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Everything posted by vmilor

  1. lxt: Yes, the supplier of cheese to L'Ambroisie is indeed Aleosse. Sorry for the late reply. By the way, the other fine affineur, Bernard Anthony is a good friend with an enigmatic international gourmet who, once a while, contributes to food forums. Last year, I had dinner with this person at Les Ambassadeurs soon after Piege had taken over. Our characterization of Piege is the same as yours but this is another story. At any rate, when it came to the cheese course my friend asked for a taste of the comte--Anthony's. The waiter said that it was from the 2000 vintage. Tasting it, my friend told me that, the cheese was wonderful but it was a tad below 2000 and it was 2001. Guess what? Bernard Anthony was dining with friends in another table and when he came to say hello, my friend asked him about the cheese. Indeed, he had run out of the 2000 and this was 2001! Another thing that made me swallow my tongue is that(this is a Turkish expression--don't know if it makes sense in English), the same day, my friend and Bernard Anthony had a 10+ course marathon lunch at Gagnaire--specially cooked for the affineur--, an invitation I had declined given the dinner cooked by Piege, and that, despite my skepticism my friend was able to embark on a new marathon just 3 hours after the first had finished and was even able to taste my squab to confirm his judgment that the skin had looked too brown and perhaps it was overcooked. I am telling this juicy story to ask forgiveness for not addressing your more basic inquiry about a comparison between ex Robuchon and Pacaud. This will require some sorting out of old documents and Jamin menus+a travel down memory lane when, a very young(!) international student in mid 80s Paris was going solo to Jamin without necktie once a week and ordering the 140 FF lunch menu($14 given the exchange rate)and discovering that, living an isolated life in Paris burying yourself to the archives in Fondation National and rue de Martignac(French Planning Commission), may not be too ascetic after all given the weekly friday lunch routine and the sheer pleasure of anticipating it. Too bad these days came to an end.
  2. Cochinillo is one thing in the menu but everybody orders it and for good reason. I have never put such a tasty pig to my mouth to my detriment--it became the standard against which I judge others. So I called it a dualism because the old asador is coexisting with the new cutting edge cuisine. It is the same in Fagollago(another quite young chef but the reputation comes from the traditional asador and it is an old, 99 years old restaurant but there suckling lamb is the raision d'etre). Personally I do not want the dualism to be resolved in favor of one end or the other. It is a good thing. At the same time, Victor, I saw that most locals ate top grade jamon and rillettes before proceeding to the pig and they did not order the creative dishes. The jamon plate may or may not have been in the menu I have seen but they were eating with such gusto and appetite that I took a mental note of asking it the next time. In the meantime I looked at my notes and found that both the espardenyes and carabineros were top notch but the preparations had not fully achieved a transcendental quality, the quality that some dishes prepared by the other under 30, Massimiliano Alejmo is capable of achieving. But Alejmo has clerked both at Veyrat (and I believe Adria) and the "brother" Bux is mentioning(I was told there are 4 of them and one is the sommelier) perhaps has not had the chance of making his rounds in the leading establishments. He(whoever among the 4 is preparing the creative dishes) has great raw talent. Had I not eaten the espardenyes with lamb brain at Adria, I may have fallen head over heels for Coque version with duck foie gras(instead of brain)but, it was not yet at the very exalted level. This is how my mind works: if I think a dish is worth thinking about, I compare it against the very best in the same category and ask myself whether something can be done to improve it. I also like giving scores and ranking things-- a professional deformation of being an academic for some time. Fortunately, this practice does not deduct from my enjoyment level. At this point I will judge Coque to be an excellent restaurant, honest and it has the potential of joining the ranks of the great ones in Spain(the 4, 3 stars, despite stylistic differences are culinary forces to reckon with), but it was not there about 12 months ago. I am very excited to have the opportunity to return and I also have a mental note of the hospitality they accorded us which made me feel that I was home away from home.
  3. I had a long drawn out lunch at Coque last year and I am looking forward to repeat it this coming march. The best dish was the traditional roasted suckling pig which was sublime. Their becada was not as good as the Goizeko Kabi version. They cooked it too much. Perhaps it was not aged too. There is a dualism in the kitchen between the old and the new which is not synthesized yet. I noticed that some dishes which were served to regulars from a la carte menu looked delicious. The young chef is trying to combine discordant tastes to show off some experiments in texture(such as foie gras and espardenyes)but the results are not wholly convincing yet. That is, there is not enough clarity to certain tastes and the combination is not wholly worked out. This said, conceptually the cuisine is impressive and they are they have tremendous respect for the raw material. Despite some flaws I liked my meal there more than (a bit gimmicky) La Broche. I am actually stunned that Coque is left out of LMG by Garcia Santos. If the chef adheres to Adria's advice("creativity is not imitating and it is about finding your own style"), I am confident that he will start challenging Massimiliano (at Le Calandre) as the most exciting chef in Europe who is hardly 30 years old.
  4. As far as I know there are only 2 more 2 stars in Brittany. I heard very good things about the Auberge Breton but have not been there. Have you been there Bux?(or anybody else?) The fact that Roellinger served turbotin and called it turbot was inexcusable. It is possible that not getting 3 stars when you deserve it can be demoralizing. Roellinger may also be spreading too thin because he is involved in other ventures. But if I go the the region I will give it another try given that so many people whose opinion I value recommend this place highly.
  5. lxt: what a pleasure to read your reports. In my coming 4 days trip to Paris I have one opening and was looking at different websites to find a recent report on Arpege(I am undecided whether to give it another chance--a restaurant I patronized when they had 2 stars but had been disappointed later). I found yours and, while sipping my cappucino which was not bad for Atlanta, I relished your extraordinary prose. I thought one intense pleasure is good enough on a daily basis before embarking on routine work--but now I am savoring a prolonged state of contentement after reading your last report and I have decided to forsake "work" for the rest of the day. I just can't change gears swiftly. The thought of describing Pacaud's style often crosses my mind. With or without metaphors I can never achieve a level of precision here that I can share with fellow diners. Pacaud himself does not think that he has a style. He is not an introspective, self-conscious person. He does not have a "theory" and he comes across as perhaps the most humble of the great chefs. Your descriptions are very illuminating in that you delineate the basic parameters within which he operates and you are very precise about his dissimilarities with other prevailing styles or philosophies of cooking. In a way I don't want Pacaud to become more conscious about what he does as self-awareness here may be detrimental to whatever it is that innately and spontaneously and instinctively and naturally comes to him--or springing from him. But no, he is not animalistic or primitive either. He is restrained yet seething inside. Somehow his cooking reminds me the idol of my youth or the epitome of what I consider beauty incarnate(ice cold but also seething inside): Catherine Deneuve. Less subjectively, I think the flag of "haute cuisine francaise" has been passed on to Pacaud from its last holder:Robuchon(where I have been 30 times or so in the mid to late 80s and am refusing to visit L'Atelier not to spoil memories). This does not necessarily mean that he is the best chef in France--no such thing can be claimed for any mortal--nor I am saying that everybody will be equally pleased and rave about it as much as I and some others do. But what I am saying is that if we use "ideal type" concept in Weberian sense, a rough and imprecise approximation which nonetheless captures the spirit of the object, than Pacaud approximates the essence of contemporary haute cuisine which is unmistakeably French. Somehow I can never conceive of l'Ambroisie anywhere in the world but in France and in Paris, of all places. In a way what is quintessentially French is anathema to many Americans--and to me this is understandable given very different historical trajectories. On a more concrete point: In my last meal there in December we also started with ecrevisses:"soupe cremeux d'ecrevisses au celeri, chutney de poivron et ananas". This was the first time I had a course there with almost an Asian touch and a kind of sweet and sour theme. It was original and zesty and the sweetness of plump ecrevisses shined through. I suppose Pacaud did not find the same quality espelette pepper and ripe pineapple so he changed it this month. I usually prefer fruit based desserts but should concede that Pacaud's "tarte fine sablee au chocolat"is ethereal. Have you had it to finish your meal? Have you had cheese? The cheese course there provides fewer choices than, say at Taillevent or Grand Vefour, but they only serve ripe cheeses in perfect state. Also I am curious about the wine(s) you have ordered--Monsieur Lemoullac is a very accomplished sommelier--besides being the maitre d'. Hope you will write some more reports of your last trip lxt. Personally I will be curious about Passard and I have not yet tried ADPA under the new chef who came from Spoon. I am skeptical about the brasserie chef taking over from Piege but I may be wrong. Have you been there in this trip?
