May 1st 2016
Today I took part in an unforgettable dining experience.
We are on a family holiday in Italy, and my sister arranged for us to have lunch at a two Michelin star restaurant named ‘Piccolo Lago’. Through work she has developed contacts in Italy, and one of those is the restaurant manager at today’s restaurant.
Piccolo Lago, meaning ‘Small Lake,’ overlooks Lake Mergozzo, near Lake Maggiore in North-Western Italy. Our dining area was suspended above the water, and floor to ceiling windows gave the impression that we were floating on the lake.
We were created as friends by Genine’s contact at the restaurant, she hugged is and introduced herself and showed us to our table. They had organised a 5-course menu for us, and shortly after we were sat down (with a waiter holding each of our seats for us) we were presented with the first pre-course.
Each of the courses came with its own wine. I don’t drink wine. But I drank wine today. I honestly don’t know if it was nice wine, but I’m assuming it was. During a course whenever any of us were nearing empty on our wine, the glasses would be refilled. (By a waiter, not by magic) Same with the water, although that’s less fun.
The next pre-first-course-course was a selection of appetisers. Or apertifs. I think that’s the right word. I don’t know if that’s the right word. This, for me, is where alarm bells started to ring.
Quail’s eggs. Carrot and beetroot sticks. Prosciutto on Quavers (served on a plank of wood). Truffle covered marshmallows. Green beans and cabbage in those Chinese style pancake things you get with Peking Duck. Apple Juice Jelly. And whatever those pink prawn cracker looking things are.
It was all… Very pretentious. Very posh. Very out of my league. I suddenly thought “I’m going to hate absolutely all of this, and I’m going to offend this world famous chef and he’s going to throw me into the lake because I don’t want to eat a Quail egg dipped in Apple Juice. (It turns out that there was some kind of miscommunication, because we thought the waiter said that we were supposed to put the Quail egg in the apple juice jelly before we are it. We weren’t. He laughed when we asked. Bless) I struggled through the appetisers with visions of being served octopus with kiwi seasoning or some crap.
My palette is, and was, not suitable for a place like that. I’m not a fine diner. I like to go out for meals, and I like good food, but not 2-Michelin star food. That’s usually too, well, adventurous for me. And before even being served a course I had reservations.
I was wrong.
Shortly after the rest of my family ate the appetisers (although I did eat – and hate – a Quails egg) the head waiter came over and asked if we had any food allergies or preferences that we would like adhered to.
And yes, I do, but as we’ve established I was already scared of offending them and I felt out of place and scared and yeah, but thankfully my sister answered for me. “No fruit, and no fish,” she told him on my behalf.
When the first course came out she probably wished she’d’ve extended that request to include herself as well. Whilst I was served a lovely warm Cheese Flan, the rest of my family were served ‘traditionally smoked salmon’
Except it seemed that the ‘tradition’ was not to ‘smoke’ it very much. It was pretty pink, and not cooked, but that was the point. My mum enjoyed it, my dad ate it, my sisters wished they’d got the cheese. They tried a few mouthfuls, and didn’t get on with it. We’d been brought a selection of fresh bread on an extremely hot hot slate plate, and, just to confirm and doubts that we did not belong there, Genine had the idea to put the salmon on the hot plate to cook it. And, to be fair to her, it worked.
We had to carefully arrange the bread to avoid the extremely attentive waiters seeing what we were doing, but it cooked the salmon and I’m told it was far more enjoyable after that.
Although, because the plate eventually cooled down, they still didn’t finish all of the salmon. The head waiter noticed that they hadn’t finished and came straight over.
“Was something wrong with the salmon, Miss?” He asked.
“No not at all, I’m just not fond of raw fish,” my sister said.
“Ah, okay. No problem no problem. I’ll get you another dish,” he said, and he came back later with a portion of the cheese flan for each of them.
