“…in the kitchens of Osteria Francescana we pry, poke and question the authority of our culinary traditions. We take a step back, then come in closer, and make inquiries about texture, flavor, and form. We see ingredients and recipes at a distance and through a magnifying glass, we throw out the recipes and start from scratch. Most importantly of all, we never stop questioning.” – Massimo Bottura, Never Trust a Skinny Italian Chef
Ah, the food!
Our dinner selection “Traditions in Evolution” included ten brilliant courses. Each plate was a work of art, not only to the eyes but also to the palate, because of the blended textures and flavors. Each was anchored in its Italian roots but carried Chef Bottura’s signature, his humor, and his passion to reinvent and refine in order to constantly evolve.
Some of my favorite courses:
Memory of a Mortadella Sandwich evoked Chef Bottura’s memories of the sandwich his mother forced on him every morning on his way to school. Here, the sandwich was deconstructed (a recurring methodology, I discovered) with the mortadella reduced and concentrated into a distinctly fragrant, intensely flavored foam. Bits of pistachios and garlic were refined and placed as crumbles next to the foam. A toasted chunk of lardo-inflected gnocco completed the dish.
Croccantino of Foie Gras was one of Chef Bottura’s original “reinventions.” Picture a small ice cream bar on a flat wooden stick covered with crushed, caramelized and salted almonds and hazelnuts. Then, bite into it – and discover it is not ice cream, but an exquisite foie gras terrine injected with 50-year old aceto balsamico. The rich foie gras, the balsamic acidity, and the caramelized nuts created an ingeniously refined balance of sweet and savory, smooth and crunchy delights.
An Eel Swimming Up the Po River is both a fable and a dish. Eels were a great source of income for the Este dukes who were forced to move from Ferrara to Modena in the 16th century. This dish depicted a curious eel who, looking for her roots, journeyed from the Adriatic Sea up the Po River to Modena. A beautiful piece of Adriatic eel was lacquered with saba (a sweet/sour, sticky black sauce made from grape must) and was framed on each side by a silky polenta cream, full of corn flavor, and a concentrated, pleasantly sour Campanine apple jelly.
Five Ages of Parmigiano Reggiano was a tour-de-force of one of the most famous exports of Emilia-Romagna and, perhaps, the signature dish at Osteria Francescana. To attempt to make a complete dish from one ingredient was audacious and ingenious, but merely a challenge to Chef Bottura. The dish comprised first a demi-souffle of Parmigiano that had been aged 24-months; then a warm, creamy sauce of 30-month old Parmigiano; then a chilled foam of Parmigiano aged 36-months; and then, an accent of a paper-thin 40-month old Parmigiano crisp. Finally, for the finishing touch, an aromatic cloud derived from Parmigiano aged 50-months cheese hovered above the plate. Did I say ingenious?
The Crunchy Part of the Lasagna was another deconstructed dish. It recalled a childhood memory familiar to anyone who has ever snagged the top crunchy (therefore best) edge of baked lasagna before anyone else. A base of mouth-wateringly delicious Bolognese ragu (chopped meat – not ground) was topped with creamy rich béchamel foam (quite thick as foams go) infused with Parmigiano Reggiano. This was all topped with a piece of pasta, fried crisp, in the red, green and white colors of the Italian flag. The waiter suggested that we break off a piece of the pasta, dip it into the heavenly béchamel and ragu and pop it into our mouth. We did!
Beautiful, Psychedelic Spin-Painted Veal, Not Flame Grilled was, in part, inspired by Damien Hirst‘s spin paintings and was the most beautiful dish of the evening. It was also one of Chef Bottura’s tongue-in-cheek (pun intended) contradictions in that it was neither veal nor flame grilled. It was actually a Chianina beef filet that had been marinated in milk (as you would veal), rolled in ash made from pulverized, blackened vegetables and cooked sous vide. The result was completely black outside with a uniformly pink inside, as “melt-in-your-mouth” tender as any milk-fed veal. Because of the smoky charcoal ash, the flame-grilled flavor came through with every bite. Typical side dishes – potato, salad, veggies (including “mugwort” – look that one up) – were transformed into edible colors – or “psychedelic” sauces. Lastly, it was drizzled with his own aceto balsamico. The end result was filet, the likes of which I had never before experienced: the explosive presentation, the tender, delicious meat, and the sauces, all combined to leave me very satisfied and very happy.
Oops! I Dropped the Lemon Tart is famous to anyone who has ever heard of Osteria Francescana. Originally an accidentally broken tart inspired Chef Bottura to channel Ai Weiwei‘s performance piece Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, wherein the artist dropped a 2,000-year-old vase as a challenge to traditional art. The broken lemon tart symbolizes the act of breaking, or questioning, traditional foods in order to reinvent them. The dish was presented on a plate designed to look like it had been cracked and glued back together. The un-reconstructed tart started with a “quenelle” of lemongrass gelato with a splash of limoncello zabaglione and was topped with a gently crushed pastry shell and accompanied (artfully, of course) by bits of bergamot, spicy apple, lemon, hot pepper oil and honeyed capers.
At the end of our meal, Chef Bottura came out of the kitchen to meet and talk with each table. What a pleasure and what a nice man. His parting gift was a small bottle of his own Aceto Balsamico which had been awarded a gold medal from the Museum of Traditional Balsamic Vinegar. I am waiting for just the right occasion to sample this nectar.
Dining at Osteria Francescana was about more than having a fine dinner. It was about the experience, the aromas, the composition on the plate, and the taste and texture of each bite. It was a wonderful way to spend three hours, having our taste buds and our intellect challenged. It was outrageously expensive, but a once-in-a-lifetime experience that is not happening anywhere else – an experience that we will never regret and will always remember with pleasure.
As Marshall, my old friend from South Carolina, used to say “Sell my shoes, I‘ve died and gone to heaven!”