Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Metropole (Venice)

October 2011

Riva degli Schiavoni, 4149, 30122 Venice, Italy
Tel: +39 41 520 5044

Update: In the 2012 Italy Michelin Guide released after our trip, the Met lost both its Michelin stars on the basis of the departure of Chef Corrado, this would explain our disappointing meal there

For all its beauty and charm, the romanticism of its past glories and the constant crowd of tourists, one thing which Venice is not known for is its fine dining. The main areas are mostly always choking with tourists and one cannot escape the feeling that any good meal in a central location will inevitably attract a 'tourist premium'. Moreover, the local population is not large relative to the volume of the transient population, many of which are only there for the day, hence restaurants will generally find it hard to rely on the steady support of local diners but will have to focus their attention on the visitors instead.

For that reason, it was with some level of skepticism that I made bookings to eat at two of the finer restaurants in Venice, the Metropole (the "Met", a 2 Michelin star restaurant) and Ristorante Quadri, both of which were highly regarded from reviews I had seen on the internet. Coincidentally, the Metropole was located at the hotel of the same name where we were staying in Venice, so this made it all the more convenient and we avoided having to dress up and navigate the dark streets of Venice again (like we did the previous night). The hotel sits along the main stretch of luxury hotels, facing the lagoon, and is 200m from Saint Mark's Square. Being just next to the San Zaccaria ferry terminal, it is extremely convenient to get there by boat (not to mention that the hotel has its own private pier for those who prefer to travel by private water taxi).

In addition to its superb location, Hotel Metropole is a very unique hotel which prides itself on its collection of antiques. The rooms and common areas are decorated densely with all sorts of interesting antique pieces from furniture, luggage, paper fans, stuffed animals, old clocks and sculptures.

The Met restaurant is on the ground floor of the hotel, just across from the reception, and is a rectangular dining space with entrance through the middle. We were given a table on the elevated platform next to the fireplace, which was rather private. The dining room exuded an old world charm with its dark wood antique furniture, glass cabinet of antique cigarette holders, pill boxes and other collectibles, and bronze renaissance sculptures.

The restaurant is helmed by Chef Corrado Fasolato, a fast-rising chef who only 2 years ago achieved his second Michelin star for the Met. He is renowned for his modern fusion cooking, and had cut his teeth under renowned Italian chef Gualtiero Marchesi and the famous Ferran Adria of El Bulli fame. 

We chose the "Since 1992" menu which was a collection of his best dishes since he started cooking in 1992 (the year behind the dish title is the year he created it), as it was the one which would showcase his standout dishes most clearly. Moreover, strangely, his other degustation menu which would include his current creations didn't allow diners to take photographs of the food (and this was clearly stated in the menu). I have a philosophical disagreement with restaurants who don't allow diners to take pictures of the food which they have ordered and will pay for, but that is for another time. Surprisingly, the degustation menu was rather reasonably priced. At EUR110 and an additional EUR45 for the wine pairing (which we went for as well), it would be one of the cheaper meals I would have had in a 2 Michelin star restaurant in Italy, especially since this was Venice (and not the countryside).

Before we ordered our food, we were given a water menu, listing out several different types of mineral water, both natural and fizzy. Apparently the difference was in the acidity/alkalinity and the taste. We couldn't tell the difference so went with the one our waiter recommended.

Amuse bouche was a rather refreshing clear tomato consommé. The waiter left a pot of the consommé on the table in case we wanted more. 

Red mullets with a tomato, mint, lemon-grass and "Spritz" coconut (2002) - This was very good. There was a strong suggestion of Thai flavours (because of the lemongrass, coconut and mint). It was also the first hint of the chef's predilection for meringue as the lemongrass and coconut was in meringue form.

Adriatic scallops injected with their own coral, potato puree, chanterelle mushrooms, peaches, Sevruga caviar and violets crunchy nougat (2007) - The scallops were juicy and cooked well and the purple potato puree was nice but the dish seemed too busy for our liking. The caviar was lost in the sea of conflicting colours and flavours and seemed irrelevant.

Soup with squid dumplings and ginger, with veal sweetbreads and tuna botargo (2009) - This tasted mushy and once again there were too many things going on in the dish such that it was hard to tell what it was all about.

