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  1. The Peach, the Orange, and the Quiet – Town House – Chilhowie, Virginia Once upon a time in America to desire gourmet dining meant one destination: not New York City, but midtown Manhattan. Slowly the appetite for culture spread from Gotham’s gut, and cities such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, Miami, and Chicago opened their own bathhouses of gastronomy. Diffusion marches on, and in 2010 we find destination dining in small-town America, Main Street meals. After dining fabulously well in June Restaurant in Peoria Heights, I ached to extend my range. (Restaurants in the same category are Revolver in Findlay, Ohio and Volt in Frederick, Maryland, although Yountville, California, home of the French Laundry, is a town as small as others, but a tourist destination, not a designation for Peoria). During a month in Highlands, North Carolina, I planned a three hour trek to Chilhowie, Virginia to sample the fanciful cuisine at Town House. Prior to 2007, Town House had been a small-town grill, but that year John Shields (sous-chef at Alinea) and his partner – now his wife – Karen Urie (Shields) (pastry chef at Tru) moseyed down to Southwestern Virginia (his home neighborhood, I believe) to reimagine Town House. Town House is not rural, nestled in comforting woods with neighborly owls and bears. It is found on a small town main street. Its environs are not impressive in themselves (no need for valet parking). The design of the restaurant, modern and sleek, would suit Park Slope Brooklyn. The restaurant seems plunked down: a gastronomic room that happens to be in Chilhowie, not particularly indigenous (although some ingredients are local). Town House offers four menus: a short a la carte menu (one salad, three entrees, and a dessert); a four course prix fixe (two choices for each course); and a ten course tasting menu ($110). We selected the latter, and added two intriguing courses from the prix fixe, a blessing as these were among the best courses. We also had a mini-version of Charlie Berg’s excellent wine pairings (not staying in Chilhowie, value seemed the better part of valor). Although I do not cover wines, they were well-chosen and a creative match (only the Foggy Ridge Cider was from Virginia). I divide Chef Shields’ dishes into two: an ecstatic elegant minimalist style and the now-common modern cuisine, with busy plates covered with carefully shaped and processed ingredients. Chef Shields does busy food very well, but in a style that is often seen (this is also the style of Pastry Chef (Karen) Shields. What I will remember from here until hospice are the whispering dishes (Chilled Vegetable “Minestrone”; the Orange from Valencia; A Minimal Preparation with Peach; Scrambled Egg Mousse; and, from column B, Corn and Crispy Pig Tail. It was not that the other dishes were bad; they weren’t; they were impressive and represented the style well, but a few lacked focus (the desserts had this quality). At times the whole was less memorable than the sum of the parts. Town House cuisine pays respectful attention to texture (including, at times, temperature), but to my surprise, with a few notable exceptions the dishes were not visually stunning. The kitchen’s palate runs from white to tan to beige to brown and back again. It is not only the moderate lighting that makes Town House a challenge for photographers. Soon there appeared a savory cookie of cocoa and black olive – a post-modern Oreo with Meyer lemon compote and parmesan cream. While I was impressed with the citrus cream filling, I found the cookie to be dry with a slightly oily mouthfeel. I should have revived my own oreo memories: removing the cookie and licking the cream. It is dangerous to serve the best dish of the evening as the opening act. But at Town House this is surely the case. Chef Shields’ “Chilled Vegetable ‘Minestrone’” is an astonishing dish. It is a canonical creation, perhaps in the class of Keller’s Oysters and Pearls, or Michael Carlson’s Quail Egg Ravioli. Yet, Shields’ minestrone cannot truly be compared with this pair. Both are lush while Shields is restrained: Agnes Martin in a bowl. Like every goodly, godly stock the liquid is complex while appearing simple. This “soup” consists of 11 different (root) vegetables, rolled as small cylinders. We are served radish, beet, carrot, leek, and a chorus of others. Each has its color, creating a stunningly beautiful dish in a minimalist vein. Tasting each pipe, I realized that each had been cooked in its own herbal bath. The diner who ignores the vegetable consommé misses a high point of vegetable cuisine. It is a perfectly imagined dish, a virtuoso display of genius. The second course seemed a scoop of orange sherbet sitting lonely on a plate: “The Orange from Valencia.” Here was orange puree, flash frozen. A tennis ball crammed with a savory mixture of shellfish – mussels, shrimp, and other oceanic nummies. Perhaps it was the surprise of a seafood bombe, but this was another wondrous dish. The contrasting temperatures and textures, combined with the cunning acidity of the orange puree, permitted a dish that provided a dramatic contrast with the minestrone, avoiding being overshadowed. Soup of Cherries with “almond bread” (frozen almond milk), slow oven-roasted tomatoes, cucumber water, ginger, and sardines was the most challenging dish of the evening, perhaps of the year. Some 35 years ago I was served a dish at Larry Forgione’s An American Place on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. At that moment of culinary promiscuity, American chefs were attempting to develop a lusty American cuisine, using an array of traditions in a style that would become institutionalized as fusion cuisine. Forgione, then something of a celebrity chef, sent out a multi-layer tortilla torte with barbeque beef, corn, tomatoes, and salsa, and others ingredient I have striven to forget. The dish was a mess, a clashing composition of tastes and textures (my wife was served a stunningly velvet sole with sorrel beurre blanc). In contrast, my dish nearly inedible for all the right reasons. If art need not be pretty (think Richard Serra, brutalist architecture, and challenges to decorative art), must food taste good? Must all dishes be “comfort food”? I have discussed Forgione’s dish more than any other that I have eaten. Shields attempts something similar with his combination of cherry, tomato, sardine, and frozen almond ice. The ingredients bounce and slam around the plate: it is a hip-hop hors d’oeuvre: in your face before being in your mouth. There are some dishes (the minestrone) that I wish that I could eat every day, and there are some dishes that are once in a lifetime experiences. Sardines are not good bedfellows, but they have rough style. Sour, tart, oily, sweet, acidity, smooth: this dish was like no other most nights. Memories are made of such strains. Scrambled egg mousse, a paean to breakfast, was fourth, and was another success. Although Heston Blumenthal of The Fat Duck places his breakfast dish – bacon and egg ice cream – at the end (perhaps to remind us how long we have been at table), this mousse is still an appetizer, and a lovely, quiet one. The scrambled egg mousse is served over smoked steelhead roe, sorghum, sweet spices, preserved ramp, and rye bread. I thought that the dish must contain bacon – it does not – but it captures most of the flavors that constitute bacon: sweetness, smokiness, saltiness. The texture is silky as one cuts into the mousse, hiding (as in the orange) complex deliciousness below. Peekytoe Crab in Brown Butter and Lime with “caramelized onions,” banana, curry, and cider vinegar was in the style of modern cuisine’s symphonic dishes. Here was perhaps the most typical modern dish of the night. Chef Shields works with three basic ingredients: crab, banana, and onions, and then shapes them in various forms, textures, tastes, using multiple cooking processes. It was a virtuoso combination, but my concern with this presentation is that one never gets the same bite twice: there is not enough time to think about taste and texture before other tastes and textures intrude. Like many of the dishes the colors on the plate were shades of off-white. The sixth dish was, for me, the most troubling dish, although one that I am reassessing. It was the dish for which I registered a complaint to Chef Shields; perhaps I spoke too rapidly. I was served a “Risotto” of Squid. Whenever one finds quotation marks on a menu, anxiety is about. This dish appeared a petite risotto, but one absent rice. The rice was squid cut as rice (surely a labor-intensive task). My first reaction was not happy. I would have preferred risotto sans quote marks: real Arborio rice is heavenly starch. In terms of sheer enjoyment I have not changed my stance. Yet, a week later I still think about the dish. The squid was deliberately chewy (some might say rubbery), not the meaty grilled calamari of Greek cuisine. By leaving out the rice, the dish had a creamy, aquatic purity. It was still my least favorite dish, but I can appreciate the choice. Perhaps it had something of the let-us-do-it-because-we-can sensibility, but it had a textual punch. Now I received the first “extra” course: Corn and Crispy Pig Tail with basil-infused buttermilk, toffee, popcorn, and cocoa nibs. Like the crab this was a dish that is very much in the register of modern cuisine: a focus on the possibilities of corn with a butt wag to Fergus Henderson’s snout-to-literally-tail cuisine. This presentation brought to mind a stalk of corn, and is stunning as this style gets. The textures – gelatinous, smooth, stringy, chewy, meaty, liquid – were showy. Here was something other than a mish-mash, but a set of ideas. Corn and Tail is dramatically different from the quieter dishes (Shields works with several distinctive cooking styles), but is a vivid composition. The foie gras royale, confit and crisp chicken skin (covered with a patch of fresh berries – a