Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Starstruck on July 4 - Massimo Bottura Dinner at Expo Milano

I was still a little bit over moon as I repeatedly reflect upon my dinner last week in Milan prepared by Chef Massimo Bottura and his team at the Expo Milano 2015, savoring every moment of what could be one of the most remarkable meals I have ever tasted.

My two and a half week journey across two continents came around at a rather unexpected circumstance with very hasty itinerary planning. I wasn't even planning to do any serious meals during my 4 days in my last stop of Milan, thinking I would just check out whatever they got at the Expo site and do a walk-in. Then a couple of weeks before the trip began, I learned about a special dinner being organized by the USA Pavilion featuring Chef Massimo in celebration of the Independence Day. Not only it coincidentally fell on the very Saturday that I was in town, ticket for the event was still available this late in the game, something highly unusual for such an occasion and publicity given the chef's fame. So all of a sudden, that dinner became the most anticipated activity on my itinerary.

I guess for those in the know, Chef Massimo Bottura needs no introduction, as his flagship restaurant, Osteria Francescana in the small town of Modena in northern Italy, was recently named the world's number 2 restaurant, among the many awards he has won. Just a few months ago I got the chance to learn a bit more of the chef, his story and the restaurant through the recently released documentary series called "Chef's Table" on Netflix (which I recommend everyone to watch if you happened to love food and cooking and dining), which only made the dinner even more exciting as I finally came to the opportunity to try his food in person.

The July 4 dinner was actually part of the series hosted by James Beard Foundation in conjunction with the USA Pavilion at Expo Milano 2015, with numerous dinners and brunches prepared either by American chefs from across the country, or Italian chefs doing their interpretation of American cuisine. It's hosted at a makeshift "restaurant" at Seven Stars Galleria at Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in central Milan from May to October this year, in the manner similar to those meals regularly hosted at James Beard House in New York City.

I dragged myself out of the fascinating Expo early during the day of the dinner so I could have the chance to rest and freshen up, which was much needed given the 40-degree-Celcius heat wave sweeping across Europe in late June/early July. I arrived promptly at 7:30pm up the elevator on the side of Piazza della Scala, not wanting to miss a single moment of the event, and was welcomed by an amazing view on top of the historical Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II right next to the Duomo. The venue was converted from the Presidential Suite of this exclusive luxury hotel of Seven Stars Galleria, with one side turned into the reception area and the other side a dining room which could seat just under 100.

As more guests arrived shortly after, Chef Massimo made his first appearance, carrying with him our "first course" of the evening - an aperitivo of Lemonade in his special interpretation. The lemon granita (with a touch of Pimm's) served over a warm, rich lemon espuma in a martini glass was said to be inspired by a roadside lemonade stand in Miami he dropped by during a road trip across East Coast once upon a time. I am pretty sure there's no nitrogen siphon involved in the original version, but the drink was tasty and refreshing, which was much needed to cool everyone down in such a hot day in Milan just as Chef Massimo had his in that hot August in Miami, and as a good teaser of what were to come at the dinner.

We began our feast as we slowly progressed to the dining room after a few drinks and the most enthusiastic speech by Chef Massimo himself, explaining the ideas behind each of the 8 dishes he presented for the evening. First up were a pair of starters - Burger and Caesar Salad, two of the most classic American dishes taken apart by the flamboyant chef and brought to a new level of awesomeness using food from his hometown of Modena in the Emilia Romagna region. For the mini-burger, the meat patty was made from Fassona beef, cotechino and Parmigiano Reggiano cheese - all famous ingredients in the region - and topped with salsa verde and balsamic vinegar mayonnaise inside a well-toasted slider bun which reminded me of a deep-fried Chinese man-tau. The marriage of the salsa verde with strong cilantro flavor and the sweet and rich balsamic mayo inside a burger was fascinating, and the beef patty was so light in texture but punchy in flavors that I felt I could eat 10 of them in one go.

What presented in the form of a chuck of lettuce head in a round plate in a dish called "Caesar Salad in Emilia" was an amazing medley of ingredients - no less than a couple dozens of them according to Chef Massimo - hidden in between the leaves as they were being unfolded layer by layer. In one I found crushed Parmagiano crisps; in another little strips of pancetta and a hint of anchovies perhaps, plus cured egg yolks, mustard, more herbs, hot pepper oil and a touch of young balsamic. Overall the lettuce was so fresh and crisp with such balanced flavors to go along with, which was fun and delicious.

The second "act" was two dishes paying tribute to Italian cuisine which was like nothing I have had before. First was named "The Crunchy Part of the Lasagne", inspired by the crunchy corners of a traditional lasagne, which according to Chef Massimo was the best part of the dish for which every Italian children grew up fighting over it at the dining table. Instead of having thin pasta sheets layered in between sauce and then baked, as we normally knew Lasagne by, in this version, tomato and herb flavors were infused and kneaded into the pasta dough, rolled thin deep-fried into a tri-colored, folded strips of crispy "pasta", keeping the spirit of the Lasagne layers. The presentation was so out of the blue yet the flavors were so familiar - it was ridiculously good.

