Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Two Parisian Newcomers

Two superb new (moderately priced) Parisian restaurants not to be missed: Septime and Néva Cuisine

Excellent! Excellent! Excellent! That is what I wrote in my journal about every dish I had at Septime. In four short months, Bertrand Grébaut's addition to Parisian restaurants has become swamped with calls. He is definitely a chef with a stellar career ahead. Formerly, Grébaut worked at Arpège and then opened his own Agapé where he earned one Michelin star at the age of 27. Before opening Septime, he took a year's sabbatical in Japan in order to hone his taste buds and skills. The lunch menu is a mere 26 euros for three delicious courses (including wine or bottled water). You can accompany your meal with a choice of organic wines. At night, the menu is more elaborate and includes a five-course "chef's choice" for 55 euros. Prices are extremely reasonable for this caliber of food.

My friend, Gaby and I went there for a simple yet spectacular lunch in mid-July. Velouté de haricots verts, pêche (blanche) et sésame started off the meal. This was a lovely mousse de pêche shaped like a peach with toasted sesame seeds, white peach slices and pourpier (a succulent green) as garnish in a wonderful green bean soup. Gaby chose a lovely lentil salad with toasts, panoufle, and eggs that was light and flavorful. (Panoufle is a juicy part of the lamb belly and a favorite cut of the chef.) We were both tempted by the same main course: grilled baby duck with eggplant, caramelized endives and a purée of eggplant. The house wine was delicious. To close the meal we each had a dark chocolate mousse with a whipped coffee cream and a mint sorbet. What a superb luncheon for such a small price.

A second visit for lunch showed that the kitchen is consistently excellent, the food creative and delicious and the service friendly and efficient. The staff seems to be very happy to be working in such a well-received restaurant.

Dinner is more elaborate with more courses and costs 55 euros.

I can always count on my dentist, Dr. Marzouk, to steer me to a good place. Recently, he wrote to me about Néva Cuisine. Written up in Le Monde, it has already developed a good following.

The room is inviting and the service very friendly. On the evening I went there with my friend, Eric, I chose a very rich but delicious meal. The menu is 34 euros for three courses without beverages. I started off with Gnocchetti al verde, St. Jacques, émulsion parmesan. The parmesan cream with the baby scallops was nothing short of a miracle. The flavors married beautifully but the gnocchetti made the dish a bit too heavy.

As there were sweetbreads (ris de veau) on the menu, I unfortunately could not resist. Perhaps this sounds strange to you but I do adore the way the French prepare this dish. The sweetbreads were crisp on the outside and creamy within and served with a sauté of wild mushrooms.

Eric skipped the appetizer and went right for a dish of fresh flash-grilled scallops with grilled cèpes flavored with tonka seed--a flavorful bean that is often ground and added to chocolate. It has been used as a substitute for vanilla. The tonka added an exotic flavor to the perfectly prepared scallops.

I could not resist an incredible dessert (after watching the show at a neighboring table): La Sphère déstucturée chocolat Samana pur origine ananas confit aux épices douces. Please see my review of Alinea for a terrible version of same.

To the table came a large dark chocolate sphere but this time, it was filled with ice cream, bits of cookies, pieces of pineapple in dark chocolate and whipped cream. The waiter poured a wonderful warm dark chocolate sauce over it. The sphere fell apart into its delectable glory. It was spectacular. Eric chose the dessert of the day which was a wonderful baba au rhum with a small bowl of whipped cream on the side.

What a delight that so many creative young chefs in Paris are forging their way to become the next starred restaurants. I have a feeling that Grébaut of Septime will have a Bib Gourmand and then a star before too long.


"Spring" has blossomed into quite a wonderful modern French restaurant

Several years ago, a friend from Tokyo read a review in Japanese Elle about the restaurant, Spring. She called from Japan to make a reservation and had great difficulty securing a table--so in demand was this restaurant. She had to book very far in advance but with this reservation, she asked if I wanted to join her. Always interested in tracking down new desirable places, I was happy to accompany her.

I could not have been more disappointed. The restaurant had just 16 seats and was not separate from the kitchen. There was no wait staff to speak of. There was a set menu but each dish was prepared individually so that the time between courses was excruciatingly long. That night, it was particularly hot and unbearably humid in Paris (it was mid-July) and all I could think about was air conditioning. And to top it off, the food was over-salted and difficult to eat. I said to myself that sometimes fad restaurants are just hype. This was certainly a place to avoid.

Fast forward 8 years and I noticed a rave review of Spring in a reputable travel magazine. Spring had just moved to new beautiful quarters near the Louvre. Yes, it is hard to book, but the article had nothing but praise for Spring's chef, Daniel Rose (from Chicago) whose creative and smooth touch with ingredients make magic on the plate. I said to myself that perhaps things had changed over the years and decided to try it again.

