Wow – what a day. Two degustation menus, and I’m still able to walk. Gourmet Abu Dhabi has arrived, and it’s time to indulge. Yesterday provided a lunch at Brasserie Angelique prepared by Michael Caines, and a gala dinner with food from Massimo Bottura at the Emirates Palace, sponsored by San Pellegrino and complete with opera.
Chef Massimo Bottura is from Osteria Francescana, the 3rd best restaurant in the world (according to the highly esteemed San Pellegrino top 50). He sidled into the Mezzaluna kitchen of Emirates Palace to give us a little headspin in aid of proving that Goumet Abu Dhabi is a festival to respect. It’s quite a coup. For those who don’t get the whole chef-worship thing, it’s the equivalent of walking through a gallery in the DIFC and stumbling across the Mona Lisa. Massimo Bottura is not just a chef – he’s a food artist, if there is such a thing. Each dish is designed, not just with taste in mind, but a story to fill you mind and soul as well as nourish you bodily. (menu to Osteria Francescana linked so you can have a little drool)
Michael Caines is the lovable chef at the helm of the ABode kitchens, French trained, quite a celebrity profile, an MBE and the adoration of the whole of England pretty much following him around. His food is commonly known to posses three characters – purity, simplicity and regionality, whilst being fancy enough to wow the Michelin markers (currently holding two stars). He chose the refined and elegant Brasserie Angelique at Jumeirah Etihad Towers to showcase his recent tasting menu.
Incredible food, I assure you – it’s worth the money and the time, perhaps not both in one day however. So this raises a question: “If you had to choose, what would you take?” Different chefs, different styles, different venues, but under all of it there were some remarkable similarities. It’s up to you what you prefer.
Massimo Bottura: “On the Rocks” Where the rugged coast meets the sea, where waves roar and spray into the air. It is the place where the pine trees bend their bows so far they become one with the sea. Below this spectacle is the serene habitat of mussels, clams, lobster and seaweed.
Verdict: The Caines dish was sweet and delicate, refined and clean in flavour. The Bottura dish surprised and accosted the senses. It looked like a picnic washed up onto the rocks by a friendly sea-god, and tasted as good as it looked. I adored the seaweed sponges and the almost excessively tart sea foam. It was bold, brash, exciting. One point to Bottura.
Massimo Bottura: A foie gras terrine transforms into an italian icon with products from the most northern border to the tip of Sicily. The terrine is coated with caramelised hazelnuts from Piedmont and almonds from Noto and the centre filled with vinegar from Modena. The epitome of haut cuisine requires no fork as it is served on a stick to bring out the child in all of us.
Verdict: Caines’ foie was the whole foie rather than a terrine, served warm. It was more delicate in flavour than the Bottura, and the sweet and spicy accompanyments turned this into a spectacular dish. The complexity of flavours was really quite special. Bottura’s dish looked like a Golden Gaytime (for those who have no idea what this is, check out the image, and compare it to the link here). By god, it was good, but served cold, and at a later time in the evening, after main courses (see below). I adored the oozing 100-year-old sweet and sticky balsamic vinegar. But I was full by this stage and the dish was too rich to be served at this point. Caines just gets this point.
Massimo Bottura: Baccala mare nostrum (baccalà of our sea). Emilians have been serving salt cod known as baccalà since the 14th century. A fillet of salt cod floats on the Gulf of Naples as if nature intended it to enjoy warmer seas. The essence of the gulf is captured ina verdant broth of Vesuvian tomatoes and green olives infused with lemons, wild oregano and Villa Manodori extra virgin olive oil, allowing the Emilian chef to dream of the Mediterranean sea.
Verdict: The Michael Caines fish was like his other dishes – incredibly delicate and elegant. But again, the flavours were perfectly matched, and it made the entire dish so spectacularly morish. I wanted seconds. Bottura’s fish had the unctuous and buttery texture of a Japanese black cod, and was nothing like any baccalà I have had previously. The tomatoes were concentrated and mixed with a marzipan nuance, and the olive an lemon broth had an invredibly addictive sweet and sour character, solidly packed with that evasive and always sought umami, and topped with a nut crumble to stimulate any tastebuds that hadn’t already been blown to smithereens. I wouldn’t have thought the Caines rouget could be topped until I tasted this. Bottura one point.
Michael Caines: Filet de bœuf braisé et joues de boeuf braisée, raifort et échalotes confits, purée de céleri, les échalotes grillées, champignons sauvages et sauce au vin rouge. Beef fillet with braised beef cheeks, horseradish and confit shallots, celeriac puree, roasted shallots, wild mushrooms and red wine sauce.
