Friday, November 12, 2010

Piazza Duomo (Alba in Piedmont)

October 2010

Piazza Risorgimento 4, 1251 Alba, Cuneo, Piedmont, Italy
Tel: +39 173 442800

Update: Congratulations to Piazza Duomo for achieving its third Michelin star in the recently released 2013 Michelin Guide.

Piazza Duomo is a 2-Michelin star innovative restaurant in the heart of Alba in Piedmont. It is located on the second floor of the row of buildings surrounding the town square above the La Piola trattoria which is a sister restaurant of Piazza Duomo.

The entrance can be hard to find as it's along a discreet side street off the square but once you find the street, you cannot miss the garish red wall against which the restaurant door is set. Press the doorbell and they'll buzz you in.

The restaurant was very well-staffed and it's waiters were young and friendly. The dining room itself was quite small (looked like 8 tables with a maximum of 4 persons per table - although realistically they probably only take around 25 covers a night). The room was very bright (too bright, I thought) with pink walls on which there was some 'interesting' wall art; it was quite bizarre but not in a bad way. For a change, the art on the walls was not done by the chef himself but by a prominent local painter. The tables at the window have a great view of the town square and the Duomo. Unfortunately, we did not get a window table this time.

Over some prosecco, we looked through the menu and opted for the 'innovative' menu as we were quite filled up with traditional Italian food by that point in time. The 'innovative' menu was 11 courses long but the waiter assured us that the food would be light. We were quite skeptical about that, especially since we were served an alarmingly large selection of canapes, which included cod fish sticks, an egg custard (in fact it looked chawanmushi, had similar ingredients but tasted more Italian than it did Japanese), parmesan marshmallow, cheese taco, a cheese puff filled with melted cheese, Parmesan puff coated with chocolate powder and a bag of crisps (in a variety of vegetable flavours including spinach and saffron). Going through all these kept us busy for a while. Fortunately, they were all very well made (I particularly liked the parmesan marshmallow and parmesan puff with chocolate powder - they reminded me of Osteria Francesana which was very innovative with the parmesan cheese, see earlier review: Osteria Francescana).

We then ordered a 1999 Paolo Scarvino Barolo Bric del Fiasc, which was a superb wine. The wine list was not great (for a 2-star restaurant), as it had mostly young vintages and not a great selection, compared with some of its peers in the region. We figured that this was due to the fact that the restaurant was relatively young and hence have not had the benefit of cellaring wines for a long time (given wine prices nowadays, it's very expensive to buy an entire collection of wine, especially ones which have the older vintages).

The dinner that was to come was indeed innovative. The chef (relatively young at 39), had spent three years working in Japan and his style of cooking really reflected his experience. However, to his credit, he successfully married Japanese ingredients with Italian cooking techniques (which is quite the opposite from many chefs who use local ingredients with Japanese cooking style). The results were quite stunning. We were first served with a beautiful amuse bouche of the sponge of Swiss chard (a kind of spinach). It was very light and airy, like a cross between a sponge and a marshmallow, but it was a visual treat.

The first course of a long and eventful menu was the jerusalem artichoke with extra-virgin olive oil and liquorice oil. The artichoke was juicy and crunchy, and it was a light and elegant start to the dinner. Next up was the fantastic raw scallops with sea urchin sauce. This was one of my favourite dishes, as the uni sauce was made to perfection and the scallops were fresh and sweet. This was the dish which I thought made the point about the chef's ability to use Japanese ingredients and cook them using classical European cooking techniques.

The raw prawn with grape sauce was also very good. An otherwise simple dish, the use of raw leaves and petals gave the dish a taste of sophistication. The use of leaves and flowers as integral ingredients for the chef's cuisine as opposed to simply garnishing was one of the distinguishing hallmarks of this chef. According to the waiter, the chef has a 2 acre garden in Barolo where he grows all his flowers and herbs for the restaurant, including some which he brought back from Japan.

