When we have visitors to our house in Italy we have a favourite restaurant that we like to take them too. It’s in a nearby town and has a fabulous taster menu of 7 courses. Every visit is a treat.Sadly the travel plans of our most recent guests didn’t allow for a visit to this restaurant as its opening hours are extremely limited – being only open at the weekends. However a friend reminded me that a couple of years ago we had found a wonderful vegetarian restaurant in lovely grounds with friendly and charming staff and great food. Why not take our guests there?
We set off in two cars, such was the size of our party, for the 45 minute journey to a restaurant that would undoubtedly make every twist and turn on the mountain roads in the dark worth it. Our previous visit had been delightful.I remembered from that first visit the waiter coming to our table and telling us with a war-weary tone that this was in fact a vegetarian restaurant and how sweet it was to see his smile return when we told him that was why we were there. Well now it turns out they are a vegan restaurant – that shouldn’t have been a problem for us – but as it turns out gratinated tofu holds few charms – but more of that later.
Things had changed quite a lot. There was now a swimming pool and the gardens were more mature. The warm friendly staff had been replaced with a lady who greeted us unsmilingly and showed us to our table. She had her name emblazoned on the back of her polo shirt but she did not have the demeanour of someone you would casually address using her name. She reminded me of a sci-fi movie alien who has been created in the likeness of a human but without any of the necessary warmth to carry it off convincingly.
Our party included a 14 month old baby. I wasn’t sure of the Italian for highchair so looked it up on the dictionary on my phone. I directed my enquiry to the prototype humanoid waitress who, still expressing no emotion, informed us that no such thing existed in their establishment. No problem, our guests are seasoned travellers and had brought one of those booster seats that you can strap to any chair with them. The waitress looked on with possible interest but no emotion.
Now for an explanation of the menu. There wasn’t one, which isn’t unusual in these parts. The food was seasonal and the menu was created from whatever was currently growing in the ‘orto’ or vegetable garden. There was a five course taster menu. This sounded just what we were looking for.
There were two unusual shaped containers of water on the table with leaves in. We looked a each other and at the water glasses at our disposal. Were we about to make a terrible faux pas? Were we about to pour the table decorations into our glasses and drink them? I plucked up the courage to check. No, it was for drinking, the leaves were to add a touch of citrus – at least I think that’s what she said.
The menu explanation and the water discussion were all delivered with indecent haste considering I was the only one at our table with any hope of understanding. Did the baby want the 5 course taster menu too our waitress asked without a hint of irony. Little did she know that this baby has an epic appetite and eats everything that is put in front of her. However we opted for a plate of pasta for her to be on the safe side as we were yet to find out what was currently growing in the orto. It turned out not very much!
The first course was diced cucumber in a vegan yogurt. It was served in a shot glass but nothing could hide the fact that it was diced cucumber. Well, it was going to be 5 courses, so they were obviously breaking us in gradually. The baby’s pasta was designed to offend no taste bud known to man. In fact it had no taste at all. The baby was unimpressed. We shared our diced cucumber with her. The second course was a Gazpacho. Delightful and the baby thought so too. Everyone was happy. It was going to be alright after a shaky start.
Then came the third course. Well, as our unsmiling waitress placed this course in front of us my husband began to smirk and my son’s nose definitely wrinkled . She explained that it was a black bean mousse. That was important information to have because every fibre of our bodies was telling us not to put any of it in our mouths. It is a little indelicate to say, but I fear it must be said, that it appeared to be two fresh cow pats on a pleasingly designerish plate. Some of us boldly put aside our natural inclinations and started to eat it. There was a discussion of an in unusual taste that no one could put a name too. My son passed his plate to his father. The baby ate more bread.
It should be noted at this point that although the waiting staff were cool and unengaging the animals that roamed the restaurant were anything but. Two fat cats and two small dogs spent the evening wandering from table to table. The cats actually jumped up on the table next to us while the couple ate their dinner. The dogs begged for food from the floor level. One of the cats was very demanding of attention and once it was given punished the giver with a quick swipe if the stroking stopped. This did not seem to be behaviour that concerned the waiting staff too much.
The next course was a pasta dish. Our only complaint for this course was if you inhaled too closely the food would have been gone in one breath. It was tasty, but there wasn’t very much. We consoled ourselves with the fact that we had yet to meet the main course.
Oh dear, the main course. It arrived in small ramekins – thankfully small. It was terrible. It wasn’t just us that thought so. It appeared that everyone in the restaurant was toying with it but nobody was moving their fork towards their mouth. How to describe it? Wallpaper glue and a few tomatoes comes close. We looked furtively at each other. Who would be the first to question whether this was really intended for human consumption? We started to giggle. Then we started to share ideas of what we could say to the waitress if she questioned why we hadn’t eaten our main courses. One of our guests suggested ‘delicious, but surprisingly filling.’ I didn’t know the Italian for that so I made a tactical withdrawal to the toilet.
Our nearly full bowls were taken away without comment. An argument ensued in the kitchen. Maybe the chef wanted us all told there would be no dessert if we didn’t finish them up. We would definitely have passed on the dessert, which as it turned out was an unfussy fruit tart, which we were glad to have.
It was a long way to go just to amass material for a blog post. I awoke the next morning ravenous and my husband suggested we all partook of a full veggie English breakfast, which we did. Including the baby.