Osteria Francescana – Modernism in Modena

When I first visited Osteria Francescana in 2003 with my then 12 year old son, Andrew, it was already a well known restaurant, but not nearly as famous as it has subsequently become, having risen to the lofty number of 4 on the San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. Add to that, Massimo Bottura’s selection by his peers as the Chef of the Year for 2011 (awarded just the day before the meal I am about to report on) and it is clear that this is a restaurant that has garnered significant attention over the ensuing years.

At the time Andrew and I ate there together, we enjoyed a dinner consisting of modernist riffs on Italian and Modenese classics. This time, dining solo, I placed myself squarely in Chef Bottura’s more than capable hands, opting for the Sensazioni menu, displaying his most current Modernist creations.

The interior of the restaurant had changed a bit since 2003.

The layout was the same, but the artwork was different with the overall ambiance even more refined than it was then. Chef Bottura is an art lover and it shows with the walls covered by an eclectic but cohesive collection. The overall sense was elegant, but still relaxed and comfortable. The lighting allowed for intimacy, but well-placed spot lighting also allowed the foods visual features to be fully appreciated.

I sat at a spacious corner table with a nice view of the entire room in front of me. The festivities started with an aperitivo of Ca’ del Bosco Cuvée Annamaria Clementi Franciacorta 2002 Spumanti. I was excited to be there, having made last minute plans and a trek by railroad down from Milano at the end of the Identitá Golose.

The Rock from the Sea

The first course of the Modernist menu was called “The Rock from the Sea.” It was an Adria-esque, soft and spongy biscuit that tasted of the sea. Underneath was a coffee-colored thick liquid that had the flavor of crab with perhaps a little honey as it had a touch of sweetness. There was also an undercurrent of bitterness, but not to an unpleasant degree. Of the principle flavor profiles, bitterness is the one that I feel is the most difficult to harness. A little of it adds depth and rounds a dish out, but it doesn’t take much to upset a dish’s balance. Throughout the meal, Bottura was a master of achieving the perfect balance with this flavor component. elBulli’s sesame sponge , which was the technical inspiration for this igneous-like dish, was a study in purity of flavor, while Bottura’s was more of a study of complexity of flavor. Individual flavor elements like that of crab were apparent, but only as a nuance within a deeper whole. As the final photo in the collage above attests, it was delicious!

As befits most great restaurants, the bread service was outstanding. From sliced bread to grissini to flavored rolls, I had to forcibly restrain myself from eating too much of it, especially with the pristine olive oil served as accompaniment. If a restaurant is going to serve bread, it should be good. If a great restaurant is going to serve bread, it should be great bread, or it shouldn’t serve it at all. Osteria Francescana did not fall short.

Mackerel is a fish that I only really came to appreciate over the past year or so, starting with my trip to Scandinavia last August. I had had it and enjoyed it before then, but never to the extent that I have since I had it at Restaurant A.O.C. That dish really showed me the fish’s possibilities. This one, taken from the Mediterranean, was served as a ceviche. Lightly acidic, the fish was the essence of fresh. It was accompanied by some microgreens, sliced radishes and watercress. My recently found appreciation for mackerel was no less strong after this delightful interlude.

Egon Müller Kabinett 2008 Riesling was poured for the next course. This was bright, dry and delicious.

“Mare e Montagne,” a concept I associate more closely with Spain, especially Catalunya, came into play with the next course. a thick fish “soup” with snails and a “shell” of lemon “air” that came with a specially baked roll made from root flours. The roll was to be broken and eaten  “scarpetta -style” by breaking the bread and using it to scoop up the snails and seafood stew “like in a trattoria.” The bread was still hot. The stew was deep and rich with a wonderful flavor of the sea. The lemon air, not particularly sweet, was deeply and profoundly flavored. This was a sophisticated dish with rustic roots and an example of creative cooking at its best. It was imaginative, playful, beautiful and sublimely delicious. It would not be the last example that I would experience with this meal.

