Seta's courtyard at Mandarin Oriental
Liquorice parfait with crystallised Kentucky tobacco leaves, spiced pear and coffee cream
When Antonio Guida started work as Executive Chef in 2002 at Hotel Il Pellicano in Porto Ercole, Tuscany, Italy, the destination might have been renowned as a glamorous retreat for the international jet set, but in terms of the food offering it was a culinary wasteland. Yet within two years the Italian chef, who was then 31, had won the restaurant its first Michelin star, and six years later he had helped earn the establishment a second one.
At the time, hotels in general rarely had notable restaurants, but Guida was given carte blanche by the owners to be as creative as he liked in the kitchen. In Eating at Hotel Il Pellicano - a recipe book like no other, with glossy photographs by Juergen Teller and dishes eaten by 10 of the most important guests who stayed at the hotel, from the Missoni fashion clan to the prominent local Corsini family - author Will Self describes Guida's transformation of the food as a 'quiet revolution'.
Executive Chef Antonio Guida and Exective Sous Chef Frederico Dell'Omarino at the entrance to Seta
Several of Guida's signature dishes from Hotel Il Pellicano, such as a cauliflower-based starter and risotto, were tweaked and transferred to Mandarin Oriental, Milan's Seta restaurant when he was appointed Executive Chef for its opening last year. 'After 13 years in the same place, you start thinking about change,' he muses, sipping espresso when we meet one grey Tuesday morning in the groovy, graphic, monochrome Mandarin Bar. 'What was appealing was to be in a big city instead of a resort. Hotel Il Pellicano was seasonal, so I could only cook with summer ingredients, but here I can be in the kitchen all year round.'
It's not only the dishes he has brought with him: his trusty sous chef Federico Dell'Omarino and talented pastry chef Nicola Di Lena both upped sticks to Mandarin Oriental, Milan, too. And, within six months of opening, Seta was awarded a Michelin star.
Black ink spaghetti with turmeric sauce, baby squid and peas
Antonio Guida in Seta's kitchen
Talking to Guida, it feels as if Seta is a culmination of everything he has been working towards since growing up in Puglia, southern Italy, with a mother passionate about food (she made fresh pasta and bread daily, and loved to experiment with new flavours and dishes). He embarked on his culinary career by working on cruise ships and spent two years at the Savoy hotel in Zurich before reaching a significant turning point - a job at Pierre Gagnaire's two-Michelin-starred restaurant in Paris, first as a commis chef, then as chef de partie.
'Working with a chef of his level and quality was very special. Still now we talk, he's my mentor,' says Guida. There's clearly a deep respect between the two: Gagnaire wrote in Eating at Hotel Il Pellicano that he witnessed Guida's 'discretion, gentleness and persistence about doing things right. Antonio is now recognised as one of the best chefs in Italy.'
Seta restaurant's contemporary interior
Strawberry stuffed with timut pepper yoghurt, rose water sauce and almond ice cream
Before that pivotal move to Hotel Il Pellicano, he also did stints at several other Michelin-starred restaurants, all throughout his home country, from Enoteca Pinchiorri in Florence to Don Alfonso 1890 on the Amalfi Coast and La Terazza dell'Eden in Rome.
Pair the influence of Guida's Italian background with the techniques he learned in Paris and the time he spent travelling the world when Hotel Il Pellicano was closed for the winter, and you can begin to understand where his approach to cooking comes from. What he does brilliantly, as I discover when I visit Seta to try the tasting menu titled 'A tribute to Milan', is to elevate the humble ingredient into the hero of a dish. It's rare, for example, to find lightly fried cauliflower taking centre stage on the menu of a Michelin-starred restaurant as it does here, served with shrimps, mussels and clams in a zesty yuzu juice and almond milk sauce as a starter. This arrives minutes after the second wine of the evening (the first was a champagne-like metodo classico Giulio Ferrari, which was paired with heavenly bite-sized morsels such as aubergine bon bon with cumin and squid ink tuile, and caper royale and salmon eggs), bought to the table by charming restaurant manager and former sommelier Alberto Tasinato.
When the hotel opened, Seta had 500 wines on the list, now there are more than 600. 'You start to know the clients and the kitchen,' explains Tasinato when I ask about the increase. 'Plus Antonio and I, we're like a new couple and it takes time to get to know each other. Antonio loves pinot noir, which is one of the most elegant red wines, so we have a dedicated section for that. It's a good combination with the food.'
Rice cagnone-style with vegetables, Maccagno cheese and raspberry powder
Chef Dell'Omarino preparing food
With each course and new glass of wine, he imparts a gem or two about the winery: the light, fruity Moscato Giallo, for example, which is served with the cauliflower, is from the Moser winery in Trento, northern Italy. It is co-owned by Francesco Moser, who, for 10 years, juggled a living growing grapes with a career as a professional road bicycle racer.
Next comes the rice, cagnone-style (a play on risotto), with a ring of green vegetable cream around the edge, creamy Maccagno cheese in the middle and a delicate sprinkling of raspberry powder. The idea of the flavours is based on the Italian tradition found among poor families of re-energising leftover boiled rice by frying it in butter and sage. It tastes sublime. 'This is the dish that represents me the most,' says Guida. 'It's classic because of the ingredients, but modern in the way that they are combined. The taste is smooth and balanced. You don't need to be a food expert to understand dishes like this, you can just enjoy them.'