Massimo Bottura: Psychedelic spin-pained veal, not flame-grilled. This carnival-painted veal fillet takes on the Tuscan tradition of grilled meat, without lighting a flame. The veal is cooked sous-vide to preserve essential proteins, then coated in charcoal ash and patriotically dressed with chlorophyll, potato puree, red beetroot juice and Villa Manodori balsamic vinegar.
Verdict: The Caines beef dish was perfectly cooked – incredibly tender, juicy, red without blood, perfect. The horseradish and shallot confit was enough to have me licking my plate. The sweet flavours of the meat were offset beautifully by the earthyness of the mushrooms. Traditional partnering, but incredibly well executed. Bottura’s dish was a Jackson Polluck. It’s flavours were as contrasting and bamboozling as the dish itself. The meat was as tender as Caines’ dish, possibly just a touch more so. The potato puree had a rich pepperiness of gorgeous olive oil, and I loved the idea of charcoal ash (which was so fine it was absorbed into the flesh of the meat). Draw.
Michael Caines: Mousse de pommes, gelée et sorbet de pommes verte, mousse à la vanille. Apple mousse topped with green apple jelly, green apple sorbet and vanilla foam.
Massimo Bottura: The Key to Italy. Sicily – the place authors, artists and travellers have often called the Key to Italy. A savoury granita teases the imagination to trigger a new experience with familiar ingredients. Almonds from Noto, espresso gel, wild capers and oregano from Pantelleria and candied bergamot awaken the senses to Sicily’s gastronomic heritage.
Verdict: Oh, that apple dish! Incredible flavours and textures. I adored the freeze-dried apple crisp on top, the barely-there cloud of lightly flavoured vanilla, the zingy gel and the mild but just slightly sweet mousse. Caines dish was incredible. The Bottura granita was poorly presented, but slid neatly into a taste that I christened “The doomed wedding” – it had that wedding-cake marzipan touch, mixed with bitterness and acid, leaving your mouth feeling utterly cleaned out upon swallowing. I loved it (and I thought I was very clever in my analogy). A better palate cleanser, but served too early in the night (the first dish). Caines got this point.
Massimo Bottura: Oops! A broken lemon pie. A broken lemon pie plays with invention and expectation. Layers of lemon zabaglione, meringue and sorbet meet savoury capers, candied bergamot and hot pepper oil to recreate in the palate the citrus tradition of southern Italy.
Verdict: The Caines desert was pristine, but very simple. The banana parfait was texturally light and melt-in-the-mouth, and I loved the lightly gelled discs of banana, perfectly creamy in colour and taste. The sweet/creamy/sour flavours played very nicely along with each other. Clever. Bottura’s dish was a little disappointing, and left me feeling a little like the emperor in his new clothes. Like I was being played for a fool. It was tasty enough. The pastry was light and crumbly, buttery, very good. I enjoyed the dots of chilli oil, and the salty capers (but was surprised to see the capers and bergamot used together again after the granita) and the lemon curd was well flavoured. I could not find the meringue and the zabaglione had melted a little too much. I just could not make myself understand the need for it to be broken. I would have preferred it without the story, but sound and together, pretty and structured. Caines 1 point.
So we end with a score of 2 1/2 to Massimo Bottura and 3 1/2 to Michael Caines, but this is a very personal opinion, and, as good as Caines’ food is, one I’m slightly ashamed of. I wish that I could have adored that broken lemon pie, but my conservative food-eating self demands more traditional gastronomical perfection. Today is a hard day, when I realise that it’s quite possible that my taste in food might be the fashion-equivalent of Armani casual wear, and that I am pooh-poohing the cuisine-parallel of Vivien Westwood (when regarding fashion, I am the exact opposite).
Art is subjective, and therefore, food art must also be. In other forms, however, art is closer to the eye of the general public. We only have to see it, or hear it – Fashion, fine arts, music can be reproduced, popularised for communal benefit. But food art is more difficult. It has to be experienced in it’s original, and is thus only available to the very rich or utterly obsessed. This elite character may make some of us believe that we have no right to critique the lauded. So am I wrong for loving the simple but elegant and perfect food of a more conservative and less edgy chef? What do you want when you are given a plate of food? A story, a taste, or a mix of vitamins and minerals? A mix of all three? But in what proportions? Where has your food-line been crossed? I’d really love to hear.
Gourmet Abu Dahbi continues this week. It’s very popular and many of the masterclasses and grand events are already booked. You will however find many venues offering special menus from chefs brought in for the festival, and the occasional event like this George Calombaris one (I’m a big fan of this fellow Melbournian). Website here.