Friends were coming in from the states and I thought this would be the occasion to go there. Once I made the reservation, I was asked for my email address and was put on a very special mailing list.

Even before the dinner, I received a message about a "lobster sandwich afternoon". I have such fond memories of going to a north shore suburb of Boston to a particular crab shack on the beach where I could get the best lobster roll in the world: meaty and juicy lobster, just a hint of mayonnaise, some celery and a buttered doughy toasted hotdog roll--pure bliss!

I signed up for the Spring Lobster Sandwich Day and was not at all disappointed. Although the atmosphere was no shack on the beach, the caliber of the roll was up to par. And with it, came the most delicious frites a la graisse d'oie (fries made in duck fat). This was heaven on earth. Daniel went around the room later and offered us pieces of his delicious tarte fine aux pommes. The atmosphere was fun and friendly and the meal an A+.

Needless to say, I was very excited to go to Spring for the real deal. Again, the kitchen is in the room but the tables are well spaced. The decor is modern and sparse, the room comfortable and the atmosphere quiet and refined. Staff is ubiquitous and proud of the food they are serving. There is a set menu of five courses for 75 euros.

Our meal was beautiful, well balanced and flavorful--such a difference from my first experience which had faded far into the background as soon as the first small dishes appeared at our table. Home made rolls came with herb butter and accompanied the several petites amuse-bouches that we were immediately served.: seabream sashimi with ashes of leek; wonderful grilled rosy basque shrimp; a small dish of crab, grapefruit and slivers of rye toast; celeri rave and black truffle in truffle broth.

Our first course was raw and fried oyster (superb) in veal broth with mustard greens and crunchy radish.

Next came lightly seared scallops with watercress, turnip and fuji apple foam--a delightful combination of flavors and textures. With the fish we had a bottle of the lovely white Burgundy, Saint Romain 2010. (I was, alas, too involved with all the flavors to note the particular producer.)

This was followed by succulent agneau de lait: perfectly pink, perfectly prepared, perfectly delicious. Velvety foie gras was served with a confiture of quince and a cabbage crepe filled with foie gras. With our meat, I chose glasses of Nuits St. Georges Les Terrasses des Vallerots, Bertrand Marchand de Gramont.

For the sweets came several small dishes of fruits: pear compote with goat cheese sorbet topped with flecks of dark chocolate; clementine jelly with chestnut cream and a chestnut crisp; olive oil tartes and luscious caramel-pecan tartes. A truly splendid meal which was delightful from start to finish.

Spring hosts wine tastings either in the restaurant or in its shop across the street. At lunch during the week, there is a 12 euro peasant soup: full of chicken and vegetables in a heady broth. And then there are those spectacular specialty days when a particular dish is show-cased. I will be sure to attend those as they come up.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

New York's Wonderful Per Se

The New York Times' best restaurant in NY. I say best in the USA.

A few days before I went to Per Se, Sam Sifton wrote his last article as food critic for the New York Times and proclaimed that Per Se is the best restaurant in New York.

The other four-star restaurants in the city certainly deserve their stars and their renown, but I am going to have to agree with him about Per Se. I had the best meal there that I have ever had in the USA.

The restaurant has only 16 tables and they seat just 8 tables at the first seating, adding more tables 1 1/2 hours into the meal. As a result, the service is very attentive, and with so few tables, it is difficult to get a seat. It took me years to land an 11:30 am table on a Sunday morning and I was thrilled to be there. The welcome is warm, dignified and informal at the same time. The staff communicate the feeling that they are very happy to welcome you to what is bound to be a memorable experience.

The chef, Thomas Keller, worked in NY at Rakel over twenty years ago. When I went there, I "courageously" ordered rabbit and then dared to go up to him as he made his way around the diningroom. Not very successful in NY at that time, he then moved to the Napa Valley where he opened The French Laundry. This restaurant was considered the best in the country in the '90's. I went there in October, 1999 and even at that time it was a challenge to get a reservation. The meal was exquisite and delicious, and because I had come from Paris and the maître d'hôtel was French, I got to go into the kitchen and meet Keller. He opened Per Se in New York several years ago and from the very beginning has had nothing but praise and success.

Some of his signature dishes are on the menu: a small cone of smoked salmon tartare and crème fraîche to get you started, followed by the wonderful Oysters and Pearls: a sabayon of velvety pearl tapioca, filled with poached creek oysters and white sturgeon caviar. The textures and flavors make this dish a stunner.

