The Ottimo Odyssey (Part 1)

In this article and the next, I will break down in some detail the amazing meal I had at Ottimo in Hyderabad’s ITC Kohenur, a couple of months ago. The menu is elaborate and we knew that we would be spoiled for choice, so we had left it to the chef to craft a tasting menu, featuring some of the highlights.

The meal was kicked off with a bread basket; an assortment of ciabatta, focaccia, grissini and pane di Toscana, which reminded me of Russian piroshka. They were served with two tiny, perfectly shaped quenelles of butter, one speckled with green bits of parsley; the other, slate-gray in colour and flavoured with activated charcoal. Although the parsley butter was subtle in its flavour, we couldn’t make out any special flavour in the charcoal butter. It was good butter, though, and we finished it all up, along with all the bread. In retrospect, that was not such a good idea.

Next came an assortment of antipasti. We will examine the vegetarian options in some detail next week, so for now let’s focus on the non-vegetarian fare: prosciutto and seared scallop. For the uninitiated, prosciutto is a cured Italian ham. Ottimo procures proper Prosciutto di Parma, and it shows. I have had cold cuts elsewhere before, but they usually turned out to be too stringy and way too salty. This one was different.

The first thing I noticed was that the texture wasn’t chewy at all; it unbelievably soft, almost melt-in-the-mouth. And the flavour was deep and rich, not overshadowed by a huge amount of salt. To complement the savouriness of the prosciutto were spheres of melon and tiny “caviar” of honey. While the latter provided a delightful contrast to the salty savouriness, the melon was not sweet enough to stand up to the prosciutto.

It was my first time trying scallop, and I had nothing to compare it to. It was decent, but what blew me away were the accompaniments: a cauliflower puree and a piece of pancetta or Italian cured pork belly (bacon is smoked, pancetta isn’t). The puree was rich and silky smooth, and I swear I could finish a whole bag of those crisp pancetta shards all on its own. Imagine the crispiest bacon, and multiply it by ten; that’s how crispy it was. The meal was off to a phemomenal start indeed.

Next came the Caesar salad. A perfect example of less is more, everything on the plate made sense. With the fresh bite of the lettuce, the brittle shatter of the pancetta (again!), the sharp crumbly parmesan shavings and the crunch of the croutons; it was definitely one of the best salads I’ve ever had.

What was particularly impressive was the amazing dressing; when you can smell the olive oil that distinctly, you know you’re dealing with the good stuff. The punch of pepper, the creaminess of egg, and that extra something which we were told was the Worcestershire sauce; not a dominant presence, but whose absence you’d definitely miss.

Then came the pastas. We started off with tortellini filled with pumpkin and ricotta, served with a sage and butter sauce, and finished with a few pumpkin seeds. Rich and sweet, with just enough chew in the pasta and just the right amount of bite from the pumpkin seeds, this was one of my favourites.

The lobster ravioli came next, served with a lobster bisque (which was more of a sauce than a broth) and tobiko or flying fish roe, in gorgeous hues of orange and green. The silky pasta, the meaty chunks of lobster, the complex sauce and the briny pop of the roe created an explosion of flavours and textures in my mouth. I’m not a big seafood fan and to be honest, the tobiko was a bit too intense for me, but it was a stunning dish. I’d recommend this one highly to anyone who loves seafood.

This was followed by tagliatelle with a duck ragù , with a garniture of fresh tomatoes and a thin sliver of truffle. The pasta was al dente, just the right texture to stand up to the rich sauce. The duck ragù was intensely meaty, with the freshness of the tiny cubes of tomato providing some relief from the richness.

Then came the pasta we were looking forward to the most: carbonara made with guanciale, which is a very fatty cut of meat from the jaw of the pig; the cut of choice for traditional Roman carbonara. Like the tagliatelle, this too was a rich dish; intensely creamy thanks to the egg yolk, deftly cut through by the heat of freshly crushed black pepper.

I often used to wonder how cacio e pepe, another classic Roman pasta dish flavoured with just pecorino romano and black pepper, could be interesting. This dish cleared my doubts. The pepper isn’t mere seasoning in a cacio e pepe; it’s an ingredient, an integral flavour element. Add some guanciale to a cacio e pepe and you’ve got a pasta alla gricia; add to that some egg yolk for richness and you’ve got a carbonara.

Unfortunately, we couldn’t make out anything special about the guanciale; it was my first time trying it, and I couldn’t make out anything about it that differentiated it from bacon. There wasn’t much room for complaint though, for the smoky, porky notes were unmistakable. Both the tagliatelle and the carbonara were heavy dishes and are likely to fatigue the palate after the fourth or fifth spoonful. However, both pastas were amazing and since our portion sizes were small, we left our plates squeaky clean.

Then came the interlude, a lemon and mint sorbet; and the timing was perfect. Snowy white and fresh, it was a welcome relief from the fatty richness of the last two dishes. With the tang of the lemon and the unmistakable fresh note of mint, the flavours were absolutely on point. Our palates were cleansed, and we were all geared up for the next course.

Well, that was the first half of an extremely elaborate meal. In part 2 we will explore the second half of the Ottimo Odyssey.

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