Friday, November 23, 2018

Amber Richard Ekkebus

Richard Ekkebus and Amber, the flagship restaurant of the luxurious Landmark Mandarin Oriental, are inseparable nowadays. Executive Chef Ekkebus has been holding this role since 2005 and under his guidance, Amber was awarded 2-star Michelin and has retained the award for a decade. What brought me to this fine restaurant serving modern French cuisine was when I had found that Amber would be temporarily closed in the Summer of 2018 for several months (it has since been postponed to operate until end of the year). The news also cited that Chef Ekkebus intended to start afresh and make it as if he would open a brand new restaurant. Before it eventually happens, Amber would possibly for the last time serving its signature dishes to the (loyal) customers. When I was in transit at Hong Kong last May, I did not waste the opportunity to return to Amber for dinner. My first meal here was lunch in 2013.

The meal began with a series of small bytes having different flavors with the aim to awaken the diners' palate. In my case, the kitchen served: Celery with black bean (salty); Lemon meringue (sour); Campari orange jelly (bitter); Jerusalem artichoke (sweet); and Egg custard with tomato compote (umami). For the more serious courses, as expected, I ordered the restaurant's "old creations"

Amber Classics Menu

Foie Gras (Duck Liver) in the form of chupa chup with beetroot & raspberry topped with crispy gingerbread & sea salt - The first "real" dish but in amuse-bouche portion. The lollipop of foie gras terrine was thick and rich but still velvety. The liver was nicely complemented by sweet & silky beetroot as well as raspberry coating - tasty and fun.

New Zealand Scampi in organic tomato & watermelon ‘nage’ with espelette chili & coriander - The big and succulent prawn was lightly torched to give a hint of smokiness. The dish was served chill with refreshing and fruity 'broth'. The addition of olive oil caviar, coriander, edible flowers etc. produce a mixture of flavors and aromas - playful and light, filled with natural oceanic taste.

Hokkaido Sea Urchin in a lobster jell-O with cauliflower, schrenki-dauricus caviar & crispy waffles - This was certainly Chef Ekkebus's most famous dish; it had a better portion of (more) caviar this time - a luxurious and scrumptious dish. Sweet and smooth uni and umami lobster jelly were in harmony with creamy cauliflower and buttery, full-body caviar. It would've been 'perfect' had the kitchen doubled the sea urchin's portion. I used the waffles as my blini by putting cauliflower and caviar on top since these were the most abundant ingredients here. Would it be the last time I savored this iconic dish?   

Kuro Awabi (Black Abalone) with a spiced chickpea compote, stewed tomatoes, crunchy celery stalk, braised pork chin & crispy pancetta - The presentation was colorful and it was more complex than your normal abalone dish. The Fukuoka Awabi, cooked sous-vide, was tender with its subtle and natural taste. Then, there were plenty of 'international' produce influencing the overall flavors: spiced chickpea (Indian), pork chin (Chinese), tomatoes & cured pork belly (Italian) - interesting though at times, these many variations distracted rather than enhanced the abalone. Pretty good and a rather unusual way to prepare an abalone 

Hakoo farm Miyazaki Wagyu beef, the Strip Loin part; dusted with dried red onion skin & dulse seaweed powder, red pearl onions with black currant in a shiraz reduction - The beef was perfectly cooked medium-rare, a bit charred on the outside, and having the right amount of buttery & melt-in-the-mouth taste. The jus + fatty A5 wagyu were balanced out by the acidity from the red cabbage and black currant shiraz as well as a little sweetness of red onions. An elegant beef course!   

Abinao 85% Chocolate Souffle with cacao sorbet - The most famous dessert (it's always been on the menu) at Amber, created by its Chef Patissier - Michael Pretet. It was rich and decadent with flawless execution. The temperature contrast of hot souffle and cold sorbet, bitter and (slightly) sweet flavor in this pure delicious chocolate finale was very comforting. This chocolate was special because of its intensity and long-lasting flavor. I would possibly order again if somehow I still see this dessert on the menu of "Amber volume 2"

The meals ended with some decent mignardises: banana & yuzu tart, ginger chocolate, carrot jelly and cucumber-apple sorbet. The service was friendly, attentive and professional under the leadership of the current manager - Yannick Kiefer. He has been around for more than 4 years and handled many things with confidence and ease. The local staffs might lack charmed, but they did the basic things right and well. Lastly, Amber was also famous for its dining room decor, designed by Adam Tihany. As the name suggested, amber shades (and something similar) dominated its interior color including the walls, carpet and chairs. The most outstanding piece, instead of big chandeliers, was thousands of golden bronze rods suspended from the ceiling. I was wondering whether Amber would keep them post renovation. To enhance the dining experience, only the best tableware was used such as the ones manufactured by Christofle, Bernadaud and Riedel.  

It was a very satisfying dinner at a solid 2-star restaurant. One would taste the ingredients exactly how they're supposed to be and more sometimes. Culinary director Richard Ekkebus often added some twist and unexpected elements yet they're not too complex. Wish him and the whole Amber team all the best with the project! My feeling that they would re-invent themselves with the hope of gaining the 3rd star one day and given the red guide book Hong Kong's standard, I think it's not impossible. Dishes' pictures could be seen here - Amber Spring '18

Food (and Wine): 94 pts

Service (and Ambiance): 94 pts

Overall: 94/100

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Nihonryori RyuGin Tokyo

Thinking back to the year of 2013 when my wife and I did our gastronomy trip to Japan, initially RyuGin was among the top choice. However, as I did deeper research somehow the choices leaned towards the more exclusive Japanese dining places that had no sister restaurants anywhere. After 5 years delay, eventually we had to opportunity to have a dinner at the famous Nihonryori RyuGin in which Seiji Yamamoto, the iconic chef-patron himself overseeing the kitchen. The Ryugin's food concept was not totally foreign to me as I visited Tenku Ryugin a few years back. Still, I kinda look forward to having the dinner. In addition, I learned that our meal would be the last Summer of Roppongi Ryugin - as of now, they already moved to a more modern location at Midtown Hibiya. 

At first, Seiji Yamamoto was recognized for his avant-garde cooking in which he was capable of integrating modern and traditional cooking techniques as well as using local and (some) foreign ingredients. Chef Hamamoto of Ki-sho Singapore told me that period had been the most fantastic time of RyuGin Tokyo. Then in early 2010's onwards, (maybe in order to gain Michelin 3rd star) Yamamoto-san decided to change the direction of his flagship restaurant by exclusively using seasonal local produce and he would showcase more dishes that were grounded towards "traditional" kaiseki tradition - his creativity thankfully could still be seen from times to times. Yamamoto-san liked updating his omakase menu monthly, so for the regulars I suppose, it's very possible not to repeat the same dishes twice.

The menu was presented in the envelope with a stamp showing how many years the restaurant has existed (14 years in our case). Without further ado, our meal was as follow:
Summer Vegetables and Grilled Sweet Corn Soup - The beginning of the meal containing hot and cold 'sensations':
-The hot item was a bowl consisting of 7-8 different kinds of vegetables such as radish, fava beans, bamboo shoots, shiitake etc. plus pine nuts dressing. A variety of flavors and textures with tangy and nutty sauce
-I liked even better was the smooth and chilled soup with concentrated flavor and balanced sweetness from the corn. A pleasant start

Kesennuma Shark Fin and Abalone served with baby corn, mountain yam and egg yolk - A luxurious appetizer showcasing the "fukahire" whose taste was, I believe, an acquired one; the more prized aspect was its gelatinous and stringy textures. In addition, there was a bouncy awabi with subtle taste. The main flavor was derived from and tied together by the chicken stock 'sauce' while nagaimo's slimy texture provided an interesting accent - opulent & good

Seasonal Tradition of RyuGin (Ichiban Dashi): Awaji Pike Eel served with Kamonasu Eggplant, Water Shield and Green Yuzu - Soup and its dashi usually were the main test for the skills of elite Japanese chefs. Here, Yamamoto-san utilized the best seasonal Hamo in the owan. The dagger-tooth pike conger's white flesh was pretty, 'bloomed' like a flower. The fish beautifully absorbed the dashi's flavor. To add more depth and in contrast to the soft Hamo, the kitchen prepared: junsai having thin taste and jelly-like texture, gooey okra, juicy & tasty kamonasu and zesty yuzu. A well-executed soup with delicious dashi as well as hamo

Grace of Ocean Delicacy in 2 plates (from the Coast of Japan)
Part 1: The sashimi item was more creative than normal one. Here we had Akagai with Bafun Uni and Kamonasu. The marinated eggplant was quite flavorful; the short spines sea urchin was rich with umami taste albeit slightly bitter and lastly the ark shell clam was tender with subtle sweetness providing different texture and flavors. A hint of slight wasabi on top did not hurt ...
Part 2: There were a few layers here: at the bottom was Tougan, followed by Kuruma Ebi and Hotate jelly on top. By itself, the Ash gourd did not have much taste; instead, it soaked the sweet flavor of Tiger prawns and refreshing Scallop jelly. It was alright

Summer Festival of Japanese Cuisine - Swimming Ayu Fish highlighted the coming of Summer season. The Sweetfish was char-grilled and simply seasoned with salt; it's served with sauce made of watermelon, vinegar and some herbs. First, savor the crunchy and sweet head, then the crisp body with slight bitterness from the guts / innards - the sauce gave an extra punch to its flavor. Sweetfish could be consumed from head to tail, including the bone. Ayu was highly prized and I enjoyed it here though it's not my favorite kind of fish

Shima-no-Hikari Somen Noodle served with Amber Beef and Onion - The Somen (the thin noodles) was almost translucent; they provided solid 'support' for the Omi beef cheeks. The aged Amber beef was braised for a few hours resulting in stringy / soft texture and sweet flavors. The onions reduced any potential cloying taste ... the only protein coming from the meat in this dinner

Charcoal Grill "Unagi Eel" - Slowly grilled Unagi (from Binchotan's flame) were prepared meticulously - perfect with smoky & aromatic; crisp on the outside and soft on the inside. Large Eel was another Summer classic. At RyuGin, we could consume the Eels with a few options: tsume sauce (dark and sweet), shio salt, and citrus sudachi. There were also wasabi, to draw out more of Unagi's flavor, as well as egg-yam as a side dish. By itself, the Unagi was already pleasant

Awaji Pike Eel Rice served with "Chrysanthemum" soup and five colors Pickles - Japanese rice was very good; the deep-fried Hamo still had tender & tasty meat at the inside. My spouse and I managed to finish the whole Pike eel rice. The Shiso leaves might be underrated but quite essential to enhance the dish with their unique taste & aroma - grassy and some spearmint + basil flavors. The miso soup contained soft tofu in the shaped of Japan's national flower. The pickles (radish, coriander etc,) were ordinary

