Thursday, November 19, 2015

Ginza Harutaka

Talking about Ginza Harutaka, one way or another, people would mention the fact that Harutaka Takahashi was an apprentice of Japan's notorious sushi master - Jiro Ono. Along with Hachiro Mizutani, Harutaka-san was known to be the most talented students of Jiro and both of them already made names for themselves: Mizutani was a 3-star sushi-ya whereas Harutaka consistently ranked favorably according to tabelog and became the favorite place among elite chefs in Tokyo. Unlike Sushi Mizutani whose shari was more sticky (less al dente), the shari at Harutaka was more similar to Jiro's especially in terms of texture (firm but smooth) and temperature (warm). However, to distinguish himself from his master, Chef Harutaka's rice was more balanced - less acidic with mild salt that blended really well. It's very suitable to my palate.  

We only managed to have a reservation at 9 PM albeit it's only a weekday; similar to our experience at Sushi Sho, we had a 2nd seating. Reaching the Kawabata building around 8:30 PM, my wife and I decided to try our luck to get in earlier since we were quite hungry. Fortunately, the earlier diners were already left. There were 4 empty seats available at the counter throughout the night and we took advantage of those by putting some of our stuffs there. The dining room was relatively small and bright with simple design dominated by the natural color of hinoki. The atmosphere was relaxed and we felt very welcome by the friendly staffs - a sharp contrast to the rigid and stern experience I had at Ginza Jiro several years ago. The sous chef ensured us once again that our omakase would consist of sashimi/appetizers and sushi. We nodded and the adventure began      


Ise Ebi (in sashimi and jelly form) served with clam of miso - Starting a meal with something refreshing is generally safe. The spiny lobster was tender but a bit plain, combined with pleasant jelly and more flavorful clam miso - quite good
Grilled Sanma with its liver sauce - The Pacific Saury was tasty with some smoky flavor. The sauce would solidify/intensify the Sanma's flavor

The soup of Hamo in Matsutake broth - The soup, scented and flavored with the Pine mushroom, was delicious and clean. It went well to support the delicate/tender Pike Conger. One of the better tsumami (appetizer) dishes at Harutaka
Sashimi: Hirame (Olive Flounder) and Botan Ebi (Large Shrimp) with nori and wasabi - Both items were fresh. In Autumn, hirame began to develop its fat; the wasabi and shoyu would bring its natural flavor whereas the botan ebi was smooth and inherently sweet. Good sashimi selection

Abalone soup - The (kuro) awabi served with its dashi. The awabi, carefully cooked for several hours, was tender and delicious in its core flavor. The 'white' soup stock, served warmed, was slightly thick and light; kindly enhanced the overall enjoyment of the dish
Seared Bonito - The Katsuo, cut in medium thickness, had 'full body' flavor. The middle was red (barely cooked/almost raw) and its smoky skin was properly seared leaving the tasty fat in between. The top quality bonito was accompanied by a slightly bitter 'side dish - garlic, ginger & a little oil'. They tasted better when consumed together with the bonito  


Sumi Ika (Spineless Cuttlefish) - A fantastic ika will set the positive tone of Edo mae sushi experience. It was silky, naturally sweet, and tender with a good amount of wasabi
Kisu (Sillago) - A low fat fish with clean taste and tender texture. First time eating this
Shima Aji (Striped Jack) - Nice 'milky' white fish with sweet tone at the end

Akami (Lean Tuna) - It's a lightly marinated and tasty akami. The shari was a bit too much when compared to the neta size .. still good nevertheless
Chu Toro (Medium fatty Tuna) - Aged for 5 days and you got the 'best' of Akami and O-Toro (balanced between fat and flesh). It was delicious, rich and almost melt in the mouth
O-Toro (Fatty Tuna) - Very velvety and oily yet we could still taste its flavorful flesh. An excellent otoro, perhaps the best one I ate this year    

Kohada (Gizzard Shad) - Beautifully cut. Harutaka-san expertly put the right ratio of vinegar & salt on this briny silver fish. This complex fish also had a hint of sweetness - very pleasant
Ikura (Salmon Roe) - Glistening and fresh orange roes with cool texture, distinct saltiness and burst of natural oily flavor. Love it!
Aji (Horse Mackerel) - A lovely fish; fresh, a bit oily, and good texture

