Thursday, January 22, 2015

Le Calandre Massimiliano Alajmo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Food (and Wine): 97 pts

Service (and Ambiance): 94 pts

Overall: 96/100 
 
       



Tuesday, January 6, 2015

L'Ambroisie Bernard Pacaud - 4th visit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Food (and Wine): 98 pts

Service (and Ambiance): 96 pts

Overall: 97.5/100 

Monday, December 22, 2014

Dal Pescatore Nadia Santini

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Food (and Wine): 96 pts

Service (and Ambiance): 93 pts

Overall: 95/100

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Fat Duck Heston Blumenthal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Service (and Ambiance): 94 pts

Overall: 96/100
 
  
 

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Restaurant Andre Singapore

Andre, along with Iggy's, is arguably the most internationally well-known and talked-about among restaurants in Singapore. However, unlike Iggy's owner, Andre Chiang acts as the chef-patron. This Taiwan-born chef already had a spectacular reputation when he was the main driver of Jaan. Many foodies and critics alike have admired his cooking skills. It should not be a surprise when Chef Andre finally ran his own restaurant near the end of 2010, the expectation skyrocketed. Only in a few years, San Pellegrino recognized Andre as the best restaurant in Singapore for 2 years in a row and this further propels the restaurant's fame. Reservation was not easy, but I was quite fortunate to secure a seat in less than a week just a few days after the F-1 party subsided. Talking about Restaurant Andre, one cannot help but to notice about Octaphilosophy - a philosophy that's clearly defined and explained at the restaurant's website. Having been informed by Andre's front staffs a few times during the dinner, I believe this philosophy, in short, is about 8 elements that almost always appear in Andre's creations. That's how Andre Chiang would define his cooking style. This Octaphilosphy principle consistently guides Andre and his kitchen team when they receive new ingredients daily. In my case, the Octaphilosphy translates to the following dishes (I also ordered 'juice-pairing' for my meal):

OCTAPHILOSOPHY

Pure: Stone crab raviolis served with Pear snow and Leek water - A dish without any seasoning does not mean hardly any taste. The leek water & 'burnt' onion were quite dominant compared to the light pear snow and stone crab. A decent and refreshing dish

Salt: Gillardeau oyster served with Sea corals granny smith and Seawater emulsion - Chef Andre displays different produces generating various natural salty flavors and how they interact with each other. It was not easy to recognize all of the ingredients. I have to admit this complex dish works better than I initially thought

Accompanied by: kombu seaweed juice

Artisan: Charcoal grilled baby corn served with Corn mousse and Sesame salt - The 're-creation' of corn kernels has sweet taste with some smoky flavor and crunchiness; while I sensed some 'nutty-like' flavor for the pleasant sweet mousse. The sesame salt purpose I think is to give some contrast flavor. A good dish though nothing spectacular

South: Blue lobster served with orange-yellow rutabaga marmalade - The small portion of lobster is well executed; tender and delicious (reminded me of Pacaud's langoustine). The rest of the side dishes, such as marmalede with tapioca or mashed carrot/pumpkin, allow you to have some combination that should enhance the dish overall experience

Accompanied by: rice milk with cardamom 

Texture: Charcoaled squid served with Fennel smoked piquillos - A fun and creative stuff from the kitchen. Only 2 "charcoals" are actually edible deep-fried dough sticks. Mixed this dough with the flavorful chewy grilled squid in olive oil to enjoy this dish to the 'fullest'

Unique: Grilled topinambour served with Truffle, Wild mushroom and Malt vinegar ice cream - Creating a dish with numerous ingredients are very challenging. The artichoke's subtle flavor is mixed with earthy trompette mushroom; the stronger taste is coming from garlic soil and onion compote. The malt added a hint of sweetness. Complex and quite good ..

