Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Special event meals: Cracco-Peck

One of the things I love to do when I travel is to plan a "special event" meal at my destination. This doesn't necessarily mean fancy, it just means that I plan to have at least one meal that's unique from anything I can get at home which I can enjoy just for its own sake. It could be a famous regional dish, a meal at a friend's home, or a local restaurant. Especially for those of us who have food issues, I think it's important to try to have a meal every once in a while that's about enjoyment, so that eating isn't always a stressful process.

On my recent trip to Milan last month, I did research ahead of time to determine what my "special event" meal would be. Milan is famous for their Veal Milanesa dish (and their Pepperidge Farm cookies, as a friend thoughtfully pointed out, ha ha), but it's fairly common so that was boring and crossed off the list. Other than that, Milan doesn't have a big culinary reputation since it's mostly a business town, so I chose a nice restaurant. Out of some reliable food recommendations (NYT Travel, Gourmet, Fodors, testimonials from TripAdvisor), I selected the two-star restaurant Cracco-Peck. For those who haven't been to Milan, there is a stunning food store called Peck that is the best of Dean & Deluca, Bristol Farms, a farmers market, Surfas and heaven put together. Unfortunately, they wouldn't allow me to take pictures, but visualize this: a separate floor or counter created for each food group -- gorgeous produce that looked like it was from California, a fresh bread/bakery counter (with rolls, loaves, sweets), a seafood (raw and cooked) counter, charcuterie, handmade chocolates, a floor for just tea and coffee, and the most stunning wall display of 50 cured ham legs. Breathtaking. In partnership with Peck, Carlos Cracco opened a restaurant around the corner, and that's where I went. I felt confident that a collaboration with such a reputable store would guarantee me a wonderful meal, and I was not disappointed.

Here's a tip when visiting a famous and usually expensive restaurant...go at lunchtime instead of dinner! They will almost have their signature dishes available, the prices are more reasonable, and you get better service since you're avoiding the crazy-busy dinner crowd. All of which was true at Cracco-Peck. I was only one of 4 or 5 diners, and was treated like a queen (I have a sneaking feeling that I would have been treated that way anyway, but it fits in better with my point!)

First off, the staff whisked me into an elevator and then met me downstairs at my table (no need for a stairmaster for the staff). After professionally and thoughtfully asking if I had any issues or food allergies (!) I was immediately presented with a gorgeous appetizer of colorful dehydrated vegetables, sliced paper thin and beautifully presented in a plastic box that made it look like a corsage from a high school prom! Light and delicate, yet with intense flavor, it immediately signaled to me that I was in for some unique thinking from the kitchen. I discovered that this wonderful dehydration technique was a signature style used throughout many of the dishes.

Next they offered a complimentary amuse bouche (savory bite before the meal) of a potato croquette rolled in squid ink, with a little piece of salmon on top. Gentle yet flavorful.

I skipped the tasting menu and went for a starter and main course. The most unique item in there was a marinated egg yolk, served with the whites fried like a crepe which was my first course. The texture of the yolk was smooth and yet solid, like cream cheese, and flavored delicately with an herb in the more robust yolk. The white was light and crispy at the edges, then to add to the whole textural experience, they were served with blanched whole almonds and spears of al dente white asparagus. It looked pretty and delivered a refreshingly different combinations of flavors and textures. Wonderful! What a unique approach!

The main course was sweetbreads (the thymus gland of a calf). Ordinarily when I've ordered them, they come sliced horizontally so that you can enjoy the creamy middle with a crispy outside. Unfortunately, they gave me the whole damned thing, which to be honest looks just plain weird when whole. It tasted lovely, cooked just right, but there was so much of it that I started to pressure myself to eat the whole thing (eat chug a lug!) to not be wasteful. So it was enjoyed with a little less enthusiasm, since I was getting full.

I told the sweet waitress that I couldn't possibly order dessert, just coffee, so of COURSE they brought me a complimentary dessert sampler for me to try along with it. Oy vey! More of the lovely dehydrated items came out, but this time it was fruit -- mango, pear and kiwi, looking transparent and jewel-like. Just gorgeous to see and eat. Dried strawberry wrapped around a raspberry, and delicate lychee fruit on top of a dried banana chip. A mango custard with a layer of lime aspic on top. Chocolate-covered almonds...whew, I'm getting full just recapping this again! :)

Finally, when I pushed away the dessert and coffee (I had to force myself to stop eating the chocolate almonds), the waiter came back with with a special treat. I was invited to visit the kitchen! WOW! I was obviously a food geek (hel-lo, I came in alone just to eat and was taking pictures of every course...duh), and so was ROCK-star excited to go. This was a stunningly clean and organized kitchen (I'm sure it's a little different at dinnertime). There was a little private room next to the kitchen for VIPs, which was a very cool idea (note to self, figure out how to get invited to those). And then, there was Carlos Cracco himself! He is VERY handsome, btw. They allowed me to take pictures, and I was just so excited I'm sure I stood there with my mouth open. I thanked the staff enthusiastically for the lovely meal, got a picture of the chef, and then waddled back to the elevator to be lifted out of this very elegant space. Ater an hour and a half of exquisite food and service, it's very obvious that they care about all the little details that make a great meal in addition to the food...a warm room ambiance, carriers to hold the ladies purses, pleasing lighting, sumptuous surroundings, personal service, etc. I'm just gushing now. If you are ever in Milan, please please please make this place a stop on your list. It's one of the most memorable dining experiences of my life.

And if you don't, at least please remember to treat yourself once in a while to a meal just for pleasure's sake. :)

Via Victor Hugo, 4
20123 Milano, Italy
Tel + 02 87 67 74

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wow delicious post... LOL.

"And if you don't, at least please remember to treat yourself once in a while to a meal just for pleasure's sake. :)" definitely... :)

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