Kasugo (Young crimson Sea bream) - Well seasoned, pleasant texture and refreshing
Broiled Kuruma Ebi (Large Tiger Prawn) - Tender and juicy; sweet and high quality. Possibly, it's one of the best kuruma ebi I've ever eaten
Aka Uni (Red Sea Urchin) - Excellent uni with crispy nori in generous portion. The sea urchin was briny, creamy and sweet
Buri (Amberjack) - This Japanese yellow tail was tender and flavorful
Akagai (Ark Shell) - The 'blood' clam was chewy (in a nice way) but not as 'sweet' as the one I had at Tokyo's elite sushi-ya
Anago (Salt water Eel) - Creamy, sweet and melting in the mouth
Tamago (Egg) - Moist, spongy and sweet with great egg flavor 

The tsumami at Ginza Harutaka was good even though not (yet) at the level of appetizers prepared by Yoshitake. But the sushi was truly outstanding.  As we enjoyed piece by piece, it was clear that the neta was really fresh and of high quality. Harutaka Takahashi diligently visit Tsukiji market every morning; he personally & carefully selected the fish and sea food. Harutaka-san would let most of them alive as long as possible before serving the morsel to his guests in the evening. He might look young but as he showed his knife art work, we could observe his precision and elegant movement of a sushi expert. The result was a consistently excellent sushi piece(s). Chef Harutaka applied the right amount of sauce and wasabi in which both the neta and shari worked together in harmony to produce a delicious sushi. Every sushi master has his own unique style and the edomae sushi served at Ginza Harutaka was arguably my personal favorite in Japan, if not in the whole world. Somehow, I believe that the best of Sushi Harutaka is yet to come; Harutaka-san would still evolve and refine his already high skills. I will expect a better meal or at least as great as this one when I return here again in the future. Here are the pictures: Harutaka Sep '15

Food: 96 pts

Service: 93 pts

Overall: 95/100

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Sushi Yoshitake Tokyo

There are many good sushi-ya(s) in Tokyo and to choose one where we want to eat may not be that easy. At first, I would like to try the less 'well-known' places among non-Japanese such as Mitani or Miyako. However, these places were already fully booked even more than one month before my selection date. In the end, I picked Sushi Yoshitake. I visited the Hong Kong branch a couple of years ago and had a great meal there especially the octopus and the abalone with liver sauce. Knowing my wife's palate, I know she would love those dishes too. If the branch was good, then the flagship restaurant overseen by the sushi master himself, Masahiro Yoshitake-san, naturally should be better right? Furthermore, Yoshitake Tokyo offering the same omakase menu at substantially cheaper price than at its Hong Kong counterpart. In Ginza, the sushi-ya provided an extra appetizer as well as 2 more sushi.  

Prior to this meal, I only knew that Sushi Yoshitake, located in the normal office building with ordinary entrance of Ginza area, only had one main counter that seats 7 people. As we entered the dining room, we're stopped by a junior staff. A few minutes later, Yoshitake-san came out, greeted and instead escorted both of us to a small door with a narrow passageway that could easily be mistaken as a closet for keeping guests' outer coats. Apparently, this narrow door would lead us into a smaller dining room seated 4 people at most. The sous chef introduced himself as "Dai" (a short of Daisuke) and he would serve our dinner since the main dining room was busy with Yoshitake's regular clients. My positive experience at Sushi Shikon helped me handle the situation calmly. I thought Dai-san could not be 'worse' than Chef "Kaki". Moreover, I already know that most of the dishes especially the tsumami (appetizers/snacks) have been prepared in advance from the main kitchen. So, I saw no point to make a fuss or felt cheated of not being served by Yoshitake-san himself. In addition, there were a few other pros as well: first, we had a private dinner since we're the only diners in this small room. Secondly, we were allowed to take pictures of the dishes with our cameras (not strictly from the camera phone). 


