The day: 25th March 2007, Lunch.
The place: Via Caffaro 1, Sarche, Trento (IT) (tel +39 0461 864036)
The venue: Ristorante Castel Toblino
The food: Fine Italian Dining, with strong regional influence
The drinks: Reasonable list, regional and other choices, also several half-bottles.
This restaurant is in the ‘Lake valley’ (Valle dei Laghi), occupying a splendid 13th century castle on lake Toblino, and in front of beautiful vineyards where the wine of the same name (of which we had tried excellent samples previously) is made. An enviable setting, raising the usual question for this type of establishment: are we paying for the location or for the cuisine? We had passed in front of it too many times, driving along the winding road in the pleasant valley, or contemplating the lakes from high above, not to try and answer this question…
As we said, it’s impressive on arrival:
On the list three set menus….and an a la carte, with starters at €15, primi at €14, and mains at €22.
Bread is made on the premises:
Good with a good assortment.
We are welcomed by a glass of Brut Conti D’Arco, and by this:
A rabbit roll with walnuts on a puree of celeriac. Finished with some extravirgin olive oil. Remarkable start, the cream light and delicate, the flavours clear and balanced…but Woman looks unhappy…ouch…what is this? A small piece of rabbit bone. Not good. We reported to the waiter and no response ever came from the kitchen.
We began with the ‘carne salada’ (a typical local cured beef) from the menu.
It came with cooked apple slices and dabs of grana cream and balsamic vinegar. Colourful and visually appealing. The apples, beside providing colour, also conferred richness to the consistency. The beef itself was succulent and flavoursome. The grana cream exhibited an immediate pleasant acidic note on the palate which matched (in theory, see below) the other flavours (especially the sweet apples) very well. Overall, we liked the dish although it lacked some clarity and decisiveness: for example, the small grana cream dollops were almost insubstantial, without a strong impact. The balsamic vinegar ‘points’ were rather pointless. We think the presence of balsamic vinegar must be justified by its absolute need in a dish, or by its absolute excellence making it a protagonist. In this case, neither of these two absolutes applied, in our opinion. Hence, we and the dish would have been happier without. Also, in one apple a piece of the hard core had been left. We would have been happier without this, too.
These two dishes came very quickly after ordering, making us almost breathless. Then, a long, long pause ensued. What was happening in the kitchen? Clearly, chaos. Read on.
For primi, we were supposed to have Canederlotti with Puzzone di Moena cheese, Savoy cabbage and black truffles from the set menu, and Duck tortelli from the a la carte (€14). Instead, after the long pause, two dishes of Tortelli arrived!
So, another pause ensued…
…until the proper item was prepared. The other one was not changed, so we ate in a staggered way. This was a rather low point of the experience.
Tortelli were good, although Woman found the pasta too ‘al dente’. A very rich cream, tending to the heavy side but overall satisfying in an ‘unsubtle’ sort of way.
The canederlotti were a nice execution of a regional classic. The flavour of the cheese was very clear and intense, as was that of the dried Savoy cabbage (identical to one we had in Malga Panna. Come on you two boys: who copied? ), with a nice overall balance (sweetness coming from the canederlotti themselves, acidity from the cheese). The truffles were overwhelmed. Very pleasant to the palate, but once again a slightly confused dish. The taste of the canederlotti and the quality of the cheese were not superior to those we can have at half the price at I due camini.
For mains, Confit of rabbit with corn cake came from the set menu, while the a la carte choice was Fassona beef with asparagus at €22:
Fassona is a cow breed which is very fashionable these days, omnipresent in the menus of fine dining establishments all over Italy, and we have seen it in the UK too. How many Fassona cows are there in Piedmont, we begin to wonder? Is a rebellious Fassona army the next great threat to the world?
The beef was rather good and cooked well. Surely we would have preferred a ‘chunkier’ cut to really feel the beef. The root and other vegetables on top were simple, nice and unobtrusive, letting the beef speak for itself. And the usual fru-fru dollops here and there…
With the rabbit, we hit another highlight. The yellow object resembling polenta is not polenta, but an ‘eggy’ corn-cake. Delicious in itself and a very good and original partner for the rabbit, too.
The portions, as you saw, were generous throughout.
For desserts, our ‘free’ choice was Kaiserschmarn (€10) while the set menu dictated Vin Santo parfait.
Before that, a complimentary pre-dessert appears:
A gin-and-tonic lemon sorbet. Quite decent, useful to refresh and clean the palate though nothing to write home about.
And here are the desserts:
These desserts were truly discomforting. The Kaiserschmarn was a dry and bland interpretation of what is supposed to be a rich and satisfying messy omelette generally served with a berry compote. Not this compact stodgy waste of calories.
The forced choice was no better than the free one. In the parfait, Vin Santo could have been any other alcohol, the character undetectable. The whipped cream accompaniment felt cheap. Another waste of calories.
With a bottle of water at €3, a Pinot nero Gottardi at €24, and a coffee for Man at €2, the hit was €121.
In the end, entering this castle was a bit like entering an amusement park: the experience was a bit of a roller-coaster, with dramatic peaks and troughs. Unfortunately it ended on a trough. There is a sense in which a restaurant like this could be a victim of its own location: in a castle, you don’t have much choice of the type of environment you offer.
The front room staff, clearly well instructed by the management, are very able in overcoming the risk of an excessively stiff atmosphere. They were warm and smiling and friendly, generating a sense of relax in the large room (praise in particular for our ‘own’ waiter/manager Dante, who, we discovered has had extensive experience in the UK and like us is new to Trento). He wants to become famous, and certainly with this blog he has chosen the perfect medium to do this…so here he is:But the cuisine (Chef Stefano Bertoni) has a lot of progress to make, in our opinion, before raising to the standard this setting deserves, and also to the standard set by the competitors in the city.
The excellence and visual beauty of a couple of dishes shows that, despite the disappointments, this progress is not impossible. However, apart from the problems with the dishes themselves (especially the desserts), a lot of effort put in tightening up the overall workings of the kitchen would not be misplaced. The bones in the rabbit were a mark of sloppiness; so were the bits of apple core; and most of all, the mistake in serving a pre-set sequence betrays lack of concentration and of basic kitchen organisation – note that there were no more than 15 covers to serve. And the lack of any communication following these mistakes is an unpleasant symptom of a bad attitude to the ‘common’ customer.
After the meal, we roamed around upstairs where we discovered acres of space, another beautiful dining room:
If we have the chance, we’ll be back in one year time to check if any progress has been made. At the moment, we see no reason to choose this restaurant over any of the Michelin starred rivals we have sampled in Trentino, or even of others.
Maybe more a place for corporate functions (provided they don’t mess up the kitchen service as they did with us!) and for special occasions than for sheer dining pleasure.