  6. I was there on August 29(sunday)and perhaps because it was sunday the seafood was not as fresh as I would have expected. In the same trip I had better bar and turbot elsewhere at Dinard. His homard "saveur des iles" was quite memorable in terms of flavor combination and subtlety. But I prefer 1 to 1.5 kg blue lobsters and this was smaller--hence a bit cottony. I was surprised that he served the turbot with a grapefruit chutney as I do not think sweetness is a welcome element there. He tried to balance it with nutty flavors of almonds and oily sesame seeds but the dish never achieved the balance one expects in a place like this. I was also dumbfounded that he did not cut the turbot piece from the bone. His cassis souffle with apricot coulis was outstanding. Light, airy, intense and noneggy. Wine list is stunning. Fairly priced too. Perhaps I expected too much as the recommendation came from Jellybean/Degusto whose criteria are rigorous and he is a very hard palate to please. Please try. Chances are that they had a mediocre day which can happen anywhere. Also think about lamb there if they have the presale from Mont St. Michel. In august they did not have. They have great red burgundies from best producers and also from top and appropriately aged vintages.
  7. I too am in agreement with your preference structure. The problem is that top notch ingredients are harder to get then ever, given escalating costs. My own experience is that, one is still more likely to eat top notch ingredients at the pinnacle to the established hierarchy, but not exclusively. And I had my share of nice surprises more in Italy than anywhere else. To me the litmus test of a serious gourmet is how one approaches Italy as a serious gourmet destination. Not all HC restaurants give top notch ingedients though. Luxurious, yes. Top notch, NO. It is better to eat good pumpkin than bad caviar (please see the Ltx post responding to my Gastronomical Basque country trip---holding the quality of caviar offered in top gastronomical temples to close scrutiny). On the other hand, I would still expect a HC place to give me a pumpkin soup in season with Alba truffles in season. This will be a case of the sum greater than the parts as both ingredients belong to the same season and they complement each other perfectly. MobyP, yes, I had "escalopines de bar a l'emincee d'artichaut, beurre leger au caviar" at L'Ambroisie. Apparently on 29 November, 2002 as I found the menu. I put a star which, in my lexicon, means, an orgasmic experience. What else can I say? OK. I can say one more thing. Adria's tuetano con caviar, bone marrow with caviar, was the only other dish with caviar(as a secondary element)that made me dizzy from pleasure. But now Adria is making his caviar from apple...perhaps a realistic response to cost structure and people's expectations as there are not too many ltx's around.
  8. In your Los Secretos you emphasize the importance of seeking the most pure flavor of natural products. Technique(and creativity)for you is not an end in itself but a means to a higher goal of purest flavor. However, many of your followers seem to focus exclusively on technical novelties you introduced regarding texture and temperature, often to the detriment of natural flavor. Do you agree with this statement? Do you think that innovation for the sake of innovation is hurting rather than helping the new Spanish cuisine? Do you think your long tasting menus adopted by your admirers make things worse in the sense that the new chefs are trying to "surprise"the diner with 15 courses, some of them mediocre, instead of perfecting a number of great dishes through patient, artisanal work?
  9. You guessed it right Robert. At Le Cinq, when I asked questions about white truffles, our captain had me talk to their prize winning Italian sommelier. Enrico. He did not recommend the truffles. I still think that the torch will pass on to somebody else when Pacaud and others retire though. France is just another culture and they have a different attitude vis a vis gastronomy and life in general. I actually expect that over time, the better of the creative chefs elsewhere, such as in Spain, will start offering fewer dishes in their tasting menu but with greater consistency. But the prices for rare ingredients will continue to go up. Actually my friend Alberto, who has Galician blood, just sent me an article :"Gastronomy in Spain today". It is very insightfull. I will urge him to publish in these forums.
  10. Following some stunning meals in the Spanish Basque country, and in Northern Italy that I have already reported, we stayed in Paris for 2 nights and had the opportunity to dine at L’Ambroisie and Le Cinq. Recently there has been some speculation about the demise of top end cuisine in France (for the lack of a better word, let’s call it Haute Cuisine or HC). Moreover, the remarks attributed to Berasatequi by a perceptive reviewer of the Spanish scene (Berasetequi, when asked whether or not he considered the backbone of his cuisine to be French quipped: “No. Besides, we all know that French cuisine is on the verge of its death!”), is hardly an unorthodox statement anymore, as the French themselves are nowadays undergoing some soul searching and are no more oblivious to gastronomical developments elsewhere. But, sensationalism and marketing gimmicks aside, is it true that the HC in France is on the verge of death? My answer to that question may sound equivocal at first: Yes, and No. Yes, it is dying when the French cater to the level and expectations of an international clientele and start cutting corners in classical dishes, or, supposedly move in a “fusion” and creative direction by, say, imitating techniques and using ingredients from Asian cuisine in a superficial way without dedicating themselves to develop the required new skills and holistic understanding of these foreign cuisines. It is also dying when top French chefs, partly to justify hefty bills and partly to respond to demands for “luxurious” ingredients on the part of unsuspecting and inexperienced clientele, start to utilize out of season, frozen or second rate ingredients. Worse still, the cuisine suffers when, in an effort to please everybody, top French chefs sail against the winds and compose very large menus with 15 appetizers, 20 fish, 30 meat dishes and so on. What we end up with is a technically proficient but soulless cuisine where more than an optimum component of a complex dish is precooked. I call this an assembly line three star meal. But please do not mistake one thing. I believe some current 3 stars in Paris who are guilty of caving in to market pressures are extremely capable and great chefs. If they choose to or if you are important to them, they can concoct extremely satisfying and grandiose dishes. Hence, having an unsatistactory meal, say at Lucas Carton, means nothing about Senderens’ ability and capacity. At gun point I would say that Senderens is a greater chef than the 30 years of Massimiliano Alajmo at Le Calandre.(which may change though as the latter extremely talented Italian matures) in the sense that he has created more dishes which have become classics. But you are much more likely to dine better and cheaper today in Le Calandre than in many of the Parisian 3 stars because Massimiliano will give any unknown diner 90% of what he is capable of, whereas you will be lucky if a Legendre or Senderens are even in the kitchen when you dine there. But, on the other hand and fortunately, there is the other side of the coin and old habits die hard. There are those great artisans in France, who are unwilling to give any concession from the search for perfectionism. Perfectionism for them means, above all, a constant search to seek the most pure flavors of natural products. They know that a great dish can be made of simple, inexpensive produce if it is of exceptional quality. But the converse is not true. That is to say, a truly great dish can not be made of second rate products even if we are talking about luxurious products, such as white truffles, black truffles, caviar, lobster and what not. Perfectionism for these chefs also means staying in the kitchen and trying to patiently perfect the dishes before they are included in a menu. These chefs are not carried away by the temptation to create new and newer dishes all the time and to impress the inexperienced dinner with a series of small tapas which follow one another in dizzying speed. Their menus, even in the 3 stars, are generally shorter and change often according to season. But, at the most exalted levels and when we are talking about the greatest of the great chefs, such as the old Robuchon at Jamin and Girardet (although not French) and Pacaud and Passard, these chefs are not conservative. They stay abreast of new culinary developments, such as in molecular biology, and they are not threatened by, say, what a culinary “enfant terrible” is concocting in Catalunia or the Basque country. If new and previously undiscovered combinations are suggested by looking at the molecules present in various ingredients, these chefs are willing to experiment. But they experiment carefully. Indeed I will go out on a limb and suggest a tentative conclusion that being an avant garde chef does not necessarily mean that one is a non-conformist. Innovation for innovation’s sake to the detriment of natural flavors is also a conformist attitude when it achieves the status of a cult following, and we see plenty examples of that not only in Spain and the US, but also in France…somehow not in Italy though. Let me now illustrate what I am saying with reference to 2 meals I have recently had in France: December 3, Friday, at L’Ambroisie, and the next day at Le Cinq. Of course the positive and negative models I developed above are what the great social scientist Max Weber would call “ideal types” in the sense that they are just a heuristic approximation to make comparison possible. I can also attest that Legendre is a great cuisinier and if he chose to, he can prepare epicurean meals. The dining staff team in the hotel George Cinq is not just ,merely good. They are absolutely perfect. They give no concession whatsoever from the grand tradition of French hospitality cum professionalism and the way they organize and orchestrate different aspects of the meal service reaches a level