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Pok Pok, Portland

9 Feb

3226 Southeast Division Street
Portland, Oregon
97202

T: 503 232 1387
www.pokpokpdx.com

A lot has been written about Pok Pok. No seriously, a lot. If you have not heard anything about Pok Pok, I encourage you to watch the video below on Andy Ricker, the man who started it all. I love Andy’s enthusiasm, dedication, and the fact that he doesn’t try to Westernize his food. One of my pet peeves is establishments doing a disservice to the foods and cultures that they are representing by dumbing down the flavours to appease Western taste buds. Pok Pok doesn’t do that.

After hearing about Pok Pok for years, I finally had my chance to visit when I was in Portland last May with some friends. It didn’t live up to my lofty expectations. We hadn’t made a reservation and, with the wait for a table being over 2 hours long, I did what any desperate foodie would do and ordered take-out and stood on the street to eat it. Don’t do this. You will not experience Pok Pok the way that it should be experienced. To really enjoy Pok Pok, you need to get a group of friends together, order many different dishes, sample a little bit of this, a little bit of that, and wash it all down with some cocktails or beers.

After a rocky first start at Pok Pok, I am now a convert. I was back in Portland in December with my family and I dragged them across the city to give Pok Pok another try. Thankfully, this time I wasn’t left disappointed. Now I get it. The dishes were interesting and the flavours were bold and fresh – that winning combination of sour, salty, spicy, and sweet. I couldn’t even tell you which dish I liked the most because I liked them all, but for very different reasons.

Hoi Thawt (crispy broken crepe with steamed mussels, eggs, garlic, chives)

 Da Chom’s Laap Meuang (spicy hand-minced pork “salad”)

Muu Satay (grilled pork loin skewers marinated in coconut milk and turmeric).

Sai Ua Samun Phrai (Chiang Mai sausage with herbs, served with pork rinds and spicy green chile dip)

Kung Op Wun Sen (prawns with pork belly and bean thread noodles)

The famous Ike’s Vietnamese Fish Sauce Wings

Be adventurous when visiting Pok Pok – yes, the menu can be overwhelming but try not to be intimidated. Ask the server what they recommend, order some of the favourites (the chicken wings are worth the hype), or just take a risk and try something new. I recommend sampling all of the garnishes, sauces, and spices that come with the dishes – they are there for a reason and will elevate the dish.

You must reserve if you are going with a large group (they will accept reservations for groups of 5 or more), otherwise be prepared to wait. This place is BUSY! If you do end up having to wait, you can put your name on the list and then head down the street to Whiskey Soda Lounge (also owned by Andy Ricker) to have some drinks whilst you wait. If you can’t get in to the original location, there are other Pok Pok establishments around Portland (and New York and LA). I can’t wait to go back to Pok Pok!

Chicago

29 Nov

Admittedly, the sole purpose of my recent trip to Chicago was to eat Alinea. It didn’t matter to me if we ate mediocre meals for the rest of the trip as long as I got to visit a Grant Achatz restaurant. We had confirmed reservations at Alinea before we left Vancouver, but I had been desperately trying to get a reservation at Next or The Aviary – unfortunately, our dates didn’t match their opening hours (they are open from Wednesday through Sunday) so we didn’t get to sample any of Chef Achatz’s other establishments. Whilst that was disappointing, it freed us up to explore the Chicago food scene before our highly anticipated meal at Alinea. In a brief summary, here is what we got up to:

 Chicago Sightseeing

Merlo was an easy introduction to Chicago. It didn’t blow my socks off but it was a nice evening at a restaurant that made an effort. For the Vancouverites reading, it reminded me of a Lupo/Cioppino’s amalgamation, but with a little less polish than Cioppino’s. The execution was a little sloppy for us (a few small bones in the peasant pasta, the expensive tenderloin with white truffles was very acidic and not worth the hefty price-tag) but overall the experience was cozy, romantic, and a nice welcome to the Windy City. We ended up back at our hotel bar, closing down the bar whilst drinking Prosecco and cocktails. This happens when you are two hours ahead of everyone else in the city (we were still on Pacific Standard Time).