Accompanied by: toasted cacao juice 

Memory: Warm foie gras jelly served with Black truffle coulis and Olive oil - Chef Andre's timeless dish. The rich duck liver has a smooth texture like a chawanmushi; the (frozen) truffle intensifies the dish in terms of aroma and flavor. Finally a nice & comforting 'simple' creation 

Accompanied by: potato skin juice

Terroir: Pork belly served with Black garlic tapenade, Mixed heirloom beets and berries - The pork belly, from Australia, is tender & flavorful with a crisp skin and its juice; some small part of the meat is not that juicy unfortunately. The pork sausage was just ok. The side dishes showcase different flavor combination 

Accompanied by: black malt mixed with sparkling water 

In addition to the items above, the restaurant provided plenty of small dishes (snacking) at the beginning. For instance scallop/chard, pineapple/olive, onion, potato bravas and so on. After the Octaphilosophy comes to an end, then comes some desserts and sweets such as melon/grapes, "snickers", chestnut madeleine, churros/nutella etc. Dining at Restaurant Andre, which seats only 30 people, seems as if guests dine at the chef's house. The setting is intimate and quite modern dominated by grey, black and white colors. The staffs, led by Stepan Marhoul, are rather diverse in background, yet most of them are professional, warmth and knowledgeable. Moreover, Chef Chiang himself is such a humble and kind host. To be honest, I don't really have any favorite dish, in fact nothing stands out, but I somehow truly enjoy the overall experience. Essentially, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.The ingredients are interesting and abundant; they're generally well-executed by the kitchen lead by Andre's main helper, Johnny Jiang. I just hope that in the near future, the many creative dishes here will be more delicious. Click the following link to see the dishes' pictures: https://picasaweb.google.com/118237905546308956881/RestaurantAndreSingapore

Food (and Wine): 94 pts

Service (and Ambiance): 94 pts

Overall: 94/100
 

 
 

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Joel Robuchon Singapore - 2nd visit

A few years has passed ... having dined in several different places in Singapore, I find there is (still) no better place to savor French haute (nouveau) cuisine at the island than Joel Robuchon restaurant. After my first visit in late 2011, I tried to come here once every two years; it didn't happen last year since I had a chance to have lunch at Robuchon au Dome. The Macau establishment was nice but I still prefer my experience at RWS. Similar to my previous visit, I designed my own menu a couple of weeks prior to my dinner. Jasmine, the restaurant's hostess since the opening, efficiently assisted my communication with Executive Chef Tomonori Danzaki. I noticed that the usual degustation menu's price had been decreased by about SGD 50 - Robuchon is known to be adaptable to the global economy and domestic market situation. On paper, I was very pleased with the arrangement but I miscalculated small things. Unlike my first visit, this time my menu contained some "trio" dishes, to be exact 3 of them - I counted them as 3 courses instead of 9 as I thought they would come in small size requiring 1-2 bites each. Actually, this time the portions were larger than my experience at the other Robuchon's restaurants (of course, I did not complain) in particular the salmon tartar with caviar as well as the black truffle tart with onion confit. Therefore, in total I ate 19 courses (4-5 more items than the 'normal' long tasting menu) during dinner that lasted until near midnight. Honestly, this is probably the "biggest" meal I've ever had in my life. However, the quality didn't disappoint at all. As a matter of fact, it unexpectedly went down to be my best dining experience in the whole Asia (& America) excluding Japan.

Degustation Menu

Pour Commencer arlette croustillante au beurre salé et aux lamelles de truffe (Crispy arlette with salted butter and truffle shavings) - The warm arlette (more like waffle here) on the left was crunchy and flaky with a piece of black truffle sandwiched in between. An even better amuse was the one on the right side: it consisted of a layer of light parmesan on top, aromatic black truffle and tasty foie gras at the bottom - enjoy it by 'fishing' the glass

Le Caviar Impérial sur un velouté de chou-fleur glacé tremblotant (Imperial caviar on a shivering cauliflower velouté with golden croutons) - The velvety cauliflower was mixed well with the fresh shellfish jelly and the burst of caviar's saltiness. The airy cheese stick was nice by itself 

Le Caviar Impérial en jubilé de crabe royal dans une onctuosité de fenouil (Imperial caviar on duo of king crab with fennel lightness and sea urchin) - The crab was a combination of delicate Kamchatka/Royal crab and fine French spider crab (displaying texture and flavor contrast). The crab's succulent taste matched perfectly with caviar's brininess as well as the sweet and creamy flavor coming from Hokkaido uni. A luxurious and delicious dish!