that only happens in France (assuming Monaco is in France), if you know what I mean. And the food is just good enough not to lose its exalted 3 stars rating. But there is an assembly line, precooked quality to most dishes. Even the famous lobster dish with a heavenly combination of chestnuts and cepes is probably precooked and then finished quickly in a smoker to emulate the incomparable taste of a la plancha or grill or parrilla cooking I just reviewed. Hence the chopped off lobster tail itself by no means compares to the heavenly taste I had at Etxebarriwhich I reviewed and posted the pictures. But the dish itself, with a frothy nantua like sauce and the contrast/complementarity endowed by two great ingredients which are both seasonal, i.e. the cepes (porcini) and chestnuts is a triumph of conception. This is the best one can do to serve the dish in one portion and as part of the tasting menu. (It was part of the tasting menu but we ordered it from the a la carte menu.) But what is best under these circumstances is not good enough to deliver the sublime level this dish is potentially capable of achieving. As such, and if you want to eat “sophisticated” preparations of lobster, head to Arpege for his whole lobster in vin jaune and turnips preparation, or to l’Ambroisie for his matelote with red wine and new potatoes when new potatoes are in season in Spring, or to Cancale to eat at Roellinger. Or else, pay less and have a la plancha lobster in seafood brasseries anywhere in Brittany! I gave the example of the lobster dish because it was still very good and showed some tensions between the concerns of a luxurious hotel and the demands of international clientele on the one hand, and the requisites of perfectionist French HC on the other. Other dishes were less good at Le Cinq and the desserts were just above average. Even the tourte de gibier, wild game torte that was a Legendre classic at Taillevent was no better than you would get at the best bistros in Paris, and it was clearly precooked and reheated. The restaurant also serves black truffles frozen (and they are imperceptible in the dishes that cite them). We were dissuaded from ordering a dish with white truffles because the quality was not very good (acknowledging this shows the integrity and honesty of the captain, so I am actually happy about being told this). But then, given the Michelin’s unfortunate overemphasis on technique at the expense of ingredients and also given the expectations of the clientele which sure will be impressed by the superb setting and service, is there any reason to try harder? I can not think of any. To put it in the parlance of new theologians that I interact with: “what are the incentives to upgrade?” Well, frankly I cannot think of any monetary incentives given that all 3 stars in Paris are doing well even though some operate below the level of the best 2 stars (like Meurice and Le Bristol). But there is something else. There is an inner drive for perfectionism and perhaps reputational concerns which still enable some French chefs to create a cuisine at a level that, how to put it, is at a level which makes the discriminating diners feel blessed and ensures that they comprehend that cuisine can have a transcendental dimension. From the mid-80s to mid-90s I had this feeling of transcendentality at Robuchon more than in any other restaurant. And, in the last 10 years, it is L’Ambroisie which ascended in the ranks and more often than not makes me ecstasic. I do not want to dwell on the details and make a painstaking analysis of each dish, but let me say a few things. First, L’Ambroisie, contrary to general opinion held in these forums, is not a temple-like place. Under Monsieur Caimant, the old Jamin was such a place, but not L’Ambroisie. The setting in the ancient Place des Vosges is very refined and apt. The service and the general philosophy of the restaurant though, under the direction of Monsieur LeMoullac, who is also a true connoisseur of great wine, is actually very professional and full of humor and joy of life at the same time. Second, the chef Monsieur Pacaud is almost always there (he may greet you when you come), yet do not expect him to make rounds with a smirk on this face as this is a shy man who expresses himself with his work. Third, do not expect to find all luxurious ingredients all the time there. Pacaud menus typically consist of 5 appetizers, 3 to 4 seafood courses and a maximum of 5 meats. They also change seasonally. What does not change is that Pacaud always sources the best products, and he will not offer, say, black truffles, even in mid-January, if they are not ripe enough for his taste. Fourth, do not expect 10+ course tasting menus at L’Ambroisie. If you make your preferences or your dislikes known, Monsieur Pascal, will put together a menu for two which will emphasize balance and harmony, the very qualities French HC amply display when it is that good. Here is what our last menu for the two of us composed of: “soupe cremeuse d’ecrevisses au celery, chutney de poivron et ananas” or crawfish soup with celery and a chutney of pineapple and sweet red pepper, followed by “corolle de noix de St. Jacques, a la truffe blanche, mousseline de broccolis”, or scallops with a broccolis mousseline and white truffles, and, finally, “tourte de Canard Colvert au foie Gras, wild duck torte with duck liver. Then a cheese course, then a fruit-rhum baba combination and finally the world’s best “tarte fine sablee au chocolat”to finish. And to accompany the dishes, first we had a bottle of Pernand Vergelesse from Chandon de Brialles and then a bottle of Cmambolle Musigny Les Fuees from J.F. Mugnier. Both were vintage 2000. What makes L’Ambroisie in general and this menu in particular exciting is that each dish contains only 3 to 4 elements which all shine and complement one another, but they are there not to subtract from the main focus, but to enhance the main ingredient. Each dish is harmonious in itself, but in progressive succession they create a crescendo effect. All of the dishes respect the ingredients of which they are made, but when all are combined together they are calibrated in such a way that the overall effect is greater than the sum of the ingredients. And on top of it, this is by no means heavy, butter laden cooking. It is classical cuisine but calibrated to modern taste, but with no short cuts. Take the scallop dish. I wish I had a picture of this dish to look at like I admire good paintings. Brocolis are young and tender and emerald green, and the olive oil based sauce is so limpid and green that the white scallops in the middle and the very white and large truffle pieces on top (sliced from half pound aromatic truffles) look like some large and flawless diamond has been planted in the middle of a ring consisting of small, leaf shaped emeralds on the outer ring. And the dish tastes as good as it looks. It is the clarity and the intensity of the tastes that strike you, and there is nothing you can do to this dish to improve it further. Take the wild game tourte or game pot pie. Different parts of duck (leg and breast) are done to perfection, which is pretty amazing since they all require different cooking times, and they are all in the same pie. There are 3 colors ranging from very pink (the duck liver) to light brown and dark brown (the leg I guess). You can taste each of them separately, they are thick; the pie is made to order and cooked to order as all the 6 slices are going around to appreciative diners. The crust is clearly homemade and very tasty in itself. The sauce is very intense but it is the natural intensity of game, enriched with an ample quantity of wild mushrooms (cepes) and mushroom stock, not mounds of butter. This is a type of dish where it is better not to prepare it because it will amount to overreaching in the hands of lesser chefs. It is also a dish that nobody dares to prepare without shortcuts in the 21st century. It is also a dish that you will appreciate more if you like real game and you sequence your menu carefully. When all these factors converge, and when cooking is so good, you start realizing that the grand old Haute Cuisine only reaches this level in France, and this will probably continue to be the case in the foreseeable future.
  11. Thanks to everybody for your comments. Victor, do you have a special recommendation for a simple asador with baby churra breed lamb?. In March, we will drive from Donostia to Madrid and may stop near Burgos. I looked at LMG of Garcia Santos(which promotes a special point of view, so I approach it with caution and double check)and he recommends Mannix at Campaspero near Penafiel. Judith, we will visit Mugaritz in March. I am reading all reports and conflicting points of views on this restaurant with great interest. I think that intrigued me though is that, people who met Andoni Luis Adurriz all conclude that he is very intelligent. Apparently the majority owner of Mugaritz is Berasategui and Adurriz, unlike his mentor, was not born into a family who was already well known in this business. So it is by choice that he opted this metier. Recently culinista posted a brief but well written post about Mugaritz and she has also interviewed the chef. She, too, was impressed what she has seen.
  12. Thanks for the nice comments to you all. Cy, my wife is very appreciative of your comment. Joe, I am intrigued about the German 3 stars in the black forest. From my own sources I know that it is one of the very best anywhere in the world. It is also a very hard place to get a reservation and one should plan well ahead of the time. I was in Munich for a conference and had 2 successive great meals at an Italian: Acquerello. I never got around to post but I recommend heartily. The owner is from Bergamo. I never take notes when having dinner. I do nothing that detracts from sheer pleasure. Actually I do not even take photos. It is my wife who took them. Who is Dennis by the way? I also do not order the ready menus. I looked at the both menu at Le Calandre and also a la carte dishes and then I told them what I want to eat. It combined dishes from both menus and a la carte. I think the proliferation of menus with binary opposition of "traditional versus creative" in Italy is not a welcome development. It is pigeonholing the diner into one or the other camp unnecessarily.
