Until recently, the main reasons for going to the Italian city of Modena were to visit the Ferrari Museum or to drop in on one of the numerous manufacturers of Balsamic vinegar and Parmigiana-Reggiano. This all changed nearly a decade ago, with the emergence of a small corner restaurant called Osteria Francescana.
Since appearing in the top five of the San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurant list for the past five years and gaining a third Michelin star in 2012, Modena has become a place of pilgrimage for dedicated foodies throughout the world. Massimo Bottura, the chef proprietor, is renowned for his desire to thrill and entertain by turning classic dishes on their head or creating what is termed ‘story food’ to represent some historical or artistic landmark in his personal or Italian history.
When you enter through the sliding doors, you will certainly be confused: are those pigeons perched on the railing near the ceiling? And what are those bags of garbage doing in the corner?
Well, both are contemporary artworks, along with a garish map of volcanoes from around the globe and walls plastered with photographs of classic film stars.
There are two separate dining rooms each with half a dozen tables in them, plus the private dining room, so it feels like being in the confines of an eclectic modern art gallery rather than a restaurant.
There is a considerable array of options—the a la carte section has 40 dishes in categories divided into regional specialities and courses from the land and the sea. On top of that there are two tasting menus categorised as Tradition in Evolution and Sensations. Having already indulged myself in the past with some of the traditional, I chose sensations, which essentially means constantly changing seasonal plates from the experimental kitchen.
However, this must be one of the most flexible and user-friendly kitchens on the planet—you have the feeling that whatever the new customer or the returning veteran want, they would do their utmost to deliver it.
What makes a meal here so special is the constant sense of surprise before each plate appears. The plates themselves deliver an extraordinary number of flavours and concepts, which work without any explanation.
But when the background of the dish is explained, preferably by Massimo himself, it takes on a life of its own. Take the first course: three dome-shaped dumplings with a cotechino gelatin on one side and lentils on the other.
It is entitled ‘ravioli east and west: shrimp, lentils, cotechino gelatin and ginger’. The ravioli has been ‘Asianised’ and while the cotechino flavour is intense, the Asian influence is there with the ginger and the shrimp.
Another artful touch is the stickiness to the texture of the ravioli that is reminiscent of the absent cotechino. This is not modernist trickery, as the flavours of all the ingredients are completely of themselves—the pleasure is in the playfulness of the juxtaposition.
This was followed by a Livornese red mullet perfectly baked with a crispy skin, but the simple Caesar salad that followed really showed Bottura’s quirky genius. On the white plate, all that you see is a glistening unadorned green salad. Once you have bitten into it, this becomes a rather inadequate description of the experience. What Bottura has done is dress it from the inside out, so that every bite reveals a different sensory experience—the crunch of Parmigiano, then an egg yolk with non-acidic vinegar and following that, mustard seeds and water infused with anchovy.
This constant rethinking is shown perfectly in the next dish, the top of a lasagne. The reasoning is that the crust of the lasagne is the most interesting part of the dish, so why not just serve that with little else, save a hint of the sauce?
The ideas keep leaping off the plate. The next dish, ‘Oh Deer!’, came about when a roe deer became available when it was making havoc in a vineyard.
Two small fillets are served with Ottoman patterns of roses around them in homage to the animal. As a further association, the jus is partially composed of cherries, the fruit that the roe deer is especially keen on eating.
The next dish manages to use the cotechino from the ravioli dish, only this time it is encased by zabaglione. There are several more surprises, from a near perfect, simple tagliatelle with a Bolognese ragu to a risotto ‘north and south’, which refers to its Sicilian extra virgin olive oil, which mingles with the flavour of coppa di testa (slow-cooked pig’s head). The dessert was almost an anti-climax; a small trio of compressed chocolate cherries and then a plate of six different miniature cakes.
The experience of eating a meal here is unlike any other. This is not just because of the innovative way many questions and concepts are thrown up. No, the real secret is the sensory thrill imparted by each and every dish. Never has learning been conveyed with such lightness of touch, and pleasure.
Tasting menus from €110 to €180 per person,osteriafrancescana.it