review: balance in the extremes… (il canto)
We had been toying with the possibility of eating at Paolo Lopriore’s Il Canto all week.
The only two people I knew who had eaten there (one of them was Adam, the other was my friend Aaron, who ate there with Adam) didn’t like it. Actually, they both said it was one of the worst, if not the worst meal they had ever had.
But that’s why I love traveling with Adam. We’re both forgiving eaters, willing to go back, because once is never enough to be fair. The worst meal ago might just be the best meal again. It’s happened to me before.
And we’re flexible, adventurous, and often spontaneous with our schedules.
So, we called for a reservation a day ahead, and by early the next morning, we were snaking our way through the Tuscan terrain – miraculously unchanged since Giorgione found Venus sleeping – towards Siena, with a gelato stop inside the medieval walls of San Gimignano on the way.
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I’ve eaten in some magnificent settings. The Hotel Certosa di Maggiano is among them.
A 14th-Century Carthusian monastery – the oldest in Tuscany – the Certosa di Maggiano has now been converted into a Relais & Châteaux property. With only seventeen rooms, it is not large. The interior – lined with porcelain, draped in silk – is just as lush as the rolling, green gardens that surround the complex.
In the middle of the monastery is a large courtyard with a well at one end, an arched colonnade with a row of tables running along one side, and a bell tower rising above it all. It was a lovely sight.
In the back of the monastery is a quiet patio, where we eased into the night with some bubbly and amuse bouches.
The Tuscan sun set. Everything glowed.
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The restaurant’s dining room is a vaulted chamber sunken into the medieval foundation of the monastery’s ground floor.
But, it was one of those perfect, late-summer evenings, where pink skies gave way to a choir of crickets. So, we were seated outside, at one of the tables in the arched colonnade, with a view of that generous, brick-lined courtyard.
The menu at Il Canto is almost useless. It is literally a block of text with no pauses or prompts. Where one dish stopped and another began, only our server knew. And, he happily decoded it for us, reading and explaining the entire menu, unsolicited. Amused, we let him go. When he finished, we asked him to give Chef Lompriore carte blanche. We wanted the menu “oggi” (or, “today,” I suppose the equivalent of the daily “market” menu in English).
This is what the kitchen sent out:
Salad of Seaweed, Roots, and Herbs
Frisee, nori, oxalis, radish, arugula, purslane, wasabi, pickled ginger.
Licorice, green walnuts.
Onion, cardamom, rum.
Tobacco, walnuts, cream.
Red wine, violet, olive oil ice cream, cardamom.
Tarragon Ice Cream Popcicles
Chocolate and Star Anise Ice Cream Popcicles with Mint
Florentines with Pistachios and Almonds
Pastry Rolls with Spicy Curry
White Chocolate Ganache with Cocoa Nib Lolipops
Bitter Dark Chocolate Meteors
To see all the photos from this meal, CLICK HERE.
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Bitter is a flavor rarely explored. I’d say it’s insufficiently explored. But Paolo Lopriore loves it. And if you don’t, a meal at Il Canto will prove challenging.
Raised on the flavors of Asia, I happen to appreciate bitterness. Actually, I love it. But, even I’ll admit that some of Lopriore’s food tested my tolerance.
There are other reasons why the food at Il Canto isn’t widely accepted. Beyond extreme bitterness, Lopriore presents strong, polarizing flavors that have earned him a controversial reputation as a chef. Some of the food we had verged on being inedible to me, like a sardine and sambuca tartlet that was just as bad as it sounds, and chocolate truffles so heavy with mint and star anise that they tasted like cough syrup. Those were gross.
But the amazing thing is, his flavors are not unbalanced. They do not clash. Even in the strongest, and, to me, most offensive combinations, there was congruence, there was synergy. Lopriore finds balance in the extremes. I may not have liked some of his flavors, but I can’t accuse any of them of being poorly paired. There is a difference, and Lopriore knows it.
His porcini dish is a good example. He sliced the mushrooms raw and sprayed them with cream spiked with tobacco. Does the fat in cream bind to the flavor compounds in tobacco the way it does with capsaicin, the spice in chile peppers? I think it does, because the milky film not only smoothed out the sting of the tabacco, but prolonged its numbing bite, intensifying it as it lingered on the tongue, with only the sweetness of walnuts to ease the sensation, one that verged on cloying. It wasn’t a particularly pleasant dish to eat, and boy did it have legs (which is why, I suspect, it was served last, right before the pre-dessert, chocolate truffles with star anise and juicy wedges of white peaches that, miraculously, scrubbed the staining flavor of the tobacco out of my mouth). But, the way that the tobacco magnified the beefy flavor of the porcini was unexpectedly thrilling. (It also made me realize that tobacco was the “ma la” equivalent of Szechuan peppercorns for the Western pantry.) For its effect, I’ll call it an extraordinary dish.
So too were caviar, licorice, and green walnuts, a deceptively minimalist gathering that belied its walloping punch – I can’t say I’d want to eat it again, but it was an exciting dish to experience. The unnervingly sweet licorice syrup, a flash of bracingly tart acid (was that vinegar powder?), and the richness of the caviar, which magically bridged the gap across a universe of flavor with its creamy, briny body; I’ve never tasted anything like it.
