Sunday, November 22, 2015

Villa D'Amelia: revisited Oct 15 (Benevello in Piedmont)

October 2015

Franz Manera, 12050 Benevello, Piedmont, Italy
Tel: +39 173 529225

Visiting the truffle festival in Alba in October requires quite a lot of advance planning. During the 3-4 weekends when the festival takes place, accommodation in the surrounding areas of Cuneo tend to be booked out months ahead, and moreover, during the weekends, there is a minimum stay requirement of three nights. Fortunately for our trip this year, we had already planned this Europe trip a year in advance so we were able to make our bookings for Villa D'Amelia a good six months prior to our arrival.  This would be our third stay at Villa D'Amelia, which we liked on our previous stays for being modern and in a good central location from which to explore the Barolo and Barbaresco wine regions.

Villa D'Amelia also houses a one Michelin star restaurant of the same name. We lunched there once many years ago before it got recognised by the Michelin Guide (see earlier review). To avoid having to drive around the small winding roads of Piedmont in the pitch black night, we thought to have dinner at the resort instead.

We had a heavy meal earlier at lunch at Antica Corona Reale, so longed for a lighter meal for dinner. The seasonal white truffle menu looked quite manageable, so we opted for that, and had a glass of Barolo each instead of a whole bottle. The meal started with a few amuse bouche, including an assortment of finger food as well as a beetroot tartare. The entree was a cold veal with tuna sauce which we felt was slightly dry with insufficient tuna sauce. The "Plin" agnolotti stuffed with three roasts meat was excellent, especially with the addition of the white truffles. We had no complains about the braised tender cut of beef served with mashed "Alta Langa" potatoes, carrots and spring onion but it wasn't outstanding. The hazelnut tiramisu was too heavy we felt, as it was too heavy on the cream.

Our dinner at Villa D'Amelia, though competent, was forgettable. To be fair, it was our third meal of the row having the traditional seasonal dishes of Piedmont, and our meal Villa D'Amelia came in at a distant third place to Antico Corona Reale and Locanda del Pilone, at both of which we had very impressive meals this time round. Moreover, the service at Villa D'Amelia was stiff and slightly bumbling, unlike the slick and highly professional staff at Locanda del Pilone and the warm reception from the very experienced waiters at Antico Corona Reale. This was probably our least enjoyable meal on this Europe trip. Given the wealth of dining options in the region, it will probably be a long while before we eat at Villa D'Amelia again.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Antica Corona Reale - Da Renzo (Cervere in Piedmont)

October 2015

Via Fossano, 13, 12040 Cervere (CN), Italy
Tel: +39 172 474 132

Antico Corona Reale is a two Michelin star restaurant in Piedmont which we had always wanted to visit, however, it was situated quite a distance from Alba and hence it never formed part of our itinerary during our previous Piedmont trips. This time, we made sure we planned a lunch there so that we had time to take the almost 2 hour drive there and back (we don't like driving far in Piedmont at night, due to the small roads and poor visibility, hence we usually like to dine near to where we are staying for the night).

This is literally the dining institution of the region. This year it celebrates its 200th anniversary, and it has been a restaurant owned by the same family since the 19th century. It is now helmed by Chef Gianpiero Vivalda, having taken over from his father Lorenzo, of whose name the restaurant still carries (Da Renzo). It also carries the name "Royal Crown" because at various points of its history, it served kings and princes, and hence has received royal commission. Not that anyone can tell just by looking at it. It is in a non-descript building along a long straight main road through a small town called Cervere, and if we didn't have our GPS on, we would have driven past it without a clue of its location.

It was a Sunday lunchtime when we visited and the entire street was quiet with no one to be seen anywhere. We parked along a lane next to the restaurant and pressed the buzzer at the main door. When we stepped in, it was like we had entered a different time. The interior and decor belonged to another era, and there was even a slight musky odour common in buildings of this vintage. But when we were brought to our seats in one of the many dining rooms, we realised that the reason why it was so quiet outside was because everyone was in here. The restaurant was full, with every other table occupied by Italian families here to have their Sunday lunch.

While we were looking through our menu and wine list, we were presented with a small plate of amuse bouche. These were simple but quite delicious. They had a decent list of local wines and we picked a 2005 Sandrone Cannubi Boschis which was a very ripe and fragrant Barolo in the modern style. Our first sips of the wine were well complemented by another amuse bouche; the veal tartare in a creamy custardy broth.

Our first entreé was the Gourmet Turnip for Les Grandes Tables du Monde 2015 which was the chef's entry into the annual gastronomic competition. It was a sublime dish of which the main protagonist was the humble turnip. It was baked with cheese, surrounded by escargots on a bed of beetroot and butter sauce and topped with sautéed spinach.

