A plate with some meticulously piped dots and an untidy dollop, looking like a novice’s attempt at scooping ice-cream, arrives at the table. Confused, I ask the waiter what the dish is, and he shakes the plate a little. And something stirs at the edge of the plate. It’s a panna cotta.
Of the two most commonly available Italian desserts in India, I’ve always been a bigger fan of tiramisu. And Ottimo does make a bloody good tiramisu. The creamy richness and the strong hit of espresso in a good tiramisu is to die for.
On the other hand, I have never been too enthusiastic about panna cotta. I have had it a couple of times, and the accompanying fruit puree always turned out to be more interesting than the panna cotta itself, which is a real shame. The one I had at Ottimo, though, was different.
The panna cotta, off-white and dotted with black specks of Madagascar vanilla, hugs the rim of the huge gray plate like the chord of a circle. In the dim lighting of the restaurant, many would miss it. But once the plate was moved, it performed that signature jiggle which was way too familiar; a reminder of the unpleasant milk-jellies of yore.
I ran my spoon went through it and it went through without the slightest resistance, almost as if I were running it through a cloud. The tiny bit of panna cotta on my spoon didn’t flop down lifelessly, though. It held its shape and kept wobbling to and fro, ever so slightly. Cloud-like though it seemed, it was not shapeless.
But the moment I put it in my mouth, the wobbly piece of jelly coated my tongue, creamy and luscious, with a subtle perfume of vanilla in the background. This was nothing like the tofu-like dessert I was familiar with. No, this was panna cotta, whose literal translation of “cooked cream” made sense for the first time ever.
My attention then shifted to the vibrant dots and blobs on the plate. The red dots were a raspberry coulis, while the deep purple blob was a mixed berry and red wine compote. What caught me immediately was the contrast.
While the dots of coulis were geometric and perfectly arranged, befitting a fine dining restaurant; the compote, chunky and rustic, lay unashamedly on the plate, almost encroaching on the dotted pattern of the coulids, like a bull in a china shop. One was so dainty and the other so rustic that it felt as if they belonged to two separate desserts entirely.
But no, they didn’t. The chunky compote contains a medley of blueberries, blackberries and blackcurrant, but no raspberry. The smooth coulis is made from just raspberry. Mix the two and you definitely get a delicious berry compote, but separate the two and you get a duality of texture and appearance, while allowing the unique flavour of raspberry to sing without the other berries to bog it down.
The coulis-compote duo makes sense from a visual standpoint as well. The gorgeous magenta of the raspberry stands out on its own without getting lost in the blue-black darkness of a mixed berry compote and adds another element of colour to the dish. Much like the ideal couple, the compote and coulis belong together, and complete each other.
Let’s return to the panna cotta itself. Panna cotta is basically flavoured dairy set with gelatin. Panna cotta with not enough gelatin will not hold their shape, and are best served in a glass. With too much gelatin, it can easily be unmoulded but the texture is firmer, too firm in opinion. What makes this panna cotta a stroke of sheer genius is the fact that it manages to balance the best of both worlds.
A low-gelatin panna cotta would be light and not demould easily, which is why it needs to be served in a glass. This panna cotta uses this property to ensure that it clings to the edge of the plate without falling off. What was a visual handicap was turned on its head and transformed into the highlight of the dish. Then again, the recipe has just the right amount of gelatin to ensure that the free edge remains sharp. Goldilocks would be pleased.
Another paradox about the dish is the fact that the panna cotta is the least eye-catching part of the dish, not only because it is shoved away at an inconspicuous corner of the plate, but also because the garish hues of red and purple catch your eyes first. You don’t see a panna cotta at first, and keep staring at the bright colours, confused. The main component of the dish somehow manages to contribute to the negative space in the dish, which is mind-boggling and frankly, a stroke of genius.
And most importantly, it is a delicious dessert. The panna cotta is light and creamy with an unmistakable note of vanilla, with the coulis adding a sharp ying to the panna cotta’s yang. It is delicious, beautiful, and unbelievably clever. Looks, flavour and texture-wise, it ticks all the right boxes. A perfect example in minimalism and restraint, Ottimo’s panna cotta is undoubtedly one of the best dishes I have ever eaten.