Via Liguria, 1
35030 Sarmeola di Rubano, Padova,
Overall rating: 7.5-8/10
Date of visit: September 2012
Le Calandre holds three Michelin stars and was first stop on my restaurant tour in northern Italy, and Osteria Francescana was the only one I liked a little bit better.
The interior of Le Calandre matched the food quite well: Simple and elegant without being extravagant.
There were several menus to choose from. As per their recommendation for first-time visitors, I chose the “classics” short version, which meant five courses for 165 euros. The long version of the same menu (two more courses) was €200. If I’m not mistaken, the most expensive menu (a contemporary tasting menu) was €230.
At all the places in Italy it seemed like the menus were the pride and joy of the restaurants, and although there were different dishes to choose from if you went a la carte, the a la carte option seemed to mostly be there for people who preferred a cheaper or lighter option than the menu. Other restaurants do the menus merely as a way of making it easy on themselves, and there a la carte is the way to go if you really want to see what the kitchen is capable of (for instance at Pierre Gagnaire).
I just asked for a glass each of white and red wine. The white was €10, the red (Amarone) €14. Water was only €3, which was the cheapest of all the restaurants I went to in Italy.
When I arrived, there were two small snacks on the table: One a tasty and very light hollow parmesan ball (7.5/10), the other a cone of corn, which unfortunately was dry, dull and tasteless (4/10).
Normally, I don’t pay too much attention to bread. The bread here was made with pumpkin if I’m not mistaken. It was very fresh, but it simply turned into a chewy ball in my mouth very quickly. They also served grissini (one was with a bit of curry powder), but I think grissini is a phenomenon that only Italians can appreciate.
An appetizer with three elements arrived: A crispy bread/pastry base with lobster on top. I haven’t had lobster that often, but along with the one at Sant Pau this was one of the best I’ve ever had – and by far the best of the three I had in Italy (at least 8/10). A slightly dry piece of fish was rolled in corn (7/10), and the last one was a delightful vegetable bun (7.5/10).
Yet another appetizer was both tasty, inventive and one of the meal’s highlights: Mozzarella cheese had been dehydrated and made into tagliatelle. It was served with small pieces of fish, capers and olives (8-8.5/10). One the side was served a pleasant fish soup in a cup (7.5/10).
The first real course was tomatoes two ways (minced and quartered fresh ones) with aubergine, a pistachio cream and a thin, crispy bread. The tomatoes were flavourful, and the fresh ones were a lot better than anything I’ve had anywhere in Spain, save at Quique Dacosta. Aubergine so easily gets mushy if it’s overcooked, but here it was nothing short of perfectly cooked. That said, it wasn’t the most exciting dish for me and I would expected some more fireworks from a three-star restaurant, but it was light, refreshing and well-cooked (7/10).
Next up was “cappuccino”, that is cuttlefish with ink at the bottom with potato cream on top. Again, very simple but also effective. The cream was quite refreshing when put together with the somewhat heavy cuttlefish and ink. The texture of the potato cream was nice indeed, actually surprisingly good when I consider how difficult (meaning impossible) it has been to find potatoes in Spain (or in any of the other four restaurants I went to in Italy) that are not floury. My only real complaint was that it was too hot, so I burnt my tongue a bit (this hasn’t affected the score) (8/10).
The highlight of the meal for me was the risotto with saffron and liquorice. I had first heard about this risotto a couple of years ago, and I have attempted to make it myself several times. I have to admit that this one was just a liiiitle bit better than my own. Seriously though, the texture was nothing short of perfect. The rice were al dente but not chewy. They were tender but not soggy. It was also just runny enough to not be too heavy. In the end I was glad, though, that the portion size wasn’t bigger, as it was getting to be a little bit much (maybe because I was already starting to get full at this point). Easily the best of the three risottos I had in Italy (9/10).
I was then served an extra dish: Ravioli filled with beetroot juice, beetroot foam, beetroot jelly and a gorgonzola sauce. The jelly had no flavour at all, the juice inside the raviolis a bit more, but the foam was actually the best thing here, and the only one of the three that really captured that earthy beetroot flavour. It would have been obvious to have made the jelly with a different flavour than beetroot, as the dish did end up becoming a little bit one-dimensional. Not the best dish here (6.5/10).
The main course was pork cooked for 26 hours with a braising sauce, chicory, and a creamy mustard sauce with coffee powder. I didn’t like the chicory that much as I simply don’t like bitter things, but it also lacked seasoning. It was, however, a refreshing addition to an otherwise quite heavy dish. As such I don’t like coffee, but the amount here was perfectly balanced, and it worked really well with the mustard and pork (8/10 or maybe a little more).
