I wasn’t chasing the world’s best. And as it turned out when I booked at table at Osteria Francescana it was the world’s no.2.
What’s the difference? In terms of experience, the service, food and atmosphere not much.
In terms of booking a year ago you could call up mid-week or at lunch and get a table. Now, it’s a three month wait.
Way back I interviewed the likeable and passionate Massimo Bottura for SBS Food on food and art while he was in Melbourne under deadline from Books for Cooks to sign what seemed like several hundred editions of his book.
In those days when I was still a working journalist I was on that bandwagon of interviewing visiting chefs (think Ferran Adria, Heston Blumenthal, David Chang, Thomas Keller, Sat Bains, Elena Arzak) without having the chance – or budget – to travel abroad to eat at every single one of my inteviewees restaurants.
It’s a weird experience and perhaps a symptom of the problems of modern journalism that we end up writing about something we haven’t actually tried.
But here I was early last September in the charming and compact Italian town of Modena, home also to Balsamic Vinegar, Ferrari and a shop selling amazing linen trousers at €99, down from €368.
Three pairs of trousers and a balsamic vinegar tour later I find Osteria Francesca is an unassuming building blending in to the backstreets of Modena.
The entrance and dining rooms are somewhere between upmarket airport lounge and art gallery, greeted by a Damien Hirst splatter painting from Mattura’s growing modern art collection. In our dining room a plinth holds a solid Murano crystal drinking glass and a painting of a single glass on the opposing wall.
There are two degustations available, Tradition in Evolution (his most famous dishes) or Sensation (new and experimental dishes). Wanting to try both we were offered a mix with a selection from both menus.
Genepì and tonic infused with herbs is our start of a journey through Massimo Bottura’s Italy and mind (though there is no sign of him here tonight).
Our pre dinner snack is Fish & Chips, a fish flavoured cracker with a herb flavoured quenelle. It is followed by crunchy bread filled with tomato and herbs. The macaron is filled with rabbit.
Our first course is Oyster verbena, green apple and an icy lemon ball.
Next arrives Botturo’s “war of Greece” an open eel ravioli, stuffed served in a bright green cucumber broth.
The fish soup looks fun and is. A pile of shashimi grade fish comes with a cup of intense fish soup.
But there are hits and misses. The real stars are the ones you may have heard of.
The five ages and textures of parmigiano reggiano is the juxtaposition of old and modern Italy. 24 month old parmigiano reggiano becomes a soufflé; 30 month old a creamy sauce; 36 month old is a cheesy foam; 40 month old is a thin galette; and, 50 month old a loose airy foam.
The “Crunchy part of the lasagne” is about memories of that last corner, presented in a form you might think was a prawn cracker, the puffed pasta in the Italian tri-colour sitting atop a dollop of ragu and creamy bechamel. Tri-colour, each colour a different flavour. The red replicated exactly the taste of that crunchy corner.
The beef dish takes an understanding of art and Italy to understand, the splattering of sauces inspired by Damien Hirst’s painting in the foyer. The beef is the bread (which Italians don’t eat with butter but use to mop sauces) there to merely mop up the sauce, Italian style. The magic of the dish is in the sauces, the red splatter is the yellow pepper and the yellow splatter is the red pepper.
What most Australians will call a Gaytime is fabulous and represents the food of the area. Fois Gras is filled with local balsamic vinegar and covered in toasted hazelnuts.
“Oops! I dropped the lemon tart” is world famous. It lives up to its looks though the flavour was insipid compared to a classic French tarte au citron.
Was it worth the $1,200? That is the big question…