Wild Tuna Carpaccio from Merlo

Pasta special with Peasant from Merlo

Beef Tenderloin with White Alba Truffles from Merlo

Dark Chocolate Molten Cake from Merlo

We struggled to find good coffee in Chicago. We went out of our way to find Intelligenstia Coffee but it really wasn’t worth it. We found our best coffee in Eataly, which if you’ve not been to the New York store, you really should visit the Chicago store when you are in town. You will find delicious coffee, snacks, pasta, pizza, cheese, and wine (amongst other things). I love this place as it is a foodie’s playground. Just try to say no to the carbs!

Spaghetti Cacio e Pepe from Eataly

 Housemade Tagliatelle with Short Rib Ragu from Eataly 

I had to try the deep pan pizza that Chicago is famous for and after some research I landed on Lou Malnati’s for an original deep pan pizza. Unfortunately, this beast (above) played havoc with my stomach. I don’t think my stomach and I are cut out for the calorie overload that was a deep pan pizza from Lou Malnati’s. I wouldn’t go back for this. The base was too buttery/oily and it was far too much heavy food for this delicate tummy (I only ate half of the “personal” pizza and found that it was too much).

I would, however, go back for Champagne at RM Champagne Salon. This beautifully decorated bar was so cute that I wanted to stay there all night and drink bottles of Champagne. The atmosphere was incredibly romantic and I’d highly recommend a visit to this place if you are in the area. It is somewhat hidden but if you know what you are looking for, it isn’t hard to find.

After our pre-dinner drink at RM Champagne Salon, we made our way around the corner to the famous Girl and The Goat. This place was jumping from the minute we got there – think: dark, loud, and busy. But the reason folks stand in line for this place is for the food – it is so good. The menu was a little peculiar but all of the dishes that we tried (five in total) were exceptional. Reservations aren’t accepted so go and put your name on the list and drink at the RM Champagne Salon whilst you wait for your table.

Steamed Cape Cod Mussels with garlic crunch from Girl and The Goat

Crisp Braised Pork Shank – so good! From Girl and The Goat.

I had a great time in Chicago even though it felt a little sleepy compared to New York, although, I have a feeling that this might have been because we were there on a long weekend. Next time I return to Chicago (I must go back to Alinea), it will be in the summer as there is more happening at that time, like baseball and outdoor summer events. The highlight for our trip was, without a doubt, Alinea.

Alinea, Chicago

11 Nov

Alinea had been on my bucket list for quite a long time – years, in fact. After recently watching a documentary called “Spinning Plates“, it shot up my list at top speed and I convinced B (without much effort, it must be said) to book a trip to Chicago with the sole purpose of eating at Alinea. Basically, I had to go, and it had to be NOW!

With our reservation made and flights booked, I prepared for our trip by reading Chef Grant Achatz’s bio “Life, on the Line“. It was a fascinating read about a man with incredible drive, focus, a passion for perfection, and a desire for innovation. Reading his book only fuelled my excitement so when we walked through the inconspicuous doors to Alinea on Sunday evening and I saw him standing in the kitchen, I was starstruck! There he was! Working in the kitchen and creating tabletop desserts for some lucky diners (not us). I was thrilled! It was a great start to an evening that would end up being this foodie’s dream come true!

Geeking out! Chef Achatz in the kitchen!

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Dish 1: Caviar, brioche (foam), capers and onions (gel), egg (custard).

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Dish 2: A bit of fun…find the edible branch!

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A bit blurry…but this is the edible branch. Salsify (a root vegetable) that has been sous-vide for 13 hours and marinated in soy. Delicious!

