Up to this point, our meals had for the most part been pretty straightforward, traditional Italian. That changed quickly with our first Michelin-rated meal of the trip - a dinner at Ristorante Cracco.
Originally opened in 2001 as Cracco-Peck (an offshoot of the famous Milan food store, Peck), Ristorante Cracco is the flagship restaurant of Venetian-born Carlo Cracco. Cracco cut his teeth with Gualtiero Marchesi, the first Italian 3-star chef, and made pit stops with Alain Ducasse and Lucas Carton before breaking out on his own. Cracco-Peck earned 2 Michelin stars, and in 2007 Cracco broke off from Peck and became independent. Cracco is now considered to be at the forefront of new and experimental Italian cuisine.
The restaurant is located just down the street from Peck, and about 2 blocks from the Duomo. It's a modern, well-lit, multi-story space, with a very clean and simple decor. We suited up for this meal expecting it to be pretty dressy inside, but as it turns out there's no dress code at all. People were wearing everything from suits to jeans and sneakers (although, they were stylish jeans and sneakers - this is still Milan). I probably could have swapped outfits with my meal at Al Porto and been better off at both places... but oh well.
The menu Cracco has quite a few different dining options. There is a regular a la carte menu, containing a wide range of traditional and non-traditional dishes. There are also two tasting menus regularly available - one dubbed "traditional" which offers traditional Milanese dishes (€140), the other dubbed "creative" which offers whatever is going on in Carlo Cracco's head (€160). Additionally, because it is truffle season, there is currently a white truffle tasting menu available featuring pretty standard preparations each with healthy doses of truffles (€270). I had chosen Cracco over the other 2 stars in town because of his reputation for pushing boundaries, so we opted for the creative menu. Although the traditional one looked delicious, we just had both risotto milanese and veal milanese the night before... and the white truffle menu was simply out of our budget. The choice was pretty easy.
They started by dropping us a huge variety of canapes. In the front, we had several bites of veal in different forms - a fried dough ball stuffed with veal meat, a mini pastry/sandwich with a veal paste which tasted a lot like "char siu sow" (a baked bbq pork pastry that you get in dim sum), and a fried veal meatball thing. The other things were all plays on chips using a variety of vegetables, including a flattened and fried zucchini flower, a seaweed-flavored shrimp chip, an eggplant-infused chip, something that seemed to be fried nori, and a few others that were explained too quickly in Italian for me to process. All very nice and crispy, and an interesting start to the meal.
The first dish on the menu was an immediate mind-bender, twisting the sweet watermelon and cool almond milk with a kick from the red pepper. The bits of chopped clams covered everything in a blanket flavor of the sea. It was an unusual, arguably overpowering combination - I'm not sure I liked it much, but it was definitely interesting.
Next up was this fat, buttery oyster paired with figs. A nice combination of salty and sweet.
Next was another brain-teasing combination - essentially a "parsley salad" with little tiny sea urchin bits. I've never had such leafy parsley before, and I found it a little too strong to be used as a main vegetable. The sea urchin tasted very much like the ocean (just like the venus clams), but were nothing like the uni I'm familiar with. The orchid was surprisingly crisp and refreshing. Like the watermelon dish, this one was very interesting and beautiful, but I'm not so sure I loved the taste of the end result.
This dish was a playful riff on lasagna, using wafer-thin slices of scallop pretending to be sheets of pasta. The scallops tasted very Chinese influenced - in fact, they tasted a lot like when Chinese people cook conch using a quick boil, with a similar slightly chewy texture. Good overall, and again very interesting.
The meal was starting to hit its stride now. We were then given this spaceship looking contraption that housed a custard looking substance. This turned out to be the highlight of the night. It's actually a dish by Matteo Baronetto, the sous-chef, and it won an award for cooking using olive oil at Lo Mejor de la Gastronomia in San Sebastian a couple years back. The cream is made of salt, sugar, olive oil, and vanilla then chilled and broiled to simulate a creme brulee with its caramelized top. The result was a tremendous mix of sweet and salty flavors, with semi-solid custardy texture, and a very strong olive oil essence. Absolutely delicious.