Le Caviar Impérial avec le saumon en tartare agrémenté de jeunes pousses de shiso (Salmon tartar flavored with shiso sprouts served with Imperial caviar) - This beautifully presented dish was incredibly exquisite. The luscious salmon tartare was fresh, tasty and perfectly seasoned; it's enhanced by top quality of shiny caviar (having sumptuous taste) and runny egg yolk wrapped in gold leaf. Every element here was just right; I truly enjoyed every single bite of this dish. My favorite one among the Imperial caviar trio 
 
L’OEuf de Poule mollet friand, légèreté au fin comté et “Iberico de Bellota’’ (Crispy soft boiled egg with black truffle, comté cheese mousseline and ‛‛Iberico de Bellota’’) - The crispy crust was pleasant, but the black truffle and Spanish ham, prepared in shredded form, were a bit muted compared to the harmony taste produced by wonderful egg yolk core with flavorful parmesan and truffle mousseline 'sauce'; nevertheless it's still awesome, nearly as amazing as Robuchon's famous poached egg dish with salmon and caviar 

Accompanied by wine: Champagne Veuve Clicquot Yellow Brut Label (Bubbles with full body flavors, intense aromas and fine acidity)

Truffe Noire en fine tarte croustillante aux oignons grelots et lard fume (Black truffle tart with onion confit and smoked bacon) - A strong candidate for the best dish in this meal; pleasing both to the eye and the palate. The pungent and earthy truffle was in perfect harmony with the salty bacon, crispy tart and sweet onion confit. Different flavors and textures but balanced; they're happily dancing in my mouth as I slowly savored this exceptional dish - in leaps and bounds, it was just way better than a similar dish created by lepinoy at les amis

Truffe Noire avec le foie gras en millefeuille croustillant d'anguille (Crusty eel mille-feuille layered with smoked duck liver and black truffle) - The caramelized Japanese unagi was sweet and slightly firm while the foie gras was delicate and rich, then the pungent truffle added an extra 'punch'. A very intense dish; the "millefeuille" held together nicely. Each bite was a revelation of extraordinary "fattiness". To balance any excessive flavor, there was bland whipped cream with black pepper as well as salad containing radish and onion

Langoustine truffée et cuite en raviolis, étuvée de chou vert (Scampi raviolis with black truffle, chopped cabbage and foie gras sauce) - The meaty Alaskan langoustine wrapped & cooked briefly in ravioli was tender and tasty. The truffle gave a pungent flavor and (thankfully) the buttery and creamy foie gras sauce was somewhat lighter than usual. Perhaps Danzaki-san did it on purpose as the other 2 dishes in the truffle symphony were very luscious

La Noix de Saint-Jacques en timbale de macaroni, aux courgettes et jus émulsionné truffée (Sea scallops in macaroni with zucchini and truffled jus) - A pretty presentation. The scallop in the middle was delightful, but I wish they didn't cut it into smaller pieces. The most interesting part was the other 'side items' such as citrusy shiso, truffle and its juice, asparagus, macaroni etc. They complemented each other; a fine dish but not memorable 

La langoustine en fricassée aux courgettes et amandes (Langoustine fricassee with zucchini and almonds) - A very fresh, succulent and sweet Alaskan big prawn was the best among the seafood trio. The sauce from langoustine own juice was tasty. There were contrast in texture and color as displayed by orecchiette pasta, almond,  zucchini, and some 'chips'. Excellent dish! 

Le homard sur une royale crémeuse au “château chalon” (Lobster on a “chateau chalon” royale) - The tasty lobster (in small portion) was nicely firm in flavorful & rich foam; the asparagus and other vegetables were alright. I didn't really like the lobster flan at the bottom ...

Le king crabe kadaïf en fritto au curry vert (King crab kadaif, green curry sauce) - A uncomplicated dish focusing on the good crab's quality (inherently sweet); they're nicely wrap in cheesy and crisp kadaif. The curry sauce was light, hence hardly brought any effect to the overall flavor of the dish  

Accompanied by wine: 2008 Domaine Alain Voge Saint-Peray Fleur de Crussol (Smooth texture with some minerality; deep, creamy with lingering aftertaste) 

Les Champignons variés mitonnés dans un bouillon au jarret de veau à la truffe noire (Mushrooms simmered in a veal broth with black truffle) - The veal broth was very pleasant, flavorful and not cloying at all. The fragrant & 'clear' broth was enhanced with the coveted truffle shavings, meaty button and shiitake mushroom as well as salty bacon ravioli

L’Amadai en duo d’artichauts sautés aux saveurs épicées (Amadai with sauteed artichoke and saffron ginger sauce) - The pan-seared Sea bream was great with its crispy scale still intact and delicate flesh underneath. I loved the light saffron sauce with some sour notes in it. After plenty of highly flavored & 'heavy' dishes in the first half of tasting menu, this kind of refreshing course could not arrive at a better time

