Saturday, 5 May 2012

Eating out: A chance encounter with master chef Antonio Carluccio

(This article dates back to 2005)

Chef Antonio Carluccio is in an expansive mood in July 2005. Just hours before the gourmet glitterati of Bangalore sample an Italian feast he has conjured up — just as Mamma would have done it — he has stories to share, food theories to propound. And a distinct feeling of coming home to the boutique hotels of his friend Priya Paul.

Because as diners at The Park hotel's i-t.ALIA recognise from conversations with its executive chef Abhijit Saha, its memorable menu is the brainchild of London-based Carluccio. It grew out of 300 original dishes he fashioned in 2001 at the boutique hotel's kitchen over 15 days. Who can ever forget its exquisite grilled king prawns with roast potatoes, artichokes and tomato? Or the divine green apple salad with walnuts?

To dine at the restaurant is to be a confirmed convert to Italian food. A fact that would make Carluccio proud. For this food evangelist has made over a 100 appearances on the BBC. That's besides his wildly successful books on the cuisine. Thanks to his Neal Street Restaurant and his Italian gourmet café-delicatessens, Carluccios, he is today considered Britain's leading authority on Italian food and funghi (mushrooms, to the uninitiated!) No wonder foodies toast this Chef Commendatore for his lifetime dedication to Italian food.

Settling comfortably on a sofa, Carluccio confesses: "We manage very well in Italy to produce a good meal with just a few fresh ingredients. That's the secret to it all. For me, it's important that The Park's chefs recognise the actual taste of a dish from my demonstration — and they can now replicate it."

What do Chefs Saha and Mandaar Sukhantar replicate at the sit-down dinner for 60? With wine, the guests sample unusual antipasti — divine deep-fried olives hinting at a mild cheese, with crunchy frito misto of seafood, even an unusual Sardinian foccacia bread of onion and anchovy.

At crisply-laid tables with elegant flower arrangements, we encounter another of Carluccio's passions — the mushroom. This time, it is a delicious cream of porcini soup that is edgy and innovative.

It takes this diner back to our earlier conversation. "I've been going out to collect mushrooms in the wilds of southern Italy since I was six. I don't understand why the British don't love mushrooms as much as the French and the Italians do. So many good things in life begin with a fungus, like bread and cheese! And the English walk past perfectly good mushrooms at Hyde Park!" Carluccio sounds off indignantly.

The buffet spread assaults the senses. More antipasti — unforgettable pan-roasted red peppers with almond, fish carpione, and assorted salami with traditional breads like grissini, foccacia and ciabatta. Each the answer to a gastronome's prayers.

So are the main courses. Such as a delicate fresh asparagus risotto. Or pasta like tagliolini with white truffle oil. Stuffed tender lamb cutlets sandwiched with cheese. Tuscan tournedos of beef with mushrooms.

Fragrant broccoli with garlic and chilli. Gnocchi with melted gorgonzola. Grilled cubes of polenta with caponata. And a mild, stew-like chicken from Burano (the island off Venice famed for its lace).

For a food writer like Carluccio, with his book on 20 Italian provincial cuisines slated for an October release, how important are restaurant reviews? "Not much," he laughs. "For how can any critic know all about the 80 cuisines now available in London? And even the famed Michelin guide has been known to make crucial errors!" Instead, since the palate never lies, we glide smoothly on to light-as-air Zabaglione in a wineglass for dessert, with brilliant pears poached in red wine, along with a Gianduja and mascarpone cake. Rounded out with coffee granita with heavenly sliced walnut and fig salami.

The Carluccio feast lingers in memory long after the last morsel is downed. These dishes with the maestro's touch will soon be accessible on the i-t.ALIA menu. What's left to say? Bon appetit!

(The Hindu Metroplus, 2005)

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