I consider myself lucky whenever I have a stopover in Milan on my way to another European destination because I think it is a lot of fun eat there (and be there). I had for a long time been curious to eat at the Michelin-star restaurant Joia in Milan, despite suffering sub-par experiences in many Michelin star restaurants the world over, especially when it comes to service, ambience and consistency in the food.
I wanted to try Joia because for 12 years it has received almost uniformly glowing reviews except for one humorous takedown by a Milan food critic, who I now realize I should have taken more seriously. I also happen to prefer vegetables to all other food, and I thought it would be a thrill, despite the painfully high cost for me, to eat in an upscale restaurant in Italy where vegetables are presented as the fundamental building blocks of the meal. Vegetable centric dinners are more the norm in many parts of Italy when it comes to home cooking, but is only rarely seen in fancy restaurants.
The experience of eating at Joia was so grim start-to-finish and it went on so long that it is hard to know which insult to focus on first. Tourists are herded into an ugly, overheated, windowless space in the back -- no room like this should even exist in a restaurant, let alone a Michelin blessed one. One wall contains a glass inset that puts the kitchen on view -- or it would were it possible to actually see anybody working in the kitchen while you are seated at a table. At most you see them from the eyes up, looking scared of the roaming "creative" chef, whose pursed lip expression and vague staring in to the middle distance (uhhh -- for a floating clue?) is almost a parody of how you might cast in a movie a crackpot modern chef with his head spinning with Michelin stars.
Anyway, probably best not to be able to watch vegetable sausage being made -- and most the vegetables in the Joia kitchen are being pulverized into some kind of sausage or grit or foam, then glued back together into geometric shapes or crude childlike drawings, or sort of drooled over your plate like ruminated cud. The individual courses are mostly full of overly sharp flavors, particularly of the Asian kind, which might still be a novelty to somebody (not me). Some of the plates arrive with words scawled on them in florescent goo -- words like Health! or Happiness! -- which alas only served to underline for me what an unhappy and unhealthful thing it is to take wholesome fresh vegetables and dessicate them, freeze them, pound them out of shape until they turn into Day-glo plastic shapes and charge people a small fortune to then eat it.
No wine pairing was offered with the tasting menu the night I was eating there (I realize now I should be grateful). So I drank a very nice bottle of wine of Lombardian wine from the Valtellina (Sassella Riserva Vigna Regina and I now forget which year) recommended to me by a head waiter in a nice suit who took my order then disappeared for the rest of the evening, leaving a poor overworked young girl in running shoes unfashionably sweating to take care of several tables of lost-looking folk.
I had already realized by the second or third course of the meal that it wasn't going to get any better for me, but I still managed to be surprised that dessert was a total dud. I mean, how hard can it be to make people happy with dessert? An array of 5 bon bons had nothing to recommend about any of them. Michelin-blessed food like this is said to be "full of ideas" and "thought-provoking", and what I was left thinking while waiting for the bill was that maybe in fashion-addled Milan, with all its shallow pursuits and meaningless chatter, where the unremittingly ugly is perennially and cynically marketed as beautiful, that a restaurant like this actually does succeed as edible social commentary, a molecular encapsulation of the zeitgeist. For a couple of hundred euro, you can actually eat the frothy sickness of Milan's fashion perversions, rather than just look on them with pity.
It was just about then when one of the servers emerging from the kitchen collided with another, sending a plate of thought-provoking something crashing to the tiles underfoot, producing a truly repulsive mass of grey, chunky puke-like garbage right by my feet the floor. It was a low moment, but I confess it made me laugh.
The bill was 267 euros which, as Michelin restaurants go, I guess should be viewed as cheap.
I was angry -- but at who? I've eaten at enough Michelin star, highly ooed and cooed over restaurants that I should have been prepared for disappointment at kick in the stomach high prices. But in the end, when we actually left the restaurant and emerged back into the night of Milan, I just became sad. All around me I could smell a lot of wonderful food being cooked. Seriously. And nothing at Joia had smelled delicious. Interestingly, I now realized it was all totally devoid of scent. The hermetically sealed kitchen was an isolation booth from which no sensual aromas emerged. No memorable or useful ideas emerged either. It was all just dead on arrival. Something to talk about or stare at, they way people stare at a collapsed body on the sidewalk. A real appetite killer.
At the end of our meal, we had pocketed the two little sealed babyfood jars of some sort of grey paste that appeared at our table with the bill to sign. I stowed them in the minibar at the hotel, thinking it might be interesting to eat them en route to the next destination, but we forgot all about them. Maybe the cleaning staff found them and threw them away for us. Or maybe they shared among themselves the one singular redeeming taste treat from Joia that I missed. Maybe they are still there or maybe the next guests ate them. I hope nobody was poisoned.
May this serve as a warning to others not to follow the false star of Michelin.