Joia in Milan is one of the very few vegetarian restaurants in the world that has a Michelin star. There are, of course, many Michelin-starred restaurants that serve vegetarian food, but I’m talking about restaurants that serve no meat. So when I found myself in Milan recently, I knew that I had to eat at this restaurant.
I made a reservation for 7:30pm, which is late for me to eat dinner, but this is Italy, so I was the only one in the restaurant for about half an hour when I arrived. Joia offers three different tasting menus, as well as ordering a la carte. I decided to go for the most extensive tasting menu which was named “Zenith”. I also asked for everything to be made vegan (rather than just vegetarian), and they were happy to oblige.
The first thing brought to me looked like a painter’s palette. It had a number of raw vegetables served with various things to dip them into. This was a bit playful and whimsical, but wasn’t much more than dipping raw vegetables into vinegar and oils.
The first cooked course was a fake cactus served with parboiled potatoes in a creamy, tart, acidic goodness. There was also a carrot at the bottom of the pot, which was a nice crunchy and sweet surprise. This offered up a good potato flavor and was again quite playful.
The first dish that was on the written menu was called travel notes. The cup contained almond milk foam, celeriac, artichokes, and olives. On the spoons were passionfruit and 25-year old aged balsamic vinegar. This course had a deep, meaty flavor (strange to say meaty when there’s no meat), and the flavor notes reminded me a lot of Chinese food until I got to the olives and balsamic vinegar.
The bread was served in a bamboo steamer, and one of the breads also reminded me a lot of mantou, which is a Chinese roll.
The next official course was the shape of life. This was a fake egg made out of beets and filled with almonds and other things. This was an incredible course, both in taste and execution. I’ve never eaten anything quite like it.
Up next was a vegan take on foie gras. I have no idea how they made this because it really did taste like foie gras. It was super savory and accompanied by apple, a crazy delicious tofu that was more like a savory mochi, and a kale chip. This was course was another winner.
The next course was a truffled cream with artichokes and cabbage. You were meant to take the herbs on the side and rub them in your hands to release the aromas (but not eat them). This was crazy delicious, although maybe a tad salty. The charred cabbage leaf on the bottom of the dish was some of the best cabbage I’ve ever had.
The soup course was a curry that contained more delicious cabbage. The soup and its contents provided a nice mixture of textures. I am generally not a big fan of soup courses, but I thought that this was a great soup.
Next was a miso cream on top of a rice cake with artichoke inside. The rice cake was executed perfectly with a slightly crispy outside but chewy inside. The miso cream was quite pungent, but it was worked well with the rice.
The next course was my least favorite of the night. This was a replacement course because I requested a vegan tasting menu, but it was a clear artichoke soup with a buckwheat disc, balls of carrot and turnip, different purees, and some balsamic vinegar. This course didn’t make much sense to me and was unwieldy to eat with just a spoon.
I was then brought a nut ravioli with carrot puree, a tart sauce, and carrot, celery, and avocado. The ravioli and puree were really good, but I didn’t really understand why they needed the other things on the plate.
Up next was a pea cake, tofu, mushrooms, and grapes. It was served table side from a cauldron, and the sauce was incredibly meaty and heavy. I did not realize that you could get these sorts of flavors only using vegetables.
The next course consisted of fried artichokes on top of cabbage. The cabbage was again delicious, but I think the batter of the artichoke was missing some salt.
The final savory course was similar to a cheese course with an almond cheese served with turnip, brussels sprout, and beet. This was a great course that was simultaneously simple in composition but complex in flavor.
The first dessert course had green tea cream, anise almond milk ice cream, orange, and hidden pomegranates. I’ll admit that this dessert was a little strange, as I didn’t think that the flavors melded that well.
Citrus fruits the Asian way contained orange, grapefruit, kumquat, and a tangerine sorbet. It was also served with a stick of incense for additional aroma. I feel like the most Asian part of this dish was the kumquat, but I’m not complaining because it was a tasty dessert.
The penultimate dessert was called “gong”. And it was served with an actual gong. When they serve you the dessert, they put a mini gong on your table and ring the gong before you eat. Part of the rationale is that the chef wants to make sure to involve all of your senses in the dining experience (hence the things like the incense stick and rubbing herbs with your hands).
The actual dessert was an almond milk foam and cream served with raspberry and chocolate. Absolutely delicious.
The final dessert was a raw chocolate and coconut mousse served with raspberry, mango, and guava. You really can’t go wrong.
The service throughout the meal was very attentive. Everyone was on the ball, and my water glass never went empty (surprisingly hard for me since I drink a lot of water!). The service maybe wasn’t as formal as restaurants with more Michelin stars, but there were no miscues and the service was generally very competent.
This meal ended up taking about 2.5 hours and cost 110 euro (+3 euros per bottle of sparkling water). I think that this was extremely reasonable given the inventiveness and playfulness of the food, but I recognize that not everyone will be as amused as I was, and not everyone is looking for novelty in their food. But I heartily recommend this restaurant for any vegetarians or vegans looking for a fine dining experience or for those people who are looking for novelty and whimsy in their food.