ROME, Italy – Being treated to a wonderful fine dining restaurant is one thing. Being invited by one of the most iconic celebrity chefs out there – Heinz Beck – to one of the most decorated restaurants in the world – La Pergola – atop the grandest hotel in the Italian capital – the Rome Cavalieri Waldorf Astoria – is a different story altogether.
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.
You see, going to La Pergola is quite the ordeal. It’s grand, it’s spectacular, the level of luxury, intensity, care and altogether extravagant standard of living is at another plateau.
It also marks the only time when a manager was truly unhappy to see me.
As soon as I get to my table, as I always do, I start snapping a couple of pictures. The manager rushes towards me, sternly tells me to stop taking pictures. I smile, with the intention to smooth things over with a couple of conciliatory words, but before I can say anything, he snaps: “You think that’s funny? It’s not funny, I’m the manager here!”
I ask him, with a frown this time, if I can still take pictures of my food. “With discretion”, he says. Duly noted.
Well that’s an unexpected twist. I better be on my best behavior then. I hope I still get to enjoy the meal. (Isn’t a meal at the restaurant supposed to be enjoyable? Am I missing something? Am I being too sensitive?)
La Pergola, Rome – On With The Meal
A waiter comes over and offers an apéro. It’s a wonderful bottle of bubbles: Ca’Del Bosco Cuvée Annmaria Clementi 2006. It’s complex, subtle, fresh.
I’m then presented with the amuse-bouches. One is anchovy based; another one has veal; and the last one combines pressed caviar and bottarga.
I’m then presented with an extensive water menu. Here’s an excerpt from the first page of said menu:
Our special mineral water menu was created to accompany the flavours of our cuisine. What they have in common is clarity, purity and originality but they differ in quantity of “total dissolved solids”, meaning the quantity of residual mineral salts after having dried a liter of water at 180ºC.
Pages 1 and 2: Listed according to the “total dissolved solids”
Page 3, 4 and 5: sources in Italy
Pages 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10: foreign sources
Page 11: truly special…
Page 12: …last but not least the most luxurious bottles.
I’m a bit confused and tell the waiter my preference: “Medium carbonation, with a little bit of salinity if possible.” That seems to be an acceptable answer, and I’m presented with a bottle of water. Excellent.
If there’s a water menu, then I guess that the cutlery must be of equal flamboyance. A quick look under my fork proves me right: “Sambonet sterling gold 24k”. Italian-made 24-carat gold forks and knives.
It’s then time for bread. There’s, of course, local organic olive oil to go with it. And a selection of salt from around the world, including salts from Peru and Djibouti and other exotic locations. I pick three different salts, which are then hand-crushed in a mortar and pestle to a fine powder by the waiter.
Next: chick pea puree, sheep cheese foam, mussels.
La Pergola, Rome – A First Encounter With The Heinz Beck Signature
The first wine of the night is served: Costa d’Amalfi, Fiorduva, Marisa Cuomo, 2014. It’s clearly a sublime wine. Balanced, complex, easy to drink.
And it comes with the first true “Heinz Beck” dish of the night, a combination of so many of his signature techniques. It’s called a “parfait of foie gras”. Shaven frozen foie gras is topped with dehydrated berries.
The textures are awesome. The techniques are impressive. The presentation is flawless. Once eaten, the foie gras’ texture changes and melts in the mouth and coats it. It then evolves one more time with a sip of wine.
Then, I’m presented with a very amusing plate. It’s a lobster carpaccio with scampi and fennel. There’s a hole and a little flag: it’s a golf course! The custom-made plate is as cute as it gets, and the two or three bites I get from the dish are extremely subtle. There’s a bit of citrus which comes and enhances the dish.
I would get excited about the food to come, but a waiter comes and takes my plate while I still have food in my mouth. Oh well.
The manager then comes and asks me if I would like to go in the kitchen to meet chef Heinz Beck. Yes, yes! By all means!
La Pergola, Rome – A Crescendo
After a long conversation with one of the most famous chefs in the world, I go sit back down at my table and immediately receive a dish of shrimp marinated in raspberry, caviar and potato crisp. The shrimp is raw, the taste of the raspberry is very subtle, and the caviar gives the only salt of the dish. I find that the potato crisp is a bit like a Pringle, which amuses me. It’s, again, an extremely subtle dish.
