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lxt

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  1. Robert Brown Steps Down

    Dear Robert, With your wisdom and kindness you touched the heart of eGullet and made it smile. Without you, the well of inspiration dries up and the muses flee, but your words stay for other eGullet generations to see and learn from, and I hope we’ll have a chance to read many more of your thoughts and experiences.
  2. Tocqueville

    “I’ll even deliver the piglet myself if I have to!” said Robert Brown about a month ago in a tone more matter-of-fact than suggestive. Unfortunately, the rebellion of the spirit sometimes is forced to face the despotism of reality, and for a while it seemed that Robert’s hopes of having a roasted suckling pig would not materialize, when George Mendes’ “That’ll be no problem; I’ll try to get a small baby pig just for your table,” and Marco Moreira’s confirmation restored hope. Let me take a step back from my narrative for a second and say that I’ve been an advocate of Tocqueville for a while now, that I find George Mendes very talented and have become a friend of the house. When we become attached to a restaurant or a chef, that we have some share of moral bias with which we are confronted is unquestionable; that it foreshortens our vision of the merits of some things about which we could have been more objective is clearly on the record. However, if this is a critical shortcoming, it merely identifies us with every critic who ever lived, and the difference would be merely in degree or in kind, rather than in the presence or absence of it. The critic who claims to be lacking in bias is one of two things – a liar or a fool and sometimes both. The basic function of a critic is to pronounce judgment – another one of those Greek words, krites, to “judge” – not to find fault. For that matter, the common conception of the public is much the same: “Don’t be so critical,” I hear from time to time, when in all good conscience, I judge what I have eaten to be inferior. I often feel that I am more “critical” (to borrow the misapplication of the term) of a dish when in the past I have eaten something so fine that what lingers is the rare miracle of re-creation, without regard for the fact that a trivial deviation from perfection is a reminder that the chef is, after all, a human being, not a machine. Of course, if the reminders are recurrent, the only conclusion can be that the chef is all too human, and his place is not on the “stage.” It is, certainly, much easier to render a blatant opinion with no concern for a chef, his feelings or those of his hardworking team, which is arguably the only kind of uncompromised opinion, when the relationship with the establishment doesn’t extend beyond that of consumer and vendor. However, even if a relationship has been formed, the solution to the unending problem of confronting the favorite with his overall decline and the failure of certain dishes is still to tell the truth: perhaps not the blunt, harsh, naked truth, as it strikes someone totally unfamiliar with the previous accomplishments of the chef’s past, but the truth in a manner that is veiled by the esteem hard-earned on the chef’s part, predicated on the interplay of memories and reality, well aware of nuances and subtleties long admired. It is, however, easy to praise a favorite when deserving, which I generally do with neither exaggeration nor understatement. So, let me tell you that the meal we had at Tocqueville was wonderful – no, not without fault, which I’ll depict with pedantry and laboriousness, but much more interesting and dynamic than the relatively recent meals we had at Bouley and Ducasse in February. I’ll bypass the discussion of superior luxury ingredients as a measure of a successful dining experience – since a Perigord truffle at Ducasse (freshly shaved off a 200-gram specimen from Plantin, ripe, immensely perfumed and crisp) is incomparably more expensive than the black truffle served at Tocqueville – because luxury ingredients are not the strongest point of Tocqueville. It is, for example, the ability of the kitchen to orchestrate a series of amuses that achieves the perfect progression of flavors between “soft” and “loud,” toward an animated climax, the supple grace of certain dishes, the wonderful lightness and lack of dualism between erudition and spontaneous expression; it is the presence of inspiration in modern themes that I find pleasing at Tocqueville and have missed at Bouley and Ducasse, whose meals, though cleaner and more precise than before, were somewhat dull compared to my previous pre-Michelin experiences there. But let’s get back to Tocqueville. The two kinds of bread (cheese and French rolls) with good homemade butter made the opening to our dinner. One of the indications of the growing ambition of a restaurant is baking the bread in-house, a laborious enterprise that, if successful, establishes the reputation of a restaurant more firmly among its competition. If you saw Ryan Butler (the pastry chef) for the first time, a young and cheerful fellow with a strong grip and tattooed arm, you would never expect anything decadent or classic to come out of his oven – perhaps funky or “heavy metal”J – yet the desserts are within the brackets of the conservative and the bread is good, with the cheese rolls deserving special mention. What followed next was the most delightful presentation of one-bite dishes, built as a theme of variations derived from the existing bar snacks and appetizers on the menu, but reworked slightly to embrace the movement gradually toward the culmination of our main course. Later, to my surprise, George admitted that all the dishes were put together on the spur of the moment and purely spontaneously. A goat cheese amuse in a dehydrated beet tube, one of my favorites introduced at the Tocqueville’s opening party, was lovely and light: the muscular élan of the beet was toned downed by the dehydration process and its sweetness, along with the smoothness and gentle sour notes of young goat cheese, took charge. The current menu at Tocqueville is of both the “past” and the “present”: the dishes that survived overtime, providing a certain comfort to those diners who are slow in changing their habits, and which could be moved out of the main section of the menu and into the category of “Specialties…,” for instance, as at a Michelin three-star like l'Auberge de l'Ill in Illhaeusern, France. These dishes generally leave a sense of good but not exciting fare (such as the “sea urchin and angel hair carbonara” or “foie gras and scallops”) -- “…We keep them on the menu because people ask for them,” said Marco once with a twinkle in his eye, hinting that I myself was guilty of ordering one of the oldies, ‘Parmesan grits,’ on a regular basis, though I prefer this dish not as a main, but as an intermediate course with a quail egg – and the new, bright, daring dishes that subject the traditions of mostly Spain, Portugal and Brazil to the haute and modern times. There is also a category of dishes that have been on the menu for a long time but are constantly updated, such as the foie gras terrine – our next little bite. An excellent, house-made terrine (smooth, sweet, perfectly processed, served at the right temperature) on a toasted brioche was topped with translucent sherry-wine pearls, establishing a frame of reference to Adria’s “caviar,” where the liquid is captured in a calcium/alginate solution, creating a thin membrane that dissolves in the mouth before the tongue makes contact with the surface of the pearls – a much gentler combination of foie gras and liquor than Ducasse’s more traditional interpretation (a mille feuille of foie gras, fruit and vin jaune jelly, in which both alcohol and gelatin seemed to be overutilized) on our last visit. A bite of a house-marinated Portuguese sardine, served in a Chinese porcelain spoon, perked our palates next. I had a full-portion appetizer of Portuguese sardines on another visit, and it struck me that as good as the sardines were – from the perspective of the product quality, marinating technique and a clever and delightful counterpart of vanilla and blood orange whose perfume, sweetness/sourness cushioned and tamed the sardine’s acidity – and as much as I would envision the dish among other small plates in one of the tapas bars in Spain, it was too striking to fit into the traditional concept of a three-course meal, without the diner’s first being desensitized to the acidity before the next dish. Yet, the positioning of a bite-size sardine in our meal reflected a natural progression of flavors so perfectly well that I couldn’t help but to think that it would be great to have an appetizer flight on the menu simulating the flow of small bites served to us that night, as an “Appetizer Tasting Plate,” for instance, just like the restaurant’s long-standing “Sashimi Tasting Plate” dish. The sardines were presented in a slightly different interpretation with a piece of raw onion replacing the blood orange. Susan, Robert’s wife, suggested that the onion was excessive, overaccentuating and dominating the dish. I spent the better part of my life in Russia, and the combination of pickled or marinated fish and raw onion was indeed a traditional match, until it occurred to me that a more common approach in Russia was to marinate onion for about an hour, so that its harshness, for the most part, was suppressed. However, I’d say that it was the vanilla that didn’t seem to interact well with the onion, contrary to how well it complemented the sardines when combined with blood orange and fennel in the original incarnation of the dish. Still, this bite was lovely. A warm parsnip soup with garam masala served in a small cup, salty, thin and slightly frothy, for which I didn’t care, but which was necessary to clear the palate after sardines, was next, and tuna carpaccio, tartare, mojama and quail egg, a dish that highlighted the meal wonderfully, followed. One of the characteristics that