Thursday, April 9, 2015

Alain Ducasse au Plaza Athénée - 3rd visit

Alain Ducasse's eponymous restaurant at the famous Plaza Athénée hotel in Paris was among the first few European fine dining places I visited when I just learned about gastronomy in 2006. I returned here 2 years later and several months ago I brought my wife for inaugural dining experience at Chef Ducasse's flagship restaurant. However, Alain Ducasse au Plaza Athénée (ADPA) just went through a major facelift, along with the hotel's renovation that cost about EUR 200 million. It meant when I re-visited ADPA in Nov '14, it looked as if I just came to this place for the first time. The food, the decor and the kitchen teams have been changed with the exception of the restaurant director and the head sommelier. Alain Ducasse launched a new concept called "Naturality"; in short the Chef believed that we should eat healthier, more in harmony with nature and at the same time respecting the environment. To implement this, he immediately removed meat, both red meat and poultry, from the regular menu (an un-Gallic decision and looked more 'extreme' than Passard's vegetable revolution in 2000). The current menu at ADPA exclusively focuses on the La trilogie: vegetables and fruits, fish and shellfish, as well as cereal. The ingredients would be brought fresh daily to the restaurant - the vegetables will be grown at the Trianon (from Château de Versailles gardens) and taken care by Alain Baraton, the head gardener; the fish will be supplied by Gilles Jégo, a fisherman and wholesaler, from Quiberon or Lorient ports; while the cereal will be coming from all over the globe. Having dined here, I could testify that the essential French haute cuisine techniques to prepare (including cooking and seasoning) the new 'trilogy' produce remained intact. The ingredients were carefully executed with high precision skills producing various (nearly) flawless dishes.

My wife and I arrived at Alain Ducasse au Plaza Athénée near 9 PM. We were a bit late as we unexpectedly met our good friend coming from Newcastle; he happened to be on an assignment in Paris the following day. Denis Courtiade, the charming maitre d' maison, greeted us near the restaurant's entrance. Then, we were escorted to our table in the middle. The interior design of its lavish dining room has been transformed into a less formal and lighter space. As I was walking into my seat, there were a few novel & outstanding things that caught my attention. 1st, the gargantuan chandeliers garnished with Swarovski crystal dangle from the high ceiling were still there. They were suspended closer to the dining tables and now guests would enjoy the sparkles from the small crystals throughout the evening since the restaurant does not dim the light anymore as the night passes. 2nd, there are three circular banquettes whose outer design having convex shapes and made of polished silver shells that would elegantly reflect the multicolor 'rain' captured by the crystal pendants from the chandelier. 3rd, to the left of the dining room, there was a table topped by a big structure that looks like a boat's hull enveloping a table for four. Lastly, in the back of the room, a tall cabinet stands covered with great panels that fade as the night falls. Inside, I was told that there were plenty of silver pieces and crystal wares provided by Christofle and Saint-Louis; these two were the oldest and most prominent arts and craft houses in France. I did not feel the current decor to be less luxurious than before. On the contrary, I loved this new concept designed by Patrick Jouin and Sanjit Manku who were bold enough to remove the traditional starched & pristine tablecloths in favor of clean and solid oak tables. The distance between tables is spacious. The attention to details is amazing. Under the wooden table, it's connected by leather material. The new chairs are very comfortable with fluffy cushions covered by high quality leather. The white folding stool for ladies' bag is cool and prior to the meal, diners would found a delicate, twisted but suspended organic shaped ring (similar to a Möbius strip) sit at the dining table. There are simply too many unique and special table wares to mention here. In short, the new dining room is awesome!
As soon as we sat, the parade of food began. Instead of the standard and predictable champagne as aperitif, we drank refreshing and healthy juices (a mixture of carrot, apple, celery and a touch of ginger) in glass tumblers accompanied by dense cereal toast. After that, we're given mullet fish in 'sashimi' style with bottarga. Then, come a ceramic bowl containing sorrel, salsify and chestnut; at the same time, there was a rice bread (supposedly gluten free) with salted butter supplied by Frederic Leroux from Cauville-sur-Mer. A decent beginning. After having a short conversation with Monsieur Courtiade, he proposed to create special menu for us that will combine masculine (M) and feminine (F) elements for me and my wife respectively and we gladly accepted the offer. I've been here twice, so I was very confident that we would be well taken care of. The amuse-bouche did not finish yet.The kitchen brought us grilled Sardines (including its crispy deep fried bones) in olive oil - a humble fish that was well executed. The marinated fish was crunchy and tasty with good sauce. Lastly, Sea bream tartar served with lemon caviar and chick pea mousse - a good combination of dorade and smooth grains; refreshing, light and slightly acidic. Finally, we were relaxed for several minutes before the main show started.       

Le menu Jardin Marin (Menu Garden - Marine)

Lentilles vertes du Puy et caviar, délicate gelée (Green lentils of the volcanic hill served with caviar, delicate smoked fish jelly and pressed caviar cream) - Unexpected but smart combinations that worked perfectly together - a new interpretation of the traditional caviar with blini recipe. For full enjoyment: the thin & subtle buckwheat pancake would hold the pressed cream, lentil, cold jelly and caviar altogether to bring out the layers of delicate textures and delicious flavors. In particular, the texture contrast of lentils and caviar generated explosive flavors in the mouth. This was fabulous! - masculine

Langoustines bretonnes, caviar doré, nage réduite (Steamed Brittany langoustines served cold with golden caviar and aromatic consomme infused with lemongrass & ginger) - A new presentation of ADPA's classic in more generous portion. It's as excellent as the previous version. The langoustine was fresh, meaty and of the top quality. It was enhanced by caviar's briny and (little) salty taste as well as the 'Asian-style' broth's deep flavor. A balanced dish with no dominating elements. My wife had no problem finishing this appetizer - feminine

Accompanied by wine: 2007 Domaine des Baumard Savennières Clos du Papillon (Pale yellow & smokey white wine with complex minerality; sweet honey notes on the nose with a long finish)

Tarte friande aux cèpes, homard du Cotentin tiède (Gently braised lobster from Cotentin served with its jus and Ceps crispy tart) - A magnificent dish that looked both luxurious and rustic. The blue lobster was superb, rich and supple; the ceps were meaty, earthy and slightly nutty; they're brought together by the intense yet harmonious lobster sauce. Truly seasonal and memorable - masculine

Saint-Jacques d'Erquy, chou-fleur en fine croûte, tartufi di Alba (Sea scallops from Erquy served with brioche of comte & cauliflower and white Alba truffle) - A popular dish at this restaurant. The most special part was: the entire cauliflower was encased/baked inside the beautiful comte brioche-crust, then it's carefully sliced & served in front of guests - clever and tasty. The dazzling & tender scallop was precisely cooked and inherently sweet; well-complemented by rich brown sauce and grated of fragrant & rather intense white truffle. My wife easily loved this spectacular dish - feminine
Accompanied by wine: 2012 Domaine Marc Colin & Fils Saint-Aubin 1er Cru Le Charmois (White Burgundy made with chardonnay. Fruity, good body, and long finish - not bad)

Rouget de l’Île d’Yeu en écailles, jus civet lié au foie, tian (Île d’Yeu red mullet on scales served with liver sauce and vegetables tian) - The flesh and its crispy scales were very good, but I found the sauce made of the mullet's stock and valuable liver was so strong that it (often) overpowering the overall flavor when consumed together. A powerful dish, but not as good as the earlier stuffs. The baked vegetable gratin (tian) was colorful, rustic and beautiful. They consisted of fennel, onion, butternut squash etc.; helping reduce and balance the intense flavor from the fish's liver - masculine

