Monday, October 28, 2019

L'Arpège Alain Passard - 9th visit

Arpège is a restaurant that has a special place in my heart. My first meal took place for dinner on Easter Monday of 2006, the day when most (gastronomy) restaurants in Paris were closed. I was blown away by everything in particular the spectacular food followed by the impeccable hospitality. The restaurant was about 3/4 full. Instantly, it became my favorite restaurant in the world albeit L'Arpege, at that time, was my first experience of having a meal at European 3-star restaurant. Ms. Helene Cousin was still the assistant manager. Later, I learned that my maiden meal and arguably still my most memorable one here was apparently executed 'only' by Anthony Beldroega, chef de cuisine - Alain Passard took a day off. Both Helene and Anthony are still working at L'Arpege until now. Since then, as far as I could remember, I almost dined here every time I was visiting the French capital until 2014. The dinner degustation menu was always fantastic while the carte-blanche lunch provided good value for money as we regularly still receiving 1 fish course and 1 meat course although only in tasting portion. Perhaps following "the law of diminishing returns" and partly also blame me for visiting here often, I felt my meals sometimes became less fantastic but never bad. The reasons were: First, after a while, the dishes became repetitive to the point I already ate about half of the dishes when dining here in more than one occasion; also the use of the same ingredients in 2-3 dishes could be uninspiring. Secondly, the value of money somewhat decreased - the now known as Gardener's lunch became more expensive and it was normal that one would eat only 1 dish with protein or sometimes no fish / meat at all or I heard that the restaurant asked for a supplement. Lastly, as L'Arpege became more and more popular, the restaurant tried to optimize by fitting in as many customers as possible (I could understand that). Consequently, the seating felt cramped, the service was less personalized with little attention, and sometimes the pacing of the meal became rather slow. Looking back, I noticed that I have not returned here for more than 4 years despite the fact that I was in Paris during 2017 and 2018 for a few days visit ... that's my brief history and experience at Alain Passard's one and only restaurant.

After some years of absence, I missed the food at Arpège. I knew what Alain Passard and his team were capable of producing. During my trip to Europe early Jan this year, I decided to return here for lunch. I arrived around 12:30 PM and the restaurant was quite busy; 30 min. later the main dining room was full-house. Given the limited space and in the cold Winter, the stairs of the restaurant were filled with lots of guests' outer coats - an unexpected scene at multi-star institutions. With plenty of experience eating here, I carefully studied the menu. I was familiar with most of the Terre & Mer tasting menu and did not feel like eating vegetable only, hence ordering from the a la carte was the natural choice. As a matter of fact, for the "real" dishes, I only selected from Cuisine de memoire section. L'Arpege changed its bread; the crust was softer now while the butter was probably still the finest one in Paris.After that, a server brought me the tartlets whose mousse were beetroot & thyme, yellow carrot & onion as well as celery & yuzu ... they're bright yet intense, representing the Winter produce. Then, come the amuse-bouche that every guest would get: a hot & cold 'coddled' egg, from Bapaume Island, served with St. Elzear's maple syrup, sour cream and sherry vinegar. To fully enjoy it, one must spoon all the way to the bottom to concurrently enjoy the mixture of warm & runny egg yolk, rather cold whipped cream, and some hints of vinegar & syrup. Hot vs cold; sweet vs salty; in harmony - an excellent way to awaken our palate! My a la carte choices were the items below ... 

Pêche côtière grillée au paprika fume de Candeleda ponzu des hauteurs de Chugoku (Grilled Sole, from the coastal fishing, covered by smoked paprika powder of Candeleda) - It was served with carrot mousseline, potato and brussels sprouts. The Sole was beautifully cut and perfectly cooked, producing firm texture with mild flavor. The paprika powder with a balance of sweet and hot gave additional taste to the fish. The dish was also enhanced with the natural flavor of carrot mousse, sweet potato and a hint of bitterness from the sprouts. It might be a bit dry by the standard of classical French cooking, it's a very good fish dish nevertheless.
Those who prefer a more traditional preparation could always ask the kitchen for the Sole to be served with vin jeune sauce.

Coquilles Saint Jacques de la rade de Brest au Côtes du jura truffe noire Tuber Melanosporum (Scallops, from the Brest bay, served with cabbage and Perigord truffles in yellow wine sauce) - The scallops' quality were stunning, highlighting their natural sweetness. They were gently seared having slightly firm texture. The vin jaune sauce was delicious but lighter this time, in order to show the black truffle's stronger aroma and taste. The vegetables generated some texture, taste and color variations of an otherwise "black & white" dish. The kitchen was more than able to cook top shellfish dishes.
L'Arpege could also prepare the carpaccio of scallops accompanied by black truffles (both elements would be thinly sliced) - one of the restaurant's classic during Winter.

Accompanied by wine: 2014 Domaine de Villaine Rully Les Saints-Jacques (buttery oak, dry & refreshing, lime notes with medium finish - good for fish and shellfish pairing)

Chimère Agneau de Lozere & Pigeonneau d'Ille et Vilaine (The "Chimera" of Lamb rack from Lozere and Pigeon from Vilaine island served with celery mousseline, radish and carrot with minimal sauce derived from their jus) - The lamb was inside and the pigeon was outside; they're well-seasoned and carefully simmered with a few herbs such as sage and thyme. The texture was relatively tender. They were delicious with deep flavors, and slightly 'gamey'. Glad that I ordered an a la carte portion. The vegetables were useful to balance any intense taste of the meat.
The dish was interesting, creative and very pleasant. However, they're not better than when Chef Passard cooked the lamb and the pigeon separately as two different dishes. Alain got the inspiration to create the dish from the art work of Thomas Grunfeld (one of the "Misfits") - the hybrid of pigeon-headed lamb.

Accompanied by wine: 2014 Domaine Comte Abbatucci Valle di Nero (biodynamic, aromatic and 'lively' red wine; should pair well with many range of red / dark meat)

Spaghetti de pommes de terre au Comté Grande garde 2015 truffle Tuber Melanosporum (Potato spaghetti served with sliced of 4-year old Comte cheese and Winter black truffle in wine/cheese sauce) - An inspiring cheese and/or pasta course. The spaghetti was earthy and crunchy (hard yet supple in texture) with mineral accent. It was complemented by slightly sweet & salty Comte as well as aromatic, pungent and strong truffle taste ... exquisite.
Chef Passard has been known to have created other "Italian dishes" based on vegetables from the garden. For instance, celerisotto and celeriac tagliatelle.

Millefeuille croustillant < caprice d'enfant > gourmandise ('Crispy' Hazelnut Millefuille served with caramel sauce and verbena ice cream) - When not sure which dessert to order, L'Arpege's millefuille made with paper thin, flaky and crispy layers was my safe choice. This time, the filling cream was hazelnut - nutty, not overly sweet with a chocolate accent. The unique herb ice cream was refreshing, and it balanced the rather rich Napoleon dessert. As always, very delightful!
I personally prefer when the pastry cream did not have any fruit in it, so Summer season's millefeuille could lack in the sweet taste.  

The meal ended with petit fours and some of the items were mini apple tart, tuile crack, horseradish macaron, caramel & nougat, little chou with cream. I found my lunch wonderful; it reminded me of the Arpège's greatness circa 2010. I was fortunate to pretty much love all the dishes I ordered. The surprising part was probably I picked no dishes in which the Alain Passard's garden vegetables were the main ingredients. Probably, Chef Passard did not know about it otherwise he might be upset, hehe - when he stopped by at my table, I was about to have my main course and he was proud of his latest creation of lamb-pigeon duo. When I observed some other clients (many of them having Gardener's lunch), I was even more convinced that I made the right decision ... many dishes from that menu might not suit my appetite, and moreover I did not see many tables receiving any seafood / meat dishes except some regulars and locals who seemed close and spoke French with the chef-owner. That being said, first timers visiting L'Arpege should still order some superior vegetarian dishes here such as: fines ravioles, any veloute, gratin d'oignons or jardiniere arlequin.