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Dish 3: One of the most memorable flavours of the night – skate with brown butter sauce and toasted bread. The plate is meant to resemble a paper napkin.

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Dish 4: Our server called this “A Day at The Beach” – pebbles of sous-vide beans, ebi, ogo, clam shells.

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Dish 5: Beautifully presented trout with broccoli, prepared different ways.

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Dish 6: All night we had been sitting under a bouquet of lemongrass, chilli, ginger, and coriander suspended on an almost-invisible wire. We didn’t know its purpose until this dish arrived: the bouquet was used to flavour the curry broth that was poured into the eggplant and cocoa nibs.

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Dish 7: Lily bulb, rambutan, distillation of caviar lime (also known as finger limes). The bursts from the lime provided an interesting texture.

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Dish 8: Tabletop campfire! Hamachi with shishito, bean, cooked with pine branches.

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Dish 9: Matsutake (mushroom) with pine, abalone, and tapioca. Flamed at the table.
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Dish 10: Pork belly with charred parsnip, black trumpet, kombu. Unbeknownst to us, these sneaky guys (the parsnip and the pork) had been cooking inside the fire. For this dish, they were removed from the fire and sliced tableside. The pork was incredibly delicate and fell apart under the fork.

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Dish 11: Not enough time to photograph the signature dish of hot potato cold potato. You pull the pin to release hot potato with black truffle shavings into a cold potato soup, and then you shoot it all. Incredible!

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Dish 12: Squab, squab liver “truffle”, beet, orange.

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Dish13: “Graffiti”: hazelnut, perigord, balsamic “spraypaint”.

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Dish 14: Blueberry with bubblegum, lilac, sorrel. This was the only dish that I didn’t enjoy all that much as it was too sweet for me. B thought I was crazy.

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Dish 15: Edible balloon with green apple. We even had some fun with the helium. This was sticky and messy and I loved it!

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Dish 16: Tropical Fruit with rum, vanilla, kaffir lime. This dish was created by one of the chefs at the table and my photos don’t do it justice – it was beautiful. Every bite popped with tropical flavours, including the candy (complete with edible wrapping).

I’m finding it difficult to convey the experience and the level of detail in the dishes, therefore, I am hoping that the photos can help illustrate the words that I am struggling to find. I had high expectations of Alinea – it has had a lot of hype and I had certainly built up high expectations. When I walked out of Alinea on Sunday night, all of my expectations had been surpassed. I had been expecting that the food would be an experience – that I was sure of – but I had doubts about the taste of the food. I knew the food would look like pieces of art and I knew they would be impressive and innovative, but I had thought that it would come at the cost of the taste. I was wrong. Grant Achatz is a genius. Let the haters hate on molecular gastronomy – Alinea should be left to those who want something else from food than just sustenance. I am grateful to have had the experience of dining at Alinea and hope that I get the chance to return.

*I must make a special note about Alinea’s booking system because it was, by far, the easiest booking experience that I’ve had at a restaurant of this calibre. Their website is very user-friendly and the process was very straight forward.*

Bearfoot Bistro – Whistler, BC

6 Sep

4121 Village Green
Whistler, BC
V0N1B4

T: 604 932 3433
www.bearfootbistro.com

B and I were in Whistler a few weeks ago for Crankworx and decided that, rather than have dinner at our usual Whistler hang-outs (Araxi or Rim Rock), we would try Bearfoot Bistro for the first time. I hadn’t been before but I’d heard some pretty great things about Bearfoot, particularly about the Champagne Lounge and the Vodka Ice Room. It was about time that I experienced it for myself.

The restaurant feels as though it caters to a slightly older clientèle, with live piano music and a more traditional look for the bar and restaurant décor. Along with the Champagne Lounge and Vodka Ice Room, there is also an outdoor patio where you can have a few drinks before you start your meal, or curl up by the outdoor fireplaces for some post-dinner drinks.