The unique experience of cuttlefish "fettuccine"... but don't expect any pasta... (1996) - This was very interesting and very good. Though it looked like white pasta (looked more like Chinese rice flat noodles to me), it was actually very thin strips of cuttlefish instead. The line of egg yolk sauce and bacon bits evoked memories of carbonara when eaten together with the cuttlefish. This was very innovative and was only one of the few dishes which really came off that night.

Mille-feuille of goose foie gras smoked and grilled with basil, pear and "Corallo" coffee sprinkling (2006) - This was when the dinner started going spectacularly wrong. We were told to eat a bit of each at the same time, but the millefeuille was so hard to cut that the only way was to pop the whole thing in the mouth. Besides, none of the tastes came off and it was a bland and very disappointing dish.

Loin of venison cooked on the ... contrary, wood flavoring in a .... fake grill (2000) - Another unfathomable dish. They cooked the venison in the form of a meatball in a chinese bamboo basket with herbs which cannot be eaten,  and on the plate were crisps, and balsamic meringue and some cream. When eaten together, the balsamic totally overpowered the meat and nothing about any of the tastes together made any sense to us.

Grilled boned pigeon with smoked eel, lychees and chocolate shavings (2009) - This was supposed to be about the pigeon, but once again everything else overpowered the meat. The pigeon itself was cooked well (but was such a small piece) and it was really bizarre finding a piece of unagi in this dish. This dish had no direction and no focus and was poorly executed.

It's a matter of pleasant sensations: rhum and tobacco (1998) - Just when we thought the meal couldn't get any worse, redemption came in the form of the dessert. This was a recreation of the cigar and rum. The cigar was the egg roll filled with cream (and some grey powder on the plate to simulate ash) whereby the cream (which was sweet) had the unique aftertaste of a cigar. This may not be suitable for people who haven't smoked a cigar or detest how it tastes, but is nonetheless a very clever concoction.

Petit four was very strange. None of us had a birthday at that time.

Final Thoughts: This was a meal of extremes. On one hand, there were some original creations which were very good (i.e. the red mullet, the cuttlefish "fettuccine" and the cigar dessert), but the others were plain baffling. Not to say that they were cooked poorly, but that they were not well thought out and had no logic to it, especially in the way the various components of each dish were supposed to complement each other but ended up clashing horribly. The wine pairing was good and we had some (albeit a lot of) very good wines, a beer and a rum. Service was quite snooty as well and we didn't feel particularly well treated. On the flip side, the meal was quite reasonably priced and our earlier fears of an exorbitant bill for a restaurant at this location were unfounded. There are rumors that Chef Corrado is leaving or may have left the Met at the time we were dining there, and we wonder if this had any bearing on the very inconsistent meal we had there.

Despite the hotel interior looking quite creepy (with dark and sometimes musky smelling common areas populated by strange antiques) and tacky with its all-red theme, it was a really comfortable and luxurious hotel with spacious rooms and excellent service by its receptionists and concierges. Add to that its excellent location and uber-chic Oriental bar, this is certainly a destination hotel in its own right.

We'd be happy to stay here again but to eat here again, not so sure.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Ostaria Boccadoro (Venice)

October 2011

Campiello Widmann, Cannaregio 5405a, 30121 Venice, Italy
Tel: +39 41 521 1021

Ostaria Boccadoro is a restaurant in a relatively quiet part of touristy Venice, just east of the Rialto in a square called Campiello Widmann which even the concierge at our hotel didn't recognise. A 15 minute walk from our hotel by San Zaccaria, through the same road which took us to Trattoria da Remigio and past a few small canals through some quiet alleyways (some barely wide enough for one person to walk through), we came to a rather deserted square (perhaps it was empty because it was drizzling slightly) on which the restaurant was located.

We were welcomed very warmly by the chef himself, Chef Luciano Orlandi and his staff (curiously, both his staff were Italian-speaking of Chinese origin) and given a cozy corner table next to the window. The restaurant was nicely adorned with artworks on the wall and interesting glassware (this was Venice after all, famous for its Murano glass).

It had a rather impressive wine list from which we picked up a 2001 Guado al Tasso from Antinori for a very good price. Needless to say, it was an excellent wine. Chef Luciano was hovering around us a lot (there weren't many guests that day) and he was really friendly and chatty.

We asked him for recommendations and decided to choose whatever he felt was fresh for the day. For our  starters, we had three different types of seafood dishes. There was a variety of raw, smoked and cooked seafood such as shrimp, clams, fish, crabmeat and scallops. The seafood was very fresh (as it needed to be if served raw) and prepared very well.