There were more than 30 people (nearly 1/3 of them were foreigners) during my lunch and the key people of Arpège were all available - Alain Passard, Mdm. Cousin and Chef Boldreiga. As far as I was concerned, the service was pretty smooth and not overly formal; staffs were sincere, amiable and easy going except the hostess who was quite intense when several customers arriving at the same time and the phone rang quite often. Chef Passard visiting every table and took time to take pictures with guests or sign a copy of his book; this act certainly helped reduce any tense moments particularly when the restaurant was super busy. Just imagine serving 10+ courses where different tables might not receive the same items and given the limited space and staffs, 1-2 small mistakes were bound to happen. The dining room at L'Arpege was possible the least extravagant one among Parisian 3-star restaurants - somewhat elegant but quite plain. The natural light during lunch was helpful; there were plenty of lights for dinner time. When Michelin claimed they only graded the restaurants for nothing but the food, it could not be more true for the case of L'Arpege. Given my personality and limited French, I did not generally have a good personal relationship with any chefs. While Denis Courtiade could be considered as my "closest" maitre d'hotel, Alain Passard was probably the chef I have become acquainted the most. The food has consistently been fantastic, but the (decent) friendship I have with Chef Passard would be a good excuse to keep coming back to this gastronomic temple in the future. The pictures of my meal could be seen at: L'Arpege Jan '19      

Food (and Wine): 97 pts

Service (and Ambiance): 96 pts

Overall: 96.5/100      

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

L'Ambroisie Bernard Pacaud - 8th visit

L'Ambroisie, named after the food of the gods according to the Greek mythology, is arguably the Parisian restaurant I'm most familiar with at the moment. This haute cuisine temple is known to consistently serve traditional French cuisine at a very high level and its location is hidden in the serene and elegant Place des vosges. People walking around the square might easily miss this place as even the Chef-patron Bernard Pacaud did not bother to put the word "restaurant" in front. The menu is very seasonal and one could familiarize himself with what dishes to expect during certain season / month. Here I was in the January's cold Winter once again re-visited my favorite restaurant in the world. Lunch has always been my preferred time as I could see and walk around the square with plenty of natural lights. Furthermore, reservation was easier (on average, only 10 people eating lunch here) with the same menu and the same staffs as dinner. It's also guaranteed that the master chef Pacaud himself would also be cooking in the kitchen. 

After having been warmly greeted by the maitre d', the kitchen brought out black truffle kouglof as the nibble when I perused the menu. The kouglof was nicely done, like any other things created at this restaurant - thin crust at the outside, light & fluffy on the inside, with right flavor. For the bread, I picked the wheat and sesame; good to be consumed with the butter. Possibly for the first time that I did not consume any fish or seafood dishes for my meal at L'Ambroisie. You could see below on what I had ...

Amuse-bouche: Oeuf coque à la truffe (Soft-cooked egg sabayon served in its shell with black truffle and small toasted bread) - The delicate & slightly sweet sabayon was in harmony with the creamy egg yolk and fragrant Winter truffle. Dip the bread in the egg to get different experience or to clean up the yellow "sauce" - a very promising start

Salmigondis de cuisses de grenouilles à la diable, mousseline de persil (Frog legs "stew" served with sauce diable and parsley mousse) - The appetizer was half portion and it consisted of 7-8 small, kinda soft and flavorful frog legs (thanks for the sauce); they're easy to eat with the hand. The parsley gave more balanced taste and there was crunchy biscuit for texture variation. Trying at least a new dish while eating at L'Ambroisie was accomplished ... did not disappoint

Carré d’agneau de Lozère en croûte de poivre gris, salsifis glacés au jus (Rack of Lamb from Lozere covered with the crust of black peppercorn and served with salsify and 'brown sauce') -  I ordered a half portion of lamb dish here about a decade ago in the late Summer. Given my "passion" for lamb, I think it's time to eat another one and this time in full portion.
As far as I could remember, this was better (than last time). The preparation was classic and did not seem complicated with perfect execution. The tender lamb was really delicious with deep flavor; the outer layers of pepper coating, lamb's skin and thin layers of fat were outstanding ... tasty and complex; rather sweet and a little spicy. The jus was light but somewhat intense at the same time. The side dish of salsify was spot on for the season. An amazing lamb dish!

Accompanied by wine: 2009 Frederic Gevrey-Chambertin Vieilles Vignes (good pinot noir, medium body with fine tannin, cherry & floral aromas, supple in the mouth).
This 1/2 bottle of red wine accompanied me throughout my meal

Feuilleté de truffe ‘’bel humeur’’ (Puff pastry containing Perigord truffle and Foie gras) - A legendary dish during Winter at L'Ambroisie; well-known for it was both extraordinary and expensive. However, it's worth it ... at least for me. Everything was flawless: the puff pastry was buttery & fragrant with the right thickness yet felt light. Late Jan to Feb was the ideal period for remarkable and mature black truffle. The duck liver, sandwiched in between the thick truffles, supported and generated different taste to the dish. Ultimately, the feuillete was cooked with precise temperature and time to produce this ethereal creation.
Through this kind of preparation, Bernard Pacaud was able to release the "powerful" Winter truffle aroma at its best, and at the same time, allowing guests to taste the excellent texture of cooked black truffle with a hint of "spicy" taste. The black truffle sauce (a bit coarse) underneath the pastry ensured that the dish would always be moist when we slowly savoring every heavenly bite from the beginning to the end - splendid!

Frisée niçoise à la crème - (Slightly) bitter green salad of curly endive with light cream dressing and black truffle. Some people might find the truffle pastry to be too rich, then the kitchen provided this simple salad to balance any intense flavor. It was still good even to be consumed on its own

Mont d’Or à la truffe noire (Vacherin Mont d'Or cheese with black truffle) - This seasonal mont d'or was probably one of the best raw milk cheese. Chef Pacaud had his own 'recipe/way' when serving this cheese course every Winter. Generally not a huge fan of cheese, but this gourmet cheese was surprisingly delicious (a sign of good maturity) with unique nutty and earthy taste. The texture was gooey and sticky, meaning we got to eat it with a spoon. The Perigord truffle elevated the cheese even more - it added some complexity and another layer of depth without being overpowering

Palate cleanser: Pineapple and coconut sorbet with some pomegranate - pleasant sweet and sour taste after the savory courses

Tarte fine sablée au cacao amer, crème glacée à la vanille Bourbon (Fine Chocolate tart dusted with bitter cocoa, served with Bourbon and vanilla ice cream) - It was the signature dessert of Bernard Pacaud, which many gourmands concurred as one of the finest (flourless) chocolate sweets of all time. The most incredible part was the sabayon - as light as the air yet really rich and intense. The sable below (sometimes I ate it separately) provided decent 'support'. The slice of this refined dark chocolate tart was accompanied by concentrated vanilla bean ice cream with some notes of smoky bourbon. Chef Pacaud, once again, displayed another sophistication in balancing texture and flavor. Truly a timeless dessert ...

The meal ended with satisfying mignardise such as almond and hazelnut chocolate, madeleine cake. The pace of the meal was excellent. The staffs, as always, were warmed, kind and helpful. It was a slow lunch ... despite known for its formality, the service was more relaxed towards repeat guests. Many staffs have been working with and for Bernard Pacaud for at least a decade, so building a relationship with them was very possible. A few people dressed more casually in the past 5 years or so but for the locals, especially the gentlemen ... they all were wearing jackets.  I liked following this habit, probably because when I started this "hobby/passion" in the mid 00's, jacket and tie were required. This made the overall ambiance and look of the dining room more elegant and classy IMHO.

The 17th-century decoration and furniture inside the tranquil dining room were well-maintained (consistent with the surrounding history and atmosphere). It might not be the most glamorous / luxurious dining room in France, but certainly one of the most elegant and uniquely Parisian. The routine at L'Ambroisie of searching and using the best ingredients, handling and taking care of the produces carefully, preparing and executing them in the best possible way (usually only using 3-4 items in each course), and serving them at the right moment - could hardly be replicated elsewhere, let alone at home. Simplicity with perfect texture, temperature and flavor as well as clear aroma has always been the key success of Bernard Pacaud's food. If I could choose, I hope to discover the Summer creations of Chef Pacaud next time ... it has been a while. The photos of the dishes above are here L'Ambroisie Jan '19 

Food (and Wine): 98 pts

Service (and Ambiance): 96 pts

Overall: 97.5/100

Monday, August 12, 2019

Le Cinq Christian Le Squer

Located inside one of the most opulent palace hotels in Paris, Le Cinq has always been a popular restaurant especially among wealthy foreign businessmen and tourists staying inside the Four Seasons hotel. Despite its popularity, even during Philippe Legendre's period as the executive chef and his replacements after, Le Cinq never received the "respect" at the level of Pierre Gagnaire or Guy Savoy. It has always been the ambition of the hotel's owner to have its flagship restaurant to be the city's best with 3-star Michelin (and 5-toque of Gault-Millau). Things changed for the better when Christian Le Squer left Ledoyen and almost immediately recruited by the hotel to lead Le Cinq. He 'only' had to focus his role as the head chef of the V restaurant. About 2 yeas later, all of the dreams above were attained. Given Chef Le Squer's tremendous talent and vast experiences, the achievements were kind of expected. He probably had 30-40 people in his kitchen at his disposal. This actually was my 2nd meal at Le Cinq and was even better than the 1st dinner (Le Cinq Spring 2017). It was remarkable as Christian was not around on that evening and the kitchen was entrusted to Romain Mauduit, chef de cuisine who has been working under Le Squer since 2006. Yet, I did not notice any drop in (food) quality.