Salmon caviar served with smoked salmon, grated radish and okra - The ikura was excellent, the salmon was tender & smooth while the daikon & okra added interesting combination especially texture-wise. I generally love any dish with plenty of top quality ikura
(Lightly seared) red Snapper sashimi with special sauce (a mixture of fish bone, shoyu, & yuzu) and wasabi - A wonderful slices especially the contrast of the fish's crispy/charred skin and its clean/pure taste. The sauce enhanced the sashimi's flavor

Tender octopus with 'sweet' sauce - The tako was slowly braised for a long time (plus some 'massage') resulting in a tender piece that's enjoyable to chew in my mouth. It was really delicious because in addition to its 'soft' texture, the tako thoroughly absorbed the sweet sauce (a combination of some bonito broth + sake + kelp). A great dish
Steamed (black) Abalone served with its liver sauce - Yoshitake-san's best signature item and deservedly so. At this level of cooking, we can expect the mushi kuro awabi to be tender (a little bouncy in a nice way). The sauce was phenomenal; it was creamy, rich, & deep - simply out of this world. It worked perfectly with the awabi. After that, the itamae gave a dollop of sushi rice to be mixed with kimo sauce to create a wonderful "green risotto". An excellent dish: complex but in harmony!

Seared Bonito with horse radish, ginger and scallion - Similar to the sashimi dish, the katsuo's skin was seared to be smoky and crispy. The cooked bonito flesh has a deep flavor; nice
Mozuku seaweed (natural) and Sea urchin with chopped mountain yam and chia seeds (for slight crispy texture) - It serves as a transition dish before the sushi course began. The yama imo was 'starchy' and it rather dominated the overall flavor along with the nori. The uni acted as a good distraction 


Shin Ika (Baby squid) - It was pretty, clean and tender; awesome!
Grilled shin ika 'tail/leg' - The baby cuttlefish in this form was aromatic and delicious with a very good texture
Tai (Sea bream) - It's quite versatile with a balance of sweet & sour flavor 
Chu-Toro (Marinated and lightly boiled medium fatty Tuna) - It was well aged with gorgeous color; really flavorful. A splendid morsel

O-Toro (Fatty Tuna; also aged fabulously) - It's very difficult to go wrong with this especially when the Itamae served 2 layers of Otoro ;-) As you imagine, it was heavenly (creamy & oily yet not greasy) and umami!
Kohada (Gizzard shad) - Similar to my O-toro, "Dai-san" applied a double portion of kohada to create this piece. It has a balanced of strong flavor - could taste some variations of vinegar, salt and a bit of sweetness derived from the dried ebi powder    

Sanma (Mackerel pike with its liver & chopped shiso) - The cured sanma was quite tasty; its liver was very intense. I hardly ate this morsel in sushi, nevertheless interesting though not my favorite .. 
Akagai (Ark shell) from Miyagi perfecture - Firm & crunchy texture with enjoyable oceanic flavor and inherently sweet. Eating "kai" in Japan is always a huge pleasure 
Uni (Sea urchin) - It was a combination of aka (Autumn is usually the peak period for Aka uni) + bafun uni. In this case, the red sea urchin was indeed a bit sweeter and creamier than the green one. Both were still excellent and served in generous portion

Kuruma-Ebi (Japanese tiger prawn was accentuated with shrimp miso) - Another great piece. The prawn was delicious, juicy and of top quality (freshly prepared and immediately served). I like the addition of the 'green brain' below the ebi   
Anago (Sea eel) - The anago itself was soft, light and 'melting'. With the addition of the glaze, it became delightfully sweet and rich but not cloying

Temaki (Tuna hand roll) - The tuna was akami tsuke (equal portion of akami vs shari) and served with crunchy nori, shiso & ginger. The sign that the end was near ...
Tamago (Egg custard) - Sweet, a bit creamy and flavorful 'sponge cake'
Miso-shiru - Miso soup to conclude the wonderful meal  

Our meal was accompanied by cold sake - Hakurakusei junmai ginjo from Miyagi. It was a very satisfying meal - possibly my spouse favorite sushi-ya during this trip. Carrying the restaurant's top reputation, Daisuke-san delivered and executed each dish consistently well. Yoshitake uses two types of akuzu (red vinegar) for the sushi rice. The addictive shari looked beautiful in red/brown; it's 'al dente', served at (almost) body temperature/faintly warm that's in harmony with the prepared neta. Yoshitake-san was truly an expert at combining flavors, textures and temperatures. Our meal was well paced and also entertaining. Dai was talkative, amiable and shared plenty of stories from his life and cooking experience - so there's hardly a dull moment. He used to be the chef de cuisine of Japanese embassy in Washington DC for several years before returning to Tokyo. With his characters and personality (skill wise, they're on par), I would choose Dai-san over Kaki-san anytime as my sushi chef at Yoshitake (of course, I would still be curious what it's like to be served by the Yoshitake-san himself one day).