Bar de l'Atlantique saigne, jeunes poireaux, olives noires (Atlantic sea bass ikejime method served with young leeks and black olives) - The ikejime technique worked well here in that the sea bass was successfully maintaining its high quality (fresh and flavorful). However, similar to the case of red mullet, my spouse said the black olive stock was too rich which I also agreed. A little sauce was sufficient to savor this white fish with great texture. The leek was alright - feminine

Riz noir accompagné de coquillages (Camargue black rice baked with shellfish, calamari and octopus) - A nice and new way to end the meal before heading to desserts; reminded me of Japanese kaiseki. I loved the al dente texture, subtle aroma and nutty flavor of this whole grain rice. It was even more enjoyable to chew the 'wild' rice with fresh cockles, clams, squids and so on. I hope the restaurant would keep serving a rice dish prior to cheese/sweets in the future - both

Accompanied by wine: 2010 Clos des Brusquières Châteauneuf-du-Pape (Elegant with layers of sweet & spice; medium tannins with cherry finish - should develop better in the next 5-10 years, a bit too young now)

Doyenne du Comice rôtie, châtaignes et liqueur de myrte corses (Roasted pear's variety served with chestnuts and myrtle liqueur from Corsica) - The maitre d' was very generous and giving us several desserts to savor. The 'caramelized' roasted pear was quite delectable; it came with crunchy chestnut and myrtle (made of 'berries' and tasted like gin). The ice cream was pleasant - masculine

Peau de lait cru de Normandie, fraises des bois (Normandy milk skin with warmed wild strawberries) - The milk skin was 'similar' to yuba and served warm in contrast to the ice cream at the sides. We liked the smooth texture and light flavors of the milk skin served with sweet wild strawberries. Overall, it's refreshing and the portion was very generous - feminine

Chocolat et café de notre Manufacture, sarrasin torréfié (Chocolate and coffee from our Factory with roasted buckwheat) - Another beautifully presented dish. The chocolate was thick and strong in flavors; good news for chocolate lovers. The coffee's aroma and its taste could be detected too while the home-made ice cream was of good quality. Additionally, there was a small slice of chocolate tart with grains on top and it was exquisite. The chocolate cream in the middle was nice and not too sweet; it went along with the ice cream too - masculine

Citron niçois et algues kombu à l'estragon (Lemon from Nice and kombu seaweeds with tarragon) - The elegant look of this yellow fruit could be deceiving. It was actually quite intense with plenty of flavor 'explosion' (such as bitter & very sour) from the many elements as well as the lemon itself in different forms and textures. It was quite an experience though I did not really love it - feminine

Accompanied by wine: 2011 Maison Chapoutier Le Coufis Vin de Table de France Doux (Lush, sweet and fruity with good clarity and decent finish, quite nice)

Baba imbibé du rhum accompagne de crème peu fouettée (Rum baba served with lightly whipped cream) - It was still the finest dessert of Chef Ducasse albeit lack of presentation here. The 'sponge' cake was superbly moist and delicate; it was flawlessly complemented by the soft bean cream and top rum quality with its intoxicating aroma. Each byte was a pure indulgence ... ethereal indeed - both

The mignardises have been reduced. We only had chocolate with praline inside as well as sweet & seedless muscat grapes - both of them were excellent though I still prefer the old 'unhealthy' petit four trolleys and macaroons. For digestive, both of us opted for tea infusion. My spouse had lemongrass & mint whereas I had rosemary & lemongrass plus a little bit of honey; it was great. A little comment on the wine list: it's entirely new and presented in different ways. For instance, the menu arranges the bottles (from various origins) by generation, varied from five, ten to fifty years - if I recalled correctly. The price and the mark up were pretty steep, but they had more reasonably priced options for wine by the glass, such as what I drank above. They were not that remarkable, but paired quite well with the food. I was pleased with the quality and it's directly proportional with the cost of Parisian fine dining standard.

Both of us very much enjoyed this food symphony; it was delicious and excellent throughout although a bit short of my first meal here. In spite of this, the main star of the show was ADPA's hospitality lead by the capable and amiable Denis Courtiade. We experienced the pinnacle of what 'perfect' service was like/supposed to be (it was a very busy evening and all seats were taken). Denis always paid full attention while being discreet at the same time; he could be humorous when necessary but knew exactly when not being obtrusive. I felt to be treated not just like royalty, but as an 'old' friend coming to his place. Staffs were respectable to guests, yet they were not intimidated and made diners felt very comfortable. Our "femme maitre d" named Cecile also did a wonderful job. She was professional and friendly. My wife loved talking to her about many things and you could see the small details such as an eye contact and body language that she really engaged and enjoyed the conversation as well as doing her job. As a matter of fact, the special part of the whole dining room brigade was the smooth flow/movement, gestures and postures as well as the flair. Their performance was sensational. They're well supported with elegant uniforms designed by George Feghaly - mostly in white and grey that beautifully matched the overall ambiance. Even the sommelier when not discussing about the wines, also delivered fine service. Monsieur Courtiade shared that it was his aim to give guests an unforgettable experience and for us, Denis absolutely achieved that goal with flying colors. On top of that, I comfortably declared that it was the finest and most fun service I've ever received in any restaurants. I doubt other place could do better job than at Ducasse's main Paris establishment.   

I respected the effort of Alain Ducasse who keeps challenging himself, even when he's nearly 60 years of age. It shows that even though he is no longer active in the kitchen, his brain was still very much active to re-invent himself by taking an initiative and leadership role in this innovation. He decided to distance himself from traditional ways among French 3-star places in terms of who can make the best foie gras, albufera sauce or truffle dishes. For Chef Ducasse, this made sense since he has the expertise and ample of resources to materialize his ideas. It was not as easy as it looked; the new ADPA with its 'zen' revolution has cost him a (Michelin) star. He experienced this before and I'm confident he will be able to regain the red guide book's highest honor at most in two years. Overall, I had another exceptional meal at Plaza Athénée. The dishes were delicious and balanced, the wine list was a dream, the interior was elegant and detailed, and above all the service was amazing. The meal lasted nearly 4 hours and we generally felt engaging most of the times especially by the food and sometimes by the restaurant's hospitality; there's never a dull moment. Come with an open mind and curiosity, you will surely be rewarded here. You're welcome to see the pictures: Ducasse Plaza Athenee in Nov '14

Food (and Wine): 97 pts

Service (and Ambiance): 99 pts

Overall: 97.5/100

Sunday, February 22, 2015

L'Arpège Alain Passard - 7th & 8th visit

Alain Passard, an enthusiastic and charismatic chef, became the main talking point in the gastronomy industry when in early 2001 revealed his intention to "give up" cooking (red) meat and focused much more on preparing dishes using vegetables. L'Arpège popularity jumped to the roof while many people, including his regulars, had mixed feelings whether they would be willing to patronize a 3-star Michelin restaurant which would serve plenty of beets, tomatoes and carrots instead of caviar and foie gras. However, Passard was not the kind of chef who made meaningless statement. He successfully created many incredible new dishes using out-of-this-world quality vegetables delivered daily by high-speed train from his 3 biodynamic/organic gardens (Fillé-sur-Sarthe near Le Mans, Bois Girault near Buis-sur-Damville and the Manche). In the process, he actually won the heart of many old and new guests as well as changed the course of fine dining world by influencing & inspiring lots of chefs to respect & pay more attention towards (seasonal) vegetables and the natural environment around them. The rest was history now. After having done this for more than a decade, this famous and gifted Chef was still at the top of his game. In spite of his stature, Alain Passard loved to be at the kitchen and cooked for his guests as often as he could. My wife and I were fortunate to savor numerous remarkable dishes at L'Arpège with Passard around in both occasions. The Chef told me that the following week, he had to fly out to (Park Hyatt) Shanghai to attend the Masters of Food & Wine 2014 Passion Week event.

