Apparently, you’re not supposed to apologise for abandoning your blog for weeks or months. However, I probably should acknowledge that I haven’t been blogging for an age, and possibly don’t have any readers anymore. It’s been a busy year and I’m not sure I’ve cooked anything especially interesting or new. Anyway, here I am attempting to return to the lemurs. If nothing else, this is a pretty spectacular meal to return with. The lemurs were in Emilia Romagna on a short break with Mama Lemur. She wanted to treat us all to something a bit special, and accordingly we booked dinner at Massimo Bottura’s Osteria Francescana. As you’ll all probably know, it has recently been listed third on the World’s Best Restaurants list, and Bottura’s playful twists on traditional local flavours sounded like the perfect way to splash out. We drove from our base in Bologna to Modena on our final afternoon, took in the lovely duomo and medieval city centre, kicked back with a campari soda in the Piazza Maggiore, and prepared mentally for the culinary onslaught to come.
When we arrived, we worked hard not to feel out of place. It has the air of an exclusive club, from having to ring the doorbell to the attendant who makes you wait in the foyer while they check your name off the exclusive list. None of this is done in an unfriendly way, and the staff are actually all smiles, but the Lemurs do not fit easily into such a rarified world. The next table were, I could swear, famous in some way. Not Beyoncé famous but the uber-handsome guy sitting opposite me looked like either the heir to the Pirelli fortune or the scion of some Italian aristocratic family. The older woman probably runs the World Bank. They exuded wealth. I, meanwhile, took a minute to figure out what the handbag stool was for. I’m such a prole I didn’t even know my handbag needed its own chair.
Now, there is something to mention before the meal. It’s easy to find reviews of Osteria Francescana online, and loads of people have very knowledgable analysis of the food. This is not going to be that kind of post. Don’t get me wrong: the meal was utterly amazing, one of the most memorable eating experiences I’ve had. I’m not snarking on the wonderful food here. But our lack of expertise become comical at a certain point. Our main waiter (he had a cadre of minions) explained each dish to us when it arrived in excellent but rapid-fire English. His strong accent, fast speech and the weird and unfamiliar things he was telling us resulted in us only understanding fragments of what he told us. It kind of added to the fun, but rather than look up the details I’m just going to work with what we actually experienced…
We decided on the tasting menu, because why would you not go for the full experience, right? We began with Tempura with Carpione, which was some kind of small fish deep fried, and topped with vinegar ice cream. Yes, vinegar ice cream! It was utterly delicious, a mouthful of surprise and happiness.
Next up was An Eel Swimming Up the Po River, a pleasingly conceptual plate centred on a lovely piece of eel cooked in saba, which gave it an umami quality. On the left was something appley, on the right, cream of polenta. At the bottom of the fish is some crumbly stuff that I heard as “ink” but couldn’t possibly be, right? This was Mama Lemur’s favourite dish but, although I liked it a lot, I found the side elements a little underwhelming.
Next was a take on Caesar Salad. This dish doesn’t look like much – ok, it looks like a lettuce on a plate – but it was completely delightful. The little whole lettuce is filled with 25 different ingredients, stuffed painstakingly between the leaves. There is cilantro, Thai basil, mint and other herbs; there are mustard seeds, crispy nuggets of bacon, and crumbled parmesan tuiles. God knows what was all in there but every bite was delicious and surprising. It was exactly what you want this kind of modernist cuisine to do, and it was light and refreshing. This was one of my favourite dishes.
Next up was Five Ages of Parmigiano Reggiano, which you might have seen when Masterchef visited the restaurant recently. This one is a cheese lover’s fantasy and Mr Lemur was practically drooling. The waiter rattled through what the five ages actually were, and I have no real idea. There was some kind of mousse, a souffle thingy, a pool of liquid parmesan, a foamy thing, and a crispy tuile, all made from differently aged cheese. I will say this: regular readers will know that I am not a huge fan of cheese and would not normally be thrilled to eat a big plate of nothing but dairy. This, though? This was sublime. The souffle thing was probably my favouite element but all together they combined into what Masterchef Greg would likely call a big warm hug. I could have eaten a bucket of this stuff.
The next dish was the most traditional looking, and was called Cotechino 365 Days a Year. Cotechino is a local type of sausage, and it’s usually eaten in the winter with lentils. This much I understand. There was some insanely complicated explanation of why Bottura’s technique enables you to eat it all year around, which ended up with steaming the pasta like dumplings. I had no clue what he was talking about but we ended up with cotechino and lentils, inside ravioli. I suspect whatever made the dish modern, clever and different passed me by, but it was a wonderfully unctuous, vibrant version of a very traditional Italian dish. The meat was all gooey melted collagen while the lentils were cooked just so, giving just enough bite. The pasta was, as you can see, very very thin and delicate. It looks like an un-generous portion but we were already getting quite full by this point.
