September 21, 2021

What the fuck am I doing here?

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"So what the fuck are you doing here??"

Those were the words coming out of the mouth of Antimo Maria Merone - the chef of Estro - as he sat and chatted with us after service finished this evening. I had just finished telling him that I normally don't visit new restaurants within the first 3 to 6 months - something that is well-known among my friends - because usually either the kitchen or the front-of-house (or sometimes both) aren't ready. On the rare occasions that I have chosen to make exceptions - such as this group gathering or this restaurant review - I have come away disappointed or worse, wasted my hard-earned money.

In response to the question, I pointed in the direction of Hairy Legs. After all, Hairy Legs and I had agreed months ago to come see Antimo together once the restaurant is open. I was simply accompanying my friend.  And no, I never worried for a second that Antimo and his team wouldn't be ready.

I kinda wish the dinner had happened 2 months ago, because I would have worn something completely different to dinner. I would have been twinning with Hairy Legs and there would be not one but two assholes looking like zebras at the table. That photo op would have been phenomenal. But an incident on social media around 2 months ago changed my mind about dressing up like a zebra, so I chose to play second fiddle and - for one night only - ceded the title of biggest asshole to my friend seated next to me.

As with some of the other JIA Group restaurants, the menu is no longer printed on paper but accessible by scanning a QR Code. Here the QR Code is on the back of what looks like an ancient Roman coin. We opted for the Extended Menu.

The tomato hommage came in 4 parts, starting with this tomato tart, made with a mix of Roma and Datterino tomatoes.

This tomato sponge came with a bit of burrata and basil in the middle. This was very savory and I noted the light touch of basil.

Semi-dried tomato carpaccio, tomato jelly, and oregano

Clarified tomato juice - essentially tomato water, and we were recommended to take sips of it along with bites of the other tomato variations. Very savory with tons of umami here.

Red prawn ∣ coral panna cotta, lemon, Kristal caviar - this is, apparently, one of Antimo's signature dishes... but I've never had the pleasure of tasting it until now.

We've got a panna cotta made with the goodies from the prawn's head, then tartare of Sicilian red prawns from Mazara del Vallo, Amalfi lemon, Kaviari Kristal caviar, and little dots of olive oil emulsion. It's hard not to like this dish, and it is certainly very Instagrammable - I've seen lots of posts on this before - but it's not something that the Arrogant Prick would go ga ga over.

The selection of bread came and I immediately went for the carta da musica. We had 4 olive oils to choose from, and this buffalo milk butter made with anchovies from Cetara was pretty tasty.

Langoustine ∣ almond, capers, turnip - the roasted langoustines were beautiful and impeccably-executed. Kinda surprised to see little balls of turnip on the side which were hollowed out for the placement of a single caper inside. The sauce was made with almonds and capers, which was rather interesting in terms of the hit of acidity in the midst of the creamy texture.

I did, after our dinner, highlight to Antimo the cruel reality that I tasted this dish while seated next to the guy who currently is doing the most phenomenal job in town when it comes to langoustines - as Antimo himself calls Hairy Legs "the king of sauces". So while the concept of the sauce was interesting, my eyes didn't light up after tasting it.. and overall the dish felt a little too "plain", and was therefore the weakest dish tonight.

You see, this is a smart chef. He chose to ask me what I didn't like about tonight's dinner, knowing that I would give it to him straight. If he cared he could

Rosy seabass ∣ rockfish essence - the Japanese rosy seabass was, as expected, incredibly silky and tender in terms of texture. The sauce was a rockfish soup reduction along with bell pepper glaze, which provided just a little heat to make things interesting. Loved the romanesco cauliflower along with the purée.

Buttons ∣ filled with parmigiana, tomato jus, basil - apparently the team changed the recipe 8 times before being satisfied with the right ratio between eggplant, Parmigiano-Reggiano, basil, and tomato for these bottoni. Wonderful texture. Familiar, comforting flavors. Just the way nonna does it, I guess.

Ink gnocchi ∣ cuttlefish, honey peas, chili - the scent that filled the air around the table when this dish came was pretty incredible. The round little pellets of gnocchi had a really interesting, springy texture. The squid ink sauce delivered a lot of flavor along with a spicy kick.

The cuttlefish - diced up into cubes - was also springy, and the peas brought both their sweetness and crunchy texture into the whole mix, working well with the rich, savory squid ink.

Mafalde "gentile" ∣ ragù "Genovese" of Montoro onions, short rib - the mafalde was very, very al dente... almost a little too hard compared to what I'm used to. The onion ragù was so, so beautifully sweet and rich that I would be happy just to have a big plate of this as a full meal.

The short rib from Mayura Station was slow-cooked for 12 hours in the onion ragù, and while it was tasty, I didn't quite get the rationale behind having this single bite. It wasn't until Antimo explained after the meal that it is traditional to serve the beef separately as a second serving after the pasta - instead of having the beef mixed into the ragù that comes with the pasta.

Pigeon ∣ under ash, artichoke, fig sauce - Antimo came over to explain that the dish was inspired by what happened to the city of Pompeii as it became covered under the ashes of Vesuvius.

(Now that I think about it, the thought of digging up what had been buried in Pompeii - basically the remains of people and animals - and eating that sounds pretty morbid! Nice one, Antimo...)

The pigeons were wrapped in fig leaves, artichoke, then a layer of paper - all inside a layer of clay. Antimo then used a small hammer - which looks suspiciously like the ones they use at Peking Garden (北京樓) to break open their beggar's chicken - to crack open the clay shell and unwrap the paper to show us the pigeons inside.

The pigeon breast was served with roasted artichoke, artichoke crisp, and artichoke purée. As one can see, the breast was quite rosé. We've got a fig and red wine sauce, along with a fig compote with black pepper.

Here, again, I explained to Antimo that while I always love eating pigeons, I was dining with a chef who serves up some of the best pigeons in town, and whose home region is famous for their birds. It was just hard not to make that natural comparison tonight.

Hazelnut Rocher - with salted caramel in the center. Slurp.

There were 5 sweet endings, starting with bomboloni...

Torta caprese

Panna cotta with sour cherries - very nice balance.

Fig tart

Pistachio ice cream - this was amazing! Most certainly the richest, most delicious pistachio dessert I have ever had.

I wanted to bring something that would match the food, while giving Hairy Legs and Antimo a chance to try something they don't usually come across. So a magnum it was.

2000 Sine Qua Non The Boot, from magnum - 52% chardonnay, 24% roussanne, and 24% viognier. Initially showing some sugar cane, caramelized sugar, a little oily on the nose and some metallic rust. Acidity was still fine on the palate, with some bitterness. Once the wine warmed up and was no longer too cold, the bitterness emerged along with more depth on the palate. As it opened up it became soooo fragrant and perfumed, along with some notes of straw and beeswax. Drinking very well right now.

2000 Alión - nose of sweet grass. Nice and light-bodied.

This was a really fun night out. Sankala and I haven't caught up with Bilbaobab for quite a while, and I'm glad she had a chance to come out to let loose a little. Meanwhile, it was a good opportunity to see how Antimo and the team is starting their journey. They will only get better, and I look forward to the day when I get some real zebra meat on my plate.

P.S. Our request to settle the bill was denied, so the only way I could think of repaying the chef's kindness would be to organize a buyout of the restaurant for an exclusive event attended by fans of a certain Italian football club. Fino alla fine!

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