Luscious Desserts
Part 1: Roppongi Pudding with Wasanbon sugar and ripe Mango - The pudding was smooth and sweet, combined with mild caramel ice cream and some Wasanbon sugar, supposedly the finest sugar in the nation. Plenty of sweetness in different degree with delicate textures
Part 2:
-Oyaki Souffle with Fig and Blueberry. The souffle was beautifully executed with light / feather-like texture having the right amount taste of fig and blueberry
-Yogurt ice cream and Oiri. The soft ice cream with crunch 'rice cracker' nicely complimented the souffle. Above average desserts by the standard of Japanese kaiseki restaurants

Both of us shared a small portion (1/4 bottle) of cold sake - Kokuryu Gin no 18 Junmai Daiginjo from Fukui prefecture. We enjoyed it very much. The sake was smooth, not overly rich, with elegant and distinct flavor. The wine and sake list were comprehensive for a non-French restaurant standard but as expected very pricey. RyuGin's dining room catered to serve 20+ diners at once and a few seats were used for 2 seating. The decor was simple with not-so-high ceiling and the dining room felt a bit hot in the Summer. Despite the minimal interior, one would enjoy plenty of valuable ceramic plates / china used to serve the dishes. The service was efficient and professional with relatively fast pacing - 5 min. with no food on our table almost never happened. Most staffs spoke fluent English as a few of them used to live in Canada & Australia. They were friendly and helpful but lacked of any personal touch. Thankfully the warm and amiable Seiji Yamamoto with whom I had some chats towards the end "improved" the impression of the restaurant's hospitality. 

Nihonryori RyuGin was my only Japanese kaiseki meal for this trip. Overall, I liked this meal experience with plenty of delicious and quite creative dishes though nothing truly stood out or blew my mind. Perhaps, after 3 years of not returning to Japan, this meal (temporarily) satisfied my palate and crave of a 'real' kaiseki. For comparison, my meal at Tenku Ryugin was only marginally inferior to this dinner. Seiji Yamamoto managed to keep high standards towards all of his Ryugin restaurants. That being said, I would not mind returning here especially in the late Fall or early Winter when the restaurant has some special produce and knowing that as long as the restaurant opens, it's a guarantee that the legendary Yamamoto-san would lead at the kitchen. Here are the pictures, RyuGin Tokyo Summer '18 

Food (and Wine): 95 pts

Service (and Ambiance): 93 pts

Overall: 94.5/100

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Les Prés d’Eugénie Michel Guérard

One of the most respectable French chefs alive that not many people talk about as much as they should be is Michel Guérard. He began his career as a pastry chef and became the head of the pastry section at Le Crillon in '56. A couple of years later, Chef Guérard received the prestigious and notoriously rigorous Meilleur Ouvrier de France award for pastry. Despite his background, Chef Guérard was actually also versatile in cooking "normal" food and Michelin recognized this when awarded 2-star to his own restaurant named Le Pot-au-Feu in the early 70's. Michel Guérard's career path changed after he had married Christine Barthelemy, the heir of the current hotel and spa - Les Prés d’Eugénie. In 1974, Michel magically transformed the place into a grand and world class hotel, restaurant and spa; 3 years after that, his restaurant was awarded the Michelin's highest award and he managed to keep it until now. Last year, Les Prés d’Eugénie even received a rare distinction palace status. The pursuit of excellence by the Guerard's family has basically been very fruitful in every aspect.     

Getting into Eugénie-les-Bains, a tiny community in the southwest France well-known for its spa, was very challenging. It took me nearly 3 hours from Paris (flight + car). It was supposedly Spring but when I arrived it was still freezing as if it's still a Winter season and raining all day long; fortunately the weather improved the day after. Les Prés d’Eugénie was essentially a vast 8-hectare estate with green gardens in which most of the trees and plants were beautifully pruned and manicured. The 2 major buildings were: the Ferme Thermale, a serious spa with many water facilities as well as several doctors and specialists, and the main hotel building designed in colonial-style architecture housed most of hotel rooms & suites as well as Michel Guérard's gastronomy restaurant. I spent some times walking around the pretty estate and a small town outside the hotel. One drawback I noticed was that the gym and the pool were small given the huge spaces it had.

The (first) evening finally arrived. I was excited for my dinner. Given the difficulties to reach the place, I decided to stay for 2 nights so that I could have 2 meals in the legendary restaurant. (A casual lunch at La Ferme aux Grives should not be missed). My dinner began with several nibbles and I had different ones on both days. The bread selection (olive, lemon, brioche and sourdough) was good; even better was the Le ponclet butter having creamy texture and bold flavor to accompany the bread. For the dishes I ate, please see the following ...     

Dinner day 1 - Menu Palais Enchanté (with an additional appetizer)

Le Zéphyr de Truffe ‘‘Surprise Exquise’’ Comme un Nuage sur une Délicate Vichyssoise (‘‘Surprise Exquise” Truffle Zephyr as a Cloud on a Delicate Garden Soup) - To elaborate further, it essentially was a 'Floating island' white cream filled with black truffle coulis and underneath, there were light & yellow vegetable 'cold soup' made of creamy leek, onion and potato. This appetizer was as good as its description: the soup had deep flavor. Moreover, the ile flottante was airy, snowy and stunning, having textural contrast with truffle slices & crisp parmesan tuile, fragrant black truffle etc. It was indeed a delicate, ethereal and flavorful dish and yet not overly rich. The first few bytes were simply unforgettable ...   

L’Oeuf Poule à la Coque Grand Cru Cristal Kaviari Affiné 180 Jours (Tsarina Egg Dressed in the Shell served with Grand Cru Cristal Kaviari Aged 180 Days) - It was served with white Armagnac whose sophisticated flavor was useful to balance the rich egg flavor. Inside the shell, there were smoked eel, asparagus, mackerel jelly & celeriac to 'improve' the scramble egg and layers of caviar taste. On the sides, there were creamy baked warm potato with light sour cream as well as toasts on which we could mix the egg, caviar and potato together. Luxurious, interesting and enjoyable 

L’Oreiller Moelleux de Mousserons et de Morilles aux Asperges de Pays Une Symphonie Végétale et Soyeuse, Imaginée en 1978, Retour d’un Voyage en Chine (Soft Pillow of Morels and Wild Mushrooms - A Silky Symphony Created upon Returning from China in 1978) - The perfect example of Chef Guérard's cooking which he often described as silky and smooth. The delicate ravioli was filled with pre-dominantly earthy Morels and some Girolle mushrooms. In addition, this wonderfully rich and creamy soup contained asparagus spears / tips as well as black truffle spreading its intoxicating aroma. Everything was perfectly cooked, well-seasoned and worked harmoniously. The classic of the restaurant; this dish is always available all year round and deservedly so

Le Demi-Homard Rôti, Légèrement Fumé à l’Âtre Oignon Confit au Four (Half of a Lobster, Roasted and Lightly Smoked in the Hearth served with Country-Style Sweet Onion) - The lobster was perfectly prepared (the meat was lightly poached, then put back in the smoked shell) and covered with butter & herb sauce resulting in tender and delicious flesh, but alas the portion was very small. Not inferior to the lobster was the sweet onion. The 'gratinated onion puree' was roasted shortly, then integrated by glazed peach mousse and parmesan cheese giving complex and balanced flavors of sweetness, depth and slight acidity. It's perfectly complemented the lobster and I had difficulty to pick which one is better between the lobster and the sweet onion

Le Filet de Bœuf sur le Bois et sous les Feuilles Jus de Viande, Jus de Raisin Pommes Crémeuses et Pommes Soufflées (Wood Fired Beef Basted in Grape Juice, served with Creamy Potatoes on the one hand and Grande Tradition Souffléed on another) - The AOC beef was from Aquitane region. The preparation (wrapped and grilled in leaves and grapes) made the beef become moist, aromatic and smoky. The black choarcoal-like covering the beef was actually breadcrumbs with squid ink giving textural contrast to the meat. The beef medallions, cooked medium (rare), was dazzling having deep flavor and tender texture. The sauce, made from its jus, was very precise and tasty. It was accompanied by remarkable potato souffle (crisp, light, slightly salty), creamy & buttery potato mousseline, as well as rather sweet shallot confit with red wine sauce

Le Gâteau Mollet du Marquis de Béchamel et la Glace Fondue à la Rhubarbe Un Compromis Sensuel entre Soufflé et Crème Renversée (Marquis de Béchamel Soft Cake with Melted Rhubarb Ice Cream) - This dessert looked like an ugly souffle (done on purpose) with some creme caramel in it. It was served chilled. The soft bechamel cake with caramel sauce was in good 'matching' to the sweet / sour raspberry fruits and coulis as well as sharp rhubarb ice cream. Overall, the flawless combinations of textures and flavors made this dessert memorable. The portion was generous and I struggled to finish all - left nearly a quarter of it at the end

Dinner day 2 - Menu Jour de Fête (with two extra dishes)

Le Foie Gras de Canard et d’Oie Fermière Cuit au Coin de l’Âtre Tastou à la Truffe Trois Gelées en Camaïeu (Home-made liver of fattened Duck and Goose Smoked in Aromates Woody Tartine and Verjuice from our Vineyard) - The maitre d' was kind enough to allow me to try both foie gras. Both were good having smooth texture. I did not really prefer one over the other. Generally, I get used to eating duck liver (having beige-orange color) more which was rich and creamy; the goose liver (more of pink color) was delicate and refined with more subtle flavor. The livers were accompanied by jellies of mushroom, duck and wine. As with any terrine, it's often better to consume it together with some bread - toasted sourdough with truffle. Neither liver was cloying. I suppose if one's in Landes region, one had to eat foie gras

La Langoustine et le Rouget ‘‘Tire Ficelle’’ sur le Gril Jus de Coquillages (Scampi and Red Mullet on the Grill served with Red wine and Seashell Juice) - The big prawn was gorgeous with elegantly sweet flavor. The fish was nice with some kind of (very) intense Hollandaise sauce mixed with anchovy - a bit too much for me. There was also the Red Mullet skin with smoky and unique flavor infused by the 'fish's carcass' - classically French; an interesting pair of sea creatures

Les Belles Saint-Jacques Toastées au Sautoir Beignets d’Agrumes et Fondue de Chicorée au Beurre de Mer (Splendid Meunière Scallops served with Citrus Fritters and Melting Chicory in Sea Butter) - I thought serving scallops in May seemed to be out of season until I saw someone ordered it the night before and they looked awesome. Well, it was the right decision; somehow the kitchen managed to source and carefully take care of these shellfishes. 3 plump and beautifully cooked scallops were meaty with their pleasant and naturally sweet flavors. It was enhanced by the lovely and delicious buttery brown sauce and balanced by the 'stir fry' onions & somewhat bitter chicory. The slight sourness derived from the citrus fritter provided a nice accent to this dish. I liked it more than my previous seafood dish

L’Opulente Pintade de Chalosse sur les Braises Salpicon de Ris d’Agneau, Morilles, Quenelles, Truffes (Chalosse’s Opulent Guinea Fowl on the Embers served with Fine Stew of Lamb Sweetbreads, Morels) - The high quality herbs-stuffed Pintade was both meaty and moist, thanks to the sauce - the best part when consumed with the guinea fowls skins. What made this dish better was that it came together with tender sweetbreads stew, earthy morels, fresh peas & their emulsion as well as little black truffles. Commonly boring bird was transformed into creative and tasty dish, kudos to Chef Guerard!

