Chefs Danny Russo and Nikhil Nagpal thumb their nose at convention during the celebratory lunch at On The Rocks
Toasties are for campfires. So, it's surprising when they emerge from the On The Rocks (Park Sheraton) kitchen with such a flourish. After all, we're at a fancy five-course lunch, planned by visiting chef Danny Russo, to celebrate the restaurant's first anniversary.
It turns out the Italian-origin, Australian-born chef is opening with a quirky culinary joke. These toasties are as similar to veg-cheese-toast as Pondy bazaar chappals are to Jimmy Choos. Glossy with cheese and soaked in truffle butter, they reek of exotica and extravagance.
The kitchen, orchestrated by Russo and On The Rocks' resident chef Nikhil Nagpal, is a whirlwind of fancy ingredients being recreated and then presented in astonishing ways. This is, after all, Russo's unique signature: food rooted in tradition, but which thumbs its nose at convention.
Does this make him a bad boy of Italian cooking? After all, according to popular imagination, this is a cuisine established in humble Italian kitchens, following recipes by fond grandmothers, using produce from backyard gardens and local markets. Russo's food, on the other hand, is all about complex presentation, luxurious ingredients and intricate ingredient manipulation.
Our second course, a zesty salad twanging with olive oil, for example, is made from olives dehydrated in a slow oven, then powdered and finally emulsified in olive oil. Why take so much trouble? “For the flavour,” says chef Nagpal, “You get a strong olive flavour from this. It's much more intense than a puree.”
Russo explains why his ‘modern Italian' style obstinately disregards rules and yet insists on loyalty to the cuisine. “Its evolution, not revolution,” he says, as we work our way though a gorgeously velvety zucchini soup, crunchy with toasted almonds. It's secret? Almonds creamed into deliciously nutty oil and then blended with the soup.
“The core integrity of the dish is still there,” he says, “We're just trying to give people a different dining experience. You know there's more to Indian food than tandoor. I feel the same way about Italian food — we have so much more than pizza, pasta, tiramisu.”
Delicate bassa follows, laced with strong garlic and served with juicy calamari cooked in a slow oven for an hour. “The food looks simple,” says Russo, refuting the idea that his techniques are bewilderingly complicated. “There's simplicity in the concentration of flavour.”
Burst of flavour
Plates of pan-fried morels, with carrot puree, fennel and mushroom butter arrive for the vegetarians. Classical food-turned-edgy certainly provides a glorious burst of colours, textures and flavours.
A good thing too. “People go to restaurants for an experience,” he says, “to try something new, to expand their horizons.” He chooses to keep his constant innovation deeply entrenched in tradition for a reason. “Fusion is confusion,” he laughs, rolling his eyes. “You need to use classic Italian as a spoon. As a springboard to get to the next level.”
Exactly what he's done with dessert. A layered chocolate eggplant, bringing together the vegetable's juicy pulp, sweetened with chocolate and fluffed with egg whites, and firm skin, fried in nutmeg, topped with chocolate sauce and crunchy nuts, it seems like a stab at attention-grabbing experimental food. “Actually, it's a recipe from the 18th Century,” says Russo, smugly. “It originated in the 16th Century, but since there was no chocolate then, it was made with molasses.” He adds: “We ate it growing up.”
Startling, with a gorgeous texture and mildly unsettling tingle, it certainly stands out. “You don't be different just to be different,” Russo says, “Remember, there's always a story behind every dish.”