batch of fresh perries?) was easily the most vibrant presentation of the evening (my photograph shamefully lacks justice). What is not to like about duck liver and blackberries? Nothing, of course. To say that it was nothing special seems to demean the dish, but only in contrast. It is a dish that makes diners happy in three-star cuisine. And then naked came the peach (“A minimal preparation of peach roasted in beef fat and chanterelle mushroom bouillon”), a second extra dish. If the minestrone had been out of stock, the little peach would have stolen my heart. I would be raving about this roast slice of fruit. If peach were filet how would it taste? Shields is a consummate consommé master. This was almost as perfect a two-bite dish as could imagine, so beefy, so woodsy, so filled with the orchard. Astonishing! The entrée was Lamb Cooked in Ash with Smoked Eggplant Cream Puree, Miso, Black Garlic, Bonito, and pulverized potato starch. Shields serve a meat dish that is textbook, so filled with paper-like ingredients it was. Much was thin, wrinkled, and crackly, the floor of an academic office. I was stunned in its play with textures and its reflection of ash. Perhaps its bustle was overshadowed by the peach, but I cannot deny my pleasure throughout. The two desserts, created by Karen Urie Shields, formerly of Chicago’s Trotter’s and Tru, are much in the modern style (her bread is simply delicious). First was Parsnip Candy with Aerated Coconut, Yeast Sponge, Banana, Maca Crumbs (maca is, apparently, an herbaceous root plant from Peru: a slap in the face of locavores?), and Lemongrass. Most impressive was the wonderful set of textures in this dish, another symphony in off-white. However, after a week it is hard to recall the tastes involved. The second dessert was Blueberries and Lychee with Peony Sorbet (wonderful), goat yogurt, coriander berries (very distinctive), and crispy milk skin (the Shields could open a culinary paper mill). I love lychee and so I was pleased with the dessert, but it revealed the limits of modern cuisine, perhaps it was too impressive in its fireworks. If one preparation is astonishing, sometimes having five or six on the plate makes amazement routine. My unasked-for advice for a brilliant ending is to create a dessert-equivalent of the minestrone. Choose eleven fruits, shape them beautifully, serve with a light, off-sweet consommé, and remind us again just how simple food can be complex. Or, if not, a nugget of veal served as a nectarine. It took three hours to arrive at Town House and three hours to dine and three hours to return home. Three hours of expectation, three hours of reminiscences, and three hours of pure joy. Town House 132 East Main Street Chilhowie, Virginia 24319 276-646-8787 http://www.townhouseva.com The restaurant has an associated guest house for those wishing a full wine tasting. Photographs available at Vealcheeks
  2. Pushing Asia – Bo Innovation – Hong Kong Molecular Cuisine has become a global brand, a reality that has led some to suggest that its time has passed: the sun has set on foam, night has made deconstruction invisible. As an avid diner, my suspicion is that some of the bubbly enthusiasm has waned, but this is not necessarily a bad thing for the cuisine. We are at the point where experiments are not done for their own sake, but because they actually taste good – they create memories on the palate. In my attempt to collect stamps from all of the global molecular post offices, I knew that I would have to visit Bo Innovation on my trip to Hong Kong, presided over by “Demon Chef” Alvin Leung. In the 2009 Michelin Guide to Hong Kong, Bo Innovation received two stars, but in the 2010 guide was demoted to one (perhaps revealing the danger of palling around with Anthony Bourdain on “No Reservations” and god knows where else! How many bad boy chefs can one world take?). But one star or two, Bo Innovation is a happening place, and eating at the kitchen “bar,” chatting with the cooks and servers, it reminded me of an Asian version of Washington’s Minibar. I give a lot of credit to AJ, the maitre d’, Mark, one of the servers, and Leah who was staging, for making my evening so congenial. Bo Innovation’s ploy is a relatively simple one – clever and generally successful. Chef Leung marries the techniques the molecular cuisine (cuisine agape) with a mixture of Asian and western flavors, but with an emphasis on luxe ingredients: the restaurant describes themselves as creating “x-treme Chinese cuisine.” Diners are required to order the tasting menu, which on the night I visited was approximately nineteen courses (depending, of course, on how one counts such things). As is so often true, not every course was fully satisfying. (The fact that French Laundry, Alinea, and a few others do makes their three stars all the more impressive). However, the ratio of hits to misses was agreeably high. While at times it seemed as if each dish was centered around a single Chinese ingredient, rather than being fully Asian, the incorporation of mou-tai, dried shrimp, lotus, or yak cheese added a sense of Orientalism to a menu that was structurally not so different from Minibar. One wonders if molecular cuisine can ever be truly Chinese, given different styles of cooking and presentation – and theories of food – or whether experimental cuisine will inevitably Western with Chinese touches. Bo Innovation does not fully answer the question. But if Bo Innovation is not stratospheric in its creativity, there was enough vision to allow the meal to be worth recalling with delight. Chef’s table menu: January 23, 2010 1) Mou-tai Sour combined with fluffy egg whites – a pleasant amuse and palate cleanser. Although Chef Leung incoporatored Mou-tai (the Chinese liquor made from sorghum molasses, giving the drink a light molasses taste), it was basically a standard molecular treatment. 2) Escargot with compressed watermelon, Sichuan vinaigrette with crispy garlic, fried greens – beautifully composed, but again the style is Western with Chinese ingredients. 3) Caviar with smoked quail egg and crispy taro – Kaluga caviar from China – reminiscent of Thomas Keller’s Pearls and Oysters – a beautiful dish 4) Hamachi with black sesame, crispy rose essence ginger – beet juice for ginger, amazing Japanese inspired – for my taste this was the most accomplished dish of the evening. 5) Sea Urchin, ink noodles, chili oil, and “har mi” (Sun-dried shrimp) – very distinctive taste, brave flavors, although perhaps too strong in terms of what came before and after. 6) Black truffle sandwich, “chian dan chee” – crispy spam and egg sandwich with truffles – one of the best sandwiches I have had with a distinct truffle aroma. Chef Leung is in this menu quite partial to truffles. 7) Iberico 36 (months cured ham) with morels and porcini, Korean vermicelli, and onion foam – one of the best dishes of the night, a one-bite wonder that effectively combined tastes. 8) Molecular “xiao long bao” – a “dumpling” in a bladder – pork stock with a line of pickled ginger on top, but how Chinese was it really. A cute and pleasant dish, but limited in its appeal. The idea overwhelmed the taste. 9) Yak and Mac – with black truffle bits – ok, but not so different than mac’n’cheese – Yak cheese, not as good as the yak butter tea that I had from a Yunnan food stall a few days before. But another cute idea. 10) Frog Leg “beggar style” – frog thigh stuffed with lotus and shiitake – on small diced vegetables (again, despite the fact that it was based on a traditional Chinese dish, one wonders how Chinese it was? It seemed like a Western appropriation of Chinese cuisine.) Still, the flavors were impressive. 11) Scallop with sesame, kaffir lime, grape aspic, quite beautiful and contemporary in conception 12) Foie Gras with black truffle and turkey congee, looked the same as the yak and mac – a joie d'esprit – a savory donut underneath (no photo – see the photo for Yak and Mac) 13) Halibut with shiitake soil, “yun nam” ham powder, extra virgin olive oil, reminiscent of the “soil” dishes of Wylie Dufresne at WD-50 (no photo) 14) Sweetbread – oyster sauce (somewhat think but bright) lettuce tempura, artichoke puree – excellent dish; impressively prepared, but it is the oyster sauce than made it Asian. 15) Chalon duck with longon, red rice and preserved kumquat – too gingery to my taste, and one of the least successful dishes of the night. At this point I was served several desserts, which in general were not as inspirational as the savory courses: 16) Almond with sandalwood smoke – a nosegay that is reminiscent of some experiments at Alinea – “Chinese temple”, nice almond ice cream but not revelatory. 17) Shui Jing Fang – poached caramelized banana and dark chocolate ganache (but served without chocolate since I am caffeine sensitive) mint, rice wine liquor – very nice, and probably better with the ganache. 18) Chinese petit fours: kaffir lime macaron, red date marshmallow, salty fudge (no photo) 19) Jasmine kiss – jasmine flowers with liquid nitrogen – another fragrant moment with a tip of the toque to Grant Achatz at Alinea. I left being fully satisfied by the evening. Bo Innovation provides four-star cuisine, but in its glory raises the question of how Asian molecular cuisine can truly be. Is molecular cuisine always and ever to reflect Western culinary imperialism? Bo Innovation Shop 13, 2/f, J Residence 60 Johnston Road (lift on 18 Ship Street) Wan Chai, Hong Kong 852-2850-8371 http://www.boinnovation.com Vealcheeks
