The entrance is a glass door in a pink wall on a cobbled street. A brass plate with the outline of a chicken is pinned to the wall; for some reason, I like this chicken. It comforts me, for chickens are normal.
This is Osteria Francescana, which this year was named number one in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards. In 2015, it was second; it has been in the top five since 2011. It won its third Michelin star in 2012. It is also, according to Michelin, the best restaurant in Europe. Osteria Francescana is owned and run by a native of Modena, Massimo Bottura, and this is where he placed his restaurant.
It was, I am told, very difficult to get a table. The suggestion – and it is made delicately – is that I am lucky to be dining here, and what I am buying is somehow beyond money, even while it is impossible without money. This irritates me; we are paying, after all. But that is how the marketing of luxury goods works: tell others they cannot have it, and watch its value rise. I admit it is effective. I fret we will be late, and drag my companion out of our hotel as if late for a train.
At 8pm, a queue of people are standing in the street. The door is shut. They are not the super-rich, who I suspect would queue for nothing – not willingly, anyway – but the comfortable, who spend their money on experiencing things they have read about. I meet a young married couple from Houston, Texas. They have flown to Modena to eat here, and will fly away in the morning. They are happy. No, that is inaccurate: they are thrilled.
At 8.01pm the door opens. Is the one minute a carefully considered unit of time? Did Bottura try two minutes late, or three and a half, or nothing, or minus one minute, and find one minute the ideal period to marinate the want of strangers?
We came earlier to gawp, at 5pm, and the door opened. Bottura walked out in his chef’s whites, nodded to us and spoke very fast into a telephone. He is small, bearded and handsome, in large, black spectacles that make him look like a Hoxton art dealer, which he almost is; his art collection (Damien Hirst, Maurizio Cattelan, Matthew Barney) is famous. He was once an unhappy law student; then he turned to food.
Bottura is among a group of chefs – Heston Blumenthal, René Redzepi of Noma, Thomas Keller in the US – who experiment at the end of food. They are both wondrous and ludicrous. When this kind of food is delivered with wit, it is enchanting, although I am yet to be convinced it is important. When it suffers from self-delusion – I was once served Turnip: Variations In Its Own Broth at Eleven Madison Park in New York, for example – it is absurd.
The worst of them – Per Se from Thomas Keller in New York and Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare, which I reviewed for the American magazine Harper’s – are cults that seethe with anger and I did not enjoy them; in fact, I loathed them. I even suspected I was not supposed to enjoy them: awe is rarely a comfortable emotion.
At the door of Osteria Francescana, three men in black suits call us in, with smiles. The building is ancient but all scrubbed out. The carpets are brown; the walls are grey; robotic arms cast bright points of light about. It is lit like a church. The awards stand on a small plinth by the door: an Elle Gourmet Award (2016), a sculpture of a man grappling with a vine that looks like a snake; and the World’s Best Restaurant award.
Our dining room, one of three, is large and square. There is a splash of paint by Damien Hirst above the table; Ella Fitzgerald sings jazz. This could be an expensive restaurant – or house, or art gallery – anywhere: luxury has no country. The whole of Modena ate here in the first year, I read; in the second year, almost no one; in the third year, the world.
A waiter, also one of three, brings water. There is a kind one, a shy one and one who looks like Benedict Cumberbatch. We choose the seasonal tasting menu, for €250 each (about £215). The wine pairing menu is €130 extra, but I don’t drink alcohol. Nothing else is offered, and this is not a place to order Sprite.
First they bring bread: hot, brown bread with a hard crust, and the best olive oil I have ever had, thin and sharp as needles. I love it. Then they bring an oyster shell on a bed of salt. According to the menu notes, whose accompanying script is delivered so fast I cannot hear it all, it is: tartare of lamb, smoked salt, kelp, caviar, oyster water and cider sorbet. This is Bottura’s attempt to trap a memory of a childhood holiday in Normandy; he drank cider, and ate oysters and lamb. It is adequate (sour and sweet, creamy and tart), but – and this is the problem with philosophical food – it cannot bear the burden of expectation set upon it; no food could. I cannot see Bottura’s Normandy, so what is the point? It is hard to eat, and even harder to review, an idea.
These are Bottura’s memories, not mine, and so – I am sure this is not his intention – the eating of them feels like a slight imposition. All experimental chefs make weird food (the chef Daniel Humm presented a golden pig’s bladder at Eleven Madison Park, although, to be fair, he did not ask us to eat it). But few are as emotional as Bottura.
Next comes a joke, entitled Lentils Are Better Than Caviar. This is a caviar tin filled with lentils cooked in fish broth, masquerading as caviar. It is a joke about the idiocy of being rich and, while I enjoy the joke, I do not know how well it works here, in a €380-a-head restaurant, including wine.
Bottura does a lot for charity, specifically with food waste. He once opened an avant garde soup kitchen for the homeless in Milan, serving vegetable broth made from scraps and peelings, and inviting Humm and Redzepi to join him; they made bread pudding and banana bread. Bottura’s publicist asked me to meet someone from his charity, Food For Soul. I declined, because I am reviewing food, not a man’s soul, although I think Bottura would say they are the same thing – and that is problematic. The eater of experimental food feels a great pressure to clear their plate after every course; my companion, who is practical, deals with this anxiety by not finishing anything. Perhaps this is not dining for the control freak; certainly the two other tables in our room seem happier. One couple eat and run – perhaps they are regulars? The other insist they love everything.
