (1)Back to my homeland (France) re-visiting L’Arpège (4th visit only in 15 years),  as well as another 3 star Michelin place that was reviewed later, le Louis XV.

The importance of the ‘gesture’ (IOTG) in cooking has long been pioneered by Chef Alain Passard (no need to introduce Chef Passard, which second grand passions are music and arts/  just google his name and you’ll have plenty of infos on one of France’s most celebrated Chef, whose restaurant L’Arpège – named after the musical technique called arpeggio — has kept its 3 Michelin stars since 1996). What passes as pure BS for plenty of lesser cooks, oftently because they just can’t bother understanding its deep meaning,  is actually one of the most important concepts in cooking: like it or not, the eye, the touch, the feel, the smell  set apart the better Chefs from the lesser ones. Many will tell you that they know all of that, alas few do really have the right eye/feel/smell and touch (which obviously explains why most restaurants have average cooks) and it’s easy, given that you are interested in such details (which I hope you do if you decided to take a chance on such pricey meals) , to perceive a developed sense of those matters:  the end result will always end up as inspired (or not)  as the care and deep ability of its creator to feel/touch/smell her/his produce. Fan or not of Alain Passard, there’s one thing you can’t reproach him:  he is one of the few who genuinely walked the walk when it comes to the subject of the ‘importance of the gesture’ (The IOTG).

 

 

Chef Passard,  with whom my interractions have always been limited to a simply ‘hello Chef’ when he tours the dining room, is a Chef that I have read a lot about.  But if I was a journalist,  I would have some interesting material to cover with him. His genuine passion for vegetables is not just another refrain recited by yet another Chef.  But it’s his views on the IOTG that has always caught my attention.  Of course,  parts of his views on the IOTG can be better understood by himself only:   as an example, the way he moves his hands, the importance of the notion of distance in his movements, those are elements no one else than  himself can really apply. But the IOTG is behind everything you want to do properly: take a tennis player for example. The way he/she moves his/her legs, the way he/she moves her/his arms, therefore the gesture,  plays a significant role in his/her attitude, therefore his/her  game.  Same logic applies to food: the way you cut your meat, carefully or nervously, the way you pick that carrot, carefully or carelessly, the way you cook your food, patiently or hastily, will of course always affect the end result. There is a reason,  in spite of nowadays need for speed, that I still insist on spending time with long hours of carefully slow cooking.

The IOTG goes beyond the ability of  feeling/smelling and having a great eye (essential for a real Chef) for your produce. You need, of course, to also understand the interaction between nature and the produce, you need to deeply understand how one specific ingredient reacts to an array of cooking techniques and temperatures. You need to understand the steps of the evolution of each single vegetable and fruit. You need to do the samething with meats, poultry, fish, etc. You need, and that is essential, to have memory of the flavors that were created before you. Or else, what are you really carrying on? What are you really improving upon? What can you be proud of if there’s nothing you can  refer to ? All things that everyone seems to take for granted, but how many have REALLY proven to be capable of mastering those. How many  cooks have bothered spending their time understanding and mastering the tastes of yesterday? How many really know, master and can reproduce the various traditional versions of a  Lièvre à la Royale?  How many are actually..real CHEFS, present for real in their kitchen? REAL great Chefs are  rare nowadays and we obviously see why.

The reason of the  previous paragraphs is to explain why I keep going back to L’Arpège. Alain Passard is there in his restaurant, away from the syndrome of the fake cooks parading on TV. And he did and still do something simply amazing (again, my admiration for Chef passard has nothing to do with my appreciation of my meals here. I had great as well as less impressive meals here, as anyone can have great and less impressive ones at their favourite restaurants) : applying himself to transmit the real taste of yesterday to his brigade, then building  — on that memory of taste – the creations of today. And they are doing it in an unusual way, their own way. Passard calling it his ‘cuisine légumière’ (they focus more on their work of the veggies than the average restaurants, with the veggies oftently the star, veggies that come directly from his own farms, the poultry or the seafood their equal, in contrast of the big majority of tables where the veggie is usually an afterthought, its presence serving as an accoutrement . Others have called it peasant food (for its mostly bold presentations and pure unfussy flavors) . Call it the way you want, but it is a ‘cuisine  d’auteur’ in which the brigade tries its best to interpret Alain Passard’s soulful vision of classic French cuisine. My admiration for Chef Passard has of course nothing to do with the appreciation of his food (Passard or not, if I value a food item as great or bad, I’ll point it out regardless of who cooked it), it has more to do with the fact that he is among those very few Chefs who are excelling at bridging the past with the present. They have that incredible ability to communicate the ‘uncommunicable”: memory of taste. Last summer, in Milan, I stumble upon another great Chef of this standing: Chef Aimo Moroni. I was impressed to see how Chef Moroni managed to embark his younger Chefs in a genuine mastery of the flavors of ‘yestergenerations’. Which inevitably allows a cuisine that transcends time.  There are less and less of them, those real great Chefs, and they are the last chance for the next generation of cooks to become REAL great Chefs.

THE MEAL

Before the usual vegetable tartlets, the kitchen served a feuilleté of vegetables. A feuilleté with superb airy texture and sublime buttery taste. Carrots,thyme and peppers were the star veggies of that feuilleté.

ARPEGE, PARIS - SUSHI LEGUMIER

Then sushi legumier (sushi of beet ). If you are going to make sushi crumbles  easily like this, better do something else.

ARPEGE, PARIS - OEUF EN COQUE

The serving of amuse bouches continued: Coquetier  liqueur d’érable  (a tiny egg shell filled with a creamy  mix of Xérès vinegar, egg yolk, maple liquor)   sounds way more interesting than what it tasted since  It was dominated  by a  vinegary taste that  overpowered  the best component of  that amuse, the egg yolk. Fresh egg yolk of stunning quality does not need the distraction of superfluous strong vinegar taste. Maple liquor..why not? but the kitchen took no advantage of that component neither, the liquor adding nothing  discernible here. My wife commented that ‘any Oeuf en coque that is this tiny …boots with a visual disadvantage…a sizeable egg opens the appetite ‘. Indeed, it was a tiny egg

ARPEGE, PARIS - VEGETABLE TARTLETS

Seems like the amuse-bouches had no intent to amuse on this lunch: the celebrated vegetable tartlets (filling of mousses of various seasonal vegetables) looking big on photos, but disappointingly minuscule in reality (I appreciate delicate creations…but not to the point of not being able to discern anything) , so tiny (about the size of our Canadian penny, no more than 20mm in diameter) that it was hard to properly enjoy their taste and make an opinion about them.  Even upon deploying tremendous efforts to focus on whatever discernible flavor that was  left, they tasted nothing special as far  as I am concerned. The level of those  amuse-bouches we were sampling on this lunch was weak ( 4/10 for the amuse-bouches)

ARPEGE, PARIS - TOMATES, HUILE DE SUREAU

Then carpaccio of tomato/ huile de sureau.  Finally a dish showcasing  Passard’s cooking philosophy, the one that appealed to me for its  ability to extract the most out of the least. This dish did just that: stellar tomato taste with exciting seasoning (huile de sureau).  9/10

ARPEGE, PARIS - GAZPACHO

Gazpacho de tomate, creme glacée moutarde is an example of creativity (rework of the gazpacho) paired with amazing deliciousness. Not many great kitchens can extract this much excitement from a gazpacho. The mustard ice cream adding incredible depth of flavour, but what amazed me with this dish is that many can copy it, but I doubt that the perfected textures and work of the taste can be reproduced even by the most skilled brigades.  For what it is (a creative gazpacho), this dish is of benchmark material. 10/10

ARPEGE, PARIS - RAVIOLES POTAGERES

Then, their legendary fines ravioles potageres. I read about comparisons with Chinese wonton soups, but  If you cook  both versions (Passard’s recipe is easy to find online) you will quickly realize that they have nothing in common apart the fact that they are boiled pastas. The ultra refined al dente pasta (another thing that you’ll realize when trying to replicate  this recipe is the amount of patience and long practice that is needed, even by professional cooks, to get to this level of precise refinement of both the stock and the texture of the pasta ) is a work of world class precision, and again that is what I call fabulous creativity (not many kitchen brigades would think about proposing ravioles the way they are doing it). The pastas were stuffed with seasonal vegetables, the one with beets tasting really of beets…but the others we were trying could have been whatever vegetable we would want them to be and it would not matter because they had no distinct taste. Furthermore, the taste of the broth (parfum de Melisse, on this instance) was one of such aggressive minerality (like a tisane high on mineral aromas, which means not a pleasant tisane) that I found this dish hard to enjoy. 5/10 (Still, keep in mind that this broth and the content of the ravioles varies a lot depending on the seasons, so there are chances you’ll stumble upon far more enjoyable ones).

ARPEGE, PARIS - AIGUILLETTE DE HOMARD

Aiguillette de homard bleu nuit acidulé au miel nouveau, transparence de navet globe au romarin –  For my taste, most boiled lobsters (this one was boiled), as great as they might be,  can’t hold a candle to the finest grilled ones (for palatable impact) and sweetness (the lobster was slightly honey-flavored) to seafood dish is just another road block on my way to enjoy the marine freshness of the lobster. It was cooked right, as evidenced by the tender flesh of the lobster, but exciting this was not  6/10

ARPEGE, PARIS - SOLE

Sole poached in vin jaune was delicious and its cooking without reproach, the accompanying pieces of octopus not startling, but properly tenderized. 7/10 for the fish (it came with nicely smoked potatoes, chives and cabbage)

ARPEGE, PARIS - CORN RISOTTO

Corn risotto/parsley emulsion is the kind of dish that many ambitious tables will take for granted because it looks simple  and sounds easy to create, but the reality might tell a different story: the stunning corn flavor was enhanced by a balanced and addictive creamy-ness that you can’t just provoke by adding cream to corn. I love this kind of dish since it  lures  into believing that you can replicate it. Yes, anyone can re-create this recipe, but few will be able to replicate the exact depth of eventful flavors of this dish.  Inspired!  10/10

ARPEGE, PARIS - Robe des champs Arlequin a l'huile d'argan

Robe des champs Arlequin à l’huile d’argan, merguez légumière, aubergine d’autrefois, courgette ronde de Nice, carotte white satin is a creatively constructed dish of  semolina, vegetables (beets, tomatoes,carrots), vegetable sausage….  but I was disappointed by a dry vegetable sausage that was oddly sweet and salty in a non appetizing way. The bitterness of the rest of that dish was the other major problem. Not a pleasant dish at all, for me and my wife was even more critical of that dish . 0/10

ARPEGE, PARIS - AGNEAU

Things then took the direction of the finer dishes of this meal: my wife’s T-bone d’agneau de Lozère aux feuilles de figuier, aubergine à la flamme (roasted T-bone of lamb — the image on the left or above, depending on your web browser’s display settings) would be a crowd pleaser at a world class steakhouse (fabulous taste) and my piece of pigeon/cardamom was a benchmark beautifully rosy (ideal doneness) bird with exciting taste. 8/10 for the lamb, 10/10 for the pigeon, but scores will never be high enough to convey the real great pleasure that my wife and I were having with both the lamb and pigeon. Exciting. Also, ppl talk a lot about the beautiful  dishes at l’Arpege, and we were eyeing at an example of just that: the way my wife’s dish was constructed was of unusual  supreme visual appeal  (hard to tell  when looking at that pic, but definitely easy on the eyes in reality).

