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.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Tickets: revisted Oct 15 (Barcelona)

October 2015

Avinguda del Paral-lel No. 164, 08015 Barcelona, Spain

It was perhaps fitting that we ended up at Tickets for our dinner after our lunch at El Celler de Can Roca. One was the reigning San Pellegrino Best Restaurant in the World and the other was set up by the chefs (the Adria brothers) who literally owned the awards those years ago and arguably gave it its respectability. Within a day, we had the opportunity to experience the different philosophies behind one which is the leader of conventional dining trends and the other who gave it all up to pursue a markedly different path. We first dined at Tickets twice in 2012, but since then, it has somehow managed to win one Michelin star and also appeared in the San Pellegrino Best Restaurant in the World list in number 42 this year. We thought the point of Tickets was to eschew the relentless pursuit of peer and public approval and serve fuss-free approachable food. Perhaps the Adria brothers could do without the Michelin Guide and the San Pellegrino Best Restaurant in the World list, but they in turn couldn't do without the Adria brothers.

Unlike 2012 when it was still possible to get a table at Tickets a few weeks in advance, it seems like the reservations craze has also overtaken this tapas bar. Apparently seats get booked minutes after reservations open a few months in advance, so we were fortunate to be able to secure them with the help of some proper planning and hard-nosed determination.

We were dining in a large group this time, so it was possible for us to order a larger variety of food. We left it to the waitress to keep the food coming till we gave instructions to stop. We started with the classic olive globe, and it was as good as we remembered it. The apple slices soaked in some red (from beet we were told) alcohol giving the flavour of a cocktail (didn't catch what the waitress was saying about this) weren't as good and we totally missed the reference. The accompanying black sesame balls (black sesame encrusted in a silvery grey sugar coating) were nice though.

The sushi impersonators were quite brilliant. Actual ebiko and tuna on a bed of meringue taking the place of rice was innovative and very enjoyable. Likewise the paper thin pizza slices which were full of flavour too.

We didn't like the basil waffles so much but the cracker with dried shrimp and oregano was quite amazing.

We had the airy cheese puffs before and they were ok, and the breadsticks with cured beef slices rolled around them were quite good too.

The oysters, though fresh, were quite pointless for us, and kimchi (on one row) and yuzu (on the other) sauces did nothing to enhance them.

The grilled eel on a traditional potable charcoal grill was delicious, as was the mussels with some kind of cheese foam.

For desserts, the carrot ice cream cone was interesting and refreshing, but the final dessert, their version of the cheesecake, was excellent and highly memorable. The cheesecake was a fluffy and light version which used a soft cheese similar to the epoisses.

Three years on from our last visit here, we were quite impressed that Tickets has progressed quite a bit in that time, having 'grown up' and having developed deeper and more substantial ideas. We were pleasantly surprised to have been able to finish such a large meal a few hours after our meal in Girona.