I very much enjoy in some of the dishes at Tocquiville is, so to speak, the “third dimension” that allows for the delayed binding on the plate – the unbound ingredients all so composed that the relations, though quite simple, are established only upon being mixed together. The quail yolk provided binding to the tuna tartare, but the necessary spicing was achieved only when the tuna was combined with thin, dry slices of mojama, adding the power of salt and taste of cured meat. Interestingly, mojama (dry, salted tuna) is one of the oldest preparations of tuna in Spain, generally served thinly sliced with a drizzle of oil as tapas, but it was its implementation in this particular format that livened the dish, turning it contemporary. The same can be said about the next course, oyster chowder. It is a calm dish, gentle, not striking, one that brings out flavors sketchily, instinctively into the conventional theme. Every element is a clean-cut contour that doesn’t overburden the design either with decorative ingredients or heavy flavors: two perfect little pedestals of ratte potatoes, each carved to hold an oyster topped with sevruga caviar(of a much better quality than on my first try of this dish), the bacon, hiding at the bottom of the plate, being both the source of flavoring and contrast to the taste of sea, giving a nice smoky intensity to the mild soup. We all enjoyed this dish. Araucana egg in a Parmesan chicken bouillon was an interesting dish and has a lot of potential, but the balance between the flavoring of the bouillon and the egg seemed to need adjustment. The idea behind a slow-poached egg is to preserve a viscous yolk inside the lightly coagulated egg white. Since the temperature at which the yolk hardens exceeds the temperature at which the egg white does, low heat facilitates the egg white’s cloudy, gentle texture while only warming up the yolk. Among different versions of a slow-cooked egg that I’ve tried at various restaurants (WD50, Mini Bar in Washington, and Arzak in San Sebastian, Spain), Tocqueville’s was one of the best. However, the sharp, abrupt, nearly pungent taste of Parmesan in bouillon not only overpowered the egg, but also left an unpleasantly bitter residue in the mouth. Some of the complaints regarding this dish that I have read in other reviews were with the bouillon being underflavored, which makes me believe that it is performance consistency that needs to be established and which one hopes will be achieved as soon as the newly expanded kitchen staff gets a hang of it. Sea urchin and Angel hair carbonara was the only truly disappointing dish. For some reason, I have never ordered this appetizer before, despite its being one of the oldest signature dishes on the menu. Though I can’t really say whether our disappointment was related to faulty execution, or not to our taste, its concept seemed to suggest that the dish was in the category of the solid and the comforting, not sublime. In our case, the pasta was overcooked, the urchin was not sweet enough to establish a counterpoint to the acidity and bitterness of the lime and the whole dish seemed to reinforce the sense of a slimy mass. Perhaps I’ll give it another try, though I didn’t have much interest in that at the time. Another “classic” of the restaurant is scallop and foie gras, a dish that had been reworked with a gentler touch, moderating the original aggressive saucing. Perhaps there is an interesting idea of the textural contrast between foie gras and scallop, yet, in my experience, the sweet and gentle flavors of the scallop, a dignified ingredient, which should be granted the same respect as foie gras, were somewhat concealed. Yet, a Brussel sprout -- I consider cabbage to be one of the most fitting ingredients to accompany foie gras (Senderen’s foie gras in a cabbage leaf, which used to be served at Lucas Carton, comes to mind) -- highlighted the dish very nicely. I’ll let AHR add to the description, if he wishes, since it was his appetizer. The suckling pig at last…It would be an understatement to say that Robert’s eyes lit up at the sight of a gentleman holding a tray with a whole 13-pound(?) pig (according to George, the smallest one he was able to get) with an orange in its mouth. In fact, the whole room seemed to have come to life, every diner turning his head in the direction of the pig. Both collard greens and cassava are typical and very traditional accompaniments to meats in Brazil, the most common and popular of which, farofa, is made of a toasted cassava (also known as manioc) flour, generally cooked with butter or canola oil to the consistency of bread crumbs and served alongside the meats to be either sprinkled upon them or eaten separately. This side dish has a dry, crunchy texture and is often enriched by some other condiment, which in our case were dry black olives. In other words, though the fatty piece of pork that GAF described in his report is unfortunate (such a piece should’ve never left the kitchen), I can’t agree with his description of the dish as misguided, since that would be akin to pronouncing the tradition itself of Brazilian cuisine to be misguided. The suckling pig was excellent, prepared expertly, with tender succulent meat, crisp skin, as good as the cochinillo we had at Abac in Barcelona last spring. I’m very sensitive to black olives in dishes, especially fish (even Michel Bras’ version of the most incredible monk fish filet from a 4 kg. specimen, rubbed with tapenade, couldn’t persuade me otherwise), yet in this case the strong taste of dry black olives was tamed by dehydration, adding to the farofa an interesting angle and complementing rather than distracting from the meat. The “potato” logs, thick, with gently crisp outsides, though visually and texturally showing a distinct similarity to the potatoes served with cochinillo at Abac, were made of the same manioc (cassava) root as the farofa, giving a subtle twist to the tradition. The piglet was stuffed and marinated with garlic and herbs before being roasted at low and high heat. According to the Portuguese tradition, a small portion of the stuffing used for roasting meats is presented on the plate alongside the dish. Very often the soft resonance of human passion moves the chef to experiment, especially when something reminds him of his own childhood. There was a dollop of the garlicky stuffing on our plates as well, a spur of the moment addition, since generally the stuffing is discarded at Tocqueville. Unfortunately, it proved to be too aggressive, nearly numbing the palate: The garlic had a very abrupt, biting, nearly raw flavor, also pronounced in the collard greens to which a little stuffing was added as well. Still, the quality of the meat, its flawless preparation, and the livening touch of rustic farofa were more than enough to give me tremendous satisfaction. cochinillo at Abac in Barcelona Mission accomplished: a piglet and a strong one-star Michelin meal. I’ll let my companions chime in to describe their dishes and the desserts, should they choose.
  3. Milla, your are exactly correct that finding other diners whose objective criteria and tastes correlate to your own standards and preferences is the ultimate goal, but I’m not insisting on mandatory agreement when it comes to subjective preferences, only on a certain set of conventions that would comprise the objective criteria. Referencing Alex’s point for instance, even though my opinion that Benno couldn’t properly calibrate the intrinsic brininess of the oyster juice and Iranian osetra caviar in Keller’s “Oysters and Pearls" on our first visit to Per Se, rendering the dish overly salty, could indeed be attributed to my personal subjective sensitivities, the fact that the sabayon contained bits of curdled egg on our second visit, is just that - a fact. The conventional wisdom for preparing sabayon, calling for straining, along with Keller’s stressing the importance of passing every liquid through a fine-mesh sieve at least once, makes this rendition of the famous dish objectively poor in the same way as arbitrary alterations to the score, poor intonation and missed notes in a musical work are concrete facts and never open to differing opinions among musical critics. I’ll reiterate that applying objective principles is a tremendous stumbling block not only in food, but in every area of human activity that involves some level of subjective appreciation, be it in music, art or architecture, with many critical books devoting chapters to acknowledging this eternal battle among professional critics. Moreover, the disagreements among critics are often held up with glee as irrefutable proof of the uselessness of musical criticism. I know it only too well through my own experience sitting on the Conservatory panel for evaluating pianists’ performances during my former classical music career, and I can assure you that some of the arguments on the musical panel and the food board are startlingly similar. Alex, my statement regarding Schoenberg was a response to athinaeos. When Adria is compared to Schoenberg, more often than not it refers to Schoenberg’s “emancipation of dissonance” in a derogatory sense and represents a condemnation of the incoherent cuisine/ music, often associated, in the minds of people, with atonality - a statement with which I disagreed, even though a correlation between Adria’s and Schoenberg’s works can be established through their similar approach of building menu/musical works around a series of textures/tones repeated and patterned in various ways. You’re entirely right: Schoenberg didn’t like the word “atonality” and attempted to replace it with "pan-tonality," a term that didn’t survive. Therefore, “atonality” is a generally accepted and valid term when a reference to Schoenberg’s serialism is made and, in my view, is a fair representation of his departure from the tonal family of keys as was declared in Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier. ...But, as interesting as this conversation is, as you mentioned, it is quite off topic.
