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In a state of hibernation. My backlog has long become unsustainable. Will probably tweet more and write less full-length stuff.

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Thursday
Oct282010

Obika

After a quick train ride down through the countryside, Geoff and I met up with my dad for the Florence portion of the trip. He had just gotten off his flight from SF, so he was itching to get something to eat. It was pretty late in the afternoon and we had dinner plans, so we wanted to go light.

We decided to stop into Obika, a high-style mozzarella bar concept with many locations in Italy and around the world. They specialize in DOP mozzarella, which is an official designation for the best buffalo mozzarellas from Campania. It's housed in a new-ish complex of extremely high-end townshare condos, built in the interior of a palazzo. The space is ultra modern, spacious, and has some of the highest ceilings I've ever seen in any eating establishment. Given the price point, it's hard to see how the place turns a profit. It wouldn't surprise me if the place was more a showcase piece for Obika than anything else.

 

GRAN DEGUSTAZIONE - 3 DOP mozzarellas, burrata, and ricotta - €30We went the easy route and got their grand cheese tasting to share. It comes with 3 DOP mozzarellas - Paestum, Pontina, and Affumicata (left to right in the middle), plus some burrata and some ricotta. All were delicious, but I honestly couldn't tell much difference between the Paestum and the Pontina, which are the 2 "regular-style" mozzarellas. Both had a wonderful stretch, and became milky when cut. The Affumicato was smoked, similar to a scamorza, and had the extra bit of flavor that comes with that. The burrata was great (though not significantly better than Gioia), and the ricotta was smooth and moist.

 

SALUMI - Parma prosciutto, mortadella, and finocchiona from Tuscany - €9We added the side of salumi - very good renditions of each meat.

 

BRESAOLA - arugula, tomatoes, and fennel - €11We got this bresaola salad as well, but realized about halfway through that while the baby arugula here and on the cheese plate were superb, we were starting to hit our salad wall. The bresaola itself was good, but not too special after downing the whole plate of salumi.

Obika was great for a snack. The cheese quality was certainly high, and I'll have to consider checking out the branch in New York to see if they get the same stuff.

Tuesday
Oct262010

Cantina della Vetra

For our final dinner in Milan, we met up with Geoff's friends Kenny and Shirley, who are studying there on exchange. Located in the relatively quiet Piazza Vetra, Cantina della Vetra was bustling inside, with a solid mix of tourists and locals. I had found some generally positive reviews online, and based on the big Japanese table next to us, it's probably made it into some Japanese guide books as well.

After a big dinner at Cracco, Geoff and I were looking for something simple, and Cantina della Vetra seemed to fit the bill. The place has a casual, laid-back vibe, with friendly (and English-speaking) service.

 

ZUCCHINI FLOWER TEMPURA WITH BUFFALO MOZZARELLA, ANCHOVY, AND TOMATO - €13We shared a few appetizers, starting with this squash blossom dish. Fiori di zucca was one of the epiphanies of my first Italy trip way back when. Since then, it's become fairly common in America as well, but I still love the ubiquitous fried blossom stuffed with cheese. This version was superb, with the addition of minced anchovy lending a rich saltiness to the whole dish.

 

TASTING OF SALUMI "EMILIANI" - €12Our waiter said that they were famous for their house salumi plate, and these meats did not disappoint. We were given very good versions of mortadella, prosciutto, salami, and coppa.

GNOCCO FRITTOBest of all, the salumi plate came with this plate of gnocco fritto - essentially little fried pieces of bread. Soft and chewy inside, these were the best bread items we'd eaten all trip. Which brings me to a random bread tangent...

I've always found it peculiar that restaurants in Italy almost universally serve lifeless baskets of dry bread and pre-packaged breadsticks. The bread is always terrible (especially compared to the French). At Cantina della Vetra, when our waitress brought the requisite bread basket, she warned us "here's your bread, but don't eat it - the gnocco fritto is coming!" which I thought was hilarious. Of course, the gnocco fritto was awesome and the bread basket was crappy. Which begs the question, who eats all that dry bread being served everywhere, when there are far more delicious forms of carbs available on every menu in the country?

