Fans of Netflix doco The Chef’s Table will remember the intriguing first episode that covered maverick Italian chef Massimo Bottura and his rise to international fame through his modern take on Italian cuisine, against all expectations of the Italian food establishment who were horrified that he was messing with nonna’s recipes.
We managed to book ourselves into a lunch at his flagship restaurant Osteria Francescana in Modena, a small medieval town in Emilia-Romagna in Italy while we were travelling through on our honeymoon. With only 25 seats in the entire restaurant, it wasn’t easy getting a spot (hint: it involved booking 3 months ahead and a waiting list), but by luck there was a cancellation on the day we were going to be in town and we were in.
It was an unforgettable experience – worth all the effort, made even more memorable by us bumping into Massimo’s lovely wife Lara outside while we were waiting and having the opportunity to have a good chat with her about the Sydney food scene (they had just returned from presenting at MAD SYD with Rene Redzepi and David Chang in Sydney).
Even though The Chef’s Table was a shot a few years back now, the restaurant is almost unchanged – down to the quirky artwork (pigeons in the hallway etc.) and we even recognised the restaurant manager and wait staff from the doco. The decor is understatedly chic, with undercurrents of playfulness through the eclectic artwork.
There are a few different menus on offer – a rather pricey a la carte section, their Tradition in Evolution tasting menu with 10 of their signature dishes which were featured on the doco (180 euro pp) and their newer “Sensations” menu (200 euro pp). If you can’t pick between their signatures menu and the Sensations menu, you can do a combo of both which gives you a couple of extra courses too, but it’s slightly pricier at 225 euro pp and you miss out on a couple of the signatures that were in the doco (like the Eel swimming up the Po River). I wanted to try the Eel, as it is such an iconic dish, so we went for the signature Tradition in Evolution menu and didn’t regret it at all because the Eel swimming up the Po River ended up being our favourite savoury dish.
Now onto the food, we kicked off with what looked like a standard chocolate macaron, but as with most of Massimo’s food, there was more to it than met the eye. A rich rabbit cream was sandwiched between the crispy macaron shells for a savoury take on the conventional macaron. It was interesting and primed our tastebuds for more to come. It was served with a thin parmesan crisp on the side which was light as air.
The central theme of “Massimo’s memories” runs throughout the whole signatures menu, starting off with the “Memory of a Mortadella Sandwich”. A pink dollop of mortadella mousse was piped onto the plate, next to a tall slice of crunchy bread and a sprinkle of pistachio and mayo. It looked simple, but the mortadella mousse was so intensely flavoured it instantly transported us to a rustic deli somewhere, biting into a standard mortadella sandwich.
Memory of a Mortadella Sandwich
Next up, we had the cute Croccantino of Foie Gras, a bite sized morsel that looked like a mini Golden Gaytime, but actually featured a cube of rich foie gras, injected with a shot of balsamic vinegar (Modena is famous for its balsamic), all hidden beneath a coating of toasted almonds. The intense flavours from the foie gras were balanced by the tang from the balsamic.
Croccantino of Foie Gras
Then out came “An Eel Swimming up the Po River” – the dish we had been waiting for, which pays homage to the fishermen of the Po who have been fishing eel for centuries. I generally don’t enjoy eel all that much, but this fillet had been cooked sous vide and was incredibly soft and buttery, unlike any eel I’ve ever had before. It was coated in a glistening, tangy balsamic vinegar sauce and paired with a refreshing green apple gel and smear of smooth polenta on each side (symbolising land and vegetation respectively). The tiny mound of powdered seaweed was also a nice touch.
An eel swimming up the Po River
The next dish of Pasta and Beans didn’t look too impressive on first glance, but packed a punch with each spoonful as all the distinctive flavours (and even textures like a parmesan crust) had been compressed into layers in a little double-walled glass cup. The waiter explained to us that it was a metaphor for Massimo’s culinary life, starting from the bottom (when he worked for Alain Ducasse) through the middle which featured typical ingredients from his native Emilia-Romagna region and a rosemary foam at the top representing his more recent collaboration with molecular gastronomy genius Ferran Adria.
Pasta and Beans
Another signature dish that stuck with us from the doco was the Five Ages of Parmigiano Reggiano, which is Massimo’s tribute to the cheese that his region is famed for. Our palates were probably not refined enough to taste all the subtleties between the concentration of flavours for the different ages of the cheese (ranging from 24 months at the bottom to 50 months for the foam at the top), but we could appreciate the variety of textures – the creamy soufflé, delicate crisp and piped Parmigiano cream which was nicely balanced.
Five ages of Parmigiano Reggiano in different textures and temperatures
By this point we were almost overdosing on the cheese, but could fit just a little bit more cheese in the form of The Crunchy Part of the Lasagna, showcasing the best part of the lasagna as the hero rather than the byproduct of the traditional Italian dish. The crunchy part has been reimagined by Massimo as a super fine crisp, delicate and light as air with each bite. There’s plenty of it luckily and also a good portion of conventional lasagna underneath, the hearty flavours showing that they know how to cook nonna style too.
The crunchy part of the lasagna
The artfully plated “veal” medallion was revealed by our waiter to be actually beef, and while it looked authentically grilled thanks to the black charring on the side of the medallion, even that wasn’t all that it seemed. The “charring” comes from a fine herb crust coated on the side of the beef medallion which had been cooked sous vide, making it very juicy and tender and the arty streaks of colour are all different types of vegie juice (beetroot, carrot and capsicums). Initially we thought it was a pretty small serving, but the richness of all the earlier dishes had caught up with us and we were quite full by the end of the dish.
Beautiful, psychedelic spin-painted veal, not flame grilled
Our palates were cleansed by the simplicity of the next dish, which was the Caesar Salad in Emilia, featuring a heart of lettuce with various microherbs and bits of crunchy croutons tucks into the folds of each lettuce leaf. Not the most delicious dish by far, but conceptually interesting, as each bite revealed a different herby flavour.
Caesar Salad in Emilia
The solitary Sweet Potato Ravioli bridged the gap between savoury and sweet, with the traditionally savoury pasta being reinvented with a smooth, sweet potato cream filling. It was just a bite or two, but enough to get us ready for dessert.
Sweet Potato Ravioli from Parma to Mantova
The signature dessert is the memorable “Oops! I dropped the lemon tart”, accidentally created when Massimo’s sous chef fumbled in the kitchen. Keeping in theme with the cheekiness and arty slant of the meal, it was actually quite pretty plated up this way, with the slightly gimmicky touch of being served on a specially “broken” ceramic plate with faux cracks running through it. The flavours of the lemon tart were amazing, each element was done perfectly from the refreshing lemongrass ice cream, to the zesty lemon sauce and the crispy, buttery tart base. The line of tiny accompaniments also elevated the flavours – you can choose from capers, peppers and bits of candied lemon to give each mouthful a different zing.
Oops! I dropped the lemon tart
Dining at the top ranked restaurant on the San Pellegrino World’s Best Restaurants list for 2016 comes with a premium price tag of course, but for 10 courses of brilliantly executed, innovative Italian fare with an extra surreal dimension from watching The Chef’s Table, it was actually very good value compared to Sydney fine dining. We enjoyed every moment – fans that are travelling to this part of the world shouldn’t miss it if you can score a booking.