  4. …But we are beyond “what tastes good or doesn’t” already, and the point is that despite the fact that a dish can taste the same to two different diners, their opinions on this dish may be contradictory, because their judgment varies not as much in their primary, physical reaction to the dish, but in the interaction between their subjective and objective standards, “perception of meanings” that affects their final word. That is why in my post on the other thread I compared my thoughts to Vedat’s well-argued review as an example of how the same physical reaction to a dish may result in two opposite conclusions about its worth, or how the individual perception of what is important in a dish may render the same dish with a different verdict as to its deliciousness. "Pasión por la aceituna" ("passion of the olive"), an olive puree with passion fruit seeds, will never feel complete to a person seeking a center ingredient in the dish, independently of how it tastes. Others, on the other hand, may find it magnificent, because it delivers olive flavor in extreme concentration and a brilliant interplay of salty/bitter/sour to proclaim the dish self-sufficient and autonomous and therefore good. I don’t believe that “intentions, means and concepts” are abstract issues, but a very concrete tool for defining objective criteria you would apply to evaluating different cuisines and individual meals/dishes, the same way as you would utilize your experience in art (which, based on your website, seems to be your passion) to apply different criteria in judging dissimilar styles (Impressionism versus Renaissance, for instance). Objective food criticism is a fairly unexplored territory. Sadly enough, only rarely does a critical opinion extend its scope beyond a superficial evaluation of taste. The motto “I don’t know anything about it, but I know what I like” seems more acceptable in the context of food than in the context of art. In other words, what are the chances that one would consider it appropriate to judge a painting for posterity based on the sole criterion of his sensual response? My uncle, for instance, was never able to see the value in Picasso because he couldn’t come to terms with a cartoon-like, two-eyed display of a woman’s profile (“Dora Maar“). He just couldn’t abandon his well-established criteria of Socialist Realism, which failed miserably when applied to Picasso. In fact, it is the very knowledge that Picasso showed two aspects of a face (full face and profile) simultaneously to reflect two worlds of “self” and “outside of self” that brings a higher meaning to the painting, which otherwise could have been easily dismissed as a mere distortion of a human face. This is what I mean when I refer to the chef’s “intention” as being an integral part of our perception and evaluation standards. I simply can’t understand why the art of food is discriminated against in comparison with other arts. Surely, every painting can be viewed from the perspective of only a primary response, personal likes and dislikes. Yet, would you not expect an experienced observer to recognize the individuality of an artist, be able to identify plastic form, to distinguish organic unions from plastic clichés assembled according to a stereotyped formula? Would you not expect him to learn to see, which is a long and arduous process involving constant practice in the sharpening of perceptions of color, of the play of light and shadow, of the sequence and rhythm of line, of the interrelationships between these factors that endow each of them with meaning? Would you not expect this observer to have knowledge of the traditions of painting and of the technical means by which the artist works? In fact, this is what defines objective criteria and a standard of judgment. I can’t see why food should not be granted the same respect and diligent analysis, and would disagree with the notion that a rigorous approach of applying well-defined objective criteria to one’s subjective preferences is idealistic, while a purely sensual reaction with no cognitive response is pragmatic. As to Adria = Schoenberg, Adria is far from achieving the same level of atonality. Only about three dishes in 33 (9%) in our meal were more intellectually palatable than sensually pleasurable.
  5. Culinista, there is one point you made that, to my mind, reflects a general misconception that Adria doesn’t just rely on technical innovations or advances in designing dishes, but views these techniques as an end in itself. I believe that this misconception originally arose from both 1) an inability to fit Adria’s cuisine into existing predefined styles, all of which he rejected in favor of an extreme reductionism, and 2) an exaggerated emphasis on his technical adaptations/innovations, again as a result of an inability to use the conventional approach of evaluating individual dishes, since Adria’s cuisine is not signature-dish oriented: almost each course (however memorable) represents a component of a meal, rather than a stand-alone entrée. To say that Adria’s cuisine “is…off food …and onto developing techniques” is either to concede that there is no “intention” (as described in my recent post on El Bulli) realized in his dishes, since technique is nothing but a means, or that Adria’s dishes can’t achieve delectableness or provoke a positive sensual response unless the diner is intellectually stimulated by some amusing technical tricks. This is what, I believe, puzzles those who enjoy Adria’s cuisine as a simple sensual experience. This is not to deny that some of his dishes fail to achieve palatability, but to acknowledge that none of Adria’s dishes fail to make the chef’s intention clear. That is, if the dish fails, it is either due to some technical imperfection (such as his earlier experiments with agar agar, which added too much of an artificial tang, a drawback completely eradicated in 2005) or displaced conceptual accent (as in targeting uni’s metallic bitterness rather than sweetness), but certainly not due to the lack of a concept. Whether it is a new technique or its adaptation to Western cuisine that predates the birth of the concept for a dish, or it is indeed the discovery of the technique that opens up new avenues for ideas is irrelevant, because it is the end-result that matters. Speaking of Mugaritz, for instance, Aduriz uses an unconventional approach in the sequence of development in his dishes, creating infusions and sauces first, and only later selecting main ingredients to match the sauces – a process sometimes prone to less-than-favorable results, as in the questionable combination of a watery and herbal infusion, yucca and his signature foie gras (a dish he fortunately reworked later). Aduriz’s cuisine does bear a clear stylistic similarity to Adria’s and attempting to distance Andoni from “… those who have been heavily influenced by El Bulli” is in vain, because he has indeed been heavily influenced by El Bulli – some dishes, such as sea anemone in citrus infusion, could be said to have come out of Adria’s kitchen. However, there is nothing wrong with that: Being influenced by Adria doesn’t negate Aduriz’s talent and his ability to maintain individualistic characteristics that more often than not convey a sense of the invisible sublime. His cuisine is safer, devoid of the little bursting intermezzos so typical of Adria, having narrowed its focus on an approach that incorporates main ingredients and sauces/infusions, the connotation of which is intrinsically conventional, contrary to Adria’s reductive austerity in some of the dishes, predicated on isolating or deconstructing specific qualities of an ingredient in a calculated attempt to reach its essential core. I consider Aduriz one of the most talented and inspirational chefs; however, in general, if he is to be criticized, it is not so much for his resemblance, or lack of such, to Adria, or for some fetishistic experimentalism tied to the use of herbs (a criticism made by some with which I wholeheartedly disagree), but for the occasional performance inconsistency and the lack of ingredient quality control (as in the foie gras escalope we had in 2004, showing an unappetizing vein and blemish). By the way, Mugaritz seems to be doing well: We had to rearrange our plans around Mugaritz’s availability in late May, since most of the week’s nights, about which we inquired a month ago, were already booked.
