A Taste of Tuscany
Truth be told, it was more than a taste.
It was more like the ultimate Italian gorge fest.
That’s what happens when Donatella Zampoli, executive chef of the wine estates of Marchesi de` Frescobaldi in Tuscany, whizzes into town for 48 hours to cook with Dominique Crenn, chef de cuisine of Luce at the InterContinental Hotel in San Francisco.
I was invited to the multi-course dinner last Wednesday, which was a benefit for CUESA, the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture.
Each dish was paired with a different wine from Frescobaldi, which has been making wines for more than 700 years. The two chefs took turns preparing each course, volleying back and forth, for a most memorable and filling repast.
The evening began with two amuses: First, Crenn’s unusual combination of organic buckwheat, trumpet mushrooms and lobster puree. It came to the table looking like a loose-formed granola bar of sorts. And the crispy grain puffs almost made the amuse akin to a new-wave, savory Rice Krispie treat.
Zampoli’s rusticly wonderful duck liver mousse followed, topped with crispy sage leaves.
Next came Zampoli’s organic eggplant timbale tower filled with diced carrots and squash, and Scarmorza cheese. You don’t even have to be a devout vegetarian to love this comforting, satisfying dish.
Crenn followed up with what was probably my favorite dish of the night: an updated rendition of her mother’s potato gnocchi with lobster and a sphere of bone marrow custard. Lobster, which so often suffers from over-cooking, was perfectly moist and tender here. The gnocchi were incredibly fluffy and buttery. I’m not sure the dish even needed the tiny round of bone marrow custard. Still, it was an intriguing addition.
Zampoli presented parmesan risotto that hid a well of intense duck jus in its center. Thinly sliced smoked duck breast was fanned over the top, and fried leeks finished this elegant dish.
It was time for an intermezzo, and Crenn provided a doozy — a bubble of apple cider balanced on a silver spoon.
Eat it in one bite or else the fragrant juice will squirt out. It fills your mouth with the taste of autumn.
A jiggly slow cooked egg arrives in Crenn’s next dish. Puncture the yolk, which spreads its unctuous goodness all over the morsels of crispy sweetbread and tongue.
Zampoli, thinking we must still be starving, followed with a huge lamb shank served alongside a showstopping potato “bracelet” that hid green bean tempura. This is one bracelet I’d love to have worn, well, if I hadn’t eaten it first. I guess I’m just wearing it in a different way now, heh?
Crenn’s pre-dessert was a simple, refreshing cranberry sorbet that was so smooth and creamy, it was almost the texture of gelato.
The actual dessert was Zampoli’s rich, extraordinarily smooth cream caramel topped with sweet bits of candied nuts.
It was a most fitting finale to a most memorable evening.
More: A Q&A with Chef Dominique Crenn, a contestant earlier this year on “The Next Iron Chef.”