I’m not one of those people who flies around Europe with a suitcase of cash and a checklist of expensive restaurants. I wish I was but I’m not. I’m a hitchhiking backpacker. I think museums are too expensive, I sleep in airports and I walk for hours to avoid paying bus fares. Going to one of the best restaurants* in the world was a very special experience for me. It’s a fucking big deal and I was going to do everything to make sure I made the most of it.
I barely slept the night before. My mind was skipping and shaking like a spoilt kid on Christmas Eve. It starts off as pure excitement. What am I gonna get?! What am I gonna get?! All the treasures of the world parading through my mind – every turn bringing more incredible, more extravagant and more ridiculous treats. Even the most impossibly excellent things start feeling possible. Only after imaging myself glutinously wallowing in an impossibly glorious paradise does the paranoia drift in.
What if I’m too full and I can’t eat anything?
What if they’ve misplaced my booking and my table is actually for next year?
What if we miss the bus and we’re to late for our booking?
What if they don’t let me in because my clothes are ugly?
Fuck all that shit. I’ve never been very good at paranoia anyway. Enthusiasm is more my strong suit. As soon as we woke up we we went for a run. It was fucking hot and my running muscles are about as developed as central Antarctica but who gives a fuck. I wanted to be hungry. If a stomach pump had of been available I would have used that too.
We returned successfully sweaty and slightly light headed, we called a cab and we suited up (I have only one nice shirt so I wore that).
We spent the last hour of the morning reading reviews of the restaurant and biographies of the chef. Enrico gave us a gandalfy pep-talk and we left.
This is the front door. It’s in a back alley of central Modena, a city of 180,000 people. If it wasn’t for the gold plated Osteria Francescana sign outside I would have had no idea it’s a restaurant. A big grey door, no lights, closed curtains, no sign of any activity. Why is this so intimidating? We were the first people there but I made Honey Vader wait outside until it was exactly 12:30 because I was too scared to go in.
That was nothing compared to the other side. The door, heavy and slow, gaped to reveal a forest of suited men so black and stern it made you feel like I’d accidentally waltzed into an illegal gambling ring. They’re all looking at you, one or two are smiling and all the others are just waiting for you to make the next move. I felt so out of place.
“Ciao . . . parli inglese?”
“Yes sir.” Of course he does. What a stupid fucking question. I’m like a nervous child.
“I have a reservation for two under Nicholas Jordan.”
“Right this way sir.” The forest, now dangling their welcome branches like plateless waiters, parted and watched.
We were seated in a grey curtained room with two other tables. It was bare besides for some sad portraits of Edith Piaf and minimalist painting on the far wall. If I didn’t know where I was I would have guessed I was in the building of a big financial firm who’d converted their office space for a CEO meet and greet.
After a few minutes another pair of black trees came out and silently handed us some menus.
Usually I would jump straight into the experimental crazy shit because that’s what €190 restaurants specialise in. You can’t get that kind of cuisine on the cheap. But this choice didn’t seem so obvious.
I caught a tree gliding past.
“Can we talk about the menu for a bit?”
“Of course, let me get the restaurant manager.”
. . .
“Hello, may I help you?”
“Hi. Yeah. What’s on the sensations menu?”
“Botturo’s experiments from the kitchen.”
“I’m not sure what to get. I just want to eat the best thing. Like if I was Massimo Bottura’s lover and I came here what would you serve me?”
“I can make a mix of courses from the classics and sensations menu. Keeping the same price of €190.”
“That sounds great.”
“And to drink?”
“Look, I’m going to be honest with you. It doesn’t take me much to get drunk and I don’t want to disturb the taste of the food. Can we get a few small things so we don’t drink much but we still get to try a lot of stuff? . . . Oh also I don’t have much money. So on the cheaper end.”
“Certainly sir, we will follow your pace.”
This is going well.
The first plate came down and I turned to Honey Vader. This is it. We’re fucking doing it.
Homemade sourdough with Tuscan olive oil
The bread came hot because, of course, it had just been baked. It was as perfect as you could imagine a sourdough loaf to be – pull it apart and the crust cracks and the flesh tears in chunks. It’s chewy, thick and rich.
An olive oil producer once explained to me Italian olive oil, if shotted, will make you cough and splutter. The olives are pressed early and pre-ripe so the oil is peppery and intense. This oil was text-book.