La Pêche Blanche au Naturel, une Quenelle de Glace Crémeuse à la Verveine et le Coulis de Framboises d’Eugénie (White Peach on Verbena Ice Cream served with Coulis of Eugénie’s Raspberries) - The white peaches were splendid (sweet, juicy and a little tart), the raspberry coulis were tasty and fresh, the verbena ice cream was delicate with subtle sweetness, and lastly the leaves generated good smells. For someone who's not a big fan of peach and verbena, it was a stunning dessert. Why did I still order it then? I simply wanted something fresh & a bit acidic for my palate and it turned out to be a good choice

Le Palais Feuilleté au Chocolat Crème Légère au Café (Sumptuous Chocolate Millefeuille served with Light Coffee Cream) - Michel Guérard was the MOF of pastry, so trying an extra dessert was no brainer. The desserts here were glorious and I thought this one was somehow even better than Passard's chocolate Napoleon. The delicate pastry combined with light and a bit bitter coffee cream, rich and decadent chocolate & sorbet, and lastly the Armagnac cream sauce was light & sweet - magnificent flavor variations with different degree of intensity yet felt smooth and balanced. Hands down my favorite dessert at Les Prés d’Eugénie

Like the desserts, the quality of sweets were also excellent. My wine drinking was rather minimal this time. Somehow, I did not take detail notes ... I had a couple of glasses of white Burgundy (chardonnay) and a glass of red Pomerol. The list was, as expected, extensive with plenty of Petrus vintages. The service was generally immaculate - attentive, relaxed, and smooth. A little drop was noticeable on the second day when the restaurant managed to cater to more than 60 people assisted by about 4 sommeliers. However, I did not "suffer" the negative that much since I came quite early when the dining room was still half-full. It was not bad per se but just not as refined as the hospitality of Parisian palace during peak period. One lady wearing specs in particular delivered outstanding service in both evenings. The more senior maitre d' wore tuxedo with tails. Lastly, the master chef Michel Guérard, dressed in plain white (without the MOF tunic), would walk around the dining room and amiably greeted as many diners as possible

Michel Guérard was known to be one of the founders of nouvelle cuisine, a movement to lighten the traditional French cuisine and reduce the cooking time to keep the produce's natural flavors. Additionally, Chef Guérard was the inventor of la cuisine minceur and sante (slimming and healthy cooking to reduce weight). I would say at least 1/3 of the guests eating in the restaurant underwent some kind of diet programs such as detox / weight loss. They had specials off the menu items catered to their needs. Some of the dishes looked decent and a few them got to enjoy a dessert or two. However, what impressed me was certainly chef Guérard's gourmet cuisine where he was able to bring out the best flavors & textures out of the superb ingredients to create delicate and unassuming food that was absolutely delicious and perfectly harmonious. His ability to create sauce and season the ingredients was difficult to match. At the age when most people already retired, Michel is still striving to create new dishes when the seasons change or the menu is updated. It has been a huge pleasure to have a couple of memorable meals here and the hard work to reach this place was not in vain; 3-star restaurant, Palace status resort and world class spa - was this some kind of heaven on earth? The pictures can be found here Guerard May '18 

Food (and Wine): 98 pts

Service (and Ambiance): 94 pts

Overall: 97/100

Sunday, August 19, 2018

L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon Hong Kong

While I might not be old enough to eat at Jamin, Joël Robuchon's legendary restaurant prior to his early retirement in 1995, I have been fortunate to have visited several of his formal gastronomy restaurants in particular the ones in Asia. On the contrary, I rarely ate at his more casual restaurant - the L'Atelier - a concept Robuchon created upon his "comeback" in 2003, inspired by the sushi counter / tapas bar. In this 'workshop',  the setting was more relaxed with an open kitchen, emphasizing more direct interaction between the staffs (including the chefs) and the customers. The food was generally still serious but the atmosphere was more convivial. The tradition of gold and white in classical and luxurious French gastronomy was replaced by the bold colors of red and black. One of the main reasons I eventually came this place was because L'Atelier JR Hong Kong has been in operation for more than a decade and somehow managed to gain and keep the 3-star Michelin for 10 years or so albeit HK Michelin is 'very generous'. I thought perhaps there's something special here, therefore I decided to have a meal here in March this year.

It has been a while for me to dine and be seated in a counter for eating non-Japanese food. I already made up my mind that I would order the tasting menu (I often "study" the menu a few days before visiting any gastronomy restaurant) as I have not tried more than half of the dishes there. The meal began with the staff brought a bread basket, freshly baked daily in the premise. The variety and quality were actually about on par with the ones found in JR restaurant served in the trolley. To ensure I could fully enjoy my degustation menu, I only tried a few of the bread such as cheese, tomato, spinach and bacon baguette. Following that, the kitchen delivered an amuse-bouche. That night, it was a bowl of white asparagus espuma served with chorizo, bell peppers, croutons, asparagus, and basil. It was refreshing, light yet full of (early Spring) flavors. Then come the 'real' dishes below,

Menu Découverte (Discovery Menu)

Le Caviar Imperial de Sologne servi en surprise (A surprise of Sologne Imperial caviar) - A meal at any Robuchon's restaurant would almost always start with a caviar dish. It was a familiar plating of Sologne caviar served in a tin; underneath the salty roes was predominantly lobster jelly. There were also some cauliflower cream and a little Alaskan crab. It was good though I found the ratio of the jelly vs crab meat was not balanced (too much gelee) and I slightly preferred the one in the past when served with (plenty of) fennel cream and perfumed by star anise

La Saint-Jacques la noix juste poêlée au coulis chaud de truffe et ses graines de potiron en cristalline (Pan-seared scallop with black truffle coulis and crispy pumpkin seeds) - The Hokkaido scallop was perfectly cooked, sweet and a bit raw inside. It was beautifully complimented by slices of the earthy Perigord truffle, musky and rather intense truffle coulis, as well as creamy + savory pumpkin sauce. It was an elegant dish displaying 'late' Winter specialty - the black truffle 

La Truffe Noire sur un œuf coque sans coque doré et nacré aux copeaux de parmesan (Soft boiled egg on golden pearl rice with black truffle and parmesan shavings) - Another and more serious Perigord truffle dish. The egg was perfectly cook and its runny yolk was in harmony with earthy and pungent shavings of Tuber melanosporum and crisp sticky rice cake. The parmesan, a little lemon juice and spinach provided accents to this delicious dish. To let the black truffles shine, a simple course was often better

Accompanied by wine: Ruinart brut Rose NV (tasty and round champagne with fine structure, soft & creamy; fruity, fresh and vibrant with pretty pink color)  

Le Homard cardinalisé au beurre salé, petits pois princesse et baby bok choy, escorté d’une bisque épicée (Grilled Maine lobster with green peas and baby bak choy) - My picture of the dish was probably not as good as its taste. The beautifully salted grilled lobster was firm and savory; even better when you put the lobster with the rich, piquant and creamy bisque (+ saffron taste). The flavorful dish was balanced by the fresh & sweet peas, thick & mild bak choy and cabbage + squid ink tuile. Meticulously cooked lobster with wonderful sauce ... that's all you need for a very comforting dish

Le Black Cod ravigoté au poivre noir de Malabar et son émulsion au lait de coco (Black cod with Malabar black pepper sauce and coconut emulsion) - The cod, previously marinated in miso, was succulent and flaky. It was the kind of fish that people easily fell in love with. The pepper sauce and coconut emulsion made this dish to be even more flavorful and rounded. Delicate fish served in the right size - an a la carte portion would be too much for me

Accompanied by wine: 2016 Chateauneuf-du-Pape Blanc, Clos de L'Oratoire (relatively young white, full body, delicate, apple and pear aroma, good minerality, nice pairing with the black cod)

Le Bœuf japonais tranché, mitonnée d’asperges vertes et oignons nouveaux (Pan seared Japanese A3 Wagyu beef with green asparagus and baby onions) - A3 was sufficient for me and I thought it's more ideal for a steak. The beef (sirloin) was still tender and a bit burnt on the outside. By itself, the meat was alright - would be better when combined with the sauce made of black pepper and the beef jus. Good and safe main course though not necessarily memorable ... perhaps, I should opt for the La Caille in the future

Accompanied by wine: 2013 Chianti Classico, Il Grigio Gran Selezione (refined red fruit & intensity, smooth and elegant in the palate, balanced in tannin & acidity; an awesome Italian red wine and it's even enjoyable to drink by itself as it's already 'mature')

Coco des Iles gelée de citron vert, croustillant de riz soufflé, sorbet noix de coco (Exotic-fruits with coconut mousse and sorbet) - The fruits (jelly) were mango and passion fruit; both were a little acidic on the contrary to the sweet coconut stuffs. A light creation that could act as either a dessert or a palate cleanser

Le Chocolat en bavarois à la Williamine et chocolat “JR~10~HK” crispy de Peta-Zeta (Pear compotes with Williamine, “JR~10~HK” chocolate shell and Peta Zeta) - I enjoyed the dark chocolate part - good flavor and texture. The pear was delicately sweet and a bit crisp, good by itself. The combination of the two ... more of interesting rather than a 'match in heaven'. I expected a better / more sophisticated dessert creation by Chef Robuchon  