The meal took place on a Sunday night when I just arrived in Paris earlier in the evening. After having check-in to the hotel and done a few errands, I reached FS George V hotel nearly 9 o'clock and certainly was the last guest showing up at the restaurant. Given its reputation and top service, the staffs encouraged me to relax, settle down and not too worry about the time. They said I could still order an Epicurean escape (8-course menu) if I wanted to but I declined the kind offer since I did not want to stay until after midnight. Additionally, most of the dishes I loved to try were not available in that current Winter tasting menu. My dinner started with some snacks such as warm & pleasant comte and black truffle 'millefeuille', truffle ball with egg yolk as well as pear with fennel. The amuse-bouche was poached egg with spinach and bechamel sauce, tasted like a healthy food but nothing too special. My order of a la carte dishes of the night were the following, 

Concentré iodé ; extrait de Litchi / Saint Jacques à cru ; tarama givré d’oursins (Iodized flavors of slightly marinated Scallops with lychee and frosted Sea urchins) - Before my 1st official dish arrived, the maitre d' kindly gave this complimentary dish. I often saw this 'cold appetizzer' on the menu. Chilled and tasty scallops with tropical & sweet lychee 'sauce' as well as briny & rather creamy uni. Refreshing and very pleasant ... there were a few crunchy items for the texture contrast. Summer might be a more ideal time to enjoy this dish, but of course I gladly finish these seafood.

Grillade de Noix de Saint-Jacques a l'eau de parmesan / ecorces de racines (Grilled Scallops scented with Parmesan and root vegetables) - 2 remarkably plump and juicy scallops with their inherent sweet flavors were perfectly cooked. The scallops were served with crispy roasted wood of salsify while the tasty sauce containing olive tapenade. The addition of earthy black truffles elevated the already delicious dish to even higher level. Brittany seafood has always been the specialty of Christian Le Squer ...

Accompanied by wine: 2015 Saint-Aubin 1er cru, forgot the domaine (liquorice nose, elegant palate, little oak note .. young wine but already good to drink)

Pièce de Turbot contise à la Truffe macération de cresson / nashi (Grilled fillet of Turbot and Black truffle with watercress and Japanese pear) - The Turbot was actually cooked a la plancha. The quality was superb and it's fatty ... the fish white flesh was tender and flavorful. The smoked mustard and pear generated some interesting contrast. In the Winter, the earthy black truffle certainly improved the aroma of the dish. Simpler than Le Squer's classic turbot with ratte potatoes, but they're equally fantastic - the dinner was so far so (very) good.

Truffe Noire en gros Morceaux en feuilleté brioche (Black Truffle in puff pastry brioche) - The fragrant and buttery brioche was relatively thin. It's prepared flawlessly to wrap the thick & cooked aromatic black truffle as well as delicate 'steamed' foie gras. The Perigord truffle sauce added luxury feeling and extra flavors without being overwhelming. It's outstanding; it's delicious; it's remarkable. Even after having consumed Scallop and Turbot dishes earlier, I managed to clean this up without any difficulties - consistent explosion of flavors from start to finish!
This brioche was the closest to the perfection of Pacaud's truffle puff pastry ... after having missed it during Christian's days at Ledoyen, eventually I got to savor it at Four seasons. Thankful that he decided to still serve this superb dish at Le Cinq. 

Salade d'Hiver truffee (Winter truffle salad) - It was the side dish for the above brioche. The salad was simple, having some vegetables with slightly acidic vinaigrette dressing but ... the truffles were amazing! A mountain of black truffles - never did I served these much shaved truffles - of course, I did not complain. Each byte (almost) guaranteed to have some taste of these black diamonds. Compared to the puff pastry, the truffle here was not as intense. The greens balanced the 'garlicky' mushrooms; it could act as a dish on its own.

Accompanied by wine: 2015 Le Vieux Donjon Châteauneuf-du-Pape (medium body and acidity, rich and fruity, cherries aroma, kinda dry; CNDP often paired well with any black truffle dish)

Before the dessert, the kitchen prepared a palate cleanser consisted of verbena, fresh & not so-sweet ice cream, bitter grapefruit, somewhat sour green apple, milk cream and pop corn.

Baies rouges a la pulpe de vegetal rafraichie, chessecake meringue (Refreshed Berries with cheesecake meringue and fresh herbs) - Light cheesecake with parsley powder on top and fresh cream. For a dessert, this one had minimal sweetness with the berries generated most of the flavors. It's interesting but slightly underwhelming - the risk of trying a new sweet rather than ordering one of Le Squer's classics.

Accompanied by wine: Calvados Pays d'Auge (might be by Boulard; quite smooth with rather long finish, subtle caramel & mint, some apple and honey flavors).

The dinner concluded with some petit four, chocolate trolley and kouign-amann (Breton traditional pastry) with caramelized almonds. It was my first meal during this trip to Paris and it was fabulous. When Christian Le Squer left Ledoyen, at first I thought that his superb cooking would be just a distant memory. I was glad that I was mistaken and I could once again savor his flavorful dishes executed at such high level - near perfection. The wine selection did not disappoint. Since I just reached Paris, I just wanted to drink moderately and the (assistant) sommelier's picks were generally spot on.

The dining room at Le Cinq has always been grandiose. Some of the most striking features were lofty ceiling, extravagant oil paintings / tapestries and of course, the stunning flower displays by Jeff Leatham. Furthermore, there were thick carpets, palm trees, and lavish chandeliers. The dining room, in which many tables faced the hotel's big and often decorated terrace, was dominated by gold color tone. In short, the magnificent decor was very French / Parisian. The level of service was not inferior to its interiors. Staffs performed the right balance of being professional and convivial. Many have been around for several years and were empowered by the hotel to always please the guests. Under the leadership of Christian Le Squer, not few French diners would flock and enjoy the chef's haute cuisine creations. I noticed a couple of big tables occupied by local guests: the first one was a table of 6 young Parisian and the second one was a group of more than a dozen of French middle aged people filled in the farthest end of the dining room, hidden behind several huge vases and their bright flowers (the private room, perhaps?).

This Winter foodie trip was nothing short of amazing. I was blessed with five meals in Paris performing at the "absolute" 3-star level and it was one of them. With both Le Cinq and Epicure operating for both lunch and dinner on Sunday, people should not worry of not having an option to enjoy top French cooking. Unless something dramatically changed, Le Cinq is in very good hands for the next 1-2 decades. Readers could find the pictures of this meal here Le Cinq Jan '19

Food (and Wine): 97 pts

Service (and Ambiance): 95 pts

Overall: 96.5/100

 


Saturday, July 27, 2019

L'Hotel de Ville Franck Giovannini - 2nd visit

For positive reason(s) or not, Restaurant Hotel de Ville Crissier has become more and more popular - not that it's relatively unknown before. To be the "best" restaurant according to La Liste 2016 and the ability to retain 3-star Michelin + 19/20 of Gault & Millau under 4 different chefs until now are impressive accomplishments. The latest award this place received was the 'best' restaurant from Elite Traveller. A few years after the sudden death of Benoit Violier, finally the full transition to the new owner has been completed. Consistent to the past experiences, the Executive chef of l'Hotel de ville would be the owner as well. Circa the 2nd half of 2018, Franck Giovannini, who has been working under here for about 25 years, officially became the chef-patron of this legendary restaurant after he had bought out the shares of Brigitte Violier. It meant that his wife, Stephanie would soon join and be more involved in the restaurant ... to give some feminine touch perhaps.     

