Enzo Fargione, the typically self-effacing chef at Teatro Goldoni, makes no attempt to hide his ambition with his revamped chef’s table at the K Street institution. He says, plain and simple, that he wants to “create one of the best culinary experiences in the area.”
Perhaps you think Fargione’s timing is off, that now is not the time to offer diners 14 to 18 courses of exquisitely pampered plates for $125 per person? I would argue just the opposite: If you’re not going to eat out much, this is exactly the kind of meal you should seek out when you do. It makes more sense than dropping a Benjamin (or more) for a dinner for two featuring yet another fillet of sea bass on wilted greens, drizzled with some second-rate olive oil.
For your cash at Teatro, you will sit at the best table in the house: the curving banquette with a view of Fargione’s spotless, eerily quiet kitchen. Your table will be covered with a tablecloth imported from France. Your food will be served on Bernardaud porcelain china. Your wine will be poured into Turgla stemware. Your dinner will be personally planned, prepared, and painstakingly explained by Fargione himself.
Fargione hails from Turin in northern Italy, which has influenced his palate from the moment he started taking solid food. But the chef also has a restless spirit; he shies away from calling himself a molecular gastronomist, even though he employs foams and gelatins and even transforms olive oil into a mousse. Instead, Fargione likes to say that he takes a “modern approach” to traditional Italian cuisine, employing new techniques while respecting old flavors.
However he wants to describe his cooking, Fargione never “makes the same menu twice” at his chef’s table. It a point of pride for him. “I have a passion to change it from one day to another,” he says.
After the jump, you can get a glimpse of that passion. You can see the courses I sampled at Fargione’s revamped chef’s table.
Bread basket: Piedmont-style grissini rubata, Tuscan focaccia, white bread with mashed garlic and rosemary, black olive loaf, and toasted walnut and raisin bread. Aside from the sublimely crunchy grissini, the bread basket strikes me as the weakest link of the meal; the toasted walnut and raisin bread was dry, while the white bread could have used more flavor.
Course 1: Spinach foam with Manila clams, candied cherry tomato, and caper berry. This dazzling amuse came with a little pipette of clam broth, which you squeeze onto the bite right before eating.
Course 2: Marinated wild Coho salmon with smoked spinach, crispy fennel, Sicilian green olives, pink grapefruit, and licorice froth. The licorice froth sounds like one ingredient too many, but it’s not. It adds this light, sweet note on top of a fresh, smoky, sour, and salty bite.
Course 3: Chilled honeydew shooter with sour cream, thyme, spicy pepper gelatin, and roasted Gulf shrimp. The narrow shooter glass prevented me from experiencing this course as Fargione intended. I found it hard to scoop out all the complementary flavors in one swift spoonful. As such, I ate this shooter too much in a piecemeal fashion.
Course 4: Deconstructed buffalo mozzarella with balsamic gelatin strip, cherry tomatoes, and basil gelatin. This modern, almost Cubist take on Caprese salad was as flavorful as it was gorgeous.
Course 5: Cornets of tempura-style zucchini blossoms filled with fava-bean mousse. This delicate, savory ice cream cone was fun to eat, but I found the fava-bean mousse too dominating.
Course 6: Pedestal of roasted veal sweetbreads with fennel pollen, chestnut honey, and red wine-infused Maldon salt. These little works of art, literally presented on their own pedestals, boasted a crunchy exterior, which quickly gave way to a soft, savory interior, accented with chestnut honey. My only quibble: The dusting of fennel pollen was a little too heavy for my tastes.
Course 7: Snifter of duck-egg zabaglione with fonduta, crispy speck, white truffles, and oven dried mushrooms. Rich, earthy, and so delicious I wanted to eat three more of them.
Course 8: Glass vase of roasted artichoke puree, cornflake-like artichoke hearts, and black olive froth. The olive froth adds color, texture, and a sharp, salty edge to this vase of warm artichoke soup.