I love this restaurant so much that during my recent Europe foodie trip I decided to have 2 meals here. Prior to this visit, my meal at L'Arpège took place in the last month of 2010. In between, I had a couple of chances to enjoy Alain Passard's cooking when he became a guest chef at separate events in Bangkok and Singapore. But nothing beats the experience to eat at Passard's "home", tucked away in a narrow street not to far from the Invalides and the Rodin Museum. It's still the only Michelin 3-star restaurant on the left bank. I really felt comfortable at this place and have had fabulous meals since 2006. The dining room was elegant, unpretentious and understated. It was simply adorned with wood paneling along the walls with some Lalique glass inside. The dining tables, placed quite close to one another, were decorated with chestnuts during our dinner. The simple decor was good in a way that diners could really focus on the food, made of impeccable produce and put together with perfect technical skill by Chef Passard's brigades. For the 1st meal, both of us had dégustation dîner whereas for lunch, we opted for menu carte blanche. Given the restaurant's focus on seasonality, it was often unavoidable to have the same or similar dishes when one has two meals in less than a week apart. Any dish(es) below written without any additional info meant it was served at both of our meals. Before the famous egg arrived, the kitchen gave us Puff pastry, served warm, with red/purple cabbage inside (flaky, fragrant and buttery) and the usual Tartelettes of Autumn vegetables (crisp and delicate tarts). 

Terre & Mer en Novembre menu (Tasting menu from the Earth and the Sea)

Chaud froid d'oeuf au sirop d'érable 4 épices et vinaigre de Xérès (The 'hot & cold' egg served with spices, maple syrup and sherry vinegar) - Arguably the most well-known egg dish in the world. A top quality egg was used for the warm egg yolk with layers of light cooling cream on top to produce a well-balanced dish. In such a small shell, you can savor distinctly the syrup sweetness, sharp vinegar, as well as the 'spicy' and richness of the spices (nutmeg, cloves, ginger & white pepper)

Sushi légumier au parfum de feuilles de figuier betterave de pleine terre (Beetroot sushi flavored with fig leaves, soy sauce, and radish) - The rice was moist and well-seasoned to support the combination of beetroot and radish. This fresh and clean item was easy to eat; I wish the rice portion were smaller. My wife loved this tasty sushi very much

Coquilles Saint Jacques d'Erquy aux pétales de radis géranium & curry de Madras (Raw scallop from Erquy served with thinly sliced red radish, geranium oil and Madras curry powder) - Stunning scallop with inherently sweet flavor was in contrast to the aromatic & slightly bitter oil. The radish added a little zing to the dish while the curry powder put subtle spicy taste. Excellent and complex yet in harmony - dinner only

Crisp & dry waffle covered with tasty Scottish smoked salmon and the mousse of salty smoked ham - good. It could be better if the waffle had been warmer and softer; lunch only

Fines ravioles potagères automnales consomme ambre à l'héliantis (Assortment of Autumn vegetable raviolis inside clear soup) - The 'dumplings', having silky & pleasant texture, were well made with impressive quality of vegetables. We had a mixture of celery, turnip, beetroot, parsnip etc. The flavors of the raviolis and clear soup (served hot) were profound and pure. A timeless dish at L'Arpege and always available in every season

Gratin d'oignon sturon au parmigiano reggiano mesclun de Sylvain (A mixture of multi-shaded golden onion gratin with parmesan cheese) - A simple and humble ingredients generated incredible and top notch flavor. The (caramelized) onion's natural & mild sweetness was enhanced by some sorrel's acidity and the cheese's nutty & versatile flavor. Ask for it if the kitchen did not provide any when you dine here

Bouquet de homard de Chausey acidulé au miel de notre rucher transparence de navet globe (Lobster from Chausey island in 'bouquet' shaped served with its eggs, tangy honey and transparent turnips) - The dressing (a mixture of sherry vinegar, honey, lime and nut oil) was simply perfect; the pretty clear turnip was earthy and crunchy. This was the opposite of the tender and delicious lobster. Light, fresh and easy to savor; it seems like a course for the Summer season - dinner only 

'Minestrone' mixing fresh seasonal vegetables (radish, turnip, potato and celery) and small dices of bacon - Refreshing and pleasant especially the different textures & flavors of the garden vegetables; lunch only

Celerisotto crémeux à la truffe blanche d'Alba ail nouveau (Creamy celerisotto served with Alba truffle and garlic) - Fresh and crunchy risotto based on diced celery combined with aromatic butter, mascarpone/parmesan cheese and pungent white truffle. It might not be better than regular risotto, but very well done especially the celery texture and the foamy sauce were satisfying - dinner only

Risotto served with radish, white truffle and vegetable broth - It was creamy and a bit sweet; the aromatic truffle went well with both the nicely cooked Arborio rice and the broth. It was a clean and light dish - suitable for lunch; there was not any strong flavor of parmesan cheese this time; lunch only

Pêche côtière du Golfe du Morbihan au chanterelles du domaine de Lisle-en-Barrois (Turbot from the Coastal fishing of Morbihan gulf served with girolle wild mushroom) - Turbot, grilled on the bone, was rather silky and not too firm yet still tasty. The fragrant skin was a bit bitter; the yellow wine sauce was, as always, refined. It was also enhanced by the earthy mushroom and fresh Fall vegetables. A really good fish dish, but not the best one I've ever had at this restaurant - dinner only   

White & pristine Codfish was quite soft but rather bland. It was helped by the delicious & creamy wine sauce. The chanterelle mushrooms were fleshy and moist while the leek was delicate. It was a good dish, but not extraordinary - lunch only

Velouté de potiron aux noix de La Guerche-de-Bretagne crème soufflée au speck de la Forêt-Noire (Pumpkin "thick" soup served with nuts, smoked ham chantily from Black forest) - Initially, I had this during Passard's visit as guest chef in Bangkok and Singapore. Little did I know that the one served at his restaurant was so much better. The pumpkin veloute was simply smooth, rich but light/not intense. The salty speck-infused cream nicely balanced the pumpkin's sweetness. A clever variation producing decadent dish; simple but memorable

Jardinière Arlequin & merguez végétale à l'harissa crosne, radis noir, betterave de pleine terre (Colorful vegetable variations from the garden such as radish, artichoke, beet, leek, onion etc. served with small spicy 'sausage' + couscous + argan oil) - Impressive selection of high quality and tasty vegetables. A signature dish of the house. Regardless of the season, this pretty and refreshing stuffs on the plate always delivered. Having eaten several times, I could not deny that the wow factor has slowly declined but still I did not want to take this awesome dish for granted

Partridge (with its jus) served with walnut, chestnut, leeks and several herbs - Among wild game animals, partridge can be considered having subtle gamey taste and aroma. The meat was fragrant (thanks to the spices variation), tender with grassy notes but a bit dry for my preference. The onion & chestnut provided good combination and contrast to the tasty bird. Overall, it has a nice complexity; simply savor every element slowly along with the mildly-flavored meat. My first wild game dish at L'Arpege and it did not disappoint; dinner only

Moelleux du Revard affine pommes de terre fumées (GoodÎle flottante moka-mélisse cardamome verte ('Floating island' with mocha, salted caramel and cardamom) - A tremendous improvement from the last time I ate this. It was not really sweet surprisingly; a harmony of strong coffee flavor, lemongrass' smell & taste as well as caramel's sweet & salty flavor. I enjoyed it and the portion was right cheese from the foot of Mont Revard with smoked potato) - The well-made piece of cow cheese; it was soft and creamy with rather strong taste. In addition, I also asked for slices of 4-year old Comte made especially for Chef Passard and it was superb as expected