Still not quite a classic Italian dish, the next course, a risotto with pomegranate and black truffle, drove decidedly back in that direction. The risotto packed a seafood broth base and offered a temperature contrast between the warm, perfectly cooked risotto underneath and the cold pomegranate on top. Sea urchin added a sweet creaminess that was accented by a hauntingly low bitter note from a cherry wood dashi and a hint of pine along with the opulent earthiness of Umbrian black truffle and the lavish depth of veal jus.  Everything combined to produce an exquisitely balanced and nuanced dish, full of pleasure. The riesling was carried through and paired superbly.

The sommelier was taking me on a journey from north to south. From the German riesling, he shifted gears and moved south to the island of Pantelleria with a unique wine featuring the local Zibibbo grape. At 12.5% alcohol, this dry, organic wine produced by Serraghia in the Pantelleria highlands was somewhat orange colored and cloudy. The fruity nose practically jumped out of the glass. Tasting it evoked citrus and rose notes, but still totally dry. The amphora-aged wine was simply beautiful and would have been appreciated as much drinking it on its own as it was paired with the next course.

One of the things I love about Chef Bottura’s food is his playfulness. Already strongly demonstrated with the “Mare e Montagne” dish above, Bottura’s sense of whimsy was highlighted again with “Not a Grilled Turbot.” It is unusual and daring to describe a dish by what it is not as opposed to what it is, but Bottura was successful in creating a dish that was delicious and the height of fun . The name really was most appropriate for this turbot, which although it had the appearance of grill marks, thanks to some artfully painted squid ink lines, it was not grilled. The moist fish resembled a piece of driftwood set upon a “beach” with “sand” made from desiccated and pulverized white truffle, celeriac, white beets and other ingredients with a surrounding gel made from crones. The turbot itself came from a 16 pound fish from Slovenian waters. The fish was pristine with the sand adding texture and distinct flavor that was the synergistic result of the combination of its ingredients. I could not easily discern the specific components of the sand, but that didn’t matter as the end result made for a marvelous complement for the turbot.

Bottura’s playfulness continued with the hilariously titled, “Chicken, Chicken, Chicken, Where are You?” The dish was inspired several years before by his daughter, who playing with her parents presented a dish composed of plastic vegetables. When asked, what the dish was, she responded, “chicken, chicken, chicken, where are you?” While her dish was strictly vegan, the one at Osteria Francescana was not. With a shredded salad on top arranged in a style that reminded me of Miguel Sanchez Romera at L’Esguard, Bottura provided an answer to his question. The “chicken” was underneath the salad, though in a form that might even give a vegan pause for thought. It consisted of a creamy distillate of roasted chicken bones that provided a wonderful flavor of roasted chicken. Each square was different and thus each bite was different with the “chicken” as the “backbone” of the dish. I ate this eating each individual component separately. I would love to eat it again mixing everything together. This is a style of cooking that may not be as fashionable as it was just a few years ago, but I loved it. It was brilliantly conceived and executed. What gave Modernist cooking a bad name to some was the style done badly or too much of an emphasis on technique alone without sufficient substance behind it. The dish and this dinner may not be one to appeal to those who only want to eat ingredients that are as close to their natural state as possible, but for those who enjoy good wit, novel technique and extreme creativity, it was extraordinary.

The focus of the next dish was on root vegetables, especially red turnips and potatoes. In the center of the bowl was a frozen meringue made with red turnip, which was also used to coat the plate. In addition, there was black truffle at the bottom of the plate and jerusalem artichoke powder incorporated. The broth poured around the edges of the bowl was made with potato skins from the highly prized and deeply flavored Montese potatoes, which come from that village located between Modena and Bologna. There was a pronounced, deep earthiness from the broth that married well with the touch of sweetness in the cold meringue, while diced bits of turnip added a pleasing textural contrast to this winner of a dish.

“The Tongue of the World” is what Chef Bottura called his next creation. He brought out and presented what looked initially like a large rounded piece of charcoal. Cracked down the center, it turned out to be veal tongue cooked within a crust of salt, ash and coffee. He returned to the kitchen to plate the tongue.