ARPEGE, PARIS - PIGEON

The pigeon came with white beans that had such an amazing  mid eastern flavour profile.

ARPEGE, PARIS - VELOUTÉ

Red pepper velouté was another benchmark offering of its kind, with superb creamy texture, joyous mouthfeel, the feast went on with the exciting combination of an addictive speck cream. A lesson in the art of taking a familiar dish and turn it into something profoundly inspiring. 10/10

ARPEGE, PARIS - CHEESE

To end the meal, a well kept aged Comte from Maitre affineur Bernard Anthony and a superb piece of moelleux du revard.

ARPEGE, PARIS - MILLE FEUILLE

Then their millefeuille (blackberry ,thyme) which is indeed light and an enjoyable alternative to its classic version (7/10), and a rework of the classic ile flottante that showcased a creative mind but which, for me, suffered from strong coffee flavour (6/10). My wife observed that the classic ile flottante fared better. I personally do not mind this creative take, but it was just difficult to cope with the strong coffee taste.

ARPEGE, PARIS - MIGNARDISES

A plate of mignardises comprised of vegetable-flavoured macarons (not as bad as I had anticipated), the nougat truely delicious, the apple tart shaped like a rose having nice buttery pastry with joyous apple flavour (8/10)

Prosthe young and dynamic sommeliere from the Czech republic.  Her wine suggestions by the glass were  so inspired (2)The superlative delicious pigeon/lamb/corn risotto, benchmark creative takes on the gazpacho/red pepper velouté. All items that many will pretend to be able to easily deliver, but few will really reach  out to the depth and deliciousness of those. Usually, when there are lesser impressive items in a meal, my overall impression is affected, but not in this case. Here my overall impression had just the finest dishes in mind (3)the very approachable and genuine Maitre D’ Helene Cousin. 

Consthe Arlequin robe des champs, lobster, ravioles potageres, vegetable tartlets (though, for the sake of accuracy, it is important to remind  that they do offer different versions of those, so you may be luckier than I was). Also, the gentleman who served most of our meal needs to explain the dishes a bit more, exactly like what Maitre D’ Helène Cousin did when she served the red pepper velouté

MEURSAULT LES TESSONS CLOS DE MON PLAISIRThe wine service:  A section that I add to my reviews when I am very  impressed by the wine service at a restaurant. The behaviour of the sommeliere from the Czech republic  was admirable in all possible aspects: being able to listen, share, never contradicting while making her point whenever necessary, etc. But all of that was done way better than  what passes as the norm for great hospitality standards (Helene Cousin also excels at that, but in the different role of the Maitre D’).  Right upon perusing the wine menu I knew I’d pick the  2008 Meursault  ”Tessons, Clos de Mon Plaisir”  from the domaine Roulot. She had other choices in mind for me as she pointed to amazing little gems that were less expensive and indeed of great quality. But I went with what I had in mind for the most part of this meal, and she never interfered. A first great classy act from her part. This Meursault is a type of  Bourgogne blanc wine that I highly  enjoy for its  balanced acidity/minerality, enticing  nose of ripe fruits, great level of  intensity/complexity. It will continue to age well, there’s no doubt about that, but it’s already a top flight flacon). Me chosing that Meursault was also a trap:  was my sommelière going to be passive and not flag wine/dish pairings that made no sense (it is surprising how many sommelier/e/s even at highly regarded restaurants do fall into that trap)? NO she never fell into that trap! She is a very present/focused/competent  sommelière as she  tactfully intervened whenever necessary.  The way she did that and the suggestions she had is about the difference between a great sommelière (which she is) Vs a standard  sommelier-e. For me, a great wine pairing has nothing to do with showing off pricey wines. It should be about  finding, even among the more affordable ones, the wines that turn into true gems because their pairing to a specific dish is flawless.  It’s exactly what she did.  A world class sommeliere.

Service/Ambience:  Professional.  The younger waiters and waitresses looking very serious, though their youth and energy makes the whole effect not heavy (as in way too serious).  Maitre D’ Helene Cousin truely embodying the concept of L’Arpège — which is the theme  of  a ‘maison de cuisine’, a house imagined by   Alain Passard where he receives his guests in a cosy environment (which explains why you do not have the huge space between the tables / grand luxury, etc…of most of the grand restaurants of Paris) — with cordial and yet professional demeanour. I like this approach of being genuine/approachable (The sommelière from the Czech Republic also followed  this approach faithfully) since it reminds us that, after all, the most important is that the customer is there to have fun.  The only suggestion I would have is  that the gentleman who served most of our meal needs to be a tad more chatty in his description of his dishes. All in all, they are French, I am French, so communication was naturally flawless.

Decor:  The interior decor is oftently described as understated.  But this place is all about details, so the idea, as Chef Passard has  widely explained to numerous medias, is to  replicate the ambience of a house. Thus, no grand formal luxury,  but the apparent understated warmth of the art-deco inspired  home that Passard has imagined for his guests: pear tree wood panels (designed by Jean-Christophe Plantrou) sparsely adorned with  few of his paintings,  some glass etching works, some retro style chrome-armed chairs, ebene de macassar material (this material is elementary in classifying L’Arpège interior deco as Art deco). Passard replacing the usual flowers on the tables, by vegetables.

 

 

Overall food rating (by the highest Classic French 3 star Michelin standards): 8/10**  I was immensely impressed with  the best dishes of this meal which were so inspired  and had such high impact (on my palate) that the lesser items were long forgiven (though, not forgotten…which is the sole reason I am not giving a 10/10 to this meal. Trust me, I am tempted to give that 10, Lol.. but have opted to remain rational)! There are always restaurant meals which finest dishes are  impressive, but this one was  something else.  The heights of this meal, for their  benchmark joyous flavors and superb creativity, will rarely be paralleled. As with any restaurant meal that impresses, I do not know if  L’Arpège can do this all the time. All I know is that the best dishes of this meal I just had, are …. true benchmarks, by any top dining standards and will be remembered as long as my memory serves me right. It is rare that an 8/10 meal delivers dishes far superior to a 10/10 meal (for eg, a flawless high level meal but with no particular heights) and this was one of those rare cases. Soul satisfaction    ***Two months after this meal, I raised the score of my lunch at L’Arpège to a 10/10. It might sound  controversial to assign a perfect score to a meal where many items triggered indifference from my part (the amuse bouches, the ravioles potagères, just to name a few), but at the end of the round, and with hindsight, I was left with a much more important reflection:  even among world’s very best, few Chefs have the  exceptional palate found behind the finest dishes of that meal (referring to the incredible heights of deliciousness of the better dishes that they’ve cooked. And where many would reproduce those simple looking food presentations only to end up with  items of ordinary effect (which happens a lot because many kitchen brigades/cooks simply can’t make the difference between EASY vs SIMPLE), L’Arpège offers plenty of inspired touches to admire  for those with an eye for details.  If such heights would have been the norm I’d play it rough (referring to the lesser dishes), but is is not. It is not the norm. It is NOT! What I like the most with L’Arpège is that they have opted to be different (from the conventional fla fla of luxury dining), NOT  for the sake of just being different because it’s trendy, BUT because they truly are.

ARPEGE, PARISConclusion: I prefer a table that does not rests on its laurels like this one, rather than places where everything is uniformly done well but without soul/inspiration.  The better dishes of this meal were true moments of  divine ‘gourmand’ enjoyment. I’ll also  add this: for me, being creative is doing things the way few are thinking about doing them. The way they have thought their ravioles  (that level of finesse in creating those ravioles  and the thought they did put in working its taste – the fact that I did not like it substracts nothing from the true creativity of that dish — ) has nothing to do with what most ambitious kitchen brigades  would think about doing with a bowl/some pasta/some vegetable and water in their hands. The gazpacho, the corn risotto, the red pepper etc..same thing: easy sounding creations  that tons of kitchen brigades can do, BUT rarely with this level of utter refinement, attention to details, and superlative work of the taste.

For something safe all the way, which is not my thang, this meal (I judge meals, not restaurants) was obviously not perfect. But if for you, the higher highs can potentially …potentially, I wrote…rise to benchmark  levels (the case of  this lunch), then this would be a standard bearing one. My wife argued that despite the benchmark lamb/pigeon and the fact that she highly regards this place as one of world’s finest (especially for its refreshing and successful different approach of French/Cosmopolitan cooking), an 8 over 10 will be an accurate score for  the overall food performance of this lunch.  I think that when your higher highs are far better than restaurants of your rank (which was the case on this lunch), then you deserve a 10/10….but way too many items left me wanting for more on this lunch (lobster, ravioles potageres, arlequin Robe des Champs), which in the end leaves me with the 8/10 as a fair overall score (update November 2013: a score that  has NOT stood the test of time – SEE my addendum, written in red, to the overall score section ) . More importantly, L’Arpège  continues to rank among  the stronger  3 star Michelin destinations around the globe, one of my few favourite.

Added in October 2013 – What I think a month later :   I purposely add this section to all my reviews because there’s of course different stages of the appreciation of a meal.  There is the  ‘right-off the bat’ stage  which is obviously the freshest impressions you have, then of course what you think about it later on. Some people think that you should always wait before  unveiling your thoughts about a meal, which to me is akin to  manipulating reality. It’s one thing to think for a while before making an important decision, but if  talking about the appreciation  of your meal does  require some second thoughts, then I am afraid you are just sharing a portion of the reality. What you’ve read before was my fresh impressions. What you’ll read next is where I stand a month  later: that meal at L’Arpège could be perceived as  a crash or a triumph depending on who you are as a diner. A crash if you think of a restaurant as that robot who’s supposed to  read in your mind and  feed you with the exact bites you want, which I think would be a naïve approach to dining. A triumph if you understand that a meal needs to be judged on the back of the heights it can reach, not in terms of this is good, that is less good and that is a bit better. Then, there’s also this important observation to make: there’s a reason some restaurants deserve their  3 star Michelin rank (needless to stress that for me, this is a strong 3 star when it ‘’touches the sky’’’ as it did on that meal). And that reason is the same that makes  a Porsche, a Lamborghini or a Ferrari  all well praised cars: the details!  If for you a Porsche is simply an assemblage or metal, nothing more, then do not bother with it! You are losing your time. Same thing for this meal at L’Arpège: if for you  that Arlequin of legumes is just a take on the couscous, or those ravioles are just interpretations of wonton soups, please do yourself a favor:  stick to the numerous canteens you won’t fail to find on your way.  Leave those to people who can appreciate the details / thoughts that were invested in those dishes. I do not mean to sound  rude by saying so, just pragmatic as you’d want to constructively tell to anyone who can’t properly appreciate a great song in its full nuances to simply stay away from it. Despite how easy as it sounds (upon reading many reports about their cooking), what I was sampling  takes, in facts,  a lot of training, efforts and skills (it’s one thing you not like a dish, it is another thing to trim it down to what it is not) . When this brigade at L’Arpège performs like  it did on this meal (referring to the finest dishes of this meal, obviously), the analogy I’ll consider is one related to sports, the 100 metres race: this brigade powered through the finish line when many of its peers are still at the starting blocks.

