Nothing is as powerful as the tonic of expectation.
And when exceeded, the tonic turns into syrup.
Who would have thought that one of Europe’s four fashion capitals would offer me a culinary meal of a lifetime, expectedly beautiful and sensually satisfying? And alarmingly enough, a vegetarian tasting menu?
Exhausted from a day at Milan Fashion Week, I rewarded myself with my other true love. Joia was recommended by the world of haute in perhaps Italy’s only city that was not known to be at the forefront of its culinary scene. But perhaps my rushed, semi-wandering zebra styled self, focused on the destination of a short walk, was a sign that I was going to victoriously vanquish this myth!
I quite liked the ode to friendship considering that Joia was founded in 1989 by a group of friends who wanted to combine meatless diets with luxury, which over time, acquired Europe’s first and only Michelin star for a vegetarian restaurant. The exclusivity is both rewarding and rather sad for a continent known for its culinary competency, a trend that will hopefully evolve and grow.
Returning to the tasting menu, Chef Pietro Leeman gave each of his formal courses a whimsical name that spoke to his story and whimsy for a love of cooking fresh, natural food. Given that the 14 course turned into a 19 course, courtesy of amuse courses and palette cleansers, my sensory outlets mandated halving the distinct memory. Behold part 1, with part 2 to follow.
Things commenced with a sesame seed bread and cauliflower butter, at which I gave myself a pat on the back for starting the evening off with this year’s trending superfood. The bread itself, while flavorful, was not warm, something rather inexcusable in Italy.
Next up was a pumpkin ravioli in a salty Asian soup. Who would have thought Italy’s affair with the East would be so sumptuous? It was like eating a dumpling, only with undertones of ricotta cheese that literally melted the bridge of unison.
3. The Path of Dharma
Officially the first course, its arrival brought to light the saying that you eat with your eyes first. But this time, even my eyes had to pause to inhale the beauty of this plate, evidently a path to Dharma. Four alternating discs of punchy wine turnips and earthy Jerusalem artichoke were made to look like a work of art, with cabbage butterfly and a soft paté of cicerchia, and milder hues of their respective sauces to dip in. The dish was a bounce of pure freshness.
4. Travel Notes
Almost as if battling for the rounded lady’s hand were two spoons, one with a broccoli and toasted walnut puree sauce and the other with a 25 year old balsamic vinegar sauce, which were to be souped up and eaten with the fragrant Parmesan cheese and truffle fondue. The battle continued in my mouth as the flavors fought each other quickly before swallowing, giving me no time to delineate the rare juxtaposition of cloying sweet with salty and bitter. Ah, the life of a traveling knight!
5. Oh My Dear Planet
The chef smirked as he called the next dish a playful take on a foie gras, touted more properly as the ethical version. A grilled golden apple disc sat in its chutney, topped with terrine, sweet potato and probably the coolest candied vegetable I’ve seen since the trend of desserty veggies hit the runway palette: lettuce. The alarmingly shabby vegetable received a much needed promotion as a pinnacle of glory, adding some textural contrast to an otherwise mushy yet flavorful dish. Fruit, vegetable and sugar, what could be a better combo?
6. Let Us Sing the Mountain
A literally green plate arrived next, almost paying homage to the days of Adam and Eve, with a bitter green leaf sitting next to a hunk of rosemary, perhaps adding fragrance to a sumptuous broth of cardoons, sweet leeks, truffle and artichoke, baked with laurel and pepper of Vallemaggia, and plated on the wide angle of a plate to give it a mountainous appearance. Not knowing whether or not to turn herbivore with the greens, it made for fun posing after warming up to the hearty flavors of the broth.
7. Tribute to Gualtiero Marchesi
Still unaware of this tribute, the foamy soup of sorts seemed materialistically lacking, but was an interesting flavor profile. Pumpkin cream with a pesto of hazelnuts and green celery was topped with powerful truffle foam, probably the strongest I’ve tasted in this format. A solitary purple potato chip was a topper that became soggy enough to become a real potato, something I could have eaten a bucket of!
8. The Navel of the World
In Indian scripts, the navel is the epitome of existence, and the earthy aroma of this dish paid homage to this legacy. The risotto was made with Arborio rice, sitting on a bed of Jerusalem artichoke sauce and topped with red cabbage foam. While I thought the foam didn’t add much flavor value, the hearty risotto, layered with rosemary flavors, was a treat to the belly behind my navel.
9. For Govinda
For Govinda? Intrigued, I was looking forward to the poetic justice this culinary find paid to a favorite Indian deity and awkwardly comical Bollywood actor. The plate looked like it was staring into a universe, celestial and galactic, with buckwheat cabbage doubloons, surrounded by a sweet cheese fondue with a disappearing flavor of horseradish and Swiss cheese. The starry outline of crushed red pepper added the mystical touch that tied up the tribute to Govinda.
10. The Fifth Taste that I Like
I was baffled as to why fifth came up as a number on the tenth course, with a dish that had four items on it. Naturally, the fifth element was taste! A cannelloni stuffed with radicchio, cannellini beans and lentils sat with a grilled turnip, grilled parsnip and a sliver of pumpkin red wine sauce. It was truly a geometric balance of shapes, and a gastronomic array of flavors and temperatures.
With a mouth full of clamoring taste buds and eyes full of a plethora of daydreams to come, my overpowered senses could only think of one things: we were only halfway.