At the very beginning, there was a plate of bitter greens that seemed to map out every flavor Lopriore would show us in the succeeding courses, an overture for our meal. There was the bright acidity of oxalis and the saltiness of purslane and arugula. There were bitter, bitter baby frisée leaves, and the searing sting of wasabi and radishes. And beneath it all, stretched a small carpet of tissue-thin gari – pickled ginger – warm and sweet. To ensure we wouldn’t scrape the lot into our mouths at once, jumbling it all as if a salad, we were asked to use our hands to eat this course. That was an effective speed bump. One by one, we picked each herb, each leaf, each blossom, considering every one of them in turn as we ate our way through this beautiful garden. This dish made me realize that I don’t eat slowly enough. It made me wonder how many flavors, how many messages I’ve missed before.
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Not every plate was a caricature of flavor. In fact, our meal seemed to blossom like a bell curve, with the harsh edges at either end, and a beautiful, almost lyric middle of simply delicious and soulfully satisfying dishes, like the one with two beautifully cooked pieces of mackerel, oily and rich, thinned with some vinegar and the bitter fragrance of bay. That was a great dish.
The pigeon dish, our fifth course, was among my favorite dishes from 2011 (see no. 31). The breast meat was rosy and moist, dressed with a collection of warm flavors and spices: cardamom, rum, and licorice, here much less sweet than elsewhere, used more to enhance the bitterness of the silky onions on the plate than anything else.
The next dish, our sixth, was also one of my favorite dishes from last year (see no. 20). Three, green ravioli arrived alone on a plate, naked but for a drizzle of olive oil. Inside two of them was a bitter, chicory soup. The third one contained a filling that tasted just like Chinese black vinegar, slightly musty, slightly bitter, and just a touch sweet. From the outside, they looked identical. But Lopriore cleverly put the vinegar raviolo at the corner of the “L” arrangement, hedging that the diner would start either at the head or the tail, as I did. So, first, the bitter chicory, just a touch salty. Then, a surprising splash of sweet acidity. And, finally, the chicory again, seemingly less bitter now, more grassy, more rounded, more beautiful. In three, simple bites, Lopriore recalibrated my sense of taste, conditioned me to not only endure, but to love the bitterness of the chicory. This was brilliant.
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I’m sad there was only one dessert.
The one we got was beautiful, and just as delicious and interesting as the dishes that came before it. Not unlike the rest of Lopriore’s food, this dessert was lean and efficient, flavors trimmed to their barest. To one side, there was a fat fig, infused with violet and drizzled with red wine sauce. To the other side, a slice of olive oil ice cream, a round that looked curiously like a mini cross-section of Boucheron cheese, rind and all. The olive oil was more bitter than fruity. But by this point in the meal, that was no surprise. And in one corner, there was a dot of cardamom syrup, industrial strength, to be spread sparingly across the mellow sweetness of the rest. In the course of one meal, Lopriore not only conditioned my sense of taste, but made me a more discriminating eater, more mindful of each ingredient on the plate.
Afterward, there was a beautiful bowlful of sweets that turned out to be a grab bag of flavor bombs: curry, tarragon, pistachio and almonds, dark chocolate, and that nasty, nasty cough syrup bon bon that I mentioned above.
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Do I recommend Il Canto?
For its setting, yes, definitely. There are few places as lovely.
For its service, no, definitely not. I’ll admit, the language barrier was partly our fault (stupid Americans). But, beyond that, our servers seemed grossly ill-informed about the food, and, frankly, (outside of reading the entire menu to us) disinterested. This was a little surprising, especially since the restaurant is a part of a Relais & Châteaux property, and, even more so, since the chef seemed heavily invested in his food – he appeared multiple times throughout our meal, observing us through the doorway from afar.
For its food? If you can abide strong flavors, and are willing to suspend pleasure, in part, for thought, then yes. If not, stay away. Meals at Il Canto since mine, reported to me by others, seem just as unpredictable as my own. Lopriore’s food is a gamble. Many of the dishes we had, even the most accessible ones, flirted with reason, walking a fine line between antic and genius. I can see how any one of them might have derailed with the slightest adjustment, failed at the smallest tweak. And, having only been there once, I don’t know how consistent the cooking is at Il Canto. Was it Lopriore’s culinary derring-do, or an inconsistent hand that lost him his Michelin star (or both)?
All I can tell you is that our meal – even in its unlovable extremes – offered a thoughtful and meaningful conversation between kitchen and table that I will never forget. That night, Lopriore earned the title of courageous, and applause as an artist.
Would I go back? Even without the setting Tuscan sun, yes; in a heartbeat, yes.
Certosa di Maggiano
Strada di Certosa, 82
I-53100 Siena (Toscano), Italy
Photos: Caviar, licorice, walnuts; the courtyard at Hotel Certosa di Maggiano, with Il Canto tables lining the colonnade; Champenoise and amuse bouches on the patio; grissini; pigeon with onion, licorice, cardamom, and rum; a bowl of petits fours; and Adam Goldberg on the patio at Il Canto.