ROME, Italy – When chef Oliver Glowig left hotel Aldrovandi Villa Borghese’s restaurant, Assaje, he took his Michelin star with him. The famous chef’s exit was never explained officially, leaving the reason behind the split up to speculation. But when the hotel hired a chef in his early 30’s to replace him, many deducted that cost control was behind chef Glowig’s departure. That also left chef Claudio Mengoni in a tough spot.
In this series of articles, Cédric Lizotte visits some of the best restaurants in Europe. From France to Switzerland via the Czech Republic, here are the best places to sample the delights of some of the best chefs on the planet. Follow it with the hashtag #CedricInEurope.
Note: Since my visit, Assaje has received its first Michelin star.
The idea of taking the place of a famous chef in a five-star hotel in the Italian capital right on the edges of the Villa Borghese could sound like a crazy idea to a lot of people. Yet chef Mengoni is giving it all he has and keeps a modest attitude about it.
When I visited the restaurant during my last time in Rome, I took the time to taste the menu, along with a dining partner. We were welcomed by chef Mengoni and sommelière Magalie Sohas.
Assaje Restaurant in Rome – The Meal
First of all, the restaurant is located in an elongated, windowed room, and it’s possible to step outside of the restaurant and towards the outside pool of the hotel. The room itself is fine, if a bit dull, but dining under the stars is probably a spectacular thing to do. I dined inside since the evening was quite chilly.
For an apéro, we were served a nice glass of Berlucchi Franciacorta Cuvée Impériale. A cool local brut to begin is always appreciated!
The adventure started right away with a cute little cheese croquette, and to go with it, a very nice glass of Casal Pilozzo San Cristiano. I suppose this dish and pairing is one to further the curiosity of the diner, since it doesn’t divulge much of what’s to come.
Next: scallop, violet potato, asparagus, beet root. The food is what it is, and the wine came and saved the day: a very nice Jermann Pinot Grigio 2014. It’s round, fresh, fruity, lively.
To me, Italian food is really the king of simplicity. When I’m in Rome, would it be in a fancy place or a regular trattoria, I expect to find exactly that. The dish that followed is one that, to me, represents Italian food at its best. Fresh pasta is combined with buratta, barely cooked crab meat and an oyster leaf. The dish in itself is wonderfully simple. The texture of the pasta is perfect, chewy, just resistant enough under the tooth, and the seasoning is faultless.
And, again, the wine selection deserves a ++: Castel de Paolis, Frascati Superiore. It’s a cheap local wine – sold about 10 euros in most supermarkets – and it’s an absolutely great, great choice to go with that dish. At first, it has a pretty strong taste of roasted pineapple, which then completely subsides and switches to an aftertaste of lemons. It pairs very well with the creaminess of the buratta.
Then, chef Mengoni goes to the showstopper, a dish that he might have to put on all of his menus, one that he’ll have to play like a musician plays a hit song at his concerts. Spaghettoni with a sea urchin sauce. It’s exactly what you imagine. And it’s wonderful. Creamy, iodine, strong, aromatic… Enough to force my eyes to close and chew slowly.
I’m starting to expect wonderful wine pairings from sommelière Sohas, and again, she doesn’t disappoint: Colli di Catone Colle Gaio 1994. Yes, a white wine from 1994. It’s a great, great white, and it edges almost towards the taste profile of a Greek retsina by its strong woody taste. It takes a very aromatic white wine to be able to stand up to the pungency of sea urchin, and this one does exactly that, forcing resinous tastes against the bitter brininess of the urchin. This food-and-wine pairing is mind-blowing.
Where do we go from there? My dining parter and I got different dishes so that we could try more food. She got a barely-cooked lobster tail rolled up like a maki with a mignonette and a saffron aioli. I got a tempura lobster claw with a couple of deep fried green beans and a sweet honey dipping sauce.
The rolled up maki-like dish is very nice. Unfortunately the tempura lobster disappoints. It’s been out of the fryer for too long, the meat is overcooked, and the honey dipping sauce is reminiscent of a McDonald’s Happy Meal. The dishes were paired with Lafoa Sauvignon 2014, a nice aromatic white wine.
Desserts are served with another wonderful bottle: Vino Santo Trentino 2002. That’s a dessert wine for the ages. The dessert is a parfait of sabayon with almond sablé and chocolate sauce.
Assaje Restaurant in Rome – Conclusion
This meal at Assaje restaurant is one filled with twists and turns. Some of the dishes were real highlights of my time in Rome; others disappointed. But what caught my attention was the wine selection and the pairings. I’ve had some great pairings in the past – one of the best being at Horvath in Berlin – and the work of sommelière Magalie Sohas is marked in my mind.
Rome is a wonderful city; the Villa Borghese is spectacular; hotel Aldrovandi offers five-star accommodation, and the restaurant is being built back from the ground up. There’s real potential.