The next course was a very delightful dish of rabbit kidneys with béarnaise sauce. The kidneys were lightly seared and it had a springy texture. We were given forceps to pick the kidneys up, and eaten together with the sauce, which was the perfect complement, this was delicious. We noticed that the chef put in as much attention in the visual impact of his dishes as he did the marriage of flavours. All his dishes were immaculately put together and were in themselves, pieces of art.

This was followed by the salted raw cod with black cauliflower. The vegetable was bitter and salty, but when eaten with the raw cod fish (which was understandably fishy in taste), this dish made sense. We were halfway through dinner, but somehow, we did not feel that full yet, as every dish thus far was lightly prepared and served only to tickle our tastebuds.

During the course of dinner, we alternated between being entertained and being annoyed by a young scandinavian couple at a table next to us who was rather difficult with the staff the whole night. At the start, the young man who claimed to be sommelier back home kept grilling the waiter on how much truffles would be shaved on his food as he was afraid of being overcharged (this even though the menu clearly states that the white truffles would be charged according to weight). He was trying to impress his girlfriend in showing off how much he knew, yet was too stingy to pay for truffles (though he also wanted to have some). Then he proceeded to take more than 30 minutes to order his wine, asking the waiter a dozen questions on it. It was shocking that a professional sommelier demonstrated so little knowledge about wines. I was tempted to go across to ask him which restaurant he worked at, so that I would make a mental note never to go there. Then throughout the night, they kept badgering the waiter and sommelier with all sorts of random questions (like why is the 2004 vintage so good, why is the sauce so salty etc), which the staff very politely tried to answer and accommodate. We were very impressed with the staff, if this was a test for them, they passed with flying colours.

Then came a sequence of meat dishes. First up was the veal with green pepper reduction and spinach. The meat was (I think) lightly baked and was still very raw, but it was delicious and the green pepper sauce was an excellent accompanying sauce.

Then, the pigeon with roasted buckwheat seeds in foie gras sauce and purple cabbage. The pigeon was also cooked to perfection and the whole dish tasted as good as it looked.

We were then served with a palate-cleanser of sorts to split up the meat dishes. It was a homemade udon with cepes mushrooms and raw flower petals. This was a triumph of simplicity. The udon was Japanese but it was tossed lightly in olive oil Italian style. The mushrooms and flowers gave it all the flavour it needed.

Finally, the Oviedo pork chop, which was honey-glazed, heavenly and a fitting end to an excellent meal.

The chef did not rest on his laurels, as the desserts were no less impressive. Once again, the clever use of flower petals made special a fruit minestrone dish and a rather innovative creme caramel dessert was accompanied by hazelnut and pistachio cream.

We ended up the same way we started, with a lot of petit four, and it was done with some panache. We left the restaurant feeling like we had just experienced something special. This is a young chef with some seriously good ideas and his newly minted second Michelin-star was very well deserved. Improve the wine list and make subtle adjustments to the interior of the restaurant and we feel that this restaurant will soon be spoken in the same breath as some of the big names in Italy.

Food: Excellent and innovative, one of the most best and interesting meals we have had in Italy.
Wines: The wine list was average, we expected more from a 2-star restaurant in the heart of wine country
Ambience: We felt that the room was too bright, and that the pink walls made the room feel even brighter. A slightly darker room lighting with focussed lighting for each table would make the ambience much better
Service: We really liked the service here, it was superb and each member of the staff was very friendly and was willing to engage each guest. There was a difficult table that night and we felt that the service staff managed them extremely well.