  3. First Day – Hong Kong – Shanghai Xiao Nan Guo Cuisine The Jumbo Kingdom Floating Restaurant off Hong Kong Island, near the Aberdeen Fishing Village (more like a very large and diverse marina) is a sight to be seen. It is a huge Hong Kong dim-summary: a gathering for parties, banquets, and tour lunches, although not a place to eat more than serviceable dim sum, less impressive than good (not great) establishments in New York, San Francisco, or even Chicago. I spent much of my first day in Hong Kong on a Gray Line tour to gain a sense of the city, and the Jumbo was where they parked us for lunch. The dim sum selections, understandably, if sadly, were from the dark edge of the menu: a dry Steamed Barbequed Pork Bun, a greasy shrimp egg roll, bland curry noodles, and a flavor-challenged shrimp dumpling. The only two passable dishes were those that I ordered personally, a sweet Chinese Ginger Juice Pudding although with only a whiff of ginger, and a crispy fried sesame beef ball dumpling. The greatest compliment that such a meal can receive is: filling. Things improved in that evening when my host – a Hong Kong native – selected a Shanghai restaurant, the Tsimshatsui branch of a chain, Shanghai Xiao Nan Guo Cuisine. The ambiance was clean and pleasant, muted, although somewhat generic, more what one describe as international style than distinctly Chinese (if Hong Kong can, in fact, be considered distinctly Chinese). The first surprise came at the start of the meal when water arrived (Jetlagged, I didn’t care for tea). The water was served hot, which my friend informed me is considered healthful in China. The second liquid surprise was the Chinese rice wine – rather like a sweet, dark sherry, also served warm (like sake). When a dried sour plum was added the wine gained a distinctive and pleasant musky fruit aspect. Even though there were only two of us, we ordered enough for a platoon: Asian trenchermen. The meal began with pungent marinated duck tongues. The enjoyment of the meat (and the very idea of the dish – no worse, surely, than foie gras) was moderated by the difficulty of consumption, nibbling the edges of cartilage while mismanaging chopsticks when half asleep: getting the tongue in my maw was easy, in removing less picturesque. The tongues were soon followed by a pair of lightly fried crispy yellow fish – a small white fish with a yellow tail (not tuna-type yellowtail), the size of a large herring. It was beautifully fresh, airy, and crackly in all of the ways that fried food reveals its perfection. Steamed pork dumplings are a well-known Shanghai speciality, and these bocce balls, with soup hidden inside were sturdy if not startling examples of the genre. Less special – and heavy – was sticky rice with pork rib. I am confident that this dish is no worse that how the dish was intended, but it lacked a special appeal. For me – and my companion – the high point of the night was Fish Maw with Crab Yolk, advertising the Shanghai expertise with seafood. Astonishingly this dish was both eggy and slightly sour, a citrus note that cut through what could have been the unctuous quality of the loose egg sauce. Its revelatory golden color added to its appeal, as did the delightful fish maw and sweet crab. This plate was both inspired and awakening. We ended the evening with two sweet soups. First, was a light and fresh Papaya in Broth: a wake-me-up that would served as a palate cleanser had it not been warm. The final soup was a sugary rice wine soup with gelatinous rice balls. Had it remained with these ingredients, it would have been too heavy for a final note to this long symphony. Fortunately, in the liquid were some dried flowers which transformed this dessert into an incredibly fragrant memory – enough to recharge us into the warm January Hong Kong night on our way to the elegant Felix bar at the Peninsula. Jumbo Kingdom Floating Island Restaurant Aberdeen Fishing Village Shum Wan Pier Drive Hong Kong 2553 9111 Shanghai Xiao Nan Guo Cuisine Unit 2, Level 6, MegaBox, 38 Wang Chiu Road, Kowloon Bay, Hong Kong, China 2369 8899 Vealcheeks
  4. Cantonese Memories – Lung King Heen – Hong Kong By some accounts Lung King Heen, the three-star Michelin restaurant on the fourth floor of the Four Seasons Hotel in Hong Kong with its stunning view of the harbor, may the best Chinese restaurant in the world. Certainly no other Chinese restaurant has received such Michelin praise. When I visited Hong Kong last month, Lung King Heen was on my agenda. I had read about the strengths of the restaurant and was fortunate to rely upon the experience of “Ultimate Epicure,” and so did not choose blindly from the extensive menu, although I also relied on the guidance of my savvy server. There is much to commend the food. But what I remember most clearly relates to the fact that I was dining alone. When I sat down, I was provided reading material for the time between courses: Travel and Leisure and Christophorous Magazine, a magazine designed for Porsche owners, perhaps LKH’s market niche. Should I have been grateful (or disappointed) that I was not given the Guangzhou edition of Maxim? Different stokes, as they say. Cantonese cuisine used to be China’s culinary ambassador to the global maw, but today the style is seen less as exotic, but as fusty. However, Lung King Heen demonstrates that such a patronizing perspective is not essential. With its lengthy menu of well over 100 items, the kitchen is both skilled and flexible. I have had others Chinese dishes whose taste adheres to memory, but few that make such a claim to sheer opulence. The meal was superior, and yet surprise sometimes bowed to technique. The innovative chef amazes from the first bite: the amuse astonishes. This was not the case at Lung King Heen, where my first bite was the saddest. I begin with a tiny plate of crispy squid, tomato, and cucumber. The squid, heavily breaded was anything but crispy, and rather tough. What was I doing here? Were the Michelin inspectors asleep? My appetizer selection was imperfect, but more satisfying. I received a trifecta of roast goose with plum sauce, BBQ pork with honey, and BBQ suckling pig. The technique impressed me, but the small dishes varied in their pleasure. The goose was somewhat tough and the sauce was too cloying for pleasure. The pork was impressively sumptuous, but perhaps overly fatty. In contrast, the pig with a square of crackly skin atop was a memorable travel into the heart of pork with skin as crisp as crème brulee. Shark fin soup is not likely to be available much longer. One bends one’s knee to animal rights. I received a wallop of criticism from friends who don’t blink at eating eyeball tacos or blanch at foie gras. Still diners wish for a full life, if that can’t be said of the object of their appetite. I selected a $100 US soup: Braised Superior Shark Fin Supreme Broth with Lobster and Gold Leaf. Here is conspicuous consumption that Thorstein Veblen would appreciate. The taste of this soup is not overwhelming, but the aroma and the texture is powerful. Perhaps I will never again choose shark fin, but this experience will last. The dish was a concatenation of subtleties, and in this revealed the artistry of Cantonese cuisine. The chicken broth was a divine gift. The shark fin amazed, slightly chewy and slightly slippery: translucent but solid. The small amount of lobster was a fair partner for the broth. The gold, not strictly necessary, reminded me that this was to be the only C-note soup I would ever order. I followed this extravagance with a plate of wok-fried prawns with dried chili and shallots. Unexpectedly the chilies were not Sichuan-hot, but intensely flavorful. During my travels in southern China, I was served only a handful of dishes that reminded me of the “spicy-oily” dishes so common in American Chinese restaurants. At Lung King Heen the heat never overpowered the ingredients, with shallots and cilantro providing a depth of flavor. Not a novel combination, the dish was intensely satisfying. I completed my entrees with a luscious dish that I surely would not have selected had it not been for Ulterior Epicure’s advice: braised e-fu noodles with fresh Alaskan crab meat in Champagne sauce. East meets west. The sauce was as rich as any pasta sauce I can image: a roll in butter and bubbles. Crab, tender and sweet. The sauce had a French consistency, and the noodles a Chinese bite. E-fu power was the echo of luxe. For a moment I became a titan of industry passing between two worlds. What Cantonese banquet would be complete without a Bird’s Nest? Rather than selecting a savory bird’s nest course, I chose dessert: double-boiled egg white milk custard with bird’s nest. The flavors were never overpowering, but the textural subtly matched the flavor notes with hints of ginger. The dessert was so remarkably smooth and so light that it might have been avian. In all, I felt well-satisfied with Lung King Heen, even if I recognized the many leagues between the Four Seasons experience and the traditional Cantonese table. Still, when in Hong Kong, one might as well pretend to be Governor General. Lung King Heen Four Seasons Hotel 8 Finance Street Central Hong Kong, China (852) 3196-8888 http://www.fourseasons.com/hongkong/dining/lung_king_heen.html
