BusinessClass reviews restaurant Osteria Francescana.
Over 1,000 gastronomic experts have spoken: Osteria Francescana has been named number 1 in 2018’s coveted World’s 50 Best Restaurants list.
Recently, we got the opportunity to make our own assessment. Is Osteria Francescana really the world’s best restaurant? In order to find out, we had to brave two flights, trains and taxis. Modena is hardly the navel of the world, but this holiday season when we arrived in the northern Italian city, also known as the home of Ferrari, a vibrant atmosphere was palpable.
Days before, we had warmed up with a visit to Cracco, a two-Michelin starred restaurant in Milan, to give us a basis for comparison. Cracco was nice, and subsequently our expectations for Osteria Francescana were raised a few notches. Helped in part by a chat with the chefs at Cracco, who asked enviably: “Have you really got a table at Osteria Francescana? Massimo is a god to us who work in the high-end gourmet industry.”
We had also heard a lot about Massimo Bottura. About him personally, and the romantic story of how he travelled to New York, met his prospective wife and took her back to his hometown to open the restaurant that would eventually be known worldwide. However, it was not romance that we came for; it was the world-class cuisine, although the sentiment casts the restaurant in a charming light. Even before we hung up our coats in the hallway, we were startled by security guard Frankie, a remarkably lifelike sculpture by Duane Hanson. We were to learn much more of Massimo’s artistic interests later in the evening.
As we took our seats in the beautiful green- and blue-walled room, we count just six tables. Then the indulgence begins. We enjoy a Dom Perignon 2006 and study the menu. There is an impressive a la carte menu, but we are here to sample as many of Massimo’s delicacies as possible. We choose The Tasting Menu, with its 11 side dishes. We also select the accompanying wine.
After a serving of water came a good, dark bread with an absolutely wonderful olive oil. We enjoy the champagne and a warm atmosphere for a short while, until after the hors d’œuvre when the first dish is delivered; a tartare of lamb with oysters served with smoked salt, caviar and a sorbet of cider in an oyster shell. A tribute to Massimo’s upbringing in Normandy, where he drank cider and ate lamb and oysters. Like many other experimental chefs, Massimo sells an idea. We don’t always get the references, but the taste is not in doubt.
The next dish, “Lentils Are Better Than Caviar”, served in a small tin box normally associated with caviar, was served with black lentils. A sly snub to traditional high-end gastronomy, perhaps? Massimo has worked extensively with charities and has, among other things, established a soup kitchen in Milan. Somewhat of a contrast to a restaurant that natuarlly attracts such well-off clientele. We discover subtle nuances of beetroot, sour cream and dill among the lentils.
Then comes “Riso Levante”, a good al dente risotto. Our waiter sprays a blend of fennel, fresh water and citrus on the risotto – yet another example of Massimo challenging traditions. When Osteria Francescana first made it onto the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list in 2009, placing 13th, it caused a sensation, with critics arguing that Massimo was about to destroy Italian cuisine.
Another dish that deserves a mention is “Autumn in Modena”, which attempts to illustrate the autumn landscape in Modena, with porcini mushrooms and chestnuts coated with egg-white froth, with a scattering of black truffle.
“The Five Stages of Parmesan” is a signature dish, one that Massimo has worked hard to perfect since the restaurant first opened in 1995. It consists of five cheeses of different age, temperature, texture and consistency, all put together like a sculpture. A wonderful dish, and one in which Massimo declares his love for, and allegiance to, locally-produced Parmesan.
In the midst of the meal, Massimo himself came out to greet and shake hands with all the guests. We had a pleasant conversation, and upon learning that we come from Norway, he expressed great enthusiasm for the Norwegian cheese Kraftkar, which was recently named the world’s best. A very amiable man.
“The Crunchy Part Of The Lasagne” is another pleasure and has to be the best lasagna we’ve ever tasted. However, I struggled a bit with “A foie gras lolly”. The first bite of foie gras is tasty, but it quickly becomes too powerful and it was the only dish which we did not finish.
The last course is also a signature dish; “Oops, I Dropped The Lemon Tart!”, of which the plate looks like it has been broken and glued back together, whilst the food itself is chaotically assembled. Presentation, of course, comes down to individual artistic opinion, but the taste was undeniably sumptuous.
The wine list is carefully hand-picked to accompany the vastly different dishes, and some of the combinations were striking. Nevertheless, not all the wines were up to the same standard and some dishes were let down by their partner. However, the spicy Barolo was one positive in a wine list absent of highlights. We subsequently made a request to Massimo and his chief sommelier Giuseppe Palmieri; please introduce an improved (and more expensive) wine menu, like what is offered, for example, at the fantastic Enoteca Pinchiorri in Florence.
After nearly four hours at our table, we were the last guests and made began to make our way out of this gastronomic stronghold. Yet the staff were in no hurry to see us leave and gave us a tour through the restaurant’s other rooms, discussing the art adorning the walls along the way. We made the acquaintance of a few stunning original works by Damien Hirst.
So we are left with the somewhat inevitable question: how good is Osteria Francescana and how does this experience compare to other three-Michelin starred restaurants we’ve visited in the past?
The truth is, there is no objective answer. Just as with comparing music and art, who can rightfully claim that something has superiority over another. However, what we can ascertain is that Massimo serves cuisine that is on an extremely high level. We can not remember a better dining experience elsewhere, although some come close. Massimo is an artist who does things in his own way. When he says, “In my future, I see more future,” we get excited about the wonderful dining experiences to come. We eagerly look forward to our next trip to Modena.
Have you been to Osteria Francescana? What did you think? Tell us about your best restaurant experience.