Bouillon Bilk
1595 St Laurent Blvd, Montreal, H2X 2S9
Phone:(514) 845-1595

It took me just one visit here, couple of years ago, to be impressed. So much so that it has been in my top 5 favourite dining destinations of Montreal, since then. It is always controversial to consider  a restaurant  as one of your city’s very best upon visiting it just once,  but there was no surprise with my initial    great impression of this restaurant:  at its helm, one of Quebec’s most talented Chefs was in charge. Chef Francois Nadon was one of the most brilliant cooks of the Mercuris entourage, one of QC’s most gifted and legendary family of Chefs. He was cooking on that first visit, and what had to happen happened:  it was a stunning meal by local standards.

On this evening (Tues Sept 3rd 2013, 20:00), I went back to see how his cooking has evolved. He is still the Exec Chef at Bouillon Bilk.

I sat at ‘the comptoir’, their bar if you prefer. The menu is typical Mercuri/Nadon style:  a collection of ingredients (on average, 5 – 6 ingredients are used on each of the dishes, ) at the service of  a  contemporary  refined bistrot  cooking style that can be more accurately described as ‘eclectic’ and ‘cosmopolitan’. Chefs like Mercuri and Nadon do this really well, so I was excited to enjoy once again such  a style that is not that common in Montreal (of course, as a foodie once wrote to me …it is déjà vu abroad. To which,   I have to remind that 99% of what is cooked is déjà vu…no matter the greatness of who’s cooking it. I mean, apart Alinea, the Fat Duck, the Adrias, Redzépi, some few of the Spaniard Chefs and a handful others..a handful … not many are truely standing out  in an exceptional way in relation to what is already established at the finest  evels of world dining. Let alone at the standard of dining found in a city like Montreal (Montreal is not a top dining destination as far as I know…).  But  Bouillon Bilk has always been for me a favourite by comparison to  local Montreal restaurant standards.

On this evening, an amuse bouche of poached shrimp (Nordic shrimps) in a dashi bouillon.  A far cry from the stunning savory umami flavor of the dashi bouillon I had once at restaurant Park. Notice that I keep the comparisons local, here. In a nutshell, a bouillon that was way too subtle (There is not just one way to make a dashi stock, but regardless of the form that it takes, a  dashi stock requires very precise umami kick, or else it’s pointless to make one. There are of course some subtle versions of the dashi stock, but this evening’s version has nothing to do with those)  to be exciting and Nordic shrimps….like it or not, do not come with the bold shrimp flavor that can mark souvenirs.  I am not saying they are bad. I am just saying that they brought nothing to this amuse. And if you are going to make me pay for an amuse ($5) — a first for me and surely something that can be potentially unpopular (the only reason I offer no resistance to things like those is because I always want to give the kitchen some momentum so that they express themselves fully with not one single contradiction…but of course, if you do not seize the momentum I am offering to you, then…well….my patience has its limits  )  ———- , I am still fine with that…but make it amusing, because amused I was not!  5/10

BOUILLON BILK, BEEF TATAKI

 

 

 

 

 

Then beef tataki (again, the beefy kick too subtle despite a decent ginger/soya flavor that served as seasoning), urchin (irrelevant on this dish, to the point that even a great fan of urchin like me did not even notice its presence),   radish, salicornia and fried corn. The fried corn was memorable for its impact in mouth (a great caramel kick to remember for a while), but the overall was underwhelming for me. No particular palatable excitement, but the thought that few Chefs can indeed transform this array of ingredients into something cohesive and memorable. Chefs like Nadon, Mercuri do just that: they are among the few who, in town, can make such collection of ingredients somehow great in all aspects (technical cohesion, palatability, etc). The beef tataki could not testify to that.   5/10

BOUILLON BILK, TOMATOES

 

 

 

 

 

Then tomatoes, zucchini flower, burrata, melon. Zucchini flowers were certainly not bad, their stuffing of burrata logical, but I had far better  textured zucchini flowers at many bistrots here and in France, ones that had perfect light and crunchy shapes I failed to get with the zucchini flowers I was having on this evening. Little detail..perhaps, but details that set ordinary fried zucchini flowers from better ones.  Fried zucchini blossoms are nowadays popular in most home kitchens, so easy and fun to make, so restaurants have just one way out: offering a version that is out of the ordinary. It is doable, many bistrots are doing it.  On top of the ordinary zucchini flowers, I was left with not much to feast on : tomatoes were fine, the fleshy melon interesting, but at the end of the round, it was an ordinary overall dish 5/10

BOUILLON BILK, OCTOPUS

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pieuvres, poulet fumé, pomme de terre, citron, chilli – The pieces of octopus tenderized properly, their taste decent. Octopus, if it’s not going to blow your tastebud with deep marine robust flavor and a kick of great grilling, forget it! It’s not worthy of the efforts of cooking it. I was frustrated for …them: they have tenderized it properly, which in itself is great effort, but marine robust and great grilling flavor were nowhere to be found. Even worst: what was the smoked chicken flesh doing there?  I mean, do this:  take a piece of braised octopus and match it with, say, turkey ham (the smoked chicken tasted exactly like turkey ham)…. 5/10

It is at this moment that I decided to have a look at the kitchen (it’s an open kitchen, so easy to spot from the bar) and realized that Chef Nadon was not present on this evening. My main waiter at the bar, Monsieur Nicolas, realizing that I was not enthused, came to the rescue. He explained that Chef Nadon was absent due to an injury. That is life, I do appreciate Monsieur Nicolas classy move and do understand that all tables have indeed ups and downs. So perhaps just a bad night, but I have principles that I insist on standing by:  if a meal seems underwhelming to me, then it is. No matter the reasons.

BOUILLON BILK, crab tempura fried with coppa

 

 

 

 

 

 

I concluded with a dish that was available on the ‘menu of the evening’: crab tempura fried with coppa, burrata, celeriac, sea lettuce, samphire, sea purslane plant. Definitely better than the previous items, the crab tempura seasoned properly. Still, this was just a standard / normal crab tempura.  Also, cold cuts like coppa, with a tempura, that can be interesting in the hands of geniuses like Nadon or Mercuri.  Few cooks can really make this kind of pairing working. Few. On this evening, It was frankly as coherent as fire and water…. Should I say more??     6/10

Pros:  (1)The admirable service (Monsieur Nicolas showing   outstanding hospitality standards. Same could be said of the tall lady who was welcoming the diners at the entrance, on this evening). (2) The fun wine pairing, except that I found the Bio wine from Alsace to be interesting on its own — I am educating my palate to appreciate this kind of wine — though not suitable for any sort of pairing to food, any type of food actually.. .  As usual, a matter of personal taste.

Cons:  (1) Well, obviously the entire text is clear about what went wrong on this evening.  But I’ll add this:  We have plenty of  talented cooks in this city, so it is important that they express their own skills.  Yes, respect Chef Nadon’s guidelines. After all, he is a gifted Chef.  But hey..use  his guidelines, add your own touch  and have fun! Unleash it all!! Lol.   As we say in French: Lachez votre fou, Lol! Après tout, cuisiner est bien plus le fun de meme ;p (2)Being charged $5 for the amuse bouche of poached Nordic shrimp in a dashi bouillon. Why calling it an amuse if you are going to charge it?  Call it an appetizer, then.

Overall score for this meal: 5/10  All in all, my second visit here was disappointing,   performing  far behind the stunning first meal I had here at Bouillon Bilk. With the circumstances that I now know (Chef Nadon was injured, so absent on this evening), it makes sense. I have no doubt that his assistants are talented, and perhaps this is a style that’s too personal to Chef Nadon for them to really exploit Chef  Nadon cooking”s full potential.  In which case, I’d suggest that they adapt this cooking style to their own inspiration when Chef Nadon is not around. I have been cooking for enoughly long to understand that it is never an easy task to fill the shoes of giants like Chefs Michele Mercuri or  Francois Nadon. Better build on what such geniuses teach you and have fun your own way. This is one of the rare  places in Montreal  in which I  have full trust, since the main Chef is talented and the owners and staff are serious/reliable.  All that is left is just that: when the big Chef is not around, the kitchen needs to find a way to be exciting in ………its own way. That’s all.

Kitchen Galerie
Dinner on Saturday Aug 24th 2013, 19:00
Type of Cuisine: North American, Market Cuisine Bistro
Type of place:  feels homey, not fancy
60 Rue Jean-Talon Est, Montreal, QC
(514) 315-8994
URL: http://www.kitchengalerie.com/

In Montreal, there are hundreds  of bistrots. But few do really count among my favourite (the ones  I feel comfortable to  submit in my top tier). There are actually 5 or 6 that I would really consider in my  top tier, no more. Kitchen Galerie on Jean Talon (not to be confused with their sister bistrot, Kitchen Galerie Poisson, that I visited once and did  not like at all) is among those few ones, and in its prime, it has proven to be a benchmark bistrot by  Montreal standards. On lesser impressive meals (all our favourite places have ups and downs), it still remained one of the good  bistrots of Montreal.

When my wife and I do go there, we usually take the cote de boeuf for two, a generous meaty marvel that could easily feed 3 persons. But we are getting old and our body is not able anymore to coop with that beast, lol. Still, easily among the tastiest, if not the tastiest cote de boeuf for two you’ll find in Montreal. Of course, the quality of the meat plays a great role here, but there’s more:  they simply seem to have plenty of fun doing that cote de boeuf and the savourishness, joyous flavors of that dish have been remarkable.

The best meal we had at KG was the very first one. Dish after dish, they kept delivering bistrots fares of uncommon deliciousness. It remains, years later, the meal by which I judge all other bistrots meals in Montreal.

Susbsequent meals were fine, just not as stunning as that first one. One great mistery has been the ‘Foie Gras Poélé, Tarte tatin aux pommes, Sauce Caramel”. The first time I had it at KG on Jean Talon, I would look straight in your eyes and elect that version as one of this globe’s finest bistrot items. I do not take that kind of risk on  superlatives  for the sake of trying to sound sensational,   if I am confident with such bold statement that is because it was simply that stunning.  Even the devil would not have enough arguments to convince me of the opposite. But I have never re-experienced that marvel, its other versions happened to  just be Ok  (the sweetness less sensational, the tarte tartin simply less fruity) . And yet I never lost faith in  KG on Jean Talon as  a top Montrealer bistrot.

This evening, both my wife and I sat at their  counter ,  and decided to give another chance to the ‘Foie Gras Poélé, Tarte tatin aux pommes, Sauce Caramel”.  For some reason, my wife was very happy with the dish –probably because she is more interested by th efoie gras, which was great, rather than the tarte tatin — , while I was torn in between the successful piece of fresh foie gras (8/10 – the sear perfect, the deep livery mouthfeel exciting; if you think that such easy item can’t be faulted, think twice: many, many..even among this globe’s most ambitious dining destinations, seem to not be always capable to pull off such exciting piece of foie gras, perhaps because it’s not the kind of details that the most look for…as some would say: foie gras is foie gras, lol.  Not my case, I want my foie gras to have perfect caramelization, the deep livery flavor exciting) and the tarte tatin (0/10 – what happened to the once startling tarte tartin?? On this evening, it was tiny in  size and incredibly dry ).

