Franceschetta58 – Modena, Italy

Massimo Bottura is a cool man. Of course, coolness is subjective; he’s my idea of cool. Thick rimmed glasses, grey stubble, short curly hair. More importantly, an indefatigable appetite for life, an authentic passion for his trade, and a commitment to improving the lives of those around him make him stand out. 

I first heard of Bottura watching the Netflix series Chef’s Table, the peerless documentary series showcasing the lives and foods of the world’s greatest chefs. The first episode told the story of the charismatic Italian, whose attempts at modernising Italian cuisine had initially been met with considerable suspicion by food traditionalists, which in Italy means pretty much everyone.

What impressed me most, however, was not his mouthwatering, creative dishes, more artistic than anything I’d seen before. It was his personality and, more than anything, his dedication to making people happy. The episode’s opening scene showed the devastating earthquake that struck northern Italy in 2012, killing 27 and causing untold damage to, among other things, millions of pounds worth of Parmesan cheese. Bottura helped raise awareness and showcased the local, world-famous, cheese in his food, providing the industry with a recovery boost.

Osteria Francescana, the tiny, unpretentious restaurant that in 2016 was named best in the world, is Bottura’s baby. Having worked in New York and Paris, bastions of fine dining, Bottura chose to come home, to Modena, home of Pavarotti and Ferrari, to open his own place. A local museum guide told me how proud she was of Bottura’s decision.

Francescana is set in the heart of Modena, a beautiful town just north of Bologna. While travelling through northern Italy I dreamt of going there. Sadly, unlike Aziz Ansari and Eric Wareheim in the latest series of Netflix’s Master of None, I couldn’t afford the €220 price for a nine-course tasting menu.

Bottura, however, is dedicated to providing quality food to everyone. In the 2016 Olympics he helped turn food waste into meals for Rio’s homeless, a project repeated this year in London. He also has a far more affordable option, just outside Modena’s historic centre. It’s still pricey, and portions are small, but my god is it good.

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Franceschetta58 offers Michelin-star quality food for a fraction of the price. I opted for the lunch menu, a reasonable €25 for three courses. The restaurant is laid back and casual. Daft Punk lyrics adorn the walls while James Brown and Stevie Wonder provided the soundtrack. Attractive French waitresses glide between tables handing out cutlery in old watering cans. It veers perilously close to faux hipster pretension but nevertheless retains an authentic vibe, probably due to Bottura’s personality, or my idea of it at least.

Picking a highlight from the meal is tough; almost everything I ate was top quality. Is it even okay to choose the bread? Seriously, that focaccia. I tried a lot of focaccia during my 10 days in Italy, it was my go-to snack. This was next level: perfectly spongy texture, just the right amount of oil, salt and air. If this was the only thing I was served I still would’ve given Franceschetta a positive review.

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Emilia burger

For starters I opted for one of Bottura’s famous creations, the Emilia burger, named after the local region, Emilia-Romagna, which produces so much of Italy’s world-famous produce (parmesan, Parma ham, balsamic vinegar, bolognese, mortadella, the list goes on). It’s small, and by small I mean small; a slider rather than a burger, a small one at that. The patty is a delightful mixture of pork, beef and parmesan, and the cheese really shines through. It was rare, just how a good burger should be. The salsa verde, mostly parsley, provided a fresh balance to the meat. But the balsamic reduction was slightly overpowering; it was the only (very minor) negative. The burger was still great, and tasted especially good paired with a local red Sangiovese.

Next came the party piece, a perfectly-grilled octopus, each sucker, not an enticing term, housing a pool of olive oil. It was good, but even better when eaten with the fried cauliflower perched alongside it, which tasted almost of crispy seaweed. The accompanying cauliflower and smoked oil mousse was divine.

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Grilled octopus 

I probably wouldn’t have ordered the only dessert on offer, but I’m bloody glad I was cornered into it. It was a sensational coffee and orange cream, with crumbled chocolate biscuits and raspberries. I finished with a coffee and a surprisingly pocket-friendly bill of €35.