  5. Minibar Revolution – Minibar – Washington, DC For the culinary community, the 00’s were the Molecular Decade – for butter or for wurst. In the 90s Ferran Adria was still figuring out his chemistry set, but it took Y2K to fashion a craze. One cannot fairly say that Cuisine Agape ever dominated, but many culinary capitals birthed restaurants that played games with your food. From Barcelona to Bray, Paris to New York, from the near west side of Chicago to the near north side of Chicago, experimentation was the game’s name. And, it must be said, that the gourmet decade had it all over the political decade. We can look back with satisfaction and not shame; after all those calories we really need some health care. To end the decade, I returned to Minibar, Chef José Andrés’ outpost in his Café Atlantico in downtown Washington. Short of underground dining, short of El Bulli, Minibar is the toughest reservation to cadge. It took four mornings, calling at the moment that lines were open finally to snag a spot. (There are two seatings of six each. Sorry, Octomom!) The object is to be up-close-and-personal with the chefs: a sushi counter gone wild. Such a structure makes for agreeable conversation with the staff, but perhaps limits what can be produced by the team of four, working in tight quarters under our hawkish gaze. I had eaten at Minibar two years previous and was impressed with the creativity and panache. How did it wear? Was Minibar a two-trick pony? The answer is complicated. Artistic revolutions have their life cycles. First, there are the pioneers, the rebels. But there are only so many ideas under the dining moon. In time even the most remarkable sparks of deconstructed genius become matters of routine. The craft remains, but the new dishes are often modifications of canonical recipes. The history of aesthetic insurgency is that of trick or tweak. In time, passion becomes passé: been there, ate that. At that moment, others, more traditional, emerge to pluck the best ideas and blend them with the tried and true: that’s what happened with Careme, Escoffier, nouvelle, and fusion. We are, it seems, in-between the moments of modification and incorporation. Soon chefs will not strain to foam. But by then even the most conventional chef will place pop rocks in their mise en place for that perfect plate. Minibar remains an essential restaurant and certainly will be eye-opening for anyone who has never been exposed to molecular cuisine. My challenge was to find the lasting memories among the fusty standards (if a mojito bladder can be derided as fusty or as standard). Depending on how one counts, I was served two dozen courses. Eleven “munchies.” Ten “flavors and textures.” Two desserts and one plate of mignardises (or “sweet surprises”). Andrés and his chefs are still capable of revelations, even if some dishes are more curious than eternal. A description of twenty four dishes seems excessive even for the most bilious blogger (the photos provide evidence of the chef’s handiwork), but there were some goofs. I was not taken with the “Bagels and Lox,” a small hors d’oeuvre that was little more than lox balls in a bready cone. The flourless blue cheese and almond tart was tasty enough, but nothing special, although being served in a bowl of rocks was an enjoyable conceit. The carbonated mojito bladder was fun, but more a cunning culinary stunt than a dish that led to seconds. The same could be said for the parmesan “egg” that was more cute than delicious. What is necessary in our Tweens is for brave chefs to create brilliant dishes. We have moved beyond being satisfied with the astonishment of the concept (Wow, shards of glass in the fruit salad, so this is a blood orange!) to demanding dishes that are luscious, creative, and brimming with sensation. Fortunately there were several dishes at Minibar that deserve this acclaim. Other dishes deserve nods. A hot and cold Pisco sour, a tempura Brussels sprout, a raw smoked oyster with apple and ginger, an inside out reconstructed guacamole, a charcoal salmon with black garlic and lemon-lime pearls all stood firmly on their own. However, I focus on four dishes that represented for me what molecular cuisine can achieve, but often does not. First, there was the now obligatory cotton candy display: chefs at the funhouse. But at this carnival, cotton candy eel with shiso leaf, wasabi, and ginger really did transcend. Forgot that it was “cotton candy,” but feel the texture and taste the ingredients. The wispy filaments contributed to the exoticism of this proto-Japanese dish with its symphony of senses. It was brilliant, transcending the brittleness of the conceit. Second was Zucchini in Textures, a signature Andrés dish (it was served two years ago). The taste was subtle, not boisterous, and the textures were sublime. It elevated this rather pedestrian summer squash to the winter heights. Each level - the water, the seeds, and a puree - was precisely achieved. It is a contemporary classic: quieter than Keller’s Oysters and Pearls or Carlson’s Quail Egg Ravioli, but just as subversively memorable in its spare delight. Third, late in the meal, was Breaded Cigala with Sea Salad (sorrel, I believe). Cigala is a type of Spanish langoustine (perhaps the generic translation of langoustine). Again it was a simple dish, but a pure and wonderful one without fireworks, but with enormous care in the ingredient and the preparation. The salad matched the seafood precisely. Finally, the dessert: Thai Cuisine, more molecular than the previous two choices but with the spices of Bangkok banged into surprising shapes and textures: ginger crumbles, cilantro-coconut sorbet, ginger bits. Here was a deconstruction of an impossible construction. This savory sweet was a wonderful fantasia, and a lovely close to a wide array, revealing that molecular cuisine still has much to teach, although perhaps no longer in two dozen courses. The rest: Hot and Cold Pisco Sour "Bagels and Lox" Boneless Curried Chicken Wing Flourless Blue Cheese and Almond Tart "Ferrero Rocher" - savory hazelnut and blue cheese Mojito Bubble Steamed Brioche With Caviar Brussels Sprout Tempura Rose Dragon's Breath Popcorn Guacamole Roll Smoked Oyster with Green Apple Hand Made Corn with Huitlacoche "Sun-Dried" Tomato Salad with Lemon Foam Charcoal Salmon Toro with Black Garlic and Lemon-Lime Pearls New England Clam Chowder with Bacon Cream and Potato Bits Parmesan "Egg" with Migas Philly Cheesesteak Frozen Yogurt, Honey, Olive Oil Mango White Chocolate Box, Smores, Bacon and Chocolate Fizzy Ball Minibar Second Floor 405 8th Street NW, Washington, DC 20004 (202) 393-0812 http://www.cafeatlantico.com/ Vealcheeks
  6. Two Meals – Chez Panisse and The French Laundry – Berkeley and Yountville, California Although New York often thinks of herself as the origin of all things, such hubris ignores the reality that Gotham’s skill is as arbiter: to pick and choose among the worthy green shoots and then convince herself that they were to be found in New York all along. All the arts know this trick: Manhattan always trumps regional genius in its own imagination. Nowhere is this more true than in gastroland: Nuevo-Caribbean cuisine from mango Miami, molecular cuisine from Barcelona and Chicago, New Orleans haute-cajun, and the list continues. But perhaps when the final history of cuisine is Kindled no patch of land will deserve more credit for culinary innovations than the Bay Area, the engine of American gastronomic theory and practice. In a recent trip to San Francisco, I dined at two canonical restaurants: Chez Panisse (for the third time) and the French Laundry (as a FL virgin, but having eaten at Per Se three times). I also had a fine meal at Restaurant Gary Danko, but as Danko is “only” a fine rendition of well-established national trends in modern American cuisine I won’t discuss Chef D’s efforts. Diners have their own emotional equations. A lover of the Chez Panisse might sniff at the French Laundry and the reverse. I lay my cards on the table. I have long respected Chez Panisse but never loved her (not in 1985, not in 1995, and not in 2009). Yes, I celebrate CP’s importance in birthing restaurants that I love. I recognize CP’s importance as a social movement in changing (for the better, mostly) how Americans think about food production and dining including by White House compost pile, but I have never had a “wow” moment. Leaving CP I have felt, “Gosh, this is flawless; where can I find a really good taco”? In contrast, Per Se and, now, French Laundry are me. I am in love. And if only they would use fewer quotation marks on their menu, saving gallons of imported ink, I would lack quibbles. Despite the fact that Chez Panisse famously developed from the hippy-dippy movements of the 1960s, Panisse seems less Aquarian than Calvinist. Stripped down, lean, and clean; like dining in a Presbyterian chapel. Throwing out the capital-G gourmet frou-frou is valid to a point: it is about the food. But it is also about the show, about the excess, about the awakenings, about the ability to astonish. In Keller’s haute-farmhouse there is magic afoot. Chez Panisse changes the menu each night. This is an impressive feat. Applause. But since diners do not eat there every night, they take their chances. Some dishes click loudly; others more softly; and few are discordant. These constantly shifting, micro-seasonal menus mean that chefs cannot perfect dishes over time, and they cannot routinely present their brilliancies. Even a chef like Alice Waters and her cooks aren’t geniuses every evening. Even Einstein needs a break. As a result provenance and produce replace art. So it was on the evening of August 11, 2009. A review from August 12th, much less December 12th could be quite different. Dinners differ by day of the week, just like New York Times crosswords – Monday is simple, Friday and Saturday more extensive. CP can duck criticism because the failed dish may never be seen again. (Playwright Suzi-Lori Parks attempted to write and then have theaters produce a play for each day of the year. Not surprisingly some were clunkers for which audiences laid down their cash). On Tuesday August 11th, we began with a chilled tomato and cucumber soup with avocado. It was an August 11th soup. Not exactly gazpacho in that the ingredients were present for our gaze: showing off a garden-fresh ideology. This was as delightful as any a cold vegetable soup that I have tasted. It was plated to remind the diner of just how fortunate they were to be served this kind of produce. Fundamentally it was not so very different from a soup that I might have made if I had such a network of gifted farmers. The second course was a local petrale sole à la ciboulette (chives). What simple perfection! Sauteed, lightly battered, a mild lemon sauce, sprinked with chives. What is not to like? This is the kind of dish that is Chez Panisse to the core. How hard can it be to cook sole – but flawless? Despite (or because of?) its Puritanism, its lack of show, it was the high point of the night. The next dish, however, revealed CP’s limits. I admit that the main courses on Monday, Thursday, and Friday sounded enticing, but this was Tuesday: Spit-roasted Becker Lane Ranch pork loin with fresh summer shell beans and chanterelle mushrooms. I