I mix the lentils with a spoon, and find creme fraiche, beetroot and dill. It is imaginative for a tin of lentils – that is, it takes lentils as far as they will be taken, and as far as they should go – but this is food that wants to be adored or forgiven, and I think I may have preferred a simple dal.
Riso Levante is undercooked risotto. The waiter sprays something on it at the table, possibly fumes of orange juice. (I couldn’t hear him, but the menu notes say “citrus”, sweetwater fish and fennel.) The risotto is another of Bottura’s dreams: “I imagined the rice as the lake, with the Levant wind blowing across the peninsula of Italy from the Adriatic to the Tirreno Sea, bringing with it unexpected aromatic ingredients.” For me, it is a failure, this orange-juice rice; I yearn for something normal.
Bottura has spoken of the pressure to please conformists: in Italy, cuisine is considered to be perfect as it is, and he has in the past been treated as an impudence. His mother, whose kitchen table he sat under as a child, eating raw pasta, told a journalist that she is a better cook than he is, which is as good a clue to what drives him as any. He is obsessive. When he telephones me after the meal to explain it, and my phone cuts out repeatedly, he is not angry but upset. He has to tell me, he says, what the food means to him. Later, he writes in an email: “If you can dream it, you can make it. If you are willing to sacrifice everything, then anything is possible.” Now, in Modena, he comes out to say hello and poses for a photograph in which my companion and I look like fat, uneasy ghosts.
Next, a fillet of sole. It is another memory, inspired, Bottura says, by a restaurant from his childhood and the modernist painter Alberto Burri. It looks extraordinary on its pale, scorched plate: a pile of silvery tissues, made with burnt salt, over fish. It tastes almost plain, that is, like well-cooked fish. Then comes Autumn In Modena, “a combination of porcini mushrooms, chestnuts and truffles [which] best describes autumn landscape in Modena”. It is, technically, a weather report under a cloud of foam, and it is the first dish I do not want to eat. It is undercooked vanity, and muddy; no copywriting, no matter how crazed (“protagonists of this vegetable ceviche”), can remake it as something it is not. It is stock, and it is not good stock.
The Five Ages Of Parmesan is, perhaps, Bottura’s most famous dish, and it has taken him two decades to perfect it. It is, as it says, five cheeses of different ages: a sauce, an “air”, a demi-soufflé, a foam and a galette, which stands above the rest like a tiny spaceship. The description, again, is ludicrous – “the white on white monochrome is a portrait of the Modenese landscape covered in fog and silence” – but it looks and tastes marvellous. Bottura has nailed parmesan. It is definitive, and has nowhere else to go.
The next dish is called The Crunchy Part Of The Lasagne. This is also perfect: a tiny plate of ragù and béchamel under a sheet of pasta that looks like a burnt Italian flag. (My companion thinks it tastes like a poppadom, but this is unfair.) The ragù, which Bottura tears apart with his own hands – and which is made without tomato – is exquisite. I long for a full plate of it. I long for the food Bottura could cook for me if I was not eating the psychoanalysis he has not had; that is, if I had trusted my instincts and gone à la carte.
The guinea hen stuffed with partridge is too intense for me, cooked down until you feel you are eating a brace of them, live, and stuffing bloodied feathers down your face. The Caesar Salad In Bloom, however, is the most beautiful dish I have eaten anywhere. It is tiny, and it looks like the head of a bird of prey (chrysanthemum petals, elderflower vinegar, dried cherries and chamomile honey). It is slightly bitter inside, and I like it better for it.
This beauty is ruined by a foie gras lolly – an evil, miniaturised Magnum lying on a pale plate, without garnish. It is small and cold, and has been injected with 35-year-old balsamic vinegar. I try to eat it – I really do – but I cannot get it past my lips. I long for the tiny lasagne and wish I had a paper bag to hide the lolly; but that is both the tragic flaw of the imaginative cook and his purpose in life: the inedible must be made edible, no matter what.
I forgive Bottura, though, with his final dish: Oops, I Dropped The Lemon Tart! It has its own special plate, which looks as if it has been dropped and stuck back together again. The dish, too, is broken: a splash of yellow; a broken biscuit; lemon; sugar. It tastes superb.
After three hours, I am exhausted from eating Bottura’s dreams, and perhaps that is the point. If some of it is delicious, it is also consuming. That is the shadow cast by the award in the hallway, next to the one of a man strangled by food.
I do not know if this is the best restaurant on Earth, or even if such a claim is possible. I suspect such lists are designed largely for marketing purposes: when else does Restaurant magazine, which runs the competition, get global coverage for itself and its sponsors? It is not my kind of food: too arch, too needy. But I can tell you, having eaten here, that Massimo Bottura is an artist, and that artists must be allowed to succeed, and to fail. Avoid the lolly.
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