17th March 2015, Tuesday: Sardinian Food Festival Preview at Alba, JW Marriott, Lavelle Road.
Last Saturday, a few food bloggers were invited to Alba, one of Bengaluru’s finest Italian restaurants that offers an exquisite selection signature dishes from Italy’s own Chef Antonello Cancedda. JW Marriott has mastered ambiance with serene, spacious and elegant interiors.
As you get to L1 and step out of the elevator, a bold sign points you to Alba. The first section is a casual bar around the balcony that overlooks JW Kitchen below. The low lights, comfortable seating, classic Italian atmosphere, music, drinks and bread will immediately persuade you let go of all troubles and unwind over a conversation. Further down this lobby is a huge amphitheatre-style dining area with a show kitchen in the middle displaying the fresh produce, a selection of the finest Prosecco, cheese, bread, equipment and more. Bathed in biege, grey and white undertones, There is also an outdoor seating section for those who would like to dine under the night sky studded with stars. For those who like a more private setting, Alba’s retro-style booth is the perfect luxury dine space to set the mood. Of course, the area under the roof have crystals to reflect the lights to make up for the missing sky. Alba’s decor is simple yet sophisticated, minimalistic yet exquisite. It is the impeccable example of the Italian culinary motto ‘less is more’.
It was no ordinary dinner, but a preview to Alba’s Sardinian Festival that will continue until the month ends. Sardinia is an autonomous island near Italy, popular for tourism, indigenous produce and an Italian dialect that is incomprehensible to any non-native.
Chef Antonello has a long lineage that traces back to Sardinia. In his introduction, he mentioned the health benefits of a Sardinian diet – longevity. This could be a result of sustainable lifestyle and fresh organic ingredients used in cooking on the island. It was quite interesting to know that most of the world’s oldest people are Sardinians (past 100 years). The islanders often express in their native dialect in a way of blessing each other, “A Chent’Annos” (May you live to be 100).
Sardinian flavors diverge from basic Italian as it bears influences from multiple cuisines including Phoenician, Carthaginian, Roman, Arab, Moor, Spanish and more. The Mediterranean island is home to a hybrid culture as a result of power play that has occurred over 2,500 years until it was declared a part of Italy in 1861. Naturally, islanders who have seen war for over two millenniums would prefer not to venture too far into the sea for food in order to avoid capture by yet another conqueror on a crusade. Sardinians depended on shellfish gathered from the coastlines, cattle meat, grains and fresh vegetables for their daily meals.
Pane carasau or Sardinian music bread is one of the signature dishes from the land. A thin, twice-baked flatbread often made out of semolina, this bread resembles ancient parchment that was used to write the island’s sacred music. We began with a special bread platter, that included Pane Carasau and a type of Rye bread with Basil Pesto and Sun Dried Pesto in Olive Oil. The Music Bread were absolute crackers right opposite to the soft texture of the rye bread. What did make this platter sing were the pesto dips. The minute I tasted the sun dried pesto, there was this feeling of comfort and warmth that came over me. It had me going for fourth, fifth, sixth, and shamelessly ask for another platter.
The antipasti was Millefoglie di Carasau con Spuma di Asparagi, Fave e Patatine, layers of music bread with asparagus, fava beans and thin sliced potatoes. A rather beautiful and light starter, it looks like potato-chip sandwich, but is actually flat bread layered with baked asparagus and peas purée, topped with a roasted thin-sliced potato. These bite-sized treats are fresh, healthy and appetizing. The semolina flatbread is healthy and in combination with asparagus & peas it packs in a lot of nutrition and little fat in a single bite.
Zuppa is a mandatory part of any Sardinian meal whether it is with clams or vegetables. Since we had many vegetarians in the group, we were treated to Zuppa Di Carciofi E Patate, which is artichoke and potato soup flavored with Italian parsley. A simple and humble dish, it was just spoonfuls of broth packed with thick flavors effusing from fresh potatoes and artichokes. The mildness of parsley shone through the dominating flavors soothing my senses, filling me up with its distinctive aromatic tones.
I’m glad we had a taste of Lasagne Di Pane Carasau Di Zucchini, which was a Sardinian flat bread lasagna with zucchini. I have hardly had good plates of lasagna in past few years. This has by far been one of the best. Flat bread in a lasagna is a very new and alluring perspective as it makes the meal lighter with the cheese that was bursting with flavors. All this added to the zucchini and a very light sauce again rang of “Less is More.” It just makes me want to eat more, which rarely ever happens with lasagna.
Culurgiones or potato ravioli in marzano tomato sauce was another main course we tried. It was heavier compared to the lasagna and the sauce was quite acidic. The ravioli could have done with some flavor and less packing to make it lighter on the palate. It was quite hard for me to finish just one of them as the starchy feeling didn’t balance well with the acidity.
For dessert, we had Blanchittos, which was a light as air almond meringue that rang of almonds and crunched like music when I ate it. It was just the perfect end to the meal. I know sometimes it feels like its not dessert if it is not chocolate or gooey, but trust me when I say, that meringue was enough for the night. However, we also had the gooey end with Formaggelle (Pardulas), otherwise known as saffron and orange little pie that was so soft, so light, well-balanced and melt-in-your-mouth perfect.
To keep me company through my meal, I had my regular Red Wine Sangria to my left. It was quite pleasant.
Most restaurants we have been to, the chef introduces himself and the meal either before we begin or after the meal. His appearance lasts for about five minutes and then we all go back to our normal lives. Our Sardinian chef does not belong to this category. After his little conversation with us about the theme, the food, his hometown, the anecdote about going to the city market to buy produce, and wishing us a happy dinner, he went around every table to introduce himself and make every guest feel comfortable.
A few moments into our meal, we heard a harmonious verse of Churaliya Hai Tumne Jo Dil Ko and turned around to find the chef holding his guitar and singing to the guests at a table at the high end of the room. He walked his way down to every table singing a song of request including Pani Da Rang and a few popular Bollywood numbers. As he approached us, the charming man rang a chorus of La Bamba in Mexican and English.
We saw him manage his kitchen, instructing the staff about orders and tables, while making time for his guests. I have never been in awe of any man who was so gracious to bid farewell to each guest in person as he managed his own duties. It was quite thrilling to watch him flash his smile enthusiastically as he joined us for a round of selfies. His charismatic personality, sense of humor, easy-go-nature and of course, the food, made the evening all the more special.
Wolfgang Puck once said, “A good chef has to be a manager, a businessman and a great cook. To marry all the three together is sometimes difficult.”
He was right, for it is quite rare to come across great chefs like Alba’s own Antonello Cancedda who do it all in and out of the kitchen.
Thank you for having us JW Marriott, Alba and Chef Antonello Cancedda.