Al Vecchio Tre Stelle (Barbaresco in Piedmont - Oct 10)

Strada Tre Stelle 21/23, Barbaresco, Piedmont, Italy
Tel: +39 173 638192

Al Vecchio Tre Stelle is a traditional Italian restaurant located along a one-street town called Tre Stelle in Piedmont (at the outskirts of Barbaresco). It recently lost its only Michelin star but we stumbled upon it as the other restaurants we wanted to visit were all closed. It's quite easy to miss this restaurant as it's located along the road in a row of shophouses, though the row of car parking spaces just across the road is a bit of a giveaway that there's something going on there. The parking spaces overlook a gorgeous valley of Barbaresco vineyards.

We were there for lunch (without a reservation) and the restaurant looked quite deserted (we looked through the window but did not see a single restaurant guest), but after waiting a few minutes after ringing the doorbell, a rather formally dressed maitre d' opened the door and warmly welcomed us in. We were ushered through a musty-looking sitting room into a formally-adorned dining room and given a window seat (the curtains were drawn though).

Just at this time, the restaurant received it's second group of guests (a European couple), so we didn't feel that lonely after all. We picked out a bottle of 2004 Prunotto Barbaresco "Bric Turot" from a disappointingly limited wine list, but nonetheless it was a nice wine.

We decided to pick a few dishes from the ala carte menu as we did not intend to have a heavy lunch, and so we opted for a pasta dish each and the main course being the egg with white truffles. We were started off with an amuse bouche of eggplant and tomato tartare, which was an interesting concoction and tasted well balanced.

For the pastas, I had the prawn tortellini with prawn bisque and squid ink sauce, and my wife chose the tajarin with funghi. The tortellini was excellent, as it was light yet tasty and having prawns was a bit of treat after several meals of veal and other red meats in Piedmont. It was also very nicely presented on a black painted plate which matched the squid ink sauce. The tajarin was also excellent, as it was cooked in olive oil aglio olio style (which was a nice change from the usual tajarin cooked in butter).

For the main course, we both had the very simple poached egg with white truffle shavings (they were quite calculating of how much truffle they gave us, which was quite different from the more generous shavings at other restaurants in Piedmont). This is the best way to enjoy white truffles, and suffice to say, it was a great dish.

For desserts, we ordered a panna cotta and a nougat tart. The panna cotta was average but the tart was outstanding. Though the tart looked quite ordinary and sat in a strange orange/brown sauce, it tasted very good. The tart was drowning in very delicious hazelnut and caramel cream which was superb. We ended the surprisingly good lunch with petit four and some espresso.

Food: Food was good, the pasta dishes were very inventive and the nougat tart especially good. However, they were a bit stingy with the truffles
Wines: This restaurant was let down by its rather poor wine list. The selection was limited and prices were a bit higher than other restaurants in the area
Ambience: The dining room was spacious but the decor was traditional and formal in a stuffy kind of way
Service: The sole waiter was also the sommelier and maitre d' (it was just him), and he was very friendly and attentive

Camera: Nikon D90 Nikkor VR2 18-200mm

Antine (Barbaresco in Piedmont)

October 2010

Via Torina, 34, 12050 Barbaresco, Piedmont, Italy
Tel: +39 173 635294

Update: In the 2013 Michelin Guide, Antine lost its Michelin Star.

Antine is a 1-Michelin star traditional Italian restaurant set in a stone house in the small hamlet of Barbaresco. It is located right next to the very discreet and large black forbidding doors of the Gaja winery, the foremost (reputationally at least) wine producer in Piedmont. The restaurant seating area is actually on the second floor and you'd have to ring the doorbell for someone to come downstairs to open the door for you.

This restaurant is very private and at times (as we tried when we were in Piedmont last year) they don't even pick up the phone to take your reservations. Needless to say, reservations are essential here (if they don't have reservations for any night, they'd not even be open, so walking in without reservations is not advised). In fact, when we rang the doorbell last night at 8pm, the waitress opened the door and peered out curiously at us, until she found our reservation made by our hotel. It was as if she wouldn't let us in if we did not have a reservation, which is not normal restaurant behaviour seeing as they were less than half full that night (the restaurant probably sits about 20 pax a night max).