I particularly liked the fish carpaccio doused in olive oil on a bed of greens and sprinkled with pomegranate.

For the entrees, we had the seafood gnocchi and the squid ink tagliatelle. The gnocchi was particularly good and the tagliatelle was also very nicely cooked.

Desserts also did not disappoint. Though the panna cotta was rather ordinary, the chocolate mousse was out of this world.

Final Thoughts: We had a very good lunch here, and the food, wine and service were excellent. It wasn't crowded like most Venetian restaurants typically are with tourists, and compared to the previous night's meal at Trattoria da Remigio, was a much more enjoyable dining experience.

Trattoria da Remigio (Venice)

October 2011

Sestiere Castello, 3416, 30122 Venice, Italy
Tel: +39 41 523 0089

We were looking for a light dinner in Venice after a week of heavy eating elsewhere, and on the recommendation of some food writers, decided to try Da Remigio, which was supposed to be a short walk from our hotel. It didn't get off to a good start. The directions, which I took from google maps, led us to an entirely different part of Venice, resulting in us walking around in the dark alleys for 45 minutes in the drizzle, before we finally found it (it was indeed just behind our hotel). Much of this I attribute to the poor street signage in Venice, which is a common problem when walking around Venice (some say that's part of the charm of Venice).

Da Remigio was a bustling trattoria which had a large number of American diners when we were there. The menu consisted of many typically touristy Italian food such as seafood pasta, spaghetti vongole, lobster pasta (which incidentally is what every touristy restaurant in Venice it seems tries to push, and its always off the menu) etc. We were totally in detox mode so skipped wine this time and went for a shared pasta and main course.

For the pasta, we ordered a mixed seafood aglio olio spaghetti (which was a large portion). It was delicious but there was something really familiar about it. Then it struck us: this tasted exactly like Singaporean Hokkien prawn noodles (except without the egg)!

For the mains, we ordered the recommended mixed fried seafood which was also good but wasn't something we couldn't find in probably every other restaurant in Venice.

Final Thoughts: In short, food was ok and wasn't unduly expensive. But what turned me off was the rather curt and patronising waiter we had. As a result, we didn't bother to stay for dessert.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Osteria Francescana: revisted (Modena in Emilia-Romagna)

October 2011

Via Stella, 22, Modena, Italy
Tel: +39 59 210 118

Update: In the 2012 Italian Michelin Guide released after our trip here, Osteria Francescana was awarded 3 Michelin stars, up from 2 last year

After last year's fantastic meal here (see earlier review: Osteria Francescana), we decided that we had to make a special detour this time round to try this again. We were traveling from Florence and it was a 2.5 hour car ride north-west to Modena (we were supposed to go to Venice after and that's a 3 hour drive north-east). Unlike the last trip (when we were staying in Bologna which was a 2 hour drive away), we decided to stay near to the restaurant so that we didn't have to worry about driving back too far after a long and heavy meal. So we found a delightful B&B just 20 minutes drive from the Modena city centre (see writeup on it below).

Expectations were sky-high this time, as can be expected after last year's visit, and also because in the meantime, the restaurant climbed to a high of fourth place in the San Pelligrino Top 50 Best Restaurants in the World list and won the prestigious Chef's Choice award.

To our surprise, when we got there, we were warmly welcomed at the door by what seemed like the entire service staff and the chef himself, Chef Massimo Bottura. It would not have been totally unexpected for them to be more stuffy and arrogant after the increasing international recognition the chef and his restaurant have been getting in the past year, but to the contrary, it seemed like they were trying even harder as a result. Kudos to them for that.

The restaurant was full that night, though it never felt crowded because the dining room only had 6 tables when it could easy fit 50% more, and 5 of those tables, though capable of fitting 4 persons, only had 2 guests per table. This time, Chef Massimo himself came out to take our food orders. We had the traditional menu the last time, so we went for the 'Sensations' menu which was the chef's newest creations. Chef Massimo appeared particularly motivated this time and was keen for us to try some of his new dishes.

We had some champagne and picked out a 1997 Guada al Tasso from Antinori which was a superlative wine from a spectacular vintage. The sommelier seemed suitable impressed.

Almond granita, capers and cream of coffee - We started with this amuse bouche which was refreshing yet full of complementary flavours.