Have Italians accepted Bottura’s experimentation with traditional Italian cuisine? It seems so, everyone I spoke to in Modena about him was rightly proud. There were Italians there, but over half the clientele were foreign, mostly French and American. Franceschetta58 is certainly worth a visit. Hell, I basically went to Italy to go there. Of course, we’d all like to be able to visit its big brother, hopefully one day I will. But the more accessible version allows the rest of us to see just why an excitable Italian from Modena has become one of the world’s most celebrated chefs.

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Monty’s Deli brings Jewish classics back to the East End – and it’s definitely worth a visit

London and New York: two global food capitals, where you can find any food at any time of the day. Over the past century New York has become the symbolic home of the Jewish deli, typified by the iconic Katz Delicatessen. But the East End, where tens of thousands of Eastern European Jews found a home, once had an equally vibrant Jewish food scene.

Remnants of Jewish food culture remain in Brick Lane’s 24-hour bagel shops, but Monty’s Deli is leading the charge to repopularise classics like chicken soup, potato latkes, salt beef and pastrami. Having acquired a large following at Maltby Street Market, co-owners Mark Ogus and Owen Barratt have moved to a permanent location in Hoxton, where similar foods were once common.

The restaurant has maintained a relaxed atmosphere, with New York-style booths, and stools along the bar. Meat hangers from the original 19th-century butcher add a rustic feel. I’m a sucker for salt beef bagels, the ultimate sandwich, and have been eagerly awaiting the chance to come to Monty’s.

For starters we ordered chicken soup. Sadly it was bland, more like chicken essence. But it was the only hiccup. Our sandwiches arrived promptly and the meshuggener, a mouthwatering blend of chopped liver, made using Ogus’s grandmother’s recipe, salt beef, pastrami and coleslaw, was the highlight. Servings are certainly generous, and my bagel (which I requested instead of rye bread after learning they are made on site) failed to hold everything in. After some DIY, I was able to enjoy one of the best salt beef sandwiches in London.

The Reuben, a New York classic, was also superb. Layer upon layer of salt beef was topped with Swiss cheese, sauerkraut and Russian dressing inside toasted rye bread. Sides of tangy sauerkraut and a fresh fennel, caper and parsley salad helped justify the meat overload. We finished with cheese blintzes, light pancakes filled with ricotta and topped with cooked grapes, which were excellent.

The staff, aside from a grumpy waitress, were polite and attentive. We were lucky to bag stools by the chefs, and Barratt was unfailingly polite, handing us samples, offering top-ups and answering questions. By our count they went through 10 slabs of salt beef and pastrami in an hour. If they keep it up, there is certainly potential for a new classic Jewish Deli in the old East End.

The best meals of 2016

The following article features five food experts and their favourite meals of 2016.


Tomé Morrissy-Swan, author of Appetite for Consumption food blog

2016 has been a pretty shitty year. Tragic terrorist attacks and plane crashes, political upheaval across the world, and a spate of celebrity deaths, from beloved musicians and actors to Johan Cruyff, one of the best footballers of all time, have continually shocked us. On a more mundane level, Cristiano Ronaldo winning the Champions League, the Euros and the Ballon D’or is particularly grating.

Thankfully, the culinary world has provided a much-needed tonic to the overbearing doom and gloom. When everything around us seems to be pointing to the end of the world as we know it, food continues to remind us of the more comforting things in life: home, family, travelling and the fact that we have more in common with each other than what separates us (hummus and falafel, after all, are equally as Israeli as they are Palestinian).

This year, I’ve been lucky enough to visit several gastronomically iconic places; indeed, I was so inspired by the cuisines of such far-reaching places as Israel, San Sebastian and Vietnam that I began to write about food.

