Saturday, November 12, 2011

Villa Crespi (Orta San Giulio in Piedmont)

October 2011

Via G. Fava 18, 28016 Orta San Giulio, Novara, Italy
Tel: +39 322 911 902

Lake Orta is one of the smallest of the Northern Italian lakes and not one of the more famous (apparently even many Italians haven't heard of it, certainly the Italians in Florence and Venice who we spoke to), but is certainly the most beautiful lake anywhere in the world that we have spent time at. Its quiet tranquility is in stark contrast with the bustling larger lakes of Como, Maggiore and Garda where Italians and tourists flock during the warmer months. Dominating the landscape of the very peaceful lake (one which isn't crowded with yachts and ferries) is the secluded Isola San Giulio, where an old monastery lies. This island was dedicated to the patron saint of the region, San Giulio or Saint Julius, whose embalmed body still resides in the crypt in the chapel on the island. A small boat takes visitors to the island at regular intervals and one can spend anything from 20 minutes to half a day on the island, immersing oneself in the absolute silence of the quiet street which goes round the island. It is a place where you'd go to forget the now.

The main town of Orta San Giulio itself is a charming one-street hamlet by the water's edge. It has many small restaurants, gelato stores and shops selling local produce like sweets and amaretti cookies, as well as a small school for young children. Watching the children boarding the yellow school bus after school, we wondered what it was like to grow up in a picture-perfect place like this and how this would influence their perception of the rest of the world when they grew up.

Fittingly, in the vicinity of such a piece of heaven on earth, is the dramatic and stunning property of Villa Crespi, which houses both a luxury hotel as well as a 2 Michelin star restaurant of the same name. Built by a merchant in the 19th century in the style of the palaces of Bagdad, the moorish architecture sits in contrast to the generally Gothic influence of the structures in the area.

Villa Crespi overlooks Lake Orta and has a large ground (with a Marquee in the garden which can be used for daytime events like weddings etc). Every nook and cranny of the property is fled with ornate carvings, paintings and fixtures, and arabic words adorn the doorways. It was surreal to be brought back in time to admire the splendors of the Middle East yet find oneself physically in a remote lake in North Italy.

We stayed here for 3 nights (more below on the hotel itself) and had booked ourselves a table for dinner at the much lauded restaurant of Chef Antonio Cannavacciuolo for one of the nights. The dining room is located on the ground floor, and consists of 2 separate dining rooms and tables lining the corridor which faces the back garden and the lake. We were seated at the corridor, but unfortunately, it was dark and the views outside could not be appreciated. That said, the intricate interior decor itself made up for any lack of a view of the outdoor scenery, and we couldn't stop admiring the absolute beauty of the dining room.

Service here was very slick. All the wait staff were in black suits and black tie but I felt that the consequence of that was they were quite stiff. We chose the Sensations menu and also took with it the 'Bollicine' champagne pairing. It was the first time we had a different champagne for each course of the meal but it was actually fantastic, each of which went very well with the corresponding course.

Like Metropole, Villa Crespi had a water menu, from which we had to pick out the type and brand of water we wanted, depending on our preference of alkalinity etc. To us it was just water so we just picked whatever was familiar. There was a variety of breadsticks and breads, was a good accompaniment with the champagne.

Oyster with yoghurt and cucumber - This was fantastic. The tangy taste of the yoghurt and its creamy texture (in the refreshing cucumber flavour) worked very well with the raw oyster.

Octopus with green tomato soup - This was also very good. The octopus was very fresh and the tomato soup was neither sour nor creamy.

Skewer of grilled scallop and prawn with green apple and celery juice - The juice was sweet and there were slices of green apple therein, going well with the lightly grilled seafood. Delicious.

Raw scampi with mascarpone and spinach - the mascarpone and spinach puree was like a liquid salad. It was quite substantial and in this case, the raw scampi was the accompaniment instead of being the main focus. A very innovative and superb dish.

Ricotta cheese pasta with tomato soup - this was a tortellini stuffed with ricotta cheese which was in itself quite bland if not for the rich tomato soup. The flower petals and leaves were a nice touch which gave the taste an added sophistication.

Baby squid tagliatelle - The seafood sauce was very rich and the pasta was cooked al dente, which together made a satisfying dish. It was at this point that we were certain that despite the presence of 2 pasta dishes, the cuisine was actually more french than italian, with heavy emphasis on sauces and thick soups which are in fact sauces. Every sauce thus far was perfect and flawless, which is very much in line with French cooking philosophy.

Ombrina with smoked aubergine sauce - The ombrina was a fish (which I had never heard of until then) which was grilled and served with (once again) very good sauce. I didn't like the fish so much as it tasted a bit dry.

Veal with mushrooms - The veal was succulent and tender, but once again the highlight was the veal and mushroom sauce which was very good.

Pre-dessert of chocolate ice cream - it was a small dollop of ice cream and a drop of raspberry sauce.

Lemongrass sorbet with raspberry and green apple - It was a refreshing as it looked. The lemongrass sorbet was exquisite and the sour raspberry and sweet apple balanced themselves out quite well.

Tray of Petit Four - the selection of sweets was quite good, and had a mix of chocolates, macaroons, jellies and nougat.

Final Thoughts - Spectacular restaurant with a chef at the top of his game and a dining room to match. This restaurant could be transported to Paris and put amongst the great 2 or even 3 star restaurants there and wouldn't be out of place. Service could be a bit more relaxed and less uptight but otherwise it was a perfect meal in perfect surrounds.

We had booked a deluxe room but the receptionist very kindly upgraded us to the imperial suite which was an opulently-adorned room with a four poster bed, full views of the lake, a large dining table, a coffee machine and even a treadmill (which would have been well needed after all those meals). Service levels were very high and we had a very comfortable stay there.

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