Monday, December 26, 2011

Urasawa Beverly Hills

Having traveled and dined among Europe's best establishments, it often makes me not easy to eat and have favorable reviews on the US restaurants I've visited (Just to name a few, I've been to per se twice, Alinea, Joel Robuchon, Jean Georges etc). However, there is an exception and this belongs to my favorite dining place in the United States - Urasawa. The exceptional dining experiences I had at Urasawa have been tested over times as I have been there thrice in the last 3 years. They're consistently great. I will be more than happy to return there whenever I have a chance. This review will share my 2nd and 3rd meal I had at Urasawa (2010 & 2011).

When his master Masa Takayama moved to Time Warner Center - New York, Masa's sous chef and protege Hiroyuki Urasawa purchased and took over the small restaurant that's located in the heart of Beverly Hills, near the posh shopping complex of Rodeo Drive. The restaurant, formerly known as Ginza Sushiko , is more like a sushi bar, seated 10 fortunate guests every night and there's a table for four as well. The setting has simple design - the flowers and banners at the chef's background may change seasonally; the place itself is nearly spotless and comfortable. There is only one menu: the omakase that is known as sushi kaiseki. The chef would ask your preferences/diets and personalized the menu for the guest based on the many luxurious and freshest ingredients available that often flown daily from Japan. Without further delay, here are the dishes I ate at the LA's culinary temple


Summer Vegetables - Drink in one gulp, it was fresh and nice. You can taste vinegar dressing, yam, tomato, junsai, potato and radish. Most of the veggies are from Japan

Toro-Senmaizuke Maki - Urasawa's signature dish consisting of seared Toro, monkfish liver (Ankimo), pickle kabu turnip and caviar with Yuzu dressing. A balanced course: fatty tuna mixed well with creamy liver and caviar's brininess, the sauce is light enough not to dominate the dish

Goma Dofu (2nd visit) - Another famous dish at Urasawa, essentially it's a traditional Kyoto dish that mixes water, sesame, Matcha, Uni, and a bit of wasabi & gold flake. At first, you will taste the light sesame/green tea, then come the sea urchin's creaminess in the next layer. Don't forget to zip the Dashi (soup stock) for more depth, the wasabi would add a little heat. Not sure about the purpose of the golden leaves ...

Goma Dofu (3rd visit) - It is very similar to the previous dish except without any green tea element. The "tofu" made from Kudzu powder and sesame paste looks like a 'pillow' that encases sweet Uni. It's rather dense but somehow soothing to the palate; add a bit of freshly grated wasabi on every bite for better finishing .. seriously

Taka Maki - Cooked Sea Eel wrapped in squashed cucumber served with sweet mygo vegetable and sauce made from vinegar, sake and bonito. I generally enjoy any cooked eel while the cucumber gave the roll a clean taste to balance the eel with slight yuzu dressing below

Sashimi (2nd visit) - It consists of Toyama Kampachi (Yellow tail), Spanish Toro (Fatty tuna) and Hokkaido Uni served with Shizuoka wasabi. The Kampachi is of high quality (balanced of fat and flavor), the fatty Tuna is heavenly, and the sea urchin is sweet and creamy

Sashimi (3rd visit) - It consists of Kyushu Sima Aji (Striped Jack), Boston Toro and Hokkaido Uni (Sea Urchin) served with red cabbage, sea weed and wasabi. The Sima Aji displays a nice fish texture, the Toro is oily and palatable, yet delicate while the Uni is creamy and intensely sweet, typical Japanese sea urchin

Wagyu Tartar - Matsuzaka Beef Tartar served with Russian Caviar, Pickled radish and Red bell pepper. Arguably my favorite dish from the last visit and one of the best bite in my life. The beef is sweet and decadent supported by generous portion of caviar's saltiness, the pepper is enjoyably tangy. We're fortunate to have this dish since nowadays it's nearly impossible to legally import Japan's wagyu beef to the US

Tai - The Red Snapper, steamed with sake, along with seaweed wraps around Ebi, uni, Shiitake mushroom and scallion served with ponzu radish sauce. The clean and mild Snapper balances the shrimp and urchin sweet flavor; the sauce shows temperature as well as flavor contrast - another dish that's almost always served at Urasawa

Tempura - California Abalone was boiled in sake for a few hours before prepared in tempura style resulting in succulent dish. It has a wonderful crunchy and chewy texture with some salt and citrus flavor on it. Chew it as long as possible for maximum enjoyment :)

Chawan Mushi - This time the luscious Egg custard is served with Ikura (Salmon roes), shrimp, mushroom, Ginko, squash, gold leaf and Italian summer truffles. This dish is not only beautifully presented, but also very tasty - the texture is smooth and silky, rich but not cloying, complex with some tang and briny elements while the truffle is not too bad

Houba Yaki - The Magnolia leaf consists of Santa Barbara shrimp, Hokkaido scallop and Kobe beef served with Tama miso (grilled sesame paste with sake & sugar) sauce. The rich and delectable beef goes perfectly with the miso's flavor, the prawn is juicy and crisp, the scallop is delicate. The sauce is pleasantly sweet, but be careful it's really hot and can burn your tongue

Shabu Shabu (2nd visit) - The famous dish here consists of Hamo (King Eel), French Foie Gras, Toyama Squid and Kobe Beef. The server would do the cooking for us fortunately. The hamo is meaty and soft, duck liver simmered the longest is mild yet unyielding, the beef is flavorful as expected with sufficient fat and the squid is rather rich, can still taste a bit of its 'ink'

Shabu Shabu (3rd visit) - This signature dish consists of large and thick Sea Eel, Sweet shrimp and Duck liver. The dashi soup is quite good, the foie gras is my favorite this time - tender and creamy. The Hamo has an interesting texture while the shrimp is sweet and a bit firm surprisingly