The veal tongue returned to me centered on a plate, surrounded by “sauces” representing a number of different culinary cultures. Bottura’s idea was to “close your eyes, touch the sauces and travel all over the world.” The tongue itself, the very definition of soft, was meltingly tender, shredding easily and dissolving on my own tongue.  The sauces included a lentil/curry, teriyaki, passion fruit with basil seeds, a salsa verde with cilantro instead of parsley, a fish-less ceviche and a traditional wild-apple mostarda. While I wasn’t quite transported around the world, it was still a fascinating, fun and satisfying dish.

The tongue was paired with a non-alcoholic quince juice from Germany. The juice had a wonderful nose, with a flavor that was deeply nuanced and not too sweet. It was a wonderful product that made me feel like I was back dining in Scandinavia.

Hare a la Royale is a dish that appears to have been resurrected over the past year or so. With this one last January, Ferran Adria’s take at elBulli and others I have read about, it seems to be very much “in” and why not? It is a delicious classic that I first had at Restaurant Paul Bocuse several years ago. Bottura’s version, the preparation of which he presented at Identita Golose was his own take on this classic. His goal was to capture the moment between life and death when the hunter shoots the hare. The raw hare was marinated. placed in a toasted roll that was flavored with forest scents and was shaped like a fossilized footprint. A sauce, the royale, containing coffee and foie gras, was poured over the hare. The dish was decorated with red and green sauces with the red representing the hare’s blood and the green the forest. It would have been easy to deride this dish if it wasn’t so damned delicious, but since it was, I consider the entire concept to have been nothing short of marvelous, capturing elements primal and elegant.

The beverage pairings throughout were expertly handled by Osteria Francescana’s superb sommelier, Giuseppe Palmieri. Knowledgeable and adept with a variety of spirits and beverages in addition to wine, Palmieri leaves no detail short, having taken great care to serve and describe this wonderfully aromatic Italian gin, which was a perfect pairing both conceptually and gustatorially, completing the hare dish with which it was paired.

The pre-dessert was meant to refresh and it did. Orange water with a foam of extra virgin olive oil with a twist of pepper on top succeeded.

The main dessert continued the wonderful meal, bringing it towards a magnificent closure. A zabaglione with some parmigiano on top and citrus, cherries and other delights within was unusual and delicious even if it wasn’t quite as whimsical as some of the earlier dishes. Nevertheless, it was a fine representation of some of the area’s specific delights and traditions dressed with new apparel.

The end of this wonderful meal hadn’t quite arrived yet. A savory macaron of foie gras, black truffle and nuts was a sophisticated way to ease out of the dinner. This was my kind of macaron with just enough sweetness to place it as a dessert item and no more. each distinct element came through in succession: first the foie gras, then the truffle and finally the nuts.

This incredible repast finished with a plate of mignardises that carried through the quality of the dishes that preceded it. From a tiny eclair to an orange scented cheesecake to a mocha cake to a balsamic bon-bon to a guava jelly to an Asian spiced truffle, each bite pleased.

My meal was over, but the glow it gave me didn’t end with it. I carried it back with me through the moody, misty silent streets of wintry Modena as I slowly meandered back to my hotel listening to my own footfalls and little else. I had time to reflect on what I had just experienced. This was a meal to savor. I was made to feel totally comfortable, which was especially helpful as I was dining solo. The service was superb in every respect. Nor was there was not a false step amongst any of the many bites that I took. Each was delicious, intriguing, creative and fun. Massimo Bottura’s food displays the skill of a fine craftsman, as he deftly balances flavors and textures to create sublime pleasures. His food made an exquisite meal, but it was more than that. It succeeded at what I love most about Modernist cooking, especially of a techno-emotional bent – it aroused emotions, smiles and even laughter and those were from the references that I understood. I’m sure there were even more references that escaped my limited degree of cultural literacy. In lesser hands and with lesser food, these references and stylings may have seemed trite and forced, however, the magic of Bottura was such that they fully succeeded. This was, indeed, art.


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