Just a couple of minutes walk up the slope from the banks of Lake Orta is Villa Crespi, a luxury hotel housed in a Moorish-style villa dating from 1879. The villa, built by a successful cotton trader who spent a lot of time in Persia, features very elaborate stonework. It was turned into a hotel in the late 1980s. The head chef since 1999 is Antonino Cannavacciuolo, with his wife Cinzia running the front of house. He trained with Marc Haeberlin at L’Auberge de l'Ill in Illhaeusern in France, and at the restaurant of Grand Hotel Quisisana de Capri, run at the time by the legendary Gualtiero Marchesi.
At the back is an extensive garden with a view over the lake, and where you can have a drink on terrace before dinner. There are three sections to the dining area, including a few tables overlooking the garden. Tables are well spaced, laid with high quality white linen. There was a tasting menu at €135, an a la carte choice and a Surprise menu at €150, which is what I ended up having.
The wine list was extensive, with over a thousand different selections, and a particularly wide choice of 250 champagnes and sparkling wines, ranging in price from €30 to €11,500. Examples were Alvaro Palacios Priorat Les Terrasses 2003 at €60 for a wine that you can find in a shop for €26, Gaja & Rey Langhe Chardonnay 2009 at €200 for a wine that retails at €170, and Vega Sicilia Unico 1989 at €550 for a wine that will set you back €410 to buy. I drank the lovely Jermann Were Dreams 2002 at €90 for a wine that retails at €42, assuming you can find it.
An array of nibbles appeared, including a lovely warm foccacia with olive oil and Maldon salt, zeppole dough ball involving seaweed that was a little dense, good gnocchetti with burratta, a delicate foie gras macaroon, and a sandwich of hazelnuts and yoghurt (17/20 overall). A basket of breads including fennel roll, a soft white bread and delicate Carta di Musica was very good.
The menu got off to a flying start with a skewer of langoustines and scallop with spring onion and lemon, served with shredded celeriac and a centrifuged Granny Smith apple sauce. The shellfish was of impeccable quality, beautifully cooked, and the apple sauce provided a gentle balance to the dish (19/20). Also terrific was red mullet with turnip tops, mash and smoked cheese. This was not an obvious flavour combination, but the cheese flavour was carefully restrained, the turnip tops provided a nice balance to the rich mash, and the mullet was perfectly cooked and accurately seasoned (19/20).
A cube of tuna was topped with a little tartare sauce, capers and a veal broth. This was another very good dish, the inherent fattiness of the tuna nicely lifted by the capers and tartare sauce, but the star of the dish was the veal broth, which was intense in flavour but far from gloopy in texture (easily 18/20).
Linguine with baby squid and rye bread sauce had excellent pasta and tender squid, though the rich rye bread sauce meant that overall the dish seemed to me to be crying out for an extra component to provide some acidity or contrast to the richness (17/20).
Beans tagliatelle was garnished with garlic oil and tuna bottarga. Again the pasta was excellent and the beans good, but it was another quite rich dish (17/20). Spezzatino is usually a meat stew, but here was made using seafood, a medley of prawns, scallop, langoustine, sea bass, turbot and clams. This was served with courgette cream and a foam of seawater. The seafood was of high quality, the courgette cream nicely complementing the fish (17/20).
Sea bass with green asparagus and anchovy sauce featured lovely sea bass, with crisp skin and firm flesh. The asparagus had good flavour, the anchovy sauce working nicely with the fish (17/20). The final savoury course was pigeon with warm foie gras, cocoa beans, beetroot, foie gras sorbet, fried pigeon leg and Banyuls sauce. The pigeon was precisely cooked and had excellent flavour, the foie gras had silky consistency and the sauce complemented the meat well (18/20).
A pre-dessert was green bean sphere filled with ricotta cheese, the latter flavoured with white chocolate and a little sugar, served with a lime jelly. This worked quite well, and while I am not a fan of vegetables in my dessert, the main flavour was the sweet ricotta, balanced by the lime (17/20).
The main dessert had a series of elements. There was an airy chocolate concoction flavoured with raspberry, peach ice cream, basil sponge, ricotta bavarois with cherry jelly, and a base of cooked celery, yoghurt cream and a meringue stick. The ice cream had smooth texture, the chocolate was good, though I could have lived without the basil sponge, which was technically clever but didn't add an obviously complementary flavour (16/20).
Coffee was excellent (the Lavazzo "top class" blend) and came with an array of petit fours. Amongst these was a chocolate with basil cream, beignet of chocolate and lemon, a chocolate with nuts, green apple and vanilla jelly, and a macaroon of mango and passion fruit, as well as miniature rum baba. The petit fours were very well made.
Service was exemplary over the lengthy meal, the staff attentive and friendly, and topping up of wine and water was faultless. This was a most enjoyable dinner. The natural setting of the restaurant is lovely, the ingredients were of a high standard and the cooking technique hard to fault. A classy place.