Painstakingly modern, stylish, and open-hearted, Le Calandre's only failings were those brief moments where things felt lost in translation. Every utensil, surface, and font had been crafted with an intensity of care unlike any I have observed before. This is a truly special place that I cannot recommend highly enough.
Chef Massimiliano Alajmo is a prodigy. He is, to this day, the youngest chef ever be awarded 3 Michelin Stars (he won them in 2002, at age 28). He came of aging working under greats like Michel Guerard (of Les Pres D'Eugenie) and Marc Veyrat. In 1993, he joined Le Calandre when it already had a star under the leadership of his mother, becoming Executive Chef in 1994. He won his second star in 1997. He represents the fifth generation of his family to work as famous chefs in Italy.
On a typical night, the restaurant does 48 covers with 26 staff; a fairly normal ratio. The energy of the place felt warm and happy, and without exception every member of service seemed practically overjoyed to be there.
RUBANO, ITALY (NEAR VENICE)
PRICE PAID: $290PP (INCL. WATER, WINE, TAX, TIP- PRE-CHALLENGE)
FINAL RATING: 9.0/10
The décor feels highly customized, modern, and artful. I was all the more impressed when I learned that every element of the interior had been commissioned by Alajmo and his partners themselves, and made by hand by master Italian artisans from across the country. The furniture, the glassware, the artwork, the drapes, literally everything was created by Alajmo in a big 2010 revamp. It was amazing to take it all in, but in places it really felt like they were trying too hard. I.e., the cod lamps (upper left above). Cod lamps?
The service was performed in excellent English, but let's just say that the spirit of Le Calandre was transmitted at less than 100% fidelity. Bring an Italian-speaker for maximum enjoyment of this exceptionally creative and delicious example of Italian fine dining.
By far the most attractive part of the redesign was the clean, warm colors and materials in the table and place settings. Throughout the evening we saw examples of their desire to experiment with textures, surfaces, and materials.
A first gift from the kitchen: from left to right- a "cloud" of Parmesan, and a crunchy "shell" of bread. Cheesy and crunchy, and very simple. A perfectly pleasant start. 8/10.
After we get comfortable, we are offered the restaurant's three set menus:
- The 11-course Classico, which features the mainstays of the restaurant and focuses on the dishes that made the restaurant famous; €225.
- The 11-course Max, slightly more innovative and seasonal; both this menu and the next one undergo changes every 3 months or so; €225.
- The 11-course Raf, even more inventive and also a seasonal selection; €225.
There is also an à la carte menu of 3, 4, or 5 plates from any of the set menus for €135, €170, and €200 respectively. I wound up going with the Max menu. Overall, this place is inexpensive compared to global three-star standards.
As we consider the menus, we are offered a series of small plates of appetizers. From left to right, a tartelette with saffron and licorice using saffron from the region around Venezia. The saffron is extremely rich and fragrant and totally dominates the plate in a rather aggressive way that I'm not sure is intentional (7/10). Next, cod with crispy barley leaf that tastes exactly like Cod Cream Cheese if that were a thing, which is simply awesome (9/10). And, on the right, a "pillow" of beetroot, which is soft with a crunchy shell and stuffed with a herb mayonnaise (8/10). 8/10 overall.
We brought some more of the Villa Calcinaia and paired it with a few select glasses suggested by the Sommelier. The Somm maintained an extremely professional and attractive staging area for the wine service. I've never seen a clipboard with cork holder and checklist before!
Next, some langoustine and turmeric rolls. The langoustine is sweet and soft, and while the "wrapping" of doughy bread looks interesting it kind of gets in the way and is extremely crunchy. The flavors work well together, but the textures clash hard. 7/10.
Next, another example of the restaurant's passion for experimenting with surfaces and materials. We are each presented with a large heavy brick, and on top are some deep-fried flowers and Wood Ear mushrooms. The heft of the brick is, I think, meant to emphasize the heaviness of the oily tempura applied to the very light flowers and mushrooms. It's an artful statement, and the flavors all work well. 8/10.
