Italy is a country that is very protective of their culinary traditions, to the extent that previously some smaller towns have banned foreign food and ethnic restaurants. Many don't appreciate challenging culinary tradition, but that is exactly what Bottura has done. Bottura wondered was the routine of producing the same dishes from one generation to the next restrictive and was there better to be had? Are these traditional dishes the best they can be? Are traditions doing justice to the local ingredients? Is culinary nostalgia stopping progress? These are questions that are asked in the kitchens of Osteria Francescana.
The worst part of our recent meal in Osteria Francescana was having to choose between the two tasting menus. One, "Tradition in Evolution", takes traditional dishes and reinterprets them in the present day. The other menu, "Sensations" has dishes that are slightly more experimental, not all based on on local traditional dishes, but still largely based in the region and the season. After much thought, this was the menu we went for, a choice of simple gluttony as it has more dishes on it.
Bottura is an avant-garde, slightly eccentric, chef who takes inspiration from the region, his childhood and how influential artists interpret the world around them and how they present it to the viewer. His dishes are personal and have meaning to him, often sharing an experience or a moment in his life. However there would be no point presenting the diner with dishes that only mean something to the chef; the story and the sentiment has to come across to the diner and mostly this was the case. The food felt regional; despite being a unique interpretation it still felt we were eating the produce of Italy. This was demonstrated perfectly with dishes of: a light and elegant dish of moeche, a soft shell crab, with crunchy polenta; a great dish of squid, eggplant, tomato was beautifully fragranced with bergamot; crispy delicate red mullet held its own against a powerful Livornese sauce. The 'crunchy part of the lasagne', hand cut meat with an aerated bechamel and a thin crisp, is inspired by every young child in the region who, growing up, would try to take the crispy bits to from around the outside of the lasagne for themselves.
The best dish of the meal, and one of the best dishes we ever had, called 'Abstract of asparagus, prosciutto and peas Tagliolini' was subtle, yet intense. Served in a light miso broth which intensified the flavour of the pea and asparagus and topped with truffle which gave it a fantastic earthiness. Despite being one of the smallest dishes on the meal, it provided one of those rare moments of gastronomic euphoria were you realise you are eating a dish that is perfect and it feels like a privilege. This dish alone is worth travelling to Modena for.
This dish exemplified a clarity that is prevalent throughout a meal in Osteria Francescana. Each element in a dish stands by itself and is identifiable on the palate. Despite being in a restaurant that is using very modern techniques you don't feel like the kitchen is trying to show off.
The one dish that was a bit left field and felt a bit out of place in the a meal was one of a sort of Chinese Peking duck. It was delicious, but maybe an example of a case were the chefs inspiration might not easily come across to the diner.
Desserts were a bit hit and miss. 'Rice Cake' was excellent, textured and light with a refreshing citrus hit. Sadly the last course of the meal, chocolate ravioli and gold lentils, was the one dish that disappointed. It was heavy and left a very powerful and earthy lentil taste - not the best flavour to finish a meal with. The dish could nearly have been served during the savoury part of the meal.
The service was professional, attentive and knowledgeable and the dining room is spacious and relaxing and the pace of service was perfect. Value wise, a meal in Osteria Francescana is certainly worth the money.
Osteria Francescana is a truly excellent restaurant and Massimo Buttora's food is definitely worth the trip to city of Modena. His cooking is clean, concise and displays purity. In a country where culinary heritage is sacrosanct, he manages to challenge traditional Italian food, but still remain very respectful to it. On the whole his food conveys the region, the story and the sentiment that inspired the dish and that makes the food a little bit more special.