review: context… (osteria francescana)
Someone with grand wit once quipped that the problem with dining on the cutting edge is that you’re oft left bleeding.
It grieves me to report that my dinner at Osteria Francescana, perhaps one of the most spotlit restaurants in the world right now, was disappointing.
Was the restaurant a victim of hype in this instance? Perhaps. Recently, a lot of confidence has been placed in its chef, Massimo Bottura, by international kingmakers. Bottura was awarded the Gran Prix de l’Art de la Cuisine by the l’Académie Internationale de la Gastronomie in February of this year. And, at the time this post issues, Osteria Francescana holds two Michelin stars (edited to add: The day after I published this post, Osteria Francescana was elevated to three Michelin stars) and occupies fourth place on that silly (and, in my opinion, cloutless) San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, whose voting body also named this restaurant the “Chefs’ Choice” this year.
As we know, the higher the wall, the harder the fall.
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Was my meal the victim of Bottura’s frequent absenteeism? Maybe. I won’t be the first to note that Bottura seems to be out of his kitchen far more than he’s in it these days. Due to his sudden popularity, speaking engagements have him criss-crossing the globe regularly: Lima, Cologne (where I saw him speak a week after my meal), New York, all within the span of two weeks. It was during this stretch of his travels that I arrived at his table in Modena, Italy.
Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.
Or was there simply a miscommunication between the chef and this diner that night, a disconnect between kitchen and table?
Probably, a little of all of the above.
It is not in my nature to be vituperative. Hopefully you know that by now. And it is not in my place to pronounce judgment on a restaurant based on one meal. But I do think it’s worthwhile to examine a meal when it fails to meet expectations. And that is what I’m here to do.
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At the fear of overstating my disappointment, my meal wasn’t a complete loss. No meal is. Regardless of how far short of expectations a dining experience falls, I always leave the table having learned something new. Otherwise, I would have given up this costly and unprofitable gig long ago.
Despite the rather grim start to this post, there were a few truly satisfying dishes that night at Osteria Francescana, like an amuse bouche of almond granita with coffee cream, capers, and bergamot – an unlikely, yet spectacular assembly of Italian flavors that touched almost every part of the tongue.
There was a delicious bowl of “Osso Buco,” rich and thick, a meeting of two, distilled sauces without the meat. A tumble of puffed rice, which managed to stay crispy despite the rather humid and warm dining room, gave the dish a crunchy pop.
And there was a refreshing “sangria,” deconstructed, at the end of the meal that was quite good, even if the slushy cocktail was a bit syrupy.
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But then, there were some dishes that I found utterly confusing, like a perfectly accurate, but otherwise misguided diorama of a “lily pond.” I don’t care how compelling of a story one might tell of tadpoles and the waters in which they live, there are some conceits that I don’t care to taste. This was one of them. Wit, precision, beauty – all of these go to the round file if the dish doesn’t taste good. Muddy, bitter, and slimy with junsai coated in mucilage, this was gross.
And, the most disappointing part of my meal: some dishes suffered from inexcusable cooking errors. I could tell that my chop of lamb was overcooked before I sliced into it. After confirming my assumption with one bite, I left the rest untouched. Dispirited at this point in the meal, I didn’t bother sending it back, and neither did they question my untouched plate, though the evidence was plain.*
An otherwise tasty oyster shell full of oyster cream and green apple granita was discredited by a clump of lamb tartare so threaded with sinew that I swallowed the entire wad whole, unable to chew it. These kind of execution errors simply shouldn’t happen at a restaurant at this level.
We ordered the 11-course “carte blanche” menu, which cost 150€. Here is what we had:
Coffee cream, bergamot, and candied capers.
Tempura flakes, roasted bell pepper sauce.
Nasturtium, caviar, cucumber broth.
Tomatoes, olive broth, almond crumbs.
Burnt squid, caviar, lemon gel.
Green apple gel, polenta, onion ash.
Osso Buco and Saffron
Suckling pig crackling, cilantro.
Lamb of Normandy
Mint, potato, sour cream, herb crackers.
To see all of the photos from this meal, CLICK HERE.
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Why is Massimo Bottura suddenly so popular?
Well, after meeting him and hearing him speak about his food, I can tell you that the man is incredibly articulate. His passion is intense, his enthusiasm is infectious. He weaves thoughtful threads that make your heart beat faster, your mind churn harder. He’s charming.
Bottura inspired me with a story about an eel that swam up the River Po, finding polenta along the way to Modena, where he arrived at an orchard of green apples. It’s an age-old tale, one that is told poetically on camera by his mother, a woman wizened with the lines and expressions of Italy.
I wish I had known this story the week before, when it appeared on a plate at Osteria Francescana, a seemingly random assembly at the time: a strip of glazed eel between a swipe of green apple gel and a dash of polenta. I loved the sweetness of the glaze balanced against the tartness of the green apple gel. But the polenta was congealed to the plate. I lifted the entire strip in one, two-pronged piece. And with that, whatever meaning and success the plate might have claimed unraveled quickly.
It was a precarious line this dinner walked, with the merits of each dish relying not on execution, but almost solely on context, which may escape a foreigner. Sometimes the flavor rescued the dish from mundanity, like a delicious block of salted cod dressed in Mediterranean flavors. At other times, it damned it, like a garishly salty and stiff clod of miso-cured foie gras over which was poured too much ponzu sauce that seemed more soy sauce than anything else. Yikes.
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Why did the lamb chop come with a swirl of mint sauce? It seemed rather ordinary. And rather misplaced, culturally.
Perhaps I was too distracted by my overcooked chop to consider the matter further. But I’m not sure I would have arrived at the right answer even if I had given it more thought.
When I asked Bottura about it, he said that this dish was an expression of lamb as prepared by three different cultures: the British pair it with mint, the French with rosemary, and the Italians with basil. All three of these herbs were on the plate.
Without context, the wings of wit are clipped, rendering the most clever references impotent. And here, this dish was a victim of context, which I found both cryptic and missing.
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So, was this meal helpless?
No. No meal is.
Context can be acquired, it can be taught. What was helpless was the staff, which seemed to know little and explain even less when asked.
Just a few posts ago, I had stated that good chefs tells stories, conveying time and place, and that great chefs tell fairytales, creating time and space.
Massimo Bottura attempted, but failed to to do either of those things at this meal. Although he charmed me at the Chef Sache in Cologne, sadly, that same wit and wisdom didn’t make it to my table at his restaurant.
It’s one thing to tell a story. It’s very much another matter to have it understood. Both need to happen.
I know I’m not the sharpest knife on the block, and so I refuse to condemn Osteria Francescana based on this one meal, one that I may not have properly understood due to my own cultural ignorance.
But the faulty execution, some distastefully dissonant flavors, and the hapless service were all weak points that are not beyond the reach of my criticism. Every restaurant is allowed to miss the mark occasionally. If that’s the case here, it’s a pity it happened on the night when we six gathered, having traveled thousands of miles among us for its sake.
Would I go back to Osteria Francescana? Absolutely. Disappointment is not overcome by avoidance.
My friend Adam of A Life Worth Eating (for whom I do not speak in this post) returned the next day for lunch and seemed rewarded by it. He ordered the Classico Menu, and, judging by his photos, it seemed like a more sensible story – one that even I could read by the titles alone, there being a clearer link between past and present, situated between the Italy of yore and the Italy of modernity. I think that’s where Bottura had hoped to take me.
Unfortunately, not this time. Perhaps the next.
Via Stella, 22
41121 Modena, Italy
+39 059 210118
* I note that mine was the only chop that was overcooked at our table of five.