For some reason that I couldn't completely comprehend, whenever I would tell people that I was planning on having dinner at David Scrabin's restaurant, Combal.Zero, they would shudder and then say something like, "what are you going there for?" It was if I was telling them I was going to eat at a restaurant that violated some precept of fine dining. Then I realized that the severe reactions were coming from those who I often describe as "ingredientistas," whose ideas of good eats is stuck in a time warp that still revolves around culinary concepts like a chicken being ready to eat when the juices run clear after being poked with a fork. Not that there is anything wrong with a good roast chicken -- in fact I had a pretty damn good one at L'Ami Louis the night before having dinner at Combal.Zero. But the truth is, as much as I enjoy a good roast chicken, I can make one at home. But when it comes to inhaling your dinner through a gas mask, now that wasn't in my Tante Gussie's repetoire.
The truth is that after reading about Combal.Zero a number of years ago, I was a bit reluctant to visit the restaurant myself. Though I'm a fan of modern cuisine, one could argue Scrabin took the concept of moderne a bit too far. But then the pastry chef, Will Goldfarb, told me that he thought the restaurant was a contender for the best in the world. and that tipped it for me. And given that they serve dinner on Sunday evenings, a rarity for important restaurants that are located in large European cities, it allowed me to easily fill a slot on our February trip that typically ends up with us having dinner at the local pizza place.
The setting -- the restaurant is set in the Castello Rivoli, a large castle on the crest of a hill that is 30 minutes outside of the center of Torino, is simply spectaular. In fact it's right up there with Blue Hill at Stone Barns for spectacular restaurant settings. The castle has been converted into a modern art museum, and the installations at the mueum were so interesting it would be worth worth making the trip from the city center for the museum alone. The restaurant, which is housed in a long narrow stretch along the back of the building, offers diners a superb view of the Po Valley. Unfortunately we were there for dinner so the view was limited to lights that were shimmering in the distance. But next time I will try to book for lunch. But if you do go for dinner, the museum is open until 8:00pm which makes it easy to make an evening out of your visit. In fact we arrived at 6:30, toured the museum and then sat down for dinner.
I usually save the nuggets that I pry from my post-dinner chat with the chef until after I describe the meal. But in this instance it makes sense to put them at the front to help set the stage for the review. A bit over a year ago, Scrabin abandoned using additives in his cuisine and went all naturale. In fact he describes his cuisine as "being focused on maximizing flavors." Of course that doesn't mean that he has abandoned molecular gastronomy culinary theory -- in fact his new schtick is calculating a diner's taste ID so that a dish can be seasoned to taste -- and as part of his schtick he gave me a little plastic box that had a premeasured amount of salt in it which he followed up with a lengthy scientific discussion on exactly how one would measure the amount of salt needed to customize a pot of boiling water for pasta to a specific palate preference. But the gas masks are no more (I assume they have been sent to the front lines of Iraq) and Scrabin's menu was rather tame considering his reputation.
The meal started with a delicious little amuse of vittelo tonato, followed by "Tsarskaya con Crema Parmentier", oysters with caviar and beef gelee. A superb combination and the quality of the oysters were terrific. A carpaccio of lobster in a milky gorganzola sauce was a perfect way to follow the oysters, and it showed the deftness of a top sushi chef in terms of how to manipulate textures in the progression of a meal. Then a top quality tranch of foie gras with some cumin inflected honey and a small cube of Blue Mountain coffee gelatin.
Rabbit prepared like tuna (cured in olive oil,) a classic Piemontese dish, was especially delicios and I must say, downright juicy. Then eggplant tataki, with perfectly cooked stalks of eggplant served with a tasty tomato reduction. Then one of Scrabin's signature dishes, Italian caviar, a quaill egg and chives, wrapped in a plastic bag that is tied in a knot to seal it. You put the entire bag in your mouth, close your lips around it, and you pull the tied end until the bag breaks which causes the contents to explode into your mouth. It's truly amusing, but also quite delicious as what's not to like about caviar, eggs and onions? Then a very carefully stirred Mantecato "Acquarell"o risotto with foie gras and artichokes.
Mrs. P had the good fortune to get a second pasta course while I had a thick zucchini soup with delicious braised chickory and a scoop of fresh cheese with herbs. Perfect for a rainy Sunday night in the Piemonte. Then the savory part of the meal ended with a warm salad featuring some plump Scottish gamberi which were lightly cooked, and served with braised Asian greens, followed by a superb speciman of turbot that was served with a confit of potatoes (look how beautiful they are, they look like eggs,) a bit of lemon froth, poached oysters and Italian caviar. Simply scrumptious.
Lord knows what I had for dessert (remember this meal was back at the beginning of February) and the pictures aren't refreshing my memory. But here are the pictures anyway. The first person to name all four desserts correctly gets a free copy of the OA Survey.
Quite an enjoyable meal and when you throw the museum into the mix, an excellent overall experience. I'm a bit sorry that Scrabin has abandoned additives completely as it limits the possibilites in his cuisine. Still, it very much reminded me of being at a place like Mugaritz, and I am eager to go back to try it again. Given all of the meals I eat, a desire to return to a restaurant is not something that I come to lightly. Recommended ++