I preface this post with the fact that it is super long. For me, it was a really happy memory from last year because 1) I got to go to a dream bucket list restaurant; and 2) visit Italy on a whim, and writing it all down has really rather been a joy since I have not had the full chance to think and reminisce about it all since we got back because we subsequently left for Australia / New Zealand; I started a new job; it was Christmas; and then work was busy throughout January. Anyhow, if I wrote too much, skip and scroll, and you will eventually get to the menu and pictures (the most important part).
- Mood – Day dreamy.
- Focus – Food & Travel.
- Craving – Five Ages of Parmigiano Reggiano by Massimo Bottura.
- Feedback from the husband – He complained a bit about the cost of the meal, but I could see in eyes that he loved it. He loved every single bit of it.
I do not remember exactly when, but sometime in 2015 I watched the Netflix Chef’s Table episode (first episode!) spotlighting Massimo Bottura, and fell a bit very much in love. I love rustic Italian food like you would not believe, and on the flip side, I also love innovative / elevated food, so the combination of both together just seemed like a dream come true. To be honest, until watching that episode, and obsessively reading about the restaurant afterwards for months, I never really considered Osteria Francescana to be on my bucket list of restaurants to visit (or Modena, Italy as a place to travel to for that matter). I had remembered reading only briefly about him and Osteria Francescana as I scanned each year’s World’s 50 Best list where, for a few years prior, he had always taken the number two spot; but it was always just a quick glance.
Like every high-profile restaurant out there, the reservation seemed impossible to get. To be perfectly honestly, I never actually got a reservation the tried-and-true way. I tried for almost a year on-and-off to book online at 4AM (Toronto time) on the day when the new bookings opened up for the next month. I always got stuck in the queue, only to start cursing when the bookings were no longer available and I realized I had wasted hours of precious missed sleep. I would be pissed off for the rest of the day and then obsessively sign up to be on their waiting list for every day of the month thereafter.
In August 2016, I just happened to luck out on a cancellation, and the timing happened to work out for me and the husband. I still remember it like it was yesterday. I received an e-mail from a Riccardo Parmeggiani saying there was a reservation available for Friday, November 4th. I think I almost passed out. I started to flex my face excitedly, and I think Jon (who will, going forward, be referred to as JH or husband) thought I had convulsions. I showed him the e-mail and he made the usual you-are-making-us-broke and this-is-not-happening faces. He then proceeded to say that we were leaving for an almost three-week vacation to Australia & New Zealand a few weeks after this proposed trip. We probably fought on-and-off for a month or so before we finally booked our flight tickets to Bologna (I had already confirmed the reservation the day I got the e-mail), hotel, and train tickets to Modena for a long weekend in Italy. To this day, I am so happy he finally said yes. He is so happy he finally said yes.
Fast forward to November, we arrived in Bologna. The closest hubs for us to Modena from Toronto were Bologna and Florence. Bologna was the closer and cheaper option – only a 20 minute train ride direct to Modena, at a cost of about $14CAD each way (9.90EUR – at the end of 2016), if you choose second class (economy) where the seats are not reserved. The trains were not full, so it does not really make a difference if you choose a lower class; where we sat was comfortable and clean. The trains are also fairly frequent (in case you almost miss your train – read further). Tickets can be found here.
Bologna is a university town, and when we went in November, it was fairly cloudy, gloomy and rainy. I would not say it is a place I would especially go out of the way for if I was planning an Italy trip, but it is the food capital of Italy. The fresh pasta is amazing, and if you do happen to visit, make sure you have the tagliatelle bolognese, tortelli (big)/ tortellini (small) en brodo, and their multitude of meats and cheeses (mortadella, parma ham, parmigianno reggiano). Pretty much every other restaurant (or market) serves these dishes / foods either classic straight-up or in some variation. The point of this post however is Osteria Francescana. I am not going to dwell on other things too much.
JH and I had a reservation for 12:30, so we went to Modena early in the morning to explore. We also barely caught our train because we got distracted playing Pokemon GO. Thank goodness our hotel (Hotel II Guercino) was only a few minutes away from the train station.
Modena is a magical place to explore. It has that small European village feel with its colourful, rustic buildings and narrow alleyways, but with a tinge of a larger-town infused (i.e. it did not feel super small, and you cannot walk to everywhere in ten minutes). Jon and I had a great time exploring, and despite our better judgment we even got a fresh slice of pizza. It was so good. It probably did not help with my food pains later onwards, but it was so good and fresh.
By the time 12 rolled around, all the anxious guests for the 12:30 reservation had started to congregate around the door / signage of the restaurant to take pictures and selfies. Massimo Bottura and his wife, Lara Gilmore, actually showed up around the same time; and he spoke to each of the couples individually, and posed for pictures. This man’s personality is just infectious, and he gave off nothing but modest and kind vibes. He’s sincerely interested in your opinion and why you would travel to the restaurant.