Dessert 1: Peach jelly served with Goji berry. This is a decent palate cleanser

Dessert 2 (2nd visit): Goma pudding served with red bean paste, gold foil and sesame seeds. Hiro-San apparently loves anything relates to sesame ingredients. It's sweet, nutty and earthy. There is also a bowl of organic matcha tea (the tea powder is blended using a bamboo chasen)

Dessert 2 (3rd visit): Sesame ice cream served with Summer truffle and gold flake. The ice cream is rich and creamy, worked well with the earthy truffles. Possibly my favorite dessert at Urasawa


O Toro (Tuna belly fattiest part) - The best way to begin a parade of nigiri sushi. The toro is rich, marbling, smooth and melting in my mouth
Seared Kama Toro (Tuna Collar) - The fragrant fish is tender, buttery and a bit smoky
Kanpachi (Amberjack) - Tasty and creamy with pleasant texture

Seki Aji (Horse Mackerel) 2nd visit – This premium aji from Kyushu is delicate, mild and may melt in the mouth
Sawara Aji (Spanish Mackerel) 3rd visit - Another beautiful fish ... It's flavorful, little oily and still quite tender. Nice application of wasabi here

Tai (Red Snapper) - The clear fish is delicate with right addition of yuzu zest, fine texture
Maguro (Blue-fin Tuna) - Quite enjoyable though it's rather ordinary when compared to the previous fishes
Shima Aji (Skipjack) - Mild and crisp, one of the fishes with the most distinct texture
Ika (Squid) - Subtly sweet, smooth, silky and chewy. The addition of yuzu citrus works well

Mirugai (Geoduck) 2nd visit – The giant clam is firm and crunchy with a hint of sweetness. Chew slowly and enjoy it
Mategai (Razor Clam) 3rd visit - The sushi texture has been increasingly more chewy. The flesh is firm and crunchy with a hint of sweetness

Shiitake Mushroom - Grilled mushroom combines with vinegared rice producing earthy and delicious piece of sushi
Negi Toro Maki - The rolls consist of minced toro, crunchy radish, leek and fresh scallion. Decent ... I don't mind replacing this one with Ikura sushi actually
Uni (Sea Urchin) - Uni is better served as sushi than sashimi and along with Otoro, it's my favorite piece. Soft, creamy and sweet - perfect with warm sushi rice

Seared Gyusashi (Kobe Beef) 2nd visit – With some zesty flavor, this beef is sumptuous and to die for. Urasawa may no longer prepare this anymore …
Hotate (Scallop) 3rd visit - The mild and clean scallop is topped with yuzu and tasty 'brown' sauce

Chu Toro (Medium Fatty Tuna) - Most sushi chef would serve this after/before O Toro to show the slight contrast. It's lighter and less-marbled, nevertheless still very good and smooth
Shiro Ebi (White Shrimp) - A collection of several small shrimps makes up this soft and mildly sweet piece of nigiri. Some of the ebi may coat in your tongue
Awabi (Abalone) - The Japanese abalone is scored to make it more tender. Eating awabi is not so much about the taste (subtly sweet), but more into its firm & chewy texture

Ama Ebi (Sweet Shrimp) 2nd visit – It is sweet but clear & clean in the palate; the sauce, madefrom the shrimp innards, is good
Botan Ebi (Spot Shrimp) 3rd visit - Very pleasing to the eye! Freshly killed and prepared in front of us, it's garnished with its brain and soy sauce - sweet, somewhat crunchy and savory. Thumbs up ..

Aji No Tataki - Chopped Spanish Mackerel served with zesty ginger, scallion, earthy miso, and shiso. Complex with many complimentary flavors yet balanced. I've never had this outside Urasawa
Anago (Sea Eel) - Moist, succulent and rich, integrated well with the sweet glaze
Tamago (Egg) - A good sushi chef can simply be judged from the quality of his tamago, and Urasawa-san passed with high mar. This moist sweet egg custard resembles a rather spongy-cake with right amount of sweetness

Urasawa has selective wine/sake selection, relatively few but many are of good qualities. Some sake bottles I could remember of: Juyondai from Yamagata and Katsuyama from Miyagi (both are junmai-daiginjo, mainly made from white rice and koji). The wine lists include: '90 Chapelle Chambertin and '98 Dom Perignon Rose. For myself, I only ordered a small sake served in Tokkuri (flask) - Kubota Manju from Niigata prefecture. I love it, probably one of my best; the sake is delicious, smooth & silky in the mouth. It has a hint of dried orange aroma and a perfect dry balance. For the 3rd visit, I did not drink since I was driving. As far as the hospitality is concerned, actually Hiro Urasawa himself is the ultimate host. He's always friendly, gracious and accommodating to all guests, whether you are a regular or first timer. I considered myself blessed that I've always been seated in front of Urasawa-san including the last visit with my wife even though we're about an hour late (we reached there almost 8 PM). When I ate alone, he would happily initiate a conversation. Additionally, he would not let any guest go to the restroom or leave the restaurant without having someone open the door for him/her. It may seem like a small gesture, but this kind of thoughtfulness (besides the delicious food) is the very thing that create a memorable dining experience. The rest of the staffs are alright, but do not expect to engage to many conversation with them.