Unlike my last visit in 2017, this time I was staying overnight at Lausanne. Thus, I was able to order the (adapted) full tasting menu. Close to 8 PM when I reached the restaurant, apparently I was the last diner to arrive - in Spain / Paris, I would be considered an 'early-bird'. My meal took place on Wednesday, several weeks after the New Year, yet the restaurant was full. As far as I'm concerned, I was definitely the only Asian and possibly the sole customer speaking English ... so yes, most of the guests were locals. I also noticed young children eating during this dinner - a good sign that I could bring my son here in the future. The restaurant has been doing very well, and did not seem to be dependent on the support of foreign tourists. Bravo! I began my meals with some good quality bread - pumpkin, corn and rye. Then the full show of the evening executed with good pacing began,

MENU GASTRONOMIQUE (Gastronomic Menu)

Rafraîchissante effilochée de Dormeur de casier cuisinée aux trois citrons réduction au Dézaley et perles acidulées (Refreshing frayed Crab cooked with three lemons, Dézaley wine sauce with sour pearls) - The Atlantic crab 'white' meat did not have much taste, instead the flavor was derived more from the delicate wine sauce and acidic lemon. There was crunchy carrot surrounded the crab. Overall, it was kinda refreshing but rather ordinary

Huîtres No 3 d’Oléron tièdes au Champagne et caviar Osciètre (Lukewarm Oysters No 3 from Oleron with Champagne and Oscietra caviar) - The high quality Brittany oyster was fresh and juicy with refined taste. It was accompanied by crisp leeks and celery, and enhanced by buttery champagne sauce as well as smooth & almost nutty caviar - very good. It was one of the "famous" dishes at l'Hotel de ville

Accompanied by wine: Ployez-Jacquemart Champagne Blanc de Blancs (an in-house label with good flavor, crisp with fine mineral, good pairing with the oyster and scallop)

Noix de Saint-Jacques poêlée aux petits coquillages jus gourmand au Chasselas et caviar Osciètre (Sautéed Sea Scallop served with small shells tasty juice, Chasselas wine and Osciètra caviar) - Carefully seared plump scallop having natural sweetness was outstanding. It was beautifully accompanied by the delicious sauce made from the shell juice and 'white' wine. The caviar nicely provided luxurious yet essential accent to the dish. Another winning dish; each byte was filled with bursting of flavors

Elégant fuseau de Cardons de Crissier aux truffes noires crème légère déglacée au vieux Madère (Elegant cylinder of Cardoons from Crissier with black truffle and a light cream de-glazed with vintage Madeira wine) - The (boiled) cardoons, my first experience eating them, were soft and rather sweet in contrast to the crunchy celery underneath. The cardoons were alright, but the creamy sauce and aromatic / earthy black truffles improved the quality of this elegant dish - one of the specialties at this restaurant

Dos de Turbot sauvage caramélisé au four salsifis du canton aromatisés à l’orange sanguine (Caramelized wild Turbot fish served with local salsify flavored with blood orange) - Beautiful piece of Turbot's back. It was superb and somewhat fatty. The glistening and well-seasoned flesh perfectly absorbed the delicious (a bit salty & tart) sauce. The salsify had an enjoyable firm texture - a fantastic dish!

Accompanied by wine: 2017 Cru de l'hopital Pinot gris de fichillien (white wine from Vully region, aromatic and precise with a little touch of lemon, matched well with the turbot and lobster)

Médaillons de Homard bleu marinés aux pistils du Jorat céleris croquants et pousses d’épinards coraline (Blue Lobster medallions marinated with saffron from Jorat, served with crunchy celery and young spinachs with a coral sauce) - A well-executed and 'safe' lobster dish - tender and sweet, accompanied by rich sauce and Winter vegetables whose textures were in contrast to the lobster's .. satisfying

Filet d’Agneau de lait frotté au poivre vert croustillants d’épaule aux jeunes poireaux vaudois (Green peppered Suckling Lamb fillet served with crispy shoulder and young leeks from canton de Vaud) - The young lamb was pale pink and covered by the pepper - quite tender with flavorful sauce and hardly cloying. Even better was the crispy "money bag" fritters containing the lamb's delicious shoulder confit. The green side dish was a mixture of cauliflower and leeks to balance the lamb - solid but the next item was even better ...

Accompanied by wine: 2015 Swiss pinot noir, I forgot to write down the name (deep color, decent acidity and tannin, the red wine for my meat courses)

Pieds de Porc glacés au Porto et Madère, petits oignons caramélisés aux truffes (Pigs Trotters glazed with Porto and Madeira wine, served with caramelized young onions and truffle) - It was a half portion of Philippe Rochat's signature dish. The dish was shaped like an egg with the 'pulled' trotter meat and sweetbread inside (wrapped by crepine?). The sauce of glazed wines with black truffles wonderfully complemented the tender meat. The leeks would reduce any intense taste while the fragrant potato enhanced the dish. Mixed everything together and it was truly delicious - a perfectly executed French classic; the kitchen brigade was highly skilled indeed. A full portion might be too much for me  

Fromages frais et affinés (Selection of fine Cheeses) -  I had a mountain Gruyere cheese (like a comte) and locals version of blue cheese and mont d'or; good quality and pleasant. The rustic bread was not bad

Sorbet désaltérant aux Fruits de la Passion neige de coco flambée au Rhum Charrette (Passion fruits Sherbet, coconut snow flambé with Charrette rum) - A very refreshing dessert filled with pleasing sweet and sour flavors. This felt good after having savored lots of savory dishes earlier ...

Accompanied by wine: 2016 Jurancon les copains (soft palate, delicate, and exotic fruit nose)

Tuiles Chocolatées aux zestes de clémentines compotée parfumée à la Liqueur Impériale (Chocolate tile flavored with clementine zests, served with compote perfumed with imperial liquor) - It was more of clementine-based dessert with some chocolate as the supporting element - a nice combination; did not disappoint

The full menu allowed the kitchen to display an array of carefully crafted dishes with different kind of flavors, textures, temperatures and their combinations. Winter is a special time to savor French cuisine in particular here as it had plenty of dishes created by utilizing Perigord black truffle. The consistent performance of creating memorable dining experience with fine and fresh ingredients, meticulous and precise execution, perfect sauce, artistic presentation, and right wine pairing was the hallmark of this temple of haute cuisine. It was done even when Franck Giovannini could not be present in the kitchen such as tonight. Many service staffs, including my maitre d'hotels, were relatively young but they're capable of orchestrating remarkable service. They moved with ease and confident; ensured guests' needs were fulfilled. The hostess and senior manager, Mr. Villeneuve greeted each table at least once - the latter preferred / was more confident to talk with French-speaking clients. Restaurant Hotel de Ville Crissier always took pride in what they're doing in all aspects. I think this was the finest meal I've ever had at Switzerland and I don't know whether I like this place more or Cheval Blanc by Peter Knogl. The pictures of my dinner can be found: L'Hotel de Ville Jan '19 

Food (and Wine): 97 pts

Service (and Ambiance): 95 pts

Overall: 96.5/100


Monday, June 24, 2019

L'Astrance Pascal Barbot

In the beginning of 21st century, with the big wave of Spanish cuisine and several years later, Nordic cooking ... some so-called pundits thought that French gastronomy food might be 'dead' soon. In the France itself, more and more chefs would rather open bistro / brasserie / simpler restaurant than fine dining places. However, the most famous alumni of L'Arpege and Alain Passard's protege named Pascal Barbot believed otherwise. Without much buzz, after having worked for the master of rotisserie and vegetable then traveling elsewhere for a couple of years, Chef Barbot quietly opened L'Astrance in 2000 in partnership with Christophe Rohat, who used to be Arpege's maitre d'hotel. Astrance is the name of the flower indigenous to Pascal's native Auvergne. It is probably the smallest among Parisian dining institutions but well-appointed and served around 25 clients per service. The charming restaurant with simple and modern decor was located in the quiet side street, not too far from the Eiffel tower. Solid yellow banquettes and chairs with white linens and 'grayish' textured walls were the most eye-catching things from the interiors. The focus was on the food. Within 2-3 years, L'Astrance became the hottest table in town. The phone never stopped ringing and a daily waiting list was normal. 7 years since the opening, L'Astrance was awarded the 3-star Michelin (Pascal Barbot was only 34 years young at that time), an honor the restaurant kept until early this year when it was demoted into 2-star again. Having been here twice prior to this lunch, I was cautiously optimistic that the kitchen would still be able to deliver top meal ...       

Unlike many other multiple star restaurants in France / Paris, L'Astrance does not serve any a la carte menu. There were a few options depending on the price level, but the cooking was always spontaneous. It was normal that sometimes different tables would be served different dishes although they both ordered the same menu. This method was risky with high pressure but this could be done because Pascal Barbot is a master in his craft with excellent technical skills and possesses a profound understanding of how to prepare any ingredients. Thanks to his creativity and imagination, the menu sometimes even changes on the weekly basis. Astrance is also unique since Chef Barbot often created dishes influenced or inspired by Asian flair (the chef used to work and often travel around that region). Despite that, the most frequent used products and technique applied were still (modern) French, executed at a high level. The evolution of the cuisine here constantly happening albeit slowly. Another strength of the restaurant was its wine pairing program. The wine was carefully selected and generally matched well with the food. My "half" surprise wine pairing was really satisfying. Many of the chosen wines need not be from big produces or expensive ones. Clients admired and appreciated this kind of Sommelier's ability. Alexandre Ceret was the current head wine waiter at Astrance.