The meal would include mignardises and non-alcohol digestive in the end. The petit fours were nice; I had vanilla macaron, banana chocolate, chocolate tart and madeleine cake. It was accompanied by an intense and good quality hot chocolate. The wine list was remarkable as the restaurant also owned by the Lisboa group whose collection in Robuchon Macau receiving Grand Award from the wine spectator's - of course matched by high price tag. The wine by the glass also showed an array of choices; as per above info, I drank 3 glasses. The food was overall well executed, flavorful, and presented in an elegant way. The simple but still felt opulent ambiance created a sense of comfort. The front of the house staffs were warmed, discreet and helpful, these made the experience even better. Adriano Cattaneo, chef de cuisine, as well as Anthony Au Yeung, the restaurant manager also made efforts to entertain me. I think I was one of the customers who left the latest. I may have preferred the Joel Robuchon fine dining food, but all aspects considered, I truly enjoyed my meal in this chic restaurant. I hope the L'Atelier and all other Robuchon restaurants would still be able to perform at the high level even after the master himself passed away earlier this month. Picture of the dishes: Robuchon HK Mar '18

Food (and Wine): 94 pts

Service (and Ambiance): 95 pts

Overall: 94/100

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Epicure Éric Fréchon

My official review for Epicure, the flagship restaurant of Hôtel Le Bristol, has been long overdue. This restaurant is actually somewhat special for me since it was the first gastronomy dining place I ever visited in Europe. It was a lunch in the Easter Monday of 2006 when it still held 2-star and used separate dining rooms depending on the season. I ate at its Winter dining room whose decor was very classic and French displaying old-style luxury. My degustation menu was enjoyable though it was not in my top 5 among Paris finest restaurants, even after re-visited in 2010 when finally Éric Fréchon gained his 3rd Michelin star one year earlier. In 2011, Hotel Le Bristol completed the EUR 300+ million transformative renovation including its signature restaurant. A few years later, I noticed people began to discuss more and very favorably towards Epicure such as it become the top Paris restaurant according to Tripadvisor and received several awards as the best hotel restaurant in the world. However, it was not until early Autumn of 2017, I eventually made a return to this temple of gastronomy.

After the Le Bristol upgrading work, Epicure occupied one permanent space that was its Summer dining room. It was the first time I entered this place last year. Unlike the past Winter venue, the interior design here was more modern but still very elegant and timeless. It featured marble fireplace, beige marble floors with onyx, oil paintings, tall drapes and a few bronze chandeliers. I was seated at the spacious red sofa while most of the tables were paired with the tartan-patterned chairs. Nearly all of the tables overlooking the expansive views of the hotel big & beautiful garden as well as outdoor terrace. I liked this dining room better than the old one; it was grand (seated about 40 people) yet felt intimate and exclusive at the same time.  One thing does not change here was that all gentlemen was required to wear a jacket. The restaurant happily lent the guest if he happened to forget not wearing one. Personally, I was in favor of this old school custom. As far as the food's concerned, I have learnt that the secret of many top French gastronomy restaurant best dishes coming from the a la carte menu albeit they're generally more expensive. One more thing, I happened to dine at Epicure twice in the past 8 months - for the 2nd visit, "thanks" to the SNCF French rail strikes that prevented me from going to Reims. There were not that many choices among multiple star restaurants in the city of light opening on Sunday. 

AUTUMN Lunch in October 2017

Artichauts de Provence, rôti à l’huile d’olive et truffes blanches d’Alba, poudre d’œuf haché et chips d’artichauts aux noisettes (Artichokes from Provence roasted with olive oil, served with white truffle from Alba, egg powder and artichoke crisps with hazelnuts - small portion) - A generous gift from the kitchen to everyone on that day. The artichokes (leaves & hearts) were light with distinct taste & aroma. They were enhanced by the luxurious Alba truffle, crispy chips, nutty hazelnut and mild egg. It was precise and balanced 

Caviar de Sologne et mousseline de pomme de terre ratte fumée au haddock, croustillant de sarrasin aigrelette (Caviar from Sologne served with "ratte" potatoes mousseline smoked with haddock and buckwheat crisp with a slightly sour dressing - demi portion) - One of Eric Frechon's signature dishes available all year long. The smoked haddock was infused to the ratte potatoes to give the mousse sophisticated taste so that when consumed together with the caviar, the firm texture and intensity of the Sologne caviar would shine. There were mild nutty finish flavor with light mousse and soured cream taste (from the stick) in the background. As long as the caviar was still around, it was a fantastic appetizer ..

Accompanied by wine: 2012 Simon Bize Savigny-lès-Beaune 1er Cru Aux Vergelesses (some acidity, medium finish, blend of cassis & dark berries, full body with a nice balance)

Noix de coquilles Saint-Jacques, gnocchis de pomme de terre à la truffe blanche d'Alba, jus de cresson de fontaine au beurre noisette (Sea Scallops served with potatoes gnocchi with white truffle from Alba and watercress juice with brown butter - demi portion) - The perfectly seared scallops were tender and sweet. They went along well with the rather soft gnocchi whose flavors mainly derived from the nutritious watercress sauce. The powerful Alba truffle (in aroma and taste) gave extra punch to this wonderful and classic Autumn dish at Epicure. I wish there had been more shaved truffles on this dish ...

Homard bleu rôti en coque, sauté de légumes du Sud à l'huile d'olive, encornet, chorizo, anchois, piment doux et basilic (Blue Lobster roasted in its shell served with sauteed Southern vegetables with olive oil, squids, chorizo, anchovies, sweet peppers and basil) - The plating of the dish was beautiful. When asked, Chef Frechon said it was the first time he created a lobster dish without any 'sauce'. The Brittany lobster was cooked until firm; a few was stuffed with the chewy squid. The highlight was the natural delicious flavor of the lobster however I was not too fond of the unusual taste from the side dishes + their seasonings. I don't find these combinations really helped elevate the awesome roasted lobster

Accompanied by wine: 2012 Domaine M. Chapoutier Hermitag Chante-Alouette (dark yellow, tropical fruits nose, medium body, decent acidity, medium finish and quite rich on the palate)    

Citron de Menton givré au limoncello et citron confit, aux saveurs de poires (Lemon from Menton frosted with Limoncello, served with pear and preserved lemon) - A special dessert at Epicure created by its legendary pastry chef, Laurent Jeannin. This frosted lemon was truly fragrant; every spoon I put in my mouth, my nose also enjoyed the aromatic lemon scent. The "lemon meringue", covered by limoncello, was pretty, delicate with pleasant acidity. When the 'lemon was broken', there were some cold pear, lemon and a little herbal taste. In addition, it was fun to savor a few different textures - soft snow & jelly - altogether in cold temperature. An excellent dessert!

SPRING Lunch in May 2018

Homard Bleu rôti au beurre demi-sel, jus des têtes pressées, polenta moelleuse aux asperges vertes et truffe noire (Blue Lobster roasted in its shell with salted butter, juice of pressed heads, creamy polenta with green asparagus and black truffle) - The 'homard breton' was perfectly cooked (turned beautifully red) and meaty / delightfully firm with succulent flavor. The tasty sauce was the jus from the lobster head. It was accompanied by crisp green asparagus, asparagus mousseline with mild black truffle flavors. It was a pure indulgence from start to finish - no wonder this dish was considered as Eric Frechon's specialty 

Accompanied by wine: 2015 Sancerre Domaine Gerard Boulay "Clos de Beaujeu" (pale lime color, fresh citrus and floral in both nose and palate, good minerality, medium body, long finish and clean - nice for the sunny day)

Carre D'Agneau de Lait doré au sautoir à l'ail et fleur de thym, chips de basilic, condiment d'épinard au citron confit et anchois (Rack of milk-fed Lamb pan-fried with garlic and thyme flower, basil chips, condiment of spinach with candied lemon and anchovies) - The well-seasoned and precisely cooked Aveyron lamb was really juicy, delicious and melt-in-the-mouth. Beginning from the skin, it was slightly broiled until brown / a bit crunchy, then there was small but heavenly lamb's fat; comes to the meat, it's simply tender and flavorful. Eat with your hand to "clean up" the lamb (except the rack, of course). The only down side ... small size and 'too' few pieces
The light potato souffles with spinach anchovy inside were lovely, mildly salty with earthy potato flavors. The side dishes of lemon, spinach condiment and a little cheese were in harmony with the lamb rack and its intense jus. One of the tastiest lamb I've ever had and this was done when Chef Frechon was not in the kitchen!

Accompanied by wine:
-2011 Margaux, Chateau des Eyrins (deep ruby color and dense, currant scent, dark berry flavor and earthy. Not the best red for this lamb dish, but enjoyable to drink by itself). I did not quite like it, but the assistant sommelier was kind enough to comp. this glass, thus I ordered the 2nd one
-2013 Champin Le Seigneur Côte-Rôtie, Domaine Jean-Michel Gerin (bright purple, refreshing, soft yet deep & complex, velvety tannins with oak finish). A great pairing for the flavorful and not-so-intense lamb

Cerises "Burlat" en sucre soufflé, crème de pistache de Sicile, giboulée de cerises flambées au kirsch (Burlat Cherries blown in sugar, flambéed with kirsch, and served with pistachio cream from Sicily) - It was a fabulous dessert! The sweet red cherries were soaked with kirsch, then flambeed. In addition, there was a rich & creamy cherry sorbet as well as crunchy crust pistachio nuts on the sides. The "huge cherry" was a big blown sugar of burlat cherries filled with cool, tasty and nutty of superb Sicilian pistachio. The interplay of texture and temperature contrasts were wonderful. All elements were in harmony and the overall impression of the flavors was intense yet still light at the same time - impressive!

I thought the cooking of Éric Fréchon has improved since my last visit 7-8 years ago. Dishes' seasoning and execution were very precise. The technical aspects were excellent, for instance the sauce reduction was flawless and the food was clearly structured. These occurred in both meals, therefore the consistency of the refined food in all aspects was very high. Note that during my '18 visit, Vincent Perrin (chef de cuisine) led the kitchen as Sunday was Chef Frechon's off day. Epicure was a Wine spectator's Grand award winners; it's of no surprise that the wine list here was abundant in particular with the French selection. The wine by the glasses was also quite a lot; even better was the wine service. When I 'wrongfully' selected a red Bordeaux that did not perfectly match my lamb dish, the assistant sommelier recognized this from my face expression. He kindly offered me a better option - the red Burgundy - while still allowed me to keep the initial red free of charge.