Then my wife picked a salmon tartare. Delicious in mouth, with judicious seasoning, the kick of acidity really well balanced. The accompanied salad vibrant in mouth. Easy easy bistrot fare and yet I always wonder how come many bistrots have hard time getting it this right?? Lol. 8/10

For me, a dish of roasted beef filet with roasted  potatoes. Again, spot on seasoning and exciting mouthfeel. All things you would expect from such simple bistrot fare, but they  make it happen where many  are debating about it. One thing though: I’d appreciate a bit more potatoes, and I’d add  some carrots or other root vegetables.   8/10

For dessert, I do not expect miracles in bistrots. If bistrots in France are not always able to pull off startling French desserts, I dont see why I should expect the moon from desserts at a North American bistrot. And yet, they are doing things the way I was taught to cook, which naturally means the way I appreciate: a simple crème brulée was not going to be served without Chef Axel verifying how it was done by the trainee who made it . I think even the trainee was surprised: when was the last time you saw a Chef bothering about an item as simple as a crème brulée?? When?? For sure, this is not the type  of things that will wow the most, and I do understand that, but for me that is what REAL cooking should always be about: the little details!!  The crème brulée, excellent (the custard well done, its consistency lusciously rendered avoiding the overly rich/thick disgusting heavy creamy feel that some try to sometimes sell as authentic just because they can’t make a proper one).

Less successful was the eclair, which was not  startling, not bad neither. But again, it is a bistrot, not a pastry shop

Pros:  If you are going to throw that kind of simple but well executed delicious food, of course I’ll fall for you.

Cons:  Hey..what is happening to the tarte tatin, Lol?? Folks…I don’t get that one, Rfaol!!!!

My overall score for this meal: 8/10 for this type  (traditional/rustic but somehow with a modern touch ) North American bistrot (by  Montreal standards).  Simple bistrot fare, so it’s easy to overlook the little details that make things great, but that is where KG shines: they somehow manage to make the little things that many fail to notice…GREAT. And that is why KG is still a favourite for me.  As long as they have trainees / new cooks who understand that principle, this will remain one of Montreal finest bistrots. I was also impressed to see those young trainees doing exciting versions of mom-and -pop sauces. Such young souls  …being able to replicate the authentic joyous flavors of the past in an improved way —that is to me, an achievement! And there was more on this evening:  they had a take of the duck confit that looked/smelled (I did not taste it, it  was served to the gentleman seating next to me ) like what I wish many  French bistrots in France will start understanding: a great duck confit can keep its traditional spirit and yet be exciting at touch/smell/ looks (I have no doubt the taste followed, given the joyous flavours found on the dishes I have sampled ) …. It does not  need to be dry and tasteless in order to be authentic!!!!!!!!!!!

Conclusion: Eventhough I have not re-experienced the ‘magic’ of that stunning first meal, KG (the one on Jean Talon) continues to deserve its position in the top tier of Montreal bistrots.  Some restaurants master the art of going  from hero to zero simply  because they are managed by people who are not capable of  being reliable. That is not the case of KG and it is easy to see why:  Chefs Axel and Mathieu Bourdages are working hard in their kitchen, instead of parading on TV, and they are doing it with pride and fun. No shortcuts are taken.  KG has proven one more time that a team that’s talented and having fun together will always prevail against the drawbacks of success (lack of consistency, etc ). They are consistent, their deserved  success never got to their head, and their food tastes good. The D in Delicious!

Pasta Casareccia
Type of cuisine: Traditional Italian fares (actually, mostly Pan-Italian with inspirations from  the Marche region)
5849 Sherbrooke St W, Montreal
Phone:(514) 483-1588
URL: http://www.pastacasa.ca

It’s one of the cuisines which intricacies and variants I know the most, along with Indian, Haitian, French, Moroccan, Thai, Greek, Chinese and couple of African fares. For sure, you can’t replicate Italian cooking done in Italy outside of Gaius Julius Caesar  lands, but a great table should get  closer enough and that is what PC is known for: everything is homemade, the pasta as fresh and it should from a respectable Italian eatery, and the ingredient of good level by Montreal dining standards. It is a family-run establishment that has been around for over 2 decades, passing on authentic recipes from the Marche region (as well as other Pan Italian dishes)   from generations to generations, though, as you will see below,  I wish there was  more of the marchigiano staple dishes on offer (especially since some of them are quite distinct) .

The house is both a store and a sort of bistrot. The bistrot main dining area is narrow, its floor partly checkered, one side occupied by a long retro looking red booth.  They also have two terraces, one almost 3 times the size of the other.  This is a rather casual place with paper table mats and paper napkins.  My waiter of the evening being a young Quebecois gentleman balancing  great sense of humor with   professionalism. A great waiter, —who despite the very informal and humble condition  of the premises  — offered a level of service that is usually expected  at more  upscale destinations (present when it should,  attentive, his wine service simply without reproach on this instance).

Our meal  started  with a little amuse-bouche, which in this case was a Bruschetta, done as it should but limited by the quality of tomatoes we get here (simply no match to what one can find on the Mediterranean coast).

Since this was my first time at this location, I tried many things, starting with  meatballs cooked in tomato sauce (moist, meaty and done exactly as you’ll find it in most parts of Italy  — My wife who’s Italian also thought that this matched the meatballs that her nonno was cooking in her tender childhood),

followed by:

Olive Ascolane meat filled olives  –    Ascolane olives come from the Marche region, and I doubt you’ll find this item  at other Italian restaurants in Montreal, so I had to try them. They are mild in taste, stuffed with meats (ground veal, pork) and serve breaded.  Theirs had really refine coating,  the  looks reminescent of very pretty almonds in shape, only the color was …olive ,  and the filling is ..well, meaty and tasting  of olive too, naturally, but not in a boring way, rather in a curious/interesting manner.  This is the type of recipe that I value the most since  it could pass as insignificant / simple at first glance, but with a sense for details you’ll quickly realize that it is, in facts, quite an elaborate  recipe with varied possibilities of  ingredients which flavors you need to balance carefully (nutmeg, carrot, cheese, etc ) and achieving the texture it commands takes skills/serious practice. I could not find one single fault to that dish, in every respect:  texture, execution and it’s interesting to observe that they have achieved  here what they failed to do with the risotto and stracciatella zuppa, which is controlling successfully the seasoning. Excellent 9/10

Stracciatella zuppa:  A soup made of grated parmesan cheese and beaten eggs.  The overall taste as traditional as it should, with only possible debate being about personal preferences (there are various versions of this zuppa) and one flaw:  it was way too salty. It’s as if whoever made this soup had forgotten that the cheese was already salty.  I like scrambled egg-based soups since it’s easy to make an ordinary one, hard to make an outstanding version and if you have experienced with all sorts of scramble-egg based soups from various cultures, you’ll  know that  outstanding  versions do exist…you just need to  stumble upon  a really good cook to realize how great such ordinary-sounding (ordinary-looking, too,  as you’d expect from a scrambled-egg based soups)  dish can taste like.  Of course, if egg-drops versions of soups are not your thang, that’s another story, but this was one properly executed  version of this classic (I had this soup many times throughout Italy and that one was as close as you’ll get, outside of the boot,  to some of the originals) and it was almost up there with its   finest examples, if only they could have controlled the salt…  Still, profoundly  tasty (I just can’t imagine how stunning it could have been with eggs of exceptional quality)  8/10

Seafood tagliatelle   had my focus switched on the homemade pasta itself, which   was properly cooked to the bite as expected from such authentic Italian establishment, its texture good. The accompanying sauce was made of muscles, clams and white wine. Again, this is among the  good pastas you’ll get in Montreal and what could be improved are things you can’t get here:  obviously, the quality of water can’t be the same here as say, in Italy. Water playing  a fundamental role in the varied taste of pasta from one place to another. Same applies to the quality of eggs.   But what matters and can be controlled is successfully achieved here: the technique is spot on, the ingredients carefully sourced. 8/10

On top of their online menu (which is the only menu that appears on their web site), they have also have  couple of ‘table d’hote’ menus consisting of a starter/main course/dessert and that varies in price (for eg, $24, $28 or $30) depending on the choices you make,  as well as a short daily menu scribbled on a tiny board on which featured, on this evening:  fish, fried aubergines as well as a black truffle/mushroom/sausage risotto ($22). I took the risotto, which was of good portion, had all aspects of an excellent  risotto (great creamy consistency,  arborio rice cooked to the bite and fabulous taste), but again it was heavily salted for my taste  — fortunately, there were couple of cherry tomatoes atop of the rice that helped absorbing the oversalted taste  (a risotto that  I would have easily rated with a 9/10,   but I could not cope with the heavy handling of salt, therefore 8/10 is a more accurate score – the heavy handling of the salt on the risotto and stracciatella zuppa was ununstandable  given how the seasoning was carefully handled with the meat balls/olive Ascolane/seafood tagliatelle,  ).

Available desserts were the same as what you can see on their online menu, and consisted of  the common tiramisu, tartuffo, semifreddo and even a cassata siciliana …. In my view, the dessert menu  would benefit from having something a bit more ‘marchigiano’ like the ‘funghetti di offida” (Anise cookies).  I’ve  heard that their cheesecake is something to try, but  my wife  sticked to the homemade tiramisu (the simple Italian staple semifreddo dessert having good quantity of mascarpone,  the coffee-soaked biscuit done well, the overall comparable to some of the good /not great versions of Tiramisu enjoyed in Italy, though again…you can’t really always compare when ingredients are not from the same region, the clientele not exactly the same, the expectations neither, etc) .  I took the homemade Cannoli, which with its  thin pastry dough and flawless  ricotta filling (they add a bit of rhum to it as well as whipping cream) is certainly not going to shake the standards of the cannoli in Sicily but remains an example of  a very good cannoli by Montreal standards. 8/10 for the sweets.

The wine list is diminutive (5,6 choices of affordable Italian red wines; 2 bottles of white wine) with, outside of the wine,  two  type of Italian beers available and some  few alcoholic beverages (grappa, sambucca). I chose a bottle based on a variety of grape (Verdicchio) which wines are  strongly recommended  to pair  with marchigiano food (pairs actually well with all sort of seafood dishes) : a Velenosi Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi 2012 $30 at this restaurant but you can find it at $14.60 at the SAQ — SAQ code :  11155665  (the only other white wine available was an Italian Pinot Gris), a Denominazione di Origine Controllata  variety of wine that comes from the Marche region. That’s both my wife’s and my  kind of white wine (although, I am more into red wines): Medium  bodied /jolly/fresh  simultaneously fruity and floral long lasting intensity on the palate, and yet delicate. Verdicchio’s based wines are considered by many wine experts as Italy’s finest white wines and I am certainly not going to argue with that, lol.

