Somehow I don’t think my spa therapist is right right now. I’m lying being scrubbed by sand flown in from St Barts in a treatment room that looks like the VIP room in a flashy nightclub: all low lighting, fibre-optic trim and mirrors, everywhere. Every time I open my eyes I catch sight of my semi-naked sandy flesh. I close my eyes, tight, well I supposed I did get up at 3.15am to meet four journalists I’d never met before and board an ash-free BA flight to Leonardo da Vinci-Fiumicino Airport. Yes, I was back to Italy. And it was the lure of three Michelin-star dining that got me here.
The Rome Cavalieri is much like the rest of the inhabitants of the city of seven hills: good looking, a bit flash and swaggering with confidence. Oh and like the city itself there are artefacts everywhere. Perched on one of the hills overlooking the Vatican City, it is a church for the worships of beautiful things. Warhol’s, works of Italian masters and Louis XV furniture are crammed in every square inch of lobby, suites and corridors. Everything is superlative: the most expensive spa treatment (it involves a 600 euro pot of platinum), the most impressive views (well it does have one of the seven hills spots) and the best restaurant in Rome. Five week waiting lists (a year for the terrace in summer), a water menu longer than some wine lists and three Michelin stars. It’s the only three Michelin star restaurant in Italy, let alone Rome. According to the guide that means it is ‘worth a special journey’. We’ve made a special journey.
I have to pinch myself. For the second time in as many weeks I’m at the hungry end of a gourmet tasting menu. The previous twenty four hours have been equally surreal: sat on Karl Lagerfeld’s sofa (ok, so he sold it but it’s still his, his bottom has been there), coffee in the palatial apartment of an Italian princess, met a man who makes leather jackets for President Mugabe (in exchange for snakeskins it appears) and took a cracking swing at a polo lesson. I’m living someone else’s life. A very rich Roman’s life.
The restaurant in question, La Pergola, sits in all its opulent glory on the top of the Cavalieri presided over by German Heinz Beck. The neighbouring Penthouse suite, a favourite of George Clooney, Leonardo DiCaprio, Julia Roberts et al (she recently stayed for weeks while filming Eat Pray Love) has a secret back entrance and a pre-reserved private table (for 8,000 euros a night there isn’t a waiting list).
Very serious looking young men scurry about doing a dodging dance as they fluff napkins, swap cutlery and offer me a table for my bag the second it touches the ground. There’s a six course menu, bread appears, butter under a glass dome, the famous water menu (including a Swarovski incrusted number for a whopping 200 euros). One of the young scurriers appears with a trolley dedicated to salt – I opt for the black volcanic one from Hawaii.
Ding ding. Round one – a clam and celery amuse bouche with carrot foam. The carrot foam dissolves the second it touches my lips, it tastes like a carrot breathing into my mouth after a day on the beach. But it works. You knew it was going to work, don’t doubt a master.
Bouche amused, now it was time to really get going: a starter of duck liver terrine with smoked apples almonds and ameretti. Soft, smooth, rich with the kick of smoked apple puree and dusted crust of almonds and ameretti - it ticked every box.
A fresh kick came with the infusion of veal, herbs and Tonka beans with tuna tartare and green tea sorbet. I didn't know it at the time but this was possibly my favourite course, I am a sucker for perfect raw fish, but if the raw fish wasn't enough the little golden nugget of a veal dumpling that was nestling next to it sealed the deal. Plus the cold raw fish/ sorbet v.s hot broth and veal dumpling combo was enough to make my mouth want burst into song.
'Don't stop me now, I'm having such a good time, I'm having a ball...' In comes the pasta course, it's Italy it would be criminal to miss it: ricotta tortellini with pecorino and broad beans.
In at four was Cannolo of scampi and vegetables, olive sauce and tapioca with Campari. I know it is three Michelin star but is it wrong to compare them to the best spring rolls you could ever eat? Italian spring rolls if you will...
Into what could now be described as the 'main course' portion of the meal. It was a game of two parts: opening with black cod with marinated anchovy's vinaigrette and sweet chilli pepper. There was a lot of debate as to what our black shard consisted of - it was fine pastry no doubt but charcoal? Was that a hint of liquorice, a nod to things to come?
And after a short interval: liquorice flavoured shoulder of Iberian suckling pig with herbed potatoes. It tasted like it had been griddled on a pan made of liquorice - the lightest hint of flavour was all it took.
After that all the menu said was 'Grand Dessert'. Grand, n. 1. impressive in size, appearance or general effect 2. stately, majestic or dignified 3. highly ambitious or idealistic 4. magnificent or splendid 5. noble or reverved 6. highest, or very high, in rank 7. main or principal 8. of great importance, distinction or pretension 9. complete or comprehensive 10. pretending to grandeur 11. first rate, very good, splendid. It turns out it was pretty much all of them and it was only just beginning...
First out to set the scene: an amuse of coconut ice cream and mango with a shard of burnt sugar. We were into sweet gear. Then came the tower...
Filled with drawer upon drawer on all sides with petit fours. One between two, 12 drawers, three morsels a drawer - 18 petit fours each. Needless to say I didn't manage it (I could barely manage to pick it up), and especially when I was told the Grand Dessert hadn't even begun...
A flurry of tiny plates - they keep coming down in front of me.
Chocolate and coconut soup, liquorice souffle, baked raspberry almost brulee..
And more come flying over my shoulder.
Champagne jelly with strawberries, frozen coffee with coffee cream, whisky ice cream with crushed biscuits and a dark chocolate finger filled with mousse... I could barely think straight as my spoon dipped from each onto the next (or could that be from the dessert wine that was now flowing). It hit the spot - light and rich, warm and cold... every sensation, every texture, it was very very grand. And we were there... the end of the meal. What a meal. And, for a tasting menu, it was refreshingly light. The man himself came round from table to table as we drank our freshly snipped herbal tea.
The secret? 'Chefs who have secrets don't have creativity'. He revealed that he'd studied insulin oscillation, his was 'a light kitchen of Mediterranean flavours' - there was no reason that gourmet food couldn't be good for you. I'll eat to that Heinz.