Le Turbot rôti une étuvée de champignons des bois, oignons grelot au jus truffé (Roasted turbot with wild mushrooms, pearl onions and black truffle jus) - Turbot was usually my favorite fish in French cuisine. It's precisely executed producing flesh that was firm yet supple; the light seasoning and pungent truffle brought more flavor. Additionally, the application of late Autumn mushrooms and truffle juice added interesting complexity but still balanced

Le Canard et son foie gras à l’aigre doux de cerises et aux amandes fraîches (Duck and seared foie gras with cherries and fresh almond) - For the first time that my main course at Robuchon's gastronomy places was not Japanese beef. The Challans duck breast was tender but a bit too dry to my likeness; the duck liver was, as expected, creamy and delicious. My favorite part happened to be the seasonal and fresh cherries that brought harmony to the dish. There was rich and buttery mashed potato on the side   

Accompanied by wine: 2007 Chateau de Cazeneuve Pic Saint-Loup Le Roc des Mates (Sweet nose with plenty of dark ripe fruits, full body and vibrant due to high acidity)

Les Fromages frais et affinés (Your choice from the cheese trolley) - As far as I know, this place has the best cheese selection available in Singapore. I chose 4 kinds: goat cheese, 24-month old comte, camembert (smooth & buttery) and roquefort (sharp and tangy). It's been ages since the last time I consumed excellent French cheese

Le Mojito créme madame à la menthe, ganité au rhum ambré et nuage de citron vert (Mint lightness with dark rum granite and lime emulsion) - Robuchon's take on classic cocktail. It rarely happened I enjoyed the first dessert (often work as palate cleanser) more than the second one. It's bright and acidic with a good minty; sweet and sour flavor were noticeable but not overwhelming. Well done!

Le Dôme sur un lit de fruits noirs, chocolat coulant au Dulcey (Berries on a delicate chocolate fondant and dulcey smoothness) - Another beautiful presentation dish. Not a small portion for dessert. I found the chocolate fondant plus 'caramel' really sweet; fortunately sour & tart (acai) berries at the bottom helped to 'cancel out' the extreme sweetness. Another good chocolate dessert created by the French master chef  

Le Moka – Le Thé escortés de mignardises (Coffee or tea served with seductive sweets) - This time I had raspberry fruit tart, canele, opera and dragee/sugar coated almonds. In addition, I savored 4 different crisp macarons flavors, named black currant, orange blossom, mint and chocolate; they're very good. I drank tea created from a mixture of thyme and mint

Accompanied by wine: 2011 Charles Hours Jurançon Uroulat (Clear in gold color, refreshing, fragrance and complex - would taste better in 3 years time)

I know I would eat very well at any Joel Robuchon fine dining restaurants, but I never imagined it could reach such high points. Every course, using the finest ingredients available, was very well executed; even some of them was near perfection. It's one thing to be creative, but another thing to have flawlessly implement it. Salute to Chef Tomonori Danzaki and his brigade for meticulously and consistently preparing delicious dishes after dishes. I was not afraid to declare that Danzaki-san was Robuchon's most capable chef; it means that he's better than Verzeroli, Le Tohic and Semblat (in order of abilities based on my visits to their restaurants). Every small detail mattered and we could see it from both the food as well as the decor. On top of the black lacquer table with dark linen, there were several well-arranged crystals. Black and beige color dominated the dining room's lavish ambiance. Grand opulent chandeliers, huge vases for flower arrangements, and several antiques/paintings etc.; all of the elements were in harmony. A memorable haute cuisine experience in luxurious setting.

The service was impeccable throughout although the fine dining restaurant was understaffed, there were only 7-8 people served more than 30 diners (Possibly one of its busiest night ever). The sommelier Duboueix was sick and the restaurant manager Raguzzi was busy helping the l'Atelier. This time the wonderful service was delivered by Asian staffs: Sherika, a Filipina maitre d' who used to work at Robuchon Macau for a couple of years, and Kohmalan, an easy going Indian gentleman. They were not only sincere and helpful, but also able to engage in meaningful conversations since both of them possessed good knowledge about the food, the restaurant and the chefs. When I finished my black truffle symphony courses, Chef Danzaki inquired whether the food had not been 'too much'. To be honest, I was half full already but the kitchen was willing to adjust/reduce my initial tasting menu - a nice gesture that I politely declined. Near 11 PM (around the cheese course), Chef Danzaki visited me to make sure that everything was fine. He was gracious and seemed happy & curious that I managed to finish up everything. We were chatting for about 15 minutes; his English has improved tremendously. He explained that his favorite food was still Japanese cuisine and sometimes still went to Tokyo for working purposes. The staffs were proud of their jobs and committed to keep getting better. More than one occasion they asked me about the food, the service, how they do (compared to their competitors or among Robuchon places) and how they could improve. I hardly remember the last time a top gastronomy restaurant brought such questions.

