A few months ago, just before my move to Rome, my sister came over from Brussels for a final girly weekend wandering around town, flat white firmly in hand, doing some window-shopping as well as some actual shopping. I owed her a meal – on my last trip to Brussels she had managed to get a Friday night booking at a Michelin-starred restaurant for the two of us, alas, I spent that Friday night sat on her sofa, alternating working on one of my projects with eating semi-cold slices from Mamma Roma (my favourite Pizza al Taglio place in Brussels) – so I when I spotted an opening at Viajante for Sunday lunchtime, I immediately booked a table for the two of us.
Viajante is the brainchild of Portuguese chef Nuno Mendes (of the Loft Project and Bacchus fame with a small stint at El Bulli along the way). His type of cooking is often associated with pomp, ego and stratospheric prices, yet at Viajante you get the feeling that the food is still the star of the show. The kitchen at Viajante is open plan letting the guests watch the meticulous (and at times eerily quiet) preparation of each and every dish right before their eyes.
Frugal as me and my sister can sometimes be (even in the face of extravagance), we went with the 3 course tasting menu, and, even more frugal, without the wine. It was Sunday lunchtime after all, we still had plans to wander around town after our lunch and had gone out on a pretty big night the evening before so were not exactly feeling the need for 3 (no doubt expertly chosen) glasses of wine.
The meal itself was outstanding, and nothing I say will do it justice. Looking around the web Viajante has received some pretty mixed reviews (see for example the review by Jay Rayner who was not that convinced by the Mushroom Chocolates of which I was definitely a big fan) but suffice it to say that I certainly had high expectations after sampling some of the food of Sven Wassmer (one of the sous-chefs at Viajante) earlier this year at the Bottle Apostle Supper Club and was not disappointed. Maybe it helps that I don’t eat out in fancy restaurants all that often, but I thought the entire experience was wonderful – very friendly (without being overly friendly) and very knowledgeable waiters, a fantastic cocktail (you did not think we were abstaining from all alcohol?), perfectly executed dishes (everything was so flavoursome – there was a dish with potatoes, mushrooms and a type of Japanese Jerusalem artichoke and it had the most intense potato flavour I have eaten in a long long time), beautiful presentation and Helena and I certainly got a kick out of our prime spot – right next to the kitchen so we could watch every single one of our dishes being prepared from a 1 m distance (and my sister could enjoy plenty of attention from one of the chefs who personally brought 3 of our dishes to our table (yes, it was a 3 course tasting menu, but that does not count the various amuses-bouche you get or the palate cleansers or indeed the petits-four)).
One of the dishes that really stood out to me was the toasted rice ice cream served with popped-rice studded meringue and what was I think a figue compote. The details are all a bit blurry by now, but the star of the dish was the toasted rice ice cream. I never understood the gelato di riso you can get in Italy – it always seems to be a sad imitation of vanilla or cream-based ice cream without much flavour of its own. This instead was sublime. Yes, the taste was reminiscent of Cereal Milk a la Christina Tosi I suspect (not that I have tasted this, but once in a while my mum bought us Smacks as a child, and the ice cream at Viajante tasted pretty similar to the little puddle of milk at the bottom of my childhood cereal bowl).
I immediately knew I wanted to recreate this at home. I have been fascinated with infusions to add flavours to dishes and this seemed like something I could easily try at home. Alas, given the dip in temperatures I did not feel too tempted to bring out the ice cream machine, instead I settled on a rice blancmanger.
Blancmanger (also known as biancomangiare) come in a number of different incarnations – at its most basic it is a dish made of sweetened milk that has been set with the help of gelatine, but it can equally be a mixture of milk and cream, flavoured in some way or another and set with a mixture of cornstarch and gelatine (reducing the amount of gelatine will alter the texture – think of it as less of a milky jello and something more akin to panna cotta). As I was making this around 7 in the morning for a mid-week dinner with Alessandro, I settled on a simple mix of toasted-rice flavoured and sweetened milk set with gelatine.
Toasted Rice Blancmanger
Ingredients for 2 servings
250ml full-fat milk
2-3 tbsp sugar, to taste
1. Start by toasting the rice in a dry pan over medium heat. It should take ca. 3-5 minutes for the rice to turn a nutty brown and start smelling similar to popcorn. Be careful not to burn the rice to avoid your blancmanger tasting bitter.
2. Soak the gelatine in a small glass with plenty of cold water.
3. Pour the milk over the toasted rice and add sugar to taste.
4. Once the milk has infused for ca. 30 minutes, strain it and place in a small sauce pan over medium heat. Add the gelatine (without the soaking liquid) and slowly heat the mixture – you want to heat it just enough to help dissolve the gelatine, but not bring the mixture to boil.
5. Let the milk mixture come to room temperature. Pour into 2 small ramekins and let set in the fridge, for ca. 5 hours at least.