We woke up in London, and we’re now in Italy, so I should probably be grateful for Ryanair. But it’s a study in misery, isn’t it? The snide extra charges (“No Visa Electron? Sixteen quid, then.”) are as fun as a Tabasco eyedrop. Add to this a hot hour queuing, the Black Hole of Calcutta onboard, and the latest torture: pummelling passenger ears with techno and frantic adverts: ‘BOOZE IS BOGOF ON RYANAIR! GIN! VODKA! RUM! WHISKY! NOOOOWWWW!’
Noooooo, I think. Do Michelin consider these things when awarding vaut le voyage status? For dal Pescatore is just such a place: the first restaurant in Italy to receive three stars, and the first female chef, Nadia Santini. It’s in the middle of nowhere, too, making a non-gastronomic voyage to Runate (pop. 32) distinctly unlikely. The Santini family opened a vino e pesce affair here in the Twenties, and have gradually fostered a Mantuan classic.
Only an hour from the stilettos of Milan, Po valleyfolk aren’t remotely po-faced. Caterina and Alberto, who run our immaculate B & B, drove us here and introduced us to the owner, Antonio Santini. He greets us with a huge smile and a rugby club handshake, and we’re handed flutes of grassy Ca’ Del Bosco Spumante, the colour of September corn, in a private room with a beautiful old Moroccan rug. ‘Please take your seats whenever you like,’ says a rather nervous deputy maîtresse d’, as she sets down slices of Parmesan dropped on a hot griddle: externally crispy, internally chewily cheesy.
In the dining room – 30 covers or so – a log fire burns. The nine tables are perfectly spaced: private, not remote. Staff glide; service is smooth and unruffled. A calm Japanese sommelier brings a wine list like something out of Tolstoy and expertly helps us choose a dry Piedmont white and a medium-bodied Tuscan red. There are two seven-course menus, with service included: the Campagna and the Autunno. C and I order one each, though we’ll share plates. ‘Excellent, sir. The risotto on the Autunno and the tortelli on the Campagna are delicious: perhaps we could offer you both these dishes?’ Oh, go on then. Twist my arm.
We’re amused by a cleansing artichoke terrine with basil and glorious olive oil. Then off we go: another, Frenchier terrine comes: lobster tails set in champagne jelly with a dollop of Ossetra caviar, accompanied by citrus-poached eel. It looks beautiful, it’s technically dazzling, and the lobster is perfectly cooked. But there’s no relationship between the two main ingredients, and the dish would be no worse without the eel. Local baby snails with porcini and a sweet pea and garlic sauce are much more like it: honest about their roots, but newly classy, like a popular self-made uncle at a family wedding.
As the menu says, tortelli of pumpkin, amaretto and mostarda are ‘un classico dal Pescatore’. A hit of Parmesan, then fork meets pasta – a deep, almost apricot yellow, silken and elastic, but retaining bite. Their filling melds sweet, savoury and spice: mostarda, the Lombardic classic of fruits – white watermelon here – candied with mustard seed, adds a whisper of heat, with roast pumpkin, amaretti and more Parmesan. Saffron risotto follows, a puddle of pure Egyptian sunset. The stamens are generous; in the mouth, nubby grains stud buttery, cheesy sauce. Deep-fried strands of artichoke offer new texture and shade, but are barely needed: this is stand-out, standard-bearing stuff.
A fly settles on the tablecloth. A waiter materialises; he reaches down and deftly pinches the insect in his fingers, taking it away. When did they train him to do that? Tiny rigatoni are stuffed gorgeously with roast goose; but pearl barley soup con verduri ai 5 colori and black truffle is… well, at the risk of sounding somewhat pampered, it isn’t truffly enough. That exquisite, unparalleled earthiness normally hits you from six feet away: these just have a faint, quiet shroominess. Are they tinned? Old? And why are they black in the first place? We’re in prime white truffle season, and Alba is only a couple of hours away. It’s almost sad.
