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October 25, 2009

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Fresh look for new chef

The menu at the Portman Ritz-Carlton's signature fine dining Palladio Italian restaurant boldly telegraphs the nature of its cuisine.

Prosciutto, scampi and carpaccio in the appetizers, minestrone and risotto in between, tagliolini, spaghetti, linguine and rigatoni pastas, then treatments of tuna, scallops and lamb with olives and bell peppers.

The restaurant is in the new hands of chef de cuisine Gianluca Serafin who is in the early months of a makeover.

Serafin, an experienced young chef and proud native of Torino, has been in Shanghai a couple of months and is most recently from Mandarin Oriental's Mezzaluna fine dining restaurant in Macau.

His plan is to modernize the menu to reduce its preponderance of heavier Italian cooking without moving it too far from its origins.

So he is on the way to infusing the exceedingly popular diner with a modern touch that is true to the traditions of Italian cuisine and befitting of a fine dining restaurant in this iconic hotel that is a Nanjing Road landmark.

With a devotion to the freshest ingredients whose value he learned from working in his parents' garden in northern Italy, the already respected master of the Palladio kitchen is presenting unpretentious and honest cuisine reflecting a regional passion and flair for creating new dishes.

Serafin opened the kitchen to this writer for a rare look into the making of three of his menu's staple dishes.

He explained a kaleidoscope of techniques from when the grains of rice in risotto are ready to serve and how to finally "flip" the dish, to cooking the garlic sauce so that the desired color is retained and finally displaying an artistry in the presentation of the finished dish.

The results were three dishes of rare subtlety and with flavors evoking the distinctive tastes of the food without drowning the smaller supplementary ingredients.

They were a welcome departure from the heavier and gluggy dumps of pasta that are too often passed off as value for money.

The risotto mantecato al pomodoro (125 yuan/US$18.31) is one of two risottos on the restaurant's regular menu.

It is an artistically presented dish with a tomato and rosemary flavored risotto enhanced by generous pieces of slowly fried chicken liver and crispy parma ham chips.

The freshly made, home-style tagliolini pasta (180 yuan) is in the splendid company of a delicately light parmesan cream sauce, black mushrooms and imported black truffle.

The duo of baccala and cod fish (250 yuan) is a sumptuous pairing of two styles of cod fish.

The baccala, Italian for salt water cod, is a staple of the country's regional cuisine and needs extensive soaking to reduce saltiness.

In this combination it is aggressively hand-whipped into a pate and served with a sizable fillet of the fresh water cod, the two accompanied by fried artichoke on a bed of pea green garlic sauce.

Serafin relates the story of when he would return home after work in the kitchen in Italy, his mother remarked about how he never cooked for the family.

His response was that he didn't want to take his work home.

When I asked for more details about his cooking secrets, he respectfully declined to give any, saying he would rather I enjoy the dishes in the full theater of his restaurant than cook at my home.

The Palladio, it seems, has the right man at the helm.


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