Millefeuille chocolat crème glacée à l’anis étoile (All chocolate millefeuille served with star anise ice cream) - The chocolate was strong, dark and slightly bitter; it was excellent and pure in taste with flaky & light layers. The exotic star anise (not shown) ice cream gave a nice and light sweetness to this intense dessert. A good dessert during cold weather even  though I slightly prefer the thicker version with rich creme chantilly - dinner only

Île flottante moka-mélisse cardamome verte ('Floating island' with mocha, salted caramel and cardamom) - A tremendous improvement from the last time I ate this. It was not really sweet surprisingly; a harmony of strong coffee flavor, lemongrass' smell & taste as well as caramel's sweet & salty flavor. I enjoyed it and the portion was right - dinner only

Paris-Brest au pralin de noix de La Guerche-de-Bretagne caramel au beurre sale de Saint-Malo (Choux pastry filled with praline butter cream from Saint Malo, walnut and salted caramel) - Small but powerful. Both of us enjoyed Passard's interpretation of French classic dessert. The cream's sweetness was contrasted by the salty caramel and nutty & crunchy walnut. It was flavorful without feeling heavy - dinner only  

Apple crumble pie served with star anise ice cream and salted caramel sauce - It was cooked until brown/golden; the taste was buttery and sweet with a nice hint of apple's acidity. The caramel sauce & the ice cream were "right" - sweet but not too rich. A decent dessert; I've never had it before - lunch only

Petit pot de crème au foin de nos prairies caramel lacté (Small creme brulee with hay 'meadow' and 'milk' caramel) - A light small dessert to accompany the petit fours. The hay cream had a lovely smell and light taste; easy to enjoy especially at the end of the meal; dinner only

Sucreries macaron, nougat, bouquet de roses, pop-corn (Mignardises) - Solid sweets towards the end: good quality hazelnut nougat and chocolate, light macaron and chou pastry. I think I always finished L'Arpege's petit fours without much difficulties  

Some notes on the wines: During the dinner, my spouse had a glass of Rose champagne while I drank a half bottle of 2010 Louis Jadot Corton-Charlemagne Louis Jadot: an elegant white wine with a very good balance and complexity. It's drinkable, however it could be better in a couple of years. Nevertheless, I liked it a lot - possible the best white I had during this trip. For the dessert, I followed the sommeliere's suggestion to zip a glass of 2012 Maury Vendange Domaine Pouderoux: generous and intense flavors of black berry and cherry; an excellent pairing with our chocolate 'Napoleon'. For the lunch, I had 2 glasses of whites. Firstly, a Riesling from Alsace - 2011 Domaine l'Agape Gewurztraminer (aromatic & easy to drink); secondly, a Chardonnay from South Burgundy - 2012 Pouilly-Fuisse (fruity & balanced). The wine list at L'Arpège was mainly of French origin; it's quite extensive and the restaurant also opened plenty of bottles for those who want to drink by the glass. The mark-up was rather reasonable considering it's a Michelin 3-star establishment.

The food, particularly from our 1st dinner meal, was magnificent. Alain Passard was still at the top of his game; he has high quality produce exclusively for his restaurant, flawless technique and execution, as well as artistic and unique style that has inspired many (young) chefs. It's been a while that I did not have a full tasting menu at L'Arpège (the last one was probably in 2008) and they're simply sublime from start to finish - the whole degustation menu experience was even greater than the sum of its parts. Many dishes might be minimalistic but they were dynamic, clean and some even had intense flavors yet very natural. Not many chef truly mastered the style or had the ability to lift up humble/ordinary produce and turn it into an extraordinary dish; Chef Passard seemed to do it with ease. Not everything was perfect though. I had to admit that there was a slight drop in our 2nd meal during lunch. Perhaps, partly because sometimes I was more impressed with Passard's seafood and poultry as they did not show up very often these days unless you're ordering these items from the a-la carte. Another reason was half of the dishes we ate was repeats from our dinner a few days earlier even though I had requested to have different dishes.

The service was attentive, friendly and relaxed. The restaurants were always full house; in fact I could testify that I've never been here when it's not packed, including the downstairs. Four years was a long period in the restaurant industry. I was not too familiar with all the staffs anymore except one gentleman and Ms. Fleur, the hostess. Nadia Socheleau, one of the finest maîtresse d'hôtel to ever run L'Arpège FOH, has (sadly) left the house and Hélène Cousin, the restaurant director, only worked during lunch now. The main star of the restaurant's hospitality happened to be Alain Passard himself now. He warmly greeted every table at the beginning. For dinner, Chef Passard would also serve one dish himself to every table - for our case, he brought in our Partridge course; Passard even did not hesitate to clear dishes on the way back to the kitchen. Overall, the staffs were still doing great but it's just that I had experienced better hospitality at this place. From '06 to '10, I've never been to L'Arpège in which 2 of these fine people (Nadia, Helene and Laurent Lapaire, still my favorite manager here) were not around in the dining room. There was a small mistake during our lunch. I asked the sommelier if there would be a meat course for us at lunch and he said yes; it would be a squab, so I requested a glass of red. Not sure how, it suddenly changed several minutes later and there was no meat thus I politely declined the wine. The kitchen could generously serve us more other dishes liked in the past, but I already promised my wife this lunch should last at most 3 hours as she wanted to enjoy Paris, La Ville Lumière. I was a bit surprised that the service during lunch was more intense and busier than during our dinner; some staffs (even the same people who did well during dinner) looked quite stressed. I also noticed that Ms. Hélène was a bit 'tired' and pale; probably her twin boys had taken much of her energy.

Despite a few set backs, I was very happy to return here to have memorable dinner (again) at my favorite eating place in which the talented Chef-Owner Alain Passard was still in the kitchen. L'Arpège was certainly a fantastic restaurant and it has proven to have served delicious foods consistently throughout the years. At its best, the meal here was unbeatable. Among elite restaurants in the world, I have never visited a single place as often as I patronize this establishment in spite of the fact that I live in Asia. And this fact shall remain, at least in the next few years. For the dishes' pictures, you're welcome to click the following link: L'Arpege in Nov '14
Food (and Wine): 97 pts

Service (and Ambiance): 96 pts

Overall: 97/100      

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Le Calandre Massimiliano Alajmo

This is my first comprehensive review of Le Calandre, an elite Italian gastronomy restaurant located in the unassuming town of Sarmeola di Rubano (about 4 miles west of Padova). However, it was not my first visit here; my initial meal happened nearly 8 years ago. It was so good that when my wife would like to come to Venice last Fall, I had to make sure that we would have a meal at Calandre. The tall and slim Massimiliano (Max) Alajmo was the genius behind the stove; in 1994 Max took over the kitchen from his mother as well as his main mentor. Chef Alajmo also had been trained with French famous chefs such as Marc Veyrat and Michel Guerard. From his cooking, we could observe that Max integrated some techniques from them, but never actually copy their dishes. In Le Calandre, Chef Alajmo had freedom to apply his talents and ultimately in 2002, he became the youngest chef in history to be awarded Michelin's highest accolade. As a family-owned restaurant, Max ran Calandre with his older brother, the easy going Raffaele Alajmo who was in charge of the dining room and wine cellar - he served me and my parents in '06. Since the restaurants business have been expanded, these days Raffaele hardly stay put in Padova area. Hence, the Alajmo brothers appointed Andrea Calzavara as Calandre's current restaurant manager.