have never had a poorly made dish on Shattuck Avenue and this was no exception. However, despite the quality of the pork and beans (not deconstructed, but simply shared), it had no depth of flavor (although the onion rings certainly were applause-worthy). It lacked savory memory. Dessert was Middleton Gardens raspberry ice cream crêpes. They were as advertised if you treat the excellent peaches and blackberries as lagniappe. At Chez Panisse, the ingredients are generous. Think of a raspberry crepe, and then think of a raspberry crepe with perfect fruit. That is Chez Panisse. The idea of Chez Panisse is transformative, but unlike the greatest meals in my life, the food isn’t. Still, we must consider price. Turning to The French Laundry and its fireworks means traversing from a $75 prix fixe without service to one set at $240 (service included). For two icons in these days of economic meltdown, that is not a difference to be ignored. Berkeley profs can afford Chez P. But forget cost if you can. Eat until the trust fund is no more. While Chez Panisse advertises the idea of local dining, on the following night (August 12th for the record) I tried to discern differences between French Laundry’s menu and that of Per Se. Different spaces but similar vision. While the ingredients – particularly the produce – are likely to be differently sourced and each restaurant has its own chef de cuisine (Timothy Hollingsworth at FL and Jonathan Benno at PS, although the restaurants are in continual video communication), similarities outweigh differences, beginning with Keller’s signature “Oysters and Pearls” – a “Sabayon” of pearl tapioca with Island Creek oysters and white sturgeon caviar. The dish is as definitive as ever: the great post-modern classic. (Amuses were an ethereal Gruyere gougere and a cornet of Scotch salmon, spring onion crème fraiche and a nicely spicy black pepper tuile.) The menu at French Laundry is largely fixed, although diners choose between the Chef’s Tasting Menu and the Tasting of Vegetables (neither vegetarian nor kosher, as FL announces Lobster Bouillon and Ibérico Ham on this menu). Within the nine-course menu, diners can choose from a pair of selections for four courses (and can choose the occasion course from the other menu). The first post-O&P course was an astonishing salad of compressed melon (a dish selected from the vegetable tasting menu) with Niçoise olives, charred scallions, arugula and verbena “aigre-doux” (sour/sweet). Of all of the skills of Keller’s minions, the composition of the dishes is unique. It is not that Keller produces the most beautiful plates or the most architectural, but his are the plates in which the placement of ingredients reveals exquisite sensitivity towards the inventive power of shape. My companion selected a degustation of French Laundry garden potatoes with Australian black truffles, picked pearl onions, celery branch, nasturtium and crème fraiche. While the presentation was deliberately minimalist, one could not fault the Panisse-like quality of ingredients while also recognizing a distinct combination of tastes. The first fish course was a flavor-confection centered around Chesapeake Bay soft-shell crabs with marinated eggplant, pleasantly bitterly pungent red radishes, navel orange pips, mizuna, and miso vinaigrette. I was entranced by this careful composition. This was another favorite dish in a list of favorites. There is a sculptural intensity that characterizes Chef Keller’s presentations, but also an intensity of flavor: a wisdom that recognized that crab, radish, oranges, and eggplant might make for a perfect Wednesday evening. The other fish dish, sautéed fillet of Columbia River sturgeon with “pain de Campagne,” toybox tomatoes, little gem lettuces, Spanish capers, and “bottarga di muggine,” reveled a fillet a little more cooked than perhaps it ought and with a somewhat minimalist background. I found this the least compelling plate of the night. It didn’t sing or zing. Maine lobster tail “pochée au beurre doux” with mission figs, Cipollini onions, scallions, and chocolate-coffee sauce was heroic with the unlikely but stirring partnership of buttery lobster and choco-coffee. Consuming this shellfish reminded me of watching Hamlet performed in rap: we know the traditional text and can enjoy how modernity plays tribute to tradition. We had two choices for the first meat course: Salmon Creek Farms Pork Belly with Savoy spinach, chick (or chic!) peas, spicy paprika, and Meyer lemon condiment worked hard to please. My photo does not do the dish justice, but this was the night’s least photogenic plate. Still, the richly tart lemon made for a very nice counterpoint to the fatty, deep pork. A very satisfying dish, even if short of astonishing. The second option was preferable: a gemlike combination of “épaule (shoulder) de lapin farcie aux ris de veau with Jacobsen’s Farm Pears, hazelnuts, watercress and summer truffles. A brief editorial: Why provenance the pears? Does knowing that they were reared by some farmer in the dell’s orchard improve my pleasure? True, all pears, even American ones, are not created equal, but wouldn’t the variety of pear be more important than their human parent. End of rant. And back to this treasured dish with its wonderful August truffle and oh-so-sweetbreads. With its novel utensil this was the dish most reminiscent of Alinea, but wherever FL’s inspiration, it was inspired. The menu’s centerpiece was Snake River Farms “Calotte de Boeuf (an often ignored cut of beef surrounding the ribeye) Grillée” with globe artichokes, Nantes carrots, garlic “croquante,” parsley shoots and sauce barigoule, a sauce traditionally napping artichokes, a nod to classical cuisine. This was not an exotic adventure, but a dish with enormous integrity. Not as simple in presentation as dishes at Chez Panisse, it evinced equal respect for produce. Minimalist, each bit was revealing. Of all the courses in this evening of pleasures the honest grilled beef demonstrated the long and warm shadow of Alice Waters. Without her brave fight, the French Laundry could never be. Our cheese course was “Tomme du Berger” (a soft, nutty, “fragrant” cheese) with hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, sweet peppers, haricots verts, and arugula. It was an ideal follow-up to the beef. This was another quiet, intense course that bowed to the integrity of the ingredients. One does not need a plate of cheeses to conclude: cheese matters. Honeydew melon sorbet with compressed red and yellow sorbet and basil “nuage” (a “cloud” or light foam) reprised the early melon dish. It was a very pleasant palate cleanser. For dessert my companion ordered the “Ballon de Chocolate Fumé” with smoked black tea, vanilla ice cream and tonka bean caramel. He was presented with a chocolatty bocce ball. My small taste suggested a Cadillac of sundaes. I decided upon lemon verbena “vacherin” (a meringue base) with Tellicherry pepper panna cotta, lemon verbena sherbet, and chilled Silverado Trail strawberry consommé. This composition was another favorite with clever shapes, vivid colors, surprising textures, and sensuous tastes. This sweet revealed a complexity that announced that whatever the debt of Chef Keller to Chef Waters, his cuisine is more challenging and remarkable in its visionary potential. Keller’s vacherin was a splendid closing to edge me into the cool, still, verdant, small-town Yountville night. Service at both restaurants was warm in a way that only Californians have perfected. Eating at Chez Panisse and French Laundry back-to-back is a one-two punch that might only be matched by consecutive meals at L’Arpege and El Bulli – but these Californians sit just across the bay. Cali rulz. Chez Panisse 1517 Shattuck Avenue Berkeley, CA 510-548-5525 http://www.chezpanisse.com The French Laundry 6640 Washington Street Yountville, CA 707-944-2380 http://www.frenchlaundry.com Vealcheeks
  7. Breather - Greens - San Francisco After a hectic culinary week in San Francisco, it was time for a last lunch. So many choices, so little time. Before heading off to a four-hour flight in a sardine tin, I needed some mellowing out. And in the Bay Area, Greens marries bliss with upstanding cuisine. One realizes the possibilities of a robust and creative vegetarian cuisine while relaxing at the edge of the Bay. Greens captures the ethical soul of near-fine dining. This is no veggie-shack, but green cuisine. Having had a warm bath of calories the past week, I chose two cool and light plates. Both were generous – and humane – first courses. Grilled nectarines with fromage blanc, watercress, and Snyders sage honey was as tempting as any fruit salad that I have been served in, well, close to ever. It was summer sweet while the crunchy watercress added a slight peppery intrigue. Perhaps it could have been dessert given the honeyed depth, but for a small meal it was a fine starter. The second plate was ricotta corn cakes with jalapenos, scallions, cheddar and smoked cheese, served with crème fraise, fire roasted tomato and pumpkin seed cilantro salsa. The ingredient list on the menu makes the dish sound more pretentious than it was in person, but those allergic to pumpkin seeds and smoked cheese have been duly warned. These griddle cakes were a fine success, reminding us that (pace Michael Pollan) corn is not necessarily a four-letter word. These cobby-blinis were complex without being precious. Had I the stomach I could have eaten a baker’s dozen. And so from the bustling calm of Fort Mason, I left with memories to consume on the (thankfully) foodless flight home. Greens Fort Mason, Building A San Francisco 415-771-6222 http://www.greensrestaurant.com/ Vealcheeks
  8. Since I am writing about Highlands, I should note that Chef Broyles (of the Frog and Owl Cafe) is no longer at the Oak Street Inn (and long gone from the so-so Frog and Owl Bistro). She was there for a year, and I am told that as of last year was working for a sandwich shop in Franklin. If true, what a waste of talent!