Hiroyuki Urasawa is a perfect example of Japanese master chef who is very devoted to his work and constantly in pursuit of excellence. Everyday, he works hard to perfect his skills of balancing precise execution and artistic plating in order to produce flawless dishes that are both beautiful and palatable. As you can see from the pictures, each course is divine and meticulously crafted. The chef will let the natural flavors of the ingredients to shine, inter-connect and speak for themselves. Nothing will be taken for granted - guest will also enjoy a distinguish balance of texture, temperature and freshness. Urasawa truly loves what he does and he does not mind sharing his experiences. He is really detailed and particular about his cooking. For instance, he uses about 180 grains of rice for sushi; he would patiently explain that he forms the rice differently for various cuts of sushi. Similar to many high-end sushi places in Japan, guest will not need to add any wasabi or dipping sauce here since the chef would put and brush the optimal amount of wasabi & soy directly on the fish/sea food before presenting them to the diner. Despite what he has achieved, Hiro-san is a humble gentleman. No matter what compliments you give him, he will usually respond by saying that his mentor, Masa is still a better chef. Possibly this is part of the Asian culture to never elevate his own status higher than his teacher. After having a few sumptuous feasts at Urasawa that usually last approximately four hours, this is arguably the best place to dine in the entire US - at least it's true for me.

Please follow the link below for the pictures,

Food (and Wine): 96 pts

Service (and Ambiance): 94 pts

Overall: 95.5/100

Friday, November 4, 2011

Pierre Gagnaire Paris - 3rd visit

Haute cuisine has become a big trend in the developed society all around the globe in the past several years. Pioneered by Alain Ducasse and Joel Robuchon, many more celebrity chefs have followed their foot steps to open several restaurants bearing the chef's name. Pierre Gagnaire, a talented and adventurous chef, without exception has also expanded his wings as far as Seoul and Moscow. When he opened Sketch London in 2002 or even Pierre Tokyo and HK in '05/06, I thought this was it. With the recent aggressive expansion, I am curious whether Chef Gagnaire's eponymous restaurant in Paris is still up to its high standard; whether the ranking drops in the restaurant magazine was associated with him not being in the Paris kitchen often enough. However, with 2 wonderful experiences before, I decided to still go ahead and hoped to have another great meal in mid-December 2010. This was indeed a meal to remember.

It was the beginning of winter, but the weather was colder than usual (as a matter of fact, it's about one week before the Europe's blizzard and winter storm). Our hotel was not too far from rue Balzac, hence we chose to walk. We arrived at the restaurant nearly 830 PM and the restaurant was nearly full, diners were split between francophone and english-speaking guests. Actually, this was a good period to enjoy "La Chasse" aka game season. I quite like game stuffs such as partridge, venison or hare but I knew I could not eat them too much (tasting portion should be sufficient). My fiancee never tried any hunting stuffs, I was afraid that she would not like it. Since we prefer to order a la carte dishes, we opted to skip game dishes (it will probably be too heavy for us) as well as white truffle stuffs, the later one was due to our limited budget. Pierre Gagnaire was a master in preparing dishes based on the sea and land elements. Thus, it's a must that we order one fish as well as one meat dish. To start our meal, we split something that was (hopefully) light and refreshing. Prior to these, we had several amuse-bouche. The ones I remembered enjoying were artichoke jelly with spinach and lentil soup with green beans and mushrooms. The ones I expected to be good such as clam & eel with tomato and cucumber turned out to be so-so. These were what we ate,

Les Entrees

Corolle de bar de ligne au sel de Maldon, chair de pamplemousse thaï, aloé-vera et mangue verte; huile d’olive ardente Santa Tea émulsionnée citron confit, fruits de la passion, miel d’arbousier (Corolla of line-fished sea bass with maldon salt, flesh of thai pomelos, aloe vera and green mango; Santa Tea ardente olive oil emulsified with crystallized lemon, passion fruits, Arutus tree honey) - The dish looked simple on picture, but the preparation was complex. It's more like a fresh fish prepared in sashimi-style

Royale d’oursin au vieux malt; coques, amandes et bigorneaux (Royal-style urchin with aged malt; cockles, dog cockles, periwinkles with pearl barley) - The sea whelk tasted mild, the whole dish showed some textures contrast among different ingredients
Galette soufflée de mascarpone, langues et fleurs de capucine (Souffleed mascarpone pancake, urshin tongues and capucine flowers) - Only Pierre Gagnaire can make this kind of 'strange but interesting' dish ... the pancake was soft served with nice urchin

Barquette végétale: kokotchas, tripe de morue et espardeigne (Cod Kokotchas, salt cod tripe and sea cucumber served in a green “barquette” made of vegetables with agar-agar) - A fragrant and excellent dish, probably my favorite in the Marine Garden appetizers. The veggies were fresh, the cod and sea cucumber were very tasty

Coeur de laitue braisé farci d’une brandade sèche, dentelle de châtaigne; velouté vert (Braised heart of lettuce stuffed with a dry “brandade”, chesnut lace; green velvety sauce) - This lettuce salad was alright, not particularly delicious
Infusion de crevette grise, poudre à tabac (Infusion of grey shrimps, cepe mushrooms’ powder) - The soup was rather clear, but rich in taste. The shrimps were nice and sweet

La Mer

Darne de gros turbot rôtie à la casserole ; les filets sont levés et terminés dans un velouté de champignon de Paris cerfeuil, roquette, cébette (Steak of large Turbot roasted in a casserole; the fillets are cooked in a smooth broth of Paris mushrooms chervil, melissa, rocket) - A firm and wonderful piece of turbot's white flesh. The fish by itself is already great, but the sweet and fresh 'green sauce' below made this dish even more flavorful. About as good as roast turbot with butter sauce I ate at l'Arpege

Anémone de mer traitée meunière, champignons boutons à la maniguette (Sauteed sea “Anemone” meuniere, button mushrooms with maniguette spice) - To balance the rather sweet green broth from the turbot, here comes the mushrooms side dish with garlic. It's earthy, but the spice was a bit too salty
Pâte d’agrumes aux câpres la Nicchia (Paste of citrus fruits flavored with Nicchia capers) - The acidic part of the side dish, not bad