Through his words, you can tell how much he loves food. He just emanates food. Massimo Bottura to me was like every-girl-in-1998’s Leonardo DiCaprio or Backstreet Boys dream & nightmare (not really mine because I hate the Backstreet Boys for the life of me). I was so star struck, I could barely speak except in giggles, my face turned red, and my heart beat like it was love at first sight. I just wanted to be his best friend. I wanted to take him home. JH, on the other hand thought he reminded him of a really kind mad scientist, but he agreed that he seemed really kind and earnest.
Now, moving on to the actual restaurant and experience itself, I will divide my thoughts into atmosphere, service, and finally, the end of the post with – the food.
I had seen some pictures of the restaurant, so I kind of knew what to expect. It is pretty contemporary and well-lit, with a lot of abstract paintings (and even a dark, eerie bird structure at top of one of the ceiling corners). In my fluttering and star-struck state, I never actually explored the rest of the restaurant fully (tip #1 – try to explore the restaurant), or photographed it really well. We were put in a room on the south-west side of the restaurant with three other couples. That room also led to a private dining room for a larger party, but noise was never an issue. The rooms have windows, but natural light is concealed by curtains, so the ‘well-lit’ atmosphere I allude to is from wall-lights and standing lamps adjacent to the table. There is a bathroom right outside of the room, and another bathroom directly by the front entrance (bathrooms that I know of).
This post will probably lead you to think that I do not research anything for my trips (though I actually obsessively do), but I learned that day that you cannot use SLRs in the restaurant. I do not know why I never really looked up that point, but I just did not. I sadly lugged the SLR all the way from Toronto, and the minute I took it out, they told me to put it away. So, forgive me if the pictures are not as pretty as I would have liked them to be. I should not have been surprised given our experience in New York with Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare. That restaurant did not allow cameras at all for food photography (even camera phones). Here, they at least allow camera phones.
Service is a well-oiled machine. Everyone is lined up by the door to greet you once you enter, and as you move towards your table, everything seamlessly falls into place (menus, cutlery, water, general table-cleaning, napkin-folding etc), as with most Michelin-starred restaurants. Service tried to keep everything as subtle as possible, so if you got caught up with your partner in conversation, you hardly notice things changing. It just magically appears.
The timing of the food was perfect. We never felt like we waited too long for anything, nor did we feel like we did not have enough time in between courses. Jon and I eat fast naturally, but we really savoured each course and took moments in between to discuss our thoughts and / or make jokes and laugh at each other. It was such a perfect meal.
In total, we had three servers – one sommelier who took our order, and two servers who explained the food and transitioned us from one course to the next. The explanations were brief, but told the story; I was mildly distracted by the fact that one server reminded me of Bruce Wayne on the show Gotham (David Mazouz). We thought service was a bit ‘cold at first’ (relative to Massimo himself), but then our sommelier cracked into stories and smiles, and that eased the atmosphere going forwards. Our sommelier was pretty funny (tip #2, ask the servers for their names), and he seemed to anticipate all of our questions perfectly. We asked about the best balsamic vinegar in Modena, and he winked and told us he would write us some suggestions. We asked for their signature dessert – Oops I dropped the Lemon Tart, because we did not see it on the menus. It showed up as an extra course. The day kept on getting better and better.
Now, I can finally talk about the food. What an experience; there is really no way to describe this other than the meal justifies the restaurant being called number one in the world. Even though I love Eleven Madison Park (my then-current-favorite) like you would not believe (I want to go back this year), this has become my favorite meal ever-to-date.
We had a choice between two menus each with 11 courses (not including surprises), which I flipped back and forth between given the signature dishes. We ended up choosing the menu that had more of the signature dishes, even though I am sad that I missed out on his Eel Swimming Up the Po River dish. Jon and I both do not really like eel in hindsight, so it felt like a good compromise.
JH refused my initial idea which was to order both menus. We might have died a little, but it could have worked. I am not sure if anyone has ever tried that before. I cramped a bit afterwards, so maybe this would not have helped. Who knows.
Our courses were as follows (with some fuzzy comments as this was three months ago):
- Amuse Bouche + Warm Bread / Breadsticks – The quenelle was savoury. I am not going to comment on what because right now my memory is fuzzy and I do not want to mis-lead anyone into a surprise.
- Tribute to Normandy (bottom right) – This was a very refreshing palate opener – a fake oyster with oyster water, seaweed, herbs, and a bit of lamb tartar for the twist.
- Lentils are Better than Caviar – This was probably my least favourite course, only because I wish it was actually caviar; the lentils are brined in broth to emanate the real taste of caviar. It tasted fine, it was just not too interesting. JH sent a picture of one single lentil to his co-workers describing it as a course; not too surprised with his behaviour. He does act like he is 10 on occasion.
