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A trip to Milan

Saturday, March 28th , 2009

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I have many fond memories of Le Manoir au Quat’ Saisons (other than the booking process; no matter how many times I have eaten there I find myself treated like someone who is about to abscond with the silverware). It is a beautiful setting, and on a sunny day as this one was, sitting on the terrace looking out over the perfect lawn and the lovely manor house is delightful. Over the two decades I have been dining at the place there have been, as perhaps one would expect, some ups and downs but certain themes remain constant: the lovely bread, the usually faultless desserts, the emphasis on good produce (many of the vegetables are grown in the grounds). I have maintained an 8/10 score for some years now, but the meal I had this week had some worrying aspects. I was less bothered about an overcooked scallop (accidents can happen) than a general lacklustre feel to most of the savoury courses. They were fine, yet had nothing that could get me excited. Just a lovely brill with lemongrass sauce stood out from what was otherwise a string of merely decent dishes. I certainly had a sense of being processed, which the waiting staff had previously managed to disguise despite the sheer size of the dining room these days. I do not score the service on my web site, as this is such a personal thing, but there were some truly odd experiences on this visit (our main waiter honourably exempted from this comment) as you can read about in the detailed review.  Based on this meal I am nudging the score down to a 7/10. Despite the high prices the place was still packed on a weekend lunch.
I visited Milan (the Duomo is pictured) this week, speaking at a televised food conference there. This being Italy, on the panel with me were not only the head of the Relais et Chateau for Italy and a nutritionist (fair enough) but a film director and a movie actress. Milan is a very stylish city, with people to match: everyone except the odd tourist seems exquisitely dressed, and constantly wear sunglasses. The Four Seasons hotel there was lovely in a low-key way, with excellent service and no shortage of marble floors.
I took the opportunity to try a pair of the two star places in the city while I was there, showing the traditional and the modern side of Milanese cooking. Il Luogo di Aimo e Nadia is a restaurant as old as I am, tucked away in a quiet suburb and cooking traditional food. What impressed me here was the manifest passion about the food that came across from the staff, and the great precision with which very simple dishes were delivered. The ingredients were not by any means fancy, but the technique in the kitchen was hard to fault. The sommelier was one of the best I have even encountered, and the whole experience most enjoyable. The Euro/pound means that the evening was rather pricey, but not unacceptably so given the excellent food.
At the other end of the style spectrum, Trussardi Alla Scala is the latest two-star addition to the city, in a premier location overlooking the main square of the city, next to the Opera House. The dining room exudes modern design and there is modern food to match, though the kitchen showed they could also deliver a perfect risotto Milanese when they had a mind to. 
If you are visiting Milan be sure to go to one of the city’s excellent ice cream parlours: Grom, just yards from Scala Piazza, was the one I tried this time, and it was genuinely excellent. 
Back on planet Earth, Fish Hook is a pleasant little seafood restaurant in Chiswick. The cooking was somewhat variable but the best dishes were good, and the fish of quite nice quality. The problem is that fish is expensive, and this is reflected in the price, though this is a restaurant that has stood the test of time, and was still pretty busy this week.
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