Tempura with carpione
Osteria Francescana’s fish and chips. Carpione is Italian for carp and it’s also a fish preserving technique using spiced vinegar. The dollop on top was a savoury ‘carpione’ flavoured gelato. Underneath is a perfectly crisp tempura canister containing fillets of aula, an anchovy like freshwater fish. It’s cold, hot, crispy, chewy and creamy – like eating the periodic table but much tastier.
Grissini, ciabatta rolls and multigrain croissants
Exactly what it looks like.
Multigrain croissants are an excellent idea. They’ve got the fluffy interior and flaky skin of their normy cousins but they’re more savoury multi purposed. If I learnt how to make them I’d be very constipated.
Bread, butter and anchovies
“Crack it open. It is best eaten all together.”
The bread crust turret cracks with a heavy spoon swipe. The walls fall into a buttery cream while the anchovy froth ceiling drools into a bed of fresh fish and herbs. Like butter and anchovies on toast but easier to eat and more complex to taste.
Livorese red mullet
The sheet on top has the texture of fried dried cheese – it snaps when you bite it. It’s covered in mixed olive and tomato dust. The fish underneath, outrageously tender and rich, bathes in a bouillabaisse tomato soup. The dust is very powerful in flavour so every bite combines all of the ingredients in a perfectly balanced cocktail.
Eel swimming up the Po
One of the restaurant’s most famous dishes and one of the tastiest things I’ve ever eaten. Tastiest. The eel, soft and fatty, is sous vide then grilled and vanished with Saba, a balsamic like grape juice syrup. On top there’s flakes of vanilla ash and underneath is a powder of burnt onion. The green jelly to the left is an intense green apple reduction, tart and sweet, and to the right is creamed polenta. The story is simply an eel swimming up a river. All the ingredients the eel would find on river’s edge are on the plate. Dishes like this make me doubt my ability as a writer.
Caesar salad in Emilia
Simply a piece of lettuce intricately stuffed with 26 different ingredients. Looks ordinary and tastes like the best Caesar salad you’ll ever had.
Five ages of Parmesan Reggiano, in different textures and temperatures
10 months, 20 months, 30 months, 40 months and 50 months. A cream, a sponge, a mouse, a foam and a crisp. All served at different temperatures. Parmesan from Reggiano is fucking good and so was this. I would like to know what the producer of the Parmesan thought of this dish.
Frog in a pond
Pond side: Roasted frog legs covered in herbed bread crumbs
Pond tender: Giant sheet of slithery pasta with aromatic flowers in top
Pond water: Black truffle and coffee sauce
Pond debris: toasted pine nuts, hazelnuts and mushrooms
The weirdest thing we ate. I could imagine some people disliking this because it’s actually quite pond like – the pasta is goupy and the sauce is boggy. It’s a slimy mess to feel and it tastes crazy. I was not one of those people.
Cotechino 365 days a year
Apparently when Italians come to Osteria Francescana they only order the traditional dishes. Italian food is the best in the world they say. Why would you want to eat weird shit? I just want a really fucking good ravioli. Inside is cotechino, a pork sausage traditionally eaten only at christmas, steamed over sparking red wine – this way the fat drains out and leaves a really flavoursome but lean sausage. The pork bits are packed in with lentils in a rich meaty soup. I imagine old Italian men, sun wrinkled and cigarette hoarse seeing their whole lives and weeping after eating this.
Half roast chicken
A tender slice of chicken breast next to a wing of whitlof sheltering a mash of truffle foie gras. Probably the most underwhelming thing I ate. It feels weird saying that about a meal I loved eating but it’s all relative. Some hugs are worse than others – none of them are bad though.
Foie gras ice cream bar with traditional balsamic vingar from modena
The foie gras filling hides a puddle of 50 year aged balsamic vinegar. When you bite the foie gras slides open on your teeth and the vinegar seeps out like tree sap. There is no ice cream. The foie fras is sour, savoury and fucking intense and the vinegar is almost entirely caramelised. The coating is roast almonds and hazelnuts.
It made me think of this dish I had at Tetsuya’s*. It was cannelloni beans, mascarpone, a thick soy sauce and caramel served on a Chinese soup spoon in between mains and dessert. You eat it whole. The first thing you taste is the cannelloni beans and salt of the soy sauce. Then your palate develops and you taste the cream of mascarpone and finally the sweet of the caramel. The progression was perfect. I thought maybe the foie gras ice cream had the same intent. It was clever but not perfect.
