The day: 29th February 2008, Dinner.
The place: Maso Franch 2, 38030 Giovo (Trento), tel: +390461242556
The venue: Ristorante Maso Franch
Closest airports: Verona (British Airways)
The food: Modern/eclectic fine regional dining
The drinks: Good list, strong on local offerings
ADDED FEBRUARY 2010: Chef Baumgartner has now been sacked by the owners of Maso Franch.
Lavis is a rather unmemorable village 10KM out of Trento, but gastronomically it occupies a strategic position: near many vineyards along a ‘strada del vino’ (wine route), near Zambana of asparagus fame, and, driving just a few minutes along beautiful Val di Cembra (which begins at Lavis), you reach one of the top Trentino restaurants, Maso Franch. This is an old and history-rich ‘maso’ (a farm building), which from its origin in the early 19th century went through several incarnations and renovations, the latest of which operated by the new proprietors, the winemakers Cantina La Vis. In 2006 Maso Franch opened as a relais and high-end restaurant. The operation is run by the Baumgarter family, originally from the neighbouring Alto Adige, with chef Markus leading the kitchen and the rest of the family taking care of hospitality.
We first quickly peered into this elegant structure from outside after one of our monstrous mountain walks, still in mountain gear and showing obvious signs of out recent contact with nature. While a horrified member of staff observed us from inside fearful of our trespassing… we inspected the menu and were very enticed. Yes, we needed to go back.
So here we are, now (just) properly attired, inside the dining room, which is decorated in a modern style with stark lines (compared to more rustic settings such as, say Malga Panna or El Molin), but still with enough wood to be quite warm. Man qualifies it as Scandinavian while Woman is reminded of the 70’s style of Locanda Locatelli in London. Take your pick.
On the menu (written in precise Italian and German and approximate English), which changes weekly, the set offerings come in a four course version at €56 or in a 5 course version at €66. They are extremely appetising, with items such as Pigeon and goose liver variations with artichokes and Port wine reduction; or Small cannelloni with spinach mousse cooked in phylo pastry served on cheese and black truffle fondue; or, as a dessert, Pear charlotte with dark chocolate mousse and raspberry sauce served on wafer.
The a la carte section is rather long and varied for this type of restaurant: starters range from humble Sardine fillet and grilled vegetables with saffron scallion, salad and black olive pate (€14) to luxurious Scallop carpaccio with celeriac puree and black truffle with Champagne mousse (€20) and Variations of fois gras (€20). Among light first courses we note a Fennel cream with salmon and saffron pistils (€10) and among more substantial ones Ravioli stuffed with Artichokes, Sicilina Lobster and tuna bottarga (€15). Among Secondi, we mention Bass fillet with fennel caper and tomato ‘grostel’, in boullabaise. (€22). You will see that although we qualified this place as ‘regional’ (because of the presence of some typical items) ingredients and ideas come in act from all over Italy.
While we navigate, the bread arrives:
Most fascinating and varied, featuring walnuts and fennel bread, olive roll, tomato roll, olive focaccia, spinach roll, white roll, a crispy twisted tongue, a baguette, and a fascinating ‘puffed ravioli. All home made.
And here’s our amuse bouche:
It’s veal ‘animelle’ (sweetbreads) with eggs on toasted bread (left) and veal tail with ‘tapa’ of puff pastry (right). Well. The ‘crostini’ (toasted bread) are airy and delicate, yet offer intense flavour. There is an excellent contrast with the darker flavour and thicker consistency of the tail, very very pleasant and also playful. The chef meant to impress and he succeeded.
We go a la carte, and for primi we opt for:
– Buckwheat pappardelle with hare ragout and thyme mousse €14
– Granny Smith apple and celery risotto, gratinated fresh goat cheese with pistachio and mint €13
In the papaprdelle the taste is intense but balanced, complementing well the buckwheat pasta. Woman is perplexed, though, by the consistency of the pasta (no gluten?). The thyme flavour is not detectable, yet another one of the countless examples of disappearing herb flavours. Man ponders on the fact that this flavourless (or flavour-overwhelmed) thyme mousse is a foam, that he rarely understand foams in general, and that in this dish he sees its use as particularly needless; but this is just an opinion. However, unlike Woman, he does not dislike the rough bite of the pasta as a match to the rustic ragout. They both agree that this ‘chunky’ ragout is one of the best they had, and that this is what really makes this dish. Why complicate things, they wonder?
