A veggie meal at Osteria Francescana | Modena, Italy
So I’ve just interviewed the 2nd best chef in the world (Click here to read the interview) and have spent the last hour sitting at a nearby café taking it all in and gearing up for what I imagine is going to be the best meal in my life. I walk back over to the restaurant where there is already a couple waiting outside. At 8pm sharp, the doors are unlocked and I walk into the homely space and take a second look at the beautiful artwork in every corner. The lighting is dimmer and 4 young Italian men greet me and are ready to escort me to my table. Since I am the first to arrive, I start to flip through the massive wine list. I chose a Super Tuscan and ask for it to be decanted while I wait for the others to arrive. We’re going to be dining at one of the top restaurants in the word, so we may as well have great wine.
My parents and their guests arrive shortly thereafter and we are handed our pre-printed vegetarian tasting menus. After this afternoon’s interview, the restaurant is, of course, well aware that most of us are vegetarian. As we look over it, Chef Massimo Bottura himself stops by our table to welcome us and to ask if the menu is acceptable. A really humble and unexpected question from a star chef, but we love his super hands on approach.
Once we’re done with all the clarifications, and as we start sipping on our fantastic wine, which is slowly starting to open up, a selection of amuse-bouches greet the table: an almond granita with mild coffee flavors to cleanse the palate, a tomato macaron filled with mozzarella cheese, and an oh-so-crunchy deep fried eggplant tempura ball with orange peels. We each “wow” our way through the clever little bite-sized creations.
The first of our twelve courses is called Mediterranean, and consists of extremely fine ravioli sheets wrapped around a filling of concentrated cherry tomatoes. A delicate cold cucumber broth that is dotted with mozzarella cheese and garnished with fresh herbs surrounds 3 of these bite-sized envelopes. Together, it’s a wonderful combination of earthy flavours and textures.
Next, what looks like just a small bowl of green vegetables topped with shaved black truffles promises to be an Abstract Tagliolini Primavera, which is confusing at first, as I don’t see any pasta. This is clarified straight away as the liquid form of Tagliolini is poured into the cup as a “miso of pasta!” A green pea puree makes itself apparent at the bottom of the cup as I work my way through the dish, which has familiar Parmesan and bready flavours running through the broth.
A single head of lettuce now appears as Ceasar salad in Emilia, and we are told that each layer of leaves has between it a different ingredient. To name a few, there is Crispy Parmesan cheese, pickled vegetables, aromatic herbs, mustard, garlic sauce and traditional Balsamic vinegar. We work our way through the leaves from top to bottom to reveal each of the individual flavours and textures.
Now we head Along the Po River from Cervia to Modena, with a delectable little tart inspired by an old Italian movie from the 1990s about a group of Italian soldiers during the 2nd World War. Chef Massimo Bottura himself comes out to explain that this dish is a distillation of real earth combined with truffles. The intense yet delicious earthy flavours are indescribable.
The best part of the meal so far is that everything has been light. With four savory courses down and four more to go, I’d normally be trying to pace myself by now, but instead I haven’t left a morsel of anything behind and I’m still eagerly awaiting what is yet to come.
Just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, the Italian dish of the decade arrives. Five Ages of Parmigiano Reggiano, in Different Textures and Temperatures all on a single plate, represented by differing combinations of the nutty, intense, creamy, salty and milky flavours of my favourite cheese. It consists of a Parmesan cream aged 24 months, a soufflé aged 30 months, a gelato aged 4 months, a foam aged 6 months, and a Parmesan crisp aged 50 months served hot cold, warm and at room temperature. I savour every last bite of this heavenly plate in sheer delight, which after today, will be nothing but a delicious memory…
I am excited to try the Polenta and Rice as a Pizza, which Chef Bottura described in the interview as his favourite vegetarian dish. The base of concentrated tomatoes is topped with a pure mozzarella cheese risotto and surrounded by a “crust” of baked crispy polenta; believe it or not, it resembles a delicious Pizza Margherita both in presentation and taste. Pure genius.
The Crunchy Part of the Lasagna is a dish based on the dream of every child in Italy when lasagna comes out of the oven – to eat the slightly burnt, crispy corners. Our vegetarian version consists of a vegetable ragout of eggplant, tomato, celery and carrots topped with a vegetable foam and “crispy pasta.” Veggie savoury course no. 7 and we’re still going strong.
And for the finale (before the desert courses, that is) – Beautiful Psychedelic Spin-Painted Beetroot inspired by a spin painting by Damien Hirst, which I recall hanging across from me when I walked into the restaurant. It’s a dramatic multi-coloured plate, and an explosion of flavours. The dish is normally prepared with “veal not flame grilled”, but for us vegetarians, it’s with beetroot. The plate is “painted” with different sauces among which I am able to identify creamed potato, beetroot, balsamic, bell pepper, lime and horseradish.
On to a light pre-dessert of “Monte Bianco” in Springtime consisting of a green Meringue (as opposed to a white one typically served in the winter) served in the shape of a mountain with cream of raspberries, ice cream and almond foam in the middle.
Yellow is Bellow is dedicated to the summer sun and consists of miniature bright yellow rounds with a pineapple coating that bursts in your mouth to reveal a surprisingly cold lemon sorbet in the middle. Crushed meringue made with extra virgin olive oil, saffron, lemon, and a powder of gold glitter is garnished all over the plate and there is a sponge cake in the middle representing the sun’s core.
Of course, the meal cannot be complete without Chef Massimo Bottura’s signature dessert Oops! I Dropped the Lemon Tart, which plays with the idea that while we may constantly try to achieve perfection, we often forget that mistakes can also be beautiful. For someone that doesn’t particularly like lemon tarts, I still polish off every last morsel of the broken tart, lemon zabaione and lemongrass ice cream, among the other ingredients.
I am still awaiting my much needed dose of chocolate. Thankfully, I get that in the form of a Vignola cherry dessert, which is like a deconstructed black forest cake consisting of a base of crunchy dry chocolate topped with cherry popsicles that burst in your mouth to reveal a creamy center.
At first I hesitate to indulge in the petit fours, but I then reason with myself – I don’t get to dine at the 2nd best restaurant in the world every day. So I do give each of them a taste, and they certainly do not disappoint.
Overall, the experience at Osteria Francescana is not something you would have ever imagined, even in your wildest dreams. In his own words, Chef Massimo Bottura “makes visible the invisible,” and take it from me, as a vegetarian, you will most certainly have an equally outstanding experience.
Stay tuned for a recipe by Chef Massimo Bottura.
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