There were only 2 staff members running the floor that night, which resulted in us (and the other diners) waiting a bit to get their attention, but this was not a bother given the very relaxed atmosphere of the place. The interior decor was very plain; it looked like a breakfast dining room of a B&B or 2 star hotel in Europe. The menu was also quite simple; they had a five course degustation menu at a very reasonable price (relative to any other Michelin star restaurant).

The wine list here though, was exceptional. I would not have imagined being able to find a Gaja barbaresco at the price which I saw in the wine list here. Without question, I had to order it. Initially, I picked the 2004 but after rummaging through their cellar, the waitress regretfully informed me that they had sold out. Instead, I went for the 2005, which was slightly cheaper and not much worse off than my initial choice. It was an inspired decision, as the wine drank as well as its heady reputation suggested.

Amuse bouche was a rather substantial tuna tartare which was very tasty, followed by the first courses. We opted for the ala carte menu as we wanted to have just one white truffles dish (instead of none for a normal degustation menu and all for a truffle menu). 

For the Antipasti, I had the slices of veal tongue with traditional salsa verde of garden herbs, which was very good. The veal was tender and light, while the herb salsa verde was sour and full-flavoured. 

My wife had the Piedmontese veal capaccio with quail eggs which was also pretty good.

For the Prima Piatti, I ordered the Agnolotti "del Plin" stuffed with roast veal and cooked with sage and butter. That's the thing about Piedmont. The Plin is one of their signature dishes and everywhere you go, there it is on the menu. And it looks so appealing with its bright yellow eggy pasta, glistening in a layer of butter or olive oil. When you eat it, the pasta has a rich taste and a firm texture and the veal is a good complement for a meat stuffing. It is such a simple dish: a homemade pasta stuffed with meat cooked with no sauce. However, it tends to fill you up really quickly, and in our experience, would expand in your stomach a few hours after eating it. Despite having it on every day of our trip in Piedmont, we never got sick of this dish. Tonight's Plin was just as good. The sage added a layer of complexity to the Plin which differentiated it from the Plin which we have had elsewhere.

However, it is after this meal that we coined the phrase "death by Plin", as the portion of Plin served to me at this restaurant was the largest I had ever come across (the picture below is of a deep bowl of Plin, what is visible is only the first layer of Plin and there was at least 3 layers of it). It was easily double of what I was used to eating at other restaurants. And having managed to finish it, I would suffer the consequences a few hours later at night. That night, in my sleep, I was plagued by a nightmare reminiscent of the old 'Aliens' movie where I was pregnant with a large giant alien Plin baby and it was growing by the second, trying to break me into two to get out.

My wife ordered the tajarin with sausage ragu with herbs and spinach, which was also very good. The pasta was cut very thin (making it taste like eggy chinese noodles), but despite its large portion, the dish tasted very light (unlike the Plin).

The main course dish we both had was the farm eggs baked in cocotte with black and white truffles. The black truffles were already cooked with the egg, and the white truffles were then shaved very generously at our table. The truffles here were lovely, and the truffle flakes were very white and large, giving out a fantastic aroma.

For dessert, my wife had the sorbet on biscuit, which was refreshing (although we didn't think the combination went quite well, and if you wait a bit and the sorbet starts melting, all you get is a soggy biscuit). I ordered the souffle which was quite ordinary. Petit four was also quite unremarkable.

Final Thoughts: It was a good but not exceptional meal in a homely and comfortable restaurant. The dishes were traditionally prepared and served in hearty portions, and were very reasonably priced. What made the meal totally memorable was the bottle of Gaja Barbaresco, which was stunning and in itself worth the visit (and at a reasonably price). In fact, if I'd want to have a really good bottle of Barbaresco with really good food at the best possible price, I'd struggle to think of somewhere better. Service was friendly albeit a bit slow but it had the feel of a country inn so we'd expected the pace of the food to be rather relaxed.