Please check out the link below for the dishes' pictures, https://picasaweb.google.com/118237905546308956881/JoelRobuchonSingapore2ndVisit 

Food (and Wine): 97 pts

Service (and Ambiance): 96 pts

Overall: 96.5/100  

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Kyo Aji Kenichiro Nishi

Kyo Aji may not be a kind of restaurant that many people are familiar with except for serious Japanese gourmands. As a matter of fact, it was not in my radar initially when I did my 'homework'. Kyo Aji, located in the Shinbashi neighborhood, literally means "Taste of Kyoto". Master Chef-Owner Kenichiro Nishi is originally from Kyoto, Japan's ancient capital, before moving and settling in Tokyo. The establishment has been around for more than 40 years and consistently occupying Tabelog's top spot. There is a couple of reasons why this restaurant is not that 'popular'. Firstly, Chef Kenichiro Nishi refused the 3-star Michelin awards, hence you will not see it anywhere in the Red Guide. Like Matsukawa, Nishi-san disliked or didn't care about any awards or publication. Secondly, Kyo Aji is strictly an "introduction-only" restaurant. Sometimes in July, I called and talked with a few Chief Concierges from Tokyo's elite hotels such as Mandarin Oriental, Peninsula, Park Hyatt etc.; all of them informed me that they were unable to secure seats for me and my wife at Kyo Aji. Honestly, I didn't have much hope. I was simply trying my luck and told some chefs and friends about my desire to dine there. 1-2 months before we're leaving Tokyo, my friend's friend suddenly informed me that s(he) knew someone who could and was willing to help us introduce and reserve a meal at Kyo Aji as a gift for our "2nd (delayed) honeymoon".  Moreover, it's a dinner! I would be very ecstatic even with lunch ... Voila, that's how we ultimately could eat here.

Kyo Aji, as the name suggests, serves top quality Japanese traditional food (in kappo-kaiseki style) focusing on Kyoto cuisine. The restaurant only offered one menu - omakase, serving only the best dishes using stunning seasonal ingredients and depending upon diners' food allergy (if any). Since it's a golden opportunity, we made sure that would not be late for our dinner. With a clear map and a picture of the restaurant's entrance, my wife and I managed to reach Kyo Aji 15 min. earlier. As we took pictures around the restaurant's premises, I saw a senior gentleman in white coming out of a side door bid farewell to 3 middle-aged local executives. Then, (in Japanese) I greeted him and asked if he was Kenichiro Nishi-san. Chef Kenichiro said yes and looked a bit puzzled; he might be thinking: "how in the world this foreign stranger knew my name". I told him I got a reservation at his restaurant, after that he called someone from inside and soon a friendly lady in kimono appeared. As we came before our appointment time and it was cold outside, the Okami Makiko Nishi kindly let us waiting inside the private dining room. About 5 min. later, we were escorted to our seats at the counter. Allora, another good fortune - we're seated in the 6th & 7th row from the entrance, in which I could clearly see the legendary chef himself in action. All the 9 spots at the counter were occupied. A memorable gastronomy journey just began; in total the restaurant served us sixteen courses including 2 rice dishes and 2 desserts.

