Venice’s evocative monikers include the City of Love, City of Masks and City of Bridges – but is it also a City of Food? Fiona Vlemmiks finds out…
The TV foodie-travelogue is increasingly ubiquitous, from Rick Stein’s Long Weekends across Europe, to Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon gorging and jesting their way through Italy and Spain in The Trip to…. In the spirit of such adventures, I decided to plan my own culinary odyssey, sampling the delights of Venice‘s fine dining hotspots.
Arriving on a balmy October afternoon, there’s time to feast my eyes on the timeless architecture and romantic waterways of Le Serenissima, before the epicurean experience begins in earnest.
Cip’s Club, Belmond Hotel Cipriani
My first stop is dinner at the gloriously swanky, but invitingly informal, Cip’s Club at Belmond Hotel Cipriani on the island of Giudecca, just a few minutes by water taxi from St Mark’s Square.
A renowned celebrity haunt, frequented by A-listers such as George and Amal Clooney, the appealing poolside bar at Belmond Hotel Cipriani features special cocktails that George created with the head barman, Walter Bolzonella: Nina’s Passion (named after his mother) and Buonanotte (created in honour of Clooney’s film, ‘Good Night and Good Luck’). Although tempted by a touch of glamour by association, I instead opt for a Canaletto aperitif – local Prosecco with tangy, freshly squeezed raspberries – the perfect pre-pasta palate cleanser.
Comfortably ensconced on the deck of Cip’s Club as the last of the day’s boats float serenely by, mouthwatering primi piatti, comprising risotto with radish and scallops, and linguini with spicy lobster sauce, is a phenomenal start to dinner.
Next up, there’s a delicate yet delicious sea bass, perfectly cooked with fennel and lemon, and a hearty dish of tender quail with truffle, bacon and mushrooms, served with creamy mashed potato. Delectable dolce is a dark chocolate and raspberry cake, accompanied by a reviving shot of espresso, before the evocative boat journey home in a city that becomes spookily atmospheric by night. While the Cipriani is one of Venice’s most venerated and exclusive hotels, the convivial, homely atmosphere at Cip’s Club makes it the perfect place to kick-off a luxury foodie trip.
Breakfast at The Gritti Palace
Life on Venice’s waterways begins early. From around 6am, colourful flotillas of gondolas, cargo boats and water-taxis transport goods and people across the city’s canals. Arguably the best spot from which to observe this bustling, seemingly haphazard spectacle is The Gritti Palace, while feasting on scrumptious fare.
As the sun rises over the lagoon, breakfast is served on The Gritti Terrace, lovingly perched aside the Grand Canal. Hotel guests can enjoy freshly pressed orange juice and bracing espresso, beautifully served by possibly the most attentive staff anywhere in Venice. With cobwebs from the previous evening’s excesses shaken off by the trusted combination of caffeine and vitamin C, there’s an enticing choice of gourmet delights from the American breakfast buffet, some Italian specialities to sample and a selection of egg dishes, cooked with unfeasible delicacy, from an à la carte menu. There is simply no better way to begin a busy day of Venetian sightseeing and gastronomy.
Arva, Aman Venice
After an indulgent breakfast, the sad sacrifice of abstaining from lunch can be more readily accepted when a dinner reservation awaits at another favourite Clooney hideaway – Aman Venice.
Located on the Grand Canal in the 450-year-old Palazzo Papadopoli, across the Rialto Bridge from The Gritti Palace, this lavish address is officially the only ‘seven-star’ hotel in Venice. Attracting a relatively young crowd of the international great and good, often slightly dressed down against such opulent backdrops, it’s a real challenge deciding what to wear for dinner.
Arriving, I hope, suitably attired, the restaurant, Arva, is inspired by the humble tradition of Italy’s cucina del raccolto, combining seasonal ingredients and locally sourced delicacies to create market-to-table dining. This being Aman, the concept is given a luxury, uber-chic twist. To call the dining room grandiose would be a wild understatement. Formerly a ballroom and bedecked with splendid paintings and Murano glass chandeliers, originals installed by the Papadopoli family, it showcases the results of generations spent collecting masterpieces.
The ambience is discreet, with tables sympathetically spaced to give a sense of the intimacy of dining at home – if your home happens to be a palace! Dainty sets of homemade breadsticks, cleverly flavoured with unusual ingredients (the squid ink is my personal favourite) are served on arrival, washed down with the hotel’s own extra-dry Prosecco.
Notable highlights of the exquisite ensuing banquet include silky carpaccios of sea bass and tender beef, a dish of tagliatelle with chanterelle mushrooms, succulent pork belly served with courgette and taleggio cheese, and the isolated concession to healthy eating – spinach with ginger. Each course meets its ideal viticultural match through pairings designed by the knowledgeable staff. For all the claims of traditional methods, this is fine dining with a far more contemporary, molecular feel than at Cip’s Club. I can heartily recommend both.
The Long Way Home: The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express
The only acceptable way to complete a Venetian culinary commission is to voyage home in the grandest of styles – aboard the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express.
Orchestrated by executive chef, Christian Bodiguel and billed as the culinary adventure of a lifetime, the menu is designed around the use of seasonal ingredients inspired by the destinations that the train passes through.
Chilled fizz is poured as the train exits Venice Santa Lucia Station, an apt aperitif to an intensely decadent journey. Meals are served in the historic, ornate dining cars – Côte D’Azur, Etoile Du Nord and L’Oriental – where design features include intricate marquetry, Art Deco iconography and gorgeous René Lalique glass panels.
Lunch commences with pumpkin velouté and truffle caviar quenelle with pan-fried foie gras escalope, quickly upstaged by roasted anglerfish tail with Parma ham and Venetian clam sauce, accompanied by a cannelloni of spinach fondue and stewed fennel. Rounded off with an exceptional fig tiramisu, it’s quickly apparent that the lack of sightseeing stops could create issues with squeezing into clothes for further meals, so I spend the next hour traversing the characterful carriages, familiarising myself with their unique histories.
The evening atmosphere becomes festive, as pre-dinner drinks and tinkling ivories are partaken in the bar carriage. In the Côte D’Azur dining car, the service is impeccable as I feast on marinated lamb tenderloin with redcurrant jelly sauce, complemented by lightly salted vegetables and a chayote squash gratin. The comprehensive cheese selection and caramel parfait means that a second visit to the bar for a digestif becomes essential.
Arriving in Paris the following morning, a light breakfast is served in each cabin. Yet it’s brunch in the restaurant car that’s, perhaps, the most memorable meal of my whole ‘Orient Express’ experience. After fluffy scrambled eggs with smoked salmon, the most delicious broiled lobster is served with mushrooms and shallots, drenched in fresh cress butter sauce and accompanied by potato and chive whirls. Freshly caught that morning and delivered to the Parisian platform, it’s a magical late-morning feast that would be rude not to accompany with another small glass of bubbly.
A couple of languid hours later, guests reluctantly leave the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express to cross the English Channel via luxury coach. At Folkestone, The Belmond Pullman awaits for the final leg of the journey to London Victoria. Although it seems impossible to contemplate another morsel, a final treat of Afternoon Tea with English sparkling wine provides a fitting conclusion to the ultimate gastronomic journey.
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