My lunch began with small bites of Tartelette of black truffle and parmesan cheese - earthy and a little heavy; and Almond biscuit with apple and hazelnut - a little zesty and sweet. Like my past meals here, I opted for the most comprehensive menu and here is my food journey.

Menu Astrance

Foie gras mariné au verjus, millefeuille de champignon de Paris, pâte de citron confit (The "Napoleon" of white Button mushrooms (dusted with porcini powder), slices of green apple and Foie gras marinated in verjus served with Hazelnut oil and preserved Lemon) - The millefeuille was generally light and delicate having great texture and taste variations. The duck liver's warm rich taste was balanced fresh sharp apple, lemon acidity and woody mushroom. The interplay of crunchy champignon and creamy foie gras was clear and pleasant. The natural flavor of each ingredient could still be easily recognized. No doubt, it was the most famous and photographed dish at this restaurant. Similar to L'Arpege's egg, everybody has to have and savor this delicacy at L'Astrance. Given its portion, I don't think I would ever be bored with Pascal Barbot's signature appetizer.

Accompanied by wine: Vouette et Sorbée fidele Blanc de noirs Champagne (intense nose, rather complex taste with fruit and flower, little acidity, good aroma).

Bisque de crustacés, safran et raviole de Carabineros (Red Shrimp ravioli served in Shellfish bisque with saffron) - While the prawn was tasty, I found the ravioli's skin was slightly too thick. The flavorful emulsion had Asian touch, containing coconut milk. To tamper any rich taste and add some layers of textures, Chef Barbot put in cabbage, carrot and spinach underneath the bisque - in light of the rest of the dishes, this one was alright. 

Saint-Pierre, riz Japonais “Koshihikari”, beurre blanc la sauce soja (John Dory served with Koshihikari rice and 'white butter' emulsion) - If the previous dish had Thai influence, this one was inspired by Japanese cuisine. The perfectly steamed John Dory was mild with flaky texture. It went along with refined Japanese short-grain rice (fluffy and a bit sticky) seasoned by vinegar and a little citrus. The delicious "brown sauce" enhanced both the fish and the rice altogether; essentially it was a mixture of beurre blanc and soy sauce. I liked this sophisticated dish ... at the same time, I felt a few people might not enjoy it - not so French or too Asian perhaps?

Accompanied by wine: 2016 Domaine Jousset Montlouis-sur-Loire Premier Rendez-Vous (some minerality and acidity with smooth finish - good pairing with the fish and creamy cheese).

Velouté de céleri, coulis de Truffe noires, et Parmesan fondu (Celeriac cream soup served with melted Parmesan, Perigord truffle shavings and puree) - It was one of L'Astrance specialties in the Winter; the combination of these produce generated rich and robust flavors (buttery, creamy and ... slightly sinful), fragrant aroma as well as velvety texture. I tasted each element separately before mixing them to appreciate the dish even more. The wine pairing (with Chenin blanc-based wine from Loire Valley) was wonderful.

Croque Monsieur au Saint Nectaire et à la truffe noire (Toasted sandwich of St.-Nectaire cheese and Black truffle) - Another Pascal Barbot's signature dish in the Winter. Crispy and buttery toasted bread was filled by melting & soft cheese (tangy, sweet, mildly bitter) as well as cooked truffle (pungent, earthy, delicious) ... every byte was ethereal. Hands down it was the world's best croque monsieur and much better than Rostang's black truffle sandwich.

Accompanied by wine: Bartoli Vecchio Samperi Perpetuo Marsala 5 years (fresh, discreet, fine acidity, some orange aroma, a little nutty - beautiful pairing with the sandwich above).

Tourte Colvert et Foie Gras, salade à la Truffe noire (The pie of wild Mallard and duck liver, served with Black truffle salad) - Pieces of mainly duck breast and foie gras with some other parts of the duck were neatly encased inside relatively thin puff pastry. The meat was meticulously cooked with the right texture and taste; it was dense & rich yet not heavy and flavorful & deep yet not cloying. It was rightfully accompanied by sauce containing duck jus and some black truffle. The salad with light dressing + generous Perigord truffle shavings would add some complexity as well as tamper any intense flavor. It was nearly as perfect as L'Ambroisie's version. Nowadays, it was quite a rare feat for any top restaurants to create such dish and I was very pleased to have savored it in L'Astrance. 

Accompanied by wine: 2011 Domaine Combier Crozes-Hermitage Clos des Grives (fragrant, round taste, medium body, good density on the palate - excellent pairing for the gamey meat, here as well as with the pigeon).

Roasted Pigeon served with Salsify and Cherry condiment & almond - The breast's quality was superb and juicy; its flavor was nicely derived by the deep sauce (concentrated pigeon's jus with some black truffle). The versatile & savory root vegetable, crisp almond and tart cherry paste would balance any gamey / intense taste from this Loire valley bird. Pascal's slow cooked meat dishes rarely disappointed. The kitchen also prepared the Pigeon's leg and liver, which were more flavorful. There were also Juniper berries with distinct taste in this small bowl.

Sorbet piment, Gingembre et Citronnelle (A sorbet of Chili pepper, Ginger and Lemon grass) - The combination might not be usual, but it was a very good palate cleanser.
Chocolate souffle tart (melting, bitter, a bit sour) accompanied by salted caramel - intense but very pleasant. This was the main dessert for this lunch

Purée de pomme de terre, glace vanilla (Potato mousseline served with Vanilla ice cream, Thyme and Fromage blanc) - This 'mashed' potato was complex (though the picture looked simple) and tasty - a mixture of smooth potato, a bit sour cheese, and sweet & good quality ice cream. The temperature (hot and cold) and texture contrast were enjoyable. Many elements worked well together.

Madeleines au miel de châtaignier / Lait de poule au jasmin / Fruits frais
Honey chestnut Madeleine: crispy, fragrant and sweet.
Jasmine eggnog: aromatic and sweet.
Seasonal and fresh fruits: good but not exceptional.
Most of the sweets part at L'Astrance might be repetitive, but they're not overwhelming - kinda easy to eat and digest. 

The casual dining room was accompanied by a relaxed service. L'Astrance did not employ that many staffs in both kitchen and dining room. Therefore, most of the waiters including the Sommelier and Manager Rohat focused more on preparing the utensils, bring dishes to the tables and clearing the food. They tried their best to entertain or made a quick joke but I understood that until the end of the meal, it was quite challenging for the staffs to have a long conversation with clients. Chris Rohat made conscious effort to talk to me and a few other repeated guests when not busy. If one stays more than 2 hours during lunch or longer than 3 hours for dinner, one has a good chance to meet and talk with Pascal Barbot. He was gracious and amiable; when talking with him, Chef Barbot made sure to have an eye contact and usually was interested in listening to the customer's feedback. Pascal was quite well-known to be the nicest chef among the high-end restaurant suppliers. He trusted these artisanal producers to send the freshest and best ingredients to his restaurants although sometimes he's not sure whether the clients would like them. In short, on the day to day basis, it's normal that Pascal might not have the full picture of what to cook until the morning he arrived to Astrance. This was when his experience, creativity and spontaneous cuisine came to the rescue. 

There was a rumor about how kind Pascal Barbot was towards his alumni. He was very supportive when cooks that used to work with him wanted to open his / her own restaurants. I heard that Chef Barbot was even willing to assist / invest financially. Some of the current famous chefs that used to grace L'Astrance's kitchen were Shuzo Kishida (Quintessence) and Magnus Nilsson (Faviken). Pascal Barbot received the full support of Alain Passard when the Arpege's owner shared hundreds of his regulars to him upon opening Astrance and now he's doing something similar towards his "students". A beautiful cycle of generosity! L'Astrance may not be among my top 5 favorite restaurants in France, but it has been consistently performed at high levels (at 2.5* "Michelin" standard in my notes) based on my 3 meals here. At the moment, it's a 2-star restaurant but I like and value this restaurant more than my meals at Guy Savoy Paris or Le Pre Catelan. For a reference, here is my previous meal at Astrance - Astrance (early) Spring 2016. Whereas the pictures of the dishes above, can be found: L'Astrance Jan '19
 
Food (and Wine): 96 pts

Service (and Ambiance): 94 pts

Overall: 95/100

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Lung King Heen Chan Yan Tak

Lung King Heen (LKH), located on the 4th floor of luxurious Four Seasons Hotel, is arguably the most famous Chinese restaurant in the world. It was all because of the unprecedented 3-star Michelin award given to this place more than a decade ago as the first recipient coming from a dining place serving Cantonese cuisine to be more precise. I've been to this place about 2-3 times prior to this meal for both lunch and dinner; eating dim sum and dishes to share as well as savoring the seasonal tasting menu. The "best" thing about LKH is probably its consistency to deliver tasty and good quality dishes. It might not be among my top 10 dining institutions around the globe, but I could not recall I had a bad meal here. It's definitely not an easy feature given Lung King-heen serving more than 100 different items regularly, varying from dim sum to siu mei (Hong Kong-style barbecue), braising and stir-frying as well as dishes prepared with a few others cooking techniques. This could only happen because the kitchen, led by the master chef Chan Yan Tak, has nearly 50 members working daily for 7 days a week.