The price: it’s on their web site (although they also have special menus — see above). Therefore as expensive or affordable as you want it to be.

PROS: Pasta Casareccia is my kind of place. They  take the inspired  route of making their pasta themselves (not that common by Montreal standards.  Few  restaurants serving pastas make their pastas themselves ) and they do it well. As knowledgeable Italian gourmets will tell you in Italy, it is about the pasta, not the sauce and at a place like this,  you really get that point (assuming that you do really mind about such details). Although it remains no benchmark as far as pastas go, it still does some damn great ones by local standards.  It is also a place where another cooking aspect that I find fundamental is noticeable:  there’s a depth, there’s a memory of taste because food needs an identity, food is not about one flavor that  was just developped 5 or 15 years ago, a taste that you just discovered recently, something trendy on the making… Real food, food that has soul (which meaning means nothing to some…) is possible only when generations of cooks properly share their knowledge with  newer  generations. They are mastering the fundamentals, have shared it properly.
CONS: (1) I’d welcome a marchigiano’s version of the  known brodetto (fish stew)  in the ‘zuppa’ section of their online menu. It would certainly impart something more ‘marchigiano’ than  pasta e fagioli or tortellini in brodo. Same for the pastas: why not inserting something more  regional on top of the other well known pan-Italian pastas. For eg, the passatelli (that is also found in Northern Italy, but at least less ‘national’ /common than the usual spaghetti or penne. Though there’s always a possibility that this will pop up on the daily (non online) menu.
(2)For a region also known for its seafood, I was surprised to see virtually no fish-based dishes on their menu. Fortunately, the menu of the day had one dish of fish. (3)The salty dishes on this evening.
Overall food score: This is technically   8/10 (Very good)  cooking skills  by Montreal Italian cooking standards (not to be confused with an overall score that would also imply decor, ambience etc…it’s basically a laidback bistrot attached to a store),  but the instances of  heavy salt handling could foolishly make that score pass as too generous. This is a case where it  goes down to how you’ll relativize a detail like this one:  for you, does an almost perfect  technically achieved risotto stop being great because of its degree of salinity? All I can tell you is that this is my sole visit here (so perhaps it was just an exception, that over-salting problem) and that perhaps some like it saltier than others . It would be a mistake to allow  the beautiful skills showcased in the work of that risotto to be overshadowed by the perceived over-salting dilemma    – That said, this is clearly  among the most authentic Italian restaurants you will find in Montreal.  Consistently great cooking skills (not the kind of place that will strive for perfection only on one  or two good items here and there, rather a kitchen which skills and efforts can be even appreciated in things as simple as a soup!  ),  for sure.  It’s interesting to observe that such a skillful kitchen does not make the news, leaving all the media space  to supposedly superior tables (which, in facts, are not superior…just buzz/trend-friendly).

LEFTAll reviews of my Michelin star meals will be listed  on the left, from the higher to lower rated meals. But this blog, despite its name,  won’t focus anymore solely on my  restaurant reviews. It will, from now on, be the full expression of my own self with posts — in both my mother tongue (French) as well as in English – covering everything from my vision of the world, arts, cooking, literature, travel, etc. A  blog in its conventional definition, which means the expression of whatever I have on my mind and that I deem interesting to share.

Whenever I visit a new restaurant in Montreal, you will find that review linked in the summary of all my Montreal restaurant meals.

CHEF David Toutain is back. Well, soon. Chef Toutain is not only one of world’s most gifted Chefs but what a Chef: forget the easily manipulated puppet-cooks fueled by the promotion of their ego on TV, forget those who went washing dishes at some big restaurants and came back in their cities with the fake  clothes of a wanna be grand Chef…forget those. Think of a Chef, a real one with exceptional REAL talent, real charisma, real deserving praises. A real artist behind  his stoves: Chef David Toutain. Last year, while his talent was all the rage throughout the globe, for his work at Agapé Sustance, Chef Toutain did what the average cooks have hard time doing: instead of cashing in and taking advantage of the momentum (with the usual easy route of big appearances on TV, multiple restaurants), he resigned, and took a year long break to pursue his discoveries of the world.  For now, follow this great interview that Franck Pinay-Rabaroust did with Chef Toutain.

Event: Lunch at restaurant Le Calandre, Sarmeola di Rubano
When: Saturday, June 16th 2012  12:00
Michelin stars: 3
Type of cuisine:  Haute Italian (Mix of Classic & Contemporary)
Addr: Via Liguria, 1  35030 Sarmeola di Rubano, Padova
Phone: 049 635200
Url: http://www.calandre.com/

 

Having great ingredients  is half the battle, but NOT…the battle! That was the sole  problem I was having  while dining there. The savoury dishes were in   1 star Michelin territory. Grazie a dio, the superb risotto, spectacular sweets and overall fabulous dining experience  were of memorable mention.

Overall food performance: 7/10  I am forgiving the ‘just ok’  initial part of this meal, since the ending was so spectacular on this Saturday June 16th 2012 lunch. Based solely on the savouries, I would rate this meal with a 6 over 10 since, although technically flawless, the savouries dishes appeared to me as average compared to what I came to expect at this level of dining. But the dessert part was so spectacular and stood as exceptional even by 3 star Michelin standards, thus the extra point. I think 7 over 10 is fair for this overall food performance .  It is worth reading the section “What I think months later” (at the bottom of current review)
Service: 10/10 A great balance between being professional and yet fun, charming. I find that 3 star Michelin standards of service, tranposed in an Italian context,  adds a zest of appeal that I have hard time putting in words. Might be the magic of the gioia di vivere.
Overall Dining experience: 8/10 They do a lot to make the dining experience optimal: the decor, the choice of dinnerware , the modern ambience, the fun and playful interraction with the staff. It is amazing how they balance so well the formal (3 star Michelin standads of service and what goes along is respected and fully applied) with the casual (how fun..fun..fun..fun were those folks on this lunch! Amazing). For me, not a benchmark on that aspect (I prefer the grand classic dining experiences), but in total fairness, a very good dining experience (hence my 8/10 mark).

INTRO – This concludes an  interesting journey of  several days in  Northern Italy (Lombardy, Veneto,  and Liguria). Tiring to say the least, but this is Italy: a borderless  ‘open-air candy store’ where everything is tempting. It is, as we all know, one of those rare countries where each parcel of  land worths its weight in gold.  This is  not my first time in Italy, and everytime I visit this country, I regret of not having spent more time.

Gastronomy is, to me, as important as culture, history and architectures. Italy obviously offers plenty of those and this trip was the excuse to enjoy some great food as well as visiting as many historical vestiges as I could in such a short period of time. The dining part  (((( I have always paid attention to Michelin starred ventures only in France. Just recently, in Germany. In Italy, I preferred traditional dining destinations of which my long time favourite has been Da Maria ristorante in Zanco  Di Villadeati, Piemonte now in good company with my  ‘coup de coeur’  of this gourmand week in Northern Italy : A cantina de Mananan in Corniglia – Cinque Terre .   This is the first time that I am trying some Michelin star restaurants in Italy))))  of this journey is crazy:  quick lunch at 2 star Michelin Trussardi alla Scala in Milan on Wednesday, a big lunch at 3 star Michelin Dal Pescatore in Canneto sull’Oglio on Thursday, a  dinner on Tuesday at 3 star Michelin La Pergola in Rome, then a 3.5 hrs fast train to Milan, quick lunch at 2 star Michelin Trussardi alla Scala in Milan on Wednesday, a big lunch at 3 star Michelin Dal Pescatore in Canneto sull’Oglio on Thursday, this Saturday’s lunch at Le Calandre as well as a  dinner at the iconic 2 star Michelin Il Luogo di Aimo e Nadia in Milan later on,  in the evening  of that same day.
(for those who may ask: I never review restaurant meals when I am eating with other ppl since I personally find it mannerless to take notes of my meal in such occurence, the only exception is when I dine with my wife since she is supportive of my ideal of  knowledge sharing ) . It is absurd to enjoy as many meals in seven days, alongside so many places to visit, but absolutely understandable given the circumstances. I only regret to have missed a dinner at 3 star Osteria Francescana that some of my foodie friends  have invited me to partake in.  Alas  I was just too exhausted and could not make it to Modena.

I came here  to Le Calandre because I heard  that Chef  Massimiliano Alajmo was mastering, to a level that outstands what is usually found at most tables pertaining to this caliber of dining,  the aspect of food that I favor the most: unveiling what’s left to be discovered from traditional  cuisine. He (Chef Alajmo) is doing it with a fresh new (modern) approach, though: from what I gathered, the cooking techniques are mostly modern, but the intent is to push traditional fares to their contemporary revised versions.   In a world where there is a lot of babbling about classic  cuisine being boring, you would think that  trendy modern cooking would bring the supposedly exciting palatable emotions that comes along,  but years after the rise of  those novel cooking trends, few modernist Chefs are really capable of offering the true excitement that pertains to the splendid impact that classic food can unleash in skilled hands (the Spaniards remain among  the very few  whose depth of modern cooking creativity can  indeed rise at palatable heights of  the fabulous taste of the kind of successful classic cooking that I am praising). So many people are lured by the superficial aspect of food that they can’t even make a difference between an average, above average, superior or excellent straightforward food item such a soup or a tartare. You get the idea:  I pushed opened the door to Chef Alajmo’s dining room  expecting  classic food’s inspired creations to be brought to their  glory.

Chef Alajmo was the youngest Chef to have been awarded three Michelin stars for his creations at his restaurant Le Calandre (he still holds those since 2002).  He started with some studies in restaurant management, which obviously explains his great business sense with several restaurants, a food store,  books, and plenty of other entrepreneurship ideas you will not fail to notice on his web site. Before taking over the kitchen at Le Calandre (a family affair,  his mum was the previous Chef there), he worked for several Italian restaurants (for ie, Ja Navalge in Moena)  as well as a relatively brief presence alongside France’s  star Michelin Chefs Michel Guerard (perhaps the focus on light food that I sensed on most of the dishes during this meal came from here) and Marc Veyrat (It would be interesting that a journalist ask him a bit more about what he thinks of Veyrat and what he learned from that phase – I have always been curious about  Veyrat and regret to have never been able to sample his modernist creations when he was actively behind the stoves. I do not know Veyrat so it was impossible for me to identify any Veyrat’s  influences all along the meal I was sampling at Le Calandre). Despite his young age, Chef Alajmo has been a mentor to many successful Italian Chefs such as Chef Stefano Merlo (Rossini’s in Bangkok) or Relais Galu’s Sergio Preziosa.  In 2012, Chef Alajmo’s Le Calandre restaurant features in Restaurant Magazine top 50 best restaurants of the globe.

