What it's like to dine at the world's best restaurant

Modena Osteria Francescana's Oops I dropped the lemon tart dish.
Modena Osteria Francescana's Oops I dropped the lemon tart dish.  Photo: supplied

Tucked away down a quiet, cobbled street in the sleepy Italian city of Modena, there is little to indicate that, behind a door in a terracotta pink wall, lies the finest dining experience on the planet - rather than a grey-haired nonna rolling dough for tonight's tortellini.

This is Osteria Francescana, a three-Michelin-star gem owned and run by Massimo Bottura, which, on Tuesday night was named the World's Best Restaurant 2018 (having taken the top spot in 2016, too).

The king of Modena: Massimo Bottura at Osteria Francescana.
The king of Modena: Massimo Bottura at Osteria Francescana. Photo: Paolo Terzi

Earlier this year, I was lucky enough to visit - although at that stage, Osteria Francescana had been bumped down to a mere second by Eleven Madison Park, in New York. Even so, it was tough to get a booking for one of its 12 tables.

As part of a celebration to mark my father-in-law's retirement, eight of us hoped to go. Reservations need to be made three months in advance, so at the end of last year, we tried to book on their website, and, while most of us were too late, one was successful.

We arrived at Osteria Francescana a little before the appointed hour. Then, at 12.30pm on the dot, the doors swung open and we were welcomed in and shown to our seats by a team of immaculately dressed staff.

One of the three dining rooms at Osteria Francescana.
One of the three dining rooms at Osteria Francescana. Photo: PAOLO TERZI Fotografo, Modena

Italians are well known for their laid-back attitude, but there is little sense of that here: everything, from floor to ceiling, is in a muted palette of black, white or grey, giving a carefully considered sense of occasion.

Tempting as it was to fill up on the rolls and breadsticks (they have those in Michelin-star restaurants, too), I knew there were 12 courses on the 270 euro ($420 AUD)  tasting menu ahead. Not that the menu itself gave much suggestion of what was to come, with dishes given enigmatic names such as "Burnt" and "Autumn in New York". Even when they appeared, it was hard to imagine how they would taste.

The first, "Insalata di mare", looked like a single leaf of lettuce, yet each bite revealed hidden layers, packed with the flavours of the sea. Next was "Burnt"; ostensibly a small pool of black liquid, it turned out to be a delectable squid ink broth. Mediterranean sole looked like it was wrapped in a shredded plastic bag, but I needn't have worried.

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Among Bottura's signature dishes were "Five ages of Parmigiano Reggiano", one ingredient taken through time, texture and temperature; "The crunchy part of the lasagna", which recalls Bottura's favourite childhood dish; and "Oops! I dropped the lemon tart", a deconstructed dessert, created as the result of a happy accident. Simple concepts taken to another level.

Midway through the meal, Massimo Bottura himself appeared and spent several minutes asking us who we were, where we came from and what had brought us to here. I asked his favourite dish, but he refused to choose: in his words, the menu was intended as a journey, from start to finish.

I had not imagined for a moment that the twinkly-eyed maestro would join us, let alone be laughing, and taking photographs with us; an extra-special touch to what was already the best meal I have ever eaten in my life. As we left, we were given gifts of balsamic vinegar, so we could take a taste of Italy back home with us - another thoughtful touch.

Artwork at Osterio Francescana.
Artwork at Osterio Francescana.  Photo: Supplied

The World's Best Restaurant list is drawn from votes of more than 1,000 restaurateurs, chefs, critics and gastronomes, split into 26 regions around the world, each with a panel of 40 members. The whole process is independently adjudicated by Deloitte.

Winning is, obviously, great for business - the day after El Celler de Can Roca topped the list for the first time in 2013, 12 million people visited its website and three extra staff were hired just to turn down requests.

Modena, situated between Bologna and Parma, has some of the world's finest ingredients within its reach, and is just as renowned for its creativity, counting Pavarotti and Ferrari among its sons. Osteria Francescana, with Bottura at its helm, perfectly blends both of the city's strengths.

Yet is it possible to deem a restaurant the best on earth? TripAdvisor improbably ranks Osteria Francescana as only the fifth best restaurant in Modena. But, after our long-awaited lunch more than lived up to the hype, we left in no doubt that Bottura thoroughly deserved to regain his place at the top.

The Daily Telegraph