  13. Following our Alba trip and after parting ways with Robert Brown and Susan, my wife and I had 4 more outstanding meals in Italy: superb fresh seafood at Alla Testiere in Venice, some of the best charcuterie from cinta senese pork products at Pompiere in Verona and two unforgettable meals at the 3 stars Michelin Le Calandre in Rubano near Padua and at the 2 stars Michelin Da Vittorio in Bergamo. Le Calandre has been a favorite of mine, and I have reported on it before. I had my third meal there about 2 weeks ago on November 30. Robert Brown, on the other hand, is responsible for putting Da Vittorio on my radar screen, and our December 2 meal there was stunning. At the outset, I will make the strong claim that, of all the 2 and 3 stars Michelin we have been in Italy in the last 3 years (the list includes Dal Pescatore, Miramonti l’Altro, Perbellini, Cracco-Peck, Da Caino, Don Alfonso, Gambero Rosso and Flipot), Da Vittorio and Le Calandre are the 2 best, although none of the above have disappointed me. The 2 restaurants could not be more different in style and philosophy. Le Calandre is modern, sleek and a touch avant garde, and the chef Massimiliano Alajmo is very young, tall and slender. His dishes incorporate some of the state of the art techniques he learned at Veyrat and Adria, while never imitating them. The Cerea clan at Da Vittorio, on the other hand (papa Vittorio and sons/nephews Francesco, Bobo and Chicco), are cooking a type of regal cuisine that in my imagination I associate with the grand style of the Risorgimento period. This is the place I would have liked to invite my literary hero, Giuseppo di Lampedusa, and I am sure that his Prince Don Fabrizio would have felt at home there. At any rate, you do not have to be a Prince or a Sultan to get treated there like one—in the tradition of the great Italian hospitality. In this sense, I cannot think of better hosts than the Alejmo family (Massimiliano’s brother Raffaele is in charge of both the dining room and the wine list), the charming Cerea ladies who are the daughters of Vittorio, and our captain Nicola who anticipated all our needs and displayed the most stunning acts of generosity I have experienced in my eating out career in a totally understated, refined and elegant Italian way. (Just think of the American restaurants when they do not charge corkage or give you and extra course; they list it on your check—which often comes before you ask —and they list the item with a capitalized “No Charge” caption as if you are too insensitive to understand favors.) Stylistic differences aside, what unites these 2 institutions is their overriding concern for high quality ingredients and raw materials. Everything you eat, from a pedestrian vegetable to ultra luxurious Alba truffles or seafood, are very good, and so incredibly intense and delicate at the same time. Alejmo is playing with some Adria like textures, soft or liquid filled interior and crunchy exterior, and his amuses like a mini beignet filled with tomato juice, tomato juice injected with a syringe I guess, and, other goodies, such as ethereal potato and eggplant purees in thin pastries, are nice ways to start a meal. His second amuse, the obligatory (in this season) pumpkin soup mixed with parsley cream was better than any other pumpkin amuse I have had in France and Switzerland recently, presumably because he did not need extra butter to highlight the natural sweetness of pumpkin. My only qualm is that pumpkin would have benefited from some thinly sliced white Alba truffles; they both flourish this season and call for each other. Alejmo is a minimalist in the sense that some of his best dishes contain only 3 to 4 elements, and each of them shine and complement each other, rather than contrast with one another, a la Gagnaire. This simple looking ricotta mousse flavored with orange and topped with creamy mussels and shaved bottarga is a case in point. This is a very appetizing delicious dish. The minute details are well thought out, and the quality of ingredients is top. For instance, the bottarga is made from pressed grey mullet or cefalu fish rather than from a variety of tuna fish. The latter is more oily and less delicate, and for a Turkish, it is considered second quality. In Italy I mostly find inferior quality bottarga compared to Turkey, and I was surprised to see the best quality in Le Calandre, apparently from Sicily. I was even more flabbergasted with the next dish. I have a special fondness for rock and deep sea fish, and they are getting rarer and sometimes extinct. If you have had a true rouget-barbet de roche, you will know how good they taste—a world apart from insipid farm raised sea bass and daurade or dorata which are now commonplace in Europe and are imported to the States and served with great fanfare in the US. (My last meal at the French Laundry on November 7 for instance featured a tasteless seabass from Europe.) At any rate some rockfish, like capon, are more rare than rock rouget and you have to order them in great restaurants in France, such as Le Louis XV when you make the reservation. I did not know that the 2 now almost extinct species of the Mediterranean, the very ugly lahoz and orfoz even existed in Europe. I know some restaurateurs at Bodrum, a beautiful seaside village in Turkey, and they call me when they can fetch one of these rare and ugly species, which weigh 3 to 4 kg., and live deep, very deep, under the sea. Often they are caught by scuba divers, and this is a reason why they are so rare and expensive. To cut the story short, Massimiliano had the right contact to bring one orfoz or, what they called in Italian a Cernia (black variety which is even tastier than the grayish one) from Sicily. Thinking that I was American because we converse in English, they called it a “stone sea bass” which does not make sense. It is closest in taste to Spanish mero, which should not be confused with the ubiquitous and rather bland merluza (except its cheeks are good). They should have told me that it was “merou noir” which would have saved some confusion. At any rate the taste was as good as rock fish gets, and it was served with a “crouton” on top and in very Mediterranean style, with a confit tomato, tapenade and a light mousse from lima bean sprouts. I am sorry that the picture does not reveal too much. The next dish was a tortelli di zucca. This dish is a classic at the 3 star Dal Pescatore where they mix squash with amaretti cookies. Here, they “deconstructed” the dish by concocting little jellies from amaretti and drizzling some coffee powder on top. It was very good, but not as good as the Dal Pescatore’s more simple yet heavenly preparation. But then Massimiliano beat any egg-truffle combination I had had by serving a poached farm egg, sitting atop fried bread and surrounded by fonduta. Very classic and solid, a time tested vehicle for truffle slightly modified by the existence of crostini at the bottom and a very light parsley mousse for color and texture. The ample truffle slices were from rovere or oak tree, and although I did not ask the source of the fonduta, I suspect it was classic, 2 different kinds of fontina. Massimiliano prepares the best risotto of which I am aware, that can be equaled but not surpassed. His risottos are creamy, firm and very flavorful without being too heavy. I had had his licorice/saffron as well as coffee powder risottos, and this time, the period being late November, he cooked to order for the 2 of us a risotto with white truffles and cubes of meat jellies. He grated truffles from 2 different trees, and the more white truffles below are from hetre (in French) or beech tree. My wife was served from the oak tree, darker truffles. We tried to compare them, but we could not make up our minds. We always order piccione or baby squab at Le Calandre because the quality is better than anywhere else I had had squab, the level of the old good Robuchon-Jamin and better than what I have had at Grand Vefour, Gagnaire, and Les Ambassadeurs under Piege. They say that their pigeon comes from a special farmer who is a classical music fan, and he raises his pigeons by having them listen to Bach and Beethoven. This probably explains all there is to explain! Maximiliano also knows how to handle the squab, and it is one place where the breast is rare and the thigh is so crisp and juicy that it falls from the bones. Sauces vary. The first time it was with foie gras. The second time was with cherries and cherry liquour (my favorite of the 3). This time he became more “Asian,” (I noticed some Asian apprentices in the kitchen), and he crusted his pigeon with sesame seeds and made a soy and sesame oil based sauce and prepared a sesame paste as a dip. He also included fresh soy bean sprouts to complement the Asian style dish. The overall effect is to render the tender and gamey pigeon a bit