Chef Chan Yan-tak did not enter to this trade because of its glory like now, but more due to the difficult economy situation when his father passed away. He already worked in the kitchen when he's 12 starting in the mid 60's. During that time until the early 90's, cooking was often recognized as the job for those who could not make it at school or elsewhere in Hong Kong. His patient and tenacity finally paid off; slowly but surely he rose in the rank and position. Chef Chan had become the head chef of Lai Ching Heen (at the Regent hotel) for more than 15 years before he called it a day. However, Four Seasons HK somehow managed to persuade him out of retirement in the early 2000's and the rests as we know now were history.

Lung King Heen was a huge restaurant (maybe the biggest one with 3-star award?) with understated decoration. There was a water feature as guests entered the restaurant. As they're escorted to the tables, diners should notice plenty of woods and glasses. The tables, with fresh flowers on top, were large with generous spaces among them. This made the ambiance warm and relaxed - a big contrast to the more opulent interiors at Caprice, LKH's sister restaurant - so, it's common to notice that some patrons would prefer to dress informally. Perhaps, the most striking aspect about the dining room was the Victoria harbor panorama. Given the stature and importance of Lung King Heen, I felt I owed this place a full review and this time I would highlight my latest meal here taking place in the Autumn of 2018.      

A Taste of Traditional Canton

Crispy Suckling Pig with Chinese Pancake - Crunchy & crackling skin with rather thick but tender meat as well as the right amount of sauce, delicious

Deep-Fried Crab Shell Stuffed with Onions and Fresh Crab Meat - Another classic dish one would often find in HK top Cantonese restaurant. The breadcrumbs coating crust was prepared until golden and crunchy. Inside the shell was filled with generous and fresh crab meat and not so rich but creamy sauce. I took advantage of the light yet umami worcestershire sauce; this and the onion balanced any intense crab's taste
Accompanied by wine: Muscat Puchang Vineyard | China 2015

Superior Pottage with Shredded Chicken and Fish Maw - Not usually a fan of Chinese soup, but this one was better than expected. Unlike more "normal" Asian soup, this one was relatively thick, fragrant and rich (having quite high viscosity). In addition of the chicken and small amount of fish maw, there were shredded carrot, fungus, bamboo and scallions provided some extra layers of textures. The first few bytes might be intense, but it felt more enjoyable and easier to consume afterwards; complex but tasty

Sautéed Superior Australian Wagyu Beef with Fresh Lily Bulbs and Lotus Seeds - The Wagyu beef was first seared, then stir-fried together with the red & yellow bell peppers, asparagus, onions etc.The beef was kinda salty, tender but not too marbling. Hence a bit "beefy" nevertheless a good & 'simple' dish; not oily
Accompanied by wine: Château de Fonbel | France 2009

Braised 30 Heads Oma Abalone with Sea Cucumber and Chinese Mushrooms - A very fine quality of dried abalone; it had distinct aroma, complex taste and tender yet springy texture. Whereas the sea cucumber was soft and mild in which the flavor was derived by absorbing the 'supreme' brown sauce. The stock / sauce was intense and deep but not too thick. The mushroom was intoxicating in aroma with firm texture. Traditional Cantonese food prepared with superior ingredients by talented kitchen
Accompanied by wine: Sherry Old Harvest Medium Dry Ximénez- Spínola | Spain

Braised Seasonal Vegetables with Bamboo Piths and Maitake Mushrooms - After the last 2 heavy dishes, it was a relieve to have this delicate course. The versatile Australian spinach was intensely green with mild taste and soft texture; it was combined with tender & fragrant bamboo mushroom. On the contrary to these produce, the maitake was more crunchy. The clear and clean stock nicely tied these elements altogether
Accompanied by wine: Chardonnay Mineral Weingut Friedrich Becker | Germany 2015

Lung King Heen Fried Rice with Assorted Seafood - Similar to Japanese kaiseki, prior to the dessert ... the Chinese tasting menu would serve a rice dish (sometimes noodle). LKH is famous for its seafood fried rice and it was very tasty indeed. The rice grains were distinct and also cooked with shrimp head's oil. The seafood was a mixture of lobster, fish, crab, conpoy etc. Feel free to add the provided chili or XO sauce. If you order a la carte, this fried rice was also worth for sharing

Sweetened Almond Cream with Glutinous Rice Dumplings - The almond cream was not that sweet actually. While the glutinous rice had lovely texture, the number of "dumplings" was too few and the filing (sesame) was too little. Therefore, the overall taste was a bit plain ... not bad, but could've been better. Anyway, sweets were usually not the forte of any Chinese restaurant
Accompanied by wine: Moscato d’Asti Sant llario Ca'd'Gal | Italy 2016

While it has become more common for Chinese restaurants using Western / Japanese ingredients, the cooking and technique applied at Lung King Heen was unmistakably Cantonese. Although they did not go as well as the ones done at French cuisine, the wine pairings that night were interesting and offered at quite reasonable price. Generally, I still preferred to consume the food with hot Chinese tea. Like the kitchen team, the front of the house delivered top notch service. Staffs were friendly, attentive, polite and warm. They handled clienteles from different background with ease. The operational integration from both ends of the house at LKH went smoothly. Chan Yan Tak, the Executive Chinese chef of the hotel, was not only a brilliant chef, but also a good leader. Readers could see the pictures of the dinner here: Lung King Heen Oct '18. If any of you are interested in seeing my old meal here for comparison (with more contemporary and seasonal dishes), please check - LKH Spring 2015    

Food (and Wine) : 94 pts

Service (and Ambiance) : 93 pts

Overall : 93.5 / 100

Friday, May 3, 2019

Pierre Gagnaire Paris - 6th visit

As a foodie, ideally, I should go and visit as many new restaurants as possible. Probably either I often choose the easy way out or I simply love Paris. As it has always been, at least half of my top 10 favorite restaurants in the world are located in the city of lights. The yellow vest acts did not deter me to return to Paris in January this year - in fact, I was blessed as somehow my short stay there excluded the weekend. I have never been to Pierre Gagnaire au hotel Balzac in Winter, so it was a no-brainer that I would re-visit this place especially after a spectacular meal I ate in the early Autumn of 2017 (Gagnaire Paris 5th meal). Unlike my previous visit, the Picasso of cuisine was not present during my dinner. Instead, his most trusted man - chef Michel Nave, who has been working with him for more than 30 years, was leading the kitchen. I knew I was in good hands.

Having a meal at Pierre Gagnaire restaurants could be overwhelmed for some people. Not long was I seated at my favorite spot, I was already 'bombarded' with welcome canapes consisting of more than half-dozen of different nibbles. For instance,  Tomatillo pulp with tarragon; Large crab nolpi; Sardine rilettes with oyster leaf; Smoked haddock bouchee etc. They were good, fun and rather unique. Except for my maiden visit in 2007, I never ordered any tasting menu anymore at this place. The a la carte dishes were too good to resist. However, this time I decided to sample numerous Gagnaire seasonal creations focusing on the prized ingredients of French black truffle from Perigord. There were lots of food and they were remarkable. My 2019 best meal would actually occur in the first month of the year? Very likely ... 