The decor of the main dining room was very different from my initial visit. I was told that in 2010, Le Calandre underwent a big overhaul: the major one was the dining room's interior. There were no more white tablecloths and the ambiance became (very) dark even during lunch. I would describe the new restaurant's design to be modern minimalist but stylish and elegant. To compensate the dark room, there was low lighting that's carefully directed to each table; bright enough to read the wine list and observe Chef Alajmo's creations. The Alajmo brothers believe that having a great meal is a multisensory experience; for this reason all of Calandre's spacious dining tables are made from the identical 100+ years old ash tree so that guests can run their hands across wonderfully tactile surface of the tables. However, the artistic items such as custom-made tableware, cutlery and hand blown crystal glassware were still intact. Additionally, Le Calandre had Carpe Diem offers in which at any meal period, there were limited number of people (usually for 2 pax at least) allowed to pay their tasting menu in advance and enjoy about 16% discount. Given the quality of my previous meal and rare opportunity to have price reduction at 3-star Michelin restaurants, it was an easy decision for me.   

There were 3 menus available: Classici and 2 seasonal menu. We opted for the longer version of Autumn menu called "Aut2". To begin the meal, we had cheese snacks (Parmesan 'cornetto' and gougere - delicate texture yet deep in flavor). There were also some bread and amuse following that. Then come the real stuffs ...

Capesante con agretto di mele e meringa di sedano verde (Sea scallops served with apple agretto and green celery meringue) - The sweet scallop was perfectly cooked and it's balanced by the apple 'vinaigrette' acidity and the celery perfume & delicate flavor ... very good

Battuta arrotolata al caviale (Raw Piemontese beef and caviar roll) - The velvety and light-flavored beef wrapped more flavorful seafood (squid, prawn etc.); they're enhanced by the rich lobster cream. Consume in one byte and experienced the burst of various flavors and textures. The caviar added a luxury feel, but did not contribute much to the overall taste ... interesting

Burrata di vongole (Clam burrata) - This simple creation was remarkable. The glossy burrata, made from top quality mozzarella & cream, was fresh with buttery flavor. Inside, there were fish and clams; this 'resilient' cheese was well-complemented by fragrant & slightly salty dark squid ink sauce. We were addicted to this excellent dish

10 grammi di pasta di lumache e polpo (10 grams of pasta with snails and octopus) - Served in a copper pan, the thin sheet of tarragon pasta was covered with mildly sweet pistachio sauce, snails and herbs. The green pasta acted as rich emulsion in this complex yet harmonious dish; an innovative creation from the talented Max Alajmo

Accompanied by wine: Niedrist Ignaz Sudtiroler Riesling Berg 2013 (A good and light Italian riesling with good balanced in sweetness, acidity and mineral. It went particularly well with dishes having rich sauce/flavor) 

Linguine integrali di grano duro con “cacio” di pinoli e zucca (Whole Durum wheat linguine served with pine nut "cacio" and pumpkin) - This healthy & thick linguine, dried at low temperature, was a bit too firm for my taste. The pine nut acted as "fake" cheese while the pumpkin and beef stock generated the rather intense flavor; not my favorite nevertheless pleasant & quite peculiar. The plate was unique with a 'dip' on top that's supposedly acted as spoon

Risotto al tartufo bianco (White truffle risotto) - The risotto was also served with a broth jelly and a trace of traditional 'anchovy sauce'. Massimiliano is the master of creating any risotto dish; it was creamy & the rice had perfect texture, rich without being heavy, slightly salty with a hint of acidity ... a sophisticated stuff from Autumn specialty

Risotto allo zafferano con polvere di liquirizia (Saffron risotto with licorice powder) - Max's classic and a must-have dish when dining in Calandre. The world's finest risotto; the carnaroli rice, cooked al dente and in perfect texture, was creamy and nicely absorbed the chicken stock. The saffron and liquorice powder gave balance of sweet & bitter flavor, while the added parmesan was delightful. Truly a masterpiece and probably unsurpassed as far as a risotto dish is concerned

Astice tostato con funghi e guazzetto di ricci di mare e granchi (Seared lobster served with mushrooms, sea urchin and crab) - The top quality lobster was excellent and perfectly executed. The delicious creamy sauce (with zero cream) was created from uni and kani. The meaty mushroom showed the Autumn and earthy flavors, in contrast to the sea creatures. I could easily finish another plate of this dish   

Accompanied by wine: Tenuta dalle ore mappale 77 Monte lessini 2011 (White wine from Veneto region that's blending grapes of chardonnay and pinot grigio. It's fresh and crisp, suitable for the lobster dish and pasta with nut crumbs)  

Agnello alla milanese (Lamb "alla Milanese") - Instead of the usual veal, the lamb here, breaded with crispy curry, was divine - juicy and flavorful without any trace of unpleasant lamb's perfume. The delectable meats were served with aromatic almond herb mayonnaise, fresh salad and light red beets ... enjoyable

Piccione all’aceto balsamico tradizionale (Squab with traditional Balsamic vinegar) - The high quality and tender baby squab was also accompanied by Chinese cabbage, mango, Belgian endive and sautéed chili peppers. The 'rustic' sauce was rich but not cloying, simply balanced. Almost as good as the previous lamb dish; coming short perhaps due to the gamey taste of the pigeon

Accompanied by wine: Val delle Corti chianti Classico riserva 2009 (This Tuscany red wine with smells of plums & some spices had medium body and tannin as well as round & subtle taste. Decently paired with 2 meat dishes)    

Uovo al tartufo (Truffled egg) - A great combination of egg white, white chocolate and pungent white truffle. I liked it as long as the Alba truffle last; after that it became rather monotonous - sweet and eggy. The ice cream as a side dish helped - truffle chocolate of soft ice cream had good 'crust' and flavor in order to reduce the eggy flavor

Polline (Pollen) - New dessert creation at Calandre that's "crowded" and full of surprise. Sweet, refreshing and in harmony: a combination of pistachio, elderflower/sambuca gelato, mango & yoghurt, ginger granita and willow pollen. All in one - temperature, flavor and texture variations display

Tiramisù - Max's interpretation of a classic cake, in 'liquid' form. You zip it from the "blown" specifically designed glass and be ready to savor all of the tiramisu essence in a new way and up-lifting manner. The chocolate, coffee, and mascarpone flavors can still be felt resulting a simple and stunning dessert with deep flavor. Bravo! 

During my first meal, I ordered the Classic menu and it was superb. This time, I chose a more modern and seasonal menu; I thought it's even more impressive than initial my lunch. Massimiliano Alajmo was gifted and imaginative. His versatility has enabled him to create high quality classical and contemporary dishes with ease. Although the food looked experimental and often full of surprises at times, my wife and I could testify that it was consistently refreshing, flavorful, well-executed and deceptively simple. Chef Alajmo's minimalist approach translated to the usage of only 3-4 fresh ingredients that worked well together or delectable on its own. His dishes throughout the meal were generally in a complete package: beautifully plated with appetizing perfume and more importantly profoundly delicious. I was invited to visit the kitchen before and this time you could also take a peek from the foyer. The kitchen was modern with plenty of avant-garde equipments. In spite of this advance technology, Max still produced dishes combining tradition and innovation in which the flavor was still essentially authentic Italian. 

