Tuesday, November 4, 2014

When new meets old - Le Ciau del Tornavento

We were somewhat surprised when we found ourselves standing in front of a packed dining room at Ristorante Le Ciau del Tanavento in the commune of Treiso on a Friday evening. After all, Treiso is a small, remote town near Barbaresco and Neive which according to Wikipedia, has only 800 residents, while there must have been over 100 people drinking and eating, not counting numerous front and back staff cooking and serving at the place as we arrived just before 8pm. 

We were eager to check out this Michelin-starred restaurant at the last evening of our trip after hearing many good comments from other travelers we met during this week. As we were seated at a round table towards the back of the room, we were amazed at the decor of this neat and spacious dining area which was of a eccentric mix of classic and contemporary style. Not a lot of place will you find classic armchairs carved in dark wood at one table, and then a set of Philippe Starck-designed Ghost Chairs next to it, and that somehow worked in harmony. Apparently the windows of the restaurant open up to a breathtaking view of the vineyards outside, something we have missed coming here for a dinner instead of during day time. We were also curious about their wine cellar, which was housed one level below the restaurant, visible through a glass floor as we walked in from the front entrance.

Their menu offered a wide selection combining traditional and innovative cooking, and of course, given this time of year, they also had a special section dedicated to white truffles, which could be ordered a la carte or as a special set menu. All the ingredients were made locally - on the menu they even listed all the suppliers used, following the "Slow Food" tradition in spirit. The bread and grissini were made in house daily using natural yeast, both were excellent by the way, and herbs were grown in their own garden.

This time we opted for their 6-course Degustation Menu, which was based on chef's selection and changes day-by-day using seasonal ingredients available, similar to the "omakase" concept in Japanese cuisine. Behind the kitchen was chef/owner Maurilio Garola, considered one of the best in the region, known for his re-interpretation of traditional Piedmontese cuisine.

As we left it all to the chef to decide what we were going to eat, I spent more time studying their wine list, which was amazingly long (wouldn't expect less given the vast area of their wine cellar) and predictably biased towards red and dominated by local selections - of course, why bother with say, a grand cru classe Bordeaux when we were sitting literally in the middle of one of the equally storied wine regions? In fact we were later told that more than half of their wine collection came from Piedmont, not only the Barolos and Barbarescos but others. Having tried a good variety of wines this week, I asked the sommelier to recommend something that we haven't had, and he pointed us to a wine from Ca' Del Baio, one of the few Barbaresco wineries located right in this village of Treiso - now talk about being specifically local.

Shortly after we chose our wine, our dinner began. We started with a series of small amuse-bouche bites, including the excellent deep-fried veal tripe served on a light bell pepper sauce on a skewer, and then our first dish was shrimp with Jerusalem artichoke cream and shaved foie gras. While it came few and far between, but we have had quite a number of great seafood dishes in the area, and this one was no exception, with the half-cooked shrimp being succulent and worked well with thin slices of mild-flavored shaved foie gras and a light creamy sauce.

It's then followed by veal tartare served with shaved royal porcini. The meat has great flavor and I love the texture of the mushrooms on top. This is no white truffles but decent nonetheless, with the thinly sliced mushrooms giving the dish an earthy taste and a slightly crunchy texture. I think we are going to miss the Fassone veal (the local breed in Piedmont) most when we return home, after enjoying it in numerous occasions in all shape and form and cut in the past week.

Truffle and eggs were another common theme we have had all week long, and this one's a little different than the others, in which black truffles were used instead of white ones, and served with poached quail eggs and creamy potato foam. It's less aromatic but has good, balanced rustic flavor.

I personally like the simple pasta course of tortelli with hunchback cardoons and anchovy. Cardoon was an indigenous vegetable which looked like celery and grown in the Nizza Monferrato region in Asti. I guess in a sense it was like Shanghainese xiaolongbao as the dish was served with only the slightest butter sauce, but the juice came from the pasta filling inside, and the anchovy provided that extra kick which made it interesting. And the portion was just right for a tasting menu.

The main course was a bit ordinary in comparison - the leg of the suckling pig was roasted and served with vegetables and a dollop of apple puree. It's delicious but just didn't have the wow factor, except the tangy, intense apple puree which was impressive and balance out the intensity from the pork.

Just when I secretly wondered whether dessert would have something to do with hazelnuts yet again (hazelnut being the regional specialty ingredient), a beautifully plated dessert was brought in and guess what, it is a chocolate cake with hazelnut ice-cream. It's perfectly prepared both in terms of presentation and taste. We also loved the lineup of the mignardise platter - so good we took home any leftovers we didn't manage to finish and ate as snack on our way to airport the next morning.

After the initial bottle shock which causes me to hesitate when it's opened initially, the wine - a medium-bodied 2010 Barbaresco from the single cru vineyard of Pora - opened up to a lovely floral nose, with palate dominated by red fruits, mild and somewhat grainy tannins, and absolutely approachable even at young age at this great Barbaresco vintage. Such a beauty and something we thoroughly enjoyed as the evening went on. Later before coffee, we were given a shot of lemongrass infused grappa that they made in-house as nightcap - it was pretty refreshing.

The restaurant atmosphere was vibrant and lively throughout the night, with Chef Maurilio making rounds at the tables, often with white truffles and grater in hand. It must have been one of their busiest nights with tables overflowing from the main dining room into the lounge next to the bar, and there were even a group of diners coming in as late as 10pm! At first the service was a bit cold - probably because they were a bit overwhelmed by the turnout - but later it's warmed up considerably - every dish was served at the right pace and explained to us in details.

At the end of our meal, we asked whether we could visit the wine cellar, and the sommelier, a young Japanese chap from Tokyo, gladly brought us down and showed us their 60000-bottle collection, some of which elegantly displayed on the walls sorted by regions at the new wing that they recently completed renovating. We were most impressed at the wall with more than 50 different Nebuchadnezzer-sized bottles (15L, or equivalent of 20 regular bottles) and on the other side, dozens of different vintages of Chateau d'Yquem stacked in chronological order. On the other side of the floor was the original cellar where they keep most of their collection, some went as far back as 1940s and 50s, including a rare Giacomo Conterno Monfortino Barolo 1945 and a Gaja 1958, both kept in excellent conditions. 

We absolutely marveled at Chef Maurilio Garola's cuisine at this elegant setting and we were glad to have saved the best for last. If we are to come back to this area any time soon, I am sure a return visit to Le Ciau would be one of the major reasons.

The full photo album can be found on my Flickr page: https://www.flickr.com/photos/g4gary/sets/72157649103602931/

When? October 31 2014
Where? Le Ciau del Tornavento, Piazza Leopoldo Baracco, 7, 12050 Treiso CN, Italy
Menu Highlights? Tortelli liquidi di cardi di Nizza Monf. e acciuga al burro d’alpe (Tortelli filled with a liquid blend of cardoons from Nizza Monferrato and anchovy)
Drinks? 2010 Barbaresco "Pora", Ca' Del Baio Winery
Web: http://www.laciaudeltornavento.it/ita

(This is the part of the Journey to Piedmont series, a writing project capturing our recent travel experiences to the region)

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