To the best of my knowledge, guests can only order the tasting menus (no à la carte) but that’s OK as Bearfoot offers a ridiculously affordable summer dinner menu with 5 courses at $68. The menu was well-executed, although not unlike what you would get at Araxi or Rim Rock. For me, the best part of the evening was the Nitro Ice-Cream, which was vanilla ice-cream made table-side using liquid nitrogen. It was pure theatrics and I lapped it up. What’s not to love about a bit of theatre with your dessert? Thankfully, it wasn’t just all gimmicks and tricks – the ice-cream was excellent and was served with a variety of toppings – the salted caramel sauce was my personal favourite.

Besides the ice-cream, the food didn’t blow me away but all in all, we had a lovely evening and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend a visit to Bearfoot Bistro.

Oysters with mignonette

 Pemberton Potato and Garlic Scape Soup

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Foie Gras Pheasant Terrine

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Fraser Valley Pork Tenderloin, with Lobster Tail ($20 supplement for lobster tail)

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Cheese Course

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Nitro Ice-Cream (additional $16 per person)

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Mixing…

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 Final Product: Tahitian Vanilla with Sundae Toppings (not shown)

Willows Inn – Round 2!

18 Aug

B and I recently celebrated our four-year wedding anniversary and, as has become tradition, we try to get away for a day or two to indulge in some good food and a bit of R&R. Last year, we visited Willows Inn for the first time and had such a blast that we decided to return again this year.

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I am saving myself the effort of re-writing my glowing review and instead will direct you to my post from last year. You’ll notice that there were a number of dishes that were the same as last year’s menu but those were the snacks, not the main courses – most of the mains were new dishes (except for the mind-blowing smoked salmon and the blueberry dessert). Once again, my favourite snacks were the kale and black truffle, the drippings with local bread, and the crispy crepe with steelhead roe.

Although our experience last year was fantastic, I did notice two areas where they have made improvements. The first was the pre-dinner service. Last year we found it difficult to place our drink order and to get our drinks before we were taken to our table. This year, we had no issues at all and they are now offering pre-dinner snacks to all guests whilst you wait to be seated. Secondly, you are now able to eat breakfast in the Inn the morning after your dinner (see pics below). That wasn’t an option for us last year and I think it really added to our experience as there isn’t much else available on the island (plus, everything else is a let-down after Willows).

Again, I wasn’t super impressed with the wine tasting menu. Next time (oh yes!), we will just order a few bottles for the table as I didn’t think the wine elevated any of the dishes for us.

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Pre-dinner snacks on the patio.

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More pre-dinner snacks…sauerkraut brine oysters.

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The dining room.

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Smoked Samish Bay Mussel.

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Squash blossoms & edible nasturtium with nasturtium paste.

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Crispy crepe with steelhead roe.

Kale with black truffles.

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Local albacore with smoked bones.

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Shiitake roasted over fire.

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Puffed halibut skin.

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Lopez Island smelt.

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Salt-baked beets with dill flowers.

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Aged venison tartare and purslane.

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Oh, smoked salmon…I need you in my life, always.

Just-dug potatoes with watercress and herring roe.

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Pan dripping and bread made from local grains.

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Local black cod steamed with lovage and cherry tomato.

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Sunset interval.

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Slow-roasted lamb with sour cherries.

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Wild chamomile and wood sorrel in blackberries.

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Breakfast Plate

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Breakfast of house-made muffins, egg, and zucchini chilli jam.

I absolutely adore Willows Inn and highly recommend it to anyone who is looking for something a little different to other dining experiences. There is a reason why chef Blaine Wetzel won the James Beard Rising Star Chef Award this year. Get there if you can!

New York – May, 2014

20 Jul

Wow! It has been a long time since I’ve updated this blog and I absolutely blame my absence on being busy, with a hint of laziness. Life has been wonderfully busy as I have recently started a new job…in the food industry! I’m so excited to have finally made my dreams of working in the food industry a reality, that I’ve been completely absorbed with learning all that I can and that means that I’ve had no energy for my hobbies. Hopefully I can find a balance soon.