'Amuse-bouche': Anago served with steamed sticky rice and wasabi - The conger eel was light and pure (exploiting the anago's natural flavor), worked well with the 'translucent' mochi rice and pleasant horseradish
Hassun: It consisted of dried & cured mullet roe, 'salad' of cucumber with persimmon sauce & sesame paste, and water chestnut chip - Good quality karasumi; refreshing vegetables; crunchy & slightly bitter chip

Yaki Matsutake: Broiled Matsutake mushroom seasoned with lemon and served with spinach - Along with French morels, this is my favorite mushroom in the world. The matsutake was clean & aromatic with pleasant meaty texture. The chef managed to fully bring out its flavor in this dish. The lemon and spinach provided nice variation
Shirako - A generous serving of plump Cod's milt/fish sperm that's initially boiled with salt only. This winter delicacy showcased different textures: dry & chewy on the surface and creamy/milky inside with subtle sweet sensation   

Taiza Kani - Top notch snow crab from Kyoto is Japan's best crab (possibly also the world's best). It contained plenty of succulent egg sacs. The crab meat, served chilled with the kani miso, was pristine and delicious. Easily the best crab dish I've ever eaten in my life until the ones I had at Matsukawa ..
Deep fried Ebi imo - The shrimp-like taro with curved shape was not greasy at all. It's very delightful, fragrant and tasty. Deceptively simple but required an expert to produce this kind of age-imo, which was crispy outside and still soft inside

Sashimi: Maguro and Tai - High quality of Bluefin tuna without any trace of imperfection; the Sea bream was elegant and delicate with the right amount of chewiness
Hamo Matsutake Nabe: Hot pot containing sliced conger pike eels and Pine mushrooms in dashi and served with sauce (shio & sudachi) - A beautiful marriage of delicious Summer and Autumn ingredients. The flavorful broth was extracted from hamo bones and perfumed by matsutake. The fluffy & full body "king" eel looked like a flower (thanks to many fine slits cut into it). The matsutake offered entrancing aroma while retaining its firm texture; it's very oishii when cooked in hamo dashi. An amazing and unique delicacy, simply perfect!

Moroko-fish and Sole served with Shimeji mushroom and sweet vinegar sauce - The lightly grilled moroko from lake Biwa was savory with sweet/salty taste. The sole fish, dried overnight, was more intense. Enhance both fishes with the pleasant vinegar; the shimeji was nutty with some umami flavor
Kabu cooked in dashi served with shrimp, matsutake and kikuna/shungiku - The round turnip was mild and soft drawing the taste from the mushroom and shrimp while the (edible) chrysanthemum leaves tasted slightly bitter - a nice flavor contrast 

Age Matsutake: Deep fried Matsutake mushroom - Chef Nishi did fabulous job. The matsutake inside was still firm and meaty; the bread crumbs outside was of great quality. The dish was not greasy/soggy at all and I could still taste the pine mushroom subtle flavor. In addition, it revealed an interesting contrast of 'chewy' matsutake and crisp crust. Excellent!
Nimono: Simmered chestnut served with Sea bream - The boiled chestnuts was soft and had a hearty taste that's comforting when the weather was cold. There was a good portion of Tai at the bottom; the white fish flesh was delicate and tasty. A good combination

Matsutake Gohan: Rice cooked in matsutake-based 'dashi' - The Japanese rice, served with radish & pickles, was cooked with broth made of wild pine mushroom. The rice well absorbed the earthy matsutake. Nishi-san didn't do much with it; he simply let the natural smell & taste of Matsutake to shine itself
Sake Harasu Gohan: Grilled Salmon belly with white rice - Kyo Aji's famous rice dish. The gohan had very good texture that went well over carefully broiled salmon. The salmon belly was salty and a bit juicy; it's even better than the matsutake gohan

Kuzu-kiri served with kuromitsu - Kyoto style sweets, the restaurant's signature dessert. Kuzu-kiri was the translucent "noddle" strips (sitting in ice water) that's made of boiled kuzuko while kuromitsu was the brown sugar syrup. It's simple and elegant. The kuzukiri, silky with amazing texture and minimal taste, was dipped into fragrant & liquid kuromizu that had the right amount of sweetness. Together, they're producing an ethereal experience. My best dessert in Japan
Warabi mochi - Jelly-like mochi, served chilled, was freshly made from bracken starch and covered in toasted soybean flour. This Kansai specialty was my wife's most favorite dessert. It's very delicate and quickly dissolved in the mouth; you could hardly chew it. The nutty kinako was flavorful. We ate a couple more warabi mochi during the trip, but nothing came close to this   