Tarte Rouge: une duxelle; oignon, piquillos et poivron; gelée de piment d’Espelette (Red tart: sweet red peppers, onion, pepper, Espelette chilli pepper gelee) - Peppers combination that is able to extract some sweet, fresh and a little sour tastes. A good distraction from the turbot's rich flavor, even this was good enough as a dish on its own at any tasting menu

Accompanied by wine: 2007 Domaine Cauhape Jurancon Sec La Canopee (the white wine from the Aquitaine region)

La Terre

Selle d’agneau de Lozère frottée d’origan, cuisinée à plat; crêpe de pois chiche, humus et ris caramelizes. Beurre de cuisson lié de tamarin (Saddle of Lozere lamb rubbed with oregano; chickpeas pancake, caramelized humus and sweetbread. Butter sauce thickened with tamarind) - Is this what someone would call culinary perfection? When I ate the tender and pink lamb loin, it seemed so ethereal. If you like your juicy lamb richer, the thick brown sauce could help you. With this, I could simply 'ignored' other 'side' dishes. As good if not better than Passard's T-bone lamb (my fav. lamb thus far). It's official that I like Lozere lamb better than its Aubrac counterpart

Bourse d’ail noir au chou pommé (Green cabbage leave stuffed with black garlic on a cabbage compote) - A kind of salad, sorry that I could hardly remember anything about it
Blette paquet au Roquefort, caillé de brebis au céleri doré (Small parcels of white beets with Roquefort cheese, curdled ewe’s milk with celery) - It was decent with strong cheese flavor

Grosse carabinieros saisie à la plaque, harissa Maison (Big carabinieros shrimps cooked a la plancha, home-made Harissa) - This prawn seemed to be out of nowhere, nevertheless it's a fat and tasty prawn (fresh and sweet). However, the lamb was so good that the shrimp was out shined
Shiso, riz noir vénéré aux baies de sureau (Shiso, black rice with elderberries) - The rice with versatile perilla could elevate the already delicious and rich Lozere lamb dish

Accompanied by wine: 2008 Andre Perret Saint-Joseph (the red wine from the Syrah variety)

After eating the appetizers, my fiancee happened to be really sleepy (due to jet lag). We're supposed to share our dishes, but what happened was that I ended up consuming 80% of the main courses. I was more than happy to do so since both the turbot steak and the saddle of lamb were really scrumptious. But, consequently I did not have any space left for sweets as I was very full, though I longed to savor Chef Gagnaire's Le Grand Dessert. Gagnaire Paris remains one of the must-go dining places in the French capital and truly worth its 3-star accolade. As one of the world's most dynamic chef, Gagnaire's food is revolutionary yet rooted in French cuisine strong tradition - this was faithful to his cooking philosophy = 'facing tomorrow but respectful of yesterday' aka "tourné vers demain mais soucieux d'hier".

Some foodies said that no one prepared fish better than Pierre Gagnaire. This was probably true based on my tasty Bar de ligne (from 1st meal) and Turbot. After 3 visits, however, I was more impressed with the Chef's ability to cook wonderful meat items. The beef's shoulder and lamb loin were prepared with high precision as well as perfect execution resulting in unforgettable dishes. In his early 60s, Gagnaire's roasting skills seems to get better and better - perhaps on the next visit, I should try the duck or sweetbread. His imagination and spirit do not grow weary. Additionally, one will hardly eat the same dish here. For example, I ate "Parfum de Terre" a la carte a couple of years ago. I saw it again this time, yet none of the dishes was repeating what I previously had. Another positive aspect of Gagnaire Paris was: consistency. I've been dining here when Gagnaire was leading the kitchen, this time was under Michel Nave, who has been working with Gagnaire for more than 20 years, and when neither was available (led by Chef Thierry - the no 3 guy). In all those visits, the food was consistently good and of high quality (the 2nd meal was maybe slightly inferior compared the other 2 visits). I don't feel the need to discuss the service and ambiance further since they're good as always :) Please visit this link for the pictures,

Food (and Wine): 97 pts

Service (and Ambiance): 94 pts

Overall: 96/100

Monday, September 19, 2011

per se Thomas Keller

Thomas Keller is arguably the current finest Chef in America. His legendary restaurant, the French Laundry has elevated American restaurants to be considered among the world's best according to the British's restaurant magazine. After achieving many accolades, Chef Keller was still up to a challenge when he decided to open per se in New York where everything is almost the opposite of Yountville. While I have not visited the French Laundry, as a serious foodie, a trip to per se is a must. The first day of June 2009 marked my visit to a place in which many claimed to be New York's best place to eat. After a memorable meal, I re-visited this place a year later, however the result was quite the opposite unfortunately. I will share both experiences in this review.

In the late 80's, Alain Ducasse brought Le Louis XV to be the first hotel restaurant ever to earn Michelin 3-star award. In the new century, Thomas Keller showed that it's not impossible for a restaurant located in a mall (Time Warner Center) to be one of the world's best. As you reach the 4th floor, you will notice per se via its iconic blue doors (don't enter through here though). I arrived at the restaurant just in time and entered through its discreet sliding door of darkened glass. In contrast to the busy Columbus Circle and shopping mall, inside was calm and comfortable. The dining room here is modern and elegant with touches of woods, high ceiling and gentle lighting from spotlights. Moreover, it has two tiers and very well-spaced. I was seated at the 2nd row of the 1st level; though not a window seat, it's strategically positioned in such a way that I still had some view out the window overlooking Central Park. The meal here always began with gougeres (gruyere cheese cream puff) and salmon cornet (salmon tartar served with fresh cream, sesame and sweet onion). For dinner, there are 2 options available: 9-course tasting menu, normal or vegetables only. During both occasions, I chose the normal ones.