The next course was Tuber. Or, Jerusalem artichoke. I don’t have a picture of it, but it looked like half a jacket potato. It came with a creamy stuff that was actually a blitzed version of the artichoke itself, and there were some crispy bits that were like crisps made from the skin of the artichoke. And there were, again, of course, some grated truffles. It was 3 ways of cooking the same vegetable on the same plate and it was absolutely incredible. That’s when I understood how good the chef was, how he could take something so simple, like a root vegetable, and turn it into this incredible dish. The three ways of cooking it all mixed into one was inspired. One weird thing was that we were all given a spoon and a knife to eat it with. After each course they cleared everything away, and before each course they gave us fresh cutlery. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten anything using a spoon and a knife. Knife and fork, yes. Spoon and fork, yes. Spoon, yes. Knife, yes. Spoon and knife? No.
That was the kind of place this was.
After more wine, the next and third course was a spag-Bol. Well, a spag.
‘Tricolor Spaghetti’ they called it. It was homemade al dente spaghetti with a sort of creamy cheese foam and tender stem broccoli.
It was, of course, amazing. Any reservations or fears I’d had before the meal had passed. I was just in awe of the skill, and science, and love that it took to make such incredible food. Best spaghetti I’ve ever had, sorry mum.
Round 4 brought the main event. “WHAT YOUVE ALL BEEN WAITING FOR,” screamed the tannoy announcer but not really.
I mean, it looks like a bit of meat on a plate and it was a bit of meat on a plate but it was honestly the single greatest thing I’ve ever tasted. The picture doesn’t show it but the chef did that thing again where he cooked the same thing in different ways for the same dish. There were smaller bits of duck below the bigger bits, and it was accompanied by an elderflower and nettle paste.
Mr Chef, I promise you that this is the highest praise that you could ever possibly get from me… And here goes.
It was the slowest I have ever eaten a bit of meat in my entire life.
Usually I’d pick each bit up, swallow it whole and move onto the next one. But I didn’t want to stop eating eat. So I ate as slow as I possibly could to make the flavour last as long as I could. The nettle paste was great, but I didn’t care. Because the meat, was, just, oh, my, God. I know that’s not really much of a description of the taste, but I wouldn’t even know how to begin. Remind me never to apply for a job as a food critic because I wouldn’t be very good at it.
Unfortunately there came a time where I had no duck left. So then I ate the rest of Genines and then there came a time where I really had no duck left.
Onto deserts (after more wine)
I’m not a massive desert eater, it’s one of the reasons why it would make sense if I were to find out that I am adopted. (That and the fact I’m 7 inches taller than both of my parents)
I’d rather have another plate of duck than a desert, but I don’t think that was an option. I didn’t ask, mind.
The desert was a chocolate ganache, although imagine mine without the fruity bits because this isn’t my picture.
Of course they’d remembered that I don’t like fruit. As well as the food, the service was also the best I’d ever had. It made th experience feel less like a dinner and more of a performance. There were maybe 5 waiters for 8 tables, for each course they would come together and present the food to each of us simultaneously.
They filled the wine before it was empty. They folded our napkins whenever any of us left the table to use the toilet. When we got back they’d hold the chair. Every course was lovingly explained, every question was answered and every request was adhered to. They were smart and polite and their promptness without rushing, their politeness without pandering, and their efficiency without error amplified the dining experience. The cutlery was meticulously placed, the wine was poured first to my Mum, and then to my sisters in age order, then to my Dad, and then to me. Every time. And that’s the way to do it. It completed the experience. They deserved every bit of their tip.
More wine, and then the after dessert dessert.
And then, 3.5 hours after we arrived we were ready to pay the bill. Usually a 5-course food menu is €105 each. The 5-course accompanying wine is €50 per person. €155 per person is €775 for the 5 of us. But, because my sister is so well connected (Cheers G) we got the whole thing for €150. €30 each. That is incredible. I often get people spend more than that per person at my shitty pizza restaurant back home. And we got 5 5-course 2-Michelin star meals for €150 including wine. Not bad, like.
Until tomorrow, that’s Michelin.