Razor clams with seaweed shell and clam consommé - This was an excellent dish. Lots of razor clam meat wrapped in crispy Japanese seaweed created to look like a razor clam shell. The consommé was also very rich and delicious.

Cod fish - This was a bit of a let-down. The fish was cooked perfectly but somehow we felt that the clear sauce was too sour and acidic and that overpowered the overall taste of the dish.

Flat pasta with caviar - This was also very good. The pasta tasted very much like Japanese soba but had an al dente bite to it. It was cooked with just some oil and minimal condiments, allowing the flavour of the pasta itself to come out quite strongly. The caviar was a nice touch to add some kick to the dish.

Sea bass with crispy skin and razor clam, rabbit and dried pork floss sauce - This was an innovative dish which was also superb. The 3 sauces worked well together with the perfectly cooked sea bass.

Deconstructed oyster - This was a white foam which tasted exactly like oyster with chopped lamb tartare to give the body (under the foam), and lemon pulp (to simulate the lemon juice usually squeezed on an oyster). Very molecular, very fresh and very good.

Foie gras in Japanese soya sauce - This was an average dish. The foie gras was good enough, but the soya sauce didn't seem like a natural fit with the liver.

Ossobuco deconstructed - It was a thick gooey liquid which tasted exactly like ossobuco, with dried cripsy risotto on it. Another excellent dish.

Lamb with mint - This was more traditionally prepared than many of the earlier dishes. It was a perfectly cooked lamb rib accompanied by mint crackers and mint puree sauce.

Cepes mushrooms with Italian meat marinade - This is another innovative dish whereby the mushrooms sit on a bed of gelatinous substance which tasted exactly like eating a well-marinated meat but without the meat. According to Chef Massimo, it was a new dish which he was still experimenting on.

Sangria deconstructed - This was the pre-dessert. It was a solid substance which melted in our mouths and tasted like sangria. We don't like sangria, so though though it was somewhat refreshing, it wasn't that great.

Broken lemon tart - This was a very interesting dessert. It was supposed to be a lemon tart after the plate has been dropped on the floor. They even used a plate which looked like it was cracked. Though visually provoking, it tasted like a normal (albeit good) lemon tart.

Foie gras macarons and foie gras marshmallow - It was the petit four which stood out at the end of the meal. Rich foie gras flavours infused into the pastries.

It was another great and memorable meal. As the chef kept pushing out dishes after dishes (we noticed that the other tables, though ordering the same menu, had at least 2 dishes less than us - they didn't have the ossobuco and the meat marinade), keeping us there till everyone else had left. Given the level of attention from the chef and his staff this time round and the quality of the wine we had, I enjoyed this meal more so than the last one. As we left, he presented us with a parting gift of an in-house bottled Modena balsamic.

Chef Massimo has achieved the level of cooking whereby he has struck the balance of being innovative (especially when molecular gastronomy is such an international craze now) yet still staying grounded in his roots. Having spoken to him on this visit as well as the last, the impression we get was that it is very important to him to maintain his culinary roots in the traditions of Emilia-Romagna, hence of his many dishes, certain of his dishes still remind us of the food in this region (e.g. the rabbit and pork floss sauce for the sea bass, the ossobuco and the lamb with mint). Molecular gastronomy can sometimes be for the sake of it, resulting in pointless food creations which do nothing more than to illustrate how clever the chef is. But for Chef Massimo, he ensures that his menus have a mix of the new and the old, and doesn't get too carried away with foams, mists and infusions.

Final Thoughts: It is the finest restaurant in Italy which we have dined in, without doubt. Chef Massimo continues to innovate and his desire to discover new ideas makes eating there a unique experience whereby the cooking is a performance art and not simply to put food on the table to feed the diners. The enthusiasm of Chef Massimo filters down to his entire staff and you'd get professional attention with genuine warmth here.

During this trip to Modena for the day (to eat at Osteria Francescana), we found a gem of a place to stay. It is a converted farmhouse 20 minutes drive from the city centre in a small hamlet called Soliera. Le Vigne della Duchessa Country Resort ( is a bed and breakfast located in a newly renovated barn next to an older 3-story house occupied by the property's owners. This property is situated in the middle of a vast farmland, on which are pear plantations and vineyards (owned by the family who runs this resort).