June 1st, 2009

"Oysters and Pearls": 'Sabayon' of pearl tapioca served with Island creek oysters and Sterling white sturgeon caviar - Possibly Keller's most famous dish. It's indeed decadent. The creamy sauce was balanced with juicy oyster as well as clear & salty caviar. Eat them together to feel the different layer of texture and temperature

French white asparagus "Amandine" served with toasted almond butter and watercress leaves with brown butter-almond 'mousseline' - The purity of the asparagus is awesome, it's perfectly cooked with slight sweet flavor. The crisp almond and brown butter add another dimention

Soft poached Squire hill farm's Ameraucana hen egg served with Oregon morel mushrooms, sauteed ramps and morel mushroom emulsion - It's hard to be wrong with an egg dish. The egg yolk was light, the morel's taste was rather weak compared to the ones when I ate in Europe

Crispy skin fillet of Kindai madai served with meyer lemon raviolo, caramelized cauliflower and italian capers with parsley vinaigrette - The fish was dry with relatively rough texture, the skin is very salty. The cauliflower was tasty and a bit delicate

Butter poached Nova scotia lobster served with Hobbs shore's applewood smoked bacon, Hadley orchard's medjool dates, Belgian endive and celery branch with bacon emulsion - I generally love lobster dish and this was no exception. It has the right texture (quite tender) enhanced with the bacon emulsion. Though not as sweet as the blue lobster nevertheless it's still nice

Liberty farm's pekin duck breast served with buckwheat spatzle, purple top turnips, poached rainier cherries and watercress with duck jus - The duck, accompanied by crunchy buckwheat, was tender, but not too juicy - simply ordinary ... not even close to my best duck dish at Arpege and Astrance

Mascarpone-enriched fava bean "Agnolotti" served with castelvetrano olives, young garlic and petite basil with villa mille rose extra virgin olive oil - Served generously, I kinda enjoy this bonus dish: pure taste and smooth texture, a nice transition from the duck

Elysian fields farm's "Selle d'agneau rotie entiere" served with Fork-crushed new crop potatoes, Sacramento delta green asparagus and Degustation of young onions with 'Bearnaise' reduction - My favorite dish of the night. Delicious piece of lamb's saddle: juicy and tender, also good preparation for the shallots. Outstanding!

"Quadrello di Bufala": Dijon mustard 'pain perdu,' chanterelle mushrooms, globe artichokes, french breakfast radishes and radish sprouts with sweet and sour mustard seeds - Essentially this is a cheese course. The Lombardy cheese was semi soft, worked well with the poppy seed bread and the mushrooms

Strawberry sorbet served with pistachio 'panna cotta' and rice wafer with pistachio 'pain de genes' - The journey will end soon. Here come a refreshing palate cleanser ...

"Coffee and Doughnuts": Cinnamon-sugared doughnuts with cappuccino semifreddo - Another Keller's signature item. The doughnut was light, soft and not too sweet, nicely paired with slight creamy coffee parfait. It was good, but not wow and you don't have to be regular to receive this dessert. Just ask

"Mud Pie": Dark chocolate mud cake, liquid caramel, chocolate 'cremeux' and caramel parfait with sassafras ice cream - Nice presentation. Chocolate, caramel and ice cream - a good dessert recipe. Love the chocolate flavor

"Pina Colada": Coconut parfait, pineapple 'creme patissiere,' coconut 'succes' and roasted pineapple with coconut sorbet - I like stuffs with coconut and pineapple. Ask and it shall be given, this is another extra dish. Overall it's decent, but the coconut sorbet by itself was really good

My first meal was accompanied by 3 glasses of wines:
- Pierre Gimonet blanc de blanc champagne
- 2005 Paul Chapelle puligny montrachet
- 2006 L'Angevin pinot noir

June 19th, 2010

Haas avocado mousse served with white Sturgeon caviar and pistachio nut oil - The avocado mousse blended well with the caviar. Quite good, though I prefer the classic 'Oysters and pearls'

Foie gras surrounded by duck consomme served with toasted brioche - The duck liver was kinda light in flavor. It's not worth the extra supplement

Dover sole served with tarragon and 'cream' of vegetables - The sole was dominated with the vegetables around especially the one on top of it. I was not too keen of this dish

Scottish prawns (langoustines) a la plancha served with madeira emulsion - The best thing in my 2nd meal at per se. The restaurant has a great purveyor with the prawn - sweet, right amount of 'resistance', by itself it's even better than Maine's lobster

Braised pork belly served with egg & mustard sauce - The pork is served at the right temperature, the skin was salty. A nice little layer of fat, however the meat was somewhat dry. Overall, it's a decent dish

Lamb loin prepared medium-rare - After eating a wonderful lamb dish on my 1st meal, of course I would not mind having another lamb here. Unfortunately, while the meat was still tender and juicy, the lamb's flavor was quite weak. Still OK, but not as good as my earlier experience

Saint-Nectaire cheese served with custard with dates, currant & walnut bread - Soft and silky cheese with some hints of hazelnut

Mango sorbet served with rice pudding and rice wafer with whipped jasmine tea - Thai influence on the chef's new interpretation of 'mango and rice'. The mango sorbet was both sweet and sour, the rice gave different texture

"Truffe au Chocolate et Pistache": pistachio 'bavarois', bitter chocolate 'marquise' and chocolate ice cream - Another tasty chocolate dessert, in particular the ice cream. Chocolate with pistachio cannot really go wrong with one another