What next was another playful dish called "Rice and Polenta in Praise of Pizza". Risotto - traditionally a northern Italian dish - was simmered in buffalo mozzarella giving it much creamy flavor and plated in a round shape, forming the "dough". Underneath the risotto was a thick sauce of tomato and oregano - often seen as the base for the iconic southern Neopolitan pizza - as the topping. To simulate the slightly-charcoaled pizza crust, toasted polenta was crushed and sprinkled on top. So essentially Chef Massimo presented this as a north-meet-south dish. What amazed me was those flavors, while not often seen together in traditional cooking, almost like they were made for each other naturally. The tomato sauce seemed a bit sharp by itself, but with a spoonful of the creamy risotto it magically became perfectly balanced.

The dinner just went from strength to strength with the main course being served next, continuing on the theme of new interpretations of great American dishes. No one would have imagined what the dish looked like just by reading from the menu description like, "Beautiful Sonic Disco of Love and Hate at the Gate of Hell with Wicked Pools of Glorious Color and Psychedelic Spin-painted Cotechino, not Flamed-Grilled". "Is that even English?" as I heard someone muttered in the crowd when Chef Massimo presented the dish and talked about the idea behind. To many Americans, July 4 weekend was about barbecue grill and hot dogs in the backyard and he gave us exactly that. Well, almost. Cotechino, a 500-year-old pork dish coming from Modena, was cooked sous-vide and dusted with vegetable charcoal (hence described as not flamed-grilled). Served on the plate alongside the meat was what seemed to be a random brush and splash of colors like an abstract painting - they were the classic hot dog condiments of mustard, ketchup, onion and sauerkraut with the plating inspired by the English artist Damien Hirst known for his work of "spin-painting". Speechless, I was just speechless as I heard him talking enthusiastically about the dish, how he came up with the idea, how it was done. It only took someone crazy like him to pull off something like this with such great effect.

Immediately followed our "hot dog" was "Corn Off the Cob" - with corn custard, dehydrated toasted corn served in a small bowl with corn broth poured over at the table-side. Essentially playing off one single ingredient just in different shapes and forms, this was surprisingly complex and deep. The flavors was intense and unusual - more like cornmeal than sweet corn kernels eaten on the cob, with a hint of popcorn flavors coming from that dehydrated toasted corn bits.

Our first dessert was "cheesecake" in a presentation of the American flag colors of red, white and blue in the style of Andy Warhol's camouflage painting. The base in a deep dish was the soft cheesecake custard and on top and on the side, dehydrated cherries and berries, some in thin slices, some in powder, formed the blue and red pattern. As the dish was brought in, Chef Massimo came around each table and sprayed cherry aroma across the room for the additional dimension of senses. Another complicated, artsy dish with great flavor to show forth.

We ended our meal in the most non-traditional way, with a super savory dish of "Mac-n-cheese alla Modenese", done as a personal tribute to Chef Massimo's grandmother for this is his favorite food of hers, with small spoonfuls of tortellini mixed with rich and creamy cheese in tasting portion served in a martini glass. 

I hate to go all philosophical and analytical for any meal but for me this is truly one memorable dining experience. I still found it a bit surreal sitting in this intimate venue together with such a small crowd (with no less VIPs than the US ambassador and a few congressmen and dignitaries among those in attendance, sitting not far from my table), with one of the best chefs and the most talented culinary minds of our times cooking this one-time-only menu, with dishes after dishes that I could only describe as whimsical, playful and out-of-this-world excellent. If there is one time I could describe myself as lucky enough to be at the right place at the right time, this would definitely be the top one on my list. His cuisine was subversive in a sense, pushing the limit with his outrageous creativity and impressive re-interpretation of classic dishes, yet somehow stayed true to the original flavors and did justice to the ingredients, walking that fine line between innovations and traditions. He spoke with such energy and enthusiasm of his cooking that I am willing to pay just to hear him talk about his food, let alone try them myself. 

It was a good fun night with everyone sharing great conversations around the table, enjoying the lovely wines and marveled at the dishes presented in front of us one by one. At the end of the evening, after 4 hours, 4 wines and 8 different dishes, Chef Massimo and his team came out for a curtain call and that was met with standing ovation across the room. It's been a hot and long evening in this old building but I am sure if he was to do an encore then, everyone would have stayed and wish the night just went on and on without ever had to stop. I knew I would.

More pictures on my Flickr page:

When? July 4 2015
Where? James Beard American Restaurant at Seven Stars Galleria, 5th Floor Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, Corner Piazza Della Scala, Milano, Italy
Feudo Principi di Butera, Chardonnay, Sicilia DOC 2014
Tenuta Ca'Bolani, Aquilis Sauvignon Friuli Aquileia DOC 2013
Castello d'Albola, Acciaiolo, Toscana IGT 2011
Podere il Giangio Recioto Passito Gambellara Classico DOC 2011

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