Next up was meant to be the dish of Snails Under a Vine Leaf, but the chef changed things up a bit and instead we had something about Snails Under Melting Snow. At this point, we began to suspect that, sick of people photographing their dinner, Bottura was deliberately designing dishes to be resistant to photography. While the Vine Leaf version of the dish is gorgeous to look at, this was a plain white foam in a plain white bowl. Sorry. The waiter explained what was under the foam, but it all went by in a bit of a haze so we had basically no idea what to expect from this dish except for snails. The foam itself was made of wild garlic and below it was a deep chlorophyll green of some kind of herbal soupy stuff. Carefully arranged around the base were little mouthfuls of unexpected flavour and texture. There were snails, definitely. Then bits of hazelnut, and, astonishingly, crumbles of coffee bean. Mama Lemur was not thrilled with this but Mr Lemur and I thought it was fantastic.
Next up was All the Tongues of the World, which not surprisingly centred on tongue. It’s a pun, of course, with the soft, long-cooked veal tongue surrounded by sauces representing a world of culinary tradition. Here, I think, was when we finally lost track completely of the waiter. He told us something about the little black crust on the veal that sounded to me like “dogmeat” but clearly wasn’t, then he produced a black ball of some kind, about 6 inches in diameter, and said something incomprehensible about how this mystery object was used in the cooking process. Not this actual one, he clarified, this one is just to show you. The real one gets broken in the cooking. Er, ok? I honestly couldn’t even imagine what the black ball was made out of or how it could contribute to creating neat cubes of sous-vide veal. In the nicest possible way, we felt like fraudulent plebs, so we just smiled and nodded. Luckily, it didn’t matter to the eating of the dish, which was rich and decadent. The veal tongue was so very very soft and sticky, and you could cut its fatty goodness with a different sauce in each mouthful. The lentil one on the right was Sri Lankan in inspiration and was wonderfully generous with the hing. The clear one on the bottom was Southeast Asian and a bit spicy (hurrah!), while the yellow one cleverly was flavoured with passion fruit, but the black seeds aren’t passion fruit seeds but basil seeds. There was also a cilantro salsa verde and a rather good blob of ceviche.
By this point in the meal I was entering a meat and fat coma. All the dishes look so petite that you might imagine it wasn’t very much food, but the richness adds up way more than you’d think. Combined with the cloistered and intimate dining space, and the slow but steady rhythm with which the dishes arrive, you end up in a bit of a trance state. Perhaps this is why none of us could understand the waiter. If we were halfway out of consciousness before, this next dish pushed us right over the edge. Fois Gras Crunch was described as a semi-dessert (hey, I got that part!) and you know you are in trouble in the best possible way when desserts involve meat. What arrived was a dainty lollipop of fois gras, coated with crunchy hazelnuts, and, it transpired, with 50-year-old Modena balsamic vinegar injected inside. Can I express how delicious 50 year old balsamic vinegar is? No, I don’t think I can. Its acidity cut the insane richness of the fois, but it is also sweet, complex, and heady, the best possible surprise in the centre of a lollipop. It’s not sweet like cake but sweet in an altogether more sublime way.
Our final dish was an actual dessert and, sad to say we ended on the only plate that none of us really liked. This was the famous Potato Waiting to Become a Truffle, which consisted of an actual baked potato, filled with a sweet potato souffle (not sweet-potato, I don’t think but potato with sugar), with a creme anglais on top and slices of black truffle. I get the conceit, the play between humble potato and fancy truffle, the mix of sweet and savoury, the bravura presentation. It looked spectacular but I just couldn’t get past the combo of baked potato and creme anglais. Think about those two things on one spoon. Yup, that’s exactly what this tasted like. I may not be sufficiently avant-garde but it reminded me of nothing more than Doctor Who’s fish fingers and custard. Just no.
Luckily, a top-class meal like this never ends with dessert, and we were next presented with a cake plate of petit fours (which sorry, Mr Lemur forgot to photograph). We had earlier made disobliging remarks about the rich people at the next table who had left their petit fours almost untouched, but we came to realise that by this point, you are so utterly stuffed that the thought of a wafer-thin mint is alarming. To exorcise the taste of the potato I ate one, and it was divine – a lighter version of gianduja with a creamy hazelnutty centre. Mr Lemur had some miniature cake that he liked a lot too. I wish I had had more room, or the chutzpah to sweep them into my handbag in the style of my late grandmother, but in the end we, too, left a plate of almost untouched chocolates.
Osteria Francescana isn’t the type of restaurant the Lemurs usually frequent – we’re more fans of Asian food down alleys than the cathedrals of modernist European cuisine. But this was a truly spectacular meal; a swooning dream-like experience in which two of us didn’t even drink and yet we ended up dizzy with food bliss. It’s not the kind of food you could eat very often, and I didn’t eat for almost 24 hours afterwards, but it was transportingly good.