For the second meal, a few friends and I shared two bottles of wine:
- 2008 Chablis 1er Cru Vaucoup
- 1999 Chateau La Vieille Cure

per se indeed has an impressive wine lists. The sommelier and/or captain was able to help you choose wines that go well with the dishes you have. That's what I did in my first visit and it worked; on the 2nd occasion I let my friend chose and they're still good. From the food perspective, it's a mixed feeling. My 2009 meal was really impressive (ranked among my best dining experience in the States). The signature dishes, such as: "oyster and pearls" or "coffee and doughnuts" lived up to its reputation. Even the seasonal items like white asparagus and roasted lamb were excellent. It's more amazing when I visited the kitchen (it has a massive pass with ample room for servers and cooks) and found out both Thomas Keller and Jonathan Benno were not around that day. However, when I came again one year later (this time bringing in a few other foodie friends), the experience was the opposite sadly. I opted not to repeat whatever I had in the first meal and the maitre d' complied. Except for a pair of Scottish langoustines, the rests were ordinary and forgettable. Even, I was disappointed with my foie gras supplement. I thought it was only me, but in fact my friends were not that pleased too especially given the price, they expected more. Majority said per se was not bad, but Daniel and Jean-Georges were better (really?). At the end, we were busy talking among ourselves and did not really bother to complain about the food as nothing really went wrong, and neither did it impress anybody. Towards the end I asked my maitre d' if chef de cuisine was around, she politely said Chef Benno had left per se in the beginning of 2010 (replaced by Eli Kaimeh). I was confused whether my first or second meal was the restaurant's standard food quality.

While the food was rather inconsistent, the hospitality here was always top notch - professional, gracious and pleasant. The captain and even some "runners" were nice and well informed about what they are serving. Many of them was passionate about food as well. While dining alone, my captain often entertained me so that I was not bored and ensured I enjoyed my meal throughout. On the second visit, the maitre d' lady who was helping my table last time (and somehow still remembered me) was courteous and friendly. She's never obtrusive knowing we enjoyed chatting among ourselves, but quickly attending our needs at the same time. If I had to knit-picking about the service here, it was that your napkin would not be replaced when you left the table for rest rooms or other reasons. I was often told that per se was supposed to be an urban interpretation of French Laundry. I could not compare since I have never been to its sister property in Napa Valley. Generally, I was satisfied with the overall experience and will not be afraid of returning in the future. My meal at per se in the summer of '09, along with dinner at Urasawa and Ducasse Essex House, was my favorite dining experience I've ever had in the US. If only the 2nd meal were as good as the 1st one ... Follow the link below for the pictures,

Food (and Wine): 93 pts

Service (and Ambiance): 95 pts

Overall: 94/100

Sunday, June 19, 2011

L'Arpege Alain Passard - 5th & 6th visit

If you have followed my blog or restaurant reviews, L'Arpege is certainly the place that needs the least introduction since it's the most frequent top dining institution I have visited in the past half-decade. It was the first time I came to Paris twice in the same year - it translated to two L'Arpege meals: the 5th visit took place in Feb '10 with my parents while the 6th one occurred in Dec of the same year with my fiancee. After several previous visits, I become very comfortable and familiar with the restaurant. The interior was still warm-looking and minimalist surrounded by wood-paneled walls that were adorned with several artworks; for dinner - each table, capped with white linens, is decorated with a single candle, a beautiful plate combining the Corian stark white and the Japanese lacquer deep red (designed exclusively for Arpege by Claudio Colucci), as well as seasonal fruits from Alain Passard's garden.

The meal here always began with a few vegetable tartelettes (tomato, beetroot and carrot for our case); then come the crusty French country loaf accompanied by Bordier's churned butter that's smooth, salty and creamy as usual (After 5-10 min, the butter became a bit softer to my likeness). Alain Passard is known to be a virtuoso of vegetables particularly ever since he announced that he 'gave up' on meat in early 2001. However, not many people remember/know that he is also a master of roasting meat/poultry for more than 30 years - the "art of fire" skill and passion can be traced back into his childhood when he saw his grand mother preparing a splendid meal for the family. While eating vegetables here is truly a pleasure, my main joy dine at L'Arpege is when I savor Passard's seafood and poultry dishes. He interprets his cooking to be somewhat similar to an impressionist artist: minimal touches to create the products authenticity. He wants to ensure that the purity of the product by preserving its original color, essence, flavor and aroma. The result is delicacies with high precision of cooking. Below are some highlights of my meal,

1st meal (dinner) - a la carte

Robe des champs multicolore [Arlequin], navet boule d’or, rutabaga jaune champion, chou rave blanc logo ... (Multicolor display of organic vegetables) - This is probably the 3rd time I eat this dish, but never was in the Winter. Each vegetable was prepared with little seasoning, allowing its own flavor to shine. There were many different kinds of tasty beet roots; the carrots and onions were great too. This dish has some Moroccan flavor through the inclusion of couscous and argan oil

Coquilles Saint-Jacques de la Côte d’Emeraude, thé vert matcha (Emerald Coast‘s Scallop in green tea flavor served with slowly cooked spinach) - The Emerald scallop, still attached to its shell, is arguably the finest France has to offer. It's fat, juicy and well-flavored combined with fresh spinach and subtle green tea 'powder & sauce'

Pêche côtière grillée sur écailles, Turbot de la pointe de Bratagne (Grill Brittany Turbot served with parsley puree and olive oil) - My dad said L'Arpege already has 'unfair' advantage of ingredients to begin with :) with excellent cooking, here come a delicious fish. The best part is the one near the bone with thin layer of fat - He said Passard's turbot 'destroyed' the one he had at Le Bristol during lunch

Canard de Challans a l’Hibiscus, betterave coucher de soleil et marc d’orange (Challans' duck cooked in Hibiscus served with shallot, beets and quenelle of orange, forming 'sunset color') - The exquisite skin was a bit soft, but the meat is excellent: moist and succulent. The sweet and sour hibiscus glaze is sophisticated without being overpower plus the top notch vegetables on the sides make it a wonderful dish. I only ordered half-portion, the full one will include the leg and thigh parts

Aiguillettes de homard de l’Archipel de Chausey à la truffe noire, pommes de terre fumées au vieux chêne (Lobster cooked in yellow wine sauce served with smoked potatoes and black truffle) - This a must-have dish at L'Arpege and my parents loved it. The meat is perfectly cooked with delicate texture. The potato was simply excellent, while the black truffle's affect was not that much. There's a balance between texture and flavor. Excellent!

