There are a few very good reasons to visit Modena. Discovering the pleasures of aged balsamic. Noshing on tortellini, preferably with a drop of lambrusco. Perhaps, if you’re a fan of Italian racing marques, a visit to the Enzo Ferrari Museum.
Yet, you and I both know that we wouldn’t have visited Modena for any of that (ok, maybe balsamic – I mean, I do like the stuff). It’s instead a salmon-coloured building, down a semi-hidden cobblestone street, where thousands of people who have never stepped foot in Modena come to witness and devour the passion of Massimo Bottura, a transmuter that realises memories into edible art.
Date Last Visited: 23/Mar/2018
Address: Via Stella, 22, 41121 Modena MO, Italy
Highlight Dishes: five ages of Parmigiano Reggiano, oops I dropped the lemon tart
Price Guide (approx): 270 EUR (~$433 AUD), price I paid: 450 EUR (270 + 180 EUR wine pairing = ~$717 AUD at time of writing)
You can’t underestimate that certain je ne sais quoi soft power a world-famous restaurant wields. Institutions such as The World’s 50 Best and the Michelin guide institutionalise the phenomenom into a movement, a religion – the food awards are popes of the gastrotourist church, restaurants their cathedrals, and celebrity chefs their bishops.
Collectively, they can make otherwise rational people do utterly irrational things – say people who, normally conscious of food miles, burn ten thousand of them in an airplane seat, and likely two or three more trains & taxis – just to be able to take a seat, probably designed by an obscure artist – at the table. Tables which are usually so hard to get, acolytes of the religion will literally prostrate themselves at their PCs, watching their clocks like a hawk, and pouncing like a cat when reservations open at xx:00 on the dot. That is, if they don’t have concierges (the secret cabal, perhaps) doing the dirty work for them. I mean, I would know – it takes one to know one, after all.
It’s fun, sometimes. It’s also a gastrotourist’s curse.
If you’re going to subscribe to a religion, openly admit it, embrace it, and you might as well go all out. And so, after many months, we arrive at Osteria Francescana with the highest of expectations. Yes, I tried to temper them. No, it didn’t work.
Taking out the number 1 spot on the World’s 50 Best list in 2016 (and never having left the top 5 in the last 8 years), as well as being featured in the opener of Chef’s Table have all done an excellent job at proselytising Bottura’s venue to the masses. But there are a few things to unpack. There inevitably is.
Art has something to do with it. Massimo has a collection to match his passion – think Gavin Turk (wait, why is there a garbage bag in the restaurant?), Francesco Vezzoli (dude, what’s with all the faces on the walls?), and Maurizio Cattelan (well, at least I didn’t see his gold toilet). Should you ever have the luck – as a disciple of gastrotourism – to visit Osteria Francescana, you will certainly notice the works adorning the walls of the restaurant which, with its neutral greys and brown carpet dominating the eyes, is itself fitted out much like modest family home. It doesn’t necessarily help prepare you for the price of the meal – 270 euros at its height for the ‘everything’ degustation menu – steep, luxurious, and expected. Holy experiences come at a price.
We did as good disciples would do – showing up early. Too early, for I in fact mistook the time of booking by 30 minutes (and I know what you’re thinking – thank god it wasn’t in the other direction). However, it was most serendipitous, for that was when Massimo himself pulled up outside Osteria Francescana – in a sleek, aggressive Maserati SUV no less (I am sure this, also, is art to the man) – to make sure everything would be ready before service. Well, if you’re going to hand me the opportunity on a silver platter…
Making friends with chefs can be an awkward experience when part of your job is to comment fairly – but critically – of restaurants. How could you stay de-conflicted? But goodness, is it difficult not to swoon just a little, for Massimo is the embodiment of the hospitality stereotypical of Italians. If you do get to meet him – and it should be easy, as he’s still at Osteria Francescana quite frequently – don’t miss the opportunity.
Don’t let that influence this post. Don’t let that influence this post. Don’t let that influence this post.
But he even consented to a selfie! The
celebrity crush evangelising is real.
True religion promises salvation, gastrotourism promises lots of Instagram envy, and hopefully – maybe just hopefully – a good meal.
It didn’t start off that way. It was the rye sourdough‘s fault, average and served not at all warm. An unlimited amount of house-made grissini and plain semelle rolls quickly reversed the state of things – this must be what smoking is like, for I truly understood what it meant to lose self control: one down. Two down…fifteen down…basket replaced *oh shit*…you get the idea.