The risotto, on the other hand, is thoroughly excellent, and, Man remarks, ravishingly elegant in its look. Beautiful interplay of textures between the goat cheese, the apple, the celery and the rice (very al dente). Neither of us can detect the taste of the pistachio crust: where has it gone? The balance between the many flavours is excellent, with the fresh and multifaceted acidities in evidence. Great dish.
Our secondi are:
– Guinea fowl breast stuffed with artichokes and smoked scamorza cheese, mustard and chive sauce, rampion with julienne of ‘Speck’, roasted Kiplfer potatoes. (€20)
– Venison loin in Port crust, glace Belgian endive, buckwheat ‘gnocchetti’, celeriac puree’, mini-pear stuffed with blueberry (€22)
You can see from the long list of ingredients that these are quite elaborate dishes. The guinea fowl is cooked very well, the overall flavour is excellent, but the artichoke flavour is dead, extinguished, overwhelmed: this is a disappointment for us artichokes lovers, whose magnificent taste had been evoked in the description of the dish. But, overcoming this disappointment, we are completely taken by the intensity and succulent texture of the guinea fowl, which works fantastically well with the sweet-salty scamorza cheese, by the quality of vegetables (very pleasant on the palate), by the supporting chive sauce, and by the use of herbs. The speck seems to us an ingredient too much (presumably there for saltiness?). Most satisfying dish.
The venison is thoroughly successful and it has all going for it, at the core of it a rewarding, chewable ‘chunk’, nicely cooked, with the terrific Port crust (in fact soft) yielding a deep sweet flavour. More sweetness comes from the blueberries (note the revisited classic pairing) and pear, but it is perfectly balanced by the endive. The goodness seems endless: what to say of the great, light celeriac puree, of the herb perfume (rosemary) of the great variety of textures (remember the gnocchi. This is a remarkable dish, which with a venison meat that matched the supreme cooking level, would be truly unforgettable. But even with this ‘merely’ very good venison, we will not forget it for a while…
For desserts (numerous and tempting choices in this department too), we opt for:
– Fried ricotta ‘pockets’ (fagottini) with marinated apricots and vanilla icecream (€10)
– Semolina pudding (budino) with black and white sponge (pan di spagna), morellu cherries and tonka-bean ice cream (€10)
Man finds the Budino offering a seductive consistency, enveloped as it is in Pan di Spagna, and he does not care greatly what colour it is…But Woman is more stern on trade descriptions…
The fagottini are simply good, for once nothing spectacular but just ‘what it says on the tin’, and one might say: thank God.
Despite the fact that we take no coffee, as usual, the petit four generously arrive, and the little we sample is impressive:
With a bottle of Pinot Noir Val di Cembra at €28 (interesting local wine), a 0.75 litre (the ubiquitous stinginess) bottle of water at €3 (at least here at a fair charge), a cover charge of €5 (the old fashioned way), the total is a very reasonable €125, which, even with a tip, leaves us below our £100 threshold. Another very reasonably priced Michelin star level restaurant.
The service was provided partly by a Baumgartner junior (we think) and mostly by a nice waiter from a region very far away from Trentino: both were relaxed, smooth and professional.
The menu at Maso Franch contains a remarkable variety of ingredients, put together with an equally impressive variety of ideas. Chef Baumgartner clearly is a very thoughtful chef, and one whose technical rigor is high. His flavour arrangements are complex, and it amazes one that he manages to hold all those ingredients together in elegant ensembles with such skill. Personally, we prefer in general slightly simpler arrangements in our dish, and we found some of the complexity needless and distracting, accentuating the ‘intellectual’ aspect to the detriment of directness and ‘emotion’: but, we repeat, this is just a very subjective preference (possibly merely showing that we are culinary simpletons…). Apart from this, we had a really excellent dinner at Maso Franch, and we want to praise once again its reasonable a la carte prices. In terms of quality, this restaurant is in the same (high) league as the very top Trentino fine dining places we have visited: Locanda Margon (our consistent overall favourite despite the slightly higher a la carte prices), the impressive El Molin and Malga Panna; and it is superior to the other Michelin starred Lo Scrigno and especially to (the incomprehensibly starred) Le Due Spade. In all of these establishments the cuisine will surely not disappoint you, and the value for money for such quality will surprise you.