Monday, 9 December 2013

From Rome with White Truffles and Michelin Star Touch

This review first appeared in Mail Today on November 29, 2013. I am reproducing it now because a number of my friends, professional contacts and readers missed it in the newspaper.
Copyright: Mail Today Newspapers.

By Sourish Bhattacharyya

I HAVE often wondered why certain chefs get Michelin stars and the rest of the world doesn't. Is there a massive PR machinery or a gargantuan corporation that propels a chef into this exclusive club? Or do they earn their greatness as a result of the sheer brilliance of their talent?
After having a meal prepared by Francesco Apreda at Travertino, The Oberoi's Italian restaurant, which is these days redolent of the aroma of the season's freshest white truffles from Alba, I am convinced that it takes a powerhouse of skills and imagination to get a Michelin star. Apreda, whose tall, lean athletic frame makes him look more like a footballer than a chef, presides over the Imago restaurant at the Hassler, the classic hotel that stands tall on top of the Spanish Steps in Rome.
Francesco Apreda presides over Imago,
a restaurant offering a 360-degree view
of Rome from the top floor of the Hassler
perched above the Spanish Steps
Perched on Hassler's topmost floor, Imago is famous for the amazing 360-degree views it offers of Rome's histoic landmarks, but Apreda ensures that the meals with a view are remembered as much for the gastronomic experience and the artistry on the plate. What makes him doubly interesting is the mastery with which he melds Japanese elements -- from miso and shichimi to sake and seasonal flowers -- into his modern Italian cooking style.
He's also the first Italian chef I have known who carries a test tube filled with a blend of peppers from six different geographical regions, including Thalassery (Tellicherry), and ground sesame, which he uses to lend his risotto a well-travelled flavour. Marco Polo would have loved Apreda's risotto. Japanese chefs have incorporated French influences to create the much-acclaimed Japonaise cuisine. Apreda can legitimately claim that he's the inventor of the Italo-Japanese cuisine and he knows his Japanese ingredients very well because he has worked for many years in Japan.
Insular Italian chefs may find it difficult to digest the blasphemy of this cultural cross-pollination, but Apreda's cuisine is all about bringing diverse aromas and flavours to the global table. And to raise the oomph value of his menu, he has brought with him his personal hoard of white truffles from Alba. This has been a good year for truffles because of steady showers throughout Italy's summer, so the prices are in the 'manageable' range of 4,000-6,500 euros for a kilo. Last year's crop, which had been hit by unseasonal rains, started at 6,000 euros.
So when Apreda brings a truffle covered in a bell jar and shaves it delicately into your onion and wild mushroom soup with a touch of red miso, goat's cheese and a herb tempura, treat it with respect. See how the shavings transform a humble fried egg served with a delicate cauliflower dressing, toasted almonds and celeriac. And taste the difference the combination of white truffles and shichimi, or togarashi, the Japanese chilli-hot seven spice mixture, makes to Parmesan ravioli served in a cold tuna broth spiked with bonito flakes and craft beer. It's not for nothing that truffles bring back memories of torrid sex.
But you don't need truffles to give you that sense of wow when Apreda presents his sake-glazed black cod with a purple foam and flowers of the same hue. It's a masterpiece. When it was presented to my host, Henry Moses, Country Manager, Qatar Airways, he whipped out his Galaxy to take pictures. "You can't eat this work of art without shooting pictures of it," he said. Henry looked visibly happy that the airline has partnered with the white truffles promotion by flying Apreda in.
The Italian master is an equally accomplished dessert chef. Like a good Italian son, he has reinterpreted his Napolitan mother's shell-shaped pastries, sfogliatelle, by giving them the samosa look, and serving cherry sauce and green tea ice-cream on the side with white truffles. He raises the bar even for the vanilla bean ice-cream by presenting it like a tapestry with caramelised hazelnuts, Valrhona emulsion, salt crystals and white truffles. You don't get a Michelin star for nothing.