The St. Regis Florence sits scant paces from the Arno River and just blocks from the Uffizi Gallery, resplendent in the morning sun, serene under an evening’s electric light. It is by any measure a splendid establishment, but anyone wishing to dine in the celebrated restaurant there, called Winter Garden by Caino, will likely be surprised by the magnificence of the room. The expansive ceilings (over 30 metres high) with a balcony surrounding three sides perched above, where breakfast is served each day, give it an airy feeling. It makes the ornate, plush décor on the main floor seem completely right for the place.
Executive chef Michele Griglio has been there since 2011, ever since the restaurant re-opened after extensive hotel renovations. His experiences had him in many kitchens, mainly in Italy but also in Bangkok, rural France, and London. “Working outside your own country is important, I believe,” he says, sitting over his second espresso. But this is his first executive chef position, and he has made the very best of it, even gaining a coveted Michelin star in 2014.
Chef Griglio’s dishes at Winter Garden reflect both his haute cuisine experience and a somewhat more playful side, based on his time cooking gastropub food. “Coming to Winter Garden was a challenge,” he says. “But really, it is about passion. So I love it here.” The food is regional, local, as is typical of Italy, but Griglio introduces plenty of creativity into presentation, and combinations. “I have been cooking professionally for 15 years, starting at the age of 15,” he says. “I learned early on you need to have a system in your head, how to work out each day’s processes.” Piedmonte is his most clear influence, the source of plenty of his inspiration, but he tries “to stay ahead of it all, learn new things, while keeping the old traditions and methods in mind.”
A Pommery champagne bottle is sabred, announcing it is time to be seated. At table, an extensive water menu is presented, along with Taittinger rosé to accompany pigeon, both breast and leg, and foie gras. A warm winter panzanella, black cabbage, candied tomato, and calamari stuffed with ricotta has taken on legendary status with good reason. Service is subtle, efficient, and personable. Chicken four ways, a rich, delicate seafood risotto made with carnaroli rice, roasted duck with chicory and dried fruits—these are some of the marvels at Winter Garden.
The tasting menu is really the way to go, and let the sommelier provide the by-the-glass matches, while recommending various waters, from France and Italy, but also such places as Czechoslovakia and Wales. The room, for all its size and splendour, seats 30 or so, with some discreetly places booths along the periphery on one side, the mesmerizing bar on the opposite. “Every day has to be the same high level, and this kind of control is very difficult,” says Griglio. Judging from one evening’s experience, it seems to be a challenge well met.
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