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Image 1: Situated outside the walls to the historical city of Siena is Tuscany’s oldest Carthusian monastery. This medieval building is now a Relais & Chateaux that houses probably the most unusual cuisine in the country.
Image 2: www.certosadimaggiano.com Chef: Paolo Lopriore
Today's Surprise: €130 (8-course) Today's menu: €100 (5-course)
Dinner only. Closed on Tuesday and winter months.
Image 3: As we pushed open the heavy green wooden doors, we were greeted by another mirroring set of green wooden doors across a small courtyard…
Image 4: ... and it was behind these doors where we found the reception area of the hotel. Paulo and the manager quickly came out…
… and led us to the cozy sofa area…
… in front of the fireplace…
… for a glass of Franciacorta with finger food. I was hungry as the restaurant didn't open until 8pm.
A cool set of amuse bouche served on a drawing cardboard!
Image 9: What an utterly bitter start! A soft jelly of artichoke and liquorice sandwiched between paper thin green apple. The flavour of the apple faded away immediately without contributing much to the dominant bitter flavour, and it was clearly lacking any seasoning or sugar. Very brave for the chef to welcome his guests with this unpleasant "treat" or perhaps it was a "trick"? I was expecting a fun meal ahead!
A slice of crispy red onion with a drop of herb sauce.
Image 11: And a pile of pumpkin seed powder on the left to be picked up by licking our fingers. A weird and not tasty introduction to the meal!
Image 12: Through the reception area was the first dining area of Il Canto with just two tables. It was a very quiet night and we were the only customers at this point…
Image 13: Connecting to that room was the main dining room with a tall display of colourful porcelain plates and four more tables. That was the restaurant, only six tables, but only two, including ours, were occupied that night.
Floral designed porcelain plates on our table.
Image 15: Paolo created an intriguing menu which didn't make any sense without some explanation from the manager. "Today" in 15 languages was the first tasting menu choice - a dynamic experience based on ingredients and what Paolo felt like cooking that particular day.
Image 16: The next few pages just listed ingredients from possible courses in season. It was basically a 5-course set dinner from that list. Yes, the menu was unique, but the food was even more unique!
Image 17: So, continuing the tasting experience from that unusual set of amuse bouche was tempura of seaweed, mussel, lemon, and cumin. The texture was delicate and crunchy but slightly greasy and I didn't sense any seasoning. It came with a small cup of carrot seed tea which had a slight bitterness.
Image 18: Next was a plain salad served without any cutleries. The idea was to be eaten with our fingers, forcing the diners to taste each ingredient separately. A clever idea! Beginning with the mild lettuce and seaweed on top, and slowly progressing to the leaves, flowers, and roots in the middle, and finally various strong herbs, ginger and wasabi at the bottom. My tongue felt slightly numb towards the end from this simple dish. Incredible!
Image 19: Glad to see something slightly more substantial as it was already past nine and still no bread was served! Crunchy snail, refreshing apple sorbet, bitter fennel, and very bitter matcha dusts. Again, no seasoning at all, just flavours from the ingredients. Don't know, I guess I did like it except for the strong bitter aftertaste from the fennel and matcha. Hmmm, I never experienced a meal like this before!
Image 20: Damn, back to a tiny plate of vegetables! Resting on lemon mayo was peeled tomato from their garden drizzled with liquorice sauce! Was this a proper course?! The tomato would probably be more palatable without the strong mayo, and without the intense cured herring roe, and definitely without the bitter liquorice! Even the herring roe had a very bitter aftertaste. It was a terrible course!
Image 21: This was the only palatable course of the evening. Langoustine carppaccio with carrot juice poured on top. The interesting part was Paolo had hidden different parts of lemon flowers or salt on different parts of the plate underneath the carppaccio so that each bite became a surprise! A very stimulating course, but I was frustrated by the carrot juice which was bitter, and the lemon flowers, which had a bitter aftertaste!
Image 22: A taste of Ribollita, a traditional Tuscan soup made with bread and vegetables. In this case, bread was soaked in black cabbage and olive oil with mushroom and herb. I had never tried that traditional soup but I was sure that it should not have been that bitter! Bread soaked in bitter juice?! Before this course, I was still trying to appreciate, but that was it, this disgusting watery soaked bitter sponge had pushed it over the edge!