more earthy and harder to match with wine compared to his other versions which I prefer. Next course, suckling pig was as good as Da Renzo’sversion. Massimiliano sources Piemontese pig, and it is slowly cooked for 48 hours. The skin is very crunchy. It is served with wild chicory, honey infused mustard sauce and some coffee powder which actually adds to the flavor. I thought it is the type of dish one expects from Passard, had he not been so stubborn about cooking meat. Maybe he just cannot find this quality in France! We were kind of getting full, but they wanted to show us the last meat dish on their menu, testicles of young bull in a very Venetian Valpolicella wine sauce and served with a heavenly chestnut/ginger puree. Had I closed my eyes and not known what I was eating, I would have said I was eating some kind of fish’s liver, possibly a monkfish liver that I have in Japanese restaurants. Bravo Massimiliano for not caving in to the expectations of international clientele and for preparing rustic dishes. Desserts are improving at Le Calandre. Or, they understand my taste and advise us better. Both the 3 layered grapefruit dessert with 3 kinds of grapefruit and home made jellies and lemon-gin sorbet on top and Massimiliano’s take on cassata with layers of ricotta mousse, white chocolate, pistachio cream and apricot mousse with thin cookies on top were light and explosive in fruit taste. When we finished our dolce we certainly were no longer hungry, but not uncomfortably full either. So we did what was called for: move to the champagne bar to finish a great meal with espresso and aged Calvados. Two days after our feast at Le Calandre we moved from Verona to the beautiful old town of Bergamo where we stayed at San Lorenzo which is a converted monastery, instead of staying in a business hotel in downtown Bergamo. I wanted to get hungry by visiting some beautiful places, so we drove in the early afternoon to Bellagio by lake Como. We got caught in traffic in our return and made a wrong turn into the Commercial Center in Bergamo which turned out to be outside Bergamo rather than in the center. Given the traffic problems, instead of feeling relaxed, I became tense and edgy. Not a good omen before a meal with high expectations. My mood changed as soon as we stepped into the holy abode of the Cerea family (not much longer though—this summer they are opening a Relais et Chateaux). Genuine smiles and the existence of a voiturier so that you do not have to look for difficult parking are good things. As soon as we were seated in a very nice corner table in a beautiful cozy room full of flowers, all my senses were awakened and I almost had a headache from the intense perfume of that most intoxicating product on earth, the white truffles from Langhe. I could not see them, but their aroma was all over. Upon my questioning, our gracious captain Signor Nicola whose qualities would reveal themselves gradually but surely into the long journey into the wee hours of the night, showed up with a basket full of incredibly aromatic truffles, each weighing a pound or more. They had come the same morning, as this was a Thursday, and the restaurant is closed on Wednesday. At that point my facial expression had totally changed from a sour face to a genuine smile: When I am in a good mood and in a special restaurant I derive more joy from the process of planning my meal than anything else. I try to lengthen this process, weigh the alternatives, ask a million questions, relish the sheer joy of visualizing various possibilities in sequencing and wine pairing, etc. Here my preferred activity was under serious challenge as Da Vittoria is known for seafood, but they had a crustaceans and molluscs menu for 2 with no description. I did not want to miss shellfish, but I also wanted dishes with truffles and I did not want to miss the veal cheek mentioned by Robert, etc. We had only eaten a couple of clementines the whole day, and we were very hungry. I stated all my preferences to Nicola and to Vittorio’s (he was also in the dining room with his wife) charming daughter. I asked insistent questions about the source of ingredients (where does your aragosta come from? Do you have gamberi di San Remo?), and then I let them put together a menu for us with shellfish, truffles, veal cheeks, and suckling pig. After some bacalao croquettes and little anchovy tarts which they serves as amuse bouche they brought the first set of four cold antipasti. They were wild sea bass carpaccio with salmon caviar and truffles; Passard style soft boiled egg with what I thought was maple syrup and truffles; incomparably fat seasoned and not smoked raw Scottish salmon with chive-cream and toast; and sashimi grade tuna with carpaccio. Then came the second set of four hot antipasti. These included a Robuchon-like creamy potato puree with leeks from Cervere, melted brie cheese and…of course truffles; some very small and deepfried lake fish sandwiched between two layers of crisp hash browns and topped by velvety Bearnaise; Atlantic lobster tail and claw in an intense Nantua sauce that the French rarely make nowdays; and finally 2 big langoustines (scampi), as fresh as the ones at Alla Testiere but bigger. They were not hidden in phyllo sheet as is a la mode nowdays and nor unnecessarily embellished by caviar. I think that the langoustines had never seen the ice and have been kept in salted sea water to be that fresh-sweet tasting and non-iodized. They were simply served with home made mayonnaise. I was not expecting any more shellfish, but a miracle happened and 6 mid-sized gamberi di San Remo arrived. For those who know how they taste, since they are now very rare, there is no need to reiterate. For those who do not know, I can only say that they are adorable. The photo below may give an idea about the freshness and the accuracy in timing when cooking them. One gets very picky about the quality of pasta when one eats artisanal preparations in Italy. Pasta dishes in multistarred Italians sometimes disappoint me: they end up a bit fussy by trying to be original. This was not the case at Da Vittorio. We had simply the best gnocchetti, made different from gnocchi by mixing cheese with the dough, ravioli with castelmagno, my favorite Piemontese cheese, and hand cut tagliolini, with duck stock. They were all topped with a generous quantity of ripe, perfumed Alba truffles. Da Vittorio serves porchetta a bit like Da Cesareserves baby goat; they want you to taste different parts of the animal: the leg, shoulder and ribs. The skin was glazed with honey and the intense sauce contrasts with Spanish pine nuts and raisins which they include in ample quantities. This dish was less refined than what we had at Le Calandre and Da Renzo, but equally tasty. It reminded me of the Basque Zuberoa’svery intense and non-compromising roasts. Porky intense pig. Caramelized veal cheeks were as good. Accompanied by an intense red wine sauce, they were full of flavor and very tender at the same time. Baby vegetables were all fine, esp. the fennel added a welcome exotic touch to the dish, but especially noteworthy was the best soft polenta I put to my mouth, which was topped with homemade salsiccia or very firm veal sausages. Another triumphant dish. I do not think anybody can accuse Da Vittorio for being less than generous with desserts. Before they brought our desserts they wheeled two carts in front of us which were filled with all kinds of little bonbons, chocolate truffles, caramels, liquor filled round chocolates, orangettes, etc. Well, since the days of Robuchon-Jamin, I have never witnessed such a gesture in the grand old European tradition. But before moving on to the little goodies, we were served 5 sorbets, on par with the level in Dal Pescatore which serves superb sorbets. They were: chestnut, campari, passion fruit, lemon and a mix of berries. Then seven little sins or desserts arrived. There was a 3 layered fruit-chocolate mousse that you see in the middle with the spoon which was interesting because it was offered with wasabi icecream. Ripe raspberries with sabayon were very good. In general their desserts made me think that the dessert chef went to Gagnaire and was influenced. At the moment, the desserts do not reach the level of Gagnaire’s grand dessert. But the little goodies, esp. the nougatines and the sambuca, cognac and grappa filled chocolates were very good. But they were overshadowed by my after dinner digestive: an 1899 Bas Armagnac Laberdolive. Such a once in a lifetime drink is not only an apt finish to a memorable meal, but makes you contemplate about the transient nature of pure joy but more durable bonds of friendship. We left the restaurant feeling bonded with the Cerea family who, with no doubt, are trying to give their guests all they can. This was a fitting ending to our one week trip to Northern Italy.