  6. Here are my thoughts on El Bulli, which have been percolating for nearly a year, now disgorged by my reading vmilor’s treatise on El Bulli vs Can Roca - A lesson learned and visiting José’s MiniBar a few weeks ago. Though this writing predates my having read the several current El Bulli discussions on the board, it seems particularly appropriate to post it here and now. --------------------------------------------- Gagnaire, L’Arpege, L’Ambrosie, Ducasse, The Fat Duck – these provoke heated debates on their contributions to contemporary gastronomy, significance in the culinary world, individuality, consistency of performance, successful concept or clear stylistic expression, yet none of the restaurants seems to be submitted to the same level of vehement pronouncements, ranging from “bad and inedible” to “exceptional and sublime,” as El Bulli. There are as many knowledgeable diners loving Adrià’s cuisine as there are those hating it, and presenting one or another view may cost either side credibility in the eyes of the opposition: the advocates of Adrià’s modernism are accused of disregarding the importance of central ingredients and defending the onslaught of kitsch, while the opposing camp is said to just “not get it.” The inherent contradiction of the debate is so intense that maintaining neutrality even for those who never tried Adrià’s cuisine becomes almost impossible, and I was not an exception. While wondering whether the reactionary sarcasm expressed by the detractors was not a mere representation of their fading enthusiasm for culinary innovation and that it was their detachment from the avant-garde movement – viewed as an antithesis of ingredient-driven gastronomy, inevitably leading toward an assembly-line model – that failed to develop into perspective, I couldn’t help questioning whether, on the other hand, the cult of celebrity had encouraged critics to “embalm” Adrià, obscuring the meaning of his culinary achievements, especially considering that nowadays the compulsion to keep up (the need to create a new fashion, new market each year) has became a common vice. Indeed, how could Adrià’s emphasis on the element of surprise not raise a question whether he was guilty of borrowing the effect of another discipline, such as theatre, merely to distract the diner from concentrating on the gastronomic value of what was on the plate? Besides, the idea that an essence isolated from the ingredient can be of the same worth as the ingredient itself was as foreign to me as Cage’s radical concept that there is no need for the composer to give preference to sounds over silence. How could I not have doubts that potato infusion in gelatin would not taste like a counterfeit of real potato, proving the chef’s eccentricity rather than having any culinary significance? To imagine myself as an Adrià “convert” was unthinkable, and I was prepared to sigh deeply, just as the public did in 1913 with regard to Malevich’s “Black Square,” saying that "[e]verything which we loved is lost. We are in a desert . . . . Before us is nothing but a black square on a white background!" Then the unthinkable happened: I liked it. We had a meal at El Bulli in May, 2005, and I liked it. Any attempt to fit the meal into my predefined criteria – which invariably started with the quality and refinement of ingredients, followed by their skillful application in the dish so as to bring out their inherent qualities – failed so miserably that I couldn’t think of a single reason why I enjoyed the food so much other than to blame it on some subjective factor. I decided to delay expressing any opinion publicly until having at least one more meal at El Bulli to confirm my previous impressions, since, without the guidance of objective standards, my reflections might either have sunk into reverie or become a mechanical registration, an inventory of meaningless details. Meanwhile, Vedat Milor (also known as vmilor and the “Sultan of dining” [Robert Brown]), whose analytical approach I admire, wrote a convincing report on El Bulli on his blog (El Bulli vs Can Roca - A lesson learned), criticizing Adrià for a lack of real ingredients, repetitive concepts, overutilization of auxiliary ingredients (specifically Asian), unpleasantly stark contrasts (dominating over delectableness), constriction of technical diversity (“perfecting a single method”), and failed attempts to equate real ingredients to their derived metaphorical substitutes. Surely, I could argue that aside from several overlapping dishes my meal seemed to differ from Vedat’s, and that the alliance of flavors between the courses was more complex and subtle, varying if not in the manner of technical execution then in the delivery of final sensation. I could also say that Adrià vivified assemblages of flavors through stark contrasts between dishes rather than within them, and that through the entire meal there was no reference to Asian flavors, other than his variation on the Tom Yum Koong soup (though not an offensive interpretation, one that suffers from the same superficial use of exotic ingredients as some Asian-inspired dishes by Gagnaire, Troisgros and Beck). However, the paradox of my agreeing with Vedat on other points, yet overall receiving the meal with great enthusiasm, made me question whether my standard criteria, predicated on placing ingredients in their pure form at the center of the plate and the evaluation process, were no longer applicable to this type of cuisine. I agree that even if a chef claims to express the “spirit of the times” (especially modernity and technology), there are no axioms about style, and the expression alone doesn’t make a cuisine meaningful – since changes in style reflect mere changes in hypotheses, not in the bases for quality judgments. However, historically, judgments always reflected the peculiarities of the individual style: that is, the particular fusion of light and color found in the Impressionists, for instance, could not be realized by any other technique any more than the chiaroscuro designs of Rembrandt could be rendered impressionistically. Stop the action of Henry V by an interlude of Sartre’s prose and something humorous or annoying may indeed be created; it may even heighten the action, yet the original mood of Henry V disappears as fully as when Duchamp satirized the Mona Lisa by adding a mustache and goatee – so are the dynamics of Adrià’s cuisine when evaluation criteria more appropriate to the opposing genre are applied. In other words, if, when discussing Pacaud and Passard, expressing ingredients’ intrinsic qualities, with minimal change to their native structure, is at the center of the evaluation, the same reasoning may not be pertinent to assessing Adrià, who is more concerned with modifying ingredients to create their derivatives and give them new “identities.” That is, Adrià’ s use of ingredients is broad and free: simplification and distortion are often carried to such a point that the particular ingredients can be identified vaguely or not at all by their form or texture; therefore, the core analysis should be adjusted to reflect primarily how effectively these indistinct masses function in the ensembles. With such a premise for evaluation, the criticism of Adrià’s much discussed "pan de queso" (cheese bread) based on the qualitative comparison of Gruyère cheese versus cheese air (a cheese derivative made through the process of liquefying, emulsifying and freezing) – a light and fluffy substance that completely lacks texture and literally evaporates in the mouth, while leaving behind a residual taste of Gruyère – is as justified as a comparison of roasted chicken with chicken bouillon. Despite the name of the dish, the cheese air is not the main element: it is the outstanding dry berries with nuts that are the focus of the dish, their quality suggesting the use of the most exemplary fresh products as their base. The cheese air plays merely a decorative, illustrative, rather than expressive role, enveloping the berries in a delayed, lingering, and secondary aroma. Had the dish been awarded a different name (“raspberry muesli,” for instance), perhaps the controversy would never have arisen in the first place. As to its gastronomic value, it is indeed perfectly suited to be served as a snack, a palate awakener similar to the lovely snack of caramelized nuts served at the very conventional Regis Marcon at the beginning of the meal. To define my new standards, however, I still needed to identify objective criteria of quality that would not only be essential but also common to all genres. In other words, I needed to find the primary “ingredients” of quality that referred to design, not to style, because style is the product of time, the expression of what people considered to be choice, whereas design is independent and refers to the organization of the elements on the plate. To paraphrase, two dishes in the same style may be differently valued as to their quality as compositions, while two dishes in different styles may both be fine compositions. These fundamental characteristics of fine design in all artistic spheres are unity, balance and rhythm. Unity Unity insists that a work of art be consistent within itself and have a dominant theme. A dish may be eminently self-consistent or it may be filled with jarring oppositions and surprising violations so that it disquiets and provokes. The former is the classical sort of unity, which is employed by Passard, Pacaud, Troisgros, Bras, Westermann, Rochat and many other starred chefs in France and Switzerland who use order in diminishing hierarchy with the main ingredient in its native form at the top. A contrasting sort of unity – a newer principle of design equally productive of consistency though with a different premise – occurs when different elements struggle against integration, rebelling and breaking loose as each of them strives to dominate through contrast, as in “cigala con quinoa” (langoustines with quinoa in three ways), where quinoa variations not only add textural and flavor nuances to exceptional langoustines, but are also strong enough to modify the langoustines’ native characteristics without any direct manipulation of the ingredient itself. Finally, deconstruction itself or juxtaposition of two deconstructed elements having similar textures, though violating classical design principles, can achieve unity, as in "ñoquis sféricos de patata con consommé de piel de patata asada" (“spherical potato gnocchi with consommé of roasted potato skin”), a wonderful dish, where compositional unification is accomplished through the unidimensional interplay of nothing but liquids. (Despite perfect unity, however, this may prevent some dishes from seeming to be complete in themselves, except when they are related through a common theme to other dishes.) To summarize, unity is achieved either by joining various compatible parts or by skillfully combining apparently discordant features according to the intended purpose, which brings us to balance. Balance “Intention” indeed is a chief aspect of any cuisine when balance