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Pastas and pestos

Italian flavours to tantalise your senses

WHAT DOES Italian food spell to you? Pastas and pestos. Canneloni and ravioli. Lasagna and eggplant parmigiana. Risottos and pizza. Biscotti and grappa.

Is that all that's in your food lexicon? Then it's time to make a dinner engagement with the ongoing Italian food festival (August 16 to 26) at the old world, colonial-ambience Jockey Club at the Taj Residency. Because the courses that executive chef Julia De Sa has worked her magic on, prove irresistible at every bite.

Traditional dishes

Acknowledging the Italian passion for good food, and her own talent for cookery, Goa-born Julia, who has been in Bangalore for about a year, serves up a voyage of culinary discovery at this rare Jockey Club festival. Are these traditional dishes from, say, Venice, Tuscany or Naples? "All the ingredients are authentic Italian ones," she confesses with charm, looking back on her career since 1988, "but I've cooked them in my own way."

Julia casts a winning spell. We bypass what's on offer at the bar — Italian wines such as Chianti, Pinot Griggio, and Dolcetta D'Alba, and cocktails like Blue Diablo, Rossini, and Puccini — to meet the starters head-on. And what an impression they make on our taste-buds!

Combining with flair the dairy-rich fare of north Italy with the olive oil, tomatoes and fish that crop up towards the Mediterranean, Julia allows us to sample her starters as an antipasti platter. The garlic-laced oyster mushrooms yield balsamic accents, poached to perfection. Roasted peppers add zing to the marinated artichokes, sweet-sour onions and — hold your breath! — a delicately smoked cheese. Plump fava beans crop up in an unusual avatar, teamed brilliantly with spring onions, plum tomatoes and juicy kalamata olives. What tantalizing vegetarian fare!

But the non-vegetarians are not exactly neglected by Julia's menu. Her wafer-thin, infinitely tender capriccio of tenderloin seduces the tongue completely, drizzled with crushed pepper and olive oil. So does the salted red snapper, redolent of lemon dust and capers. Though its homemade bouquet was wonderful, it proved a trifle too salty for our tastes. To round out the starters, we sampled delectable warm chicken, tossed with sprouts and roasted tomatoes. It brought to mind summer days and the season of olive-pressing. Each dish was perfectly presented, a total invitation to the senses.

Main course

For the main course, the lobster tail, served on the shell, yields ocean notes at every bite, baked to perfection with just garlic and parsley. It's a dish to die for. But Julia's rendition of veal piccatas was equally exquisite, spilling over with flavoursome Parma ham amidst braised onions. But what was its very essence? That proved to be a sage-derived sauce. Risotto, of course, is a more acquired taste to a palate accustomed to spicy biryanis and fragrant pulavs. Its al-dente, creamy-tasting arborio rice wasn't quite as elegant with its smoked chicken and sun-dried tomatoes. A taste of more rustic fare?

The ravioli stuffed with spinach and pine nuts, tossed in sage butter, are so delectable that it proved impossible to stop at just one. The culinary intelligence that created it is worth its weight in fresh ingredients. A creative lasagna follows — its eggplant and courgette layers enriched by basil and rich tomato sauce, melting Parmesan and mozzarella.

Julia would not hear of a meal sans dessert. So, the magician-as-chef conjured up an unusual tiramisu with — you won't believe this — mascarpone ice-cream. The creamy dessert arrived between a crisscross patterning of coffee-soaked savoyardi biscuits, a melt-in-the-mouth creation, the scooped ice-cream evoking memories of old-world wooden-churned perfection. Other unusual desserts on offer include a warm lemon apple tart and chocolate canneloni with saffron sauce. What more could your sweet tooth ask for?

This is a food festival well worth its garnish of prime Parmesan. Hats off to innovations by Julia De Sa and her team. Buon Appetito!

For dinner reservations, call 56604444


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