  14. The Basque region of Spain has never disappointed us. Whenever we (my wife and I ) near this region, we make all acrobatics possible to spend there a few days. This year the opportunity presented itself in terms of a 3 day conference in Bordeaux scheduled for November 23-26. So we have decided to take advantage of the weekend and Monday and headed to Donostia (San Sebastian—now Michelin lists restaurants there under the Basque name) for 3 nights. We had a long trip: direct flight from Atlanta to Paris. Then a few hours at Roissy and another flight to Bordeaux. There we rented a car and drove about 2 and a half hours to our destination. It was about 4 PM when we arrived to our hotel in Donostia. We had left at about the same time the day earlier. This being our 6th time or so there, Hotel Niza gives us very nice rooms with a balcony and a beautiful concha view. When we arrived the weather was beautiful and we are 50 yards from the sea. End November and believe it or not some “crazy” Basques were taking a dip in the sea. There is nothing as relaxing as standing in your balcony after a long trip and enjoying this view: This time I had a different strategy. In the past, we almost always run from one multistarred Michelin restaurant to another for dinner and had tapas for lunch. There are different reasons that I do not want to go into detail that I had been disenchanted with Arzak (under Elena—although we want to give it another try after a couple of positive reviews here), Barasetegui and Akelarre. We figured that we could have 5 meals maximum and wanted to repeat the old favorite Zuberoa. We were also interested in the 2 rising stars: Fagollaga and Mugaritz. I wanted to try what my friend, John Whiting, had recommended very strongly: Elkano in Getaria. I always had wanted to try a traditional venue: Casa Nicolasa. Finally after looking at the pictures in Garcia Santos’ LMG I decided to have a Sunday lunch in the beautiful valley of Axpe at Etxebarri. We had one restaurant too many. At my peril I decided to drop Mugaritz—a right or wrong decision I will rectify hopefully in our next trip to the area planned for mid-March. What I was trying to do in this trip was to avail myself of the best ingredients the Basque country offers in plentitude: esp. game, shellfish and of course angulas or baby eels which have a short season like game. Prior to our trip I posted a small message about the availability of becada or woodcock in a couple of websites. Two people (one being Pedro) pointed at my favorite Zuberoa. I called them and they said they will try their best. Just in case, I also mentioned to both Casa Nicolasa and Etxebarri about my interest in game and esp. sorda (the Basque name for becada that I learned from Pedro). They said it was difficult. For the record I do not speak Spanish and I tell them on the phone that I can speak English or French or Turkish. Somehow French is working best there—although I think in terms of character and looks there are so many parallels between Turkish and Basques, one reason why I like this area so much. Overall our meals more than reconfirmed our passion for Basque cuisine. There was not a single meal that was poor. However, if I can rank the 5 meals we have had this will be my ranking in descending order: Etxebarri, Elcano, Fagollago, Casa Nicolasa and Zuberoa. My least favorite this trip, Zuberoa holds 2 stars in the guide Michelin. Etxebarri is not mentioned. (I will specify my criteria in another article I am planning to post tomorrow comparing two 3 star French: Le Cinq and l’Ambroisie) Let’s start with Zuberoa. We had a nice surprise there in that, a very good friend and her husband saw my inquiry in egullet and they contacted me. She is a food writer too and they were going to be in Donostia at the same time for Garcia Santos’ LMG congress where Ferran Adria was going to make a presentation. Another friend of theirs, an Italian food writer and his girl friend also joined us, and we had a special meal prepared for us at Zuberoa. Overall, the meal did not have the well timed crescendo that one expects from a menu degustation from a restaurant of this caliber. Early on in the meal we had quite a few very reduced sauces and stocks. The raw materials and ingredients failed to shine as they used to in Hilario Arbelaitz’ cooking, My best guess is that this great chef is now trying to prove that he can cook with small portions and imitate the modernism (or post-modernism if you wish) that leading and younger chefs in the country has been advocating. The problem is that Arbelaitz’ value added is impeccable roasting skills and he is a first rate saucier –as good as classic French—and saucing is a relatively weak point of Spanish cooking. Bigger portions and dishes for two is what made Arbelaitz excelled in the past and his last courses, i.e. roasted suckling pig and lamb and woodcock were all top. The problem is that we had no appetite left at this point because of the ill conceived menu. A case in point is his first course pictured below: oyster and caviar with lemon gelatin. The oyster was too dry and muscular and somehow the 2 elements in the dish stood in opposition to one another and the sum is lesser than the 2 parts. For anybody familiar with the Thomas Keller’s masterpiece, oysters and pearls , the 2 dishes which look similar on paper could not have been more different. I would later learn from culinista that this dish had won a prize in the gastronomical congress, LMG. Casa Nicolasa is actually very good. The chef Juan Jose Castillo is following in the foodsteps of the legendary chef Nicolasa Pradera, and he is preparing classical dishes that you are not likely to find in tasting menus of the Michelin (and tourist) favored restaurants with gusto. Upon arrival, we were told that they had our becada woodcock. They prepared it with great skill, and their preparation was almost as good as the best becasse I had eaten in a game specialist near Geneve: Michelin 2 star Domaine Chateauvieux. The foie gras certainly adds to the dry and appropriately roasted very rare bird, and the apple-chestnut sauce was heavenly. Another example of classic preparation without cutting corners was the txangurro a la donastiarra or the spider crab that is seasoned and finished in the oven. I liken this preparation to the way Galicians prepare their incomparable scallops, and when it is good the minced onions and other ingredients (here garlic, white wine, tomatoes, bread crumbs) do not detract from the sweet fresh flavors of the shellfish, but they bring out the best qualities. This dish was very very good: We also had alubias de tolosa, a kind of cassoulet composed of creamy red kidney beans, guindilla peppers, salt pork and cabbage. I have not had this dish at the Fronton in Tolosa where they are famous, but I can not conceive any tastier preparation or better blood sausage or beans. The less successful dishes in Casa Nicolas were home made goose foie gras which came cold and was not the level you can get in the best French restaurants and green peppers stuffed with baby squid. When I investigated I learned what I should have known: the squids were not in season. But then they should not have been on the menu or they should have alerted me. Fagollaga is a rising star, although the restaurant has been around a very long time. Everything about this restaurant enchanted me. It is not far to Donostia, about 20 min. drive, but it is a farmhouse in the attractive countryside: The menu is composed of dishes from the old menu that the current chef’s mother used to cook and the new dishes inspired by modernism. The chef, Isaac Salaberria, receives 9 out of 10 in the Garcia Santos bible that promotes New Spanish cooking This is as high as Arzak as a score and higher than El Raco de con Fabes (both Michelin 3 stars). Salaberria’s cooking can be defined as refined cuisine du terroir. He makes ample use of internal organs of the meat, pork belly, pork and veal feet, pork ears, etc. But the preparations are not gutsy or literal. He “refines” some potentially offending (to non-Basques) flavors, presents his dishes in geometrically intriguing now almost customary (for the avant garde cooks) plates, makes ample use of infusions, although he has the good sense of serving infusions separately from the main dish rather than pouring on top, and he keeps on his menu time tested classics such as roasted suckling lamb without tampering with them. He roasted the lamb with a very fresh and tasty mesclun salad on the side, and this dish was even more successful than Zuberoa’s and came close to rivaling roasted spring lamb from the churra breed that you can have in the Ribera del Duero region. His avant garde dishes are never bad. I had a number of dishes ranging from fine to excellent. To give some examples his tuna with roasted melon is just fair. Here the tuna is fine but not the Sashimi quality tuna belly (toro). You can get the best Japanese toro in the States, and the melon neither detracts nor adds to it. The infusion they serve the dish with is also neutral and, poured over the tuna. It does not render it more complex in taste, but compromises the texture. Japanese cooking may be a la vogue and de rigeur for New Spanish chefs, but certainly it is not the forte of Isaac Salaberria. (Even the physical looks reveals something: as opposed to slender Aduriz of Mugaritz, it looks like Isaac enjoys traditional cooking.) A more successful but not brilliant modern dish in Fagollaga is the scallops with wild mushroom infusion. Here the infusion is poured on top, but no offense is committed. It is a fine example of another (and IMO successful) compulsory marriage of modern cooking a la terre et mer. Scallops are almost first rate, appropriately raw, and the infusion is welcome here. The dish is very good but somehow it is not as titillating as some of the similar dishes I have had at Troisgros and Arpege. Then a brilliant modern cum traditional dish: panceta iberico con leche de Almendra tierna. Bacon with almond milk infusion. The bacon is full of flavor and the infusion is so well thought out that it renders an already very good dish a classic. A bite from one, a sip of another and when you repeat the process you discover new tastes and wish well to the chef with all your heart. My provisional conclusion is that this is a chef more or less the level of Pascal Barbot of L’Astrance, now delivering about 16/20 level food or the high end of one star, and over enthusiastic friends can cause more harm than good if they are unqualified in their enthusiasm. Let’s hope that Salaberria is wise enough not to fall into the trap and perfects his brand of refined-rustic without imitating more Japanese influenced cooking. At Elkano our friends from Finland and us, pictured below, started our dinner at around 11 PM, a very appropriate time to dine, and we finished around 3 AM and then we were invited to see the seawater tanks where they keep shellfish and where Alberto (of Galician origin and born in Venezuela) and his beautiful wife Lydia had a most animated conversation with the owner’s son. Elkano is very serious about its seafood and the fish is daily caught and does not see any ice. We had cocochas de