The opening course in the menu is Dentex (a Mediterranean fish, so named for its large and ferocious teeth) with a pitch-perfect passion fruit sauce. The textures play nicely, the flavors are an absolute harmony, and I even love how the colors work together. 10/10.
So, bear with me, because this was the point in the meal where the imperfect translation started to come into view. A cuttlefish cappuccino tasting of cream-of-potato with strong seafood notes was served on top of a dish where "First Meal" was scrawled. The dish has lots of black cuttlefish ink, which is less acidic and aggressive than squid ink, and that selfsame ink is what's used to write underneath the plate. The backstory and writing on the plate were explained this way:
"The chef tries to imagine 'everyone's first restaurant,' their mother's milk. No one can remember exactly what that tastes like, but Alajmo tried to represent the warmth and the love of that experience with this cuttlefish cappuccino." I'm into it, but also a little bit what the fuck?
Next, a "Red spaghetti" made with a tomato sauce (closer to a tomato jam; dense and somewhat sweet) with Royal Osetra caviar up top, some red beet to enhance the color, and oyster. The caviar is a little over the top, but it goes perfectly. The pasta itself is very al dente, which works well with the caviar's texture. 9/10.
Next, "Scarpetta," the Italian word for scrapings from the cookwear a dish was prepared in, served with some slices of fresh bread. This is a delightfully entertaining presentation, and the one where I most felt that I "got" what the chef was trying to communicate. An easy recall to childhood and savoring the delicious remains of a warm, homecooked meal. I like the deliberate informality of the serving method; you just scoop the remains up with your bread by hand. 9/10.
Next, a deconstructed pasta carbonara, which was pitched as: "all the ingredients of the carbonara, just in a different position." The spaghetti is smoked instead of the pork, the yolk is separate instead of mixed in, and the bone broth has been made into a crunchy sheet that sits atop the pasta. Once mixed together it has that very heavy, traditional flavor of carbonara and is totally delicious. Creamy, rich, heavy, and delightful. 9/10.
Turbot with black cuttlefish ink and fried greens. This turns out to be an extremely heavy dish; the texture of the turbot is almost creamy, and the ink adds to the richness. 8/10
This next dish was extraordinary, both in concept and execution. Done in what is the Italian equivalent style of tapas, an egg with black truffle, greens, and tuna belly ice cream; the egg served warm and the ice cream freezing cold. This was an extraordinary multi-layered experience of rich overlapping flavors, attention-getting temperature differential, and gorgeously soft, congruent textures. I could eat this dish every day for a hundred years. 10/10.
And finally, onto the final main course: veal cheeks served with cream of Oyster, speck, and greens. This wasn't as much of a success as the immediately previous course, but the richness of the speck and the cheek together carried the dish. 7/10.
A whimsical little presentation of fruit on sticks. A nice palate cleanser and a light, welcome relief from the main savory courses. 8/10.
A beautifully plated tiramisu covered in coffee grounds arrived next. Strong flavors of mascarpone and Italian custard; the normal espresso powder substituted for crunchy, almost floral coffee grounds. 9/10.
A gorgeous sphere of mozzarella with almond milk in the shell. Lots of basil, which is really in the driver's seat on this dish. The overall flavor profile is buffalo cheese, which has that rich farm-y feel to it. 9/10.
Things really turned literal in the wrap-up dessert courses... Can you detect the extremely subtle references to childhood and maternity that have been bouncing around for more or less the entire menu? Good, because the chef was more or less beating us over the head with it at this point. A pipe, like the kind you might have blown bubbles with if you were a little kid growing up in Europe (except filled with passion fruit), and a pacifier dipped filled with mousse, served with some sides of that same mousse. 8/10.
And finally... what could only be described as a sugary cocoa crisp ... on a lightbulb. I do not understand. 8/10.
Post-dinner, we were offered a very nice (and lengthy) tour of the kitchen, the pass, the prep areas, and the wine cellar underground. Several people over the course of a full hour walked us around what was very obviously their life's passion and work. It was touching to speak with such friendly and open people, and I would return here in a heartbeat.