The decor was minimal and simple; the small-size room created an intimate ambiance.  For me, Sushi Yoshitake to sushi is like Ishikawa to kaiseki in terms of the top places that deliver non-intimidating experience for foreigners (with 'zero' Japanese language) who want to savor authentic Japanese cuisine. With fresh and impeccable ingredients, delicious food, and sincere hospitality, Yoshitake at Ginza should be the right 'entry spot' to those who want to savor high end sushi in Japan for the first time. For the pictures of the above food, you're welcome to follow the link below: Yoshitake Sep '15

Food: 95 pts

Service: 94 pts

Overall: 94.5/100

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Ki-sho Singapore

In the past 5 years, Singapore is never short of high qualities of top restaurants serving high-end Japanese cuisine. The old school places such as Aoki and Tatsuya still did pretty well while the new kids on the block, mainly franchise from Japan, such as Shinji Kanesaka, Sushi Ichi and Hashida Sushi have grabbed the island's 'market share' pretty significantly. Among the latest wave of Japanese restaurants here, there was one named Ki-sho that's quietly and slowly has become the new jewel of the town. This place apparently opened about three years ago but never under my radar until the 2nd half of last year. Ki-sho is headed by a genial and proficient Japanese chef - Kazuhiro Hamamoto. Despite a relatively young age, Hamamoto-san's culinary craft was established by working at elite sushi and kaiseki places in Kyoto (Kichisen) for 10 years or so. Additionally, four years prior to the opening of Ki-sho, he was working at Waku Ghin, Tetsuya Wakuda's most successful restaurant nowadays. Looking at his tremendous experience, I know that Ki-sho will be a special place in which the executive chef himself will always be in the kitchen/counter serving and preparing dishes for his guests. Furthermore, Hamamoto-san has mastered the culinary skills of traditional Japanese kaiseki & sushi as well as modern European-Japanese fusion - a rare combination.

Apart from Waku Ghin, there's hardly any fine dining restaurants in Singapore that I would visit twice in the span of 12 months (to be fair, a couple of years ago - I did come a few times to Shinji Kanesaka, but there were for business lunch at others' expenses). Kazuhiro Hamamoto's dishes somehow managed to "make" me want to return there voluntarily. Hence, in this review I will share both of my experiences in the past 7-8 months. The main restaurant at Ki-sho is a sushi-bar/counter, designed in contemporary kappo style, seated at most 11 people. Moreover, there are a few private dining rooms upstairs. The omakase menu served here reminded me of the meals at Urasawa Beverly Hills (still my favorite dining place in the entire U.S.), where diners would savor 7-8 kaiseki dishes followed by 10+ sushi pieces and desserts. Perhaps, that's why after two great meals, Ki-sho has probably become my favorite restaurant in the island. Actually, Ki-sho was perhaps the 'culprit' on why I have yet returned to Waku Ghin for more than 2 years now. It's generally better to have a meal at your favorite restaurant when the Chef-patron be present and consistently lead his kitchen.

1st meal - Sep '14

Katsuo no Tataki (Seared Bonito fillets) - The smoke Skipjack (top quality) was served with 'dry grass'. I liked the distinct aroma from the char fragrance; the fish was indeed meaty, delicious and tender. An awesome way to start my Omakase set 
Seasonal Appetizer - A combination of Sayori, Ikura, Matsutake and early Fall vegetables. A refreshing dish with clean flavors; both Salmon roe and Pine mushrooms were decent and served generously

Matsutake Dobin Mushi ("steamed teapot") served with Amadai - The dashi was nourishing and delicate; it successfully brought out the delicious & unique aroma of Matsutake. There was a play of texture contrast between the Pine mushroom and the Tilefish; both items were delicious. I liked this dish a lot
Chef ’s Signature: Uni and Caviar - The creamy & sweet Sea urchin, served in generous portion, was apparently a combination of "Aka (red) + Murasaki (purple) shell" uni. It's served with salty Italian caviar, white vinegar jelly (to tone down the rich taste), shiso flower, sweet corn and fresh fava beans. An excellent dish and very heavenly, especially when you scoop all the 'elements' together. One of the best dishes of the night ..

