As an ultra-modern restaurant located in Northern Italy's seventeenth century Castello di Rivoli, Combal Zero at first appears as a place of contradiction. This is because Scabin is often misunderstood. The words spoken of his cuisine bounce between traditional and modern, trite and inventive. Some go so far as to say he is a mad scientist concerned with superficial appearances and technology while lacking attention on flavor. After my meal, I strongly disagree. Scabin, it appears, likes to have fun. And he thinks his diners should, too. Located in a suburb of Torino, Combal is not the easiest restaurant to get to. As I exited the subway and ventured towards the restaurant, I battled for thirty minutes against an intense downpour up steep and winding hills until finally, the large glass walls overlooking the modern art museum greeted me like a light at the end of a tunnel. I arrived soaking wet, but the warm and friendly staff masked the squeak of my shoes with laughter and grace.
Panelle con gazpacho - An amuse bouche of small cubes of deep-fried Sicilian chickpea fritters with a cold, smooth, and thin tomato soup. This popular street food was served in a paper cone to enhance the effect. The soup was salty and had a touch of cream. The wooden sticks were a hint to dip the cubes into the soup before consumption. These weren't my favorite bites of the night, but I was so hungry after my hike that I wasn't complaining.
Tonno di coniglio con verdure e salsa brusca - The first course of the night was a classic Piemontese dish where rabbit is prepared to develop the texture of lean tuna. It was pretty convincing, and delicious. This was served with carrots and zucchini julienne. The meat was very lean. Most remarkable was the loss of the chicken-texture that rabbit often has. This really tasted more like a fish, than a piece of meat.
Crochette di baccalà mantecato, chips di patata violetta, tisana al Pastis - Small deep fried white fish croquettes with a mixed herb salad kicked up with crispy slices of blue potato. The salad was delicate and full of colors, but I can't say it tasted better than a dry bundle of tinted parsley. The fish croquettes were dense and creamy, the flavor of fish quite strong. I though this course was uninteresting.
And now, the wines for the night as part of our tasting:
- Brut Zero 2000. Podere Rocche dei Manzoni di Valentino.
- Fiano D'Avellino, colli di Lapio 2006, Celia Romano
- Chardonnay Bouchet 2003, Moccagatta
- HY Super Beer 11 1/2 Vol.
- Bianco Kaplya 2005, Damijan
- Ribera del Duero "Valdeatives"
- Domino de Atauta 2000
- Josephine Rogue 2004, Marco de Bartoli
Langaroll - Veal "sashimi," foie gras, deep fried potato, scallion. This was outstanding. What an original idea. Pink layers of lean veal wrapped around foie gras filled with crispy potato and scallion strips. This was a play on a sushi roll, a Japanese maki without the rice and with meat appearing almost identical to fresh tuna. I loved the combination of the fatty foie gras and crispy potato; the potato salted the liver while adding a hint of earth.
Raviolone "George Cogny" - A large egg-yolk and potato raviolo topped with shaved black truffle. The yolk poured out of the paper-thin pasta with the slightest pressure from my fork. The potato absorbed much of the yolk, but ultimately the flavor was bland. The portion was also quite large.
Riso Aquarello Vialone Nano, fegato grasso d'oca, carciofi - Gorgeous grains of rice with foie gras and artichoke. The rice was sticky, giving way to an initial subtle crunch and a grassy aftertaste. This went surprisingly well with the artichoke. The foie gras was the icing on the cake, its creaminess bringing all the ingredients together. This dish had a clear focus on the quality of each individual ingredient, although apparently simple in preparation.
Zuppa di piccione, foie gras, asparagi, composta de cipolla - I'm pretty sure every part of the pigeon was used in this dish. In terms of appearance, the plate looked a bit like a pigeon getting hit by a car. The flavor and textures, however, were another story. This was some of the most tender pigeon I have ever had, without a single trace of fat underneath the skin. The flavor was gamey with a subtle hint of wine and asparagus.
Lingua di vitello, puree di patate di Ratte - A giant block of veal tongue over mashed potatoes with a red wine reduction. Another all-star course, albeit a meal in itself. The meat was soft and supple, its honeycomb of fat visible with the slightest tug. The mashed potatoes and red wine reduction filled every pore.
Hot chocolate in the wind - At first glance this appears to be an ordinary chocolate custard. But the mint-flavored "lip balm" is to be applied to the lips first simulating drinking a cup of warm and thick hot chocolate on a cold winter night. This dish is exemplary of the simple yet out-of-the-box thinking for which Scabin truly has a gift.
Our final dessert was a handful of petits fours served on what appeared to be a plastic shelving unit designed specifically for this purpose.
The beginning of the meal started out quite slow, but quickly picked up and shot forward about half-way through. Only at the end of the meal did I learn that Scabin was not in the kitchen this evening, which is consistent with the tameness of this meal compared to others that I'd read about.
While the dishes were executed perfectly, demonstrating the skill of his highly talented team, there was a spark missing. Not that there was anything really unenjoyable about the meal, I just think that this restaurant has the potential to be one of the most innovative in the world. It felt like someone hit the mute button. I'm going to have to return again when chef Scabin is in the kitchen. The meal can only get better.