Degustation Menu - LA TRUFFE NOIRE / TUBER MELANOSPORUM

1st appetizer
Damier de Saint-Jacques d’Erquy, bouillon de boeuf au tapioca (Damier of scallop from Erquy, beef bouillon with tapioca) - Erquy is known as French scallop capital. The kitchen arranged the pristine scallop carpaccio and thick slices of black truffles in alternating colors like a checkerboard. The scallops were delightfully fresh with soft texture and mildly sweet flavors, in contrast to the firmer and more intense Tuber melanosporum. The beef broth & tapioca were lightly umami, gave additional delicate taste in the background. This scallop dish was served with 2 different side dishes ...
Corolle de haddock : encornets, morue, artichaut poivrades (Smoked haddock corolla : squids, cod, small artichokes) - On the contrary to the clean scallop, the broth here was creamy, more flavorful yet not overly rich. The haddock was slightly sweet and smoky, in harmony with the black truffle aroma. The addition of squid, cod and artichokes delivered texture and flavor contrasts; these ingredients beautifully absorbed the yellow sauce as well. This bowl and the earlier damier scallop were both excellent
Mousseline de choucroute, radicchio (Sauerkraut mousseline, radicchio salad) - The last part of the first course was slightly acidic mousse of sauerkraut mixed with rather bitter radicchio and pungent truffle. It gave an interesting accent for the other 2 items

2nd appetizer
FiFine – crosnes, mange-tout, pamplemousse thaï (FiFine – chinese artichokes, butter beans, thaï grapefruit) - (Fried) Crosnes was a bit juicy, having pleasant & earthy flavor + crunchy texture. The 'artichokes' were accompanied by grainy butter bean, sour grapefruit and unique truffle flavor ... this dish was light, a bit sweet and really enjoyable + easy to eat
Crépinette Sarladaise, velouté d’épinard, ail noir Aomori (Crépinette Sarladaise, spinach velvety soup, black garlic from the Aomori region) - Quite the opposite to the crosnes ... here, some kind of pork internal organ was cooked with goose fat resulting in intense rich taste. It was served with tender aged garlic that somehow tasted like plum with subtle balsamic aromas and creamy spinach. A solid & classical French flavor to balance the more modern & Asian-influenced chinese artichoke item

Accompanied by wine: Lanson extra age brut (Full body & fresh, delicate color, red fruit notes, and smooth with good balance) 

3rd appetizer
Une tourtière de légumes (A vegetable pie) - The freshly cooked soup was boiling. It had some characters and flavors of the Japanese food - delicious and full of umami taste. Some of the vegetables were: cooked sweet yet savory & juicy turnips (appear golden) as well as sweet and nutty parsnips. Last but not least, the earthy black Winter truffles with its distinct aroma and flavors elevate this excellent vegetarian soup!
Gelée de coing, glace poire | gorgonzola (Quince jelly, ice cream pear | gorgonzola cheese) - To "support" the soup above, the kitchen prepared 2 dishes. Here, I had soft and tarte quince jelly that (surprisingly) went well with sharp and salty gorgonzola. The pear ice cream with small amount of pecorino provided a good bridge for the jelly & cheese while the chopped Perigord truffle gave some crunchy texture to this dish
Rémoulade de céleri-rave (Shredded celeriac in a remoulade sauce) - The pie crust was not wasted as the kitchen used it along with the traditional preparation of Celeriac remoulade. The celeriac was fresh and crisp, combined with airy pie and black truffle-infused remoulade sauce. The umami soup was in harmony with soft quince jelly and crunchy (raw) celeric - overall, what an amazing 3rd course!

Main course - fish
Fine escalope de féra du lac Léman à la nage ; voile de Savagnin, Paris boutons, panais, feuilles de capucine (Thin escalope of whitefish from the Geneva Lake ; veil of Savagnin wine, Paris mushrooms, parsnips, nasturtium leaves) - The quality of prized "fera" was superb. The thinly sliced and perfectly cooked whitefish fillet was moist and delicate without any fishiness. To develop more flavors, Chef Nave put Winter-inspired sauce of Paris mushrooms and black truffle. The versatile parsnips would reduce any strong taste and fresh nasturtium gave light accent - very good
Gagnaire prefers to prepare the side dish on a separate plate. For the whitefish, the kitchen provided clean vegetable bouillon with soft Corsican cheese and some Perigord truffle - this chilled soup assisted the parsnips to balance the whitefish's rich sauce

Accompanied by wine: 2016 Blanc de Chasse-spleen (Medium body & acidity, smooth with citrus nose, long and rounded finish; a solid pairing for the vegetarian pie and lean fish)

Main course - 1st meat
Blanquette de veau fermier – grande feuille de romaine, endive et red meat (Blanquette of farm veal – large romaine salad leaf, chicory and red meat radish) - Despite known for his innovation and (often) complicated technique in cooking, Pierre Gagnaire respects tradition and possesses technical mastery of classical French cuisine. For my 1st meat main course, the chef interpreted an iconic and timeless mild stew of poached veal. At 3-star level kitchen, as I expected, the chunks of veal were tender and tasty, enriched by velvety and refined sauce having deep flavor. To make it even "better", the cooking team added slightly sweet radish, mildly bitter and spicy taste from romaine and chicory as well as aromatic fungi. It was wonderful and I never felt overwhelmed with any intense flavor here - a comforting and elegant veal stew
Galette de polenta blanche, oignons grelots (Galette of white polenta, small onions) - The flat pastry with creamy & oaky Winter truffle sauce and crisp & sweet small bulb onions became a pleasant and ideal supportive side dish for the veal blanquette

Main course - 2nd meat
Blanc de poularde de la ferme de Culoiseau en vessie (Fattened hen breast from the Culoiseau farm cooked in a bladder) - Inside the hot water, the (pig) bladder swelled up ... then it was punctured in front of me and following that, the fattened hen was carved by the table side. The idea of using a baldder was to retain and integrate the flavors of the poularde during cooking. It was a "half-portion", so the kitchen picked a smaller hen for me. A beautiful homage to Mere Brazier?
Blanc de poularde avec petit épeautre du pays de Sault, puntarella et Sauce Albufera (The poularde breast was served with spelt from the Sault region, puntarella salad and Sauce Albufera) - Voila .. the dish was presented with all of its glory. The en vessie cooking resulted the breast meat to be tender and moist with lovely and subtle tastes of lardons and black truffles (if consumed without the sauce)   
Foie gras poché, gnocchi de parmesan et pignons de pin (Poached foie gras, gnocchi of parmesan cheese and pine nuts) - The classic albufera sauce and duck liver enhanced the poularde's flavors; some spelt and light gnocchi beautifully absorbed the creamy sauce while the nuts gave solid accent and texture contrast. Ultimately, the Tuber melanosporum (slipped beneath the bird's skin when cooking as well as from generous slicing) elevated this traditional dish to even a higher level. C'est parfait!
Friselli d’agria, fondue d’oignons doux | lard de colonnata (Friselli of agria potatoes, slow-simmered sweet onions | colonnata lard) - The thin & crisp potatoes in deep yellow color + simmered onions + fragrant Perigord truffles delivered some moderate sweet flavors to perfectly complement the savory taste of the chicken from Culoiseau farm

Accompanied by wine: 2015 Vincent girardin Volnay (Nose of ripe cherries & plum, lovely but rather young, good tannin and acidic as well as medium body)

Grand desserts
Mont Ventoux - A mont-blanc with the addition of mushroom galette and Perigord truffles. It had different layers of texture and flavor variations. Unlike the classic version, the chestnut, meringue and cream filling at Mont Ventoux were less sweet ... the earthy and firm mushrooms added additional dimensions. I liked it a lot   
Royale Richerenches - It might not look too appetizing but it was some kind of cream cheese with good balance of sweet and a little sour taste plus musky & tasty truffle - better than expected
Cassate citron de Menton, oranges sanguines liées d’un sirop de clémentine (Cassate flavoured with lemon from Menton, blood oranges thickened with a clementine syrup) - A creative take from the traditional Cassata. The firm and cold cake was moistened with lemon & blood oranges and layered by some cheese (ricotta?). The use of blood orange generated more sour / acidic taste which was very useful in the grand scheme of the other desserts altogether. This one would reduce any sweetness but the truffle did not make any big impact here  
Un trait d’huile d’olive de votre choix (A hint of olive oil of your choice) - The extra virgin olive oil with passion fruit cream and Winter truffles contributed some bitter taste in a gentle way 
Sablé de mâche (Lamb’s lettuce salad shortbread) - A smart combo of rich & sweet sable pie with raw & tangy lamb's lettuce successfully highlighted the unique aroma and flavor of chopped Tuber melanosporum on top - awesome!
To fully appreciate the dessert creations of Gagnaire was by eat a little bit of everything continuously in random orders or according to your palate preferences - I truly enjoy this many desserts showcasing the use of black truffle; well done!

The dinner food was exceptional, but what made the overall meal extraordinary was that the front of the house team also performed at (very) high level in particular from the "middle level" staffs. Herve Parmentier, the restaurant director, did not work on that Monday night. I was mostly taken care of by the assistant manager, who helped the opening of Gagnaire Bordeaux and a junior maitre d' lady, who used to work in Ireland. Whoever served you, the younger staffs at this place mainly were patient, spoke fluent English, had good knowledge about Gagnaire's (complex) dishes, and amiable. In the last 2 visits, I noticed things that I only encountered at Pierre Gagnaire Balzac. Any meal here usually would last 3+ hours, so before I actually completed my lunch / dinner ... if my maitre d'hotels had to leave first, they would come to my table and politely excuse themselves - apologizing that they're unable to stay until my meal finish, thanking me to have come and the opportunity to serve, and lastly introduce another staff who would attend my table until the end. I thought it was a very kind and professional gesture. Strangely, the memorable hospitality I received at Gagnaire Balzac was generally rendered by staffs whom I would never see them again when returning here a couple of years later whereas the service from long-service staffs at the manager / director level was somehow just ordinary.

