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Food Hotel: Le Jardin de Russie, Rome

Le Jardin de Russie
, Rome
Cuisine: Italian
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Fulvio Pierangelini is one of the best-known chefs in Italy but his reputation rests on simplicity and originality rather than fancy presentation.
Eating my way south through Italy recently I encountered a mixture of good basic food, some exceptionally good food, and the just plain silly. Rome’s Le Jardin de Russie fell into the second category and avoided all wilful combinations or presentational excesses., “The more simple the dish, the greater margin of error,” is one of Mr Pierangelini’s favourite sayings, and I can confirm that  his simple food was probably the best meal I had all week (although I have to admit a real soft spot for Don Carlos Restaurant in Milan too).
Mr Pierangelini is Creative Food Supervisor at all the Rocco Forte hotels in Italy. At Le Jardin he works alongside Executive Chef Nazzareno Menghini.  This is the garden restaurant of  Rome’s delightful Hotel de Russie, just off Piazza del Popolo. It’s the hotel where George Clooney stayed when making Ocean’s 12 so it has to have good food. George with his villa on Lake Como knows a thing or two about Italian cooking.
To set the scene first: Diners sit out  under huge white umbrellas in what the hotel likes to refer to as its "Secret Garden". This rises up the Pincian, one of Rome’s seven hills, towards  Villa Borghese. The garden was originally a modest vineyard that was acquired by Cardinal Scipione Caffarelli Borghese when he was building his ‘Villa of Delights” at the top of the hill.  A hundred years later the architect Giuseppe Valadier redesigned the garden with a series of paths, embankments, architectural pieces and a waterfall running between three nymphaeums (baroque shrines dedicated to bogus water nymphs).  A large retaining wall was added to create a terrace on which the garden sits, with the land below becoming known as Piazetta Valadier. This is now the home of the hotel’s al fresco Stravinskij Bar.  
I dined early by Italian standards.   At 8pm I had the restaurant pretty much to myself, but gradually hotel guests wandered up the double flight of steps from the Stravinskij Bar and a number of Roman couples arrived too. Locals are a real test of a hotel restaurant in Italy. On the whole Italians don’t choose to eat in hotels. These small quiet men and their well-dressed wives were a good sign.
I ordered red Sicilian prawns to begin with and while waiting to be served nibbled olive oil and focaccia. Mr Pierangelini has designed this oil himself. He doesn’t make it - that is done by a company called Giomi - but as Fulvio grows the olives and buys up the entire output for the hotel restaurants he supervises, it’s fair to call this his oil. I relished its smooth pepperiness.
The prawns were speckled deep red and served with dark pink grapefruit segments and avocado puree studded with a few pistachios and salt crystals. Roberto the Assistant Restaurant Manager assured me that it was a Sicilian fruit to go with Sicilian shellfish and Sicilian wine. The poor prawn was rather reduced to texture I thought by the onslaught of so much acidity, but the wine by the glass (Di Giovanna IGP Terre, a Sicilian white from Grillo grape) fought back well. I’ve had rather watery Grillos in the past  but the Di Giovanna family has been cultivating their organic vineyards for five generations down in Sicily and this was a concentrated and powerfully fruity wine. I was left intrigued and ready for more interesting combinations.
The next dish was a beef tatare with a light mustard sauce. Wine by the glass this time was Greco del Sannio - Vigne Storte 2012, a Neapolitan wine from the Greco grape.  I would have expected a light red wine now– a Valpolicella or Chianti – with beef tartare. This was a gentler white than the Grillo with hints of ripe fruit, grown in an area where wine production dates back to Roman times. The floral notes were intense and might have been better paired with shellfish but nevertheless it did work with the beef tatare. I was learning.
I was urged to stay with the same wine for the pasta course, Cacio e Pepe, which is a signature dish of Mr Pierangelini. Ordinarily Cacio e Pepe has only three main ingredients -Pecorino Romano cheese, black pepper and pasta- and is a very good test of saucepan precision. However at Le Jardin de Russie the dish employs five cheeses and pepper.  It made for a powerful pasta course. Why the same wine? I asked. Roberto explained that “Sometimes good to see how it performs against different foods”, but I began to feel that too much was being asked of the poor innocent Greco grape.
So far the food had impressed but that was about to change with half a Mediterranean lobster paired with a Trentino Pinot Nero "Madruzzo" - Pravis 2010. This was a delicious, complex red from the very north of Italy, bordering Lombardy but I suppose I’m spoiled by New England lobster. The fast-growing Mediterranean variety seemed bland  by comparison. The wine was fien in its own right but a strange choice I thought.  
I’m not one for desserts so my final course was spiced Cinta Senese (suckling pig) served with the house extra virgin oil and mashed potatoes. This was a return to form, a pleasantly crisp surprise,  rich crunchy crackling and flesh that appetizingly fell apart.  The story that Roberto told me added to the enjoyment. It seems that Fulvietto  Pierangelini, son of the great man, has been working in San Vincenzo, Tuscany to preserve this variety of domestic pig from extinction and so I was eating something quite special. I suppose there is an irony inherent in eating anything that is being bred to specifically to save it from extinction,  but the Barolo - Fratelli Alessandria 2009, a hearty red from the Nebbiolo grape, grown in its Piedmontese heartland, helped soothe my conscience. It's a blend of two contrasting vineyards with a bouquet of violets and strawberries. I was drinking the summer of four years ago, a wine full of light and warmth and perfect in the heat of a Roman evening.
The service throughout was excellent, attentive and yet not too intrusive. The majority of the hotel staff were away that night at a staff party, but there was no sense of those left behind having drawn the short straw. The waiters in their traditional black waistcoat-and-apron over a crisp white shirt were always immediately on hand, and I never had to wait for my wine or water glass to be topped up. Yes, great food and great wine are essential for a really good meal, but so is neither being fed like a conveyor belt nor being kept waiting. Either would be unthinkable at Jardin du Russie.
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9 September 2013
By: Adrian Mourby
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