The restaurant Le Calandre is situated in Sarmeola di Rubano, at approx 6 kms away from the city of Padova, less than 50 kms away from Venezzia.  The restaurant itself is inside the family’s restaurant/hotel  building  (They have another of their numerous restaurants in that building:  Il Calandrino).  The inside decor is contemporary minimalist- chic with tones of black and grey, no tablecloth on the tables. The room itself has elements of great artistic value such as the tables made of a  century-old   type of ash-oak tree wood as well as dinnerware/Italian hand blown crystal glassware worth of prime attention (they seem to pride themselves for putting lots of  thoughts and care in this aspect of the dining experience;  as an  ie  many restaurants have famous sommeliers who serve great wines and yet you look at the size or shape of some of their  wine glasses and have quibbles to raise. At le Calandre, even such detail is not overlooked as clearly demonstrated by glasses designed for optimal flow of the wine onto your palate) . It would be interesting to incorporate some ideas of a great Venetian achitect like Carlo Scarpa in that contemporary interior.

Wine list: Over a thousand of wines, catering to all budgets, presented on an electronic display device (Ipad). Needless to describe that wine list since you can peruse it  online (I found it very practical to have the wine list on the web). They do also, I am pretty sure, have more gems that do not necessarily feature on that online list. On this lunch, they initially served some glasses of Bruno Paillard Brut Assemblage 1999, then followed by  some  choices of wine by the glass that I appreciated a lot (I chose the default wine pairing to the ingredienti tasting menu). The highlight of this  wine pairing was, for me, the  2007 Domaine Vincent Girardin Meursault Les Narvaux.

NO PHOTO RESTRICTIONAs/per the house, photo taking is forbidden to normal diners. All my life I have always respected people’s right to dine peacefully, virtually never photo shooting other diners or a full room, so in an empty room (which was the case during this meal), I do not see why I should refrain from taking pics of my meal since there’s absolutely no one that I am disturbing. I therefore discretely took those pics whenever the staff would not be in the dining room.

On with the FOOD:

Vegetable salad comprising of marinated beets, boiled carrots,  sunflower cream, celery, tomatoes.  The idea was to present the veggies in various textures (crunchy, dried, boiled, marinated, etc)  and temperatures with layers of different piquant flavors (gingery, and dijon mustard in this case).  Playful and interesting although I wished that some ingredients of this dish would have left a  higher  palatable impact as so oftenly  expressed by ingredients in the Mediterranea (especially the tomatoes and the beets)  7.5/10

Next was  cream of tomato/marinated and sauteed aubergine, fresh basil  (Sorry for having taken the picture after sampling the food). The tomato part was essentially a take  on the idea of a gazpacho. Top quality Sardinian Paue Carasau tomato featured on this dish.  Refreshing with an interesting  use of complimentary ingredients. 7/10

Followed by  Ricciola raw fish carpaccio and a  tartare of seafood and red meat. Lemon cream bringing the needed balance of acidity to the seafood,  caviar adding extra textural dimension and cabbage was served alongside those ingredients. Good, objectively, but “standard” for  this level  7/10

Then linguine (spelt linguine), black truffle, scallops, cuttlefish cream – the overall dish was properly cooked, had good flavors  and was prettily presented on  stone support.
Good, but again nothing out of the ordinary of what is to be expected at  this level of dining  7/10

Most of the dishes served to that point were paired with a fabulous Meursault Les Narvaux 2007 (Domaine Vincent Girardin).

Next was Rose risotto/peach/ginger. Chef Alajmo oftenly came in the dining room, exchanging with his customers,  and he explained to me that this is his reference to Italian renaissance art. A great idea indeed, playful, creative  and this was certainly a good risotto with rice achieved at ideal bite, the cheese counterpoint matching really well  the aromas of the rose, ginger and peach flavors adding to the complexity of the dish in a perfectly well balanced way. Very good. 8/10

Followed by veal cutlet and sweetbreads/curry sauce – The veal  being of prime quality, the curry sauce thickened ideally and tasting good. On the side, a classically made fresh green salad.  But at the end of the day, it is a piece of quality veal that’s  nicely executed (I could have enjoyed that at home or at any level of the dining spectrum), nothing more.  7/10

Then lamb chops served with a  cabbage roll. Nice acidity coming from that roll of cabbage, but another “standard / nothing special”  dish. A roll of cabbage hardly the base for  anything exciting at such level of dining, although indeed  Good 7/10 (this was paired with a glass of Il Poggione San Leopoldo 2004,  an interesting blend of Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon and  Cabernet Franc, barrel-aged for 12 months in French oak, and that  expressed superb structure and long enjoyable fruity finish of dark berries.

Whereas the previous dishes were certainly all well executed,  I found them to be a bit short on sparks. Still, the overall  experience  itself (with the fun and yet professional service,  the charming ambience, the way they go above and beyond to make every little moment as  memorable as it can be) was so fantastic   that nothing was going to alter my high appreciation of their work.  Well, it is as if they did not want me to leave with the impression that the kitchen could not deliver.  The proof:  a big surprise would follow next,  and it would come from the  kitchen ->

They suggested that I move to a different room, where I’d be alone to enjoy the dessert phase of  my tasting menu.  That phase is untitled ‘Game of Chocolate 2012’. In the room, some music is played with the sole intent to connect memories
of the basics of life’s evolution with  different items of an array of mini desserts. Now, while the previous dishes varied in between 7 to 8/10 in my personal assessment, I was now in a completely different arithmetic logic (which in my case is just an extra effort to convey, in the best constructive way possible, the emotions and palatable impact brought to me by a dish). Interestingly, here’s what was written on a little piece of paper that I had to read prior to indulge in what was going to stand as the spectacular finale of this meal: “””In & Out choco game 2012 is something that we have all experienced before from our first heartbeats (IN) to our entrance into the world (OUT). During this passage, there is a moment of darkness that suddenly turns into pure light. IN & OUT is a simple expression of a large message”.  Rfaol, upon reading that note, I said to myself   “That is it, I got it now…Lol..the darkness was the first part of the meal (just kidding. The 1st part of the meal was no darkness at all) and now I was going to partake in the “pure light” phase of the meal. Laughs. Joke aside, this part was simply spectacular with an array of mini desserts that kept the bar of palatable excitement  to memorable heights. I’ll let the numbers convey how of an awe-inspiring level the choco game 2012 phase was: a delicious shot of dark choco was a benchmark of its kind (10/10), vanilla topped with a milky concoction of their own had my tongue leaving my mouth and start dancing in the room, Rfaol – It was that spectacular in mouth! A 10/10 for that vanilla/milk mixture. Then a shot of ginger/peach (10/10), some benchmark choco truffles (10.10), a shot of cold expresso with dulce di lecce underneath (10/10), a cracker with impossibly perfect sweet goat cheese in between (9/10), an impressive citrus flavored lollipop with white choco and pineapple (a Blast! 10/10 ), an exciting shot of their own take on pina colada and it went on and on with creative and exciting mini creations of that sort, but of world class perfection and palatable impact worth of superlatives.

A  fantastic end to a meal that started on less impressive grounds.

PROS: The spectacular ending to this meal (fabulous flavors brought to surprising palatable heights in each bite of that  memorable choco Game 2012 mise en scène) …
CONS: …had that same amazement being expressed towards the first part of this repast, the entire meal would have been an epic culinary achievement.  Regardless, this was still a very enjoyable experience and where many fail to seduce their customers, Le Calandre is succeeding at being a charm.

Ciao!

WHAT I THINK MONTHS LATER:  As a dining experience, what a charm! Lovely place where I certainly had plenty of fun as I had rarely enjoyed anywhere else, all dining levels taken into account (apart, of course, the life memorable simple food enjoyed on the beaches of my beloved Indian ocean ;p).  And the thoughts put in the modern and very zen décor have really seduced me. But  the food on that lunch featured un-remarkable  savouries — which although technically well executed (plating / textures as beautifully mastered  as I’ve  come to expect from any good 1,2 or 3 star Michelin)  and delivered with top quality ingredients — missed the palatable excitement that the sweets finally delivered. It was odd to eat in Italy and not associate one single of those savouries with the theme of “utter deliciousness”.  Showcasing great produce is one thing that I appreciate. Your ability to transform them into mouthfeels of  bliss is the reason I pay to sit at your table.  With that said, restaurants have changing menus and a menu that did not appeal to me at a given time means just that: at X time, it was just not my cup of tea and that perhaps on a  next occasion, another menu will better suit my expectations. As long as Le Calandre never roams away from the essential: at this level, food needs to be outstanding in its aim to  leave an imprint on my palate. Or else, each of the 3 stars will be scrutinized heavily. But I have to say this:  i had fun here, which is already a great achievement.

I can’t manage — because of a lack of time —  the ‘comments’ section in timely manner. So, I’ll publish questions received by emails and that I found interesting to share with you.  Off topic comments will be discarded.

Q&A – Marcus W asks how come such simple array of sweets  triggered that much superlative from my part. Answer: Marcus,  it is in the simple things that my focus triples! LOL. Their Pastry team delivered benchmark versions of what you are calling simple. And indeed, it is so simple that many do not bother perfecting them. They did, and that is why I was impressed.

Ristorante Dal Pescatore
Type of Cuisine: Updated Haute Italian (Classics of  Mantuan cuisine, Lombardy)
Michelin Stars: 3
Event: Lunch on Thursday June 14th, 2012 12:00
Addr: Località Runate – 46013 Canneto sull’Oglio , Mantova
Phone:+39.0376.723001
Email: santini@dalpescatore.com
URL: http://www.dalpescatore.com

Service: 10/10 Mostly young, well behaved Gentlemen with great tact. I am French, so they spoke French to me, and listening to Italians talking in French, with an Italian accent, is always pure joy to me. It has its charm, a charm that lingers on my mind.
Overall food rating: 8.5/10 The Santinis have an amazing sense of taste as largely proven by the fabulous ravioli di faraona,  the stunning  tomato compote,  great risotto, outstanding reduction to the braised  beef shoulder,  benchmark torta di amaretti.  And at a time when everyone thinks that we’ve seen it all with a  polenta, they manage to deliver one against which I will judge all  other polentas. The only reason I give it a 8.5/10, as opposed to a 10, is because the overall impression I have of this meal is  one of an  overall Very good-to-excellent (8.5/10) classic 3 star Michelin meal rather than one of benchmark level (10/10).  Regardless, this is exactly  the  type of classic 3 star Michelin I like most and I would run back to Dal Pescatore way before thinking about going back to Michelin star restaurants that I have rated with a 10/10.  As always, a subjective matter based on personal experiences, etc.
Overall dining experience: 10/10 I have rarely felt so happy in a restaurant, Michelin starred or not. It goes without saying that at this level of dining, every little detail counts and each one  found all along this meal simply scored high on my appreciation scale: the plating, the beautiful and elegant country home decor,  the countryside, the charming and down to earth wait staff met all along this meal , and the qualities I expect from a top dining destination just kept piling up while I was there.

 

To call a restaurant ‘the best in the world’,  you either do it for marketing purpose / generating hype  (for eg, San Pelegrino  World best restaurant’s ranking  ) or you do it based on personal preferences, obviously.  And NO..you do not need to visit every single restaurant in the world to have a good idea of what you could define as YOUR  “best restaurant in the world (only someone who has  no clue of what professional cooking and the high end restaurant level is really about would need to reassure himself that way..a bit as if you would feel the need to visit every single country  of this globe to get to the conclusion that Americans are among the best at playing Basketball.. ).  For me, for my taste, with respect to what I value as real great “artisan Chef’ cooking, coupled with my profound love for Italian cooking and the countryside of  beautiful Italy, Dal Pescatore is  “THE  best restaurant in the world”.