Antonio is circling the room. He politely – if somewhat perfunctorily – checks we’re OK, but has a matey glass of wine with next-door. Harrumph! Perhaps he knows them. Anyway, sea bass with diced porcini in a red wine sauce is an inspired union, expertly timed, and flawless. Beautifully cooked turbot comes with welcomely light salsa verde. Throughout, new cutlery appears, glasses are removed, topped up, water replenished. Now there’s hare in a sauce as black and gamey as tar-smeared roadkill (but better tasting, I imagine); and an entrancing beef daube, the shoulder simply melting, in plump Barbero sauce.
A welcome pause. Then Italian cheeses, including a benchmark goat’s. I mention how good I found it, and the waitress brings the producer’s name and number, unbidden.
We’re meant to order puddings from the à la carte, and three sound delicious: she sounds delighted when we ask for an extra one. Orange soufflé is puffy and proud; the waiter breaks the top and up whooshes a citrus tang. With delightful ceremony, he pours in passion fruit coulis. There’s also a benchmark tiramisù, with praline croccante and a carrot-hued orange zabaione; and a perfect Valrhona ganache with rum and Marsala. Petits fours appear, dinky and fun, on their little silver tray.
We’re in the little room in which we began, over five hours ago, sipping free, lethal grappas. Nadia herself emerges, looking almost angelic in immaculate whites. It’s nearly two in the morning, but she thanks us with genuine, unhurried warmth. She hands us a carefully wrapped hulk of Parmesan and signed copies of the menus, with the wines handwritten on them. Then kisses us goodbye, like an old friend.
I’m wary of calling anywhere ‘the best’ – eating here is a universe from, say, The Fat Duck, and comparisons seem futile. (Another reason to treat Restaurant’s perennial Top 50 with caution.*) But dal Pescatore uniquely combines world-class eating with the hot-water-bottle happiness of a family restaurant. In Oxfordshire, Raymond Blanc’s Manoir has long been a corporate event: once owned by Richard Branson, and now stage-managed by Orient-Express Hotels, whose PR department perpetuates Blanc’s ‘media’ career. Not only do dal Pescatore spare us the cost of the extra courses, not only do they throw in freebies (gifts, really) like the Parmesan, but – I can’t believe it – they round the bill down. It’s even enough to vaut the Ryanair voyage.
dal Pescatore, Runate, 46013 Canneto sull’ Oglio, Mantova.
See on the TFYS map
Tel. +39 0376 723 001
Seven-course tasting menu for two, including service, costs €340; €500 all-in with four glasses of Spumante, three bottles of wine and three bottles of water. They didn’t charge for an extra dish each, an extra pudding, three further bottles of water, two grappas or an espresso. And amazingly, they rounded down by €16.
The restaurant has no rooms. I highly recommend our lovely, spacious B & B, 9 Muse, run by Caterina and Alberto. It’s in the nearest town, Canetto sull’ Oglio, about eight minutes away. They may well drive you themselves. Large twin room (ours was called Erato) with private terrace and bathroom, costs €58. Tel. +39 335 800 76 01. http://www.9muse.it/
* If you must know, dal Pescatore is Number 23 this year, the highest in Italy.
★★★★☆ - Lunchtime
There's a general rule for London's Chinatown, and for Brick Lane. If it's the real Chinese or Bengali thing you're after, look elsewhere. Surrounded by Aberdeen Angus Steakhouses with all the joy and atmosphere of Latvian morgues, Soho Sino is hardly promising. And once you're in, there's the nostril-clogging fug of MSG; dead ducks bronzing under striplights; waiters different only in degree from people who want to do you physical harm; the red and gold tat; the waving cats and electric pictures of waterfalls. Amidst all this, you're expected to swallow radioactive gloops containing raw green peppers, tasteless babycorn, or the deep-fried Twiglets they call 'crispy beef'.
Like every general rule, though, there are exceptions. Fung Shing, with its braised eel and roast pork belly hotpot. Mr Kong, for deep-fried silken tofu skins and aubergines stuffed with prawns. Or Yming, where Christine Yau needs four hours' notice for Peking duck and where 'Empress beef' is a glorious braised brisket with soy and coriander. For dim sum, of course, there's Jade Garden.