merluzo (hake cheeks) in 3 different preparations: sautéed in butter, simply grilled, and in salsa verde. The last one was like a pil pil where the gelatine from the fish acts as the gelling agent. (I am still very skeptical whether Adria’s experiments will emulate the quality of the natural agents). All 3 were successful and different (for grilled and a la parilla cooking, they needed big hake and it is rarer). The incomparable angulas were also the freshest and firmest and prepared traditionally, fried in an earthenware casserole with fried garlic, red pepper flakes and parsley. The so called camarones are extremely good too. I hesitate to call them shrimp or prawns because tastewise they resemble the hormone grown and farmed prawns in the States as much as a Mediterranean rouget tastes like snapper. (This is how they translate it.) But the reason we chose Elkano was to have their whole grilled turbot pictured below. They grill the local turbot slowly to preserve the natural gelatin, and you have to suck the bones to get the full taste. Being 4, we were able to choose a bigger turbot, which is more fat, thus better. I will still contend that the best turbot is from the Black Sea, when it is caught in the second half of March in the Bosphorous in Istanbul when they are the most fat. But this is almost as good, and I do not know any restaurant in Istanbul where they can grill the turbot with such skill. Turbot, in my book, is one of the 4 to 5 tastiest fish that there is, and it was a privilege to have it at Elkano in the characteristic fishing village of Getaria which is about half an hour drive to Donostia. I am not talking much about desserts in this trip, but I will mention Elkano. The sheep milk sorbet with berry sauce tastes as good as it looks, and besides it is very appropriate after such a meal. Most important the desserts captures the gist of this restaurant: very honest with no gimmicks. Now Etxebarri. I kept it last because I had one of the most memorable of my meals there. I would rate is 19/20 and on par with my other very favorites in France and Italy. As far as Spain is concerned, it was as memorable as when the father was cooking in Arzak and when Adria in ‘98 had prepared a meal different than his tasting menu for us and included his ethereal tuetano con caviar. (I am not sure about the spelling. but it is bone marrow with caviar.) To begin, Etxebarri is located inland, in the beautiful valley of Atxendo in the town of Axpe (or the other way around, the town is Atxendo and the valley is Axpe!). It took us 50 min. to drive from Donostia to Durango and then another 10 to 15 min. The last non-autoroute part is beautiful because you are in the countryside: not a manicured countryside full of expensive villas, but a more natural countryside where animal husbandry is well and alive. Etxebarri itself is a simple farmhouse: The restaurant is on a hillside surrounded by mountains, and when you look from your window (they gave us a great table and the day was sunny and pleasantly warm) you can see sheep lazily grazing: Inside the tables are well spaced and comfortable. The clientele, like the woman in this picture is also wild looking, perfectly matching the pastoral environment and natural setting: The chef Victor Arguinzoniz (the taller man in the picture) and his assistant Maxime (he is French and has worked in starred places) oversee the grilling which is attached to a very large kitchen. The chef is easygoing in person, but a perfectionist in his profession, and he concocts his own charcoal from different trees’ branches every morning in an oxygen controlled oven. The exact combination of branches may be a secret like the Coke formula! Another secret is that the chef has designed his own grill to apply heat evenly. I do not know if Mr. Arguinzoniz is interested in molecular biology but, perhaps without availing himself of Henri This, he knows how to optimize heat transfer so that all parts of the food reach the correct temperature. The results are stunning. The only non-grill item was the crostini with jamon and tomato. The grand reserve jamon bellota from the house of Joselito in Salamanca is quite good; see Robert Brown’s report on Mugaritz. As far as I know, Mugaritz does not serve it nowadays. Following the jamon amuse, we started our Sunday lunch with quisquillon, the translucent and firm local shrimps. Please note the color of the eyes and the erect antennas which give ideas about freshness: Then came a 1.3 kg. female langouste. (I requested female because of the eggs.) I prefer langouste to homard (spiny lobster to lobster) and the best spiny lobsters are Mediterranean. This had never seen the ice, and it was as sweet as the Mediterranean langouste you can find in Iles de Perquerolles and Corsica—both very rare. The taste puts to shame anything I have had in the States, including at the French Laundry. I fault many lobsters being either too cottony in texture with little flavor or too tough. This was neither. One detail I have to report even if politically incorrect is that, for maximum flavor, the langouste is grilled whole and alive. Do you like the gargouillou at Bras? I have not had it but heard great things about it as a pure vegetable dish. Well, Victor grilled some carrots, white and red cabbage, cauliflower, tomatoes, scallions, yellow squash and wild cepes (porcinis). Overall Spain may not have Italy’s variety and quality in vegetables but everything Victor included had tremendous intensity and the taste I associate with my childhood prior to the World Bank/IMF interference in Turkish agriculture. A great dish. How about an egg dish? Not cooked in vac-u vin (am I spelling it correctly?) like the modern dishes at Arzak, French Laundry, but I guess fried. The yoke from farm egg intact, the best fries with no oil, crisp and juicy, slices of bacon and sweet and intense red peppers. A simple looking very complicated and delicious dish. It still is the season for angulas. Victor cooks them in a special pan that he has invented. They come with nothing. No garlic, pepper, olive oil, parsley. You just have to concentrate and pray for its unadulterated flavor. Having some bacalao is a must in the Basque country. I agree with Miguel Cardoso that salted and preserved bacalao is often tastier. But, if you get the chance, try the classical version at Etxebarri with Espeletter peppers. I had the same dish at Fagollaga too which was very good—but this is better. They actually had taken note of our becada request and wanted to grill it for us. But before they wanted to show the quality of their cote de boeuf. The meat indeed was full of character: supple and flavorful and gamey, But the woodcock or becada was the piece de resistance and the best of the 3 I have had in 3 days. Cooked rare and not dry at all, full of metallic-gamy flavor with no concession to the modern sterile taste, with a no nonsense sauce of internal organs and its own liver, paired with superb squash puree and even more interesting with caramelized crunchy quince which adds texture and wonderful contrast. Also wild cepes as a garni. The dessert was a fine milk pudding with dried figs and then very good macaroons. The feast lasted only 5 hours, a bit short by my standards (at FL we usually start at 6 and finish at midnight) but acceptable given that their timing was perfect and nothing needed to be reheated. I did not talk about wines in this posting—as important for me as the food—but let me say that Etxebarri has a good list. 2001 Artadi old vine El Pison was the best wine of the trip and it was offered at a very fair price of 93 Euro. Last year I had seen the same wine from 2000 for 250 Euro or so at La Broche where we have had a conceptually interesting but ultimately frustrating meal. 5-6 trips in the last 7 years and we are as thrilled about the Spanish Basque country and cooking as we have been in the beginning. Perhaps more so as we have finally understood well that what made this place a gastronomical mecca is more than the existence of a few internationally renowned restaurant but the prevalence of a culture which sustains a way of life that puts a premium on community and tradition over full capitulation to the forces of globalization.
  15. Thanks Miguel for the nice words. I think your analysis and analogies are deeply felt and thought out. I only have two qualms and none relate to Signor Adria directly. One is that I do not think that for a passionate gourmet it is ever possible to become a "jaded eater". To use a more prosaic analogy than yours, good eating is not unlike love making: the more fulfilling the process, the more you want of it and become greedy. It is my presumption and pretention that the modern dining scene is full of "jaded eaters" who, though no direct fault of their own, have never developed an understanding and appreciation for certain primary tastes and ingredients or, worse(this is esp. the case in the States), they have a very limited repertoire in terms of what they eat. Adria's experiments in texture/flavor combinations should be interpreted against a baseline of whether or not and to what degree they have brought out the best in ingredients and enhanced their clarity. Otherwise dining at el Bulli may resemble partaking in a quasi religious ceremony of a secret sect: one feels that something very important and meaningful is going on and everybody else around seems to comprehend the hidden meaning of it all, while you risk to become an iconoclast or even ostracized if you dare to apply conventional criteria in a quest to unravel and debunk dishes presented to you. Second, and this follows from my first qualm, Adria knowingly or unknowingly contributes to this state of affairs by literally overwhelming you with an array of 30 to 40 dishes or pintxos. Even if you try to analyze dishes in the beginning of the meal, soon your Epicurean sense takes over the cerebral component and you let yourself go with the flow...This is not a bad thing. But it also gives an unfair advantage to Adria over more traditional (but in my opinion equally creative chefs such as Ducasse and Pacaud)colleagues in the sense that, it is very very difficult to hold him to close scrutiny. One should perhaps eat there 5 consecutive meals to really appreciate what is going on and which combinations really work and expand our horizons. But clearly this is not possible and all we are left is some fleeting impressions of what was "genial" and what we did not like. Worse still, even if you visit Adria several times in the same calender year, the following year he will have none or literally none of the dishes you thought were clearly candidates to become the next "tournedos rossini" or "pulpo a la Gallega" or "Yorkshire pudding" or, what not. Given the level an intensity of expectations on Adria by his followers, he can not afford to stop for a moment to reconsider what worked and what did not and built a menu around it. He will then be called conservative and the magic will disappear. I can go on about the "dilemmas" and "paradoxes" that Adria built for himself but will stop here as we are about to drive to La Rochelle from Bordeaux to have some oysters, langoustines, homard bleu and perhaps line caught bar.