  9. Madison's (Old Edwards Inn) - Highlands, North Carolina About five years ago, the Old Edwards Inn in Highlands was renovated, transformed into a four-star (or five-star or however many stars mean really, really fancy and) inn, resort and spa. In the course of this transformation from an old-timey inn on Main Street, they opened a fine dining restaurant, Madison's. In its first iteration it attempted (somewhat bizarrely, and without much grace) to borrow from molecular cuisine and also incorporate a set of rather bizarre flavor combinations. Different is not always better. Back then the restaurant was rather too taken with itself, and my first meal was not a success - quite the contrary with a check that suggested that the owners felt that the food was more sparkling that it was. However, over the past two years, I have had several improved meals at Madison's, culminating with an excellent dinner last night. The chef de cuisine (at the restaurant for two years now and now in charge of the menu) is Chris Huerta, who worked with Guenter Seeger in Atlanta (at Seeger's, which, until it closed in 2006, was Atlanta's premier restaurant - Seeger is attempting to open a New York restaurant) and who was a stage at Per Se. Huerta is a serious young cook with a serious blog ("Chipped China"). My friends and I were very pleased with the style and assuredness our meal. In strictly culinary terms Madison's is - by some distance - the most accomplished restaurant in the area (go to On the Verandah for the view and good food). Madison's has a quite pretty space and in contrast to some area restaurants is light and airy and is relatively quiet. They also have an ideology of "Farm to Table Dining," which they are expanding - mostly vegetables and pork at this point. I began with Huerta's Apple and Bacon Hushpuppies (ah! bacon!), which were the best hushpuppies I have ever eaten. Granted claiming that one found the world's best hushpuppies may be akin to picking low-hanging fruit, but they were delicious. A friend had a very creamy (and nicely composed) vidalia onion soup and another companion had a salad of Chilled Local Carolina Shrimp Salad, Florida Citrus, Winter Greens, and Vanilla Citrus Double Cream. Let us ignore the "local" shrimp as we are several hundred miles from the sea in the western Carolina mountains, but the Vanilla Citrus Double Cream was a very becoming complement to the fresh shrimp. For entree I chose the compelling (although not visually remarkable - unless one likes a symphony of gray and brown) Braised Duck Leg, Celery Root Ravioli, and Stewed Hand Harvested Mushrooms with Natural Jus. It was a luscious combination with perfectly moist duck leg and properly cooked ravioli with its intriguing celery root stuffing. If not quite worth a photo, it was the most polished entree I have had in these mountains since the grand Frog and Owl closed fifteen years ago. Dessert was an assured smooth vanilla-bean panna cotta with butterscotch sauce and crumbled espresso biscotti and a cornet of vanilla bean (I think) ice cream. Another appealing and modern presentation with a mix of flavors that were delightful, if not quite startling. Madison's also has an extensive wine list and well-selected wines by the glass. But for one who spends a month in the mountains each summer, Madison's poses a problem. Should every dinner out be a dinner at Madison's. Is everything else just slumming? Madison's Old Edwards Inn Fourth and Main Street Highland, North Carolina 866-526-8008 or 828-526-8008 http://www.oldedwardsinn.com/ Vealcheeks
  10. Grump - Selene – Santorini, Greece When it comes to restaurants, I can be a bit of a grump. My standard is perfection, and even I can’t meet that standard! Recently my wife and I took a cruise through the azure waters of the Aegean Sea. Now cruiseship food – even if bountiful, colorful, and well-provisioned - can not salve a culinary grump. But every so often we escaped the ship. One of these moments permitted us to explore the beautiful, white-washed island of Santorini, an island formed from the rim of a volcano, which the deity exploded for His own amusement (Santorini sits in a caldera – the collapse of land after a volcanic eruption), the most remarkable spot in the Cyclades. When one comes across a crescent sliver of land so exquisite my thoughts turn to, well, food. (My thoughts also turn to food when viewing a toxic dump or a beautiful woman.) Still, Santorini is more than brownfields or lithesome legs, it is scenic. Were this insufficient, Santorini is also the home to one of the most astonishing restaurants in all of Greece, and, Michelin not to the contrary, in all the EU. Selene, perched on a cliff in Fira, the main town (in fairness most of Fira is perched on a cliff), opened in 1986 under the guidance of owner George Haziyannakis, who wished to show off the creative nature of Greek cuisine. He succeeded. Yes, the view is perfection, but it cannot quite compete with the food. One looks down at one’s plate while the clouds and skiffs pass outside. We began with a pair of soups, cold tomato and warm rockfish and langoustine. The cool tomato was perfection in this warm June lunchtime, although had this been our only course I would have noted Selene as a most pleasant boite. The seafood soup was pure cream and sea: impeccably rich and sweet, with ingredients that revealed that locavores have a point. These soups were followed by an appetizer of local bivalves with lemon foam – molecular cuisine in the isles! – paired with potent seafood tartlets. Here was a chef who was aware of both the standards of modern cuisine and the robust cookery of the Aegean. Again the local clams were salty-fresh and the buttery tarts composed of the finest catch of the wine, dark sea. But truly it was the main course that was spectacular: that afternoon I fell in love with all things Santorini. As is clear from the photo the ravioli is not the enclosed, Italianate pocket pasta, but rolls of perfectly cooked strips with – again! – blessedly fresh seafood with plump mussels and delightful squid, so perfectly prepared that the word rubbery was banished, and authoritatively and sharply seasoned crayfish and shrimp. As magnificent as the ravioli was, it was surpassed (just barely!) by the risotto: rice in a fava bean sauce with a juicy roasted rabbit with an evocative rosemary jus: symphonic notes of Greek cuisine, but so expertly prepared that it would have been perfection if prepared by Escoffier. A month later I still dream of this brilliancy. To close the afternoon, we were served a sturdy baklava with a startling Niotiko cheese ice cream. Not a showy dessert, but with the view appearing again, the dessert served its purpose. Never have I been so pleasured by the combination of taste and scene. With God as designer and with Selene’s own divine kitchen staff, any grumpiness must quickly be voted off the island. Selene Fira, Santorini +30-2286022249 http://www.selene.gr/ Vealcheeks
  11. Midsummer House – Cambridge, United Kingdom After being prepared to admit, sadly, that there are no excellent restaurants in Cambridge, a week before my departure I had one of the outstanding meals of the year. Of course, the happy success was not a total surprise as the Midsummer House (set in a lovely garden near the banks of the River Cam) had received two Michelin stars. However, two Michelin stars have often been just enough to break one’s heart. But not this evening. Under chef Daniel Clifford the meal was nearly flawless, failing only a few minor tests. The evening began with a tiny, but surprisingly robust gazpacho tasting, made memorable because of a wave of pureed celery that set off the acidity of the tomato base. It was delightful, and would have made a worthy bowl on a summer evening. This was followed with a simple and creative anchovy tempura – just enough fat and salt to make every health care vanish. It was unfortunate that these starters were pared with the only real failure of the evening: two cheese (brie?) gougeres that were overfilled and lacking interest. Still working through the amuses, I was presented with a crystal ball filled with pink grapefruit cream and champagne foam. While foam is properly being edged off the gastronomic stage – having had its fifteen minutes of culinary fame – foamy champagne was a novel and witty retort. It was a memorable palate cleanser before my palete needed to be cleansed. This was followed by still another amuse: a sweetpea veloute served with tiger shrimp. If not as creative as the remainder of the meal, it was silky smooth and the essence of an English spring. Finally we reached the meal itself, which without being experimental, captured the best and brightest of modern European cuisine. The ingredients, of which there were many, blended in inspired and startling ways, and, in fact, I was profoundly grateful that I avoided the tasting menu so that I could enjoy these plates in full. As my appetizer, I selected maple-caramelized sweetbreads with turnip, pistachio, ox tongue (!), and maple jelly. Although such as dish had danger of being an early, cloying dessert, the sweetness was mellow and added a complexity and richness to the subtlety of the rest of the ingredients, rather than overpowering them. As a main course, I selected braised turbot with peanuts and pistachios (this turned out to be an all-pistachio dinner), sea scallops, cos lettuce, asparagus in a crackly pastry, and vanilla. While I would have preferred my fish to be more translucent, such is rarely how fish is served in the British Isles, and the fish was in no way overdone (even if such cooking involves dancing on a tightrope). The remainder of the plate was splendid, and complemented the mild white fish to excellent effect. Chef Clifford is particularly to be commended in his attention to texture. I passed on an extra dessert – a tiramisu – too much caffeine: but it was a beautiful display. Finally a triumphant close: warm braised cherries with pistachio (again!) ice cream with a cream filled pistachio “cannelloni” shell and underneath chartreuse tagliatelle. Perhaps the meal was dominated by nutty tastes, but they were remarkably sophisticated with the herbal echoes of chartreuse as a counterpoint. The Midsummer House deserves attention and not only in the long evenings of June. The location and size of the restaurant militates against a third Michelin star (it is not really in position to be a “destination” restaurant), but I have no hesitation in preferring it over two London standards The Square or Marcus Wareing at the Berkeley, and, if not as creative as Gordon Ramsay or The Fat Duck, capable of equaling them in pleasure and bettering them in cost. The Midsummer House/Midsummer Common/ Cambridge, United Kingdom/+44 (0)1223 369299/http://www.midsummerhouse.co.uk Pictures to be posted later.