On to desserts:
First a grape sorbet with bergamot and sticks with various elements on the tip: Fig with mint, apple with cinnamon, a piece of cantaloupe melon, a marshmallow with rosewater, and a margharita granité. It was a good dessert, but not great. The fig didn’t have much flavour. It was the same in Al Sorisso, Da Vittorio and everywhere in Spain. Southern European figs simply don’t seem to have as much flavour nor as good texture as middle eastern ones. It did work well with mint though.
The apple was the same problem. Southern European apples simply cannot compare to the Scandinavian ones I have been used to eating most of my life. In both Spain and Italy restaurants all use Golden Delicious, which is simply the least flavourful of them all. Golden Delicious lacks acidity and depth of flavour, so when you combine it with something else, whether it’s cinnamon (here), cheese (at Sant Pau in Spain) or cod brandade (Pierre Gagnaire in France), the flavour of the apple is simply overpowered by the other ingredients.
The marshmallow was better, and the rose flavour was controlled, though still a bit too perfumed for my liking. The melon was sweet, light and of good quality. The margharita was a little too bitter for me (Quique Dacosta’s was better), but nevertheless still good. However, I couldn’t help but feel that this dessert was a bit too simple for a restaurant like this (overall 7/10).
The next, and last, dish was a mille-feuille, where the butter had been replaced with olive oil. The pastry was very crispy indeed, and the taste of olive oil was, luckily, only very light. I’m not too sure if this was actually better than if it had been made with butter. The cream filling between the pastry slices lacked some flavour. I’m not too sure if there was any flavour added (although it might have been vanilla), but, as I suggested, adding lemon zest would probably have been great. Next to the mille-feuille was a apricot sauce. The flavour was intense in a way I have otherwise only seen in Iranian apricots, but maybe just a tad too sour (overall 7.5/10).
There were no petit-fours.
I’m not big on wine, but like at the rest of the restaurants I went to on this trip, the white wine here was very good, and exactly what I was looking for. Why can I almost never find this in Spain?
The service was very good. Only in Osteria Francescana did I truly feel it was three star service , but Le Calandre was close. I simply think that restaurants in Italy are not aware of the small details that most other three star restaurants I have been to have been aware of. Therefore, the staff did not walk me to the toilet, did not hold my chair when I came back, and they didn’t put down the plates on the table at the same time. I noticed in another table a waiter brought one plate, and then went back to the kitchen for the other one. All these things (especially the last two) doesn’t make the meal any better, but it’s nice to see this attention to details, and if they hold my chair I simply feel more pampered. I simply don’t think they’ve ever seen this done, and therefore don’t know that three star restaurants in other countries do this.
Nevertheless, I really liked the staff here. They were relaxed, humorous and very hospitable. Only Osteria really matched this. I quickly felt at home at Le Calandre and like I was among friends. When they served the first dish I thought it was a wrong dish. I asked, “so is the cappuccino” the next dish? The waiter punched me on the shoulder and said “bravissimo!”. My strongest recommendation.
Le Calandre and Osteria were the only places I went to in Italy that truly seemed perfectionistic in their approach to cooking. They asked me about my opinion after each dish, and when I said the chicory lacked seasoning, the waiter later came back and said he had told the chef about this. Both here and at Sant Pau in Spain I truly believe there’s a natural correlation between the quality of the food and them asking the customers for their opinion no matter what that may be. Other restaurants ask, and then when you say “this element lacked flavour/seasoning” or whatever they stop asking (*cough* El Celler de Can Roca).
The chef came out several times to speak to all the tables. He was just as easy to talk to as the rest of the staff, and this “meeting the chef” was definitely among the best ones I’ve had.
All in all, it was quite a good meal. The food was light, honest, refreshing, well-cooked and simple. Despite the simplicity it was most often also quite inventive. Along with Osteria Francescana it was much more inspired than the three other restaurants I went to on that trip. I might favour French food as it’s a bit more complex and simply more to my liking. The ingredients here were top quality as well, except for the apples and figs. When I left the restaurant I felt happy and very full, but I nevertheless felt like something had been missing. It was the felling of “was that really just it?” – especially when it came to the desserts, which seemed a little bit like something I could have done myself. For a three-star restaurant, the food seemed a bit too ordinary. In some ways Le Calandre reminded me of Sant Pau in Spain, but that restaurant nevertheless impressed me a lot more.
If I disregard the risotto, there wasn’t a single dish that was superb, but then there wasn’t anything plain either except for that small cone in the beginning. Not dipping into the mediocre level actually very rarely happens even in restaurants at this level.
Technically, I can only criticise that the “cappuccino” was too hot, and only a few things (the chicory, the cream in the mille-feuille, the apple, and the fig) lacked flavour. It rarely happens, even in three star restaurants, that the food is this perfectly executed.
It’s difficult to say if the food in this restaurant was better than a place where you pay half the price – maybe not. But it was better than the three more expensive restaurants I went to in Italy.