If 2020 has already taken you by surprise, get ready for the most eye-opening restaurant launch of the year in Rome: Taki Off and interim project, Taki Labo. Japanese precision meets Italian know-how in this experimental space, which promises to be the most exciting new restaurant experience in Rome this year.
Hosted by long-standing Japanese restaurant Taki in Rome’s Prati district, Taki Off is located in a separate wing of the premises on via Marianna Dionigi. It has been designed as a container for the imagination and experimentation of multi-Michelin-starred chef Massimo Viglietti, who has been given carte blanche to create a passion project.
The principle Japanese restaurant, Taki, serving Kyoto-area cuisine, continues to be overseen by Onorio and Yukari Vitti. The latter is the restaurant’s head chef, and Viglietti’s occasional confidant for this side project. The two describe it as a balance of yin and yang.
Viglietti kicked off the Taki Off project with Taki Labo this summer, an initially closed-door dining experience allowing the chef to shape his ideas for Taki Off, due to open in the autumn. I recently went to try dinner at Taki Labo, which wasn’t yet open to the public, but rendered a tantalising idea of what the Taki Off space may represent.
Why am I writing a review of a restaurant which hasn’t opened yet? For the same reason that tech writers describe a cutting-edge prototype, or fashion journalists try to capture the mood of an avant-garde collection from the side of a catwalk. Because Taki Labo is where all the exciting stuff has been happening: a night with the chef, if you will, as he refines and perfects the up-to-ten course menu guests will be able to enjoy at Taki Off.
The Taki Off / Taki Labo prices are accessible in terms of Rome’s gourmet dining scene: expect to pay €130 for ten courses with a full wine / alcohol pairing (ranging from sake to champagne) and €90 for a six-course version with paired drinks.
To call Taki Labo / Taki Off a fusion dining experience is to miss the point. Yes, the dinner features Japanese ingredients and plating; and yes, there are also Western European, chiefly Italian elements. But this is no diplomatic exchange: it’s more akin to a remix, where the chef is a diabolical DJ, sometimes taking a nostalgic trip to Liguria; sometimes hashing ingredients together and shooting them off into space; and sometimes slicing Italian flavours with the surgical precision of Japanese food, just for fun.
‘This is not a restaurant,’ says chef Viglietti, whose bald pate is adorned with the most delicate mohawk I have ever seen, as we sit down to dine at the kaiten-sushi conveyor belt. It won’t be used to transport our food tonight, but is a mesmerising mix of rotating candles and dried flowers. ‘And I’m not going to turn the music down, so get ready to get lost in this sensory experience!’
Plenty has been written about the punk credentials of Viglietti, thanks largely to his haircut and preference for guitar-heavy 70s, 80s and 90s rock classics. However, in an amusing aside, the chef explains how he styled his mohawk to give moral support to a nephew sporting a Mario Balotelli-cut who was struggling to get a job with his sticking-up crest. The music, which plays loudly throughout dinner, is actually a rather genteel trip down memory lane and promotes concentration on and immersion in the food rather than chit-chat with your neighbour.
Taki Labo / Taki Off review
My night at Taki Labo starts with a delicate cracker filled with offal pate, plus a tris of antipasti, including deep fried cheese, a sushi roll and onion-infused wagyu meatball.
As an accompaniment, Viglietti shows off his Ligurian origins with a saltless bread served with butter made from fresh pesto.
Next up, this exquisite crunchy salad is enriched with discs of foie gras and slivers of baccala’, served with a chilled glass of pinot grigio. A real triumph of crisp and cool textures, overwhelmed in alternately silky and smooth slivers of savoury protein.
After this, we try a beef tartare and prawn dish dressed with yogurt and black olive tapanade. The chef passes personally to crush a king prawn’s carapace over the plate, to vividly illustrate his belief that cooking is a violent business. The flavours are intense and concentrated.
To continue with the tough-guy theme, our next dish resembles the sort of tonic you’d expect a boxer to swill down. A single raw egg yolk is topped up with a strained tomato broth from a flask; we are instructed to stir well and gulp it down. The umami flavours of the broth take over, a wonderfully savoury tomato concentrate, which leaves the yolk to give body and richness, nothing more.
Next up, it’s time for a more formal excursion into Japanese cuisine, with a tris of gyoza, filled with fish, pork and vegetables respectively, and served with a rice cream.
After this, we pass on to the chef’s mystery box: this contains a diamond of seared eel balanced on a paste of black sesame, as intense and absorbing as the black lacquer box it comes in. It’s paired with a non-filtered sake from South Japan.
The next dish again explores Japan with a square of wagyu beef and anchovy, served with a white cabbage and hazelnut salad. We’re warming up to a direct head to head between Japan and Italy as the flavours of Northwest Italy meet one of the prime ingredients of Japanese cuisine. It’s an exciting dish of contrasting flavours and textures.
We are instructed to blindfold ourselves for the next serving to try and understand its composition. In the glass, shredded strands of raw vegetable are cradled in a thick flavour of the sea, with aromatic notes blown in from afar: it’s a audacious dish of raw carrot spaghetti with sea urchin and lavender foam.
The fusion note continues with the next course, combining soba noodles, sardine and mushroom broth. This is another successful combination, displaying Viglietti’s masterful, organic layering technique.
The savoury part is over, and dinner is suspended with an aesthetic punctuation, a fresh campari sorbet.
Viglietti shows off with two desserts to conclude the dinner that zigzag between sweet and savoury: the first is his erotic homage to a woman’s legs, combining banana paste teetering on white chocolate flakes, topped with a nest of caviar.
The second dessert, inspired by crepes suzette, unites spice in a ginger sorbet with the gooey sweetness of a prawn sauteed in Grand Marnier, and a spoonful of crumble.
The dinner is complete but this is a meal that will cross my mind in successive days: I have more questions, a desire to explore further, as if I’ve peered into a room of wonders, not all of which can be understood at first glance.
If you recognise the name Viglietti, you might have come across the chef before at one of the restaurants for which he won Michelin stars: Palma in Alassio in Liguria (two stars) or at the Enoteca Achilli al Parlamento in Rome, where he arrived five years ago, securing another Michelin star.
It’s now official: Taki Off will be opening to the public from 30 September, creating one of Rome’s most exciting dining options. In parallel, Taki Restaurant is launching its first ever outdoor tables, protected by a sweet, green garden.
Taki | Via Marianna Dionigi 56-62 | Rome | Italy | 06 320 1750
Testaccina was a guest of Taki