Next, a progression small bites, of Italian umami: Fish and Chips – the best amuse – made with deep fried potato and savoury (read: fish) ice cream w/white vinegar (carpione style). Cuttlefish and Tomato pockets. A savoury Macaron of stewed radish and Parmagiano. Sardine Crackers ended the flurry, priming the palate, and left me begging for a mint (phooey it’s a pungent fish!)
Then the memories began. Apparently, of the sea, with an eau de parfum concoction of the stuff sprayed on insalata: a garden bed of oysters and mussels. The sea spray was a concoction of prawns and cuttlefish, admittedly ingredients I would rather eat, than smell. Good textures, good flavours, with a particularly notable spicy kick that went straight to tickling my Asian senses. It’s a good salad, insofar as salads go.
When visiting a restaurant at Osteria Francescana’s level, the seasoned diner can always expect a number of dishes designed more for impact than taste. Take Burnt, an evidently PoMo-influenced black-on-black something that clearly had an identity crisis on whether it should be food, or art.
And while it might look at home at Rome’s Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna, its impression on the palate played second fiddle to its initial shock value. The dish is made with a concentrated stock of various fish, crustaceans and floral balsamic, the crackers themselves enclosing a smear of heavily salted fish cream. And of course, squid ink just about everywhere.
Salt was the operative word, and the operative flavour. Like the dish’s colour palette, this was highly unbalanced. Back on the wall you go.
Three classic Mediterranean fish preparations underscored the next dish titled Mediterranean Sole: al cartoccio, sotto sale and alla mugnaia. Massimo refers to it as the summoning of Italian modernist Alberto Burri’s canvases. And it probably had something to do with, well, the Meditteranean sea. Hmm.
It can be dangerous to base a dish off references that not only can be obscure, but non-edible to begin with. I am not intimiately familiar with the Meditteranean, and have no idea who this artist is, and to be honest, I don’t – nor should have to – care in order to enjoy the dish. But in a great success of cooking, it spoke for itself. The tomatoes and capers made themselves known first (they’re underneath the dish), then the zesty lemon flour, and finally the fish itself, as if it had smoked delicious hay all its life, the flavour made manifest in its flesh. I disliked the leather-like, salt-crusted skin. Something had to give.
As for the next piece of Bottura’s life titled chowder in Adriatic, I was told by Osteria Francescana’s waitstaff that this was – I kid you not – a pirate ship on the Adriatic coast, laden with sea snails, razor clams, cauliflower, onions & Jerusalem artichokes. It was served inside a friable, buttery savoury pie crust like a tarte tartin, meant to represent ‘travel’ and ‘seasonality’ that was ironically the tastiest part of the dish. The chowder? Creamy, sweet, and quite possibly perfect. But it will never be as good as a ladle of the stuff served in a bread bowl at Fisherman’s Wharf: it’s a dish you can only take so far; In fact, a dish that could only be taken so far.
Now we skip to the Big Apple, in Autumn. Don’t know what that’s like? Too bad – New York is one of Massimo’s favourite cities in the world, to which NYC in Autumn pays homage. You guessed it, it’s apples and apples – a toddler’s fistful of semi-cooked cubes of the stuff alongside more interesting fall vegetables such as potatoes – an interesting, and not wholly workable combination. It was all preserved and pickled in a minerally broth of apple vinegar, pumpkin concentrate and mushrooms shaped into a Big Apple (oh, I geddit; hah). To further confuse my tongue, it was all based in a konbu dashi. Are you still keeping track of the number of flavours here? The dish wasn’t bad; it wasn’t delicious, either. A curio that will be remembered, but only for some of the right reasons.
But then, perfection. The moment of holy light that sears away all other imperfections. Bottura’s magnum opus, the Five Ages of Parmagiano Reggiano is easily the best dish at Osteria Francescana; perhaps one of the greatest things I have ever eaten. Bottura supposedly took almost as long as his entire cooking career to perfect the dish. Living up to its name, it is the king of cheese, expressed five ways: a sauce of demi-glace viscosity, a demi-soufflé, a foam, a galette and a uh, ‘air’. I couldn’t fault the dish one bit. The cream, from 24-month Parmagiano, is at a zen monk’s level of balance in sweet, salty, and umami. So too is the 30-month soufflé, one to ruin the rest of them. The galette, at 40 months, is the kind of snack that I would package up and sell en masse, it’s crispy crack. And the foam. Oh, how I hate foams in gastronomy, and somehow, the one in this dish – 50 months Parmagiano – is so intense, it puts Chanel No. 5 to shame.