In a year in which I was to sample such a vast array of superb and authentic dishes, it was almost impossible to choose a single highlight. In December 2015, I was blown away by shakshouka and hummus in Tel Aviv; in May, the pintxos of San Sebastian were a pleasant surprise, especially when washed down with the cheap and excellent local wine; staying with a local family in Lazio, central Italy, was a delightful introduction to the famous Italian homegrown and home-cooked food culture; in Vietnam, I ate arguably the best sandwich of my life; and green curries in Bangkok and Chiang Mai elevated the dish to favourite-curry status.

Choosing a single favourite, therefore, was an arduous task. Awards, for me, are always slightly dubious, based solely on subjectivity, particularly for anything artistic. How can a certain film be better than another in a completely different genre? How do you ascertain whether a hip hop album  is better than a rock one? Equally, how do you decide whether pho in Vietnam is better or worse than sushi in São Paulo?

My favourite meal, therefore, is one that gave me the most pleasure, changed my views on that particular dish, and partly influenced me to write about food. In August, I spent a day in Naples, southern Italy’s largest city, a baking, chaotic, vibrant place. I fell in love with the town, and that was before I tried the famous Neapolitan pizza. As we arrived at our chosen pizzeria, it was sadly closed. Luckily, a few doors down was Al 22, a traditional, no-frills pizzeria established in 1935. Less than five minutes after ordering, two piping hot pizzas, a Margherita and a Margherita with Salami, arrived. After our first bites, my mother and I stopped, looked at each other, and had to pause to reflect, it was that good. I was so inspired, my love for pizza reignited, that I subsequently began a quest to find the best pizza in London. Simple, cheap food, when made properly, beats any smart, modernist fare. The Neapolitan pizza, at €5, was the best meal I had in 2016.


Ben Preston, of blog.ZenEuro.com, a website specialising in travel and food

Picking my favourite food from this year is hard, mostly because I had the chance to do quite a bit of travelling and try lots of unique cuisines from different places. Some of my favourites would definitely be the pizza from Bonci Pizzarium in Rome, the churros from El Moro in Mexico City, and the tapas from Quimet & Quimet in Barcelona. But, if I could only pick one thing that stood above the rest, I think it would be the classic Greek food at Thanasis in Athens.

Thanasis is in the centre of Athens along a street of restaurants, and is known by tourists and locals alike for having some of the best Greek food in the country. For me, having been raised on souvlaki and tzatziki from Greek immigrants, getting to experience the foods from their origin was an other-wordly experience.

The simplicity of the food really amazed me: The tzatziki, creamy and fresh, drizzled with olive oil, and served with grilled pita dusted with paprika, was just perfect. The lamb souvlaki, succulent, juicy, and served with ripe Greek tomatoes and red onion, was everything I ever wanted a souvlaki to be. I would without question travel to Athens, and Thanasis, again just for the food.

Blog.ZenEuro.com

ZenEuro.com


Lucy Treganna, traveller and food lover

A strong contender for the best food I ate this year is at Pizza 4P’s, an Italian-Japanese fusion restaurant in Hanoi founded by Tokyo-born Yosuke Masuko. Although living in Hanoi meant I was able to enjoy some incredible Vietnamese cuisine, the craving to ‘go for a Western’ did sometimes set in, and on the two occasions I ventured to Pizza 4P’s it far from disappointed.

Thanks to the ‘half & half’ option they have available for most pizzas, between us my friends and I were able to sample a range of toppings: garlic soy beef, okonomiyaki and salmon sashimi being among the creative Asian twists which impressed. There are also more traditional Neapolitan-style pizzas on offer; on my first visited I opted for a classic margherita and a three-cheese option combining mozzarella, parmesan and camembert on a béchamel base, which was served with a side of honey to drizzle over and complemented the flavours surprisingly well. It was the perfect choice for someone as cheese obsessed as I am, especially as Pizza 4P’s uses its own homemade artisan cheeses produced in the Vietnamese highlands of Da Lat.

On my second visit I selected the anchovy burrata, and the ham, camembert and mozzarella served on a garlic mushroom sauce base. Not just the best pizza I’ve eaten in Asia, but amongst the best I’ve had in my life!