Being in Piedmont this time of year, having the white truffle tajarin was a must. The Homemade traditional Tamarin with butter and white truffle from Alba was possibly the best tajarin we have ever eaten. It was rich with egg yolk and cooked to an al dente perfection of a level which we have never experienced. On top of it, they were very generous with the white truffle shavings.

Our main course was the Grilled rib of beef and fennel salad. This was like the Tuscan Bistecca but in this case the beef used from the from the Piedmontese cow which tends to be much more tender. It was a huge portion of meat but it was so good, we were able to finish it easily.

For desserts, after a simple pre-dessert of creme brûlée, we had the Rendez-vous Celestial JLC Astrale by Gianpiero Vivalda as well as the Chocolate and Hazelnuts. The former was dessert created by Chef Gianpiero as part of the menu for the gala dinner held by Jaeger Lecoultre to celebrate the restaurant's 200th anniversary this year. It was a very light and fruity raspberry dessert made to look like a watch face. The latter was not something on the menu. We didn't like anything else on the menu so they created a dessert with chocolate and hazelnuts at our request, and it was very good.

At the end of our lunch, the patriarch of the family and the previous Grande Chef, Lorenzo Vivalda came out to greet the guests. Despite his advancing years, he was full of charm and energy, and tried to engage us in conversation despite his lack of English and our corresponding lack of Italian. We had a wonderful meal here. After 10 days of mostly modern and cutting edge cuisine, it was a nice change to have top notch traditional cuisine again. There were no unnecessary frills, and everything which was put out on our table was delicious. Add to that the homestyle hospitality of a family-owned restaurant, this was as enjoyable a Sunday lunch as we could have planned.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Locanda del Pilone: revisited Oct 15 (Alba in Piedmont)

October 2015

Loc. Madonna di Como, 34 - 12051 Alba CN, Piedmont
Tel: +39 173 366609

After the previous night's underwhelming dinner at Piazza Duomo, we were craving for a good traditional Piedmontese meal. After spending the morning at the truffle fair in the Alba town centre, enjoying the festive atmosphere and tasting the various wines and hazelnut spreads (hazelnut being the other main export of the area, after the white truffles and wine), we drove short distance up the hill to a one Michelin starred restaurant, Locanda del Pilone. We have been here before in 2009, but that didn't really count since the chef and management of the restaurant changed after that visit. Chef Masayuki Kondo runs the kitchen now having taken over a few years ago. He was most recently at Villa Crespi (a restaurant we love) understudying chef Antonio Cannavacciuolo, and also spent time in the Piedmont region while working at Guido (another restaurant we love), so expectations were high for this meal.

Locanda del Pilone is a lovely restaurant to come to for lunch because it sits on a hilltop overlooking the lush vineyards in the valleys below. It operates as a B&B as well and also produces its own Barolo under the Boroli label (we had a few glasses of their wine and they were lovely). The restaurant interior is quite traditional yet there is a subtle elegance about it, and on a clear day, the views out of the windows are stunning.

Immediately after we were seated, we were served a selection of amuse bouche (white chocolate with white truffle, cheese puffs shaped as macaron, aubergine with cheese, beetroot cracker amongst others), which were quite tasty. They were quite relaxed about showing us the menu and taking our food orders, and only did so after we finished the amuse bouche. We quite liked this slower pace which matched with our rather lazy mood that afternoon. The menu had a few meal options but we liked their traditional menu which showcased the more familiar Piedmont classics.

Their palate cleaner before the meal started proper was an interesting and refreshing burrata cheese 
with tomato foam.

We enjoyed the Piedmontese beef tartare with hazelnuts. The beef was very fresh and the use of hazelnuts was a good tie-in to the region. The hazelnut meringue was an interesting addition to the dish to create a bit of sweetness and crunch to the dish.

One of our favourite Piedmontese dishes, the agnolotti 'plin', which was a local stuffed pasta with pork, veal and rabbit, was cooked to perfection. This was the dish with which we opted for the white truffle option and the white truffles went beautifully with the pasta.

The use of confectionary with the beef was again evident in the beef cheek with amaretti biscuits. We loved the richness of the tender braised Piedmontese beef which was again paired with the sweet and crunchy hazelnut biscuits.

The pre-dessert was an unexpected carrot soup with hazelnut with cheese pastry. We liked it and thought that it was quite interesting.

The dessert was again unexpectedly a vegetable (sweet potato with hazelnut and pear). This was an innovation not lost on us and the appearance of the hazelnut again gave it the local flavour. We absolutely loved this dessert.

A most satisfying lunch ended off with coffee and some petit four (tiramisu with ginger, financiers, white truffle cream on cracker, basil macaron and jelly).