Epicure is blessed with tremendous resources. There are nearly 40 people (one of them is MOF Franck Leroy, Eric Frechon's right hand man) working in the kitchen while the dining room's service team was staffed by more than 20 people. With 1 waiter serving 2 guests ratio, the service was exceptional and efficient. During my first visit, per my request I could finish my meal slightly over 2 hours but never felt rush and the pacing was just right. The staffs were cordial and knowledgeable; they easily adjust their manners according to the clients' cultures. Overall, they moved around beautifully as if it's choreographed. For my 2 visits, I was served by nearly different teams. Although I might slightly prefer the "first team" (Remi, Matthieu and Thomas), the "second team" (Stephane and Alicia) also delivered a great service. It was very difficult to find faults at Epicure. Things guest's not happy with were probably more about different tastes instead of the restaurant failed to deliver something. Delicious food and elegant presentation, matching wine pairing with plenty of selection, terrific service and everlasting ambiance were the strong traits of the superb high-end French restaurant. I hope Eric Frechon could become the (last) defender of French cuisine and its tradition as long as possible.

For the pictures that would include nibbles, amuse-bouches and petit fours, please check out the following links: Epicure Oct '17 and Epicure May '18

Food (and Wine): 95.5 pts

Service (and Ambiance): 94.5 pts

Overall: 95/100

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Cheval Blanc Peter Knogl

Switzerland is a developed country known for its high quality stuffs in many aspects - competitive & efficient, world class infrastructure, top notch education and health care etc. Logically, it should be  like Germany in terms of the food too with ten or more 3-star establishments or at least half of them. In reality, there were only 3 of them and the latest one was Cheval Blanc which received the red guide book highest honor in the 2016 edition of the Switzerland Guide. It's been a 'trend' that more and more of top dining places are located in the hotel. Cheval Blanc is the flagship restaurant of the hotel Les trois rois (a member of Swiss deluxe hotels). The fate of the restaurant turned around in 2007 since the arrival of the gifted chef de cuisine named Peter Knogl, the son of a Bavarian farmer. Chef Knogl cut his teeth in Munich and Aschau im Chiemgau under the tutelage of the German-Italian chef Heinz Winkler. He patiently and slowly rose in the kitchen's position. There, he learned a lot about using only the finest produce, discipline, develop his style in which the ingredients should not change their taste.

I went to Cheval Blanc for lunch with my spouse during the early Autumn. The restaurant was located on the ground floor. As we entered the hotel, we could easily recognized the hostess and she escorted us to the main dining room. We were the first guests to arrive so we had the time to admire the Cheval Blanc's interiors by ourselves. The lavish dining room was not overly large with a very high ceiling; there were only 10 tables or so that could cover about 30 people. The dark wooden floor was partially covered with carpet; it was complemented by several classic crystal chandeliers, white and tall candles at each table and fine paintings on the wall. The large purple drapes (the chairs were covered in purple color too) were opened to allow natural lights entering the restaurant while at the same time, guests could enjoy the view of the Rhine river. Consistent to the grand hotel, the Cheval Blanc dining room also radiated an old-style luxury. As far as the food's concerned, both of us ordered the full tasting menu while I also added some dishes from the a la carte menu. The bread, baked daily in house, was good especially I liked the olive and tomato bread.   

Le Menu des Rois (+ a few extra dishes*)

Amuse-bouches for Culinary introductions

Huîtres creuses / ponzu / pomme vert (Crinkled-shelled Oyster with ponzu and green apple) - The briny and juicy oyster was complemented by soy-flavor & sweet ponzu as well as sharp green apple. A tasty, balanced and refreshing amuse-bouche.
Macaron / foie / orange / Garam masala (Duck liver in macaron shape with orange puree and garam masala spice) - The foie gras was flavorful; it went well together with delicate & 'warm' masala and rather acidic orange. One small byte but full of enjoyment.

Espuma jalapeno / Carabinero (Jalapeno mousse with Scarlet shrimp) - The subtle peppery jalapeno foam was beautifully combined with fresh and 'sweet' carabinero - neither element was too dominant, just nice! 
Textures de champignons / Pata negra (Mushrooms in different textures with Iberian ham) - The mushroom cream was intense and earthy in contrast to crisp tuile as the base and subtle marinated mushroom. The pata negra crunch was savory and smooth - generated some texture differences; another tasty nibble.

Foie gras de canard, confit de figues, gelée de thé Earl Grey et cassis (Duck foie gras served with fig confit, jelly of Earl Grey tea and cassis) - Creative duck liver dish in a small portion is always good. The foie gras was smooth and delicious; it was balanced by the sweet fig confit and slightly acidic cassis. Spread this delicate foie gras on the light brioche to fully enjoy this tasty appetizer. The preparation might be different, but there's almost always a foie gras dish on the menu.

Noix de Saint Jacques, carotte et Vadouvan (Scallops served with carrot and Vadouvan) - The lightly cooked scallop was of outstanding quality: plump, tender and naturally sweet. It was accompanied by fresh carrot and seasoned with vadouvan (fermented spices) having interesting + complex taste & aroma. A very good classical dish with modern touch.

*Hamachi Japonais, radis, avocat et miso (Japanese Hamachi served with radish, avocado and miso) - I didn't usually like a cold appetizer, but this one was different. The carefully seasoned and fresh Japanese yellowtail kingfish was moist, clean & buttery. It was beautifully enhanced by the crisp radish, nutty avocado & savory miso. The combination of the sides produced plenty of vibrant flavors with pleasant texture contrasts - really refreshing! 

*Ravioli au jaune d'œuf, épinards à la crème et truffe blanche d'Alba (Egg yolk ravioli served with spinach cream and white Alba truffle) - Obviously a very Italian recipe; egg yolk with shaved white truffle were delightful. The runny orange yolk inside the thin pasta was in harmony with the warm & creamy spinach. The Alba truffle was truly an indulgence - pungent, earthy and delicious - brought this simple ravioli dish to the next level. Glad that I ordered this extra dish ..

Filet de Rouget, écailles croustillantes, safran, ail noir et vinaigrette de tomates (Filet of Red Mullet and its crispy scales served with saffron, black garlic and vinaigrette of tomatoes) - The red Mullet flesh was juicy, a bit firm and nicely absorbed the saffron sauce and vinaigrette; the scales were enjoyably crunchy whereas the garlic's cream and aroma gave this dish an extra 'dimension' - a terrific dish with Asian influences.

*Ris de veau rôti, yuzu, poivre et crème de champignons (Roasted Sweetbread served with yuzu, pepper and cream of mushrooms) - The sweetbread was cooked until golden and a bit crispy on the outside; the result was a tender texture with mild flavor. It was enhanced by a sauce made of veal jus and yuzu. There were shiitake mushroom and 'bok choy' on the sides - a very decent dish with some acidic notes. I picked this because ris de veau was one of Chef Knogl's favorite ingredients.

Selle de Chevreuil de la Styrie, mousseline de céleri et sauce Rouennaise (Styrian saddle of Venison served with mousseline of celery and Rouennaise sauce) - The thick Austrian venison was slightly firm but still smooth, earthy and a bit gamey yet tasty. The celery mousse would carefully tone down the richness from the concentrated Rouennaise sauce. Overall, a solid (red) meat course.

Chariot de fromage frais et affiné de Maître Antony à Ferrette (Selection of soft and hard cheeses from Maître Antony in Ferrette) - I had Saint-Nectaire (fruity aroma and slightly sweet), a cheese from Bernese Jura (from raw milk with a hint of nutty flavor),  Tamie (soft, creamy with robust taste) and Abbaye cheese from Pyrenees (firm and mild). The cheese was accompanied by dark & rye bread - a decent cheese variety.

Poire, nougat et cacahuètes (Pear, nougat and peanuts) - Fruity, soft and fresh ice cream was combined with something sweet and thick (nougat) as well as nutty and crunch (peanuts). Easy to eat dessert and enjoyable especially after some intense red meat.

*Café, muscovado et framboise (Coffee, moscovado and raspberry) -  The Mauritius sugar was probably the most interesting one - unrefined, complex and rich. It was brought together with some aromatic and bitter coffee mousse as well as tart, fresh and rather sweet raspberry sorbet. Although not spectacular, it was a good and fun dessert.

The petit fours were superb especially the mousse on a spoon (mango with passion fruit and lemongrass) and some chocolate truffles (yuzu, caramel and dark). Our degustation menu was accompanied by half-bottle of a local red wine: 2013 Vinattieri Ticinesi Ligornetto Merlot - Medium body & acidity, balanced, fruity (cherries, plum and blackberries), a bit spicy with medium finish. A nice local merlot that went reasonably well particularly with my venison and sweetbread. Overall, the service at Cheval Blanc was good but somewhat uneven at times. For example, the sommelier (might be the assistant) seemed to be confused and not too focused during our lunch; in a couple of occasions, our glasses were not refilled when the volume was low and once when he poured, it dripped a bit on the outer surface of the glass. Then, there was another waiter who claimed that he used to work at one of Alain Ducasse gastronomy restaurants ... from the body language and communication, this full-size man lacked finesse and elegance usually shown by the staffs at any Ducasse fine dining places. I went to the restrooms twice and both times, my napkin was never replaced with a new one. On the other hand, there were 2 charming gentlemen, who also often took care of our table, delivering excellent service with good sense of humor and not overly formal but very professional. Furthermore, they displayed genuine interests to the guests without being obtrusive. Near the end of our lunch, Peter Knogl came out and greeted every table, spent sometimes with the guests without being rush to return to the kitchen. 

With this meal, I managed to complete all of the Switzerland's 3-star restaurants within one week. If I had to pick one place in this land of milk and honey, in terms of the food only, Cheval Blanc was actually my favorite dining place (marginally better than Restaurant Crissier). Peter Knogl's classical style generally fit my taste well. Not only that, he also modernized his cuisine a bit by adding some international flavors such as some Asian influences or mild Mediterranean. His cooking was all about the perfect balance among finest ingredients, authentic inherent flavors of the produce, and elegant skills + technical finesse ... all of these culminating to delicious dishes with astounding sauce. It's never about following the latest food trend in instagram. "Simple" and consistently (nearly) perfect! Ideally, it would not be the only time I savored Chef Knogl's creations. For pictures, you can see at this link: Cheval Blanc Oct '17    

Food (and Wine): 96 pts

Service (and Ambiance): 93 pts

Overall: 95/100

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Ta Vie Hideaki Sato

Ta Vie, from its inception in mid 2015, has become the talk of the town. It should be no surprised because Ta Vie's head chef and part owner was the former chef de cuisine of Tenku Ryugin (2-star) named Hideaki Sato. Ta Vie's name was translated as "Your Life" in French and "Journey" in Japanese. It's Chef Sato's intention from the beginning that his restaurant will be the place for the people to interact while enjoying the journey and exploration of his creations, mainly using Asian high quality products. Ta Vie is probably different than many other fine dining restaurants owing to Sato-san's strong background in both Western (French & Italian) and Japanese cuisine. In addition, he was also skillful in baking bread, making pastry as well as a qualified sommelier. Thus, Hideaki Sato is the main 'brain and muscle' of Ta Vie. The attention to details was applicable in all aspects. For instance, there was a bottle of Azumino mineral water (soft, mild and natural) from Japan with ta vie's label. Furthermore, the homemade sourdough bread (soft inside with good crust outside) and churned butter (pleasant) were made daily in the kitchen. With regards to the main attraction, there was only one degustation menu but, of course, guests were encouraged to share their dietary restrictions upon making the reservation (if any).

