February 2, 2022

It is an incredible privilege to eat at Osteria Francescana - often referred to as the best restaurant in the world. There are 5 tables only, with a single seating each night. We saw only 14 diners in the room, which is elegant but sparse. Having toured Modena that day, it helped us understand why.

Modena grew up as a working class town, sitting on the main east/west Roman artery across the country. There was a public bathhouse to allow travelers to shower and even get a haircut. The main church ("Duomo") is made of bricks, not marble. Canals used to run through it, which made farming a primary profession of the area. The lower class had strong voices and places in the city.

While the city is now the hometown of Ferrari and Maserati, its humble beginnings can't be missed as you stroll through this tiny outlet. It's just an entirely different world from the typical Roman glamour.

This context is important as you sit inside the elegant 3 star Michelin restaurant. The sparse decor pays a wonderful homage to the surrounding town. It fits perfectly, not wanting to stretch too far "beyond" its people.

Bottura's relatively new menu is completely dedicated to Italian chefs that came before him. Taking their signature dishes and completely transforming each, but remaining a proper homage. I have included the menu as the first photo so you can understand the meal. While each dish was introduced by first describing the honored chef and their dish which served as inspiration, I found myself feeling a bit behind the 8 ball.

Research into these original dishes and chefs would have been supremely helpful to fully understand each dish set before you. The short context provided by the waiters seemed insufficient to achieve a full understanding of this meal. This is not a criticism - simply a wish. A fuller write-up of each dish, a description of why it was selected, a photo of the original - all would have brought these plates even more to life for the diner.

That said, the food here is simply impeccable. Nothing is out of place. I have always found great dichotomy between the oversized personality of Chef Bottura and the incredibly clean and refined food he creates. He proudly explained that the menu took 60 chefs, 13000 hours and over 5 months to develop. They spent 4 days doing nothing but reading old recipes. Then, they "forget everything" and started from scratch.

The team developed 110 recipes through this process. From there, they kept narrowing them down, resulting in these 10. The depth of understanding is breathtaking, and elevates the meal to a plane few other restaurants achieve.

As one example, they honored a dish of scallops stuffed with mortadella by creating mortadella pasta and stuffing it with smoked scallops. Two other dishes replaced the pasta with "pastas" made from beet root and another made from pumpkin (butternut squash). Completely honoring - yet completely transformed.

Service was impeccable. Literally perfect. Wines were good, but felt like safe picks. Paired well, but never really challenged or elevated the dishes. 

The meal was also very sweet. Cherries are a local fruit that Modena is very proud of - and they were featured throughout. I don't love super sweet food, so some of this was a challenge for my palette.  Finishing the meal with the eel dish (with sweet cherries) into the risotto (with creme caramel) and on into extremely sweet desserts seemed to overwhelm a bit. 

And I must admit great disappointment at not experiencing his reknown "5 Ages of Parmesan" - something I was really looking forward to.

But you can't complain when treated to such an exclusive and incredibly thoughtful experience. It's an amazing restaurant that few are able to attend. The cooking was sublime, and the experience elevating from the minute the door opens to welcome you until the minute you step back out into the humble streets.

This restaurant feels like a destination. You sense that you are a very special place indeed.

And that is because...you are.

Every dish is dedicated to another Italian chef and THEIR famous dish, but each is turned completely on its head. Take a moment to read through this to understand what you are about to see.
"I wanted to be fried." A play on a prawn dish. Filo dough stuffed with red prawn. The prawn on the plate was paprika. The eye was balsamic.
"The wafer is dressed in gold." Sea bass ceviche inside. See next pic...
Sea bass, caviar, herbed mousse
"Bread soup"...
This soup was crazy delicious. Lots of oniony flavor, some mushroom/umami flavor. Very "meaty" broth.
"The onion fondant". Crispy bread, onion cream, hazelnut cream, black truffle. Bread had a deep flavor - like it was burnt but not burnt. The onion cream was cooked down to be incredibly sweet and perfectly balanced through the bread. Tasted almost like peanut butter.
"Spaghetti salad with caviar", honoring the first Italian chef with 3 MIchelin stars. Rosetta "pasta" created with beet root and sea bass broth, oyster, cuttlefish, wine gel, caviar. The sauces were: herbs, cuttlefish, beet root. Beautiful dish.
"Scallops stuffed with mortadella". Mortadella pasta stuffed with smoked scallops, cauliflower chowder, marinated apple. The stuffing tasted like sausage, it was so textured and (smoke) flavored. Great balance on this dish. Perfect cooking.
"Pumpkin tortello". ("Pumpkin" = butternut squash.) The pasta was actually diced pumpkin marinated and shaped like pasta, cream made with pumpkin seeds, apple chutney, sage butter. The "pasta" ate like a super thin apple. This dish was dominated by the chutney and the accompanying wine (sauvignon), which totally stole the show.
"Parmesan risotto". Parmesan chawanmushi (Japanese rice pudding), veal tongue, morels, black truffle...
Added jus made from morels and porcini mushrooms...
The resulting dish. So incredibly gorgeous and delicious. My favorite flavor profiles, accented and extended with the slightly gamey veal tongue discs. Incredible dish.
Sourdough bread to accompany the next few dishes...
Guineafowl, bread fois gras, accompanied by celeriac cream, herbs, apple chutney. The meat is down the left side and the fois gras is attached down the right side.
Pan jus added. We were encouraged to dip soft part of the bread in the sauce. That was incredible. Really outstanding dish!
"Mallard stuffed with eel". Horseradish, spinach, cherry, eel, crunchy mallard skin. The sauces: modena cherry balsamic vinegar (left) and mallard sauce (right).
Side view so you can see the layers. From the bottom: spinach, cherry, eel, crispy duck skin. Insanely tart cherry in that 2nd layer as well as the sauce.
"Onion pudding". Known for sweet/salty combination. This was a rissotto with creme caramel underneath, chinese tea and onion powder, with ginger, chocolate, mallard (white duck), capers and coffee powder. The sweet caramel overwhelmed. I craved more of the offsetting flavors (powders, ginger, capers). Great pairing of an Italian white with super fruity nose but purely sour flavor.
"Sirloin of San Delmonico". Layer of apples, hibiscus sorbet...
Adding hibiscus syrup...
The apple layer tasted as if it was lightly poached in cherry syrup. This was a VERY sweet dish. The apple on top was candied and super sweet as well.
"Cold carbonara soup". English cream, banana, white chocolate ganache, pecorino romano ice cream. The cone (made from banana) had caviar inside. It was finished with a pepper grinder that delivered dried and smoked banana peel. This was off the charts amazing, from concept to delivery to flavor. What a finale!!
These were so rich. The chocolate inside was infused with liver, making it extremely deep and heavy for such a small bite.
A true honor meeting Chef Bottura.

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