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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.