Tasting menu featuring Asian produce

Caesar salad topped with Hotaru squid served with Hotaru squid caesar dressing - Hotaru Ika is one way to say that "It's Spring". The Firefly squid was tender and bursting inside with an oceanic & acquired taste. This concentrated umami flavor (also from the dressing) was a good combination for the crisp romaine lettuce, fresh mountain vegetables, parmesan cheese and some croutons. An interesting and tasty dish; quite a strong beginning I would say

"Clam chowder" served with whelk "Matsubu" twist clam and peas with chef's twist - Another unique interpretation of a famous dish by Hideaki Sato. The hot clam soup was light (not too intense); this way, the ingredients inside could shine such as the crunchy and sweet Tsubugai, earthy green peas, and fresh Spring vegetables. You will not feel heavy at all ...

Homemade pasta with "Aonori" sauce and Hokkaido Uni - It was an extra dish from the kitchen and one of Chef Sato's specialties. My main issue here was the texture of the pasta and it seemed deliberate that it's made to be uncharacteristically soft instead of al dente. However, the green seaweed sauce and creamy (Bafun) sea urchin was well-absorbed by the pasta, thus make this dish flavorful. Overall, I still enjoyed this delicate creation

White strawberry and Chioggia beetroot served with fruits tomato tossed with Thai basil and Burrata cheese - This 'intermezzo' was surprisingly tasty - juicy & aromatic pineberries, rather sweet and earthy Italian beetroot, fresh and savory tomato - were good combinations, The soft & milky burrata with aromatic basil + balsamic vinegar acted as the "sauce" for these fruits. Awesome!

"Civet" braised abalone covered with "Abalone shell" - The abalone 'shell' was edible and tasted like crackers. The awabi and shiitake were nicely intertwined in their meaty texture and a contrast of earthy & sea flavors. The caramelized onions and brown sauce (prepared with cognac & madeira) provided more depth to the dish's overall flavor - a winning creation

Japanese langoustine with pork tail, Yunnan ham and langoustine broth - I think it's the first time I consumed Tenaga-ebi; the size was large with elegant flavor and firm texture. The perfectly cooked langoustine was enhanced by the broth to make its flavor more complex yet still balanced. On the side, this langoustine was accompanied by a cabbage dumpling filled with pork tail as well as Yunnan ham to enrich the taste; the 'chicken consomme' also contained some flavor from the long-armed prawn. One of my favorite dishes for the dinner

Beef tongue stew served with onion nouveau and fresh Yunnan morel - The beef tongue was actually thick and carefully cooked with Chinese yellow wine. The back part was tender & fatty (hence more delicious) while the front part was meaty / crisp. The Yunnan morel, having sponge-like texture, was decent though the taste was not as intense as its French counterpart. The best part here was the sauce - a perfect old school French saucing resulting in rich and delightful flavor

Almond ice cream with meringue Served with fresh strawberries & scent of Sakura blossom; covered with fragile candy glass - A beautiful dessert for Spring. It was the feast for the senses: cool plating, pleasant & refreshing scent, soft vs hard texture contrast, a few flavors worked altogether - sour, sweet, nutty. Enjoyable ..

Caramelized French toast served with black truffle toffee, golden Oolong tea ice cream with salted egg yolk - I found these dessert had different degree of flavor intensity. The french toast, topped with shaved cashew nuts, was probably the best one - soft & tasty. The black truffle toffee was very strong with predominantly truffle flavor; on the contrary, the oolong ice cream was delicate with a hint of grated yolk (to reduce any cloying taste). It was quite good

After the dessert, I opted for a tea (pandan, mint and lemongrass) as my digestive, accompanied by light mulberry jelly. For the drinks, I had a combination of cold Hakurakusei sake (subtle & delicate with nice aroma) in carafe and 3 glasses of tea tasting, served chilled, consisted of Yunnan Pu'er, Yame Gyokuro and Jinxuan Ginseng. They were interesting and satisfying in general. Ta Vie is located in the 2nd level of a boutique hotel Pottinger at Central. The atmosphere was intimate, charming and quiet. The dining room tended to be dark combining Asian and European styles. It may not be as luxurious as the like of Caprice or Amber nevertheless well-designed with spacious tables and comfortable sofa / chairs. Ms. Hiromi Takano, Hideaki Sato's wife, is the restaurant manager - the same role she had at Tenku Ryugin. Under her leadership, the service was well-paced and efficient. She and another female staff were friendly, passionate and knowledgeable. Overall, it was a very good diningg experience - innovative and delicious food, solid drink selection, discrete and amiable service, elegant dining room. A return here is probable; preferably in different season so that I can try Chef Sato's different creations. The pictures of the dishes can be found at Ta Vie Mar '18

Food (and Wine): 94 pts

Service (and Ambiance): 94 pts

Overall: 94/100

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

De Librije Jonnie Boer

Benelux region has been relatively quiet regarding world class restaurants when compared to other countries in Europe such as France, Spain or Germany. In the mid 00's, Oud Sluis put Netherlands on the map and became the talk among (serious) foodies. Little did we know that a couple of years earlier - in 2004 to be exact, a restaurant named De Librije, located in the beautiful small town of Zwolle, was awarded 3-star Michelin. Early in 2015, De Librije dining place was relocated to the current historic building - a former prison for more than 200 years. The restaurant was at the basement while the boutique hotel under the same name occupied the higher floors. Slowly but surely, De Librije (owned and run by the venerable couple in the gastronomy industry - Jonnie and Thérèse Boer) has become the most iconic and influential restaurants in the country particularly in the past 5 years or so. It was very common to find people who would dine here once / twice annually for several years. After sometimes, finally I had the opportunity to visit De Librije (my maiden visit) for lunch with my wife in the early Autumn 2017.

After we had been greeted upon entering De Librije, the hostess escorted us to the striking salon. The first impression was the bright colors sofa, cushions, grey walls and floors as well as some modern artworks. After that, we moved to another salon in which we were served several canapes. Then, chef patron Jonnie Boer would come and explained the menu. Several minutes later, he returned and took our orders. My spouse and I shared as many different dishes as possible so that we could share. Based on the order of arrivals, the staff brought guests to their respective tables in the huge courtyard with really high ceilings. It was divided into 2 parts: the main dining room accommodating 30+ guests to enjoy their meals and another part was used for the plating of the dishes, putting wines that would be used for the pairings; there were private tables near the kitchen. The interior, mainly designed by Eric Kuster, displayed impressive glass ceilings, some big & live plants as well as strong iron structures. The big tables covered by white linens were well-spaced and the chairs were leather covered. It was a sunny day with lots of natural lights yet the room felt cooling. A beautiful dining room setting as if guests dined outdoor in the nature. Talking about the food, some of the best amuse-bouche of the day were veal tartare with herring caviar (pretty and delicious) and passion fruits with trout roes (refreshing and clean).

Degustation menu
M would refer to my dish; W would refer to my wife's dish; no info meant we had the same dish. I ordered a longer tasting menu by the way

M / Noordzeekrab, kippenlever, kalfshart (North sea brown crab with chicken liver, smoked celeriac and veal’s heart) - An unusual combination that worked well. There were extensive flavors from the mild & tender crab (seafood), velvety liver (poultry) as well as moist heart (beef); all of these produce was brought together beautifully by the smoky juice, olive oil and peppery spices. A solid start ..

W / Ganzenlever, spruit, rookaal, mandarijn (Goose liver, mandarin, Brussels sprouts and eel) - Similar to my first dish, my wife's also had eclectic flavors variations from the land and the sea. The foie gras was smooth while the local eel was light with pleasant texture.  They were in harmony with the refreshing yuzu sauce and nutty & rounded taste from the sprouts. A very good opening ..

M / Noordzeekreeftjes limoenblad, tomaat en eierdooier (North Sea Lobster with lime leaf, tomato, kombucha and cured egg yolk) - It's one of the classic dishes at De Librije. The Langoustine was actually 'fermented' / soaked for a few hours in water, ginger & sugar blend. As a result, the translucent big prawn was very flavorful. It was even enhanced by the turnip, seaweed juice and grated of salted yolks. 

Accompanied by wine: Albarano Spain (fresh & dry, peach & apple flavor, nutty with medium finish - good pairing with the seafood)  

River Trout with lovage, almonds, and sherry - The local Trout was tender with subtle / clean flavor. The white sauce (a mix of lovage, coconut and almond juice) and bright roes improved the dish's overall enjoyment. There were some texture differences especially when including the raw and cooked mushrooms. A nice and elegant surprised dish from the kitchen.  

M / Rivierbaars "kruudmoes" (River Perch “Kruudmoes”) - Jonnie Boer elevated the humble kruudmoes (a combination of buttermilk, bacon, barley etc.) to the gastronomy level. His version was refined and sophisticated yet still faithful to its origin. This perfectly complemented the freshwater Perch which was lovely, tasty and rather firm. It looked complex, but all elements (smoked sausage, thick white sauce) worked harmoniously. I didn't expect to be this good.

W / Gul, blauwe kaas, sparrentop, tulp (Young cod, blue cheese, spruce tip, and tulip) - A more 'feminine' dish for my spouse. The fresh Cod was soft with mild flavor. It was accompanied by the (thankfully) light blue cheese, delicate and lemony spruce tips as well as tender tulip. It was good but I wish the flavor had been more robust - rather pale in comparison to the pike Perch.

M / Zeeduivel verzuurde paprika en aubergine (Monkfish with soured pepper and eggplant) - The Monkfish's quality was superb; it was perfectly cooked and succulent. The dish was carefully balanced by the fermented bell pepper, butter sauce and onions. A well-deserved classic dish.

Accompanied by wine: Contraste Portugal (fresh & fruity white wine, nice acidity with good finish) 

Milk cow with eel, mushrooms and baharat - Strips of the dry-aged (6-8 weeks) were carefully seared, one-side only, on the hot rocks. Yes, the other side was indeed still raw. It was the 2nd surprise dish for us. The rib eye was served on the cow's shoulder plate, dusted by the cep's powder and a blend of middle eastern spices (sweet & smoky). The beef was, as expected, luscious and tender. The sides of potato crisp, smoked eel and acidic sorrel enhanced the overall experience.

