Apologies for my long absence!! I’m glad to say that I haven’t been unwell or busy… I’ve been holidaying:)
One of the absolute highlights on our travels was a visit to Osteria Francescana in Modena. We got married last July and six of our very kind friends gave us money as a present, with strict instructions to only spend it in Osteria Francescana, so we duly obeyed. Trying to get a table at Massimo’s famous, Modenese restaurant is like trying to get tickets to U2’s last gig ever in Croke park, during a heatwave, on Bono’s birthday. There was definitely a knack to it, and it took a while to figure out, which only added to the suspense. Reservations open three months in advance on the 1st of the month at 9a.m. (Modena time), and you have to be online right then. Having failed to get a table in March or April (for June or July), the May reservation slot carried the last of our summer hopes. On the 1st of the month, we were staying in a hotel in Donegal so logged in on all of our devices just as reservations opened. We chose different dates in August on every gadget, leaving out weekends, hoping to maximise our chances, and suddenly it popped up… “CONFIRMED… table for 2 on the 3rd of August at 8pm”.
We had known about Osteria Francescana for about a year, having seen the Netflix documentary about Massimo Bottura, and his name became even more widespread after his restaurant was voted the best in the world by ‘Restaurant magazine’ in June. His excitable personality, boundless energy and beautiful dishes had definitely grabbed our attention, and it was clear that this meal was not going to be conventional or like anything we’d ever experienced before.
The day of our reservation, we got up early and set off on our five hour drive to Modena. We checked into our apartment and explored the city. Modena is incredible! It’s a beautiful, pedestrianised city with loads of outdoor cafes and restaurants. The people are friendly and welcoming and it’s a wonderful place to stroll around and simply soak up the atmosphere. We spent most of the afternoon preoccupied with our dinner plans. Should we have lunch? If we do, will we be hungry enough later? If we don’t, will our stomachs shrink and not be capable of surviving the evening? Settling on a small lunch, we then went back to get dolled up and head out.
Osteria Francescana is hidden down a small street and marked out only by a small plaque on the wall. You have to knock on the door and wait for them to open at your reservation time… We arrived just behind a Swedish/Australian couple, so could scoot in on their tailwind.
Our dining room was uncluttered, with five very big, round tables, each set up for two diners. It was elegant and refined, with pristine tablecloths and cutlery. I loved the low table between our chairs for putting your bag on… Genius! The walls were painted a soothing green and were bare apart from some random close-up photos of an old actress (we were torn between Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich). The room was quiet apart from the music which was a cross between jazzy and elevatory. Having heard an interview with Massimo where he outlined how much he loves his old records, especially Lou Reed, I thought they could have spiced that aspect up a bit. The other thing that harped back to a more traditional (and perhaps staid place) was that we were delivered male and female menus. The prices were omitted on mine – no feminists here!
We chose the 13 course tasting menu with wine pairing and this is what we had…
The ‘Tribute to Normandy’ was the absolute highlight for me… It looked like an oyster, it tasted like an oyster, but it was lamb. It sounds bizarre, and it was a crazy sensation. Your brain knows it’s not eating oyster but can’t get over the fact that all of the senses tell it otherwise. This dish epitomises Massimo’s creative, deceptive and fun approach to food. This playfulness was echoed in the fact that we weren’t given cutlery for the amuse bouche or the first few courses and instead were told… “use your hands”. ‘Lentils are better than Caviar’ followed a similar vein; what appeared to be a little tin of beluga caviar was in fact lentils. Now… I’ve never tasted beluga caviar so can’t vouch for the authenticity of these lentils, but I can say that they were delicious! They were bursting with flavour and had an incredibly smooth yet firm texture.
As for the wine pairings, the Japanese yuzu sake with the lentil dish was unbelievable. A punchy, fruity drink that highlighted the flavours of the lentils/caviar perfectly. A light, peach and prosecco cocktail with dessert was also gorgeous and unexpected.
The service was friendly and impeccable, as you would expect in such an establishment. The waiting staff were always nearby but never intrusive. Although the wine pairing was excellent, the sommelier could have taken a little more time when introducing and explaining the wines. Sometimes the wine was introduced at speed and he didn’t leave the bottle on the table so we couldn’t double check what we were drinking.
Overall, it was a very memorable experience. We tried dishes and flavour combinations that we never could have imagined. We were a little disappointed that Massimo wasn’t there the night we visited, but felt slightly selfish when we heard that he was feeding street children at the Olympics in Rio! It was interesting to note that most of the other guests in our dining room were young couples like us. The couple we had followed in, told us that they were based in Sweden, but had driven more than 1000km from Normandy that morning when they got a reservation here. Another British couple we spoke to had saved up to go there. He is a teacher and she is a medical student. We are all examples of this new trend towards “gourmet tourism”, where people specifically choose a destination because of its food or a specific establishment they want to visit. People like us tend to save up for the visit and often anticipate it for months. For this reason, my one piece of constructive criticism to Massimo and his team (because they will obviously be reading), would be that for many of us we have never eaten in a 3 star Michelin restaurant, so give us some time between courses to discuss how great the place is, take time to fully explain the food and wine to us and bring more of Massimo’s personality to the music and atmosphere!
P.S: It probably goes without saying, but this place is very, very expensive