is examined. Even when a dish fails to achieve palatability, a realized intention should not be dismissed in the overall evaluation of the cuisine. Perhaps the presence of intention on its own in a dish would not justify the failings of an end-result, but it would prevent the cuisine from being easily dismissed. In other words, a chef’s ability to realize his intentions must be graded not only from a sensual perspective, but also from the intellectual and technical. Take "ravioli de malta con mantequilla, erizos y lima” (malt ravioli with butter, sea urchin and lime), for instance, the dish Vedat described as having “bordered on outright inedibility.” Indeed, the abrasive, artificial, nearly metallic bitterness of the ravioli’s skin made of malt was virtually apocalyptic. Yet, the idea of sensitizing diners to the flavors of sea urchin through a bristling metaphor of malt and sweet butter was intellectually stimulating: the taste of malt simulated the iodinated and bitter taste of sea urchin almost precisely. In other words, despite the taste’s crudeness and the failure to achieve palatability, the integration of malt and butter to create a parallel taste to sea urchin was technically triumphant. The problem with the dish might have been conceptual; that is, the gross emphasis on the bitter aspect of sea urchin appeared exaggerated, suppressing the ingredient’s sweetness and giving the dish more symbolic than sensual meaning. This may have been predicated on the ingredient’s quality: Adrià probably used the Mediterranean variety of sea urchin, Paracentrotus lividus, which in our case was of a very dark orange-brown color and sharp, abrasively metallic taste, contrary to the mild, sweet “green sea urchin” from the Gulf of Maine or more common “red sea urchin” from Southern California. The dish clearly represents a technical success in realizing the chef’s intention, while retaining an intense detachment from the classical formulation of delectableness. However, despite the fact that no intellectual maneuvering could undermine the fact that the dish tasted poor, one could not help but remember Stravinsky’s reflection on his nine-minute Symphonies of Wind Instruments, ironically called “symphonies of flavors,” full of dissonances and tension. He said, “This music is not meant ‘to please’ an audience or to rouse its passions . . . I did not, and indeed I could not, count on any immediate success for this work. It is devoid of all the elements, which infallibly appeal to the ordinary listener and to which he is accustomed. It would be futile to look in it for any passionate impulse or dynamic brilliance. It is an austere ritual which is unfolded in terms of short litanies between different groups of homogeneous instruments.” How often I listen to this piece of music, you may ask. I do prefer “Petrushka,” yet dismissing Stravinsky as a composer or this work as being merely “unpalatable” would be a mistake. Interestingly, I remember that Steve Klc once said that Adrià had a great palate. I’d rather say that Adrià has the most precise palate. He is indeed able to achieve perfection in creating an organic fusion of elements to fulfill his original intention, which either has no rivals and pleases tremendously – when he manages to maintain an essential relationship to the aspect of nourishing the palate – or unpleasantly shocks – when he attempts to imitate sensations so excessively alien that their points of contact with actual perception of food are so slight that they lack recognizable identities of edible items and bear no association to those universal interests that, however generalized, underlie all our feelings and tastes. Besides the aforementioned ravioli, I would cite “electric milk,” where Adrià quite successfully imitates the sensation of licking a battery, which is similar to the metallic aftertaste and numbness, left in the mouth by a large overdose of Novocain injected into the gums! Rhythm Unless a chef has achieved unity for the major elements in a dish, or, in the case of Adrià, the flow of dishes – since I believe that Adrià’s cuisine displays sequential references between dishes and each meal can be viewed as single entity rather than a collection of small dishes – he can never repair the disaster by polishing the details. Imposing interesting internal rhythms or decoration (subordinate elements of a design) cannot supply what is missing, but they surely can destroy the unity. In our meal, Adrià achieved near perfection in manipulating the four basic tastes, if not always gently than certainly persuasively, touching every dish with a spark of individuality, while reserving its place in one large puzzle. Resuming the general discussion, the term “avant-garde” seems to be applied to nearly all chefs creating in the spirit of modernism, despite their clear stylistic differences. Though technically correct, avant-garde is not a definition of style per se but rather a roof under which different progressive styles are gathered. In fact, even the term “nouvelle cuisine” was nothing but a representation of “avant-garde” during a particular time. Art has the advantage of having a much clearer definition of avant-garde styles, such as Surrealism, Cubism, etc., but I don’t believe anyone has tried to characterize the work of modern chefs with the same diligence. In fact, if I were to compare Adrià‘s to any existing artistic style, I would say that what he seems to reflect in his cuisine is Cubism, best seen in his distortions in which a single ingredient is exaggerated through the dissociation from its physical form and its recombination in a new form, which, though different in appearance from the original, constitutes a more forceful embodiment of its intensified flavor. Several dishes in our meal involved some measure of this emphasis. In some of Adrià’s dishes, the process departs so far from naturalism that what is shown is of little or no assistance in visually identifying the original ingredient. There was no doubt during our meal that such a resolution of ingredients into their derivatives can produce a pattern that, if not much better than a naturalistic rendering, is still equally interesting and quite tasty – as in "caviar sférico de melón" ("spherical melon caviar") or "olivas sféricas" ("spherical olives"), concentrated melon or olive juice in a thin gelatinized membrane (created by combining olive water, already rich in calcium chloride, or adding calcium chloride to melon water, with a sodium alginate solution). Indeed, we can argue that a perfect olive can provide a double satisfaction, indulging our palates with both an olive’s texture and its juice at the same time. Yet, the level of flavor concentration in one olive will never be able to match that of its derivative, so long as olives of excellent quality are used in the process of extracting their essence. I don’t believe that Adrià stigmatizes real ingredients in favor of their imitations, to make meaningless distortions as an end in itself. Rather, he advocates the conscious “refinement” of ingredients using distortion as a necessary means to achieve their evolutionary “perfection,” so that one olive would be able to carry the essence of hundreds. This idea is not even new, having existed for centuries: sauces, veloutés, purées, all represent distortions of ingredients to one or another degree. It is only that these processed ingredients were never placed at the center of a dish’s design, playing instead an auxiliary, supportive role. Similarly, Passard broke from the classical plate arrangement, placing vegetables (normally a garnish) on the same pedestal as meats and fish, and quite persuasively so – dramatic, but far less radical. Does Adrià’s cuisine represent anti-Classical, anti-conventional, anti-rational modern reductionism? Probably, but where some see one single catastrophe, I simply perceive a natural chain of events. I don’t see Adrià as a threat to pure-ingredient-based gastronomy. I see him as a chef who created a new style in parallel to the existing cuisine models. Perhaps Adrià is indeed “contemplating a new brand of … goods which will be mass marketed,” as Vedat said, and little bonbons of caramel candies, filled with olive or pumpkin oils, will be sold on the streets as “oil-pills” for kids. This will inevitably moderate the sense of Adrià’s special status – that is, the cultural value attached to the concept of “uniqueness” will insidiously be eroded by the commodity production of Adrià-like goods. But so what? The importance of any chef depends largely upon the value that his work has for those who come after him. Just as his predecessors, by leaving a record of their perceptions, enabled Adrià to see vividly and penetratingly for himself, so his techniques provide an instrument for his successors, by which they in turn may broaden, sharpen and deepen their own vision. Does this mean that Adrià creates laboratory experiments, prototypes, the only purpose of which is to assist Aduriz, Arola, Roca, Achatz, Andrés, Dufresne and other chefs to enhance their own cuisines? Judging by the meal we had, not at all. Surely, if taken in isolation, a dish, consisting of practically nothing but liquid, could, on the surface, look like a fragment, a sauce to which a real ingredient was forgotten to be added. However, some clever textural contrasts, such as creating a jellified membrane around a liquid content, do allow the dish to sustain its autonomy, if not to the extent of a stand-alone entrée, then as a perfect intermediary among the other courses of the meal. To be sure, I was as bored by the repetitive patterns of jellified essences (each delivering such a clear and spectacular difference in flavor, despite their being organized in the same way thematically and having nearly identical presentation) as I would be by Beethoven's 32 Variations in C minor, where every variation is 8 measures, is the same length, with the same harmonic scheme – but each has its own character within one motivic unity. Perhaps we were lucky indeed, and the meal we had in late May 2005 was the most successful representation of Adrià’s achievements over a period of time, as he himself stated during our conversation. Perhaps his interest in China and the Amazon (which, he said, he is looking forward to exploring next) will negatively affect his creations, as apparently did his interest in Japan in Vedat’s meal, and he’ll fail to make the exotic ingredients his own, unlike his use of seaweed gelatin, for instance. However, no one can argue that Adrià has not expanded the horizon of the culinary arts and developed a new genre, which, while it continues to influence many chefs, I thought was unique to its creator and absolutely and undeniably not transportable… until I visited MiniBar in Café Atlántico in Washington, DC. (to be continued…)
  7. Tocqueville

    My understanding is that the old Tocqueville has stopped serving lunch, but continues serving dinner for now and that the new Tocqueville is not yet open. To be absolutely certain about the scheduling and transition, give them a call.