Char-Grilled Hokkaido King Crab - The lightly grilled crab, served on the salt, was tender (though a little bit spongy for my taste) and well-seasoned. Simple and tasty; it's almost as good as Waku Ghin's Alaskan crab leg
Seasonal Sashimi - It consisted of Anago (light & a bit smoky), Shima Aji (clean taste), Tako (chewy & average), Ika (crunchy), Karei (fresh & light), Hotate (slightly sweet), O-Toro (good but not that flavorful), and Akami (lean & nice). Overall, they're good qualities but nothing memorable

Seasonal Dish - King crab wrapped in winter melon served with Matsutake mushroom. The broth revealed a combination flavor from the crab and matsutake. This dish was not too bad with generally rather 'weak' taste
Wagyu Dish: Charcoal grilled Toriyama beef - The succulent beef, coming from Gunma prefecture, was served with tomato, fried garlic and wasabi. The crust was smokey, the meat was very tender despite lacking its 'oily juice'. It's delicious as expected, but unfortunately the portion was too small

Kinmedai (Splendid Alfonsino) - sublime and smooth, nearly melt immediately in my mouth
Aji (Horse Mackerel) - The marinated fish was succulent and silky
Uni (Sea Urchin) - Velvety and sweet; a different presentation of uni nigiri sushi. It's very hard to go wrong with this creamy creature
Botan Ebi ('Botan' Prawn) - Clear, sweet and juicy with excellent texture. Among the best morsel in my nigiri sushi pieces

Saba (Mackerel) - A big piece of fish; it's fresh and oily with a slight acidity & fishy flavor. I thought the presentation was interesting
Otoro (Fatty Tuna) - The Otoro has been aged for 2 weeks to bring out its optimum flavor. The luxurious fish was soft, fatty and heavenly. Awesome!
Kama Toro ("Collar" fatty tuna) - The fatty toro was lightly seared. It's also very 'marbling' with high concentrated & intensive taste. It's as good if not better than the previous Otoro
Wagyu roll served with Uni and egg yolk - This was ethereal. The fatty Toriyama beef was lightly grilled and combined with the buttery Sea urchin, sushi rice & wasabi and intense yolk creating a burst of umami flavor. A perfect example of a well-done & creative "nigiri sushi"

Uni Gohan served with Ikura, Chutoro and Shiro ebi - What more can I say for such 'perfect' combination; arguably my favorite dish at Ki-sho. The creamy and sweet Sea urchin nicely mixed with the 'al dente' rice. Then come the flavor and texture display from the bursting of Salmon roe, sweet shrimp and fatty tuna. The wasabi balanced this rich & heavenly dish; I must have it again when I re-visit this restaurant in the future
Seasonal Fruit - There were sweet & watery musk melon and pear with granite; comforting and refreshing. Some sweets - Warabi mochi, velvety Matcha chocolate and Hojicha Monaka ice cream; they're Ok

2nd meal - Apr '15   

Komochi yari ika served with takenoko and wakame - A wonderful opening representing Spring season. The pregnant spear squid (with its egg) was simply soft and sweet while both the aromatic white bamboo shoot and the seaweed were fresh and delicious. A delightful beginning ..
Tairagi served with akagai, ikura and white & green asparagus - The pen shell, similar to scallop, as well as the ark shell were of top qualities, tasty and in great textures (some contrast). The asparagus was fine and the salmon roes were fresh and salty in a good way. Another way to whet our palate early in an omakase meal

Baby anago served in steamed custard and warabi sauce - The baby conger eel was a pleasant delicacy; the experienced was enhanced by warm custard and 'simmered' of earthy bracken fern that's quite tasty
Noresore served with yuzu sauce and ginger - The conger eel whitebait (usually only available in Spring at limited period) was clean and light. It went nicely with the sauce above. Without serious attention, noresore could be mistaken as 'clear noodles'  

Seasonal Sashimi - It consisted of Chu-toro, Anago (lightly grill), Saba (delicious), Tako (in 2 ways) with sea salt, and Kawahagi with its liver (the liver in particular was heavenly). Sashimi might not be Ki-sho's main strength but they're still very good in general
Uni served with caviar, edamame and vinegared jelly - This time, the sea urchin was 100% of Bafun uni (sport spine from North Hokkaido). The uni was dense, rich and delicious. Chef Hamamoto displayed plenty of flavor contrasts here such as tart vinegar, briny caviar, mild soybean and 'creamy' sea urchin. Thus, it's recommended that each scoop would contain all of the ingredients if possible. Excellent as always!