Dragée de pigeonneau de Sainte-Anne d'Auray, sauce à l'hydromel (Pigeonneau from Sainte-Anne d'Auray served with crushed sugar-coated almond candy crust, hyrdomel sauce, and beet roots) - This was my favorite dish for this meal. The juicy meat, along with crispy skin and thin layer of fat, is perfectly cooked and deliciously tender. The sauce is ethereal ... it's rich and complex with a sense of little sweetness from the fermented honey, yet still very balance. An instant classic :)

Comté de Garde Exceptionnelle, truffe noire (Matured comte cheese served with black truffles) - An exceptional cheese and presented beautifully. It is salty and quite sharp combined with pungent truffle flavor. The egg and the Comte are the 2 items I never missed whenever I dine here

Macaron au topinambour [fuseau], chocolat noir araguani (Macaron in Jerusalem artichoke flavor served with dark chocolate sauce) - A very well-made macaron. It has pretty much everything: perfect texture, right 'chewiness' and frosting as well as inventive flavor. The chocolate sauce is also heavenly, not too sweet and enhance the overall experience - thumbs up!

Ananas en aigre doux (Sweet and sour pineapple) - Simple and practical dessert. A refreshing pineapple served with honey, olive oil and turnip/apple. Light and easy, a good palate cleanser at the end of our meal

2nd meal (lunch) - carte blanche

Oeuf à la coque; quatre épices (Slow-poached egg yolk served in its shell with 4 kinds of spices - nutmeg, cloves, ginger and pepper) - The famous Arpége egg in silky & soft texture with light whipped cream. The rich & buttery yolk is enhanced by the salt, vinegar and sweet maple syrup

Fines ravioles potageres (Thin vegetables raviolis) - The soft vegetables ravioli containing celery in warm apple-flavored consomme. The broth actually makes the difference

Celerisotto (Celeriac "Risotto") - There's no rice and arborio here. The celery is chopped into tiny cubes served with green emulsion. It is delightfully fresh and a bit crunchy; a clever play by the Chef

A bed of steamed spinach in sesame dressing served with a lemon confit and a quenelle of carrot-orange mousseline - A nice vegetable combination - tasty spinach, fragrant sesame oil and sweet carrot puree

Beet root served with hibiscus - The famous salt roasted beet. Even though it's slowly cook, the texture still firm and it's rather sweet balanced with hibiscus' saltiness

Tart of Turnip containing honey served with (quite) salty and sour green vegetable - The turnip tart is light and airy, smells good and tastes nice as well

Risotto with White truffle emulsion and fresh Garlic - One of my favorite dishes. The snowy white 'rice' is smooth, creamy and rich - a great platform for any truffles

Monk fish cooked in salt served with smoked cabbage puree - The monkfish is indeed well-prepared; it's firm, light and delicious. However, the cabbage mousseline is slightly overpowering. Overall, I prefer the classic preparation of (braised) monkfish with mustard emulsion over this one

Smoked potatoes served with Cabbage and shaved Alba white truffle - A nice surprise from the chef. The picture does not justify the magical flavor of the potato. The cabbage is sour, but let the pungent truffle conquer it. Love the mix tastes of the earthy potato, sour cabbage and heavenly truffle. Excellent

Veal served with Onion and Radish - Passard does not cook veal very often, I know it's a treat when he did it. The veal, cooked exquisitely for several hours into pink color, was juicy and clean in the palate. The best part was near the skin, it had some natural saltiness. The side dishes do not contribute that much

Fromages de Bernard Anthony, affineur (Refine cheese by Bernard Anthony) - The 4-year old Comte is a must-have here. Additionally, I also ate Coeur de Neufchâtel (delicate, similar texture to camembert) and Taupiniere (refined & melt in your mouth)

Petit fours - horseradish white chocolate, chestnut liquor dark chocolate, black sesame marsh mellow, mini apple tart and veggie-flavored macarons

Millefeuille “Caprice d’Enfant” (Pastry consisting of thousand of thin layers with a fine cream of vanilla/hazelnut) - Hands down the best millefeuille in the world. It is crisp and crumbly with flaky texture, yet it tastes dynamic in the mouth due to its delectable light cream

Mont-Blanc aux marrons - L'Arpege new interpretation of classic dessert. The sweet chestnuts topped with whipped cream is served with dark chocolate sauce and house radish. There's chocolate cake inside. It's an intense dessert having rich flavor

My first meal tends to be more 'serious' and on the heavier side while the lunch was lighter - L'Arpege's showcase of several small(er) dishes (60-70% of them was new to me). If I had to choose, I would say my dinner was slightly better - especially the scallop, duck and pigeon were hard to beat. We went relatively easy for the wine. The 1st meal, my father and I shared Billecart-Salmon prestige champagne, white wine Meursault Chevalieres '07 and red wine Chateau Les Ormes de Pez '01 - all by the glasses. The next meal even fewer, only 2 glasses: Domaine St Préfert 2009 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc (should be better to drink in '12-13) and 2006 Domaine Pierre Naigeon Gevrey-Chambertin 1er Cru (about the right time to drink in '10). Normally, Arpege charged you EUR 25 or more for any wine by the glass, but this time I noticed that they reduced the price. Therefore, it's possible to drink EUR 15-20 per glass these days. The wine lists may not be as comprehensive as ADPA or Taillevent, but the focus, at least for me, is to drink wines that match decently with the food. Don't forget, the food is king at L'Arpege and guests should take advantage of Alain Passard's expertise in product assessment as well as mastery of different cooking methods.