Then, chef Beck’s signature dish: a carbonara… where the sauce is hidden inside of the pasta.
That! That’s one of the best things I’ve ever had in my life. It’s, more or less, an Italian Xiao Long Bao! The outside skin of pasta is extremely thin and light; the inside is simply liquefied carbonara sauce; the whole thing is warm and unctuous; it’s clearly a beautiful piece of food engineering… and it’s the first dish that has strong flavours! Creamy, salty, porky… I’m stunned.
The next dish is also very ingenious: it’s a raw fish that’s steamed on its way from the kitchen to the table. Hot rocks are placed underneath a metal grill; the raw fish is placed on the grill; a cloche covers the whole fish and grill; a small amount of water is put inside the contraption, hitting the rocks and releasing steam; the whole apparatus is then transported from the kitchen to the table; the small amount of time that it takes to get from the kitchen to the table is enough to cook the fish through. It’s delicious.
Another fish dish is then served: black cod soud-vide, a beans foam and puree, freeze-dried parsley showered on top. Another succulent dish. And if you’d like to do it at home, it’s cooked at 60 degrees for exactly 5 minutes and 30 seconds!
At that point in the meal, there’s a slight pause and change of wines. I’m offered a beautiful red: Castiglion del Bosco Prima Pietra Toscana, 2008. It’s super smooth; there’s a bit of dry oaky taste and lingers half a second in the mouth before disappearing completely.
A plate with smoked veal, carrot and celery is the dish selected to go with the red wine. The sauce at the bottom is out of this world – rich, complex, intense, aromatic, like a deep rich sauce should be. This meal has decidedly taken a turn for the best.
La Pergola, Rome – Luxurious Cheeses and Desserts
And to confirm my assessment of the slant this meal has taken, the waiter approaches with a huge wooden chariot-gueridon filled with some of the most wonderful cheeses. There are so many, and I don’t know any of them! And so I ask the waiter to give me an assortment of different things to taste, making sure to underline that I like raw milk cheeses, if they have any.
I’m offered a lot of different cheeses. The waiter suggests that I put some olive oil on top of the goat cheese. He points out the raw milk pecorino. He offers me a taste of his hometown: a nice chunk of parmesan with a few drops of beautiful balsamico di Modena. And of course there are breads to go with the cheese course. All baked in house (obviously, obviously!)
Here’s what everyone should try at home: a piece of pistachio and fruit bread; goat cheese covered in olive oil; and a swig of beautiful Italian red wine. If you’ve tried it, I want to read it in the comments!
I do my best to finish this spectacular array of different cheeses, but I know there’s more coming. What will it be? Will the crescendo reach fortissimo?
A nice glass of Sauternes is next. The anticipation is killing me.
What’s presented in front of me is called “the sun”. 3 types of chocolate; saffron; passion fruit; carrot. It’s sitting on a tailor-made plate with a light inside of it, lighting up a perfect circle under the dish. It glows like the sun. That. Is. Cool.
Once I’m done with this piece of culinary ingenuity, a large array of digestive sweets are laid out in front of me. But it’s not over yet. There’s one last dessert.
A sphere – an empty sphere, mind you – of pomegranate sorbet is accompanied by a white chocolate custard, which is poured on top of the sphere by the waiter. The playfulness is mind-bogglingly fun! How did they turn sorbet into an empty sphere?
To finish it all, the mandatory Italian digestif is served. This being La Pergola, it had to be, just like the whole meal, completely over-the-top. Grappa Tignanello, Antinori. Now that’s a fancy grappa!
La Pergola, Rome – To Conclude…
Now that I’m slowly sipping on my grappa and stealing a few bites of the remaining sweets on the table, the manager comes and tells me that I can go take a few pictures on the balcony. This is, after all, the highest point of view of all Rome, and it’s one of the most beautiful. The privileged viewpoint of the ancient city and of the Vatican is truly breathtaking. The manager then comes back, shakes my hand, smiles and thanks me for my cooperation. I’m not sure what to think of it, but I smile too. This fine dining thing will always surprise me.