White, green and red
Milk gelato, green pea mouse and strawberry sorbet with mint and clovers. The closest you can get to making a garden taste like a dessert. I loved this. The leaves are bitter and the cloves particularly are chewy and stringy – alone they would probably taste like ass but with the desserts they make everything taste fresher – part of making the dish a story.
Oops! I dropped the lemon tart
A lemon and limoncello mascarpone zabaione with lemongrass sorbet under biscuit and surrounded by dots of candied lemon, bergamot jelly, spiced apple, chilli oil, lemon oil and honey capers. The tart itself is zingy, sweet and creamy in different parts. The little bits and drops on the side would be difficult to combine with the tart but they’re all incredibly intense in flavour. Each one adds a different layer onto the tart – sour, salty, spicy, bitter or sweet. It’s a fun idea and it’s magnificently tasty.
While we were eating our final official course Massimo Bottura came out to greet us.
“How is everything?”
“Hey when other famous chefs come here where do they eat?”
“At the tables with everyone else.”
“You don’t have secret special dinner out back?”
“No they eat like everyone else but we’re all sharing our ideas. It’s very open.”
“Have you had dinner parties together?”
“Yeah, we’re all very good friends.”
“So you all hang out and cook for each other?”
“When I go to Australia in November I’m going to meet Peter Gilmore, Ben Shwery . . . I think I cut him off because I saw expected.
OMFG. How good would that be. Who wants to dumpster dive the shit out of that house?!
When he was finished chatting to the other customers I called out to him.
“Do you think this wine tastes like turnips?” He raised his eyebrows looking incredulous. For a brief moment I imagined him as a sexy kangaroo. Then without asking he swiftly picked up Honey Vader’s glass, tossed the liquid around and whisked it up to his nose.
“Yes! . . . It does.”
“I knew it. Thanks. that makes me feel good.”
“You make me laugh.” He said chuckling as he wheeled back to the kitchen.
Chocolates/petit fours/unnamed delicious things
Raspberry jelly, coconut amaretti macaroon, chocolate and coffee truffle, brownie, hazelnut and coffee gianduia. I’ve never understood why post meal chocolates are so ignored. They’re as an intricate and delicious but not worthy of a mention on the menu, a description from our waiter or anything. I guess that would ruin the surprise of their arrival. Originally we were going to take them back to Enrico as a gift but they were too giddily good.
On the bus on the way home I asked Honey Vader which of our meals she would like to eat everyday.
“The wholemeal croissants. Oh la la. They were so good.”
At first I thought that was a strange answer. We had just been showered in some of the tastiest and most creative food the world has to offer but she picked bread. Then I thought about it myself and I found it hard to pick anything out either. It was all incredible, I certainly didn’t dislike anything, but I couldn’t imagine eating any of those things regularly. It seemed out of place, unnatural. How could I eat these delicate artworks so casually? Wouldn’t that be unjust? But that’s a strange reaction – I should want to eat them everyday just because they’re tasty. There are thousands of things I ate in the streets of Thailand I’d love to eat everyday – why not the meals at the third best restaurant in the world?
It sent me into a spiral of thought. How much had I actually enjoyed the meal? I thought back to just two days ago when I ate that ice cream in Bologna. I was euphoric. I yelled, I laughed and I wanted to tell everyone how I felt. I’ve had that feeling many times over my trip but I didn’t feel like that once at Osteria Francescana. It wasn’t because the food wasn’t excellent – It was, I loved it, I loved the stories, I loved the ideas and I loved the taste. But I didn’t enjoy it that much because I felt like I couldn’t enjoy it that much. It was too serious, the atmosphere so stiff and conservative. The walls are grey, the waiters are formal and devoid of humour and everything is quiet. Honey Vader and I whispered the entire evening. This is supposed to be one of the best restaurants in the world – Why can’t I laugh? Why can’t I shout?! I want to feel damnit.
I know guides like michelin and restaurant magazine consider other things than just food when they rank their restaurants but why the fuck they give so much weight to such an out dated idea of service and atmosphere is beyond me. I’m sure some people go to fancy restaurants just so they can be treated like royalty and feel important or whatever but I don’t understand that. The best restaurants in the world should be looking for the most pleasurable ways to engage with food. Food should be fun and Osteria Francescana wasn’t.
*Osteria Francescana has been voted 3rd best restaurant in the world by restaurant magazine awards for three running
*a very famous restaurant in Sydney, which not long before I ate there was also sitting high up on the best restaurant in the world lists.