It’s not the start I was expecting. The wax figurine in the entrance to the restaurant of what appears to be a bloated Brit abroad, poorly dressed and reading a vintage copy of the Daily Star; his suitcase wardrobe cast all around his feet. The meaning is lost on me. It’s a bizarre opening play from a restaurant widely regarded as one, if not the, best in the world. A place where bloated tourists like I have travelled specifically to eat at. Despite the global pandemic and the self-isolation rules in place when I returned.
The temptation when one has gone to such effort to eat lunch is to pretend that it is the greatest restaurant in the world, and is befitting of a 290 euro price tag for the food alone. Except I’m not sure if it is. One month on and I’m still bewildered by the three hours I spent in Osteria Francescana. Some three star moments, some less so, and possibly the worst dish I’ve ever been served, all bound under a 12 course tasting menu inspired by The Beatles.
We start with good grissini and glasses of the house Prosecco, a bargain at 30 euros a glass. Then three savoury macarons, delicate and mostly unmemorable, before brioche – woven, brittle, and clad in salt diamanté – as good as any laminated bread gets. The first real three star moment comes in a salad of butter head lettuce and nori, each leaf piled tall with various caviars, eggs, and roes. A salty, luxurious hit of the ocean, I beamed with every mouthful.
A humorous take on fish, chips, and curry sauce is almost there also, had it not been for the crumbed cubes of fish being indistinguishable. Top marks for the cut out radish Michelin stars though. If anyone had ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ in the worst dish sweepstake then congrats, you’ve won. A bowl of strawberry risotto, raw shrimp and smoked mozzarella cream is served to us. Yes, you did just read that correctly. I’ve witnessed some bad ideas in action – I’ve seen a friend buy drugs from a man who regurgitated them in front of him in Prague – but this might be the worst. It’s style over substance, a dish that should have been laughed off the piece of paper it was designed on. Neither of us get close to finishing it.
Two cracking dishes follow. First cod in a Thai green curry sauce and a salad of herbs, which was clean and distinct, followed by a pasta/dumpling hybrid of pork belly in a clam chowder that paid homage to the various nations in the kitchen. This course was the star of the day; the best pasta dish I’ve ever eaten. Age old combinations of flavour that sing together. Just incredible. Savoury courses finish on pigeon breast with a pokey offal croquette, and a lacquered sauce flavoured with, I think, hibiscus. I want to love it but ultimately can’t. The sum of its parts is too big overall.
Should you be the type of person who likes to finish a meal on a sweet note, here might not be the type of place to queue online for hours to get a reservation. Creme Catalan is made using foie gras, which I adore but others might not, and I have little recollection of a yoghurt and freeze-dried fruit ensemble, which might be because of the dish, but is likely because we’re three bottles deep by now. I do remember the final course of pumpkin, mushroom, white truffle, and roast chestnut because it was great, albeit served ten courses too late. Petit fours include a chocolate made from rabbit’s blood, because why not.
Those familiar with Massimo Bottura’s episode of Chef’s Table might have similar expectations to me. Over that hour he paints the picture of a man jointly driven by his love of northern Italy, and also by creativity. In that respect much of Osteria Francescana is true itself, though there becomes a point when the creative mind becomes impractical to reality. With any multi-course tasting menu I expect there will be dishes which don’t deliver, yet I wasn’t ready for how divisive it would be. A weird flow of dishes, with little rhyme or reason, leads to memories that sit either side of my pleasure spectrum, all for the small sum of almost a grand between two. Interestingly my dining companion, who was living in Bologna at the time, went to Casa Maria Luigia a couple of weeks afterwards. It was here he was served all of the iconic dishes; the five ways with Parmesan, the crispy part of the lasagna, the dropped lemon tart, amongst others. He loved it and said he wished we had gone there instead. I don’t. I travelled to eat at Oesteria Francescana. I was served a snap shot of that restaurant at that period of time. And like 2020 itself, I’m still none the wiser to what happened.
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- 3 michelin star,
- 3 star,
- Fine Dining,
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