The restaurant was (very) quiet during lunch, only 7 people showed up occupying 2 tables; Andrea simply greeted guests at the beginning and bid them farewell towards the end, he was nowhere to be seen in the dining room. During the meal, we were served by 2 'junior' staffs who did a good job especially the young sommelier was very diligent - he knows the wine and the dishes well, almost always available around the dining room and even helped clear dishes in several occasions. Overall, the service, though not really personal, was highly satisfying. Staffs did the basic right (not as polished as when Raffaele was leading the dining room) - dishes arriving at good pace, never late topping up the water and wine, relaxed and hospitable. Massimiliano Alajmo came to the dining room a couple of times and despite his stature, he was always interested in listening to the guests' feedback. He might not be as popular as the eloquent Massimo Bottura, perhaps due to Massi's modest personality, but in my opinion, he's the most talented and the best chef in Italy. Once, Chef Alajmo even said that he just showed the ingredients to guests instead of creating anything (dishes). In spite of his success, he did not let it stay too long in his head. With such mentality and desire to keep improving, we probably have not yet witnessed the full potential of Massi's skills - sky is the limit. What a stunning lunch we had and Le Calandre's is the first and only Italian restaurant (thus far) that I can comfortably recommend someone without reservation. For pictures, please click the following link: Le Calandre in Fall '14

Food (and Wine): 97 pts

Service (and Ambiance): 94 pts

Overall: 96/100 

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

L'Ambroisie Bernard Pacaud - 4th visit

Time flies. Summer of 2007 marked my inaugural visit to the temple of haute cuisine named L'Ambroisie, situated in the middle of appealing Marais district. This classic restaurant was a splendid 17th century townhouse and it's currently the longest running dining place in Paris with a 3-star Michelin (Chef-patron Bernard Pacaud attained the red guide's highest rating in 1988 and has kept it since). While some think the old-fashioned food at L'Ambroisie is boring, I thought whatever dishes serve here represent one of the highest level of cooking in the world. Bernard Pacaud has perfected his culinary skills of French traditional gastronomy. There was no non-sense; the dishes have consistently been flawlessly executed using seasonal and fresh produce. The result was delicious and intense classical dishes that were neither heavy nor cloying. Forget about deconstructed or molecular stuffs, also do not expect any dish to be split into 3-4 bowls; the masterpiece on the plate was deceptively simple and people should have no issue recognizing the 3 to 5 ingredients used. Yet, in this "minimalist" approach, it's nearly impossible to improve further upon any dishes served to guests. I heard that similar to the case of Michel Bras, Bernard Pacaud is probably semi-retired these days as his son Mathieu Pacaud has become more active in the kitchen and public. Mathieu's name also appears at the bottom of the menu. 

It's widely known that L'Ambroisie is probably the only 3-star restaurant offering no degustation menu option. The a-la carte was nicely divided to about 5 items each in appetizers, fish/seafood, meat/poultry and desserts. It's always good to follow the guidance of Monsieur Pascal, the loyal and professional maitre d'hotel of L'Ambroisie. Unfortunately, I 'rebelled' this time - I did not follow his idea of ordering the famous scallop dish with broccoli and Italian truffle. The reason was simple: I was on a mission to savor all of Pacaud's seasonal lobster dishes. Unlike my previous visit, I was not eating alone this time (finally). Moreover, this fabulous meal was for dinner instead of the usual lunch. Here are the dishes we savored in the middle of November 2014.

Manière de rouget (Prized rock-fish) – The red mullet and its inherently sweet flesh & crispy skin was served with light veal juice and velvety puree of celery, apple and squash; a generous amuse

Blanc-manger d'œuf mollet à la truffe blanche d'Alba, émulsion de cèpes (Half-cooked / simmered egg served with Alba truffle and emulsified of cep) – The perfectly soft-boiled egg had soft but firm white and orange runny yolk; delicious. It's enhanced by the nutty flavor from the mushroom's emulsion. The fragrant cep (both cooked and raw ones) and intoxicating white truffle added some complexity and beautifully complemented the overall flavor. Possibly, I have found an egg dish that's actually better than "L'Arpege egg"

Fricassée de homard au potimarron et châtaignes, sauce à la diable (Mixture of stewed Brittany lobster served with pumpkin puree, chestnuts and 'peppery' sauce) – Finally, Pacaud got the right texture of the tasty blue lobster (quite tender for the tail and rather firm for the claw). The dish in "glowing" color was rich, intense (but not heavy) and complex but balanced. I could taste the variation of sweet, nutty, & slightly spicy flavors altogether. Excellent .. along with lobster + star anise sauce, this was my favorite homard dish at L'Ambroisie

Tourte de canard au foie gras (Pie of wild duck and its liver served with salad and veal juice) – An ethereal game-season pie; the duck (breast, thigh & buttery liver) and veal 'stuffing' were perfectly executed; as expected, they're succulent and flavorful. The salad was essential to reduce the meat's intensity. Last but not least, the airy pie with its crust were flawless and very pleasant. It will be a tall order for someone to improve upon this remarkable "pithivier" 

Reine des reinettes en boule nacrée, sabayon au calvados du Domfrontais (Spherical of 'pearl' sugar served with apple variations, pistachio and apple brandy sabayon) – The latest dessert creation of the restaurant. The sphere was light in both texture and taste; the sweet flowery sorbet was not too heavy and good nutty pistachio taste. Not too bad, but unlikely to be considered among L'Ambroisie's classic in the future

Soufflé chaud au pralin, coulis de mangue au kirsch de Fougerolles (Hot praline souffle served with mango coulis and wild "cherries brandy") – A traditional French dessert with some harmonious sweet flavor variations. This fluffy souffle was light and airy with partly gooey in the center; the taste was just right. The only drawback was probably the lack of ice cream on the side, otherwise this old-fashion dessert was really good 

Tarte fine sablée au cacao amer, crème glacée au moka (Chocolate cake served with mocha ice cream) – A simple yet profound dessert made with only chocolate and sabayon. Bernard Pacaud was truly a genius. His thin crust/ganache and creamy chocolate in the middle were meticulously prepared; as a result, it's wonderful. The mocha ice cream would intensify and add an extra layer of bitter or dark flavor. Personally, I prefer to combine this timeless tart with the rich vanilla ice cream 

I had a half-bottle of red wine - 2010 Domaine Alain Michelot nuits St. Georges 1er cru (pure and full-bodied in the palate with deep nose) and my spouse drank a glass of Billecart-Salmon brut rose. Different from the quiet lunch, L'Ambroise during dinner was very busy, in fact it was surprisingly a bit noisy. It was a full-house, even the third/private room was occupied by a big group. In spite of this situation, the hospitality shown to us was somehow the best one I've ever experienced. Mr. Pascal was, as always, professional, elegant and focused. However, unlike my previous visits, he's more relaxed and much warmer this time. He smiled more often and chat with us in a few occasions; at the end of our meal, he even encouraged us to re-visit during Winter to savor the legendary roasted Bresse chicken with black truffles butter. There was also a younger staff who still recognized me, even though my last visit was more than 4 years ago, and his English has improved tremendously. Perhaps, it's true after all that, L'Ambroisie is the kind of restaurant where diners eat better and feel more comfortable after several visits. The chocolate dessert was actually the complimentary of the house and each of us received a portion. I'm very satisfied with this meal in terms of both food and service; it was without doubt my best experience at L'Ambroisie. This unique French institution, in my not-so humble opinion, is among the greatest restaurant in the world and deserved more than just the 'normal' Michelin 3-star. I will definitely would love to return here in my next visit to Paris as long as the humble and genius Bernard Pacaud is still in the kitchen. For the dishes' pictures, please visit this link: L'Ambroisie in Autumn '14   

Food (and Wine): 98 pts

Service (and Ambiance): 96 pts

Overall: 97.5/100 

Monday, December 22, 2014

Dal Pescatore Nadia Santini

As one of the most legendary restaurants in Italy, dal Pescatore was founded in 1925 as a simple trattoria by the (great) grandparents of Antonio Santini. Located in the village of Runate at Mantova province, the dal Pescatore did not take off until the talented lady named Nadia Santini took over the kitchen and ultimately received 3 Michelin star 1996 and managed to keep it until now. Amazingly, Nadia never cooked professionally or worked in any famous restaurants before. Since the late 90's, Nadia Santini, along with Bruna Santini - her mother in law, received an extra hand from her son, Giovanni who was generally in charge of the appetizers. Essentially, dal Pescatore is a family restaurant serving mainly traditional Italian cuisine (with some modern influence) using fresh, seasonal and top quality ingredients that were cooked with care and executed in high precision; of course, the food tasted delectable as well. The Santini family even grew some of the vegetables and herbs to be used at the restaurant on their own premises. Given the restaurant's remote location, literally in the middle of nowhere, reaching here could be quite a challenge if you don't drive. The nearby stations - Canneto sull'oglio and Piadena - were small and both even closed on the day we're having lunch. Thus, we had to call the restaurant for a taxi. It was a cold and windy Saturday; eventually after 15 minutes waiting - perhaps they had difficulties to find any taxi, Giovanni stopped by and gave us a ride to the restaurant after he finished running his errant in the town. It was not a short trip from Modena, but we were glad to finally reach dal Pescatore and be able to savor its authentic and classic dishes. Having tasting menu was a must and we opted to skip the cheese course and had it replaced with an additional appetizer.   

