Timing is everything
You would expect to book a considerable time ahead for the best restaurant in the world.
We girls had been discussing it for some time, and because most of us lived ten thousand kilometres away, we secured our place many months in advance.
Unfortunately, by the time we touched down in the northern hemisphere, Osteria Francescana was no longer the Best Restaurant in the World.
Only number two.
No one likes settling for second best. So we decided not to. For us Osteria Francescana was still going to be the ultimate. Punto.
Who says which is best?
So how do we know this restaurant was once the world’s very best?
The World’s 50 Best Restaurant Academy is the mechanism used to create the world’s 50 Best Restaurants List. The W50B List first appeared in Restaurant Magazine in 2002.
Initially based in London, they moved to NYC in 2016 and in 2017 Melbourne became the third city to host the announcements, as well as welcome some of the top chefs to dazzle the locals.
In 2018 the venue will be Bilbao.
They divide the world in to 26 panels. Each panel’s chairperson selects 40 foodies … chefs, restaurateurs, food writers and well-travelled gourmets … from their area. (The panelists are renewed by 25% each year.) Each panelist votes for 6 restaurants in their home country, and 4 from elsewhere in the world. Some 10,000 votes are rinsed, sauteed and tasted. The List is presented and served.
How Osteria Francescana was for us
Our booking was for lunch. We were the early sitting, confirmed at 12.30 a table for five.
We stepped through the almost unremarkable grey door, set in a simple wall a shade of pink only the Italians seem able to achieve. A few herbs and flowers in grey tubs nodded at the entrance.
Five guests, five waiters. They ushered us in; it was all very hush hush on the lovely plush carpet. For a brief second, we did worry we would be eating our lunch in silence, but we soon warmed the waiters to us. There were only two other tables for two in our room, and we glimpsed the other small rooms and guessed they could only seat 20 or so guests.
Our table was ready and waiting, beautifully set in front of a spectacular Damien Hirst spin painting. What was about to grace our plates though, was even more spectacular.
Our service was impeccable. Everybody there knew everything about everything, and imparted their wisdom eloquently but without fuss.
In the months leading up to this day, we had read the reviews, some mentioning stiff and impersonal service. Yet from the moment five suited gentleman in unison pulled back five elegant chairs for five smiling ladies we had a wonderful ride.
Maybe that day, the trained restraint of the waiters was slightly stirred and effervesced by five very dear friends who collectively fill a happy space. We are certainly never boisterous, careful not to upset our fellow diners, but we are smiles all round all the time.
Ah yes, we would like something to eat
In the excited banter back and forth before the big day, we had talked about doing the 9 course tasting menu.
But on the day, perusing the oversized menu, we chose to take all 12 courses, (known affectionately as ‘Everything’) because the dishes that intrigued us most in the Osteria Francescana Chef’s Table episodes only made their way onto the 12.
Let’s do it, we said. An extra 50 euros. We may not pass this way again.
We called for the matching wines as well. This did pose an issue for me, as, much to many of my friends and family’s disappointment, I am not the world’s biggest red wine fan. ‘Ah ha, signorina’, the waiter confided in me as he leant closer. ‘Luckily for you, this is not matching wines, but matching drinks!’. Phew.
The beverages presentation was really interesting. One of the courses was paired with a beer. A sweet, cloudy beer. Others were matched with cocktails. Early on, one pairing was a yuzu sake mix served in a champagne glass. A glass of 2015 Henri Boillot Bourgogne from Meursault was a favourite with us all, as well as a Marcosara Picolit. Wine buffs may take their superior knowledge to the extensive wine menu, but for us the pairings worked a treat.
Hands on cutlery? Here we go
At the very beginning our gentlemen came out with plates of little amuses bouche. Some looked like sweet macarons but they were pork rillettes. Others were painted silver to look like sardines but they were crunchy, alongside delicate parmesan wafers. A very finely netted potato scallop filled with a very fine fish paste puree. We were told it was fish and chips and you bit into it and it was the best memories of seaside fish and chips magically combined. That was a highlight so early!
We asked if these were the first courses on the menu, but no, these were just a little welcome for us.
Five pretty things on five pretty plates!
As each dish was presented to us, all the china was perfectly mismatched – it’s different for each course. Some are printed, some are just plain while others are shaped and coloured to match the dish. Risotto is on a flat plate. Oysters came in a curved plate with a floral pattern. It was unexpected and charming and just another magic touch.
Meeting the man
We didn’t expect Massimo to be there because we had heard he had recently been in Australia. On my way to the bathroom, I passed him. He was texting in an alcove near the cloakroom, a mere mortal like us all. I could barely contain my excitement, rushed back to our table and relayed the news to my friends.
Sure enough, Massimo himself presented his famous, three colour risotto. He insisted each colour doesn’t really taste good individually but mix them together…
Of course I thought ‘I’m sure they taste great by themselves’ and so I tried them all separately and then together and well, you know, he was right. Funny that.
He talked us through the ‘Camouflage Pigeon’, a colourful dish which was just as lively in our mouths as on the plate. It’s a dish he’s really passionate about. This represents Italy. This represents his childhood. Articulate with lips and hands. I’m sure he’s said it hundreds of times before, but his passion was obviously there.
When Massimo had spent a generous amount of time with us, discussing not only his unforgettable fare, but also our favourite restaurants in Sydney (he had just been on a trip with Tourism Australia), he marshalled us to stand in front of the dazzling Damien Hirst and immortalise the day for us with a photo.
I was hoping to see his wife Lara, because she has been such a strong and important figure in his life and the evolution of Osteria Francescana but I’ll just have to go back again. 😉
It was just one of those perfect days.
And after 12 courses we actually weren’t that full. We were there till 5pm. 4 ½ hours but everything was so leisurely. We surprisingly had trouble finishing our drinks in between courses. The place is quiet and subtly beautiful with some blazing art exceptions and the pigeon watching over the door, even the bathrooms are works of beauty.
It cost us a bit more than we had planned for. About 700 Australian dollars each. But as I said, this group was never going to do this again.
All in all a magical, unforgettable experience made even more memorable by our conversation with the man himself.
Our next move
We were joking at the table that because Eleven Madison Park is now the new Number One, we might book that for next year’s trip and spend our lives chasing World Number Ones. If we get there and it’s been beaten, we’ll just have to go on to the next one next year. That’s the life!
Resting the head afterwards
We stayed at the Emilia Suites which were really delightful. I chose it because it was the closest to Osteria Francescana but I didn’t realise just how close. When we dropped our bags in the main reception, we found it was in the same lane that the restaurant kitchen backs onto. The door was open, we could hear them playing UB40 and see them all dancing around. So happy, clearly enjoying every second of the magic they create for diners on a daily basis. It was really this love you could taste.
Someone in our hotel told us the Ferrari factory was not far away. We saw only one gurgling down a cobbled street but as it couldn’t take five of us we ignored it. We felt we had had ample Italian passion for one day.
For your taste of Italian passion go to www.osteriafrancescana.it