Kyo Aji just provided me a fantastic (meal) experience that I would remember and cherish for a long time. The cooking here is all about deep respect to Japan's amazing produces. Master Chef Kenichiro Nishi, often labeled as "God of Japanese Cuisine", consistently brought out the natural and best taste of every ingredient and their beautiful combination . He would not mask/manipulate flavor or do too much with his food; less is more. The result was dishes that were clean, soothing as well as delicious. His cooking method essentially epitomized maturity and simplicity of kaiseki perfection. Everything was in harmony; you hardly find any dish that was not balanced or too rich. I could not agree more when many have said that in order to fully appreciate what Kyo Aji has to offer, it would've been better if you already had (extensive kaiseki) meals elsewhere. It's especially true with my wife's case. She got used more to very flavorful stuffs from South East Asia and could not really differentiate great products at times. Even for me, my understanding and respect towards Nishi-san's dishes grew after having meals at Kyoto Kitcho and Ishikawa. We were told that this year, Matsutake mushroom season appeared later than usual. Hence, we're blessed to still be able to enjoy this delicacy (in fact, lots of them) in the middle of November.

Kyo Aji's service, led by Kenichiro Nishi's eldest daughter, was impeccable. Makiko-san was exemplary and spoke fluent English; she was assisted by 2 other staffs and all of them was courteous, helpful and sincere. Honestly, I was pleasantly surprised. As an exclusive restaurant, I expected to receive formal and rigid treatment at Kyo Aji, perhaps similar to my experience at l'Ambroisie. It's totally the opposite. We felt very comfortable and had a wonderful time. Nishi-san was really welcoming, caring and easy going. With the assistance for his daughter, he initiated plenty of conversation. For instance: whether our home/family was not affected by typhoon haiyan, what we would do during our stay in Japan, how we found out about his restaurant etc. When my wife asked for a 2nd help of the warabi mochi, he was curious if it's that tasty. Thus he tasted a couple pieces of his own creation (except for the dashi, I didn't really notice that he often sampled the restaurant's dishes). Furthermore, Chef Nishi asked when we intend to come back again because he's already old and can be 'gone anytime - though he still looked healthy. I thought it was both funny and a bit sad. Toward the end, I requested to take a picture with him and Chef Nishi immediately agreed. He suggested that it would be better to do it outside, in front of his beloved restaurant. Even in his mid/late 70's, Nishi-san was still energetic - you should see his lively spirit and radiant face in the picture from the link below. He's so passionate that he not only supervised his staffs in the kitchen, but also cooked several dishes. Unbelievable! As we bid farewell, he told his daughter to make sure the taxi driver knew our hotel address. I was very touched by his kind gestures, after all he's a "kaiseki God". What a gracious host, humble person and superb chef.  

Kyo Aji has become my 2nd favorite restaurant in the world, very close to Alain Passard's l'Arpege. Everything worked well together; I was not sure if we were lucky or it was a destiny. The Matsutake mushroom, usually finished by end of October, was still available in mid November this year. Due to the unusual cold weather, people could eat Taiza crab in early Nov; also how in the world Kyo Aji still had high quality Hamo in the Autumn. Any dishes with these ingredients as the main stars were my favorite. It might sound weird, but I felt that we found favor in the eyes of the Nishi family (Kenichiro Nishi and Makiko Nishi) in many ways. First, without being accompanied by the regular, we had a dinner meal; normally, newcomer could reserve lunch only. Next, it's Kenichiro-san's act of kindness and generosity as described in the previous paragraph. Then, as if we've known each other for years, Makiko-san shared lots of interesting stories, many of them happened to be personal, ranging from the younger days of his father, the building's story, the future of Kyo Aji, what they often do together as a family, some his dad's characters & personalities and many more. While doing that, she never failed to explain every dish, patiently answer any questions we had and continuously delivered immaculate service. She really made us feel "at home". We're surprised at how Makiko-san openly shared many "private" things including her own family since she barely knew me and my wife. With that kind of trust, I decided not to spill the beans. Lastly, some of you may have pondered this but I would to apologize in advance that I could not help any of you make a reservation here. Visited this place once does not make me a regular (yet).

Kyo Aji prepared a kaiseki meal that was truly a celebration of senses and life; it embodied the equilibrium permeating through nature as well as the heart of the altering seasons. I could see that Kenichiro Nishi-san cooked with every element of his life: head, heart and even his soul. The result was delightful and flavorful dishes. It has been privileged and great pleasure to dine at Kyo Aji. In a rather ordinary dining room lies an extra ordinary meal and people. Please click the following link to see the pictures of what I ate: Kyo Aji Fall 2013

Food: 99 pts

Service: 97 pts

Overall: 98.5/100