Terrina di Astice con Caviale Oscietra Royal e zenzero marinato (Lobster terrine in champagne gelatin served with Oscietra caviar, pickled ginger and spinach) - The dish had the most attractive presentation for our lunch and it was solid. The lobster was tender & tasty, the caviar was in good quality & briny and the jelly was refreshing; all elements worked quite well together

Insalata di Faraona in agrodolce con salsa all'uva fragola (Guinea fowl salad in sweet & sour sauce served with pomegranate and carrot) - The warm guinea fowl (both white and dark meat) was perfectly cooked. The 'chicken' was enhanced by sweet & sour dressing as well as some simple vegetables and fruits. Another pleasant starter

Tortelli di Zucca, Amaretti, Mostarda, e Parmigiano Reggiano (Tortelli of roasted pumpkin served with almond biscuit, watermelon mustard, nutmeg and Parmigiano cheese) - dal Pescatore's signature dish and deservedly so. It seemed simple, yet profound and very delicious; both rustic and savory. The pumpkin's sweetness balanced the cheese's saltiness; excellent texture and flavor contrast. Generally, I don't like pumpkin, but this dish by Nadia Santini converted me into pumpkin "fans". My favorite dish here

Risotto (Vialone Nano) con fonduta di Parmigiano Reggiano e Tartufo bianco d'Alba (Risotto using Vialone nano rice served with melted Parmesan cheese and shaved Alba white truffle) - A specialty of Piedmont delivered with superb ingredients. The risotto had a nice texture and was not too rich; the truffle added the necessary 'extra punch' in flavor and aroma. Surprisingly, this dish was similar to the one I had in l'Arpege - perhaps it's a classical dish after all

Accompanied by wine: Anselmi San Vincenzo 2013 (dry white wine from the Veneto region; it was crisp, clean and medium body with round pear & lemon fruit - nicely matched the lobster dish)

Branzino alla piastra con guazzetto agrunato, pomodoro confit e olio extravergine toscano (Grilled Sea bass in simmered crushed citrus with Tuscany olive oil, tomato confit and artichoke) - The 'perfect white' sea bass was firm and mild. The aromatic 'sauce' and nicely done tomato & artichoke added enjoyable flavor and complexity. Like it

Sella di Capriolo, salsa al Cabernet e mirtilli neri (Saddle of Roe served in Cabernet sauce, mashed potatoes and blueberries) - Including this dish, I was lucky to have eaten a few excellent and satisfying venison dishes during this trip. This one was tender, delicious and profound with rich taste from the Cabernet sauce and the deer's juice. The side dishes were not bad at all. An excellent example of a well executed top quality game dish in the Autumn 

Accompanied by wine: Gillardi Langhe 2006 (a good full-bodied merlot from Piedmont in ruby color with ripe tannin. It had black cherries and red currants nose and flavors) 

Torta di Amaretti (caffe, panna, croccante, zabaione) - Almond cake served with coffee, cream and sabayon. An impeccable dessert! The torta was moist with superb flavor & aroma as well as having lovely texture. All elements were fine and every byte was a pure indulgence. I doubt I would consume a better version of Ameretti torta in the future

Meringa alle Mandorle con Pistacchio e Zabaione al Marsala (Meringue served with Pistachio cream, toasted Almonds and sabayon of marsala) - My spouse's dessert. The meringue was fine; the top notch one was the bright marsala sabayon with distinct wine and yolk flavor. The almond provided some texture variation. Overall, I enjoy it though not as good as my torta with Amaretti
Petit fours - My best mignardises outside Paris this year. The magnificent array of sweets consisted of dark chocolate, raspberry tart, coffee profiterole, cannoli, dried orange skin covered with chocolate and mini biscuit. A good way to end the meal

Unlike other Italian elite gastronomy restaurants I have been, dal Pescatore served dishes with less (parmesan) cheese and cream/butter, yet they were still flavorful & rich, but more importantly not heavy. The food was classic and deceptively simple like a home cooking - a kind of stuffs we can eat regularly without feeling overwhelmed; I truly enjoyed the delicious dishes having clear and harmonious flavors and were prepared using the best local produce. The service, while efficient, none of the servers really took interest to know the guests more. They never asked about the food; simply did their "minimal" tasks of bringing the dishes, explaining them and clearing the plates - no more communication beyond that. Even, our only conversation during the meal with Antonio Santini, the restaurant manager-owner, occurred after I had complained about the initial red wine by the glass (villa minelli 2008), served by the younger sommelier, contained a decent amount of sediment. Mr. Santini immediately apologized and replaced it with the red wine mentioned above. We experienced our warmest welcomed when we visited the kitchen and met with the Italian haute-cuisine living legend, Nadia Santini who's also accompanied by Bruna and Giovanni. Nadia genuinely greeted and thanked us for visiting the restaurant from afar. The dining room (and reading + waiting room) was very spacious, beautiful and elegant; it was quite a busy afternoon with more than 20 people coming here for lunch. In spite of its location, dal Pescatore has maintained  its status as a grand restaurant offering superb gourmet experience, in which any true gourmand should make a pilgrimage to visit once in his/her life time. It's certainly qualified as one of the very best Italian restaurants in the world. For my wife, without a doubt, it was her favorite dining place in Italy. Readers are welcome to see the dishes we had here: Ristorante dal Pescatore in Nov '14

Food (and Wine): 96 pts

Service (and Ambiance): 93 pts

Overall: 95/100

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Fat Duck Heston Blumenthal

There will hardly be any doubt if the Fat Duck has become United Kingdom's most legendary restaurant since the last decade. The chef proprietor Heston Blumenthal, the molecular gastronomy genius, is the main reason for all of this. A self-taught chef, Heston is capable of executing immaculate old school technique and combining it with modern cooking using scientific or experimental approach resulting in plenty of spectacular and memorable dishes. Currently, Chef Blumenthal is at the height of his popularity; as a celebrity chef, he has his own TV show and his empire has been growing year after year. In order to keep the top notch quality at the Fat Duck, Heston appointed Jonathan Lake, a native of Ontario as the head chef. Jonny leads a brigade of about 40 chefs who relentlessly work and produce excellent dishes regularly. Chef Lake's curious mind always tries to find different ways to do things, invent new dishes and sometimes even improve the signature items. The term perfection seems to be a work in progress here; the pursue of excellence just never stops.