Around two years ago when I decided to review restaurants (NOT really something that I like to do, reasons are explained here, and I do NOT  systematically think about reviews wherever I go, or on whatever I eat,  Lol!), I knew exactly what I wanted in  my reviews: avoiding style at all costs and focusing on what I believe to matter most: assessing the (relative) value of the restaurant food that I am eating.  Ironically, by ‘assessing the value of my restaurant meal”, I went one step further and removed …the price factor…. out of the equation. That is because on top of the already explained reasons that led me to review restaurants, I had one major quibble (with most opinions about restaurant reviews) that jumped to my attention: what if the $$$ was not taken into consideration??  Apparently, from most answers I have gathered throughout the years, most would have found their meals to be excellent had the price been lower! Interesting…So, oftently it is worthy of raves because it was affordable. Let’s take $$$ out of the picture then and focus on what I have in my plate. Make no mistake: I understand  the notion of value for my bucks, but I am interested by one thing ONLY: the deliciousness of the food that I am eating way before its value gets lost in ‘value for money’  interpretation.

Restaurant reviewing is, of course, not limited to one or two aspects of a dining experience. And it does not  have to be something special neither. I personally refuse the idea of  restaurant reviewing on a professional level for a very simple reason: I don’t see why something as personal as this  (talking about the food you eat) would be remunerative , unless you go way beyond the basic restaurant scripts and books of recipes as it is the case for  few  exceptional food journalists  like Quebec’s Marie-Claude Lortie, Perico Légasse in France, John Mariani in the US .  I know,  it (reviewing restaurant as a job) is a pointer, a way to be better informed.  But you have this in tons of  opinions over the web,  and those people are not renumerated. I know some will argue that a professional food critic will provide you with stylish write-ups and professionalism. BUT  that is not what I want in a restaurant review: like it or not, I do not eat ‘style’ nor ‘a sense of professionalism’ nor ‘megalomania expressed through writings”.  I eat food and I just want to know what is offered, how it is made, to what relative level of cooking is the kitchen reaching out to.

There is also the widely preached bogus belief that  anonymous reviews may hide personal agendas.  Even a saint can hide an agenda.  We  all know that.  More importantly, a  normal diner   at a restaurant is anonymous, shall I remind this? And when you dine at a restaurant, guess what…you have opinions on what you have just paid for, with, as it should normally happen… your own hard earned money.  Those opinions can be expressed in many ways: verbally, in writings, etc. So, I do not see any problem with comments from  anonymous or well known sources. They both can either  hide agendas or be honest. No one will ever have any  control over this, anyways. Desperate harmful and insulting views with no constructive and no honest purpose —- which is the only thing that would make sense to fear from an anonymous review–  should obviously NOT be encouraged and this applies to  celeb faces hiding  agendas of restaurant propaganda .  Either way, there should be no  excuse to intimidate freedom of speech.  The debate over anonymous opinions is a debate full of nonsense, a creation of some of the industry’s watchdogs,  a debate pertaining to ancient times when big Daddy, scared of the judgements of others, would command you to show your face before you can  think and judge accordingly.  But humanity has evolved and people  paying for what they consume, with their  own hard earned money, should never accept that the restaurant industry and some of their watchdogs  take control over what we should have as opinions.

Who you are, as a restaurant reporter,  makes absolutely no difference: this type of opinions (about restaurants) are subjective anyways, no matter how credible you might think you are, and consequently, knowing what you like or not, what you are hiding or not,  is of utter irrelevance. We should do this (sharing our opinion) for the simple sake of sharing knowledge but certainly not as an exercise of potential serious  influence on the choices of others. As far as I am concerned, my agenda is clear: it’s written here  and as explained, I wanted to experience for myself the journey of  an independent voice completely detached from the restaurant industry.  I wanted to be able to rave –or not — about what I felt authentically deserving of its raves –or not –, to be able to freely convey what I really had in mind as opposed to be influenced by outside elements.  Naturally, I can afford behaving this way (fully enjoying the role of  a normal diner,  being independent from the industry, mocking at style or etiquette) and abide by my own principles no matter who says what —  only because I have no commercial interest in the restaurant business . I took time to write this because there is nowadays a universal debate around the subject (of anonymous restaurant reviews), a non-debate in my pertinacious view, thus my two little cents on this matter.  This is my opinion, and I’ll proudly and obdurately drink to that, Rfaol!

Before I write about the current reviewed restaurant – Every gourmand’s dream is to find the  best value restaurant at the very top level of world’s fine dining. Once every 5  years or so, I  stumble upon one and lately,  it is in Chicaco, Illinois. It is L2o, a restaurant that I  have discovered back in the days of Chef Laurent Gras. It was back then already deserving its 3 stars. Then Chef Francis Brennan took control of the kitchen, and the solid 3 star Michelin performance kept rising to the top. Now, that Chef Brennan left, it was downgraded to a 1 star Michelin restaurant and I recently had a meal there, under its present 1 star Michelin assignment,  and everyone at my table (they are regulars of world’s haute dining extravaganza) agreed: it is, between you and me, the current best value at the very top Michelin star dining level, and Chef Matthew Kirkley is, for now, the most underrated Chef in the world. You get a top 3 star Michelin dining at an official 1 star Michelin. Other great discovery, lately: La Table d’Aki (after more than 2 decades alongside Bernard Pacaud of 3 star Michelin L’Ambroisie, Chef Akihiro Horikoshi has opened his own little bistrot and is unleashing some of the secrets that made of Chef Pacaud one of the most respected icons of La France gourmande. A great way to sample the sense of classic culinaric savourishness of Chef Pacaud, brought to us by Aki, at very sweet $$$. Check that out: Table D’Aki, 49, rue Vaneau, 7th Arr, Paris.  Phone: 01 45 44 43 48).

And now, our featuring restaurant review (Lunch on Thurs June 14th, 2012 at noon):

Dal Pescatore, its cuisine, its Chefs –  Dal Pescatore is  a restaurant of haute Italian cuisine balanced between innovation and tradition. The latter (balanced between innovation and tradition)  being a description that is dear to them; on their web site they do insist on this, and it is also, based on my meal there, a realistic portray of their cooking style. Innovation here means that it brings an updated approach to a style of Italian Haute dining that remains classic (with a focus on its surrounding regional fares: for ie risottos, nearby Mantuan pasta dishes, other Italian classics especially from their local Lombardy region ), but it is by no means into  futuristic culinary styles. They do also insist on the food being wholesome.  It is among restaurant Magazine top 50 best tables of the world, a member of the prestigious ‘Les Grandes Tables du Monde” as well as earning three Michelin stars since 1996 (only seven Italian restaurants boast three stars). It is considered by Paul Bocuse, the pope of French gastronomy and many top culinary journalists such as Gilles Pudlowski and John Mariani as well as frequent patrons of the haute dining scene as  the very best restaurant in the world. High profile chefs such as Anne-Sophie Pic had their lifetime’s best meal here. The soul of Dal Pescatore, Chef Nadia Santini (one of her sons, Giovanni,  is nowadays an active Chef at this  restaurant  as well as their legendary Mama Bruna / I recommend that you read their story on their web site, it is an interesting read – it’s surely fun to observe how they evolved from a 1920s countryside tavern to the top of world’s Alta cucina, for ie, or how Nadia Santini went from studies in Political Sciences to the position of  one of world’s most respected 3 star Michelin Chefs / It is also amazing to note that Chef Nadia Santini rejects the idea of a brigade in a kitchen; she is one of the very rare top Chefs around the globe who thinks that hierarchy is unnecessary in a kitchen and that everyone should work as equal members of one team)  is frequently mentioned as one of the top 3 best female Chefs in the world alongside  Pic (Maison Pic, France) and Elena Arzak (Arzak, Spain).  Many grand Chefs have also trained and honed their culinary philosophy here: LA’s Sotto Chef Steve Samson , Celebrity Chef Todd English, Malibu’s Granita Restaurant Chef Jennifer Naylor, Chicago’s Spiaggia Chefs Sarah Grueneberg, Tony Mantuano and many more. Other  high profile Chefs like Gordon Ramsay, Giorgio Locatelli and top British Chef Angela Hartnett have expressed great admiration for DP. It is always admirable  to learn that such a Grand Chef like Nadia Santini (who, after numerous years of excelling at such top level,  would be in the excusable position of saying ‘I have nothing to prove anymore’)  is always in her kitchen  in a world where ‘embryo’ cooks with a lot left to be proven are busy parading afar from where they are supposed to be found!

Decor –  A mix of classic and contemporary elegance with emphasis  on ‘ la gioia di vivere ‘ , the joy of life, as easily expressed by the possibility of indulging in one of Italians favourite custom ‘Mangia fuori’  on their  veranda in summer,  evidences of cozyness  (fireplaces, the joyful color scheme of the 3 dining rooms, the wooden floor  that gives the room a warm and intimate feel), the  artworks on the wall. Pastel colored walls (in pure Northern Italian decorating style , the colors pay respect to various elements of the surrounding countryside:  lakes, earth, etc), beautifully laid tables positioned for privacy.  Think of the restaurant as a  sophisticated  country house  with  a peaceful view on a well  kept garden.

Location –  Dal Pescatore is located in the village of Runate, municipality of Canneto sull’Oglio, in the province of Mantova (region of Lombardia),  North of  Parma, East of Milan. Around 65 km from Verona Intl Airport, 115 kms from Milan Linate Airport, 150 kms from Milan Malpensa Airport. I’d suggest you include a dinner here within a tour of Lombardy’s main attractions (historical cities of Mantova, Modena, Cremona, Parma / the urban life of  Milan / scenic places like lakes Maggiore, Como, Garda). Hire a car.

Produce–  I have always admired Chefs who are really close to the land, to the point of growing most of their own food. I have always favored Chefs who are really close to their local produce and artisans. That is perhaps why I always had a soft spot for the  work of Chef Alain Passard at L’Arpège, Chef Patrice Gelbart who used to work at ‘Aux Berges du Cérou’ or Chef Craig Shelton who was at the helm of the  Ryland Inn in Whitehouse, New Jersey. I remember my excitement when, during a dinner at the Ryland Inn (Chef Shelton does not work there since years, now), Chef Shelton kept rushing between his garden and his kitchen making sure that optimal freshness was present on our plates. He had that strict  ‘xxx minutes maximum delay’ ..5 or 7 mins if I remember properly (Chef Shelton was a pioneer of the farm-to-table movement on the East Coast in the US) …in between picking the ingredient, getting it cooked and served. Of course, Chef Shelton is an exceptionally skilled Chef and I would have never mentioned this had his food not been of stellar mention. Years later, here I am in Canneto sull’Oglio and the Santinis have that exact same philosophy at heart: they raise most of their vegetables on the premises.