I had a week between jobs so my sister and I made a last-minute decision to fly to New York for a quick trip. We learned that May is a glorious time to visit the city that never sleeps. The flowers were in full bloom, the weather was warming up but not yet humid, and the city didn’t feel overly busy. Having been to New York a few times, this trip was all about taking it easy, avoiding the touristy stuff, and eating and drinking our way through NYC. Unfortunately, as our trip was last-minute, we didn’t get into some of the restaurants that I had really wanted to visit (at the top of the list was the NoMad restaurant). I also couldn’t afford to do the high-end experience that B and I had on our last trip so, instead, we explored the more affordable side of the New York food scene.

Spring time in New York = lots of flowers!

I was less adventurous this time around when it came to food and we ended up going back to a few places from my last trip with B, so that I could show them to my sister. These included Eataly (always reliable), Shake Shack (meh, won’t be going back again), Blue Bottle coffee, and Magnolia Bakery (we know this place well!)

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Magnolia Bakery Cupcakes (I still love these, regardless if people think they are over-rated).

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Eataly – Buffalo mozzarella with olive oil and sea salt. Classic. Perfect.

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Eataly – Ravioli filled with spring pea, ricotta, pecorino, mint, and finished with butter and asparagus – superb!

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Eataly – Tagliatelle with short rib ragu

I had wanted to visit Momofuku Milk Bar last time I was in NY but could only find the time to get to the UrbanSpace market stall. This time, I made it my mission to visit an actual store. We ended up at the East Village location on East 13th street (I recommend that if you go here to also time it with a visit to Momofuku ssäm bar as they are across the street from each other). I wasn’t as taken with the things that we tried as I’d hoped to be. I found that the crack pie, which is what they are famous for, was a bit of a disappointment. To me, it just tasted a lot like pecan pie, without the pecans. I still absolutely adore their birthday cake truffles though – I ended up with two bags of those to take home.

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Cereal Milk Soft Serve

P1080661The famous Crack Pie

We made the mistake of spending most of our first day getting to, and visiting, Smorgasburg in Williamsburg. Smorgasburg is an outdoor market, right on the water in Brooklyn (great views of Manhattan). With over 75-100 food vendors on offer, it sounds like heaven. Unfortunately, I found it more like my personal hell. There were soooo many people at the market that we couldn’t even see what most of the vendors were selling. The line-ups for the vendors were ridiculously long and, once you’ve managed to get some food, it was difficult to get a spot to eat it. Personally, I won’t be going back even though I love the concept.

Although we didn’t try too many new food places, we did try a lot of bars. My favourite bar of our trip was Employees Only. Hidden down in the West Village, the cocktails and the prohibition bar atmosphere were awesome. We actually popped in for “one drink” but end up staying for three. I could have gotten into a lot of trouble at this bar as every cocktail was tempting to me.

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P1080667Cocktails from Employees Only

Not too far from Employees Only is The Top of the Standard. Here is a tip: save your money and avoid the long line-ups at The Empire State Building or The Top of the Rock and, instead, soak in the impressive city views from the Top of the Standard for the cost of a cocktail. Personally, I found it a bit pretentious but worth suffering through for the views.

We started to do a bar crawl through the East Village but couldn’t get to even half of our wish-list as the East Village has so many excellent drinking spots. The ones we did visit were Amor y Amargo and Mayahuel. Amor y Amargo is probably the smallest bar I’ve ever been in, which creates a very intimate atmosphere. They are all about the bitters here and the cocktails are interesting as a result. Mayahuel has a strong focus on tequila and mezcals and, again, has some very interesting (and dangerously tasty cocktails) on offer.

