Il Clandestino (June 25, part 3)
(June 25, part 3)
What sat before me was a narrow porcelain trough with four or five cubes of pale white raw fish. Each morsel had the smallest bit of brownish purple confiture on it and there was a zigzag drizzle of white stuff down the plate. “Baccala with with onion jam, bread soup and mayonnaise of fish juice” was the rough translation. After a few nibbles and anotherinterrogation of our linen clad waitress, I feel qualified to re-translate: this was cod sashimi cured lightly (about an hour) with sugar and sea salt.
I transported a morsel to my mouth by means of a fork with tiny tines and a skinny extremely long handle that resembled a chopstick. The onion confiture was sweet, tart and subtle. The mayo…I’ll get back to the mayo.
The codfish was cold on my tongue. Little flakes of fleur de sel and sugar crystals clung to the bottom. Fresh salted cod (or a “deconstructed” baccala of sorts). There was just a smear of bread soup on the plate (dryer than gazpacho, wetter and finer than panzanella, I had tasted a crude version days before in Florence). The mayo was made by heating the liquid that exuded from the fish during its brief curing. This juice includes proteins that once warmed slightly acted as an emulsifier; when whipped with olive oil it produced a creamy white sauce: mayonnaise. This was just the first dish.
The plate was cleared. I considered the long shadows and the rising tide. The string of colored lights on the shack were just beginning to glow. I considered the tiny bubbles in our wine. It was a sparkling wine from Le Marche. The maker was Gaspare Buscemi: 1987. It aged longer in barrel than most sparklers before its bottling and second fermentation. The extra time in the barrel added a complexity to the sparkler that the young whites I’ve drunk of late do not offer–a quality reminiscent of an old nutty sherry or rice wine but lighter.
The next dish had me slapping the table. Swordfish sashimi in the center of a squarish bowl. Slices of swordfish warmed to precisely 30°C (slightly below body temp). It was topped with a marinara and drizzled with olive oil. Then (be still my heart) topped with caper gelato. No, really. Caper gelato! I’ve never tasted such a thing. I can not tell you how happy this dish made me. If only you could experience the cold sour saltiness marrying with the just slightly warm swordfish and the tomato. Oh gentle reader, if the chef had not been entertaining a table of 15 (including his family), I would have been jumping him on a dark corner of the beach. Caper gelato. 30°C. Somehow Kate and I regained our composure and the busboy sensed it was safe to clear our plates.
Almost on cue a warm breeze kicked up from the south and the pine branches above us bathed us in balsam perfume. And just when it was getting to be too much, the wind shifted and it was the cool scent of the Adriatico.
And so it went through out the night between the two Italian winds blowing cool and warm, seaweed and resin.
“This is Turgid Sea Scallops” said our white linen angel, “They are cooked to 40°.” “That’s just a bit warmer than body temp,” Kate explained. Three scallops and a slice of Jerusalem artichoke nestled in a pool of “lentil soup.” Each scallop was topped with just a bit of Serrano ham. The lentil puree was smooth and suave. The almost raw, still translucent scallops were warm on my tongue. So divinely turgid.
Our chef was a disciple of a certain Spanish kitchen science guru and superstar– we all know his name.
So much of what he-who-shall-not-be-named has done was been imitated in poorly–reduced to gimmickry. But our guy designed his dishes and menus with an unexpected light hand. Nothing super flashy, not a spuma in sight. Just some witty, nerdy scientific approaches to a poetical end.
It was really dark now and I was beginning to feel the dampness of my bikini. I excused myself and slipped it off in the bathroom. Then down at the water I photographed the moon over Il Clandestino. I stood with my feet in the Adriatico.
The next course looked innocent enough. A rectangular block of fruitti di mare risotto on top of three layers of cuttlefish. A different waitress has delivered this course she describes the dish in detail completely in Italian. There are hand gestures and pointing to various layers. When she leaves I look at Kate with anticipation. “It was too complicated. I didn’t get it all. Let’s just try it.”
There is a crispy paper-thin rice cracker then the risotto then between the two layers of cuttlefish is another layer that comes apart like a fresh warm porous cheese–the texture of burrata. “It’s not cheese, it’s cuttlefish,” I say. We wave to a male linen clad angel who explains in English for us. He breaks the rice grains before he makes the risotto. Then he takes a slurry of the same risotto and bakes it at 100° for 1 hour to produce the rice cracker. Each layer of sepia is cooked at a different temperature: 50°, 70°, and 90°. The middle layer is cooked at 70° for something like a billion hours until it transubstantiated into its mysterious present state.My mouth is sad when the plate is empty but my brain still calculated the beauty of the numbers. 30°, 40°, 50°, 70°, 90°, 100°…what was next?
I stopped and gazed at the universe beyond our plates. The stars were out. The rocks tumbled back and forth in the surf. There was a woman in a beautiful stark-white silk Prada dress. She had negotiated the pebbles in strappy stilettos. My cheap little sundress was still wet though my bathing suit was in my bag. My flip flops had abandoned my feet. The pine tree above us swayed again in the breeze and released its scent. And we both giggled and sighed at the same time.
“This is his version of Caesar Salad.” There was a a mess of greens in the center of the plate. And cubes of seared tuna around it. “He puts fonduta of Parmesan, and, how do you call it, the yellow of the egg boiled hard ”
“The yolk,” I offer. “We take the yellow and make it fine.” Ah we call that mimosa, like the flower from the tree, I think but do not say out loud. “He takes smoked fish broth then he makes it with…ah…it is soft but hard and clear, it shakes” Kate and I look at each other; it is the riddle of the sphinx. Then Kate says slowly, “gelatin?” “Yes, yes, instead of bacon he puts the smoked fish gelatin.” She is charming with her long curly blond hair blowing in the cool breeze but now she is confusing me and I want her to leave so I can try this very odd thing she has described. As soon as she leaves Kate and I ask the same thing: does Caesar salad have bacon? Who cares. You’ll be relieved to know that this is our last savory course. And it was worth the wait. It was an example of everything that was right with his cooking. The salad leaves were dressed perfectly just enough fonduta clung to the leaves and the ancillary elements were diced in quarter inch and half inch cubes (just small enough to cling to the lettuce). I speared a single tiny die of celery with the tine of my fork and held it to Kate.
“How wonderfully thoughtful of him,” I say. These small details make all the difference. The smoked fish gelatin in question turns out to be tiny cubes of bonito aspic. They are a lovely element releasing an almost smoky flavor as the fish broth melts on ones tongue. There was a mysterious marmalade of grated ginger and balsamic vinegar. A bite more of tuna, a bite more of salad. Then it was all gone.
The two young pudgy sisters had been amusing themselves all evening, still in their bathing suits. They must have been attached to the chef somehow. Now they pulled a lounge chair to the cusp of restaurant and beach and piled in under a beach towel head to foot. The elder of the two giving instruction the entire time. “Just like my sister and me at that age.” Kate said. It is getting late.
Dessert was a semifreddo of white chocolate in Baileys sauce with a toasted sesame creme and hint of wasabi. The wasabi was once again (like in the apertivo) not pungent but added a complex aroma. So perfect. I wanted it to last for ever.
I wanted it to last forever and ever: Sitting at that tall, makeshift table on the pebbles under the pine tree, under the stars, amidst the two winds with Katie at Il Clandestino on the Adriatico.