What do you mean you prefer vegetarian!” Exclaimed chef Stephano when I told him I was a non vegetarian with a strong bias towards vegetarian food. I smiled. It was for him to figure out. “Okay, let me make you some vegetarian stuff.” He declared. In a matter of minutes I had this super fresh, crunchy, and flavourful salad on my table. Made with poached pears, asparagus, rucola, goat cheese, walnuts and honey dressing. The husband got his with mangoes, rucola, parma ham, pancetta, balsamic dressing, and cherry tomatoes. Then there was the deep fried pizza dough with premium cold cuts.
Crisp, fresh, balanced, the salads – I tasted both – set the tone for the evening of chef’s special summer menu at Prego, the Italian speciality restaurant in Westin, Gurgaon.
“Why a summer menu?” I asked. “Because it’s too hot here” he said. We laughed. The Summer Menu at Prego is all about lighter fresher ingredients made with traditional methods. That means you get to eat Dussheri in a salad and beans in a pasta. The sweet Chenin Blanc from the vineyards of South Africa complements the light food perfectly. Of course there’s the Chardonnay and the Shiraz too if you prefer. It is about the palate after all like the chef says.
You must try my handmade pasta. We make it fresh everyday.” When chef Stephano suggested, I are his fresh homemade pasta instead of the dried and boiled one, I readily agreed. “I will make you a pesto, and the gentleman a seafood aglio olio.” Now I don’t usually like pesto. I find them too strong and basilly. But, as a rule, I let the chef feed me his choice of food. So I did this too.
The pasta came in with potatoes and beans for me, and scallops, prawns, and kalamari for the man. This time I ate only mine. The fresh homemade pasta turned out to be light and firm. Al-dante, as the chef said, gets digested easier, plus there was no heavy cheesy sauce. “I don’t do the pink sauce which everyone in Delhi seems to love”. He chuckled. The pesto was beautiful and mild, the potato cubes added a nice bite to it, and the french beans — they are called so because they are grown in a region close to the French border — gave it a crunch. I was glad I let him make what he wanted. The seafood pasta, I heard, was nice too. Thankfully none of it was ‘pink sauced.’
For the main course chef served us a lamb shank with mashed potatoes, carrots and snow peas. The lamb is cooked in slow heat for upto 8 hrs, depending on the piece, and then cooled at room temperature. The sauce, a mix of carrots, onions, red wine, garlic, and herbs, is smoothed for hours before putting the shank in. The result is a shank with meat so soft that it is almost falling off the bone. The creamy mash and the crisp vegetables on the side complemented it perfectly.
If there was one thing I could live on, it would be desserts. Every single night when I sit down to write (often food stories) I need dessert. It’s another matter though that I never have anything to eat. (That’s a clever strategy, else I’d be 3 times my size).
But that also means that when I get a chance to eat dessert, I neither think of calories nor sugar especially when presented with a platter like this. Torta Caprese, Millefoglie, Tarte Tatin, Gelato, and of course Tiramisu. This platter took me straight to heaven. I wish I could get some home too (but better sense prevailed).
The torte (you can see the corner has been eaten!) is #glutenfree – not because it has been made so but because it is original recipe with just eggs, cocoa, and almonds. It is by far the best torte I have ever tasted: warm, moist, crisp and bitter all at once. “The Millefoglie is my own recipe,” said chef Stephano, “Just as the Tiramisu. I don’t like the soggy pastry under the custard, so I assemble them at the time of service. And Tiramisu I make myself every day.” He added. .
The Millefoglie was light, flaky, crisp and very hard to eat without being clumsy. The Tiramisu, made with spiced rum, and strong espresso, hit me hard. It was neither spongy and cakey, nor sweet. Again, one of the best I have eaten. Tarte Tatin and Gelato were on point, that I was just too full by the time I got to them is another story. Oh by the way, I had a second serving of the torte even as my stomach was ready to burst.
But food apart, what sets the experience at Prego apart is the long conversation with the chef and his team. While Chef Stephano humored us with his stories – of his home, where his food comes from, his kitchens where he has learnt his skill from, and his experiences with the Indian palate. His team, this young man, Kamal, and his teammates, meanwhile were attentive and proactive.
After so many years of eating out in so many kinds of restaurants, I strongly believe that behind every good restaurant is a great team. The smallest of places can run like clockwork and the poshest can fail – if the tram behind it doesn’t know what it is doing. At Prego what works best is the team. The chef who calls the boys his kids and makes them work very hard; who teaches them to train their hands and palate. And the team that works hard and still smiles.
If you happen to be at Prego – which you must – do say hello to them. You’d not only come back with memories of great food but also of amazing and warm conversations.