From one Italian staple to another, the rice is followed by the most Mediterranean dish on the menu: spaghetti with parsley sauce, marinated mackerel and saffron. The seafood flavour of the sauce is intense and perfectly matched with the pale, delicate rosi wine from the Miraval estate in Provence.
Here, I can be in the kitchen all year round
The final savoury dish is the most tender breast of fig-fed chicken served with cannellini beans and seaweed cream, fregola and whelks, topped off with an elegant-looking dried lettuce leaf.
As I ask Guida about this dish (yes, the chicken is fed figs and corn from the beginning of its life), it leads to a conversation about finding new producers and suppliers in Milan. 'It's easy to find good, fresh ingredients here. Sometimes the fish in Milan is better than the fish you can find closer to the sea this city is so powerful in the industry that many producers sell here first,' he explains.
Evidently, it's also easy to find a supply of Kentucky tobacco leaves, which are taken from the Toscanello cigar and form one of the key ingredients in Di Lena's intriguing signature dessert: a liquorice parfait with crystallised Kentucky tobacco leaves and spiced pear and coffee cream. The tobacco leaf itself has the appearance of a flake of wooden bark and gives crunchiness to the dish, which tastes like a smooth, creamy cappuccino.
Guida and Di Lena can't seem to decide whose initial idea this dish was, or how it came about, but after a few gentle torrents of chatter in Italian, I'm told that it started for commercial reasons. 'Il Pellicano really wanted to sell more after-dinner liquors, which at the time weren't very fashionable, so we were thinking of a dessert that might inspire people to buy one,' says Guida. 'This dessert, with tobacco and coffee, invites you to order a rum or Armagnac.'
Along with the second dessert that I try - strawberry stuffed with timut pepper yoghurt, rose water sauce and almond ice cream - it's delicious. It's often difficult to use spices such as pepper in a dessert, says Di Lena, because they need to be finely balanced to work. And balanced they are, for he follows the same philosophy as Guida, combining simple ingredients in a creative way.
The courtyard dining area at Seta
Looking around Seta (which means silk and was chosen as a name not only because the fabric represents the elegance of the dishes, but also because of the Silk Route, which began in Asia and ended in Milan), it's buzzing with locals gathered around the curved, teal-coloured velvet banquettes. The best tables are those by the window, which have views across the restaurant's pretty inner courtyard (you can eat outside when the weather is warm enough) to the kitchen opposite. It feels as if you are in the front row at the theatre as you watch the chefs working away on the other side (there is also a new chef's table for two in the kitchen, so you can eat right at the heart of the action).
Although Guida didn't design the restaurant, he did choose the Piero Fornasetti plates (Fornasetti having lived most of his life in Milan) that are laid out for the starter and, more importantly, created the Seta kitchen from scratch. 'It was a dream for me,' he says.
'We're getting very good feedback, we're really happy. And because many of the clients are Milanese, we're not just cooking for hotel guests. Many locals who used to stay at Il Pellicano are very happy that we're here,' he continues, pointing out that Seta has its own entrance and this makes it feel separate from the hotel. 'And we're full for dinner, even on a Monday night.'
It's the same story later that day next door in the Mandarin Bar & Bistrot, where I perch at the bar for aperitivo hour among the young, hip, post-work crowd, sipping on an Elyx in Wonderland cocktail (made from Absolut Elyx, guava juice, fresh ginger, egg white, fresh grapefruit juice and lychee syrup), which is served in its own specially designed glass with a small spray bottle of yuzu on the side, to add if you wish.
Many of the clients are Milanese. Its not just hotel guests
Just like the restaurant, the bar has its own distinct personality, with black and white marble geometric patterns on the walls that look like an optical illusion. Designed by Antonio Citterio, it's hard to imagine that this former manor house-turned-hotel was recently a bank.
I start with a selection of aperitivo snacks - cod fish brandade with squid ink and wasabi mayonnaise, Gorgonzola cheese with pear, nuts and cocoa, and, my favourite, the most delicious mondeghili balls with mortadella ham, veal and rice sauce with saffron - before moving on to dinner. I opt for risotto, partly because I want to compare this version to Seta's, and partly because I can't bear to leave without trying it again. It doesn't disappoint. Made with squacquerone cheese and Parma ham powder, the version in the bar is more simple yet even more comforting, if that is possible.
Mandarin Bar & Bistrot, and its graphic mosaic marble interior
Aperitivo drinks Negroni del Professore and Elyx in Wonderland at Mandarin Bar & Bistrot
'The menu in the bar is simpler, so there are less steps in building up a dish,' confirms Guida. 'The risotto is very similar, but it doesn't have the vegetable rice cream sauce that it does in Seta. The same simplified ethos can be found in the desserts, which are displayed in a lovely old-fashioned dessert trolley by the entrance. It's filled with tiny sweet delights: chocolate mousse with raspberries, tiramisu and, of course, the classic mille-feuille'. According to Di Lena, 'you can always tell if a pastry chef is a good one by the way he makes the mille-feuille'. His is made with a pistachio cream twist, and, by that reckoning, he's a very good pastry chef indeed.
Guida says that he doesn't have a favourite food ('To always eat the same is boring') and that he loves to try new and different things. 'I hope you will take something from my approach,' he wrote in Eating at Hotel Il Pellicano. 'The curiosity and love of experimentation, the interest in combining the traditional and the innovative and, above all that, respect for every ingredient that enters my kitchen and the desire to spotlight it in the best possible way.'
That, in a nutshell, is Guida: humble, passionate and keen to make even the tiniest floret of cauliflower shine.