New Chef, New Menu, Classic Italian at Prego, Taj Coromandel

Would it be right to say that fine dining is now associated with minuscule portions of food, plated to make the eyes pop out of their sockets? Maybe. Not always, but for the average us, that might be the first thought at the mention of fine dining. With good degustation menus, that maybe over stating, but if when there is no degustation menu involved, a blob of rice or a thin piece of chicken may not be shareable. While the eyes may pop out of the socket, will the tongues wag after tasting the food? Maybe. Maybe not.

That is set to change. One of the finest Italian Fine Dine places of Chennai is making a U turn! Going against the tide. Challenging the norm. Doing......well, you get the idea!

The new chef, Alessandro Bechini is set to take a step back. "Food for the tongue. Not just for the eyes." The word 'just', in this context speaks a lot. He is not taking plating for granted, food still looks good. But the focus is on classic Italian flavours. Not modern Italian. Not modern anything, but taking it back. "Food has to get to the plate as soon as possible from the cooking process," he says. Whatever you can plate to make it look good, do it, but not at the expense of food getting cold or needing to be reheated! Fair enough.

Going by the amuse-bouche, none of what I said might have made sense, but it ended there.

A 7 course Italian meal for 6 of us didn't come with our own plates. We had to share. Yes, share in a 5 star, fine dine Italian. Share in Prego! Own plate degustations are available if you ask for it, but as of now, not on the menu. Even then, share. "Every culture that has evolved over a few centuries, has sharing food as a way of life," he says. Sounds so much like Indian food, doesn't it? Well, both these countries are rich in history.

We actually shared soup and the experience was rather unique, sitting in Prego. 2 sea food broth, 2 chicken with egg drop and 2 Minestrone soups. Each of them were generous portions, filled with flavour, but not overpowering with in-your-face flavours, but the more subtle ones. More earthy and more warmth in every mouthful. Familiar yet unfamiliar. After having all three, the chicken soup was the best of the lot, chicken soup for the soul, indeed, followed by the vegetarian Minestrone.

Then the salad course. Yes, we all had our own plates for this. An excellent poached pear with walnuts and gorgonzola dressing. All plates were licked clean.

Then came the, technically, first course. Pastas and Risottos. The best way to judge an Italian restaurant is by the risotto. Nothing is more or less revealing about an Italian chef than the risotto. If he is Italian, well, there is possibly only one way he knows to make it. The right way. Risotto with its mushrooms and truffle oil was excellent. This was followed by the pastas. We had about 3 pastas for the six of us. The lamb fettuccini with its slippery pasta and awesome lamb could have been the best dish of the day, but the eggless crepe with broccoli simply took the honours. I did not get a chance to taste the other vegetarian pasta!

The two second courses are where things got a little 'new'. A chicken (without prosciutto for us) was tangy lemony. Excellent single strong flavour, but one that I am not used to all. Very confusing for the brain, though very warming for the heart and tongue. The grilled Sea Bass that had both red sauce and a salsa verde (green sauce) was again confusing. Maybe it was the chick pea fritters that, personally for me, did not complement the fish. Or was it two sauces? I won't know what caused the confusion. The fish, though, by itself was excellent.

We finished off with two nice classic dessert, an eggless tiramisu and a dark chocolate fondant with a sorbet. That berry sorbet was simply excellent and I could made an entire meal out of it.

If you are used to the old Prego, you need to go with an open mind and relearn the Prego memories and re-create new ones. If you have never been to Prego, go ahead and taste some classic unadulterated Italian flavours! A meal for two will cost about Rs. 3500 without alcohol.