Due to lack of time, we missed out on going to Crosby Street Bar (in Soho), PDT, Booker & Dax, Death and Company (over an hour wait), Beauty & Essex, and Schiller’s Liquor Bar. I plan on spending two nights the next time I’m in NY, just exploring the bar scene in the East Village.

My perfect New York trip would include some of the high-end places from our last trip (Eleven Madison Park is a must-visit) and I would combine those with some of the bars that we visited. I still have a very long list of places that I’d like to visit when I next return (Buddakan is one of them) so this isn’t it for me and New York.

Osteria Francescana – Modena, Italy

25 Apr

I recently became aware of two terms that I feel are very fitting for me, and for this post. Those terms are “destination foodie” and “culinary conservative”. “Destination foodie” is someone who is willing to travel to a destination, or make a major detour, for the purpose of indulging in food. “Culinary conservative” is someone who isn’t adventurous when it comes to food and tends to eat what they know or within their comfort-zone.

I believe that both of these terms could be used to describe me, and our visit to Osteria Francescana in Modena (Italy) reinforced this. When B and I were first planning our trip we hadn’t intended on visiting Modena at all. Time was limited and “it’s too far from Florence” we claimed but, in the end, our curiosity won and we felt that the more than three-hour round-trip to the third best restaurant in the world (2013) was completely reasonable. Hence, the “destination foodie” label.

Even though months have passed since our dinner, I still have difficulties reconciling how I felt about our experience at Osteria Francescana. On one hand, it was like no other menu that we’ve had before (and that is one of the reasons why we go to fine dining restaurants) but on the other hand, I was disappointed by the menu. I found that I didn’t enjoy the dishes as much as I had hoped – some I found to be quite odd – and this is why I (shamefully) think I deserve the label of “culinary conservative”.

Once seated in the dining room, you are given the choice of three menus to select from: Traditions (€130); Classics (€165); and Sensations (€190). The titles of the menus describe them perfectly; the first two are definitely more traditional and classic Italian. Feeling bold, we ordered the Sensations menu, which was created to be a tour of Italy through the eyes of the Chef, Massimo Bottura. Each dish represents a different area of the country and all were a complete surprise. Here we go…

The entrance: an unassuming door off the beaten track

The dining room

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Almond Granita

Savoury Oyster and Anchovy Macarons

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House-made bread selection

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More house-made bread

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Baccalá: dried and salted cod

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A whole grilled sardine, stuffed with cream of scampi, and topped with the ash of seaweed, vegetables and lemon peel. Finished with squid ink

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Risotto with cod fish balls

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Eel with saba sauce, swimming upstream

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Lamb Oyster (lamb meat in an oyster shell)

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“Think Green” – green peas and beans, topped with green pea granita, chlorophyll, and curd of Parmesan cheese

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“Snails on a grapevine” – snails with chlorophyll, red beet sauce, and black truffle shavings. Weird!

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Foie gras ravioli, topped with black truffle, served on a black truffle and balsamic vinegar sauce – easily my favourite dish

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Pigeon with beet reduction. I could barely eat this as it looked like a murder scene!

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I don’t really know how to describe this one. Candied leaves, served with strawberry, pumpkin and chocolate purees and topped with black truffle shavings

P1080007“Oops! We broke the lemon tart”

So there you have it…a trip through Italy without leaving your computer chair. Unfortunately, for me, it was a very seafood-focused menu (strike 1) and I personally found some of the dishes to be just down-right strange (strike 2). Whilst I appreciated the innovation, the boldness, and the skill, I did not love most of these dishes. It would appear that I am just not adventurous enough to have appreciated it for everything that it was.

In no way do I want to discourage anyone from going to Osteria Francescana; it was certainly unique and I will absolutely remember it.  However, I do believe that the Sensations menu is not for everyone, particularly the “culinary conservatives” out there. The next time I return to Osteria Francescana, I will settle on the more traditional menu and be satisfied in my comfort-zone, but for now I’m glad that I tried a menu this interesting and creative.

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