 

CALAMARI AND SHRIMP SAUTEED WITH VEGETABLES AND TOMATO - €13The seafood here was well-executed and very tender, but otherwise not that memorable compared to the other stuff.

 

RISOTTO AL FRANCIACORTA "BELLAVISTA", ORECCHIETTE WITH SQUID, RABE, AND BREADCRUMBS, FETTUCCINE WITH A RAGU OF WILD BOARD AND BRUNELLOWe then moved on to sharing some pastas, which the restaurant graciously divided up into individual plates for us (a regular order of each was €13). The risotto was my favorite, with a simple, creamy, cheese-based sauce. It had a beautifully strong truffle fragrance (though no actual shaved truffles were on it). The fettuccine with ragu was rich and slightly salty, and the orecchiette was just alright - both worth eating, but not as good as the risotto.

 

TARTARA DI MANZO - €16I was excited to see a beef tartare main dish, and happily ordered it. This version used a soft, lean beef, and a bunch of usual suspects as mix-ins (mustard, onions, parsley, capers, and some chopped pickly/relishy stuff). The result was a little dryer than I'd prefer, and it could have used a little more liquid to bind everything together. The flavor and the meat were great though.

It was a great way to end our stay in Milan - good, well-priced food, some nice conversation and a bustling crowd made it a satisfying experience. The gnocco fritto in particular, simple as it sounds, is worth a visit. If you're looking for something a little simpler, and not so ultra high-style Milan, Cantina della Vetra is a good bet.

Thursday
Oct212010

Biancolatte

Apparently, weekend brunch has become quite fashionable in Milan. Not wanting to miss out, Geoff and I trekked over to Biancolatte near Piazza della Repubblica to see what the fuss was about. Biancolatte is a store/cafe specializing in milk, gelato, and other dairy products. It's also a fairly popular brunch hotspot. It was Sunday, and the streets of Milan seemed completely deserted, but it turns out everyone in Milan was just waiting in line for a brunch table. We pushed our way to the front to put our name down, and after a half-hour wait, we finally got to sit down.

 

IL PIATTO LATTERIA - buffalo mozzarella, ricotta, scamorza, tomatoes - €13.5Biancolatte has a variety of pastas, salads, and lunch plates. We were most interested in trying their different fresh cheeses. Everything pictured here was simple and superb. The ricotta was light and fluffy, the mozzarella firm and creamy, and the scamorza smoky yet smooth.

 

PARMA E LATTE - parma prosciutto with burratina - €13.5We also split this prosciutto with a mini-ball of burrata. The ham was of very high quality, and I've discovered it's hard to find bad prosciutto being served anywhere. The burrata was a little too small I think - and I prefer it served on crostini or with tomatoes than plain as it is here. I actually preferred the mozzarella here. But still, it was a very delicious specimen of cheese.

When we first arrived at Biancolatte, we were a little dubious about waiting in such a long line. But after our lunch, we were very, very happy we stayed - it turns out we were really craving some fresh cheese and hadn't realized it.  The meal was tremendously satisfying, and we had a chance to rub elbows with a big crowd of brunching Milanese. What else could we ask for?

Monday
Oct182010

Ristorante Cracco

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.

 

CANAPES - assorted veal bites, "chips"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.

 

FRESH ALMOND MILK, WATERMELON, VENUS CLAMS, AND RED PEPPERThe 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.

 

OYSTER BAKED IN SALT WITH FIGS AND SAGE BUTTERNext up was this fat, buttery oyster paired with figs. A nice combination of salty and sweet.

 

BOILED PARSLEY, SEA URCHINS, ORCHID, BASIL SEEDSNext 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.

 

"SCALLOP LASAGNA" WITH STOCKFISH SAUCE AND MACHEThis 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.

