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Italian favorites side by side at open kitchen chef's table

By Rebecca Lo | China Daily | Updated: 2013-07-07 08:35

 Italian favorites side by side at open kitchen chef's table

The three different bruschetta: tomatoes, tomatoes and mushrooms, and Stracchino cheese on top of crispy bread. Rebecca Lo / for China Daily

When I was first introduced to chef Luca Casini of Ciao, I thought he reminded me of someone I knew. But it wasn't until well into our five-course chef's table menu that it hit me.

"Don't you think our chef looks like John Travolta?" I said as I nudged my dinner companion.

"You mean in Welcome Back, Kotter?" he replied with skepticism.

"No, in Phenomenon. Before he got all bloated!" I quipped.

The Tuscan native's sweet and gentle nature was similar to the one Travolta played in the mid-90s film, but his attention to detail was what impressed us the most. Throughout the meal, we admired the flair with which he decorated every plate, adding color, texture and balance to even the most ordinary of dishes.

Ciao, the brainchild of Mandarin Oriental Bangkok's highly decorated culinary director Norbert Kostner, was relaunched in March as a fine dining establishment.

Gone are the heaping platters of pastas and pizzas that was its previous incarnation as a family-style restaurant. Now, with Casini presiding over the stoves, its chef's table with a mere eight seats looks into a spanking clean stainless steel kitchen.

During Bangkok's wet season from May to September, this may be the only part open though on dry evenings, guests can lounge over a cocktail at the U-shaped bar. In the dry months, the large terrace does double duty as an alfresco dining room.

Casini moved to Bangkok last November after working at a Hyatt in India. He originally studied in a Tuscan culinary school in Italy before working in a Michelin starred restaurant in Siena.

"I left Italy to learn English," the 30-year-old reveals. "I went to London and have been moving east slowly ever since."

He describes his cooking style as a contemporary interpretation of Italian favorites. "When people have Italian, they expect certain dishes. I physically give them both the classic version and a modern one." This means that for a four-course meal, you get at least eight dishes.

He tries to use local produce and organic ones whenever possible, but admits that cheese, cured meats, some fish and beef come from Europe and Australia.

We started with three different bruschetta: tomatoes, tomatoes and mushrooms, and Stracchino cheese on top of crispy Italian bread.

Although all were excellent, with the faint rub of garlic permeating every bite, my favorite was the classic version with juicy robust tomatoes and a fragrant drizzle of basil and olive oil. The Stracchino's velvety, soothing texture and sweet finish came a close second.

The classic prosciutto with melon was served alongside a crabmeat and floral salad with vinaigrette. Beautifully presented with colorful edible blooms, the zingy lemon dressing contrasted nicely against the mellow crab.

Our pasta course consisted of a traditional spaghetti Carbonara beside spaghetti with fresh clams, cherry tomatoes and zucchini.

Rich and decadent, the Carbonara was made with just eggs and cheese along with smoked pork cheeks. The thick, al dente pasta had a charming homemade quality about it while savory clams were well matched with delicately sweet yet firm vegetables.

Mains of tiger prawns with garlic puree, fennel and potatoes stood by duck breast in rosemary jus with polenta. I thought the prawns were a tad overcooked for my liking, but then recalled that Thais tend to cook their seafood well beyond what most Chinese people consider done - something our chef was happy to correct.

Our dessert of pannacotta three ways, with rosemary and apricot, basil and strawberry, and caramel, was served in stylish egg cup-like glasses. I loved the caramel best as it added a hint of smokiness to the sweet custard, but the basil and strawberry was a delicious combination, too.

We finished with an impressively long plate of fresh berries sprinkled with white and dark chocolate powder and pistachios, which Casini proceeded to add dollops of zabaglione.

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