M / Ree, sauce royal, doperwt (Venison with sauce royale and green peas) - The carefully executed venison (medallion + its leg) was really tender / soft with deep flavor. It was enriched by the elegant & deep brown royale sauce. In contrast, the kitchen provided the fermented peas that nicely 'neutralized' any gamey flavor - a refined dish.

W / Boerenduif, baharat, rode kool (Farmers pigeon with baharat and red cabbage) - The breast part was carefully sliced and served with its jus; they were tasty - the best part. The leg was glazed with bbq sauce while the cabbage and pigeon's heart were alright.
Accompanied by wine: red wine Kepos Toscana (medium body, little oak, soft tannin, round)

M / Ganzenlever, lychee, abrikoospit (Foie gras, litchi, and apricot seed) - It was a good example that De Librije's pastry chef was talented. Duck liver as a dessert? The first time I encountered it. This 'sweet' lychee with floral perfume + some aromatic vinegar turned out was capable of cutting through the poached foie gras's rich flavor. The apricot seed gave some bitter sweet and nutty flavor to the dish - smart & interesting.

W / Thai combined with Holland dessert - I don't know how to properly describe this dessert. The 3 separate bowls & plate were enjoyable by itself as well as when you combined them. There were root, ginger with some interesting spice variations such as turmeric & lemongrass. Then, my favorite part was the sticky rice with carrots and banana in coconut soup. Lastly, pandan with kaffir lime & macadamia. We're not blown away nevertheless it was playful and fun.

M / Beetroot rose with lovage - The beets were earthy and a bit sweet. The lovage's ice cream had distinct flavors that worked quite well with the blueberries and liquorice. The presentation was pretty but the taste was only Ok. My wife's 2nd dessert was better ..

W / Compleet losgeslagen Appeltaart volgens recept van Jonnies moeder (Deconstructed apple pie according to the recipe of Jonnie’s mother) - To enjoy and taste this sweet, ideally we would put together a bit of everything - good vanilla ice cream & jelly, solid chocolate, sour & sharp apples - all elements complemented each other. This way, we would re-create our own apple pie; awesome.

Accompanied by wine: sweet wine Anjou (young, lively & fruity aromas, acidic - lovely chenin blanc grape variety)

After the desserts, the pastry kitchen served some mignardises such as Jasmine tea sorbet with grapefruit (refreshing) and Dehydrated orange, black mint and mascarpone (creamy & a bit salty).  Honestly, it was a stunning meal. The last time I was this impressed when visiting a restaurant outside France / Japan for the first time was my lunch at the Fat Duck, nearly 4 years ago. Jonnie Boer was incredibly talented and certainly among Europe's finest chefs. His cooking was sublime and creative; his dishes were innovative and exciting. Everything coming from the kitchen seemed natural and effortless following Chef Boer's instinct and passion. The commitment to source locally has always been his philosophy even when it was not fashionable years ago or when obtaining overseas luxury ingredients was just a phone call away. All of the dishes at De Librije may not always be changed each season, but the cooking would evolve continuously and it's been Jonnie's habit to keep reinventing himself. Bravo chef!

Therese Boer's roles to ensure memorable overall experience were also significant. She's leading from the 2 fronts: as the head Sommelier and as the Lady of the house - she excelled in both areas. Compared to the fine dining in France or Scandinavia, a meal here provided really good values. The same also applied to the wine. De Librije did not push for high end / expensive wines for the pairing, yet without even fully realizing their brand and origin, most of the wines offered went harmoniously with Jonnie Boer's cooking. If one preferred drinking French top wines, the selection was also enormous. Along with Stefan de Wilde, the charming restaurant manager, Therese led the waiting staffs deliver attentive and friendly service in a relax and fun manner. The service was efficient and smiles / laughter could easily be found everywhere. Our lunch was indeed exceptional. I hope this would not be my only meal here. Probably, I would include a hotel stay in the future. The pictures of our lunch can be found here: De Librije Oct '17 

Food (and Wine): 97 pts

Service (and Ambiance): 96 pts

Overall: 97/100

Friday, April 6, 2018

Le Grand Restaurant Paris

Once upon a time, Alain Ducasse had a very capable right hand man (besides Franck Cerutti) that some might have argued that he could be better than Ducasse himself and his named is Jean-François Piège. Jean-François Piège had been working at the flagship of Alain Ducasse restaurants in Monaco and Paris for more than a decade before he became the Executive Chef of Hotel de Crillon in particular in charge of Les Ambassadeurs. After he left Le Crillon in 2009, he was free to venture on his own. His status as a celebrity chef was more and more apparent. He showed up in many magazines and television shows in addition to running some restaurants including a gastronomy restaurant at Thoumieux. Eventually in late Summer of 2015, chef Piège opened and ran his own restaurant called "Le Grand Restaurant". Awards kept coming ever since including a 2-star Michelin and chef of the year awards from Pudlo and Champerard. It's quite obvious that the red guide highest accolade would be his main objective for this restaurant.

Due to my earlier commitment and rain, I arrived kinda late (nearly 9:30 PM) at Le Grand Restaurant. Contrary to its name, Le Grand Restaurant was actually a small and stylish restaurant with only 25-cover. It was hidden in the small side street, not too far from the Elysee Palace. The restaurant's unique feature near the entrance was its glass window showing the open kitchen with plenty of the staffs in plain white. As I entered the restaurant, not only the maitre d' greeted me, but also many of the Jean-François Piège's kitchen team. However, the dining room was (very) low-lit in contrast to the bright open kitchen made from solid black and white marble. I could not appreciate the dining room's elegant design until after everyone left. The most striking aspect was clearly the dramatic & majestic black and white ceiling, followed by the sparkle of Baccarat lights as well as thick carpet whose pattern was similar to the dining room's glass ceiling. This refined decor with comfortable and cozy atmosphere was done by Gulla Jonsdottir, an Icelandic interior designer.  

For the food, I selected the degustation menu - 3 courses plus cheese & dessert - accompanied by (surprisingly generous) wine pairing. The meal started with some bread with butter and a few nibbles such as crispy beef with pickled jelly, parfait bread with olive and parmesan, pigeon egg with red wine etc. Then followed by the "real stuffs" ...

Mes Cuissons Mijote Moderne (Chef's Tasting Menu)
Caviar Daurenki Tsar Impérial servi sur une pomme soufflée croquante, crème foisonnée d'extraits de crustacés en chaud et froid, bouillon toasté 
(Daurenki Tsar Imperial Caviar part 1 served on top of an egg-shaped potato souffle with some potato cream inside) - The potato souffle was crisp and light with velvety potato & shellfish cream inside. It went very well with a dollop of caviar (carefully prepared with vodka and lemon) which was briny & buttery with nutty flavor. A "pop" of this firm & farmed Daurenki caviar met with delicate potato were simply stunning. To avoid any mess, I recommend to consume it in one byte
(Daurenki Tsar Imperial Caviar part 2 served with crusted cream of hot and cold shellfish / langoustine extracts jelly) - The shellfish emulsion was complex and smooth in contrast to the caviar's richness and texture; a lovely combination

Accompanied by wine: Chablis Premier Cru 2014 (floral aroma, golden color, crisp, good minerality and lively palate)

Langoustines de belle taille cuites dans du beurre noisette, marinière liée de fleurs de capucines, fines feuilles des pinces soufflées (Large size Langoustine cooked in hazelnut butter with mariniere sauce, white wine mixed with onions, herbs etc., and nasturtium flowers) - Paris is the heaven of exceptional langoustine dishes. Here, the succulent, fresh and sweet big scampi were perfectly executed - superb! It was enhanced by the delicious & balanced green buttery sauce and perfumed by the capucine's leaves and flowers. There were finely chopped young mango below that nicely absorbed the sauce and acted as "rice" to give some texture contrast. Langoustine seemed to be Chef Piege's specialty, so try to order one whenever you eat at his restaurant

Accompanied by wine: Meursault 2013 (medium acidity and minerality, fruity, subtle finish)

Grillotee sur des coques de noix, Ris de veau de lait, cepes de pin au four, excudat de cuisson infuse des aiguilles (The veal, slowly grilled over walnut shells, was served with baked pine mushrooms, walnut and mashed potatoes) - The veal was prepared in 2 forms: soft sweetbread and tender rack / 'steak' - both were divine and flavorful. The veal was also lacquered with the walnut to gave the meat some smoky and nutty taste. The dish also came with caramelized veal's jus, cepes mousseline and walnut highlighting the Autumn's flavors - a very satisfying main course

Accompanied by wine: the sommelier kindly gave me 2 different wines for tasting
-Chorey-Les-Beaune 2014 Burgundy (medium body, plenty of acidity, bright red, medium tannin, a bit too young but a decent pairing for the veal)
-Bandol 2008 Provence (dark berries & some spices, full body, soft tannin, bright acidity, smooth with medium length; liked this more than the pinot noir)

Brie de Meaux fondant - The cheese (a combination of brie and mont d'or) was processed in certain ways and served with refined celery. The cheese's taste and smell were rather weak and the celery yielded interesting flavor variation. The normal & regular cheese, served at multi-level wooden platforms, would probably be better than this one

Accompanied by wine: I forgot the detail but it was a wine from Loire Valley having creamy texture

Blanc-manger coulant - It was definitely the finest and most delicious blanc-manger I've ever eaten. It was pristine and chilled with very soft texture; inside, it had a runny & smooth vanilla cream and at the top, there was a thin & crisp yellowish caramel disc. I didn't notice any unpleasant 'eggy' smell or taste here. It was simply perfect and showcased Chef Piege's artistry workmanship. Bravo! This pre-dessert was even better than my real dessert next

Millefeuille vanille, rhubarbe au four et givree (Vanilla Napoleon, thousand layers puff pastry, served with baked and frosted rhubarb) - The aromatic millefuille was relatively thick with minimal vanilla cream hence failing to tame the rhubarb's sour taste. Except with the help of smooth vanilla ice cream, I only experienced sourness from the mille-feuille; flavor-wise, it was not as tasty as I initially had expected though the texture was good

Accompanied by wine: Muscat 2016 (naturally sweet and aromatic, a good pairing for the rhubarb)

