Culinary Voyages with Minnie Menon: Focaccia

The word ‘unveiling’ is always ripe with anticipation, promise and surprise.

I felt a gamut of these emotions when on behalf of RITZ, I unveiled the new Spring-Summer menu at Focaccia at the Hyatt Regency recently. Spring and summer evoke such pleasant and romantic thoughts of flowers, of hills and holidays. A retro song came to mind … Cliff Richards singing Summer Holiday.

I felt privileged as I walked into Focaccia because RITZ was the only publication to have been invited by the hotel for a preview of the new menu a day ahead of its official debut. A quick photo session later, the Editor Aruna R Krishnan and I dined at Focaccia with the Hyatt Regency team. It was the night before the launch. One huge plus in favour of Italian cuisine in South India is that our sizeable vegetarian loving community believe this cuisine is a staple like our very own ’sambar sadham’! This special menu deserved a launch with great fanfare, resulting in a unique event where food and fashion went hand-in-hand. Chennai’s uber cool designer Vivek Karunakaran and Focaccia’s Chef Mauro Ferrari collaborated on this opening night. Diners indulged their senses with the spring summer menu and a fashion walk of Vivek’s correspondingly edgy collection.

Mauro Ferrari who hails from Milan was the star. With a surname like his, he was obviously on hi–octane that night. Preening like a peacock and justifiably so, he greeted us warmly. We sat down for dinner and he revved at the very start … right from his table presentation of an ‘enchanting garden’, every aspect of which was edible, though the garden itself was merely for decorative reasons. Eggplant relish, apple compote and other eye-teasing pre-dinner delicacies greeted us!

“My knowledge, experience and my one-year stint in Chennai have all been my inspiration for this new menu,“ confessed Chef Mauro Ferrari. He certainly brings a wealth of global experience to the table. Having had innings in Switzerland, France, Italy, London, Morocco, Oman and many more countries, he informs us with entrepreneurial pride that he even owned two restaurants – one in Tuscany and the other in Madrid.

Our specially curated five-course meal began with a lettuce and sprout salad with grapes, smoked ricotta cheese, dry fruit and salted almonds. It looked beyond inviting and had a delicate crunch to it.

Wine pairing is an integral part of an Italian meal. The wine was carefully selected by Chef Ferrari for his five-course extravaganza. He is also a sommelier, but one who does not imbibe wine! Zonin Chardonnay… intense and refined with fruity undertones was the wine served. It accompanied the fresh crab ravioli served with a delicate bisque prawn sauce. The crab and the ravioli combined seamlessly. All seafood lovers will be as delighted with this dish as I was. “We have our regular vendors who bring their catch to the hotel, hence the bond is very strong and is reflected in the freshness of the seafood,” said Chef Ferrari a trifle smugly. What followed was a watermelon Granita (an Italian sorbet) with a mint and rose flavour.

We were pulling Chef’s leg about his legendary surname and that he was representing the Ferrari clan. Chef Ferrari then inspired me to conduct some research on the legendary Enzo Ferrari’s culinary preferences. I was not surprised to learn that he enjoyed Italian fare. He frequented a restaurant named ‘Il Cavallino’ in Modena, where he even had a private room. One of the great Don’s favourites was ‘Tortelloni con burro e salvia.’ Must ask our own Chef Ferrari whether he shares his famous namesake’s tastes. Enzo Ferrari had inspired so many. What’s more, a good friend of mine named his son Enzo and also launched an ice cream under that brand name!

As if to jolt us out of our reverie came the red snapper presented in all its splendour with olive puree and vegetable fish soup. The conversation changed to a deadly serious tone from this moment. “This was the prize catch of the day,“ affirmed Chef Ferrari.

 The grand finale… desserts. Yum! I chose mine on Chef’s advice. A Savarin of fresh fruit, ‘a Baba’ (a rum–infused cake) which was inspired by the classic from Rome and Naples, with fresh fruit juice and fruit marinated with rose water, mint and lemon and served with meringue on top to be enjoyed  with vanilla ice cream. Far too generous even in a single helping, it can comfortably be enjoyed by two people.

This truly wonderful and lavish menu is on offer at Focaccia for the next six months. For an international, speciality restaurant, the menu is very extensive, what with sea bass, red snapper, salmon and 12 starters among a medley of other choices. But the irony is that now wine cannot be enjoyed with each carefully crafted course.

Raising a toast at dinner at a restaurant close to a designated highway is not quite the same with green tea, is it?