  12. Moto 2009 Last Tuesday I returned to Moto, Chicago’s premier molecular restaurant (at least if one places Alinea in its own transcendent category), and I was surprised at the changes. The restaurant looks much the same, but the cuisine feels different. The changes at moto may mirror those decisions made by many successful artistic rebels. After their moment of publicized rebellion – after they have thrown down the gauntlet and after the media has chronicled that gauntlet – the rebel needs to ask, “what now?” These heroes come to realize that there is a lot to be learned from the standards of the world from which they have rebelled. Perhaps symbolically when we were given our kitchen tour we did not need to wear protective googles – there was no laser in evidence. Strikingly, the dish from the ten-course dinner (with a few extra courses) that I remember most clearly and most fondly is (almost) a dish that could easily have been served at any restaurant committed to contemporary cuisine. The kitchen presented a pan-seared Texas quail with modulated hot (pequin) pepper and celery three ways. Granted the dish arrived with an edible paper that was reminiscent of buffalo wings – the dish was ostensibly a deconstruction of buffalo wings – but what struck me was how sweet and luscious and even traditional the quail was. My tablemates agreed. The “Chicago steak dinner” was likewise a lovely, modernist dish with a beautifully cooked bit of prime rib eye. Yes, it was a deconstruction of the composition of such a dinner, but not a destruction of it. Perhaps the least effective was the faux “breakfast” – a coconut and passion fruit egg (white and yolk) served with crab cake tater tots and blood orange ketchen. The crab was extremely tasty, but the egg (a borrowing, if I recall correctly, from WD-50) was more curious than enjoyable, given a texture that was perhaps too reminiscent of plastic. As with this “egg” dish, some of the Moto oddities – the powders and a little nitro and a Cuban sandwich shaped as a cigar with ash, but for the most part the tastes were strong. There were no dipping dots to be seen. Moto’s problem has been that the concept has on occasion overwhelmed the taste. The edible menu (as the amuse) is a case in point. No one would demand to eat this cracker were it not for the jest on which it is based (eating the menu). Pastry Chef Ben Roche’s desserts were, as usual, most enjoyable, but not so different in spirit from what one might be served as Jean-Georges, Per Se, or, in Chicago, at Blackbird. They were compositions of flavor points, following modern canons, rather than provocations. And they were all the better for that. Moto 2009 reveals a greater attention to flavor, while sometimes the presentation seems to be minimalist (such as the BBQ beans and slaw. The roadkill (described on the menu as “roadkill of fowl”), a now canonical dish at moto (a result of the visit I organized when the restaurant had first opened) is based on duck (not raccoon) and is much more elaborately plated. However, while the dish is tasty, it has lost some of its authenticity as a just-in-time creation. So moto is changing, as it should be. Chef Homero Cantu seems to be considering what he needs to do, rather than what he can do. After all, if it is only the ideas that matter, what would justify return visits? Moto remains vital and exciting, clever and tasty: but now a restaurant that doesn’t need to strain so hard to be worthy of its diners’ love. Moto's edible menu (Grand Tasting Menu version) Passion fruit and coconut egg with crab tater tots and blood orange ketchup Saffron Scallop with Lemon oil power, Orange and Shiso syrup Deconstructed French onion soup: Gruyere and onion cracker House made pequin (chili) quail with trio of celery Smoked beef brisket, frozen cole slaw, and BBQ beans Roadkill of fowl: duck, red and yellow beets, crunchy red rice Chicago Steak Dinner Pina Colada forms for dessert Pumpkin pie forms for dessert Moto 945 West Fulton Market Street (West Loop) Chicago 312-491-0058 http://www.motorestaurant.com/
  13. Spanish Panache - Cinc Sentits – Barcelona How can so many svelte women be on display in Barcelona? Don’t they know that four star dining abounds. Surely they must because they are to be found at those tables, but there must be a caloric catch somewhere. So much taste, so much elegance, so little time. Among these choices none is better than Cinc Sentits – a brilliant establishment that revels in the five senses (the soundtrack included Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, and Dean Martin - a pack of rats in a clean, cool trap). Of my meals within the boundaries of Barcelona, the finest meal was that splendid lunch at Cinc Sentits, a temple of light near the University of Barcelona. Cinc Sentits is a college of the senses. I began with one of the most compelling and thrilling starters in recent memory: a shot glass filled with drama and with love: cava, cream, and maple syrup with a little salt as accompaniment: all of the passionate food groups were here: champagne, cream, sugar, and salt in a jewel-like composition. I was dazzled by the light. A second, deeper starter was a tomato ice compote served with a slice of sausage, garlic foam, and small bread cubes: gazpacho deconstructed. The presentation was exquisitely composed and a cool counterpart to the hot streets of a waning Barcelona summer. By forcing the diner to contemplate the construction of gazpacho, it did what majestic modernist cuisine must do: to turn food into theory, while keeping it at the peak of delight. Then followed a squat square of foie gras: a cube of liver with an elegant and rich pasty layer beneath and a crispy burnt sugar crust above. Like so many such dishes it might have overplayed a desire to transform foie into dessert, but what saved the dish from a sugary mass was the subtle play of textures throughout, as fetching as a rectangular crème brulee. The seafood plate was a perfect rectangle of tuna in a smoked tomato water with a roasted onion “sofregit” (a tomato-onion-olive oil sauce) and black olive salt (Cinc Sentits is partial salt as a condiment). Perhaps tomato water represents the ultimate downsizing of French saucing, but such lightness makes one feel healthy, forgetting the calories elsewhere (The secret of Spanish beauties). If not as filled with drama as the amuse, it was a subtle, slinky dish. Iberian suckling pig was the last in a trio of rectangular cuisine. Fatter and denser than what had been previously presented, this sous-vide pork – perhaps slightly mushy as served - wallowed in its richness, swathed in a crispy ratafia glaze (a fruit cordial) and sprinkled with (more) salt. The texture was a bit off, but the taste was dense and complex and precisely porcine. To recapitulate the lifeworld of a Spanish sow, apples served as the accompaniment: in cooked slices and as an apple jam with wine and honey. Dessert was a plentiful plate of gloriously zesty Maresme strawberries (an area on the coast of Catalonia known for these ruby berries). On top sat a scoop of marscapone sorbet with some fennel and rose water. One can not term this combination “simple;” splendid is more precise. Airy, herbal, flowered, and divine. Cinc Sentits is a restaurant for the five senses. By no means the most expensive restaurant within town limits, of my dozen meals this was the pinnacle. Cinc Sentits is Catalan splendor on high heels. Cinc Sentits Aribau 58 (Eixample) Barcelona 93-323-9490 http://www.cincsentits.com/en/index.htm Vealcheeks