Steamed water eggplant with kegani - The eggplant was truly the star here. It was well cooked and flavorful while the horsehair crab was surprisingly only alright
Wagyu Dish: Charcoal grilled Toriyama beef - The delicious beef was coming from Gunma prefecture and fried garlic and wasabi. Unlike earlier visit, Chef Hamamoto prepared the beef in "roll" form - a collection of several thin layers beef. It was melting, moist and flavorful   

Shiro ebi (White shrimp) - Pretty, fresh and tasty
Ika (Squid) - A bit crunchy, silky and rather sweet with a pinch of salt. A wonderful morsel
Sayori (Half beak) - Elegant, clean and delicious
Kinmedai (Splendid alfonsino) - Tender, 'fatty', and really tasty 

Nodo-guro (Rosy seabass) - This 'black throat' white fish was (somewhat) oily/moist and fatty but in a good way
Aji (Horse mackerel) - Fresh, and flavorful; often underrated
Akami (lean Tuna) - Tender with good texture and flavor

Murasaki uni ('Violet' sea urchin) - smooth and sumptuous
Bafun uni ('Green' sea urchin) - sweet and creamy. I can eat this anytime, any day ..
Awabi (Abolone) confit - The luxurious clam was "crispy" with delicate/subtle taste. Chew it slowly and savor its 'rubbery' texture
Engawa (Karei's fin) - First time eating this Flounder's edge and it's really tasty. It had distinctive succulent flavor and chewy/concentrated texture. One of the best pieces during this dinner  

Kama toro no aburi (Seared tuna collar) - Concentrated rich taste and very umami
Otoro no aburi (Seared fatty tuna) - Buttery, melting, and heavenly
Saba (Mackerel) with ginger - A little bit fishy, but tasty with distinct aroma

Char grilled Anago (Saltwater eel) with barely any sauce - Smokey and fragrant with soft texture and natural sweetness   
Kohada (Gizzard shad) - Robust flavor. Spring is probably the best time to enjoy it
Tsubugai (Sea whelk) - Inherently sweet with crunchy texture, ocean flavor and refreshing 'meat'
Akagai (Surf/Red ark shell clam) - Like its chewy texture, 'unique' sweetness and fine taste
Tamago with hotate - Decent 'egg custard' with relatively light flavor

Miso soup with hamaguri and goma tofu - A nice traditional soup with good quality of clam and sesame tofu. The end is near ...
White strawberries with sake jelly - Spring season strawberry. They might look pale, but they're sweet, rich and refreshing. The sweetness was balanced with the light jelly

I only had ocha for the first meal and during the second visit, Kazuhiro Hamamoto-san generously gave me a few glasses of in-house sake to try and savor. The first sake was having junmai daiginjo "profile" - fragrant, strong, a bit sweet with soft acidity; the second one was junmai ginjo "type" - lighter than the 'daiginjo' and more delicate. Both were good. I was thinking to buy a carafe size of the house brand sake, but cancelled it after knowing it cost 3-digit for such a small amount (out of my budget). Chef Hamamoto laughed and knowing me perplexed, he gave me an additional glass of it instead. I felt a bit embarrassed yet grateful at the same time for his kindness and understanding. 

By now, you should have clear ideas that I love the food at Ki-sho a lot. However, what makes it a special place is that Ki-sho also excelled in its service and the place has an elegant interior design. The hospitality rendered by both local or Japanese staffs was excellent in both occasions. They're polite, friendly and sincere. Staffs and sometimes the chef would escort me on the way out. The tea was always re-filled, even often replaced with new ones when the tea was not hot anymore. The ultimate experience here is actually the chance to have direct interaction with Chef Kazuhiro Hamamoto himself. He had a good command of English (thus able to patiently and clearly explain every dish if necessary), knowledgeable and cared with guests' overall dining experience. This could not be more obvious during my 2nd visit when I happened to be the only customer that night seating at the sushi counter. The ambiance at Ki-sho is calm with minimal decoration while the main counter was spacious and zen. The restaurant's building is a grand bungalow in colonial style with lavish entrance - a rare and (hardly) imitable combination.    

You're welcome to see the pictures of both meals below. Note that during the 2nd visit, I unfortunately forgot to take several pictures because I was too excited with the food and immediately consumed those delicious dishes
Part 1: First meal
Part 2: Second meal 

Food (and Wine): 95 pts

Service (and Ambiance): 95 pts

Overall: 95/100

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 (Good 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