Thursday, June 9, 2016

Ristorante Il Centro: Priocca D'Alba's (Piemonte) contribution to culinary excellence

In the week or so that I recently spent in Piemonte, no higher praise did I hear, nor better dining experience had I, than for/at Ristorante Il Centro, the establishment owned by the Cordero family and located almost in the shadow of Chiese parrocchiale di San Rocco e Sant'Elisabetta in Priocca d'Alba.

Ristorante Il Centro (Used with permission)
Chiese parrocchiale di San Rocco e Sant'Elisabetta
I first encountered this restaurant at the Labor of Love (the Suzanne Hoffman book on Piemontese wine families) pre-launch dinner and was impressed by: the wine cellar (both its esthetics and content): the sommelier Giampiero Cordero (knowledge, charm, kindness, and engaging character): the food (pleasing in both appearance and taste; innovative); the ease with which a large party was handled; and the overarching sense of humbleness which emanated from all of the family members that I met.

As I went around Piemonte visiting wineries and other restaurants, the question invariably asked was "Where have you eaten while in Piemonte?" When I mentioned Il Centro, the feedback was universally positive. Luca Cigluiti of La Spinetta and Contratto said that it is the only restaurant in the region where he feels he could eat every day. The food, he said, was tasty and did not leave you feeling heavy upon completion. With all of the goodwill directed at the restaurant, we decided to pay a return visit and did so for its Sunday Brunch.

Before discussion of our brunch experience, some background is in order. A noted eatery had existed at the current location for 100 years before it came into the Cordero family by acquisition in 1956. Pierin Cordero and his wife Rita, abetted by the culinary skills of Pierin's mother Lidia, began to firmly imprint the Cordero name on this establishment. When Pierin died in 1970, Rita took the reins and continued to build on the gastronomic traditions established by Lidia. When Pierin died, Enrico was 18 years old and he left school at that time to take over management of the enterprise. Elis dropped into the restaurant seeking employment and one year later was running the kitchen. And today her culinary skills are widely lauded. Their children are involved in the family business with Giampiero having primary responsibility for cellar development and wine service while his sister, who is a journalist in New York City, is responsible for marketing and some financial aspects of the business.

Giampiero, his mom Elis (also the Chef), and his dad Enrico
with Suzanne Hoffman at the Labor of Love pre-launch dinner
The restaurant's philosophy is that tradition and innovation are not necessarily countervailing forces and that careful attention to both will continue to yield success. And the the success of the application of that philosophy is reflected in the wide acclaim that the cuisine has garnered. The restaurant also receives kudos for the cellar and its contents. The cellar has a table in its outer chamber where tastings or small dinners can be held and an inner chamber where more than 600 labels of regional and international wines are kept.

So back to the brunch. We chose to eat the 5-course tasting menu which drew three selections from the appetizers and one each from the first- and second-plate sections of the menu. The first two dishes ordered were Acacia Flower and Salumi (the salumi had a lighter color due to no chemicals being used in its preparation) preparation and Sweet and Sour Pepper and Anchovies. The acacia flower had been dipped in flour batter and then lightly fried and had a crunchy texture along with hints of sweetness and some salt. The pepper had been cured in-house from September of last year using sugar, olive oil, and vinegar,  a combination which provided an explosion of contrasting flavors in the mouth.

Acacia Flower and Salumi
Sweet and Sour Pepper and Anchovies
The first wine ordered was the Contratto For England Rosé 2010, a sparkling wine from the Alta Langa Metodo Classico DOCG. A clean, unyielding nose with a subdued mousse, strawberry flavor, and a bitter finish. Bitter rose water with limited persistence.

The second course ordered was a Veal Cooked Under Salt and Prawns with Asparagus. I had had the veal on my previous visit and it was still excellent. The saltiness calls out for an ameliorating liquid.The Prawns had been lightly fried in a lemon, ginger, and olive oil emulsion and was giving, with a dark brown color. Very pleasing. The asparagus had a piney flavor and a crunchy texture.

Veal Cooked under Salt
Prawns with Asparagus
A Smoked Sturgeon and Roasted Quail Salad followed. The sturgeon was the least favorite of my dishes as the earthiness and the texture did not work well together for me. It may also have been overdone. The Quail, on the other hand, was pleasing to both the eye and the palate. The little drumsticks just begged to be handled; and when they were, they rewarded with salt and smokiness, great texture, and perfect temperature. The breast chunks were well marinated and did not suffer from lack of proximity to a bone (How far away from a bone can you be if you are quail meat?). This latter dish was accompanied by home-made peppers and pearled onions.

Smoked Sturgeon
Roasted Quail Salad
I was pleased to see a 2011 GD Vajra Riesling on the Il Centro list. After consultation with Giampiero, I ordered a bottle. It reinforced my convictions regarding this wine. It had a light golden color, hinting at the development it had undergone. On the nose, initially, petrol, golden apple, white pepper, and a soapiness. On the palate pineapple (underripe), intense acidity, minerality, and tamarind. A long, drying finish which evolved into an intense chalkiness with a metallic undertone. After a while in the glass, the wine transitioned to lemon-lime dominance both on the nose and palate but still distinct petrol. Additional time in the glass brought grapefruit into the equation and a growing black pepper and Indian spice presence. Minerality still present. Wine more focused and weightier on the palate. Giampiero mentioned that, three or four years ago, there were only three or four Riesling producers in the region, with Vajra the leader. With the success of the pioneers, there are now over 20 Riesling producers in the region but Il Centro will only carry three; one of which is Vajra.

The Ravioli Stuffed with Pork Ribs and Sweetbreads and the Gluten-Free Pasta in Tomato Sauce were excellent dishes both. The Ravioli was another of the dishes I had tried previously and was excited to revisit.

Ravioli Stuffed with Pork Ribs and Sweetbreads
Gluten-Free Pasta
The final dishes were a Breaded Veal Steak with Salad and a Roasted Cod with Crispy Vegetable Thins. The veal was excellent with the soft inner core contrasting admirably with the textured, seasoned breading. The codfish was wonderful, a savory explosion of tomatoes and herbs. This dish was paired with a 2009 Marzino Abbona Terlo Ravera.

Breaded Veal Steak with Salad
Roasted Cod with Crispy Vegetable Thins

The dishes served were excellent but I would be doing the restaurant a disservice if I did not mention the service. Giampiero was an excellent Wine Steward, being there exactly when needed (whether for conversation or for wine orders) and his scope of knowledge (in terms of the wines and winemakers) is immense. He likes to think of the people who make the wine when he is drinking it as his enjoyment is increased if he knows its story.

The wait staff was well-trained and quietly efficient. You got the sense of them hovering just off set and rushing in at the slightest indication of need. Enrico was a presence, pitching in in a silent yet familiar manner. He knows everyone sitting around you, knows their life stories. His conversations with the guests are substantial.

In Piemonte? Visit this place. You have been before? Go again.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

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