  14. L2.0, Someday *** L2O *** Chicago The question constantly abuzz is what is the next new thing, and this summer in Chicago fine dining circles, it appeared that San Francisco Chef Laurent Gras’s new seafood restaurant (in the Ambria space), part of the Lettuce Entertain You Group (now 38 restaurants strong, including Everest) might be that place. Chicago, in truth, does not have a four-star restaurant, like Le Bernardin, that specializes in the aquatic. It still doesn’t. To review L2O is to calibrate. Chef Gras’s establishment is by no means a failure. They have a superior seafood supplier, the fish is served without fault, and one of the dishes (of four, plus two amuses) is stellar. (Many of those who have raved about L2O indulged in the tasting menu; for our late dinner, we selected the workingman’s four course repast: the Goldman Sachs blue plates special). L2O does not have a poor record, except in competition with Alinea, Trotter, Tru, Avenues, or Everest. What constitutes four-star dining? Surely decor matters, and I was startled at the casualness of the dining room (it is decorated in tones of cream and brown, reminding me of a suburban corporate lounge. It lacked astonishment). With the exception of a wonderfully complex and evocative sculpture of branches in the entrance (providing Japanese notes, also seen on the menu), the space itself is rather conventional (table settings are impressive). This is satisfactory for a restaurant with modest aspirations, but can this space match Alinea or Everest. A second feature is the service. At the highest caliber restaurants one blindly places oneself in the hands of consummate professionals: a wine director and skilled server. We trust nothing will go wrong. Of course, things do go wrong – and allowances must be made – but each glitch chips one’s confidence. Our server was quite congenial – friendly, warm, caring – yet, although we were told that we would be able to choose a soufflé that option was not asked when we ordered. Worse, we were not asked about wine service. Where was the sommelier? (This was a weeknight.) But whether present or not, we should not have had to inquire. And wine should not be spilled. Nothing terrible, but L2O has been open long enough for everything to settle into perfection. And then the food. It is not surprising that L2O is at home with fish, but it is distressing that a restaurant that hopes for national recognition should fumble elsewhere. The fact that many dishes, including the dessert and cheese course is garnished with emerald crystal ice lettuce revealed either a fatal absence of imagination or a terrific deal on these greens. Although some have praised the bread service, I was less taken with the anchovy bread, which served no purpose as an accompaniment to delicate fish or as a match for sweet butter. Our first amuse was the least engaging starter I have had in some time: had someone eaten this pseudo-molecular creation and pronounced it magnificent? Here was a peanut sponge with wasabi. Granted it was a bit like eating a sponge, but neither the peanut nor the wasabi added much in the way of taste, and the visual appeal was decidedly limited. Do I really want my chef to consider me sponge-worthy? Better was a second amuse with tuna, tomato, olive foam, and orange gelee. It was a startling combination. The flavors were not perfectly coordinated (olive and orange are not ideal bedfellows), but the tuna was just fine, and it suggested a chef who is testing boundaries. The four course menu is structured around a raw course, a warm course, and a main course (reminiscent of Le Bernardin), plus a dessert. My raw course was Ishidai (a type of bream, a very mild white fish) with shiso leaf, preserved lemon, trout roe, and heart of palm. The ishidai was wonderful, but it was overwhelmed by the pungency of the shiso and lemon (both wonderful tastes, but would have been better as undertones). Served in four pieces, the ingredients had to be unpacked and rearranged to be fully satisfying. The second (warm) course was the highlight of this and many meals. A truly memorable dish: a two layered circle of lamb tartar and ebi shrimp with pickled peach and tarragon. This was a combination that could stand up to its accompaniments. It was a supremely wonderful dish – meaty in land and sea - a set of startling contrasts that forced a diner to rethink preconceptions. Sterling. The main course was striped bass with shellfish bouillon, saffron, Rhode Island mussels, striped sorrel, and a plank of toasted brioche. The bass was perfectly prepared, the bouillon rich and complex, the mussels, fine. The board of brioche meant that any attempt to conquer this bread led to flying crumbs. It was not the most congenial dish to consume. The ingredients were well composed, but the flavors were not as remarkable as the previous course. It was a more traditional entrée. Does Chef Gras have a distinctive style? These dishes make a theme hard to find. Finally there was dessert. Sigh. As the desserts were described, they seemed to have numerous interchangeable parts. One (unordered) choice was Chocolate and Raspberry in fourteen textures. Perhaps it was wonderful, but it seemed pretentious. My selection, with a similar number of parts, was Tomato Strawberry. Nasty. The fact that a recipe for the dish (or something similar) is on the website suggests that someone must have found a black pepper meringue to be inspirational. But is this a marriage for strawberries? Should you wish you can prepare this dessert at home, reach in your cabinet for versawhip, low acyl gellan, soy lecithin, xanthan gum, red food coloring, something called Fizzy, and, oh yes, petite emerald crystal ice lettuce. Bon appetit! Alice Waters, where are you when we need you. In contrast to the locavore crew, I am not ideologically resistant to creations from Dr. Frankenstein’s kitchen, so long as they are toothsome. This dish - a blurred mix of sweet, bitter, and peppery - was a mess. Serve durian and be done with it. My companion ordered the cheese course. No choices and no accompaniments (jams, nuts). But nice cheese. L2O is not without its moments. The fish is lovely and there are flashes of brilliance, and on other times moments of sheer, unalloyed pleasure (the silky bouillon). I have tried to calibrate my review to capture a restaurant that itself does not always calibrate its dishes. The check certainly indicates that Chef Gras is striving for four-star dining, but the experience itself seems at some distance from those lofty heights. And so we have L2O, waiting, perhaps, for L2.0. L2O 2300 Lincoln Park West (Lincoln Park) Chicago 773-868-0002 http://www.l2orestaurant.com/ Vealcheeks
  15. Sunlight Dancing * Alkimia * Barcelona What an array of dancing sunbeams is Alkimia, Chef Jordi Vilà’s Michelin One-Star in the Eixample, not so far physically – or conceptually, perhaps – from Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia. Here is a stylish restaurant in which taste and texture are always central. The restaurant would broadly be placed within the canons of the new Spanish cuisine, but without straining the boundaries of the pleasures of taste. Combinations are newly inspired, but serve their own gustatory ends. Not only was the restaurant airy, but the food was as well. Perhaps not spectacular in its limits of adding those extra, luxe touches of cuisine, the lunch (a tasting menu) was unfailingly delightful. I began with a simple but memorable shot of tomato water with bread crumbs on top and a slice of fuet covering the glass. These simple ingredients provided a happy start in a restaurant that respects its food. This amuse was followed by a lovely and bright compilation of Zucchini flowers, tomato, quinoa, olive oil, and gorgonzola ice cream. These carefully calibrated tastes were effectively and beautifully combined in a small glass in which each taste worked in tandem. The most astonishing dish of the afternoon – still on my tongue after several weeks – is a composition (the proper term for so many of Chef Vila’s creations) of watermelon, smoked salmon, blanched almonds, with ajo blanco (white, garlicky gazpacho). Despite the seemingly odd mixture, each bite was a triumph of flavors that matched salty to herbal to sweet. Chicken Cannelloni with almond béchamel and an apple and radish salad was another dish that was stirringly composed. I found it less compelling that the previous plates – less savory perhaps, but I did admire the stylish side salad on the plate. Red Mullet (snapper) with tomatoes, peaches, and almonds was confident and, again, beautifully composed. Perhaps it was slightly salty, but the accompaniments were delightful reminders of late summer. Here is a chef deeply and confidently in debt to modern cuisine. Two desserts concluded the lunch: the first was a riff on a traditional Catalan dessert: pastry with lemon sauce, vanilla ice cream and coffee cream. The second, the better of the two, was a fruit compote with melon, lychees, ginger water, plum cake, and lemon ice cream. An outdoor dessert served indoors. This dessert – not heavy a bit – almost floated away. And like the dessert, I floated. In most cities, this meal would have catapulted the restaurant into the local heavens. The fact that this was Barcelona! means that Alkimia is part of the culinary chorus. Alkimia Industria 79 (Eixample) Barcelona 93/207-6115 Vealcheeks
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