The resort has all the modern amenities like wifi, air conditioning, cable tv etc and the rooms are nicely decorated in the modern style. There's also a large swimming pool outside and interestingly, a golf driving range as well (it seems they take their golf here very seriously). Despite the modernity of this place, the family treated us with the old-style Italian hospitality. 

Room rates were very reasonable and it's a great stopover if eating in Modena (if you don't want to stay in the city centre) or even if driving from Florence or Bologna northwards to Milan or westwards to Piedmont.

Hosteria Giusti (Modena in Emilia-Romagna)

October 2011

Via Farini, no. 75, 4100 Modena, Italy
Tel: +39 59 222 533

Hosteria Giusti is one of those cult restaurants in Italy which everyone talks and raves about and always appears in the list of places to eat in Italy. However, it is only open for lunch (and only has 4 tables) and hence is not always an easy place to get to eat at. Besides, it is located in Modena which is not exactly a tourist destination, so it is safe to conclude that only serious foodies eat at Hosteria Giusti and you are unlikely to find any tourists stumbling upon it during their tour. Up till recently, it had 1 star from Michelin which was deeply puzzling given that it was unashamedly a trattoria and was only open for lunch (and had 4 tables). But it seemed like they saw sense and this star was withdrawn this year. We can only imagine that the reputation of this place seduced the Michelin folks into including this place in the list in the first place.

It is located at the back of its Salumeria (place where they sell bread and salami) and is not visible to walk-in customers unless you are ushered in through the back. When we got there, we asked where the 'hosteria' was and were met with curious glances; 'hotel? No hotel'. Fortunately, we mentioned that we had a 'prenotazione' (reservation in Italian) and then it dawned upon the lady at the counter that we were there for the restaurant. She (who didn't understand a word of English), then telephoned the back room and a young lady (who we gather is the grand-daughter of the patriarch of this establishment), who could speak reasonably good English, came out to bring us through the back entrance, past the kitchen, and into the dining room.

The dining room was rather tiny. A squarish room with four tables at each end (capable of accommodating 4-6 people for each table, we thought), it was very basic and looked like someone's dining room rather than a former Michelin star restaurant.

The grand-daughter came to take our orders, they had a short ala carte menu and it was filled with the usual Emilia-Romagna favourites like the cured meats, tortellini con brodo, potato ravioli with butter, rosemary and cheese etc. We picked out some dishes which we had read about on other reviews on the internet. One of the great things about this restaurant is that they have an excellent wine list which contains some really good bottles for extremely reasonable prices. For that reason, though they asked if we wanted the local Lambrusco (a locally produced sparkling wine), we decided instead to open a bottle of 2001 Ornellaia which was the cheapest I had ever seen in a restaurant (or any wine shop for that matter) even though it was a bit too heavy for lunch and certainly wasn't the best fit for what we were having. It's almost like driving a Rolls Royce out to do grocery shopping. But for that price, we weren't going to care too much.

We started with some salami, parma ham and mortadella on pastry puffs. The meats were very good (there is a salumeria at the front in any case) but what was amazing were the pastry puffs. They were crispy yet light in flavour, accompanying the meats well yet not filling us up too much.

We then shared 2 pastas for our starters. The first was the classic Tortellini in capon broth, which was very good but in our opinion not as satisfying as the ones we had in Bologna (see earlier reviews: Diana and Trattoria Meloncello). It was slightly disturbing to see so much oil visibly floating on the broth.

The other pasta was the noodles with fresh porcini mushrooms. The homemade tagliatelle was excellent as expected but somehow this dish failed to excite.

It was the main courses which blew us away. The fried cotechino with Lambrusco eggnog was simply stunning. This was a breaded sausage with sweet and creamy eggnog sauce in a very distinctively yellow color. The sweetness of the sauce was simple heavenly together with the rich flavours of the meat. I was dreaming of this dish even after one week.

The other dish was the veal cheek with mash potatoes and aubergine with tomato. This was also very well braised to bring out the taste yet keeping it succulent and juicy.

We couldn't get the cured meats out of our minds and ordered an extra portion of mortadella and salami after our main courses to satisfy our fix. Needless to say, these went superbly with our Ornellaia.

Dessert was a sour cherry tart which was a bit of a let-down, but we were already so full that it didn't really matter.

Good as it was, we didn't feel like it warranted the hype. We may come back if we find ourselves in Modena again (which is highly likely because Osteria Francescana is round the corner) but won't make a special trip to Modena just to eat here.