I was in Milan for fashion week. I say ‘for’, but ‘during’ is probably more accurate, or ‘despite’. It was a one-night job to visit a pop-up restaurant called The Cube, a postmodernist construction designed or commissioned by Electrolux, perched like a pigeon atop various European landmarks. They started in Brussels; Stockholm and London are coming up, and this time they stuck it on the building next to the Duomo.
Milan hardly feels like Italy: in most meaningful senses, it’s northern European. People stomp around looking grim and serious, swooshing silk and designer clobber. Boulevarded and boutiqued, the whole place struts. If Italy is a default, 19th-century compromise, then Milan is the resentful party. Most of the Milanese I spoke to griped about the south without prompting.
My cousin is at university there and I arranged to come out the day before so I could crash on his sofa. I joined him and his gilded friends for dinner at a film-themed place called Papermoon, supposedly frequented by Hollywood types when they’re in town. It was pizza and pasta, and the place is overlit, but we ate and drank well for a little under €50 a head, which I’m told is a miracle in Milan. At the next-door table gabbled perhaps 18 models, there for fashion week, scarfing pizza and pasta as if they’d never heard of lettuce. Henry – my cousin – says that the Milanese eat carbs like famished Stakhanovites, but you rarely see a fat one. They’re just less neurotic about food than we are.
The day I went, the chef at The Cube was a chap called Andrea Sarri, whom I should have heard of but hadn’t. He runs a place called Agrodolce, and though sweet and sour is characteristically Sicilian he’s based near Sanremo by the French border. Sarri is a slim and gregarious chap, and his food matches beautifully abstracted presentation with winning, ingredient-led Italianate simplicity. It worked well in a place that seats just 18, all sitting round one table.
We ate almost no meat. Scallops in English-trannied “acidolous salade” were wibbly bivalves with crisp frisée in a trickle of broth. I loved a pre-dessert of yoghurt cream with persimmon sauce and popping candy coated in chocolate, but the best dish by far was a langoustine risotto, gunged with rich, sweet tomato pulp and a dollop of mozzarella cream. Italian cooks tend to work within specific constructions: not for them – or more particularly their customers – the extraneous pairings and gallant nonsense of other Europeans. Predictably, Sarri worked best with seafood, simply treated.
The Cube is coming to London in time for the Olympics. They won’t tell me where it’s going to be but I heard it might be plonked on Tower Bridge, which would be a hell of a venue. It rotates high-end (read: Michelin-starred) chefs from the countries that host it, but again I have no details on who the English chefs will be. I hope they avoid the obvious London ones.