I've been for lunch twice, where the little plates dominate and jasmine tea flows freely and for free, where most of it costs under a fiver, where I've had to queue. I've feasted on shark fin dumplings - before I knew better - chicken claws in ginger, steamed scallops and coriander, hot puffs of char siu, sweet gluey ribs, whelks in peanut sauce, stir-fried asparagus and prawns. I've loved it all.
C and I are in the district after squash game and pub - the excellent De Hems, if you're wondering, with its 8% Trappist beers - and Jade Garden is round the corner. Off we go.
It's gone ten on a Monday night, but we get a nice hello. Holy moley, is that supposed to be music? In Guantanamo Bay, apparently, an especially sadistic torture subjects prisoners to a recording of Barney the Dinosaur singing 'I wuv you! You wuv me!' at ear-splitting levels for days on end. I would willingly trade places. The singer (sex indeterminate) emits a noise like an ADHD four year-old flaying a cat. The instrumentation is wrist-slittingly awful. We stick our fingers in our ears and brave it.
Two waitresses seem to have adopted a good-cop, bad-cop routine. Vivian is attentive, helpful and lovely: are you enjoying yourselves, how can I help, all that stuff. Bad-cop is a lemon-faced hulk of misery. Could we see the dim sum menu? "Night-time. No dim sum." None at all? "NO!" - a screech of undistilled venom.
Oh dear. This wasn't the plan. The menu has set dinners comprising old 'favourites' like chicken with green peppers, black bean sauce, honey and lemon; and sweet and sour pork, a dish I look forward to like bereavement. We propose a budget and ask them to serve us whatever they think best. Their suggestions sound pretty good, though they seem strangely keen to hawk us the lobster.
Tstingtaos clink. Half an hour passes. Then good-cop Vivian brings whole iceberg lettuce leaves, a bowl of plum sauce, and a plate of soy-seasoned minced pork with chopped carrots. A plummy drizzle in the makeshift lettuce cup, a spoon of hot mince, wrap, bite, and it's gone. It's the best use for iceberg I know. It's terrific. Then two steamed scallops apiece, still clinging to their shells, draped in thin glassy noodles and spring onion, with a side bowl of fresh chilli in a light broth. We spoon the liquid on the scallops, prise away the meat and wolf it all down, slurping clean, nourishing liquor from the half-shell. A chilli catches in C's throat: he splutters and spatters me with half-chewed shellfish. I dab myself down. What brilliant starters.
Lobster, as the reader knows, is sublime simply boiled and shelled, or served only with lemon juice. To my taste, it enters food-of-the-gods territory as thermidor, split and grilled with cheesy béchamel. This is hacked into exoskeletal shards, deep-fried with breadcrumbs in dirty oil and scattered piecemeal round rawish chilli and greasy leek tops. I don't know what's worse: the massacring of a great ingredient, or the fact they want twenty-five quid for it. 'Tasty, for food that isn't lobster' is C's verdict, and he's right: there's barely any meat anyway.
It gets worse: here comes a platter of 'sizzling beef', the stuff they slop at table onto oven-heated trays, so that up rises a gimmicky steam. The sizzling offers momentary respite from the music, and that's the most I can say for it. Its blackish sauce contains (enfin!) much-dreaded slices of raw green pepper. And there are thin, dry, clumpy noodles, coated in ubiquitous soy and sprinkled with unnecessary sesame seeds. Worst of all is the transluscent horror of hydraulically compressed 'prawn cakes,' framed by undercooked broccoli and slimily inedible.
An orderly grunts past, lugging a sack of waste. Fitting. It's clear: this is a place to enjoy dim sum, where dim sum is all there is to enjoy. Like its near-namesake, Jade Goody, Jade Garden is better at some things than others. It might seem odd to get it so right in daylight and so wrong at night. But a dim sum kitchen is a different beast: for one thing, much of the food is pre-prepared; for another, it's less amenable to factory sauces. When bad-cop produces the bill - with an inevitable overcharge of 30 per cent - she tells me I have a piece of scallop in my hair. Better that than the other way round, I say, and she doesn't smile.
Jade Garden, 15 Wardour Street, London W1V
Tel. +44 (0)20 7437 5065
Dinner for two, excluding drinks and service, costs £60; £40 a head all in.