The food report

I started with a tomato compote of stunning marinda (from Sardinia, Italy)  tomato flavor 10/10.  It’s a great example of why Italian food is so well respected: startling simplicity and beautiful produce. Italians know how to make you rediscover the real flavor of an ingredient. I am not rating this with a 10 just for the produce alone: a  touch of beautifully aged balsamic and inspired hands brought this tomato to palatable triumph.

Followed by Porcini, Fegato di Vitello (Veal liver), romarino (rosemary) – Flawless cooking technique as shown all along this meal. The mushroom packed with deep earthy flavors that complemented so well with the veal liver. No quibble here: cooking achieved beautifully and flavors as good as you can get from a nicely prepared veal liver. 8/10

Then, Tortelli di Zucca (Zucca, Amaretti, Mostarda, e Parmigiano Reggiano) – tortelli with pumpkin, amaretti biscuits,  mostarda (a type of candied fruit and mustard chutney condiment and a speciality of Lombardia) and Parmesan – Star Chef Todd English has always praised Dal Pescatore for for being the place where he learned everything about pasta and  the work of the dough. Pasta making is indeed pushed to high level of conception, here. It is artisanal pasta, hand made on the premises. Pasta can’t be fresher than this: they make it only when you order. One Pasta signature dish of Dal Pescatore is Tortelli di Zucca, and a Mantuan classic:  made of pumpkin (Zucca), nutmeg, a bit of cinnamon, cloves, mostarda (A ‘glacé fruit’  preserved  in a spicy syrup), Italian almond-flavored cookies (Amaretti) and the iconic cheese of this region: their Parmigiano-Reggiano. They are using, in Mantua, an ingredient that adds so much to pasta: pumpkin, as expected,  does indeed add amazing texture and superb flavor.  Its sweet, and yet savory nature teasing the palate. As a quick reference, if you had sampled Chef Todd Stein’s iconic “Caramelli dish” (pasta filled with butternut squash, sage, amaretti crumbs) when he was at the helm of Restaurant Cibo Matto in Chicago – that dish made  it to America’s best pasta dishes of several top food magazines —  then think of Tortelli di Zucca as its elder (not served the same way, and not fully identical, but the basic idea and also ingredients behind both dishes are similar) .  Dal Pescatore’s version was flawless: the mostarda enhancing the pumpkin with lots of panache, the pasta itself is impeccably executed, its texture utterly refined, the taste is of course a bit less rich and rustic compared to the tortelli di zucca I tried at the other places in the region but this is understandable since this is fine dining and not rustic dining. Also, the Santinis focus a lot on good healthy food, therefore food that’s  not overwhelmingly rich nor too rustic. What justifies, in my opinion, a 3 star Michelin meal is its depth of precision in balancing, better than many others, the flavors, textures and  other cooking aspects (timing of the cooking, judicious choice of the ingredient combination, effective usage of heat, etc) that are involved on a dish, all things achieved brilliantly on this dish. PS: Try this recipe at home . Excellent. 9/10

Ravioli di Faraona – Guinea fowl ravioli was of benchmark 3 star Michelin material. The preparation of the pasta, its impeccable texture, the outstanding balance of flavors, the superb mouthfeel are just a fraction of the superlaives I could use to discribe the amazement of this dish. 10/10

Then Branzino con olio extravergine umbro, Prezzemolo, Acciughe e Capperi di Salina – Excellent seabass that retained its well known enjoyable mild flavor, its flesh was firm and immaculately white as any top quality fresh seabass has to, the cooking achieved to ideal moisture retention.  8.5/10

Followed by Risotto con pistilli di zafferano e aceto balsamico tradizionale di Modena (sometimes it is ‘Risotto (Vialone Nano) con pistilli di Zafferano e Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale ) – Saffron risotto with traditional Balsamic vinegar from Modena  – They grow their own saffron on the premises and this is thoughtful: it has nothing to do with the average  saffron I am accustomed to, and that you find in most saffron risotti of the region. This saffron has a superior subtle aromatic freshness that, on its own, transforms their risotto into a unique one.  But the kitchen goes beyond the full satisfaction of their spice, and as stands true to a good Il Bagatto, it brings another secret weapon to the center stage of the show: the ethereal aged authentic Modena balsamic vinegar with its mesmerizing long finish flavor. Vialone Nano, well known for absorbing liquid better than many other rices,  is indeed the appropriate rice that needed to be used for this risotto dish. Of this dish, I’ll remember the great technique, the superb taste that can only come from a top quality stock, the  proper heat regulation and excellent texture.   9/10

Cappello da Prete di Manzo al Barbera e Polenta Gialla di Storo – braised shoulder of beef   slowly cooked in Barbera wine with  polenta  –  Cappello del prete is a cut of beef ideal for braising (although, in my view,  not quite at the level of what a meat like  beef cheeks can deliver when it’s braised to its  prime) . The meat was cooked to tender consistency for long hours in a rich Barbera wine based sauce. This dish, due to its comforting nature could have been  predictably less memorable but it was not: the sauce was reduced as it should, the delicious juice-infused beefy meat  kept   an ideal tender consistency to it, the exemplary polenta (if you see a cook looking down on polenta…it is not a Chef, it is just a lesser cook who badly needs to get a taste of a polenta like this one so that he will forever understand how he was never made aware of the full potential that lies ahead of such a supposedly simple fare). The reduced sauce was remarkable, even for this level of dining. 9/10

Amaretti Torta –  For years, I have made Amaretti torta many times (this  as well as torta sabbiosa, zabaione and chiacchere are among my favourite Italian desserts/cakes), and I just like tasting it whenever it is baked by others, just to see how far they push it,  therefore an appealing pick for me. This one had a good ratio of the basic ingredients necessary to make this cake (choco chips, amaretti cookies, etc). The amaretti base was impeccably made, the cake itself cooled down to room temp, had proper moist consistency and was packed with a depth of enticing chocolate, coffee and almond aromas. Easily, a benchmark amaretti torta  10/10

I was warned by some of my Italian foodie friends that on Italy’s best tables,  I should not expect petits fours of the standard found on France’s best 3 star Michelin tables. They were wrong: the array of fabulous petits fours (various chocolate creations, mini fruit tart, etc)  on display could have been served at a top 3 star Michelin table in France and I would see no difference. They were that great, and I had a huge smile when I sampled the solo  cherry featuring among those petits fours:  I urge anyone to find me a better cherry! 10/10

My short conclusion on this meal at Dal Pescatore –  The strength of this meal I just had at DP lies in (1) how this cuisine  is entirely symbiotic with its environment and  (2) how most of the dishes are perfected:  the pastas I had would set the bar for their artistry in colors, their flawless textures,  their delectable stuffings.  The risotto I have just tasted is also of that level of culinary mastery.  I was quite surprised (in a good way) by this performance, even by the standards expected at this level of dining. Almost everything was copacetic all along this meal.  The minimum at such standards of dining  is food that’s  refined and well done, for sure,  but  it was still remarkable to find items as eventful as some that I have just tasted. Many among world’s most talented Chefs have a spectacular culinaric sense, but few have an exceptional palate. Whoever has cooked the ravioli faraona, the tomato compote, the petits fours  and the amaretti torta can be counted amongst the latter. I don’t know Dal Pescatore enoughly well so I can’t really tell which dish  was cooked by Chef Nadia Santini, her son, or by Mama Bruna, etc —  something I generally like to know since each person has a signature cooking touch and that aspect matters to me —  but  I could observe a common denominator in their cooking as a team: they favor harmonious flavours. I wanted a repast exempt from what I perceive as the UNECESSARY (the pipettes, the foams, the paintings on the plate, and tons of other gimmicks), a meal focusing on the pleasure of eating real food, enjoying the best local produce. You can eat very well at low cost in Italy (If you stumble upon a bad cook in Italy, my guess is that it is not a cook…it is an impersonator who just wants to make a quick buck…because here, it is not the ‘buzz’ that dictates who you are —some cooks in some cities will recognize themselves in the latest statement —  it is oftently real talent! Hard working Real Chefs cooking for real….), but on this occasion, I wanted this simple and delicious cuisine expressed in its most refined version. That is exactly why I went to DP and that is also what I got.

From an aphorism of France’s 20th century best known writer, Curnonsky: “Good cooking is when things taste of what they are.”. Curnonsky would have been very happy with most dishes of this meal: wherever things looked simple, they were elevated with brio, but never through gimmicks and only with inspired emphasis on their very own nature. Simplicity, I’ll always reiterate, is nice only when it is in the hands of a gifted Chef.

In fine, for the food on this meal, I’ll underline the careful balance of flavors on all of the dishes, the importance of never roaming away from the comfort zone of a nice hearty classic dish (their meat, their pasta dishes) while adding the touch of superior inspiration and culinaric effort expected at this echelon .

PS: Wine – One of my favourite all time red wines accompanied this meal. It’s a 2008 Pergole Torte Sangiovese (memorable licorice aromas, perfectly balanced tannins). Talking about their wine list, it not only suits to all budgets and covers a big part of the globe (of course Italy and France, but also Australia, Lebanon, New Zeland, etc), but how thoughtful was that to classify it by type of wines (for ie, Franciorta – Trento classico e altri spumanti, Bianchi Italiani, Rossi Italiani, etc), then by vintage years. Here’s a sommelier who perfectly understands the importance of a logically well conceived wine list. Another great moment: a glass of giulio ferrari 2001, a must when it comes to bubbles.

PROS (of this  meal at Dal Pescatore):  In the days leading to my meal at DP, I have enjoyed Mantuan food at some serious trattorias  of the region.I was also lucky enough to have sampled the food of two  talented nonnas living in the region,too.  So, my experience and expectations of my meal at DP was  different, from, say, the standard food traveller who would have just visited DP with, in mind, some  general knowledge of Italian food (as opposed to accurate information  about Mantuan food and what should be expected from an  interpretation of this specific cuisine). There are things  that I am not fond of, such as the tad-less-runnier  texture of the risotti that Classic Mantuan cuisine tend to favor, but that is just a matter of preference and should not be assessed as inferior to the sort of a bit-more-runnier textured  risotti that can be found, for example, in the region of Veneto. It is just two different ways of taking the risotto.  DP clearly offered a perfected interpretation of Mantuan Classics.  I had a great time, here and this (great food, great wine, top service, nothing overworked but to the contrary brought up in a natural appealing way may it be in the behaviour of the staff, the presentation of the food, etc) is exactly what I do expect from a 3 star Michelin dining venture.
CONS (of this meal at Dal Pescatore): When a heart is happy, there’s nothing to pique at.

WHAT I THINK MONTHS LATER – Your judgement of a meal goes down to who you are.  I am someone who believes that greatness is about doing the most with the least. So simplicity done this well is,  to me, the definition of perfection. It’s a classic place, so if classic is not your thing, you have tons of tables for you: Noma, Thierry Marx, The Fat Duck, Alinea, etc. If you want noise, buzz, hype, trend, there are tons of popular bistrots and restaurants around the world that will fit the bill. On the other hand, if like me, you believe in great classic cooking, then DP is a benchmark table. For me, for my taste, with respect to what  I value as  real great cooking, Dal Pescatore is an example of what I would define as a “best restaurant in the world”. I loved Dal Pescatore.

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