Since we moved to Italy, we’ve been dreaming about going to Joia: the first vegetarian restaurant in Europe to receive a Michelin star. Neither of us had ever done a tasting menu like this. So when we passed through Milan to visit family, our dinner restaurant choice was easily made.
We entered a surprisingly plain yet comfortable room, expecting something more luxurious given the price range of the restaurant. From the cork-cased menu, we both chose the 11-course vegan tasting menu.
First came a bonus appetizer presented on a plate in the form of a painter’s pallet. The dish allowed us to mix and match flavours by dipping small pieces of different vegetables and fruit in 4 different sauces – testing combinations just like a painter would when mixing colours. Like much of the food to come the flavour combinations were interesting and unexpected. A basic starter yet playful and delicious.
* All of the following pictures were taken with iPhones in restaurant lighting.
The second bonus appetizer was a watermelon carpaccio with balsamic vinegar, pistacchios and wild fennel tops. We were blown away immediately. The fennel really popped through and the acid of the balsamic set off the sweet juice of the watermelon. This dish wasn’t on the menu – they probably only serve it in peak watermelon season.
“Not only by bread men live”
The first course was again a work of art. A kidney bean and panzanella ball was covered in crunchy vegetables. Looks won us over more than taste – it reminded us of a Russian potato salad and the portion size was very big for a tasting menu.
“A doorway to Heaven”
Next came one of our favourites. The waiter opened the lid, smoke dispersed into the air, revealing a white almond cream with various microgreens and vegetables and a toasted sesame sorbet. Underneath the cream was a flavourful basil pesto, bringing freshness to the dish.
After came another creamy dish: a refreshing tomato and strawberry gazpacho. Strawberries lent a nice tang to sweet date tomatoes. This dish epitomised a hot summer night in Italy.
The most italian looking dish, buckwheat noodles were served with a pea cream and fresh berries. It was served at room temperature, a pleasant surprise at the 30°C heat outside. One common theme in the menu was the combination of fruit and vegetables, which in this dish worked perfect to lighten the more heavy pasta.
“Divertissement, thinking about summer and zen”
These dumplings were also up there with our favourites. Filled with smoked eggplant and fresh herbs, the flavour was incredibly well balanced and we both wished for a bigger portion.
This dish looked deceptively simple: a grilled mushroom, aubergine slice, yellow cherry tomato, and Tandori tofu with a miso mayonnaise. All ingredients were organic and freshly harvested so the vegetables tasted wonderful on their own. The miso mayo had an incredibly deep flavour – it’s one of the things we immediately wanted to try out at home.
“Under a colourful blanket”
The waiter would introduce every dish and this time he described it as the sense and flavours as walking through the woods. Although we’re sure that intro framed our experience, it certainly lived up to our expectations with the mixture of crunchy, creamy, and soft textures.
“Cheese tasting from our trolley”
This was one of the few dishes that wasn’t vegan. The alternative for us was a hummus dish with a fruit-flavoured sauce. It was simple and filling.
By this point we were starting to feel very full, yet 3 more desserts were coming. The first one was a sweet tomato with rhubarb and fruit. Rhubarb is always a winner in summer and it combined perfectly with the slightly spicy basil sorbet on top.
For the second dessert, the waiter actually struck the gong at our table, creating a mindful atmosphere. The vanilla dessert came in a little glass jar, showcasing the beautiful layers of cream, berries, and amaretto brittle. A straightforward classic dessert yet carried out into perfection.
The last course was a chocolate and red fruits terrine. Although I’m usually not a big fan of chocolate and fruit combined, the pepper custard and rose stracciatella brought everything together. The waiter put a 5-minute lasting hourglass in the middle of our table because that was the amount of time you needed to eat the dessert. This informal interaction between waiter and client took away from the usually more stiff atmosphere in restaurants like this.
As vegans, we’re used to eat out very cheap since plant-based ingredients cost much less than meat, cheese, and fish. Often our bill is under 40 euros. Yet at Michelin restaurants, you pay for the level of creativity, time, and planning that goes into every dish. The menu was €120 per person, which overall was a reasonable price keeping in mind the huge amount of food we ate.
Experiences are worth the money as well, and we also take away inspiration that influence our own cooking. It already has started as we modified the watermelon dish for our supper club in Rome.
Pietro Leemann is the man behind the restaurant – we already knew his food from Ops!, where he consulted on the menu. We also have a cooking book from Simone Salvini, previous head chef of Joia, called “Cucina Vegana”. It’s one of our most inspiring cooking books as it focuses on high end taste combos of seasonal ingredients.