Image 23: It was late at night and I still had not eaten much by this point - only a mouth full of bitter taste! Although it was simply butter and ordinary slices of white and brown bread, at least they started to fill my stomach with something edible! The brown bread was very salty though! I was really looking forward to the meat course!
Image 24: This glossy duck breast would probably have been a very enjoyable piece of meat, despite its very raw centre and thick layer of fat, had it not been for the thick translucent liquor coating (even the manager warned us it was a very bitter liquor) along with all the annoying bitter components - the blob of anchovy purée, the dried fig, and even the pine nuts. Paolo was trying his best to destroy this beautiful duck!
Image 25: I was shocked that they took our bread away as I was not even half full! Glad that they came back with more food after a short break. So my bitter journey continued with mussel in raspberry juice with a spinach-like local bitter vegetable. And I had no idea what he poached the mussels in, every mussel on the plate had an obvious bitterness! Why did he do this to those lovely mussels? Seriously, I could not find a way to appreciate this cuisine!
Image 26: Now pasta course with five chicory ravioli - two of them were just chicory, one had vinegar, one had anchovy, and one had olive oil, in random order! Each gave a different result in my mouth but one thing in common -- a pop of dense bitter liquid when masticated! I was speechless, couldn't believe that a cuisine could be so bitter and twisted as this! I accepted the risk that it was a surprise menu, but come on, I expected at least a few palatable courses!
Image 27: They served dessert already when we were not even half way full. An organized mess of coffee, tobacco, whiskey, and bread. The painful part was - he used no sugar at all! I initially thought the garnish was a piece of white chocolate but no, it was something bitter too! The coffee sauce was bitter; the tobacco dust was bitter; the whiskey soaked bread was bitter; even the cream underneath was bitter... Completely hopeless!
Image 28: More bitter treats before the last "dessert". A mocha chocolate truffle and again, without sugar! Guess what, yes, bitter, very bitter!
Image 29: This was a saviour; finally something not bitter! Local fruit in season resembling wild strawberry. It tasted great! I guess after that many bitter courses, anything that was not bitter would be great!
Image 30: For the first time ever, I was glad to hear, "this is the last course"! Walnut, hazelnut, pine nut, and raisin, blanketed under a salted white cream and a caramel foam which wasn't that sweet unfortunately. A bit of saltiness from the cream; a bit of raw bitterness from the walnut; still not a pleasant course...
Image 31: The manager assured us that the petits-fours were not that bitter as we we both understandably hesitated to eat anything else!
Image 32: A chocolate raspberry disk surrounded by almond curl, banana & ginger roll, caramel coated with cacao nibs, menthol-centred mint chocolate, Kumquat chocolate, and chocolate spiced cake with liquored cherry. Still, there was minimal amount of sugar used, so I had to request a lot of sugar in my hot tea!
Image 33: There is no doubt that this place was full of character with high arch ceilings and it had a team of professional staff. Sadly, the food was shocking and simply not acceptable, both conceptually and practically. Going in, I was thrilled to experience Paulo's unconventional cuisine but midway through the meal, it became apparent that Paolo had lost the plot.
Image 34: I passed by this trophy on my way out and had to shake my head. Prior to deviating from conventional cuisine, Paolo has trained in Troisgros, Marchesi, and even spent years in Osaka where he developed an appreciation for Japanese food culture. I am still puzzled as to how he ended up with such a strange palate. What's more confusing is how this restaurant could get highly rated in many influential guides!
Image 35: Paolo was certainly very bold to do this cuisine and the theme was very clear: liquorice, herb, seed, matcha, seaweed, black cabbage, chicory, roots, flowers, herbs, nuts, coffee, whiskey, tobacco, cacao... Yes, we got the point -- "without any sugar or seasoning, many ingredients are actually bitter", but do you need all 9 courses plus amuse bouche and petits four, and €130 per head to illustrate this one point?!
Image 36: What a depressing meal with my mouth overwhelmed by bitterness! We quickly walked through both doors, across the street to the parking lot, and into our car, thinking the same in our minds - "let's stop by a pizzeria along the way!"