  16. Perhaps a more interesting question than the issue of reservations related to El Bulli is the guesswork that can go into figuring out what is in store for the diner in terms of Adria's newest compositions. Adria is quite unique in the sense that he does not repeat dishes from one year to the next and his evolution is marked more by discontinuities than continuities. If his presentation on monday at the gastronomical congress is any guide, I can venture to state that Adria's interest in "texture" has become his overriding concern rather than an element of the larger equation. He is now interested in coming up with a comprehensive classification for all thickeners, emulsifiers and jelling agents known to mankind. He classifies these products in terms of their origin: animal based, plant based, chemical, etc. He is very much interested in textural contrasts of liquid centers and hard edges and I suspect he will push the agenda this year further away from an emphasis on ingredients and taste towards experimentation with textural contrasts. The ingredients he starts with are important to him to the extent that they do not get in the way of textural concerns. In this sense, quoting ltx about the primacy of infusions to Aduriz(Mugarritz)--she says that Aduriz often starts out with concocting an infusion and then tackles the issue of what will go best wiith it--, Adria will start out with textural contrasts and their progression and will concoct a meal around it. Personally I do not believe that the relative historical merit of this new school--whose proponents came together in the gastronomical congress in Donostia organized by Garcia Santos--will be decided soon. To the converts, it is the most exciting thing going on in the world and if Adria is the king, Adoriz is the crown prince. The amount of applause that accompanied Adria's foray into the stage has been unknown and unheralded in history and brings to mind charismatic leaders and their followers. At the same time it is clear that Adria is a very hard worker and he works his sous chefs literally to death(a friend who interviewed Adoriz reported that, while apprenticing at El Bulli, Adoriz, when he woke could not tell for a moment whether he had finished his daily chores or whether he had just woken up from a dream about them). It is also ironic that, perhaps unbeknownst to the converts of the new religion(actually Garcia Santos should be called the high priest), we are coming to a full circle since the days of the onset of nouvelle cuisine. That is, as the same friend who interviewed Adoriz neatly summed up, nouvelle cuisine was a reaction against oversaucing and relegating the natural product and the ingredient to the secondary status. Now, with all the textural experiments and the application of science and molecular biology to cooking and the newly acquired status of infusions, one wonders if the quality of the "ingredient" is not taking a back stage once again. But then, given all the environmental problems and the scarcity of natural products, perhaps the new phenomenon is a historical necessity even though it is not perceived by its converts in these terms.
  17. Interesting points Francesco. Ms. Willinger, in her Eating in Italy book and on p.356 wrote on Vissani: "The perfectly executed dishes of Gianfranco Vissani are those of a genius, idiot-savant or idiot, depending on your point of view, and have little to do with Umbrian, Italian or any other cuisine eaten on the face of this earth". Assuming that you are Italian, clearly there is a disparity between what she considers authentic Italian and what Italians consider authentic Italian. Ms Willinger also wrote in the same page that:"Evidently ...Vissani has been to France and has been greatly moved by the experience". On my part I think this speaks well of Vissani as it proves that he is no chauvinist and there is great food to be had in France. By the same token, I will respect a great French chef such as Ducasse, Gagnaire, Pacaud, whoever, if they say that they have been in Italy many times and have been greatly moved by the experience as there is great food to be had in all parts of Italy.
  18. Dear Faith, As much as I enjoy your book where you cover quite a few restaurants in Northern Italy, I am wondering if you agree with me on the following 2 points and express your philosophy. 1. You do not seem to be interested in comparisons and overall appraisals. I can not quite use it, say to choose 3 restaurants in Piemonte if I only have 2 days. I can understand that there are at least 30 that you like and recommend, but it is not clear which ones you would choose yourself if you had, say, 3 shots. Do you do this on purpose? If so, what is the purpose? 2. With all fairness, you seem to be skeptical at best when some chefs(such as Vissani) are giving free rein to their imagination in the kitchen. It is not that you dislike it. But I wonder what you would think about a place you praise, say Le Calandre, now. Clearly Massimilano's cooking--for better or worse--is quite different today than what you have described when parents were cooking and, although inspired by some local traditions, it is hardly local cuisine. Have you changed your attitude to such experimentation since you have written the book? At a more general level, do you think Italian cuisine can ever receive the international acclaim it deserves by sticking closely to local traditions and roots? It looks like some of the most acclaimed and hot chefs in the world today(Veyrat, Adria, Gagnaire, Barasetegui, etc.,)are increasingly turning up syncretic dishes which are eaten nowhere on earth on a daily basis and they are not afraid of using imported ingredients and engage in mindblowing experiments with texture and natural progression of a meal. Even my last meal at Don Alfonso (Iaccardi was present) August 2003 was much more international and eclectic than I had experienced in 1998. What do you think of these trends and the challenges it poses for Italian cuisine. Let me take this opportunity to thank you again for your book which I think very highly of, and the organizer for making this exchange possible.
  19. Thanks Francesco for superb reports and painstaking details and useful tidbits. I knew the ending but was still excited! Understanding your taste and your approach, it is no brainer that you did like my favorite seafood temple in Italy: Lorenzo. But it is already too popular with Italians and my self interest so far had trumped my enlightened duty to share my entusiasm with the general public. But I guess you will open the Pandora's box and I may chip in...
  20. I liked very much my leisurly lunch in Saas Fee at the Waldhotel Fletschhorn. This was a month ago, October the 4th. The Austrian chef excelled both with relatively chi chi as well as hearty(civet de chamois) preparation. Wine list was fairly priced. I had a remarkable Petite Arvine and 2001 Domaine Gaudy VV. We had blue sky and about 20 Celcius and it was quasi magical. I found Peterman's Kunststuben in Kusnacht near Zurich way overrated. It is like industrial assembly line version of haute cuisine. No passion in cooking. I always enjoy La Grappe d'Or in Lausanne for very solid, harmonious cooking. Game and fish for 2 is very good. If you can get Chevrier at Chateauvieux cook game for you, you will eat very well. His preparation of grouse and becasse are especially decadent. His "creative" dishes may be fussy at times. I happened to think that Rochat can compete with the greatest chefs. My meal there on October 8th was flawless and creative without resorting to the wow factor a la Veyrat, Adria, etc. Mine is minority opinion of course. Hope this helps. Avoid Rheinhotel Fischerzunft in Schaffhouse by the way. It will only impress a clientele who has never eaten decent Chinese food and prices are on par with Parisian 3 stars. But the room is beautiful and presentations very artistic. So I minded less to get ripped off in my birthday there.
  21. Confisseur: Do you consider Rochat, Chateauvieux and Pont de Brent second rate?
  22. Thanks Pamela. I heard very good things about La Grotta. It is on my radar screen. Would it be possible, Pamela, to recommend cozy/friendly place to stay in Montepulciano for reasonable(around 100 Euro) price?
  23. Thanks for the info. I was always suspicious of Morin as the successor for Piege. Do you know what are the 4 stars in France? I also (wrongly)thought Bottin favored classical cuisine. L'Arnsbourg promotion shows that this is not true. Are you aware of some stylistic preferences on their part? Personally, I agree with the promotion of Yannick Alleno but desserts are not yet on par with the mains.
  24. Thanks for the information. I had to wait to call Zuberoa, my favorite, since they were closed for holiday. Zuberoa will do its best. The strange thing is that they were full for monday night, november 22nd. So I have a lunch reservation. The reason is that they have a "gastronomical congress" on monday and tuesday. I hope you are making to the congress Pedro. Then we will ask four sorda instead of two!
  25. With or without the roe scallops should be eaten in their shell. They are much fresher, firmer and tasty that way.(Asians and Galicians have it right). My experience in Europe is that to have best scallops one should in general avoid 2 and 3 stars. They are simply afraid that their clientele will be put off by seeing the shell. The one star Violon d'Ingres prepares scallops in their shell and roe attached with salted butter. Very good. They also have a nice caramelized pied de porc dish. Otherwise, the restaurant may have lost some passion. There are quite a few kindred spirits here. What "pique" Gault-Millau looks like they want to increase the trend for the internationalisation of cuisine. I have stopped reading them long ago.... and 20/20 for Veyrat, I thought, was a bad joke.
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