In addition to the usual petit four, the pastry team provided this caramelized pumpkin with hay ice cream. The coarse pumpkin was sweet and flavorful, in contrast to the delicate and lightly tart hay ice cream. The food might not be perfect, but Jean-François Piège pushed his creativity and often the boundary of creating modern French cuisine with some flair. Dishes were generally pure / not pretentious, harmonious, and delicious with careful attention to details. I could sense that chef Piège devoted lots of energy and emotion in creating every dish. The service was competent with fine pace (never felt rushed in spite of my late arrival) and the atmosphere was relaxed. The front staffs were a bit 'calculative' yet gracious, friendly and worked efficiently although I never noticed they spent a lot of times chatting with the guests - many of them were locals celebrating special occasions. I look forward to finding out what Le Grand Restaurant will deliver in the next few years. I think 3-star it's not impossible for the chef-owner, latest when Jean-François Piège is in his early 50's. Here are the pictures of my meals: Grand Restaurant Oct '17

For nostalgia's sake, these were Chef Piège's creations I savored during his days at Le Crillon: les ambassadeurs 2007

Food (and Wine): 94 pts

Service (and Ambiance): 93 pts

Overall: 93.5/100

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Pierre Gagnaire Paris - 5th visit

Pierre Gagnaire, nowadays, is a celebrated French chef whose empire has included more than a dozen restaurants across three continents. His success story started in Saint-Étienne, a city in the east-central France, when in 1993 Gagnaire's restaurant received 3-star Michelin. Since economically challenging to run a gastronomy restaurant in a small town, Pierre Gagnaire decided to move his eponymous dining place to the capital and once again awarded 3-star in 1998; he has held it until now. Although he is currently a 'celebrity' chef, Pierre Gagnaire loves being in the kitchen and gets his hands dirty preparing dishes for the guests. Many people truly respect this attitude, even his peers voted Gagnaire as the World's best chef in 2015 via a poll of Le Chef magazine. Pierre Gagnaire's creations are unique in that they're intellectual, experimental and poetic at the same time. While more and more chefs tried to simplify their dishes using a few ingredients, on the contrary, Gagnaire loves combining several products to generate maximum flavors and creative textures in a single dish. Those who are open-minded and love novelty usually will enjoy and appreciate Chef Gagnaire's work. Often, his food has been perceived to operate at "higher levels" as many of the dishes are deeply personal and guided by his intuition and passion. My meals at Pierre Gagnaire's flagship restaurants have always been fun and adventurous.

Pierre Gagnaire Paris is located on the ground floor of hotel Balzac but it has its own entrance. The only thing that they shared was the restrooms. As you enters the main door, you would walk past the bar area before reaching the main dining room at the lower level. The decor has been very similar ever since I visited this place in 2007 - the dining room was dominated by wood color with plenty of torn pages attached to the walls and the floor was covered by carpet. The lighting was soft but during lunch time, it was fine due to some natural lights from the windows near the street. Tables, covered by superior white linens, are large and the distance between them were generous except the ones at the back / mezzanine level. Pierre Gagnaire was one of the few restaurants in which I preferred having the full a la carte dishes to the tasting menu (for those who like degustation menu, please do so - it's also very good). This time, I actually ordered 2 main courses from the seafood section with no entree since I really want to try the langoustine. The meal would start with an array of nibbles and bread (classic baguette, milk roll and seaweed). Then, the rests were as follow:

Cocktail de poche

Moules de bouchot et oignons grelots au vinaigre sanbaizu, cristes marines - Farm mussels and small onions flavored with Sanbaizu vinegar and sea fennel.
Infusion Tiké: sardine laquée, maquereau au sel, pointe de rhubarbe et énoki - Infusion Tike with lacquered sardine, salted mackerel, a hint of rhubarb and enoki mushrooms.
Toutes petites perches du lac Léman meunière, cresson et oreilles de judas - Small perches from the Geneva lake, watercress and oreille de judas mushrooms.
Mousseline de foie blond, sablé d’aubergine; mousse de carotte - Liver mousseline with eggplant shortbread and carrot mousse.
Perle Noire: pâte de pois chiches, jus de poivron vert au poivre vert - Perle noire of chickpea paste, green sweet pepper juice spiced with green pepper.

To comprehend and explain Gagnaire's food was challenging, even for the restaurant's staffs. There were so many elements and a reflection of the latest seasonal ingredients. The items were stimulating and imaginative, and at the same time tasty thankfully. The amuse bouche showcased plenty of flavor and texture contrasts. Some were intense and aromatic; satisfying opening but the better items were coming from the a la carte dishes.

La Pêche (Fishing)


Part 1
Grosse langoustine croustillante 1982 – condiment Dundee-Peeky (Crunchy large Langoustine, from the 1982 recipe, with seasoning of Dundee Peeky) - It was arguably the most perfect big prawn 'tempura' I've ever had. The crisp "batter" was so light / thin that it barely interfered with the delicate texture + delicious & sweet flavor of the very large langoustine. It was a stunning piece of giant prawn.

Side dishes:
Pommes soufflées au sumac (Souffled potatoes with sumac powder) - The airy & light potato souffles were very good; they're mixed with versatile sumac powder (tangy & slightly tart). An awesome condiment for the langoustine.
Crème prise, baies de miltomate (Creme prise, miltomate berries) - A thick and tasty cream was paired with the fresh, acidic and fruity berries to accompany the large Dublin bay prawn.

Part 2
De toutes petites saisies au beurre pimenté, flambées au vieux rhum; gelée de cidre fermier sur une galette de blé noir (Small langoustine seared in a spicy butter and flamed with aged rum; served with farm cider jelly on a buckwheat crepe) - The tender and flavorful langoustine was cooked a la minute; the 'green' sauce was rich and sophisticated - a bit spicy, deliciously complex yet all of the elements were in harmony. A dazzling Dublin bay prawn!

Crues | givrées légèrement fumées, navet Buren; miel du maquis corse au citron d’Iran (Raw, frosted and lightly smoked, turnip Buren; served with honey from the Corsican maquis and Iranian black lemon) - The smaller raw prawn was fresh, smooth and very tasty (with pleasant honey smell and flavor) while the turnip & black lemon balanced the dish.

Raviole imprimée d’herbes, salpicon au curry vert (Ravioli with herbs, diced langoustine spiced with green curry) - An unusual preparation for the prawn; light, interesting and aromatic. The "spices" would reduce any intense taste coming from the other langoustine plates. It might not be my favorite langoustine dish nevertheless it's necessary in light of the overall flavors and textures for this a la carte dish.    


Pavé de turbot sauvage poêlé à l’arête – les filets sont levés, assaisonnés de copeaux de Comté et de tomatillo, olives verte de Lucques; bouillon de cepes à l’amontillado (Pan-fried Turbot steak cooked on the bone: the fillets are cut and served with thin slices of Comte cheese, tomatillo and green olives from Lucques; there were also cepe mushrooms bouillon flavored with Amontillado) - Gagnaire is an expert in cooking fish and (again) I ordered a Turbot dish; it was luxurious, generous and incredible. It was less complicated than the langoustine as the main item was a huge and perfectly cooked wild turbot cooked on the bone - meaty and flaky; great flavors and textures. The sauce was earthy as a reflection of the Autumn taste. It was dominated by the flavors of Turbot's delicious jus, tart green olives, woody cepes & dry-sweet amontillado. The chef-patron loves to be innovative and pushing the boundaries, luckily they generally worked well and matched my palate such as what happened to this fish.

Side dishes:
Toast de bardes | gel de citron au cerfeuil (Turbot bards served with gel of lemon and chervil) - The bards were refreshing and naturally sweet; nicely integrated with sour-sweet lemon gel as well as delicate yet fine chervil herbs. A good side dish for the Turbot.
Cocotte de murex et cocos de Paimpol au jus de viandes blanches (Cocotte of murex mollusc and white beans from Paimpol in a white meats juice) - The murex casserole was kinda chewy, in contrast to the starchy and nutty beans. It was decent though hardly influenced / enhanced the main Turbot's flavor.

Accompanied by wine: 2009 Roc d’Anglade Blanc Vin de Pays du Gard (Smooth with fresh and round palate. It had delicate minerals, scents of apple and quince with citrus finish. 2017 was a good time to drink it)



Soufflé à la pistache de Sicile, crème glacée à la vanille de Tahiti (Souffléed biscuit flavored with pistachio from Sicile and served with Tahiti vanilla ice cream) - The souffle was terrific; it was delectable and fragrant. The top outer part had some crunch while the inside was smooth (yet not eggy) with deep flavor of vanilla and sweet pistachio. This could only mean the egg yolk and milk used were superb. The ice cream was rich and round; the temperature and texture contrasts were lovely. The souffle of 3-star quality was indeed special.

Side dishes:
Loukoum à la vanille de Madagascar, lait de coco et noix (Madagaskar vanilla loukoum with coconut milk and walnuts) - The coconut milk was viscous & nutty while the loukoum was sweet with jelly-like texture.
Galette de sucre à la vanille Tahaa, mousseux of passion fruits (Tahaa vanilla sugar galette with passion fruits mousseux) - The pure vanilla was aromatic & rich but balanced by the sour passion fruit frothy.
Pistachio Baklava, crème au fromage (Pistachio Pavlova and cheesecake cream) - The baklava was not overly sweet with a little acidic cream.

Pierre Gagnaire Paris, once again, has been able to prepare a stunning meal consistently. This was arguably one of the best meals I've ever had here. I think it could be the case because after more than a decade ago, eventually I met Pierre Gagnaire himself again. He's leading by example to his team: busy in the kitchen as well as taking time to approach and greet guests. I was invited to visit the kitchen too - smaller than I had anticipated. The service was impeccable; the best one I've experienced here. Most of the time, I was taken care of by Alexandre who was patient, polite and knowledgeable. The food was well-paced given that I only had 2.5 hours.

Pierre Gagnaire may not be young anymore but he was still energetic with young spirit. He kept producing new and vibrant dishes that usually only came from younger chefs. With the expansion of his vast portfolio, nowadays Thierry Mechinaud (chef de cuisine) regularly leads the flagship restaurant's kitchen. Even Gagnaire's right hand man who's also a MOF recipient, Michel Nave was busy traveling. On the day I had lunch here, Nave was in Shanghai preparing for the opening of Le Comptoir. The 'funny' part, I hardly visited Pierre Gagnaire's other restaurants in Asia or outside Europe despite loving his cooking very much. Since I often come to the city of lights, at least once every 1-2 years, I thought - what's the point of visiting anywhere else but Gagnaire Balzac? For the photos of the above dishes, please check: Pierre Gagnaire Oct '17  

If any of you ever wondered why you could not find the review of my meal at Pierre Gagnaire Paris - 4th visit, don't be surprised because I never wrote any. However, you still could see the pictures of that dinner here: gagnaire paris 2014

Food (and Wine): 97 pts

Service (and Ambiance): 95 pts

Overall: 96.5/100