Chef Vicky Rose Pacheco’s sweet round face beamed mischievously as she relished a holiday memory. “I was with my whole family and we had just passed Alsace and were making our way to Mantua in Lombardy. I normally plan our out-of-town trips and I wanted us to try the restaurant of this chef I had read about—one of the best female chefs in Europe.”
That turned out to be Italian culinary legend Nadia Santini and her family-run, 3-Michelin-star-rated restaurant, Dal Pescatore, in Canneto sull’Oglio in Italy.
“As it was in the middle of Good Friday and we were passing through unfamiliar border roads, we got lost and it took us three hours to get to Mantua. All the while, we were calling them and apologizing for the delay, while they were profusely understanding about the whole thing.
“ ‘Don’t worry,’ said Nadia’s husband, the manager. ‘We will wait for you. Just come.’ ”
By the time they got to the town proper, night had fallen and there were few streetlamps around the small city. GPS and cellular signal were all but dead and the family was about to lose hope about finding the restaurant when they saw a tiny, silver-haired woman—Nadia, herself, still in her chef’s coat—standing by the roadside and frantically waving at their car. Ravenous, Pacheco and her kin sat down to a simple but jaw-dropping, memorable feast.
Their troubles were far from over, though. “Our hotel informed us we couldn’t check in anymore as they had closed by 9 p.m.,” Chef Vicky recounted. “Over dinner, we told the Santinis about our problem and Nadia’s husband said not to worry—he would make arrangements for a good and reasonably priced place.”
It turned out this “reasonably priced place” was a newly refurbished castle in Cremona and the Pachecos spent the night in spanking new digs that were far better than their original accommodations.
“We were so grateful,” she said with a chortle. “We had photos with the whole family, theirs and mine. They were just so wonderful.”
A degustation for the holidays
Experiences such as these enhance the warm exuberance and tireless professionalism that this veteran chef exudes in her own demesne—the 1771 Group of Restaurants and its flagship, Chateau 1771, which, for decades now, has been an institution of amazing food and razor-sharp service.
Indeed, Chef Vicky’s personal quest for perfection and her joie de vivre suffuse every morsel that comes out of her kitchen, and at no time is this more evident than during the Christmas season.
Chateau 1771’s latest treat is a degustation for the holidays with some festively hearty dishes to bring in the yuletide cheer. I also got to try some a la carte items thrown in.
For starters, one can never go wrong with Tomato-Cheese Fondue—Gruyere cheese fondue flavored with tomatoes and served with fluffy French bread. Great for sharing but beware—enjoyable conversations and engaging company will have you wiping this dish clean without warning.
For aesthetes who wish for a less filling but nonetheless toothsome treat, the Amuse Bouche, a butter-baked oyster with a salmon gravlax bilini, is sure to tantalize the senses.
What blew me away, however, were the Butterflied King Prawns—stuffed prawns cooked with cream, mushrooms, squash, and parmesan cheese, then topped with Emmental cheese. The moist, velvety prawns and the heady mix that was infused into these made me do a double take—these prawns taste and feel like lobster.
For a healthier seafood choice, one needn’t look further than the Shrimp Couscous Salad—the Dijon-rubbed shrimp over lettuce and warm roasted cherry tomato couscous is garnished with Mandarin oranges, making the whole mélange of flavors at once intriguing and pleasurable.
Once I had my palate all worked up, I gave it a refreshing break with a Berry Popsicle with chocolate-flavored pastry bits. You dip the popsicle into the bits just like those Crazy Dips powdered-candy-and-lollipop packets, and you get a familiar smooth, sweet and crunchy mix. The popsicle was accompanied by a dainty Thyme and Goat Cheese Cheesecake that tasted so clean that I almost felt sanctified.
Of course, I wasn’t to remain holy for long as the Bacon-Wrapped Fillet Mignon and Seared Scallop over Grilled Ratatouille and Saffron Risotto brought the wickedness out. The juicy fillet mignon and oh-so-bad-‘cause-it’s-so-good bacon lay on the ratatouille and was a joy to tear into. The scallop’s smoky aroma and taste just went so well with the meat that it was hard to imagine them apart.
The Pièce De Résistance, the Potence, stole the show. Grilled beef tenderloin hung on a metal gallow, flambéed with brandy with three sauces: mushroom, Café de Paris Butter and garlic. The tenderloin was carnivore candy, but the sauces were the real secret—each one changed the character of the steak and sent it in different directions. And combining the sauces brought out even more gastronomic highlights.
The only way such a meal could end was with a double team of chocolate. The Valrhona Chocolate Ganache Tart, a bittersweet chocolate tart with caramel sauce, came first with fudgy goodness and that deliciously acrid bite that comes out of almost pure cacao. But everyone agreed that the restaurant’s go-to dessert is the Triple Chocolate Mousse—smooth and exquisite, dark and white Valrhona chocolate as soft and silky as ice cream.
Not a bad way to spend Christmas, huh?
Cecile Mauricio, Chateau 1771’s intrepid and enterprising house sommelier, believes that choosing wine isn’t simply using a few staid rules of what flavor goes with what grape varietal. “Wine pairings are about people,” she explains. “It’s all about figuring out personalities and how far people are willing to go for a truly memorable food and wine pairing.” With that, she takes us on an exciting and exploratory foray into some of her more fascinating and unique wines.
Here are her expert choices for our meal:
Gabriel Meffre Laurus Viognier 2013 – This buoyantly fragrant white goes divinely with the tomato and cheese fondue, and I suspect a lot of other cheeses as well. It will make you expect to drink something sweet and then tantalize you once its crispness tickles your tongue.
Ramón Bilbao Edición Limitada Crianza 2013 – Reds with seafood and chocolate? It seems counterintuitive, but this Crianza is no ordinary Rioja tempranillo—Ramón Bilbao Winery makes them in limited runs and there’s a serial number on the label to confirm it. Of course, it goes smashingly well with meat too.
Valdivieso Single Vineyard Cabernet Franc 2009 – Chilean reds are known to be robust and in-your-face festive, but this one also has hints of herbs like thyme and sage. Great for your steaks and ribs, especially the properly aged ones you don’t want the kids to gobble up, hidden in your freezer for a rainy day.
Wente Vineyards 2013 Riverbank Riesling – This Monterey, California, white has all the subtlety of a ninja and goes down as smoothly as a Vegas cardsharp. Not at all brisk and bracing like the Rieslings I’m used to, this one is closer to the delicacy of a French Chardonnay.