Combal Zero – Piedmont, Italy
April 28, 2009
It’s almost 9:30pm and we’re truly famished. Unfortunately, dinner will have to wait because we’re a little lost. The road that our GPS prescribed is closed due to landslides, but we don’t panic. We’re experts at being lost. We’ve been off the grid countless times before: driving on some eerie dirt road bisecting a forest, traversing farmlands in total blackout, going around in circles up a mountain a few hours before midnight. If such is required for the promise of a memorable meal, then so be it.
After a few calls to the restaurant, we follow the detour signs up the hill to the Castello di Rivoli, which houses the Museo di Arte Contemporanea in front and Piedmont’s only Michelin two star, Combal Zero, at the back. When we step inside, Simona, our hostess, greets us with relief. One more phone call and she would have come down the hill to pick us up. Thankfully, it didn’t come to that.
I’m not sure what to expect. I’ve read that Chef Davide Scabin’s cuisine is high-concept and experimental, so I automatically assume it’s molecular. Simona, corrects me right away. No, not molecular, she says rather mysteriously. Now, I’m curious. Despite the fact that it’s late, we spring for the Menu Zero, 13 courses in total. We don’t expect to be out before midnight.
To go with the meal, Simona, who’s also the sommelier, recommends a Bastia Chardonnay 2006 from nearby Langhe that smells of almonds and oak barrels. It’s heady and addicting, and we take a liking to it instantly.
This amuse bouche of shrimp and polentina gives us a preview of the thirteen courses ahead. The shrimp are small and crispy enough to eat unshelled from head to tail.
Check Salad. I don’t know why this signature dish is named as such, but as the opening act of the meal, it’s presented with much pomp and circumstance. The waiter gingerly mists the leaves with water as soon as he sets the plate vertically before us. Simona then gives instructions for eating: Start with the tomato pulp and seeds at the bottom then work your way up the plate with the chopsticks. Why chopsticks? Not for any particular affiliation with Asian cuisine, but to spare each perfect leaf the indignity of being marred by a fork and knife. Eating it with chopsticks preserves its wholeness and beauty until it reaches the mouth.
I’m intrigued by the mystery green sitting beside the mache. With its thick, furry stem and raised dot leaves, at first I think it’s sage, but upon chewing and reflecting, it’s absent that burst of menthol from the herb. Instead, it’s quite neutral, like a cucumber. I later learn that it’s called ficoide glaciale or ice plant. Both the mache and the ficoide glaciale are dressed with nothing more than a pinch of salt and a hint of artisanal olive oil from some region in Italy I couldn’t quite catch. Moving on to the piece of butter lettuce, I barely discern the Tuscan olive oil it comes with, but I easily detect the almond oil on the endive and the sesame on the baby bok choy. I alternate major leaves with microgreens (marjoram, thyme, chive and radish) to a get a quick blast of intense flavor in between more subtle tastes. The dish concludes with the earthy perfume of black truffles and a shot of salinity from the caviar.
Lobster Carpaccio with a Gorgonzola Fondue. Thin slivers of sweet raw lobster accompanied by pungent gorgonzola, fried seaweed and a smattering of red salt.
Thai Style Scallops. Seared only on one side, with the other remaining translucently raw, the scallop sits on a bed of whole wheat noodles bathed in coconut milk and a touch of curry. To savor the full effect, we are instructed to first chew on the stalk of lemongrass on which a fried basil leaf is impaled.
“Fin de Binic” Oyster with Potato. The oysters are all the way from Normandy, yet their flavor is still bright and briny. They swim prettily on top of the parmentier, a most delicious mashed potato soup garnished with very early-stage chive sprouts.
Eggplant with Tomatoes. A brick of eggplant subdivided into smaller pre-sliced rectangular chunks. It comes with garlic sugar caramelized right on the wood with a butane torch. Meaty and firm, I’m surprised it does not taste bitter nor wooly even though it still looks a little raw. And I wish there was more of the garlic sugar to dip it into.
Rabbit in a Green Pea Purée. Rabbit tuna is what Simona calls the slightly pink piece of meat sitting on the green pea puree. Apparently, it’s a traditional Piedmontese dish where rabbit is slow cooked at 60’C for two days (maybe I misheard?!) so it becomes soft enough to spread on a piece of toast. Frankly, it feels strange as it disintegrates in the mouth. I much prefer the three pieces of sauteed sweetbreads, lightly floured and coated with mint, that go so well with the peas. Our favorite so far.
Ravioli Shake. As an intermission, we get to play a little. This beaker of ravioli comes with another container filled with a golden liquid and visual step by step instructions on what to do next. Step 1: Pour the liquid into the beaker. Step 2: Place the lid on the beaker tightly. Step 3: Shake, shake, shake. At this point, we get a martini of butters: Val Susa, Isigny, Irish garlic rosemary and tomato. I recognize rosemary but can’t really discern any of the rest. I should have stolen a taste of each before mixing them together.
Tender Beef with Pears and Mustard Leaves. A piece of Prussian beef, uniformly pink all over and topped with sliced pears and an Indonesian black pepper that reminds me of star anise.
Cordon Bleu with Spinach. Two cubes of foie gras are each inserted with a sliver of red onion from Tropea (south of Calabria) then breaded and fried. They’re accompanied by three mounds of spinach in a bearnaise sauce, topped with thin disks of Andean potatoes. A rather unusual treatment for foie gras but delicious none the less.
Chartreuse and Pink Grapefruit. Chartreuse is a liqueur made with over a hundred different Alpine herbs and named after the monastery of the French monks who produce it to this day. In this frozen incarnation, it reminds me of ice candy, an after school treat I used to suck on as a child (sans liquor of course).
Rose Jelly with Litchi is what the menu says, but they must have made a last minute substitution because those bits floating in the syrup are mango. The jelly itself is quite interesting in that it’s not sweet at all. It tastes like unflavored gelatin infused with liquor and vanilla beans.
Hot Chocolate in the Wind. This whimsically named dessert would be like any other cup of hot chocolate were it not for that unassuming white mint concoction squiggled on the back of the spoon like toothpaste. It is meant to be spread over the lips (like lip balm) before drinking the thick bittersweet chocolate. I’m not sure if it’s to heighten the contrasting sensations of cold and hot or to protect delicate lips from burning.
Cyber-elio Campari. It’s nearly midnight when we get to the last course. To close the show, we get a red and pink eyeball in a packet of M&M-like candy tied to a balloon. We’re supposed to bite into the plastic eyeball and suck out the liquid and liquor in one gulp. What to do with the balloon after? Simona tells us to untie the ribbon and inhale the helium from it. To better appreciate Campari? I ask. No, she said, so you can talk like Donald Duck.
We’re in stitches. Since we’re the only ones left in the dining room, we have no qualms acting silly and collapsing in giggles. Simona returns and asks if we’d like to go to the back and meet the chef. You mean the man behind this Cirque du Soleil of a meal?
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