Nicholas Hsien, food blogger, http://www.rockabitebaby.com

Frog legs as a famous culinary delicacy may be one of the few things the French and Chinese have in common, aside from perhaps both governments’ attitude towards the United States. Having eaten frog legs in their Chinese incarnations – usually stir fried or stewed with ginger and spring onion, or cooked together with rice congee – my gastronomical highlight of 2016 was the French take on frog legs, or cuisses de grenouille.

I tried this dish on a recent trip to Lyon, France. The frog legs were lightly battered, and pan fried over a skillet containing butter, garlic and some herbs (including a generous dose of parsley). Et voila! That’s pretty much it, simple as it may sound. The frog legs were supple and juicy – and for anyone undecided about trying, the meat’s texture is like that of a perfectly done quail without any trace of gaminess and evidence of animal fat beneath the skin. Even my dining partner who had never eaten frog legs previously was pleasantly surprised when tasting it. Soaked in garlic butter with fresh parsley, and lightly salted, it was not too heavy or saturating despite the richness experienced in one’s first bite, and goes well with either wine or beer. C’est parfait!

Josh Dell, journalist and co-creator of Fried Culture, a documentary focusing on London’s fried chicken scene, to be released in February 2017.

The best food I’ve had this year was the truffle polenta at Machneyehuda in Jerusalem, widely considered to be the best restaurant in Israel. Nothing makes me smile more when eating out than the phrase “we’re going to need another” the second you have your first mouthful of a dish.

The polenta was one of those dishes. Creamy and gorgeous, the tastes that emerged with every bite have stuck with me throughout the year. Want to try it in London? Look no further than Machneyehuda’s sister restaurant (or at least some kind of sibling), The Palomar on Rupert Street, W1. Almost exactly the same dish is served there, and from experience I can tell you it does not disappoint in the slightest.

The best sandwich in the world?

As someone who eats a sandwich pretty much every day, it’s perhaps surprising that a humble dish of meat (usually) in bread can still blow my mind. Very few sandwiches are memorable; 90% of those I eat are bland supermarket meal deals. 

Every so often, less than once a year, however, I’ll eat a perfect, unforgettable, sandwich. Such occasions are few and far between, they can be counted on one hand. The salt beef sandwich at Katz in New York; a Navajo flatbread in Austin; a steak in a small baguette I would always get in Brazil on the way to the beach; falafel in Jerusalem. All these I remember like they were yesterday, and would pay good money to eat again.

In Hoi An, a pretty, coastal town in central Vietnam famous for cheap tailoring and UNESCO-protected architecture, a new sandwich was unexpectedly but happilly added to the list. Aside from pho, the banh mi is probably Vietnam’s most famous dish. One of the few positive legacies from the French colonial period, perfectly textured baguettes are filled with pate before being completed with a variety of ingredients.

Available everywhere and cheap (usually £1, though I ate a fantastic one in Hue for around 25p), the banh mi is one of the staples of Vietnam’s vibrant and varied street food scene. 

I used to watch Anthony Bourdain religiously, and therefore know of his love for Vietnam and its food. I had completely forgotten, however, that he visited, and loved, a small restaurant in Hoi An serving one of the best banh mi around. Fortunately, an encounter with an Australian who had eaten there every day during his stay reminded me. Promptly, I made the two-minute pilgrimage from my hostel to Phuong Banh Mi, hidden away and easy to miss.

Phuong Banh Mi

In no time at all, the sandwhich arrived, on a baguette so crispy on the outside, yet so fluffy that it rivalled anything you can find in France. The pate was ample and strong in flavour, and a perfect counterbalance to the chilli sauce. I went for what looked like the traditional option: pate, ham and roast pork, and there was certainly a lot of each. Banh mi are usually finished off with cucumber, carrot and lettuce. The balance between ingredients was perfect and the pork more flavoursome and tender than any other I’d had. 

I now have five sandwiches on my list, and picking one over all others would be tough. But the banh mi at Phuong’s in Hoi An deserves its spot, and should not be missed by anyone visiting Vietnam.

Banh mi