Geraldine DeRuiter, her husband and their friends arrived at the restaurant Bros' with high hopes, given that it had been awarded a Michelin star, one of the industry's most respected honours.
The 27 courses that followed over the next four and a half hours dashed those hopes, she told The Washington Post in a Monday morning phone interview. The meal was the subject of a review DeRuiter posted last week on her blog "The Everywhereist" that has since gone viral.
One course at the restaurant in Lecce, Italy, was slivers of edible paper. Some were shots of vinegar. Another was fried cheese balls filled with what the servers repeatedly described as "rancid" ricotta.
Waiters served one course using eyedroppers to squirt liquid onto the diners' plates. They then announced "this has been infused with meat molecules" and walked away, DeRuiter said.
But perhaps the most bizarre moment of the "four-hour hunger induced fever dream" came when servers brought out a course called "chef's kiss" - citrus foam, served in a plaster cast that had been moulded in the shape of the chefs' mouths. On DeRuiter's cast, some of the foam had escaped the parted lips and dribbled down.
She thought the waitstaff would bring them spoons they could use to scoop out the foam.
"We were told that we needed to kiss the mouth of the ramekin in order to slurp out the foam," she told The Post. " . . . At that point, I was like, 'Okay . . . this is a 'Twilight Zone' episode. I feel like I'm in a parody of what modernist cuisine is."
"It was such a symphony of bizarreness on so many levels that endured and just kept going. It was an Energizer bunny of disaster," she told CBC's "As It Happens" radio program.
DeRuiter said she and her husband paid for everyone's meal. The check for the party of eight, which included alcohol, came to about 1,350 euros, or roughly $A2,136.
Bros' responded to an inquiry from the "Today" show with a "Declaration by Chef Floriano Pellegrino," a three-page document featuring a series of pictures that each show a rider on horseback. The first is a fairly simplistic drawing, the second is Jacques-Louis David's painting "Napoleon Crossing the Alps," and the third is an abstract painting that's almost unrecognizable.
Many can produce the first drawing, and similarly, a lot of people can whip up the culinary equivalent, Pellegrino wrote in the response. "It is not that hard, but most people will admire you."
Only great cooks who've studied and trained for years can make "spectacular food," just as David depicted Napoleon.
"The problem with this artist is that many artists have made paintings like him. I admire the quality. It's well done. But I am bored with spectacular paintings like that," Pellegrino wrote. "The Louvre and the Prado and the Hermitage are full with such stuff. It's impressive but it's shallow."
Pellegrino and Bros' are interested in making the kind of food that's equivalent to the third abstract painting, he said. This kind of food forces those who make it to "doubt everything including themselves."
In doing so, they ask big questions: "What is art? What [is] food? What is a chef? What is a client? What is good taste? What looks beautiful?
"What is a man on a horse?"
DeRuiter admitted that Pellegrino made some valid points: Food, like art, should challenge people and make them uncomfortable to a certain degree.
"But when we are talking about food and a restaurant, that isn't just art, that's also hospitality," she told The Post. " . . . Should you bring them new experiences? Absolutely. Should you challenge them? Absolutely. But should their experience be unpleasant? I don't think so."
At the end of his written response to "Today," Pellegrino addressed "Limoniamo," the plaster mold that, during DeRuiter's meal, held the citrus foam. Buyers can purchase the mold, which comes in the shape of either Pellegrino's mouth or the mouth of fellow chef Isabella Potì, for 58 euros.
"We thank Mrs. XXX - I don't remember her name - for making us get to where we had not yet arrived. We are out of stock of 'Limoniamo', thank you very much."
The Washington Post