We were impressed by Chef Kondo's adherence to the traditional cuisine of the region but with daring use of certain ingredients which gave his dishes sufficient sophistication without changing the nature of the regional favourites (for example, in many of the dishes, we detected the subtle use of Japanese ingredients including a flower with a distinct flavour which we are familiar with in Japanese cuisine, as well as sweet potato for dessert). In addition, the service staff was also professional to a fault, to an extent which we did not expect from a one Michelin star restaurant in the Italian countryside. Perhaps they are aiming for their second star, which, on the basis of the accuracy of Chef Kondo's cooking and the level of service we experienced that day for lunch, we will not be betting against happening in the next few years.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Piazza Duomo: revisited Oct 15 (Alba in Piedmont)

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

One of the highlights of our Spain and Italy fortnight this time round was to attend the annual white truffle festival which happens over a few weekends every October in an otherwise nondescript Italian town of Alba. For these few Saturdays and Sundays, a sleepy unremarkable town in the heart of the Piedmontese region of Northern Italy with a population of just over 30,000 transforms into the centre of the universe, where you couldn't walk from one end of the town to the other without squeezing through the throngs of visitors eager for a sniff and taste of the freshly-hunted tuber magnatum (which are generally only available from October and throughout early winter). One of the benefits of being in Alba during this period of time is that just about every restaurant here is able to offer the freshest truffles at a lower price than what these end up being priced in restaurants anywhere else outside Italy.

The last time we were in Alba five years ago, we visited the (at that time) 2 Michelin starred restaurant of the young up-and-coming chef Enrico Crippa and had a great meal there. Fast forward to 2015 and now Piazza Duomo is an established triple starred restaurant well renowned for its innovative cuisine. This time, we visited Piazza Duomo on a Friday night on the eve of another weekend fair which forms part of the annual truffle festival. On the main square which the restaurant overlooks, the locals were busy setting up their stalls preparing for the weekend's events. We were seated in the familiar small gaudy pink dining room.  The menu remained very much along the lines of what we had remembered, with a strong emphasis on fresh local produce in particular the vegetables grown by the chef in his own garden. After spending the previous week in Spain, we were looking forward to finally drinking some of Italy's finest wines and for this dinner we had a 2004 Paolo Scavino Bric del Fiasc (which was lovely but not as good as we remembered the 1999 vintage to be when we were last here).

Amuse bouche is a big thing in Piazza Duomo and at the start of the meal, a large variety of interesting concoctions were served. Amongst others, there were breadsticks (made with spaghetti) coated with carbonara and broccoli sauce, a leaf of baby lettuce, an amaretto with seaweed, a pair of olive lookalikes (which were actually veal and langoustine balls coated with olive), an eggplant roll filled with ricotta and a fish cracker, a foie gras and soda foam and a green chard topped with tuna. For most part, they were all quite good, though we felt these were slightly excessive, and by the end of it all, we had lost some anticipation for the meal proper.

The entrées started with the seasoned vegetables which was slices of picked turnip. Though the shaved parmesan sought to counter the sourness of the turnip, we felt that the dish was still a bit too tart.

Chef Crippa's signature dish was the salad 21...31...41... 51... Each time, he would concoct a salad dish of 21, 31, 41 or 51 different vegetable ingredients depending on what was available to him. In our case, it was 51 (with accompanying literature listing out each ingredient) and it was a very impressive salad. This was an extremely difficult composition to put together but we thought he got it spot on.

We enjoyed the cod and broccoli. The bitterness of the broccoli reduction and the goat cheese paired well with the cod fish.

The cream of potato with lapsing souchong was a delicious dish, made even better by the white truffles which we opted to have for this dish.

The cotechino with lentils was a broth with lentil and local sausage topped with a piece of black truffle each. This reminded us of the tortellini con brodo we so enjoyed in Bologna.

The next dish was the sweetbread with porcini mushrooms. We felt that this dish was too dry because the porcini mushrooms muted the flavours of the sweetbread. This could have done with a more dominant sauce.

This version of the Piedmontese risotto was rather plain and was flavoured by the cocoa powder, which gave it a slightly bitter-sweet taste.

The lamb with camomile was quite enjoyable, as the camomile sauce was quite subtle and balanced off the gamey aspects of the lamb.

The simplicity of the 'Desert Rose' disappointed us slightly. After the creativeness of the earlier dishes, we did not expect cookies and some custard which was as bare as the name of the dessert implied.

We preferred the meal we had here in 2010. Though many of the amuse bouche were very good and a few the main courses impressed, overall the meal lacked focus. Moreover, the highest rated restaurant in the Piedmont region should have been a champion for the regional cuisine (whether in the traditional style or even in the modern innovative style) but it was a pity that instead it focused on haute cuisine (especially the vegetal aspects) which would more commonly be found in the top restaurants in Paris or Tokyo. Perhaps the food here was less a showcase of the regional cuisine but more a reflection of Chef Crippa's own culinary journeys through France and Japan. The irony was that just outside the restaurant, the city was gearing up for a weekend of festivities showcasing the best food and drink that Piedmont had to offer.