Next came a few slices of raw sea bream atop a hot, crispy, hazelnut mixture. We were instructed to eat the fish first, then follow up with the hazelnut. The fish was basically sashimi that was ever so slightly seared from the heat of the hazelnut. Fish quality was fine, and the hazelnut thing was reminiscent of a fancy almond roca. Pretty good, but a strange combination.
This simple-looking plate was described as a "crema de riso" - some kind of milky/creamy liquid made from rice. A quail egg yolk and flecks of saffron decorated the middle, and the whole dish was sprinkled with crispy popped grains of rice. I ended up mixing everything together into a golden, gooey substance that was rich and decadent. This was another winner.
This dish is Cracco's riff on ravioli, which used a mochi-like rice-based dough instead of regular pasta. The fillings were zucchini, eggplant, pepper, and potato, and the dish sat on a thick potato broth with basil seeds. They were like a savory version of typical sweet Chinese soup dumplings (usually filled with red bean), and at this point we were convinced Cracco is being pretty heavily influenced by Asian flavors. The result was interesting and quite tasty, and the fillings were very distinct.
Next came the only true meat dish of the night, and the only preparation I'd consider normal/traditional. Well-executed, and like a breath of air after all the high-style dishes that came before it. The skin was nice and crispy, and meat perfectly tender.
The last main course of the night was a play on the very common baba rum cake. The cake is cooked in a meat stock and topped with a few pieces of rich bone marrow. The result was a savory little umami bomb, again quite unlike anything I've ever tasted - short but satisfying.
The first dessert was this thick, semifreddo-like cream with a slight hint of liquor and green apples. It was semisweet, and rich but not too heavy. I liked it more as I got through it.
I make it no secret that I love chocolate hazelnut-based desserts, so this gianduja was right up my alley. The sorbet provided a perfect refreshing counterpoint to the rich chocolate.
The final listed course was this fig pulp with tumeric and honey. The flavor was light yet fragrant, but I personally didn't like the texture much. It had that gooeyness reminiscent of Japanese tororo or the inside of okra which I'm not very fond of.
After the figs, a cavalcade of sweets continued to arrive. First was this very solid selection of mignardises, with a chocolate truffle, mini olive oil cake, some kind of liquor-filled chocolate, and a mango macaroon.
Next came these chocolate-covered hazelnuts and white chocolate-covered (I think) cashews. I could eat these hazelnuts all day. I've had similar chocolate nuts to end the meal, most recently at French Laundry if I remember correctly.
Finally, we got this beautiful tray of paper-thin dried fruits. There were apples, mangoes, figs, tangerines, pineapples, and pears (at least from what I could identify). Most impressive were the pineapples - I have no idea how they sliced them so thin while so clearly preserving their shape and flavor. I thought it was neat that we started and finished with some very different variations of chips - Cracco seems to have an affinity for them.
It's worth noting that Cracco has a thick, impressive wine list - one far too complicated for me to interpret. Per the sommelier's recommendation, Geoff and I split a bottle of 2005 Dromos for the meal, a blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, sangiovese, alicante, and cabernet franc from Maremma, Toscana. We were both happy with the choice - it was robust and balanced and lasted very well through the complex tasting menu.
Overall, I am very happy to have tried Cracco. I can certainly see how it's been awarded 2 stars - Carlo Cracco is definitely pushing boundaries and exploring many unique ingredients and combinations. I will say however that the service, while smooth and professional, didn't reach the superlative levels of other 2 stars I have been to (in France particularly). And on a pure scale of deliciousness, this tasting menu wasn't as good as other more traditional 2-stars I've been too. Still, we knew what we were getting into, and I can tell for sure that if we'd gotten the truffle or the traditional menu, things would have been very different. The presentations were uniformly beautiful.
I really believe that creativity and experimentation are worthy pursuits, and Cracco should be commended for trying new things, despite having some highs (extreme highs - the olive oil dish was truly superb) and lows (I honestly did not like the taste of the watermelon dish very much). In that respect, Cracco reminded me a bit of Coi or Benu in SF. You have to try new things to discover brilliant new combinations, and we're lucky there are guys like Cracco out there thinking about this stuff. I think the creative menu at Cracco is definitely worth trying - just be prepared for some pretty experimental ideas. Although, I'll probably try the traditional menu if/when I return.