Having visited and dined at Pierre Gagnaire's flagship restaurant for more than a decade, what more needs to be said? I was still blown away by his innovative, artistic and 'experimental' cooking. The master's ability to cleverly juxtapose flavors, textures and produce to bring dishes to the next level never ceased. Each dish preparation, execution and presentation was, as always, excellent. With the open mind and adventurous spirit, it's hard not to like this place. The menu kept evolving; there's no specific signature dishes. Even the Parfum de terre's content usually changed every season & annually. Guest could have a fantastic langoustine a la carte, come again 1-2 years later for the "same" dish ... to his / her surprise, the smaller and large plates combinations of the langoustine would be different. The mineral water at Gagnaire was often free; the restaurant had pretty good selections of wines at reasonable prices and the sommelier could adjust to the diners' need accordingly.

The only "downside" was perhaps the dining room begged for upgrading given the great status of this institution. Lastly, a few words about the passionate and accomplished Executive Chef Michel Nave. Michel Nave to Pierre Gagnaire is Eric Bouchenoire to Joel Robuchon; they were simply inseparable. As a MOF recipient, Michel's ability in classical French cuisine was unquestionable. Similar to his boss, Michel loved challenge and progress. How Gagnaire's attitude to never stay on his laurels happened to be suitable to Chef Nave's personality and ambition. Michel Nave was crucial when Gagnaire managed to recover his 3rd Michelin star after having moved to Paris. Then, Chef Nave has safeguarded the main restaurant's quality and operation as Pierre expanded his empire. Now, with nearly 20 restaurants to oversee under Gagnaire's brands ... well, the humble and talented Michel Nave has to get used to travelling overseas as well. Sometimes, Gagnaire and Nave even got to travel separately to ensure their restaurants perform at their desire levels. The pictures of this meal can be found: Pierre Gagnaire Jan '19. This is one of the "4-star" (the better ones among Michelin's best) restaurants in my notes and I can come here again and again without being bored.   

Food (and Wine) : 98 pts

Service (and Ambiance) : 96 pts

Overall : 97.5 / 100

Friday, April 12, 2019

Restaurant Überfahrt Christian Jürgens

Germany is blessed with numerous top restaurants holding Michelin 3-star awards. However, reaching most of them was generally not an easy task as they're not located in the country's major cities. My latest adventure was visiting the under profile restaurant named Uberfahrt, located in the small town of Rottach-Egern (around 50 km South of Munich). The hotel where Uberfahrt resides, overlooked the beautiful Lake Tegernsee. Bavaria region is well-known as one of the coldest area in Germany. My lunch in the late January this year, coincided with the heavy snow and plenty of wind chill. Perhaps, the rather unpleasant weather contributed to the quiet lunch situation - including myself, there were only 4 people dining at this top restaurant ... 3 locals and one of them dining solo. Restaurant Uberfahrt was led by the 'celebrity chef' named Christian Jurgens. After having worked under the guidance of none other than Heinz Winkler, the German living legend chef, for several years, Chef Jurgens arrived here in 2008 and gained the 2-star award in a very short time. 6 years later, he attained the ultimate 3-star from Michelin.

After having relaxed in the hotel lobby for 20 min. or so, I walked into the restaurant Uberfahrt hidden in one of the hotel's corner. The dining room was intimate and far from being opulent. I began my meal with some snacks and a glass of non-alcohol aperitif of Virgin winter bellini - fresh, sweet but in a subtle way, and a little buttery. Similar to Atelier Munich, there were 2 different tasting menu offered ... 5 and 7 courses (you're allowed to order any courses as an a la carte as well); I selected the longer one. Prior to the first appetizer, the kitchen brought in its timeless amuse bouche: a tomato snowball with tomato liquid caipirinha (Brazilian cocktail) inside; it had a taste like a mixture of some kind of white rhum with lime and sugar. It was fluffy at the outside but with deep & concentrated tomato + some piquant flavors on the inside ... an opening with tame look but dramatic taste. Then, here comes the degustation menu,

BLAUKRAUT Rotkohl, Saibling, Senf, Soja (Red cabbage with char, mustard, and soy) - Cabbage with the soy was somewhat sour; the Char, served almost raw and having moderately firm texture, was mild yet kinda fatty. Altogether with the rest of the produce, the kitchen made this appetizer refreshing and a bit sweet. It looked complex but the taste was clear and clean. 

HONG KONG CRAY FISH TEA Kaisergranat, Sesam, Kräuter, Pioppini (Langoustine with herbs and pioppini-mushroom) - The soup was prepared in the Cona auto drip coffee machine. The broth taste was delicate with some herbal aroma and light flavor of the crayfish and tea - interesting. The 'sashimi' of the half-portion langoustine was unfortunately very small. Therefore, despite its sweetness, the impact it had to the dish was not as powerful as I had expected while the mushrooms were alright. 

TURBOT Steinbutt, Edamame, Röstzwiebel, Koriander, Senfsaat (Turbot with edamame, roasted onions, and mustard seeds) - The meaty back Turbot, seasoned with some lemon and pepper, had beautiful white flesh, mild taste and rather firm texture. The light taste and distinct texture of the seeds and green soybeans complemented the fish. The roasted onion 'soup' with some greens (such as parsley, chives and greens) gave bolder and deeper overall flavor to the Turbot. Starting from this dish onward, I began to truly like my meal more ...

DIE KISTE Gefüllter Kartoffelwürfel, Perigord-Trüffelmousseline, Trüffelsalat (Filled potato cube with Perigord truffle mousseline and truffle salad) - This is one of Chef Jurgens signature dishes and I think no better time to savor it other than during the high season of Winter black truffle. The potato with hidden egg yolk inside was carefully shaped into a yellow cube. The flavorful potato & yolk was surrounded by sweet, pungent and delicious mousseline infused with black truffle as well as Madeira sauce. I loved this dish very much - rich and deep in flavor yet not overwhelming, served with the right texture and temperature. It was the best thing I ate during my short trip to Germany this time.

FLATTERMANN Challans-Ente, verbrannter Spitzkohl, Gewürzjus (Challans-duck with burned cabbage and spice jus) - The duck was of high quality and it was meticulously prepared. The meat was tender and flavorful, especially with the jus made of the duck's jus and some spice. In contrast to the tender meat, the kitchen put some crunchy coating (coriander, mustard seeds etc.). The soft burned cabbage was quite playful ... more plain in taste, a little smoky and absorbed some of the spice jus flavor. A creative approach of Bavarian cooking. 

KÄSEAUSWAHL von Maitre Fromager Günther Abt (Cheese selection by Maître Fromager Günther Abt) - Unlike the earlier dishes, the cheese course portion was rather large. Some of the cheese I had were: brillat-savarin, camambert, mimolette, comte, tomme de chevre, langres and so on. The condiments were also comprehensive such as muscat grapes, almond & walnut, sweet mustard jam and a few bread. It was a solid variation and good cheese in general - I enjoyed them and they're quite filling. 

OMA JÜRGENS WARMER ORANGENKUCHEN Götterorangen, Nougateis, Pistazie (The Chef's grandma Orange cake with nougat ice cream and pistachio) - It was a rather intense and condensed dessert served warmed. The cake was a bit heavy with sweet & bitter nougat, sour oranges, a little alcohol, crunchy pistachio and some 'pop rocks'. It was suitable given the cold winter outside with plenty of snow; the portion was generous. Mix everything together to savor this sweet optimally.

The 2 staffs delivering the hospitality were both friendly and attentive. Given it was a quiet day, the service was relaxed ... if unnecessary, they would rather not to be found in the dining room. But every few minutes, they would show up to ensure that everything was fine. The pacing of the food was generally fine except for the main course, I was waiting for quite sometimes. Christian Jurgens was clearly capable of creating and delivering refined and contemporary French-based haute cuisine with Bavarian characters. He balanced the classic and modern cooking approach with good attention to details. The dishes' flavors were distinct and sublime. In spite of his creativity and skills, Chef Jurgens tried to present the dishes as simple as possible - guests could clearly what ingredients were used and recognized their taste. I did not know much about the Restaurant Uberfahrt before; I hoped the dishes served here would be very seasonal and the kitchen would still create new stuffs in the regular basis. I may not rush to return here again but I was pleased to be able to have a solid lunch at this dining place. The pictures from my lunch were Uberfahrt Jan '19

Food (and Wine): 95 pts

Service (and Ambiance): 94 pts

Overall: 94.5/100