This article was also published in the Financial Times.
At 8 pm one sunny evening I was standing deep in thought by a bus stop in the small seaside town of Moneglia on the Ligurian coast of Italy, just north of the Cinque Terre national park so beloved of walkers.
During the day I had received emails from readers in both Brussels and Los Angeles, each notifying me of yet another version of 'the world's top 100 restaurants'. While I appreciate the enormous interest that this approach generates, I do feel that any such classification ignores two aspects of a visit to a restaurant that I find almost as exciting as the food. The first is the sense of occasion, the reason that a particular meal becomes so firmly lodged in one's memory bank, and, secondly, the element of surprise. Extraordinary meals often occur when least expected.
Suddenly, a young woman stopped her car in front of me, rolled down the window and enquired whether we were the customers for La Ruota restaurant. We said yes and jumped in. She turned around and, with one hand on the wheel and the other on the horn, set off at a great speed up the road that leads out of town. Ten minutes and numerous hairpin bends later, she drew abruptly into the restaurant's car park. As we walked in, delighted to have been spared the steep climb on foot, we had not the slightest idea that we were walking past a great wine cellar full of French and Italian gems.
La Ruota's interior is simple, with black-and-white photos, red tablecloths and an old wooden model boat in the middle of the dining room. But its position is breathtaking.
The room, rather like a restaurant in a ski resort, sits with full glass windows on two sides overlooking far below the tall bell tower of Moneglia, its beach, the calm sea and numerous boats in the harbour, all of which are surrounded by verdant hills. The vista only improves when the stars come out.
As our taxi driver went back to her waitressing role, a young man came forward to greet us wearing a perfectly ironed blue shirt, his collar carefully upturned, underneath a yellow apron. We shook hands and, after ascertaining that his English was better than my Italian, we sat down and were promptly served a complimentary glass of a 2011 Sardinian Vermentino di Gallura.
All I knew about La Ruota at this stage was that it serves a set, fish-only, menu that costs 56 euros per person. I had no idea that I was to be a part of a performance where just two people - the chef, proprietor and sommelier Edoardo Compiano and the waitress/taxi driver - did everything including the washing up. I subsequently learnt that Edoardo had been born in this room and that his father, who began collecting top French wine, had opened it 43 years ago.
Compiano began by reciting with great passion the seven dishes on our menu and no sooner had he finished than our first course arrived, a generous serving of super-crisp, deep-fried aubergine, onions, and seafood next to two small bowls of cubes of orange of three different hues. Before slipping off he added that frying is a widely used Ligurian cooking style, although I doubt whether many batters taste quite as clean and fresh.
With this and the next course, a bruschetta of goats' cheese with thinly sliced tuna and salmon and a fried langoustine (and in Italian fashion no lemon as the fish was so fresh), we tried a glass of Rossese 2011, the local red grape. This led to the delivery of the wine list and an abrupt silence at the table.
This was caused by the fact that at the back are listings of several of Italy's top wines, including numerous vintages of the highly sought after Sassicaia and Tignanello, at very modest mark-ups. We finally settled on a bottle of 1994 Tignanello for 65 euros, less than the price it could be bought for retail today in the UK. Here it had the additional benefit of having been stored carefully for 18 years no more than 20 metres away.
The success of these first two courses, and the seafood panzanella that followed, a luscious combination of scampi, warm tuna, tomatoes, olives and crisp, torn toast, was logistically possible for a staff of two to deliver to the six tables because they were served on 'sharing plates', a method of service Compiano obviously put into practice long before it became so fashionable in the rest of the world. So too was the serving of the crepes as dessert. These had been prepared in the kitchen before Compiano turned flambé chef in the middle of the dining room.
Before then, Compiano had gone round the room with a whole dentrix, a large Mediterranean fish known for its protruding teeth, that had been baked under salt and was served with potatoes and more cubed orange. His final, and most dramatic, dish was several sticks of celery standing vertically on a plate to which a dozen steamed shrimps were attached. The only hiatus came, most unusually, just before this course when Compiano produced a dish of taglierini with diced octopus and scampi. In Italy the pasta cooking process cannot be rushed.
This combination of great food, wine and the most heartfelt service combined to make dinner at La Ruota truly memorable. And we thoroughly recommend that wine list.
La Ruota Via Perlemeglio 6, Loc. Lemeglio, 16030 Moneglia, Italy; tel +39 185 49565
The photo is taken from La Ruota's website.