  8. Tocqueville

    Tocqueville is about to reopen in larger quarters just down the block from its current location. It is in the process of transformation from a lovely neighborhood restaurant to a more ambitious enterprise. I always enjoyed the economy of design of the old location, which has been preserved and gently transported to the new dining room. The high-ceilinged room continues to convey a comparable play of delicate esthetic contrasts of gray/blue and gently yellow colors. The large wall-mirrors, mimicking windows, establish weightlessness and should serve as perfect reflectors of incoming light dispersed by the small central window at lunchtime. There is no explicit confrontation between the simplified classical style and modern movement (which sometimes turns decor cold, rhetorical and intellectual – Mix comes to mind), and at the same time, warm, modest colors prevent the room’s newly acquired grandeur from becoming overbearing, making it structurally whole from top to bottom, to the last detail within the same elegant theme. I wonder to what extent the new menu at Tocqueville (and there is a new menu) will continue the trend I’ve recently seen and enjoyed toward incorporating contemporary French/Spanish influences. The cuisine, under the collaboration of Marco Moreira and George Mendes (who joined about three[?] years ago as Chef de Cuisine after apprenticing with Passard, Berasategui, Bouley and Gutenbrunner), is taking a more unified and creative path not only in regard to new dishes, but old ones as well: there is more precision, meticulous accuracy, either new groupings of ingredients or regrouping of the old ones around the main theme (as with the sashimi tasting plate, an old favorite that is only gotten better). Tocqueville’s current cuisine is brighter, more sensuously charming, more decorative, and its effects are more complex despite minimalistic tendencies that challenge tradition. I think that there are two important principles in a successful dish: rhythm and contrast. Each ingredient may form rhythms with like elements, and each of these rhythms may enter into relationships with rhythms formed by other elements to create contrasts. In short, the dish is lacking when overemphasis of one or more of ingredients or their unskilled use fails to effect the unity indispensable in a successful dish. Either the chef has nothing to say or he lacks the command of means to convey an idea. George actually creates contrasts through rhythms, bringing flavor to an asparagus velouté, for instance, too mild to stand on its own, through the slightly acidic asparagus dice hiding on the bottom of the cup: the acidic intensity is washed off the asparagus tips, adding to the velouté the necessary balance with the first swirl of a spoon. That is, it is through the play of the same ingredient that the contrast is achieved. There are whimsical sparks throughout the menu, sometimes delayed (as in the crème-fraiche ice cream in the Heirloom tomato appetizer, which upon melting and melding with the tomato juice, adds smooth, balanced leverage), sometimes direct (as in using the acidity and perfume of baked apples in place of vinegar). There is Passard’s slow-cooking combined with Basque tradition in the same dish, as in the slow-cooked hake with a parsley/garlic sauce (a play on the Basque “merluza en salsa verde”). While the dishes described above, which I’ve enjoyed recently at Tocqueville, weren’t served at the recent opening reception – to which I was delighted to be invited as a long-term customer -- there was the same character and variety present in many little amuses at the party. Beet and goat cheese The beet reminded me of the dehydrated beet ribbon amuse at El Bulli. Interestingly, when dehydrated, the beet loses its native flavor characteristics, with delicate sweetness accentuated. Adria uses vinegar powder(?) to oppose the sweet notes; Tocqueville added goat cheese to contrast not only flavors (sweet vs. sour), but textures as well (crispy vs. smooth). It was indeed one of the best small morsels. El Bulli beet ribbon Smoked cod brandade on squid ink chip Very Basque, clever and tasty. The chip was a witty visual imitation of fish skin. Foie gras and bay scallop with mostarda mango The central mango piece tasted better when paired with either the scallop or foie gras separately, but not when all elements were eaten together. This dish echoed the house signature foie gras and scallop. Rabbit tonatto A nice and a worthy pun. Potato blini, smoked salmon, roe, lemon zest I assume that this dish was a variation on Russian “aladushki” (a more precise name for this type of “blini”). Aladushki (or as they are also called, “aladyi”) are generally served warm (Tocqueville’s version was chilled) with a blob of crème fraiche (or sour cream) and caviar on top. The chilled sour cream serves not only as a complement to the potato, but also as a temperature insulator for the caviar, because caviar tends to lose its firm texture shortly after being exposed to heat. This was a nice amuse, but I wonder whether it wouldn’t have been better had the blini been warm. Venison, red cabbage topped with chestnut tuile A classic combination of ingredients with a contemporary spark of paper-thin, crispy and delicate chestnut tuile. This was a great amuse, and the venison was indeed cooked properly. Celeriac and potato beignets with truffle mayo What could’ve easily been heavy turned out to be absolutely delightful. The beignets were exceptionally light, and the truffle mayo wasn’t weighty enough to take this lightness away. Tuna wrapped in prosciutto. I don’t have a picture of this dish, which I found very interesting not only because of its excellence, but also because the combination of raw fish and meat and their interplay has interested me ever since I tried beef carpaccio with Aquitaine caviar at Clos des Sens in Annecy; upon being mixed with the caviar, the meat developed a flavor similar to that of fatty tuna. The concept at Tocqueville was analogous and worked as well: that is, the prosciutto didn’t overpower the raw tuna, but rather created an unexpected unity of flavor. Chicken bouillon with truffles, scallions and a quail egg You just can’t go wrong with that! Desserts. Coconut panna cotta with mango I seemed to have enjoyed desserts less this time. Chocolate mini cupcakes Mango mousse in caramel/sesame seeds tuile The truffle in the kitchen The kitchen There is an undeniable interest in the New York restaurant scene in the modernist culinary movement – so much so, in fact, that even Wylie Dufresne’s foie gras with anchovies doesn’t turn diners off J. I think Tocqueville is on the right track, probing in this direction through moderate and gentle contemporary touches. I wish Jo-Ann, Marco, George and David (Tocqueville’s wonderful Maitre d’) all the best, and I’m looking forward to returning as soon as the restaurant is open again.
  9. Vedat, getting back to La Pergola… Perhaps “carpaccio of red beet and tuna with wasabi” – a millefeuille of fish fumé/wasabi gelatin and raw tuna, with marinated beet cubes on the side, and a piece of sticky-rice roll (stuffed with rectangular pieces of raw tuna and slightly acidic asparagus) clothed in a thin deep-fried layer – would be a good example of what I had in mind, incorporating both a contemporary flavoring of gelatin and an incoherent attempt at modern fusion cuisine. What meant to be a delicate dish invoking Asian motifs on the Italian ground turned into a juxtaposition of diluted and incompatible elements of different cultures. It was as if Beck didn’t want to either “betray” Italian traditions or adjust Aisian cuisine to Western esthetics. None of the components in the dish had enough flavor to offset, contrast or complement one another, and the merger of cultures was accomplished by merely placing ingredients from different cuisines on the same plate. The gelatin, thick and hard, was tasteless, having neither fish fumé nor wasabi clearly pronounced, with a somewhat artificial aftertaste, typical of overutilization of the gelling agent – an unnecessary addition, further thinning the flavor of already plain raw tuna. The rice in the roll was sticky to the point of getting glued to the teeth and gums, and the neutral crisp outer layer, more of an Italian taste than like Japanese tempura, didn’t seem to bring out the same lively notes as would a more customary seaweed wrapper, for instance. This dish actually made me think of “Madama Betterfly” by Puccini. The opera was composed in the days when Asian and other exotic art fascinated Europe, and it was given an “authentic” Oriental presentation: not only were the sets and costumes careful replicas of Japanese originals, but the singers were taught gestures and motions genuinely Japanese. However, what made the opera work was that the music was absolutely and irrevocably Italian, sophisticatedly Western, and the antipodes got along well precisely because only the subject and the setting were Japanese. Puccini was less successful when, in order to create local color, he borrowed alien musical material: the collision of the “Star Spangled Banner” with Japanese tunes was a bit obvious, with the music always remaining nothing but foreign incrustations. This seemed to be Beck’s problem in this particular dish. Had he remained true to his Italian ideals, perhaps modifying the cuisine itself to place it inside an exotic shell, similar to Alajmo’s transforming rustic tomato bread soup into a modern incarnation as a tomato-parmesan tart, he may have succeeded. Instead, he seemed to juxtapose Asian and Italian cuisines, turning the dish (created in 2005) into a laboratory experiment. Interestingly, the same argument could be made about some of Gagnaire’s creations. Both chefs’ styles also seem to be similar in rendering a dish in the form of multiple small courses, each representing a different play on the same ingredient. I wonder whether your meal was better because you chose from the carte. I had no time to do extensive research on La Pergola before our trip and decided to go with the tasting, which also had his signature zucchini flower I wanted to try. I wonder whether Beck includes more experimental dishes into the tasting menu, perhaps because it is more often ordered by tourists, so that he can satisfy foreign demand for exotic flavors, while he keeps his carte “pure.” Your report, however, gives me the motivation to return.