 

OLIVE OIL CREME BRULEE WITH VANILLA AND SEA SNAILSThe 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.

 

SEA BREAM COOKED ON HOT HAZELNUT CROQUANTENext 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.

 

"CREAM OF RICE" WITH QUAIL EGG AND SAFFRONThis 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.

 

"VEGETABLE RAVIOLI" IN RICE PASTA ON ROASTED POTATO BROTHThis 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.

 

SPIT-ROASTED SQUAB BREAST, CARROTS, BEETS, LETTUCE, AND CORIANDERNext 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.

 

BABA WITH MEAT SAUCE AND BONE MARROWThe 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.

 

"CREMA BIANCA" WITH MASTIKA, PINE NUTS, AND GREEN APPLEThe 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.

 

CREAMY GIANDUJA, AMARANTH, GRAPE SORBETI 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.

 

FIG PULP WITH TUMERIC ROOTThe 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.

 

MIGNARDISESAfter 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.

 

CHOCOLATE-COVERED NUTSNext 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.

 

DRIED FRUIT "CHIPS"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.

Sunday
Oct172010

Alla Cucina delle Langhe

In preparation for a big day of touring Milan's famous Quadrilatero d'Oro, Geoff and I decided it'd be a good idea to grab a simple pasta lunch. We ended up at Alla Cucina delle Langhe on trendy Corso Como, a bustling nightlife area that overflows with people at night. During the day, Corso Como is a relatively quiet string of high-end shops, the highlight of which is the famous 10 Corso Como - a "lifestyle" boutique that includes men's and women's clothing areas, a garden cafe, a 3-room boutique hotel, a design-themed bookstore, and rotating art galleries, all housed within a hidden interior terrace complex. We got to browse it since we got to delle Langhe during American tourist lunch time, and thus had a half hour to kill before the restaurant opened.

10 Corso Como is definitely worth a visit, but enough about that. Alla Cucina delle Langhe, just a few doors down, is famously known as Tom Ford's favorite restaurant. While I can't confirm if that's true or not, the legend is that he supposedly keeps a table booked for himself and his guests during the entirety of Milan fashion week. Sure, it was pretty conveniently located for us to stop in during our walk to Centro, but I'd be lying if I didn't admit I wanted to go because Tom Ford likes it.

Supposedly, delle Langhe draws a pretty high-profile crowd of footballers and models, but since we were there right when it opened, the place was completely empty until we were finishing up our meal. The decor is anything but modern, so it's a little hard to imagine the beautiful Prada and Armani-clad Milan elite crowding the place, but who knows... I guess it gets packed at night.

 

ANTIPASTI - pastry with porcini mushroom, broccoli quicheWe were given a few bites right when we sat down - both were room temp and unremarkable, but were pretty tasty to nibble on while we got things going.

 

LARDO ALLE ERBE - lardo with herbs - €10We split this order of lardo to start - it's hard to say no to cured pork fat. We were blown away by the size of this portion, and wondered how one person could possibly finish the whole plate. The lardo was as rich and decadent as any version I've had.

 

TAJARIN AL BRUCIO - tajarin with ragu, parmesan, and brown butter - €11We split two pastas, and started with this tajarin with meat sauce. The thin noodles were fresh and well-cooked, and the butter-laden sauce paired nicely with the bouncy noodle texture.

 

FUSILLI ALLE ERBE - fusilli with aromatic herbs - €11This boring-looking pasta isn't something I'd usually pick - I actually don't like fusilli all that much to begin with. But it's Tom Ford's favorite dish... and if Tom Ford was the reason we were here, we had to try it right? Fortunately, it turned out great despite its humble appearance. The pasta was al dente with a firm chew, and the sauce had a surprisingly flavorful mix of oregano and sweetness from the tomatoes.

Overall, the meal was very satisfying for what we needed. Thanks for the rec, Tom - I really like your suits, and I promise I will buy your clothes when I'm a billionaire one day.