The restaurants were packed in both occasions. The first one was probably a bit special because when most Europe and North America continents still suffered from the global economy crisis, it looks as if L'Arpege is recession-proof. As a matter of fact, I've been here six times, visiting any days from Monday to Friday and it's always full house - several times including its private dining room at the basement. Consistent thrive for excellence is the key. 5 out of 6 visits, Alain Passard was in the kitchen (the only miss was my first visit on Easter Monday). The current maitre d', Ms. Helene Cousin along with chef de cuisine, Anthony were always present. Even, L'Arpege has no Summer and Winter holidays - constantly doing what they're good at and passionate about. The last 2 visits were also without exception; the food was great throughout and I was well looked after by the efficient and convivial staffs. The overall service indeed was warm and professional with the only 'flaw' was that we were waiting 15-20 minutes in between dishes in the middle of our 2nd meal. It's easily another meals to remember and ranked among the best meal I had last year (followed closely by my 3rd L'Ambroise lunch). See below if you're curious about the pictures of the dishes, L'Arpege 5th and 6th visit

Food (and Wine): 98 pts

Service (and Ambiance): 97 pts

Overall: 97.5/100

Thursday, February 24, 2011

L'Ambroisie Bernard Pacaud - 3rd visit

My third visit to L'Ambroisie (you could find the reviews of my earlier visits at the blog archive), the place that arguably presenting French haute cuisine at its finest, took place at early Feb '10 - finally I had a chance to dine here during the black truffle season. In L'Ambroisie, many things simply would never change: there are always two kinds of bread (white and wheat), one will start the meal with its wonderful gougeres served with delicate cheese and minimum salt, and the decor in the dining room was exactly the same as my first visit in the summer of '07, perhaps it's always been this way for a longer period. Except one thing change: Pierre Lemoullac, a legendary sommelier and restaurant manager, resigned at the end of 2009. It seemed trivial, but somehow I felt that something was missing. It would never be the same. It sounded funny since my previous interaction with Monsieur Lemoullac was rather minimal, but his presence made a difference. To me, he's L'Ambroisie's ambassador in the dining room, the same way Bernard Pacaud is the true master in the restaurant's kitchen. It looked as if half of the restaurant's soul was gone, but I think Pascal could take the baton and carry on. The current sommelier is Christophe - he's been with the restaurant on my previous visit as well.

I observed that the maitre d' always promoted two things: langoustine with curry sauce and chocolate tart for the dessert. No wonder these dishes became more and more famous though I don't think they're the best items L'Ambroisie could offer. However, this time I knew exactly what I wanted and did not really bother to consult with him for my main three dishes. Here are my dishes,

Crème de chataignes (Chesnuts cream) - Warm chesnut veloute served with truffle cream and foie gras. Luckily, these three ingredients were prepared in light flavors

Velouté de cresson aux noix de Saint-Jacques, emulsion de truffe noire (Scallop in the cream of watercress and walnut served with black truffle emulsion) - The tender scallop is barely heated to retain its texture and sweetness. The black truffle was not that strong but it gave smoky and earthy sensation; the watercress veloute is rather thick and focused

Fricassée de homard sauce civet, purée Saint-Germain (Lobster tail fricassee served with stew sauce of smashed Saint-Germain peas) - A beautiful presentation. Lobster tail cooked here is consistently firm, sweet and meaty while the claw is more tender. The peas puree balanced the strong flavor generated from the red wine reduction - rather intense, quite typical for winter dish

Feuilleté de truffe fraîche “Bel Humeur”, frisée à la crème (Golden brown puff pastry of fresh black truffle served with truffle puree and mache salad) - Thick black truffle sandwiching a tranche of foie gras. The airy pastry is excellent; the truffle including its puree is solid, smoky and earthy while the duck liver is relatively light. The zingy and sour salad is useful to bring down the truffle's richness

Biscuit fondant tiède, sorbet à la mandarine (Warm melting biscuit served with mandarin sorbet) - The tasty biscuit is slightly eggy, hence tasted like souffle. The tangerine sorbet is great - balancing some sweet and sour flavor. A good recommendation by monsieur Pascal, especially after eating truffe "bel humeur"

Confiseries et friandises (Sweets and petit four) - Canele (decent), Opera, Banana biscuit and excellent home-made dark chocolates

For this visit, I had a half-bottle of 2005 Mersault to accompany my entire meal. The wine was not really dry with medium aroma of citrus and light golden color; it has some apple and peach taste with a nice and balanced finish. The reservation at L'Ambroisie is relatively easy; similar to my previous two visits, only about another dozen of people filling its dining room. Despite being not so busy in general, it is still one of the ultimate places to eat for gourmands, especially during the truffle season. There are several wonderful dishes executed precisely with Tuber Melanosporum supplied by monsieur Pebeyre. As a matter of fact, this was my best meal at L'Ambroise, possibly because they know and understand me better. Service wise, it was a standard one (professional) within 2-3 star institutions, but do not expect enthusiastic and guest-is-king type of hospitality that's consistently offered at Le Meurice, Ducasse or L'Arpege. After visiting this place at a few different seasons, I'm not sure if I will return here in the near future since I've tried nearly all of its delicious dishes. Bernard Pacaud, the living legend of French gastronomy, is not getting any younger. If any gourmand has not been here, come before he retires and focus on the food - you will enjoy it. Don't be too picky about the service and ambiance (I enjoyed the atmosphere though). It's not my favorite, but certainly in my top 3 or 5. Below is the link for the pictures,

Food (and Wine): 98 pts

Service (and Ambiance): 93 pts

Overall: 96.5/100