Course 9: Spoon of poached quail egg, Milanese-style chanterelle mushrooms, port-wine glaze, winter black truffle, crispy pancetta, and chives. This bite goes down way, way too fast; its rich delights vanish almost before you can savor them.
Course 10: Milk chocolate-coated virgin olive oil mousse lollipop with focaccia bread crumbs, and gold leaf accents. This sweet-and-savory lollipop is inspired by the salty chocolate that Fargione used to eat as a child. The gold leaf may be superfluous, but the crunchy bite combines two seemingly combative flavors, the milk chocolate and olive oil, in ways that must be tried to be believed.
Course 11: Shellfish fritto misto in an eggshell with Saba, candied celery, and spicy peperoncino powder. The candied celery provides a surprisingly sweet and complementary flavor to this first of several main-course dishes.
Course 12:Goose-liver-and-Cremona–mostarda torchon with merlot wine caramel, salty hazelnut texture, crispy brioche, balsamic gelato, and hazelnut tuile. The main components of this dish don’t necessarily make sense until you combine them into one forkful, then wham! Crunch, salt, richness, life’s sweet pageant…all in one bite.
Course 13: Butternut squash soup with spinach raviolini, duck sausage, roasted pancetta, winter black truffles, and Reggiano foam. Despite the wealth of garnishes and surprises at the bottom of the bowl, it’s the sausage that makes this dish, adding a deep meatiness to soup that too often relies on sweetness to score points.
Course 14: Cavatelli with roasted garlic cream, smoked roasted lobster, porcini, peas, thyme, and white truffles. At this point in the meal, my appetite was showing signs of serious fatigue, which Fargione seemed to understand intuitively. This pasta course was not exactly light, with its roasted garlic cream and cavatelli made with ricotta, but it ate light. I was astonished at how much of it I ate.
Course 15: Traditional white truffle risotto with Barolo “surprise.” You’d think that following one starch with another would be too heavy by half, but Fargione managed to pull it off with this small bowl of white-truffle risotto surrounded by a luxuriant sauce of reduced Barolo wine and veal stock. Two weeks after the meal, I can still taste the muskiness of the white truffle as it added one more element of earth to these superior grapes and grains.
Course 16: Baked turbot with acqua pazza, arucola pesto broth, and baby vegetables. “Acqua pazza” translates into “crazy water” in English, which of course means the dish has a colorful history in Italian cuisine, even if many cooks take the term too literally and throw any old leftovers into the sauce. Fargione’s version was freshness personified, from his meltingly soft turbot to the bright pesto sauce and veggies that accompanied it.
Course 17: Glass vase of six-hour braised veal cheek in port wine with crunchy corn, pancetta and mascarpone sauce, and huckleberry froth. OK, the wine had taken control by this point. (Incidentally, the wine pairings are $45 for four or $59 for seven.) I forgot to take a picture until I was almost finished, which may tell you something about the quality of the dish. I was stuffed but couldn’t stop eating this rich braised veal complemented with elements of crunch and sweetness.
Course 18: Tea light deconstructed roasted sour apples with cinnamon fumes. Fargione had painstakingly prepared this showstopper of a dessert, with its cloud of cinnamon fumes, but we never got to try it. The Teatro refrigerator had frozen the poor thing.
Course 19: Hazelnut coffee zuccotino with gianduia sauce, warm Prosecco orange cider, lemon mascarpone cheese sorbet, and dry chocolate texture. The dessert requires some deft utensil maneuvering, a skill that you may not possess at this point, but once you secure all the ingredients on one fork, you have a most satisfying balance of textures, temperatures, and flavors.
Course 20: Frivolezze is Italian for “frivolity,” but this sweet frivolezze seems anything but. A plate of pinenut cookies with powdered sugar, truffles with caramel and almonds, cranberry and orange squares, and pistachio biscotti. I wish I could have eaten more of them. Really.