If anything, the only thing pretentious about the dish is the description – ‘the white monochrome is a portrait of the Modenese landscape covered in fog and silence.’ Righteo. But the dish itself? It is at its apogee. It cannot be improved. It is the kind of dish that could replace all other savouries of this meal, and I would be happier for it.
Ravioli of hare, served with snails and aromatic herbs is ‘a snapshot of the Emilian landscape enclosed in ravioli pasta’. I believed it this time – for our train trip taken to Modena was indeed lush, green and verdant. The dish too, was delicious: vegetal, fresh, incredibly savoury, and just gamey enough to be noticed, yet not overwlehming. One of the better executions of Bottura’s vision.
The penultimate savoury course of camouflage pigeon and partridge meatballs could have come straight out of a French kitchen, such was the technique on display. Perhaps an homage to Bottura’s time working with world-renowned French chef Alain Ducasse, this was as intense as it looked, as intense as French cooking can often be. Pigeon breast and a deep-fried ‘meatball’ of partridge loin was cooked perfectly, served with a beet sauce and lemon thyme sauce that balanced out so well it impressed, even after I had dined at many of Paris’ greatest restaurants.
This was then almost immediately outshone by the final savoury – mallard, pigeon & partridge tarte tartin. Bathed in pigeon bacon caramel and covered in cured pumpkin, it was, for everything I could have said about it, best described as a hamburger patty with a side of Big Mac sauce. Probably on flavour steroids too. Delicious, intense. The one niggle? It was served onto the same plate as the original pigeon plate before we had even finished eating that particular dish. A move that was no doubt deliberate (everyone else had the same thing happen to them), and perhaps excusable in demonstrating a link between the two, but ultimately felt a little cheap, and awkward.
It shouldn’t need to be said that using local produce is part of the Osteria Francescana package. This was particularly prominent in the pre-dessert of cherries comes in all shapes and sizes. Three types of cherries are used – ciliegia, duroni & amarene – all PDO (protected designation of origin), blended into a cherry sorbet, served with a cherry tomato marinated in cherry juice. This was finished with a crumble made from Torta Barozzi – a chocolate & coffee cake from the nearby city of Vignola representing the richness of Modenese soil, and a ricotta cream sourced from the Appennines. This represents ‘heavy Emilian fog’. Gloomy descriptions aside, it was a heck of a try-hard dish. I would have been more enthused if I was treated to the merits of each cherry type individually – blending together seemed to be a bit of a waste.
And then there’s the famous accident. Served on a plate that also looked as if it had been dropped and humpty-dumptied back together again, Oops! I Dropped the Lemon Tart is Osteria Francescana’s broken beauty. A flicked paintbrush of lemon curd, fragmented pieces and crumble of sabayon, and a lemon ice cream. It is technically just a lemon tart, but it certainly helped that all the individual elements were perfect – Bottura’s pastry chef needs a pat on the back. Magnifico.
An obsession Bottura has of foie gras made the petit fours seem a little excessive. It’s present as a foie gras chocolate (thankfully more chocolate than foie gras), and a foie gras & aged balsamic lollipop with a croccantino of almonds. I’m partial to this kind of intensity and pungency, so winner winner, chicken [liver] dinner!
After the better part of an afternoon, we emerge from Osteria Francescana, having lived Massimo’s vision through a multiplicity of art-cum-food, with varying degrees of edibility.
In its second year of operations, Osteria Francescana nearly shut its doors for good, the Modenese that previously visited being absolutely disgusted with Massimo’s butchery of tradition. And now? The world is lining up to taste his art, for better or worse. It’s not the best restaurant in the world. But then again, none can be. Just like art, you will have to visit yourself and see whether Massimo is a Van Gogh of food, or just his crazy side. The man takes great risks to serve memories and taking tradition head-on, and the result will inevitably fill a black hole of misses. But the hits? They have the potential to create lifelong memories in all of us.
This post is based on an independently-paid visit to Osteria Francescana
Wanna read about other chefs that have defined modern fine dining as we know it? You might be interested in these:
Noma 2.0: the world’s most influential restaurant reopens
Arpège: where a French chef goes against centuries of tradition
The Fat Duck: where fun and fine dining is proven not to be mutually exclusive
- Bottura’s signature dishes are world-class
- Service and ambience was precise and expected for a restaurant of this level
- The servers were sometimes difficult to understand through their accents
- A chunk of the menu is overly ambitious
- You can’t eat memories, a trope that rears its head frequently
Would I return: yes
F7.5 | S4.5 | A2