After traveling with family for 3 weeks in Italy, week #4 was reserved just for me. It was a blissful week in and around Venice with the perfect balance of exploring and relaxing, both mixed with a good amount of one thing I enjoy very much: food.
Two particular restaurants are the subject of this post: Met Restaurant, a two Michelin star restaurant in the Hotel Metropole in Venice, and Venissa Ristorante on the island of Mazzorbo in the Venice lagoon. Both restaurants are gourmet, with innovative chefs creating interesting dishes, but their similarities for the most part from my perspective end there.
The ambiance of Met Restaurant reminded me of French Laundry (this is not a good thing), with long, white table clothes and a general stiff, uncomfortable fanciness that in my opinion can only take away from the food rather than add to it. There were two menus to choose from: "Since 1992", a compilation of their most famous dishes since they earned their stars, or the "surprise" menu, which changes daily and they don't reveal any details about until the courses arrive at your table. I opted for the former. The food was good, no doubt. But overdone, in my opinion. I'm not sure who originally said this, but to keep from over-accessorizing, the advice is to take off the last bit of jewelry you put on. The dishes made me think of this: when composing a dish, perhaps one should omit the last ingredient planned to avoid having too much going on. There were also some more exotic meat dishes (e.g. pigeon), that were perhaps too adventurous for someone who spent nearly a decade as a vegetarian, which I'm sure also attributed to my less than stellar impression of the experience.
So, while my overall experience was less than I had anticipated (particularly given the price point), there were definitely some good points. The use of espresso grounds as garnish was interesting and seemed to increase the depth of flavors. This was my first experience with cuttlefish (also enjoyed at Venissa), in the form of faux fettucini, which was my favorite Met dish from both a texture and flavor standpoint. Here's a recount of the menu (which they sent home with me in an embossed folder, ala fancy restaurant):
- Red Mullets with a tomato, mint, lemon-grass and "Spritz" coconut. (2002)
- Adriatic scallops injected with their own coral, tapinamburgs puree, Sevruga caviar and violets crunch nougat. (2007)
- Mille-feuille of goose << foie gras >> smoked and grilled with basil, pear, and "Corallo" coffee sprinkling. (2006)
- Soup with squid dumplings and ginger, with veal seetbreads and tuna botargo. (2009)
- The unique experience of cuttlefish "fettucini" ...but don't expect any pasta... (1996)
- Loin of venison cooked on the ... contrary, wood flavouring in a fake grill. (2000)
- Grilled boned pigeon with smoked eel, lychees and chocolate shavings. (2009)
- It's a matter of pleasant sensations: rhum and tobacco. (1998)
If Met Restaurant was overdone, both in terms of atmosphere and food, Vanissa Ristorante was anything but. The vibe was relaxed and immediately comfortable, with a view on one side straight into the stunningly beautiful kitchen and floor to ceiling windows on the opposite side looking out to the vineyard on which the restaurant sits. The food was perhaps the best of my life, the dishes composed of simple, fresh ingredients done extremely well. The combinations were interesting without crossing into the strange category. The food was simply... beautiful.
There was an approach that was taken in a couple of the dishes that I appreciated tremendously: the same ingredient prepared in different ways within the same dish. This added a variance in texture and flavor without running the risk of too many disparate ingredients going on. To illustrate, one of my favorite dishes of the evening (and the second appearance of cuttlefish) placed cuttlefish on fennel puree, topped with a fennel and blood orange salad, and garnished with a single fennel sprig. The flavors of this dish were so fresh and the combination of textures was just perfect. Upon asking about the preparation of the fennel puree, I learned it was boiled (then pureed with a bit of olive oil and milk); a roasted pureed variation could be very interesting as well...I think I must try this in my own kitchen at some point soon.
The other contender for my favorite dish of the evening (the best of the best, if you will) was a "bread" gnocchi. It had the most perfectly balanced delicious broth that I've ever enjoyed - full of flavor without being salty (a "simple fish broth", according to the server). The gnocchi was combined with mussels, clams, and big, bright green fresh spring peas and their greens. Words cannot describe the loveliness of this dish.
I didn't take home a fancy printout from this restaurant, but do have the notes I wrote down the following day on what I enjoyed:
- An appetizer thinly sliced veal served on tuna and caper puree with a sprinkling of espresso powder
- Cuttlefish served over fennel puree with blood orange and fennel salad
- Breaded calamari served over a polenta and anchovy paste with garnish of polenta chips
- Spaghetti al dente with sardine, spring onions, the tiniest garlic bulbs I've ever seen, and a beautiful, buttery broth
- "Bread" gnocchi in a "simple fish broth" with mussels, clams, peas, and violets
- Langosteen on a bed of cabbage, served together with bruschetta topped with green tomatoes and sprinkled with the powder of dehydrated mussels (served with the most interesting amber-colored wine with a taste that reminded me of acetone, yet strangely paired perfectly with the dish: both the dish and the wine were better together than either on their own)
- Dessert of a flavor-dense strawberry puree, topped with layers of pastry filled with cream and topped with fresh mint
The meal was so amazing that I actually went back my second night on Mazzorbo as well. I won't recount the entire experience, but rather a single highlight. The dish was baked crab served with a bean puree with pasta and salty pork. The clear star of the dish was the crab: this type of crab is apparently only available three times per year when their shell softens. They are baked, but you would be fooled into thinking they were deep fried based on the crispy, crunchy texture. I was so excited about this particular ingredient that they brought out a tray of the fresh (alive!) crabs from the fridge so I could meet their acquaintance. They then popped them in the oven and served them up a short 5 minutes later. While this sort of thing would generally disturb me (meeting my meal and then consuming it), I instead found this fascinating. It helped me understand the intimate relationship that everyone in the Vanissa kitchen has with the food they prepare; this respect for ingredients comes through in the dishes in the form of perfect flavor combinations and preparation.
My overarching learning from dining in and around Venice: simple ingredients done well supersede Michelin stars. That, and another trip to the remote island of Mazzorbo to Vanissa Ristorante Ostello is squarely on my must-do-again list for some point in the future.