  10. Bux, I just read your review of Le Calandre. We seemed to have some of the same dishes. I’m glad you took pictures, which made me relive our meal, since we left our camera at the hotel by accident. I wouldn’t probably consider Cannellone an interesting dish if not for the olive oil Alajmo used in the tomato purée and as a splash on the plate – extracted from rossa olives, the oil is produced by the Alajmo family. Even the taste of fresh tomatoes in the purée couldn’t disguise the tomato flavor of a different nuance coming from the oil, delicate and flavorful. I believe Alajmo sells this oil in his store. We actually wanted to buy it, but by that time, the store was closed and Raffaele suggested taking an open bottle, which, considering our traveling, we didn’t feel comfortable carrying. My recollection of La carne battuta is mainly of a very strong taste of anise. Alajmo uses Piedmont beef, the pink color of which is beautifully reflected in your picture. Considering its low fat content, the raw version of the meat would’ve been very pleasant, if not for the overwhelming taste of anise. I’m not against finger food when appropriate (like the cannellone dish), but wet and almost slimy consistency of the puréed meat was hardly pleasant to a touch – quite an eccentric and unnecessary presentation, though I wonder whether there is some history behind it. I thought the desserts were weak. David’s reaction was: “If he [Alajmo] has a pastry chef, he should fire him. If he doesn’t, he should hire one.” I found the “do-it-yourself” approach to be unnecessary as you did, resorting to “do-it-for-me” by my daughter, who enjoyed the whole process of making chocolate laboratory experiments much more. The chocolate that Alajmo uses is also of his own production (70% cacao from Ecuador), and I found it not great. I actually don’t think that Alajmo introduces finger games and other entertaining aspects into his meal due to his awed capitulation to the avant-garde and its extraneous surprises. Perhaps Veyrat, with whom he apprenticed, played some role, but I believe Massimiliano’s approach comes from a genuine desire to make the dining experience fun. As serious as the cooking is, there is really no sense of tension in the kitchen, but rather the lively atmosphere of joy. Pictures of Raffaele and Massimiliano making silly faces, hung in the bathroom, add some element of comfort just as if visiting their home. Yet, the whole scenario of frivolity just didn’t work for us. Perhaps we’re getting old . It struck me that the sommelier was a very young woman (whose name escaped me). She said that it is indeed very rare for a woman in Italy to undertake this profession and that the work is very demanding, keeping her there from 9 a.m. till 1 a.m. She studied at the Sorrento Cooking School for three years to become a sommelier.
  11. Robert, I’m continuing my response on the French board, where this subject originated.
  12. Trois Etoiles A Paris...

    I’m responding to Robert Brown’s post, initiated on the Italy thread, here. Robert, I think that tasting menus alone don’t prevent diners from excelling in learning about gastronomy. It is even possible to consider that tasting menus help establish a primary vocabulary, providing a certain level of comfort for beginners to familiarize themselves with a chef’s cuisine without much confusion or strain and before their “dining personalities” (that is, their preferences and abilities to traverse the carte and choose “winners”) has emerged. I remember that tasting was a preferable way for me some time ago also, as well as exchanging plates with David. We don’t do that often anymore, so as not to confuse the palate. I think that the actual problem is that diners don’t strive to transcend their primary sensory reactions of “liking” or “not liking,” by extending their efforts to learn more. Surely, the dining experience can be fulfilling without much expenditure of mental effort, just as, for example the French language can seem richly harmonious even if we don’t know what a word of it means. The refinement of a great arch and the coarseness of a crude one will be apparent to a sensitive person who could not begin to wrestle with the stereotomy that produced them. There are books written on how to learn to listen to classical music. Can you imagine anything similar in gastronomy? But why not? Is eating a different sensory experience than listening? Both are based on physical perception, and high cuisine goes far beyond being a simple means of satisfying primary hunger. There is little serious professional critical research on or analysis of cuisines that would be on a par with those existing in music, art or architecture, for that matter, setting standards and explaining the basics of “scores, intonation, missed notes,” or, in other words, the objective criteria for evaluation. The current entertainment industry, with its box-office-oriented policies, either holds food critics to a narrow horizon or chooses critics unequipped to perform adequately. We went to the Guggenheim the other day to see the Russian exhibition. I was rejoicing in the beautiful, the present fainted into a cheerful intoxication of the past, when David came with the news that the performance installation advertised in the lobby of the museum just started, and that (he lowered his voice to a whisper) it was a woman with a machine gun, dressed in a short leather jacket, sitting on a chair with her legs widespread, (he moved closer and smiled uncertainly) her jeans cut open in such a way as to expose her whole “furniture set” (a Russian euphemism for the private parts). If I had any doubt at all of what I just heard, seeing a joyously animated gentleman, leaning over the rail, squinting strenuously, and then pulling up his eye-lids under his thick glasses to fine-tune his vision (“May I borrow your eyes?” he asked David, who happened to stand right next to him), persuaded me otherwise. The poor chap didn’t realize that there were telescopes installed on each floor for this special occasion. The sad thing was that there was no doubt in my mind that articles and books would be written, devoted to this “new trend” in the performance arts and, as Robert would say, mishuganeh artists. The critical world of gastronomy, however, is left pretty much uncovered, with the exception of diners expressing themselves on blogs such as gastroville and individual reports on the food boards. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating complete and full adherence to standardized critical opinion. Whether a work is good or bad, whether a performance is stylistically correct, are still matters for individual evaluation, in which the temperament and expertise of the evaluator, whether professional or devoted amateur, play a decisive role. Absolute impartiality is beyond the power of man, and would in any case result in the writing of extremely dull criticism. Returning to the subject of tasting menus, I find them a good primary education in the absence of more rigorous and structured instructional material.
  13. Bux, I’m glad you made it to Italy this year. I'm looking forward to reading your reports.
  14. John, thank you very much. The kid was not on the menu that day (the lamb was). I inquired about it and was told that the restaurant was not currently serving kid and that this dish was unavailable. However, when the time came for a meat course, we were served kid – a surprising gesture we greatly appreciated. The reason for my interest in the kid at Can Fabes was your original report, which made me want to try Santamaria’s sous vide interpretation. However, when I specifically asked whether the meat was cooked sous vide, I was told no, that the version we were served was roasted for three hours instead. There is of course a possibility that the waiter wasn’t properly informed; however, the meat (unfortunately stringy and tough) tasted roasted, flavor and texture wise, unless Santamaria managed to achieve a result similar to roasting through the caramelizing process. We have had more than just one version of sous vide meats, including kid at Abac, all of which had very distinctive textural similarities and were not comparable to the version we were served at Can Fabes. Let me clarify the points addressed by vserna. Of course sobrasada is not a sauce; it’s a sausage! Neither is pepper a sauce when used in the context of “red pepper sauce.” What Can Fabes served with the pulpito, described, by the way, by the Maitre d’ as “sobrasada sauce,” was a very thin sauce, binding together all the ingredients in the dish, using sobrasada for its flavor base. (Before the editing deadline, I slightly changed the word order in my post. I hope this helped.) You say toMAYto and I say toMAHto; you say infamous and I say famous. Patricia Wells says, “I have my doubts about its validity,” but also says “He [santamaria] has become famous for his ravioli de gambas – a carpaccio of the freshest baby shrimp molded upon a ‘filling’ of pureed, sautéed wild mushrooms and showered with chives and parsley.” This dish has remained on the menu since 1987, and for good reason. Let’s call the whole thing off. The pea velouté and foie gras were two separate components of the same dish. In first describing why the end-result of the dish wasn’t successful, I said, “[H]aving released too much fat, it [the foie gras] contaminated the pure taste of spring, suppressing the peas’ delicate sweetness, rather than reaching an ideal balance of two perfect ingredients.” Later on, I again praised the velouté, saying that it "was given a virtuoso treatment and rendered a flavor of ripe sumptuousness, wrapping the mouth with exquisite smoothness, intensity and restraint all at once." In other words, the pea velouté was wonderful, but the poorly prepared foie gras ruined the dish. As I said, the meal was uneven. Almost each dish contained both exceptionally and poorly prepared ingredients at the same time. I still believe that Santamaria is one of the few chefs who can provide the most extraordinary ingredients prepared excellently, which, however, is no excuse for inconsistencies in execution.
