January 10, 2012
Combal.Zero is 28th in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. Its chef, Davide Scabin, has a global reputation for playful creativity in the context of Italian cuisine. Tony, Linda and I went for dinner on October 6, 2011.
The restaurant is situated on the back edge of the seventeenth century hilltop castle of Rivoli, west of Torino. Its thoroughly modern architecture contrasts with the old stones. From the back of the parking lot, one climbs a curving staircase to the restaurant’s entry.
We were warmly welcomed as we arrived right on time for our 8:00 reservation despite the heavy, chaotic traffic as we drove out from our hotel in Torino. The dining room was almost empty. It eventually became half full as the evening progressed.
Tony looked at the menu and the wine list, as did Linda and I.
There were à la carte selections and a “Menu Combal.Zero,” which, of course, we chose. We ordered a bottle of 2009 Malvirà Roero Arneis “Renesio.” This was excellent, the only Arneis I have had better than Bruno Giacosa. It is from the Roero, the hilly district between Torino and Alba. Continuing with this winemaker, we later ordered a bottle of 1999 Malvirà Roero Superiore Nebbiolo “Mombeltramo.” This was also very good, surprisingly so for a wine just identified by its grape variety.
The bread basket was passed and excellent, fresh warm, sesame breadsticks were served to each of us.
The appetizer was corn meal ravioli with goat cheese inside on a base of a green pea purée.
The corn meal gave the ravioli substance; its texture enhanced the two other components, which were flavorful, but mushy. Very good.
The first course was
Polpo, sedano, grana padano e limone
Tender, good octopus chunks were served with a celery base, shredded celery, grana padano cheese, lemon and black garlic. The combination worked very well. It is interesting to have an ordinary ingredient, like celery, elevated to cuisine of this high quality.
Gambero viola di San Remo all’occhio di bue
Barely cooked pink shrimp from San Remo were served in a cold shellfish reduction with basil. We were told to eat the “fried egg” like a pie, taking wedges out from the soft egg yolk in the center. Very nice.
Animella M&M’s (margarita e mela verde)
Sweetbreads were served with a green apple sorbet and a strong margarita jelly. The garnishes were a bit too strong for the nicely deep-fried sweetbreads.
Umami al pomodoro e basilico
Frothed basil flavored cheese was served atop an excellent fresh, seasonal tomato purée. Common Italian ingredients in a traditional combination have been made into a fine dish that seems unusual.
Black is Black (…quando gli spaghetti prendono forma)
Cooked black, squid ink spaghetti were formed into a rectangle and wrapped around a “carbonara” paste. It was topped with caviar and served on a black slate. The visual effect was striking and the dish very good.
Pasta sushi com-bar
This being Italy, the sushi were based on pasta shells instead of rice. They were lobster with horseradish; burrata with sea urchin and an oyster with pineapple. Excellent.
Empire State Peppers (il peperone di quadro di Carmagnola in 6 soluzione)
We each received a vertical plastic “skyscraper” with six compartments. Each had a small slide-out plastic tray with a bite-sized morsel based on sweet peppers. They were: scampi with green pepper and a dab end of chocolate; a pepper marshmallow; a red pepper involtini with anchovy; a yellow pepper gel with salt; a bonbon of red and green pepper powder with cocoa butter which had to be eaten in one gulp as it was hard on the outside and runny inside; foie gras with sweet red pepper. We had an animated discussion, including our genial waiter, as to which ones were the best.
Chunks of veal from the local breed had been cooked in a pan with a breadstick crust and then smoked on top of burning herbs and garlic. They were served quartered with a little pot of creamy mashed potatoes and a bowl of beef broth with sage and butter to be drunk afterwards. The herb smoke and crust really created an excellent dish.
The pre-dessert was
Granita al basilico e mandorle salate
This ice of basil and salted almonds refreshed the palate.
Mignardises for the end of the meal were put on the table in two of the plastic towers.
White Lady (Biscotto Sacher bianco al vapore, salsa olandese, cocktail white lady)
A biscuit with white chocolate inside was topped with cherry and decorated with more white chocolate and candied jasmine flowers.
It was served with a “White Lady” cocktail, made from equal thirds of lemon juice, gin and Cointreau. A caramelized apricot was on the end of the pick with the glass bauble.
Cyber elio campari
This came with a helium balloon attached. We were instructed to break the plastic bags in our mouth and experience the Campari and soda in one burst. A fun end to the party.
Following the meal we were invited to meet the chef in the staff room behind the kitchen. It was well equipped with a drinks and snacks dispenser, coffee machine, television etc. We discussed his upcoming travel plans, which were extensive. I think we were lucky to find him in the kitchen that evening.
We had a very good time at Combal.Zero. The chef, Davide Scabin, has a list of what he wants his patrons to experience with his food:
He achieved all of those with us. His trick is to be creative and playful while cooking fine ingredients with well composed dishes which still reflect the cuisine of the region.
To see Adam’s blogpost on his meal at Combal.Zero a year before ours click here. All of the dishes are different from ours. Adam was disappointed that Scabin was not in the kitchen that evening, surmising that the meal would have had more spark if he were.
To see Aaron’s entertaining blogpost, including an all night party with the chef, also with very different dishes in two meals, click here. He writes:
“These are not the dishes of a brash risk-taker whose food is weird for the sake of being weird. The real Scabin is not so. His is a deliberate, purposeful cuisine. He is a tireless researcher, and one of the world’s biggest proponents of what he calls Food Design. He clearly enjoys this game, and he wants dearly for you to enjoy it as well. In this sense, maybe he is a culinary provocateur.”