But then, in 2009 local restaurant Osteria Francescana entered the San Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants list at no 13 making it the highest new entry for the year and placing it just a single position behind the million times more famous The French Laundry. In 2010, it climbed a further 7 places to rank as the 6th best restaurant in the world. It has also held 2 Michelin stars since 2006. Chef Massimo Bottura who trained under Alain Ducasse is putting Modena on the map as a go to destination for food lovers.
The restaurant itself sits on a typical Modena street behind a typical Modena front door and if it weren't for the plaque to the side of that front door you wouldn't know it was a restaurant at all, let alone the world's 6th best.
Inside, the diner is greeted by shelves of food books and a wide variety of contemporary art embracing both sculpture and painting. There's no bar though (ironically since Osteria translated can mean drinking house) and on being taken through to the dining room you're struck by how small it is. The room has six tables set for food and a single wine station. Tables are of a good size though and on this day, five are set for two covers together with a single, but that of course means that the entire dining room is laid for just 11 people. What would prove more surprising is that only the single and one of the two tops was occupied. A late walk in provided an additional single cover but two tables remained empty. On a Friday lunch service at the 6th best restaurant in the world, there are only six diners, it's quite surprising.
Service was excellent throughout and all the waiters spoke fluent English which helped us a great deal, but with just six diners and as many waiters in a small room with white table cloths, it did feel a little hushed and formal and lacked the 'sit back and smile' atmosphere of somewhere like El Celler de Can Roca. Music plays quietly in the background ranging from Mozart's Symphony No 40 to Norah Jones.
Bread arrives at the table and shortly after the first dish appears. It's very black. We're told it is a 'rock from the seaside'; many of the dishes here have nature inspired themes. The base is a sauce of mussels and clams, while the 'rock' itself is made with powder of seaweed and squid ink. While Bottura's San Pellegrino write up describes him as a 'master of colour, texture and geometry' (geometry!), what is immediately apparent to us is his mastery of flavour. We'll come back to this more later, but his ability to instil into the dish components the essence of the idea is as brilliant as any chef whose food we've eaten. And despite this dish being inspired by a rock, it's not hard, rather, the powder element is clear and it's hardly a dish you have to eat as it just melts away in the mouth. A fabulous start.
If the mark of a truly great kitchen is that it produces both a superlative version of a kind and a dish that you will remember long after the event, this is probably it. Ironically, it's only innovative to the extent that the components combine to form a deconstructed risotto but the veal demi-glace was without precedent in the intensity of flavour. It was simply stunning.
When the bill came, we saw the total and realised that it was less than the sum of the items we had ordered and that were listed on the bill; we pointed this out to our waiter. His reply? 'The chef wants it like that'. How generous from an amazing chef that just delivered a truly exceptional meal.
Across many exceptional restaurants in the UK, the competition too often seems based upon who can develop 'a better mouse trap'? Hand dived Scottish scallops, cooked better. Venison, cooked better. Foie gras, made better. So few really innovate, way too samey from place to place. In the UK, it's surely why Heston's Fat Duck and even Dinner receive so much recognition, at least they do something different. The Ledbury is getting there too. But at Osteria Francescana, you'll discover new frontiers to food, as you do at Noma and at El Bulli. In that respect, Osteria Francescana is an appropriate bedfellow in the top tier of the San Pellegrino's list; put another way, it deserves its place.
We can only guess but if Chef Bottura were running the same operation in London, bookings would be gold dust, a full house every day and every night with reservations lines jammed for months ahead. When in Rome, you may care to do as the Romans do, but you might also want to take a trip up the road to Modena and Osteria Francescana. Indeed, you might want to make that trip from anywhere in Italy, or the UK, for the journey is worth it. Osteria Francescana is in our opinion one of the world's truly great restaurants. We expect to hear much more of Chef Massimo Bottura going forward.
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Related links: El Bulli
Related links: Noma
Related links: The Fat Duck
Related links: El Celler de Can Roca