  15. Not only did my trip in late May/June present us with the opportunity to taste the same ingredients from different regions of Spain and Italy, both in their bare incarnation and transformed by the hands of creative chefs with different cultural backgrounds, but we were able to observe how controversies occupying the chefs’ minds – between the desire to be extravagant and the constraints imposed by the caution of tradition; between the instinct to wipe out the past and the nostalgia to preserve it; between the notion that cultivated taste does deserve to be heeded and the egalitarian idea that people can judge as wisely in the arts of food as they are presumed to be able to do in less subjective matters; between a love for science and a fear of it; between admiration for the expert and distrust of him; between the sense that man must conquer natural ingredients and alter them to his will and the reverence that argues that man should accommodate himself to nature – either made the chefs rely solely on their roots, moving away from the aristocratic spirit of the “dandy,” or made them advocates of modernity, distilling the eternal from the transitory out of the urban flux. From Can Majó, Bar Pinotxo, L’Academia, Rafa’s to Can Fabes , El Celler de Can Roca , Abac and El Bulli in Spain; from Fiaschetteria Toscana, Alle Testiere, Il Cibreo, Il Pizzaiuolo to Le Calandre, Enoteca Pinchiorri and La Pergola in Italy, from rustic and honest to gracious and refined, from sheer and almost unadulterated farce to the unsurpassed ensembles of extraordinary combinations, it made us realize that we live in interesting times of culinary rebirth that spreads its web across countries through the driving force and aspirations of chefs dreaming to find their place in the today’s world; and no matter how strongly some resist participating in this process, choosing the role of silent witness, they are affected by these changes subconsciously, even though perhaps not always to their advantage. The difference in tone between the sophisticated elegance of the old creations at Can Fabes and Santamaria’s current dishes, in which he attempted to implement measured simplification, was a step back toward neo-classical or rather traditional conformism, stripping away the aura of excitement and imagination prevalent in his earlier creations. It was as if in the process of subordinating his skill to the ingredients Santamaria’s creative spirit became somehow suppressed, making his dishes less transparent – the wonderful lightness somewhat lost in crude tradition, no more euphony, no more exhilarating tempo, vigor, and continuity. Take one of the older dishes, Santamaria’s signature Ravioli de Gambas al Aceite de "ceps", representing the best example of his creativity, the dish that also brought him recognition. Though uncomplicated – a sheet of flattened raw red shrimp (marbled with almost pulsating red veins, as if still alive and breathing), passed under the salamander momentarily, to give it a warm touch, and wrapped around finely chopped ceps and onion confit – it is a delightfully frivolous, brilliant and witty dish, which was as much about ceps as it was about the magnificent shrimp. Dish #1 The sparkling motion of earth and sea, and the clarity of tastes of the extraordinary shrimp and the earthy richness of ceps, despite the somewhat dominating sweetness of the onions, deserves applause. There was nothing in this dish that contradicted the essence of Catalan culinary tradition (sautéed mushrooms with sweet onions seems to be the theme throughout Spain: Elena Arzak uses the same combination in her pitaya ravioli), yet the sensitized elegance, the sense of completeness with all “particles” brought into alliance so naturally and unassumingly made tradition assimilate into the contemporary thought. None of the subsequent dishes reached the same heights of aesthetics, nor did all of them pass the test of exemplary execution on our visit. Foie gras in a thick pea velouté was slightly overdone: having released too much fat, it contaminated the pure taste of spring, suppressing the peas’ delicate sweetness, rather than reaching an ideal balance of two perfect ingredients. Dish #2 A striking lemon(?) acidity suspended the logic of the langoustine dish, interrupting the expressive power of excellent cigalas against the nuances of their fresh accompaniment of white and green asparagus, green peas and tomato. Dish #3 The pulpito dish – the impressionistic naturmort, swept with waves of bright, loosely applied colors of a beautiful collage of skillfully carved carrots, zucchini, roasted pine nuts and white asparagus that mingled carelessly with baby octopus while bathing in a polished, thin version of the Majoran sobrasada (minced pork mixed with paprika) sauce intense and salty – in all its rustic crudeness, nevertheless, was elevated to a certain height of refinement, while not quite liberated from the traditional restraints. Though a lovely dish, it didn’t quite manage to surpass its simpler relative of pulpito in its own ink with beans that one can savor at Pinotxo (a plain stall in the heart of the Baquería market). Dish #4 A single Espardenya played wonderfully against a gelatinous piece of pork, establishing a textural correlation, yet there was a binding material missing between the elements, resulting in a lack of continuity of the overall “narrative.” Dish #5 A long-awaited leg of kid, roasted for three hours – visually a striking dish, transporting current times into a 17th century still life with rich feasts full of lavish, sensual fare, as once depicted by De Heem – revealing the most wonderful tastes concentrated on the glazed surface of the meat, could’ve easily established its superiority over the more homogeneous sous-vide versions I had at Abac and Can Roca (though enjoyable in their own rights), had it not been slightly dried out. Dish #6 In other words, if Santamaria’s earlier dishes represented a new culinary language, which sought a brokerage between “low” and “high” cultural forms – borrowing ideas from tradition and lending them to high-end dining to reinvigorate their own idioms and forge alliance with more contemporary thoughts – the current dishes remain attached to the centuries-old traditions, and, to a certain extent, lack perfection in execution. Whether Santamaria became discouraged by the modernistic culinary “syntax” (in which an element of surprise, often bordering on sensual shock, became a technical paradigm), attempting to disassociate himself from the current trends of “arty” dishes, or he simply decided to shift toward an uncomplicated, orderly style, reinventing classics to refocus the diners’ concentration on ingredients, the artistic gesture in his new creations became subordinated to the simple reproduction of traditional fare, rather than being a highly individualistic expressions based on tradition. Such reliance on simplicity also demands unquestionable quality not only of ingredients, superiority of which was notable at Can Fabes, but also of execution and measured application, since even one overblown ingredient may jeopardize the whole dish, as the foie gras in his pea velouté dish. However, despite this criticism, Can Fabes is still solid, in my opinion, for two reasons: the quality of the main ingredients and Santamaria’s magic touch, which brings out the most extraordinary, unparalleled, and very vital concentration of flavors, similar to that of Adriá, but without abandoning the ingredients’ primary forms or seeking revenge on convention. Let’s examine the same dishes from a different perspective. The gently warm pea velouté (Dish #2), for instance, was given a virtuoso treatment and rendered a flavor of ripe sumptuousness, wrapping the mouth with exquisite smoothness, intensity and restraint all at once; the most profound sweetness and plumpness of langoustines (Dish #3) made me stop in admiration, as if the essence of perfection suddenly was revealed in the trivial and the commonplace; espardenya (Dish #5) – a real jewel, a masterpiece, treated kindly, its fickle texture (which hardens easily) preserved gentle – was cooked a la plancha, i.e. no different than what one can get at a local bar, yet it carried supreme regality of both texture and taste. When one espardenya (in the region where espardenyas are common and can be savored in large quantities at many eateries) becomes a self-contained miracle, shining so brightly that it substantially divorces itself from the rest of its kind, making it unique and desirable, the talent of a chef and his “magic touch” become apparent. In other words, though uneven, Can Fabes is certainly a destination restaurant. I would not consider the set (tasting) menu at Can Fabes to be the best approach to designing a successful meal, but four courses (excluding desserts, which I didn’t find appealing), carefully chosen from the regular list (the kitchen will be happy to create a customized tasting, including extra small dishes to balance your choices), which should be dominated by seafood, should prove to be a vital and very satisfying experience.
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