Tuesday was my birthday, yay! Unfortunately I couldn't spend it dancing on tables singing "22" like I wanted to and had to go to work instead.

Every time it's somebody's birthday (and they want to admit it publicly), the person in question brings in sparkling wine, focaccia and pasticcini (or little cakes and pastries for the English speakers). I returned to my beloved Biancolatte to get more of those delicious little sfizi although ensuring there were enough for everyone to have a few ended in me spending €27! Hotel Chocolat is starting to look quite cheap all of a sudden..

In the evening I had a quick Skype with my family who had snuck a birthday present into Magro's suitcase when we came back to Milan from Christmas (even though they'd already bought me beautiful new boots from Jones the Bootmaker!) It wasn't quite the same as having a birthday at home complete with birthday cake alarm clock and lashings of fuss but you can't have everything! Say hello to the gorgeous new Whistles bag...

And underneath that was my beautiful new necklace from Magro. He reckons it's a stand-in present until he can find the real deal. I think he should stop right here; for me this is the perfect geometric necklace.

I had an inkling we were going out (I'd have been pretty sad if not!) but as I didn't know where, I wasn't sure what to wear aside from my lovely new bag, necklace and boots. The every-stylish and in-the-know Magro helped me pick out this combination.

We chose to walk in the fresh wintry air which for me helped deliver a sense of anticipation. I was absolutely starving; aside from the cute little chocolates and piece of focaccia at lunch, I'd only had a small pot of vegetables and Magro had forbidden me from snacking when I got home.

With good reason.

Joia is a vegetarian restaurant but that certainly doesn't put the crowds off. Even on a chilly Tuesday in January, booking was essential. I had only a few seconds to take in the smattering of Michelin stickers on the door before being ushered in where a waiter took our coats (phone safely in my bag this time!)

The interior of the restaurant is quite plain, decorated in unfussy neutrals and with the occasional nod to the Oriental. Weird note: I actually really liked the toilets. It felt more like being in the loo at someone's house with the Parquet flooring and Chinese art and I remember feeling really happy. But then I was stupidly drunk so that would explain it.

The menu confused me immeasurably at the start; upon opening it, you are confronted by three different tasting menu options. At this point you would normally have a browse of the dishes in each except they were all called strange names such as "A Walk in the Woods" (no, I had no idea either). I was ready to throw the towel in and point randomly until Magro showed me they were explained on the following pages... tee hee...

We chose the Zenith menu, a 16 course whopper of a menu, with the accompanying wine selection. It all came at a price (the cost of a weekend away eek) and I couldn't even tell you what I ate exactly but here goes, I'll try.

This is what the menu says:

Un gioco di piccoli piatti che si seguono con ritmo, senza un inizio e senza una fine.
Il cibo pensato come veicolo dell’emozione e del ricordo.
Un’occasione per passare spensierati una serata fuori dalla costrizione del tempo.

Il sentiero del Dharma

Appunti di viaggio

Oh mio caro pianeta
Cantiam la montanara
Omaggio a Gualtiero Marchesi
L’ombelico del mondo
Per Govinda
Il quinto gusto che mi piace
Un indovino mi disse
Relazione privilegiata
Sotto una coltre colorata
Kiwi no Kiwi
Una mela al giorno
Cinque minuti

To you and me that means a game of little dishes that has no beginning and no end (certainly felt like it at times) where the food is a vehicle of emotions and memories.
I must say at times I certainly felt a bit emotional trying to get it all down but I managed in the end. Among the dishes I didn't photograph was a little ball of black bread with some kind of delicious puree, a single pumpkin ravioli in Oriental broth, a potato and leek rosti topped with artichoke and a cheese I drunkenly described as tasting like "posh cheddar" and some other cheesy, vegetabley thing that came on a slab of stone. Mmm.

The rest of it was as follows (please give me credit for taking photos in this incredibly swanky institution, it took a lot of guts and often came under the guise of "texting my mum" which obviously began to happen at every course and evoked eye-rolling from Magro at the start and giggling from him five glasses of wine later).

This is the first course I felt compelled to take a photo of. I'm sure you  can see why. I couldn't really tell you what it was because I didn't actually look at the menu and I didn't really understand the waiter. Oh well. It was pretty. And I loved the pink mayonnaise!

This one was some kind of parmesan and broccoli melt with a milk froth on top! You had to start with the spoon containing orange-something-or-other and finish with the spoon containing balsamic vinegar - spectacular!

I remember this little treat: the outer two layers were made with apple but the middle was completely creamy and salty (who knows what it was though!) which lent the entire dish a beautiful savoury flavour! Honestly, everything I had was absolutely perfect.

Look at that pretty silver spoon! If only I'd been born with one in my mouth.. this was an absolutely gorgeous pumpkin soup with a kind of cheese froth on top. Each of the herbs on top gave each mouthful a different flavour - yum!

You can't see it, but this one had a little disc of pasta lurking inside! Subtly cheesy and wonderfully delicious.

This is the one the waiter described as a walk in the Woods. Underneath that froth (they do like their froth at Joia!) was an assortment of 'woodland' flavours (incredibly no mushrooms, Magro hates mushrooms!) There was pomegranate, chestnuts, broccoli, cheese, spinach... it was incredible!

Now doesn't this just look beautiful? And no, it wasn't a dessert! That's tofu in the middle, surrounded by a sea of red jelly... I have no idea what it was...

And I am equally clueless about this snazzy number! Pretty sure I remember the sauce on top being quite strongly flavoured... obviously I was really quite blurry at this point!

Yes, quite. Well at least I can tell this one from sight - kiwi! And below it, an apple flavoured something which seemed to be a panna cotta but without the panna... and yes, you can eat the punctuation!

And apples again! This tasted like the poshest apple crumble I've ever eaten in my life.

Gong was a really interesting dessert. Chestnut, almonds, vanilla and raspberry (and more than a hint of lemon!), it is designed to appeal to all of your senses. It's called Gong because of the little gong they ring as you begin to eat. Interesting huh?

This was the last dessert; or so they said. It was called "Five Minutes" and you were given an egg timer to time it. Now, this was meant to make this "final" course more relaxing as you were supposed to take your time with it. I could hardly manage it in five minutes, meaning the egg timer actually felt more like a race than a pace-setter.

And then finally, they snuck in the actual final course! Which after the two extra little starters and the bread basket was more like the 20th course. Crazy! These were "after-dinner biscuits" but in jars with lots of lovely cream!

In short it was a lovely experience and I felt very very lucky to be treated to such fine dining (think I'm developing a taste for tasting menus! Ooh lala!) Next year I'll be in Exeter for my birthday again, I wonder what I'll be getting up to then?