It was actually my first trip to England. During this visit, we only had one full day that happened to be on Tuesday in which my wife and I had the opportunity to dine at the Fat Duck. Honestly, I did not expect to be able to secure a table here. On one sunny afternoon day in Asia, exactly 2 months prior to our lunch, I was trying my luck in front of my laptop. Surprisingly I was able to get a table for two at lunch despite having an average internet connection speed. I then hurriedly filled in the necessary info, including the CC for guarantee ... voila, we received our lunch confirmation a few minutes later - sort of a dream come true. The restaurant is located in the small village called Bray. We quickly recognize the simple cottage house building to be the famous restaurant when we saw its famous logo hanging above the High Street board. Inside, the dining room's decor was quite simple and 'humble' when compared to other Michelin 3-star places particularly the ones in Europe. The ceiling is not high in both floors, the space is not that spacious (its capacity is around 42 guests only), the wooden beams look old; I also noticed a few abstract paintings on clean white walls. Nevertheless, the restaurant is well maintained with high quality of cutlery, glassware and linen. Anyway, the star of the show in any restaurant visit has to be the food and the Fat Duck performed spectacularly. Only one menu available: the 14-course tasting menu. Without any further delay, here what we had during lunch:

Nitro poached aperitifs - An aerated mixture made of some infused egg white, poached in freezing liquid nitrogen to produce 'meringue'. I opted for Vodka and lime sour flavor; it was fresh with tangy lime fragrance and flavor. My wife chose Tequila and grapefruit; an awesome way to awaken our senses and clean the palate. It's not a new experience for me as I had similar experience even with more unique flavor (earthly wild herbs - taste and smell like grass in rainy days) from Maison Marc Veyrat

Red cabbage gazpacho served with Pommery grain mustard ice cream - An interesting and savory 'cold soup'. It was kind of creamy with clear flavor and clean after taste. Good and refreshing

Jelly of Quail and Crayfish cream served with Chicken liver parfait, oak moss and truffle toast - The dish is a tribute to Alain Chapel. Initially, there was 'smoke from cold liquid' with oak fragrance; to accompany it, we ate a thin film strip flavored with oak and moss. Then come, the real deal: the quail jelly & crayfish cream (+ liver & peas) was simply ethereal; it's smooth and intense, every layer was consistent and delicious. The truffle toast was crisp and earthy; a perfect way to balance the cream. One of the best dishes for this lunch

Snail porridge served with Iberico bellota ham and shaved fennel - Heston's famous dish. The porridge (made with long oats grain) was in the right temperature and texture, more importantly flavorful. Everything was just right; from the succulent snails & rich parsley + garlic butter ('green broth') to the zesty & crunchy fennel as well as salty Spanish ham - gorgeous! 

Accompanied by wine: Matosevic Alba Antiqua (fresh and rather 'powerful'; this white wine worked well with intensive fish/seafood)

Roast foie gras served with Barberry, confit kombu and crab biscuit - The foie gras was creamy and its richness was just perfect for my palate. It worked well with the 'tart/sour' taste from the barberry puree; the flavor from the thin crab biscuit was surprisingly quite strong, but the kombu didn't really enhance anything for me. A well-executed and satisfying dish with some unusual combination

Mad hatter's tea party: Mock turtle soup, pocket watch and toast sandwich - A good presentation and interesting interaction with the staff at the beginning. However, I was not impressed with the dish; better to see than to taste. The broth (beef stock), 'egg' (turnip jelly) and other things were just Ok. Contrary to popular belief, I sort of like the sandwich (a mixture of bone marrow, butter, truffle, egg & mayo). A nice theater that lacks substance

"Sound of the sea" - Another Heston's legendary dish. I liked the 'sound' from the iPod shuffle (sound of waves, wind, sea birds etc.) but felt 'interrupted' whenever I consumed the food. The sashimi, consisted of octopus, yellow tail & mackerel, would've been impressive had I had limited experience of consuming top quality raw fishes in Japan. The edible sand was tapioca while the salty foam was made of seaweed & vegetable stock. Good presentation and ideas, but the food flavor was just alright

Salmon poached in a liquorice gel served with Artichoke, vanilla mayonnaise and golden trout roe - An amazing dish! The 'buttery' salmon in its natural flavor was perfectly cooked; it collided in harmony with the bittersweet liquorice, enhanced by delicately sweet trout roe & vanilla mayo and acidic/bitter grape fruit. The artichoke was of good quality. Try to savor the burst of many flavors from the Scottish salmon and its supporting elements as long as possible in the mouth - exceptional! This kind of stuff made my long journey and effort felt paid off

Umble pie: Red deer, pie fluid gel and truffled spelt - By itself, the venison (probably cooked sous-vide) was divine, moist and importantly delicious. The chervil root and star anise/fennel sauce enhanced the already fantastic meat. Unexpectedly and possibly even better was the spelt risotto (sorry Chef Robuchon, yours was not on par with this) served separately. The risotto, topped with puffed spelt & having aromatic truffle aroma, contained the flavorful deer's 'sweet bread'; this gave rich and creamy spelt even a more stunning taste. Incredible! I would spend good money for this kind of food and obviously, the Fat Duck didn't offer UK's most expensive tasting menu for nothing

Accompanied by wine: Bernard Dugat-Py Bourgogne Cuvee Halinard (a good red Burgundy with strong tannin; it has complex flavor, intensive aroma and long finish)

Hot & iced tea - Drink straight at the position the waiter put this tea. As the name suggests, when I drank this palate cleanser, I could taste distinctly the hot and cold tea at the same time side by side. A cool sensation with good taste. The difference in viscosity was sufficient to twist the supposedly "simple" (lemon) tea

Eggs in verjus, Verjus in egg - The egg shell (made of white chocolate) was placed on top of biscuit & jelly. Inside the shell was some kind of ice cream/yoghurt. The yolk and biscuit/jelly should acted as verjus (unrefined green 'grapes') producing bitter sour flavor to balance the sweet and crunchy 'shell + egg white'

Botrytis cinerea - In short, this dessert was about wine grapes in several forms; they're served with cinnamon, 'snow' and raisin. The presentation was marvelous with great attention to details. The kitchen showcased different flavors of wines in different textures, shapes and colors. It's fun and witty but not that delicious

Whisk(e)y wine gums - Gums with strong whisky flavor. I don't drink whisky so I could not really comment much on the taste authenticity. Again, another well presented dessert ..

"Like a kid in a sweet shop" - There were 3 things here: Aerated chocolate mandarin jelly (airy with intense taste), Apple pie caramel (sticky, chewy & tasty) and the Queen of hearts (white chocolate with sweet tart and strawberry jam - the most interesting one) - an incredible dining adventure has come to an end.

It has been a while that I have not experienced any meal like this: the dining experience provided more than just incredible food - it's also fun, entertaining, and creative. Heston Blumenthal managed to 'bring' guests out to the forest, beach, wonderland etc. There were a few dishes that's more of a show, but overall the it's been a memorable culinary journey with plenty of delicious things to eat. From crayfish cream & snail porridge to liquorice salmon & umble pie, Heston showed his amazing talent in delivering complex dishes by applying both modern and classical technique. My spouse decided to abstain from alcohol that day, so she opted for a juice made of romano pepper, strawberry and ginger. Even, she said it was sensational and ingenuous. The service was professional and performed with high precision. The staffs were clearly passionate and knowledgeable; given the restaurant setting, they were also charming and made guests feel relax and comfortable throughout the entire meal. The Fat Duck did not offer the most expensive menu in England (prior to the arrival of the Araki at Mayfair) for no reason. The experience is nothing short of remarkable. It was really up to the hype, and at some moment it exceeded our expectation. Note that both Heston and Jonny were not in the kitchen during our lunch, yet the sous chef and his team were able to producing complicated dishes after dishes that were flavorful and balanced most of the time. A meal to remember indeed. For pictures, please click the following link: The Fat Duck in Nov '14  
Food (and Wine): 97 pts

Service (and Ambiance): 94 pts

Overall: 96/100