PHUKET: There's something friendly and approachable about Italian cuisine. It's simple, down to earth and tasty as hell. But when an invitation for a dinner prepared by Chef Ricarrdo de Pra landed on my desk, I wasnt sure if this was what I was going to get. He might be Italian but his restaurant Dolada in Veneto, Italy did get a star from Michelin should I expect microscopic portions, molecular cuisine, liquid nitrogen cooked meat, flavor filled foams and dishes that look like anything but food? Indeed, I was both worried and excited.
As it turned out, my worry was completely unnecessary what landed on my plate in JW Marriott's freshly refurbished Cucina restaurant was a celebration of the traditional Italian approach to cooking, albeit with a nice local touch. It all started with raw seafood marinated to perfection and served with simple, yet perfect, sides dishes tomato with olive oil and potatoes with herbs. Nothing to overwhelm the natural taste of the fresh fish, shrimp and crab.
What came next was home-made to the bone home-made pasta, home-made seafood sauce, rustic home-made flavors all the way. Not that surprising coming from a chef who hired his own mother as the sommelier in his restaurant.
Right before the surprising breaker in the meal landed on the table a scoop of tart Limoncello sorbet meant to clear the pallet before the next dish I had a chance to chat with the chef. When I asked about that day's menu and if it was difficult to find all the ingredients here in Phuket, he burst out laughing and ensured me that Phuket is the perfect place to cook in with an abundance of great local produce and redaily available ingredients from far, far away. The tough part wasnt sourcing the ingredients. Rather it was keeping the meal personal, the way he likes to, I like to know what guests like, I watch them at their tables and adjust the dishes to their taste.
Something that's fairly easy at his family run restaurant, with returning guests, becomes a challenge in a room fool of strangers. Yet, Chef de Pra comes out on top back at my table the lamb chops covered with Tuscan bread crumbs prove he not only knows his food, but also people. My serving is just the way I like it both savory and crunchy, refined, yet familiar and simple.
The meal concludes with a tiny bit of a presentation stunt serving a cheesecake in a glass is surely not the traditional way to do it. But the homemade flavors are there again succulent mango, mushy Mascarpone, crumbed shortbread it all melts in my mouth.
I admit molecular cuisine, food reaching the levels of art, avant-garde presentation it's all fun and exciting. But the real food tastes just as well, and sometimes, even better.