Friday, May 10, 2013

I want to go to Venice

Last week I went to the new restaurant Ombra twice, and loved it.  Twice.  Meanwhile, a couple of weeks ago, I spent my lunch break reading Polpo: A Venetian Cookbook of Sorts by Russell Norman and found myself wanting to make and eat everything immediately (besides loving the cover and craftsmanship of the book itself).  In fact, I've just ordered it online.  The common thread?  Venice.

Ombra, corner of Cuba and Vivian Street, Wellington

Ombra is Wellington's newest addition to the restaurant scene and the first one to get me really excited in recent months.  Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of great places to eat in this lovely city but maybe it's because I've lived here for around 7 years now that I've started to get a bit bored and a little miffed by how much it costs to eat mediocre food.  However, I do have high standards and it's often really the service that let the whole show down.  The most recent additions that have gotten me talking (food-wise) were Prefab, Pickle and Big Bad Wolf, but for Cuba Street, Ombra has lifted it's whole game up.

While the cafe and restaurant scene in Wellington is worthy of it's own post, today is just about Ombra.  I went for two successive days of lunch breaks, each with a different set of people, yet the reactions were the same.  It was good.  The maitre d' explained to us that ombra means "shadow", referring to the time when merchants kept their wine cool by wheeling their carts from one shady spot to another.  These days, ombra is slang for a small glass of wine which makes it a shame that we weren't able to enjoy the beverage list (an excuse for another time).

As for the food: the cicheti are what make the bacaro.  Small plates, or simply bar snacks, they're similar to Spanish tapas but completely unique to Venice.   Typically the cicheti menu consists of dishes like (but not limited to) crostini, arancini, crocchette (croquette) and a version of sardines, but here is only where you warm up.  Both days in Ombra, I had baccala crostini which is salt cod whipped into a creamy luscious mousse served over a perfectly crusty slice of bread.  A sensational contrast of textures, it was rich but light.  The arancini used a tomato-base risotto which I wasn't particularly partial to, but the crisp crumb to it's exterior was exactly that: as it should be.

Baccala Crostini

Then there were the pizzette (small pizza), the meatballs, the fish, meat, and vegetables (with breads in between, and desserts and sweet things after).  While our appetite didn't cry for one of everything, we selected a little here and there, and were more than satisfied.  The truffle mushroom pizzette was beautifully pungent while the cured pork cheek, scamorza and radicchio version was a delight on the tongue, combining the sharp saltiness of thinly sliced pork cheek, a texture not unlike prosciutto, against the seductive creaminess of the cheese and the delicate fresh bitterness of baby radicchio leaves, who appeared as if they had landed on the pizzette like a feather on a duvet.  I also sampled two types of meatballs: lamb and rosemary, and beef, caper and tuna.  Both were juicy, plump and accompanied by a smooth gravy calling out  to be soaked up with a freshly baked piece of sourdough.  The unexpected combination of the beef and tuna charmed me most.

The remains of the lamb and rosemary meatballs

Saffron and honey pannacotta with pistachio biscotti

Other dishes which stood out were the braised ox cheek on polenta (what I imagine an Italian nonna would create as a standard weekly supper, only to gain a reputation of family fame and tradition) and the saffron and honey pannacotta (subtley sweet and creamy, as I love my desserts).  Nothing short of deliciousness, I look forward to venturing into the fish and vegetable sections of the menu and having yet another baccala crostini.  (If Polpo has a recipe for this, I think I may have found my new favourite indulgent breakfast food.)

Polpo: A Venetian Cookbook (of sorts) by Russell Norman

Now with the experience of eating at Ombra under my belt (and none of actual Venice, I should add), the concept behind Russell Norman's Polpo (the eateries and the book) almost feels as if it has manifested on our shores.  In Norman's introduction he describes his inspiration and commitment to the real food of Venetian baccari (basically, pub), and in comparing restaurant menus, I'm sure we've got a genuine representation on our hands.  Dishes that are blissfully simple and genuinely pay homage to good-quality fresh market food, I can't wait to receive Polpo in the mail and learn more about Venice.  What's even more promising is that, despite our notions of it being one of the key Italian flavours, I saw little of tomatoes listed in many recipes.  (One of the foods my boyfriend has been told to avoid.)  While this means that I should be able to cook to share these meals (molto importante), it also intrigues me to venture into the slightly less-ridden path of Italian food and traditions.

Without a doubt, Italy in general has always had a major stronghold in my culinary bucket list: Margherita pizza in Naples, cannoli in Sicily, etc, but a month ago, Venice was there for the architecture and canals.  Now, show me the baccari!

No comments:

Post a Comment