- Mediterranean Sole (right) – The design aesthetic on this dish was absolutely stunning. I
lovedLOVED the papillote effect. The paper is actually dehydrated salt water that just melts in your mouth; and the fish was cooked really well to top-it-off.
- Monkfish Ravioli with monkfish liver and rabbit ‘a la cacciatora’ filtered sauces (top left) – This was a solid pasta dish, and it was not too heavy as one would think with the juxtaposition of rabbit and fish. I think, after all that bolognese back in Bologna, this was quite refreshing and different.
- An Autumn Ceviche in Modena (bottom left) – This dish consisted of mushrooms and chestnut cream. I thought this was a soup (I had zoned out when they were describing the dish), but it tasted more like a foam when you drink it. I would not necessarily classify it as a ceviche in the classic sense (nor would Massimo intend for you to I would think), but I did really enjoy this course.
- Five ages of Parmiggiano Reggiano – Absolute favourite; more below.
- The Crunchy Part of the Lasagna – Second favourite dish. It is exactly as you would imagine – the crunchy part of the lasagna; except there isn’t char in the areas where you would normally ‘find the crunch’ in a home-baked lasagna.
- Sometimes Mallard, Sometimes Partridge and even Bollito (bottom right) – I also zoned out when they described this dish, and for some reason I cannot remember the dish at all. If I remember correctly, it tasted like a pâté. The sauce looks like a mole, but I think the flavour gave off hints of red wine (bollito is an Italian stew). It came with some truffle bread and a vegetable palate cleanser.
- Croccantino of Foie Gras (left) – We had foie gras popsicles as well at Amber in Hong Kong. These were very similar, and equally as tasty. There’s just something about the combination of foie gras and nuts – the foie gras is so rich in texture, but it is counterbalanced by the crunch of the nuts.
- Tiramizucca (bottom) – This was one of many desserts, and one of my favourites (I lie – I love all desserts unless it is some of the disastrous crap I have made). It is this really light and luscious pumpkin tiramisu. It was also really fun to photograph with that vivid punch of orange.
- Pop corn (middle right) – Forgive me as I forget yet another dish (I am bringing a journal from now on), but this dessert tasted like pop rocks if I remember correctly.
- Petit Fours – My stomach was probably literally dying by the time these came out, but the petit fours course consisted of: chocolate lollipops with cherry liqueur, chocolate truffles, and macarons with black truffle with foie gras. All delicious.
- Surprise Course: Oops I dropped the Lemon Tart – Admittedly, this was not the best tart I have ever eaten. The plate was also garnished (see to the side) with some odd stuff – a caper (thanks for the update JH) for example, probably to tie into the fact that you dropped it and you pick up with it all the stuff that is otherwise lying around the kitchen. But it is such an iconic dish because of its concept and design. This was literally a painting on a dish; a real painting on the plate (especially in comparison to all the ‘plating’ I hate out there like the “sauce smears” you see at every hipster restaurant).
As noted above, my favourite course was the Five Ages of Parmigiano Reggiano. This was a mouth explosion of different textures and temperatures. It felt incredibly rich (from the cheese) and light (from the foam) all at the same. It was one of those bites that you did not want to really swallow right away because you wanted to take a few more minutes to savour it. This, and it was plated beautifully and minimalistically.
Overall the overall damage was 585 EUR including one of their bottles of local white wine (it is 250 EUR (as of Nov.2016) per person; wine pairings are 170 EUR per person). We opted not to go for the wine pairings, because the last time we did that, I ended up running out of a kitchen tour to throw up in the bathroom and passing out on Jon’s shoulder in the New York subway.
Massimo came back at the end to talk with the couples again and take more pictures. We told him to open a restaurant in Toronto – he giggled. I probably would too (I probably did). What a world-class man.
When it was time go, I was sad because I did not want to leave. JH and I struggled a bit to get up from our chairs. But, as we made our way towards the door, our beautiful-man-of-a-sommelier appeared out of nowhere with a gifted bottle of Modena balsamic vinegar. I almost cried. Actually, I did. Best meal and day ever. Thank you once again JH for saying yes (and yes, we had so much fun).
Other Little Details:
- Osteria Francescana – Via Stella 22, Modena, Italy
- Instagram – The restaurant does not have its own, so follow Massimo.
- Dress code – I dressed up and the females around me generally wore summer dresses and skirts. JH wore a button-up shirt, blazer dress shoes, and got away with jeans. The men we saw dressed in varying degrees – from jeans to suits without ties. All of them seemed to wear dress shoes.
- Wifi for Instagram – we never asked because we got too caught up in the experience. Jon also had a data plan that I tethered on, but we simply completely forgot.