Everything is perfect, from the variety of breads and butters to the unassuming way the wine is served. As I was alone, the sommelier showed me the "wines by the glass" list and we talked about the best choices for my meal. There was no pressure to buy a very expensive wine and those that we chose married beautifully with my dishes.

Next on the menu came the Peach Palm Salad which tasted like spring. It consisted of French breakfast radishes, baby herbs, Hawaiian hearts of palm, compressed apples and peach tendrils. Apparently peach palm is very rare: tender spears that grow out of the hearts of palm.

Long Island Striped Bass was a tasty and complex dish. The fish is wrapped in garlic sausage and served with a garlicky vinegar and creamy mashed potatoes--quintessential French food. After that, the succulent Poached Lobster garnished with honey-poached cranberries (which added some acidity), pumpkin porridge and seeds and black truffles was a total delight for the taste buds and the eyes. The dish was arrayed with a variety of colorful vegetables and herbs as garnish.

There were two meat courses: Wildflower Honey-glazed Pekin Duck with caramelized Mission fig, ravioli of toasted pistachios, and topped with a foie gras mignonette: an ode to autumn.

In fact all of the courses were so well-conceived, so perfect, that they took my attention away from the lovely flavorful wines that so harmoniously accompanied them.

The last main course before the myriad of desserts was an Herb Roasted Alysian Fields Farm's Lamb that came with navel orange confit, caramelized Belgian endive, a bit of bacon, almond and toasted cauliflower florets. Magnificent!

A small cheese course of local Kinderhook Creek's cheeses followed with garnishes such as San Marzano tomato marmelade, roasted eggplant, espelette (a spicy pepper from Southern France), and romaine spears.

Huckleberry sorbet and muffins with a red wine granité was a refreshing introduction to other sweets. Thomas Keller serves his rendition of S'mores which are not only superb but elegant, and Coffee and Donuts (irresistible cappuccino chocolate mousse with warm brioche donuts coated with coconut and sugar). There were chocolates to choose from, candies and finally, a popcorn sherbet with a white chocolate coating.

The meal, superbly paced and balanced, made me feel satisfied and happy--not overly full. Expensive as it was, it was worth every penny for the quality of the cuisine, the excellent service and the sublime food experience.

The maître d'hôtel had the chef (Keller was not in the kitchen this time) sign my menu and invited me into the kitchen to meet him and take pictures. They really did make me feel that they were as happy to have someone like me (interested enough in their art to come and appreciate a meal alone) as I was to be there.

The Chicago Diner--Meat-free since '83

Delectable Vegan stronghold in Chicago: worth a detour!

When I read about The Chicago Diner, I had to go there. My young friend, Gillian, accompanied me to a lovely, quiet, residential neighborhood with a main street and a very authentic-looking diner on one inviting corner. Meat-free and totally vegan, the diner serves up some of the best food I had in the city.

Brandon, the manager, was very pleased to let me keep the menu for my menu collection (destined to Harvard University's Schlesinger Library)and happy to hear my compliments. Gillian had the signature seitan corned-beef sandwich and I had a seitan beef salad. Both were excellent, flavorful and very filling. We drank organic wine and beer. Although quite happy and full, I could not resist the beautiful creamy carrot cake made without cream and cheese but with soy. It was as delicious as it looked.

This was a memorable experience and I will definitely go back there.

Alinea: Quintessential Molecular Cuisine

Molecular Cuisine in Chicago with a large dose of pretension

I can't tell you how thrilled I was to land a reservation at Chicago's Alinea--probably one of the hardest reservations to get. It is the outpost for molecular cuisine in the US and is considered to be one of the very best restaurants in the world. The chef, Grant Achatz, famously survived tongue cancer, keeping his discerning palate. I heard him interviewed on "Fresh Air" and he said that despite the ultra modern-craziness of his dishes, first and foremost they have to be delicious.

Well, after spending three excruciating hours in the theater known as the Alinea dinner, I am not so sure. I can tell you that it is a place that you either love or your hate, and I hated it.

The staff is ultra-pretentious and behaves as though you are very very lucky to be spending the evening with them. Each dish is served with a show, which has been worked on by the various and sundry waiters and waitresses who try to charm you with their act. They go through all sorts of contortions explaining how difficult it is to make the sake that you are being served (sake that only Alinea seems to have), or the incredible use of grilled yuba (a tofu product that I had enjoyed in Japan several times-. At Alinea this yuba, entwined with over-cooked shrimp in a miso sauce, was tough, whereas I remember it has having a heavenly velours-like texture.

There is no menu because everything has to be a surprise, and of course, they know in advance the foods that "you don't want on your table", reciting them to you in the introductory act. That is when you have time to add or subtract the particular items that you don't like to eat. At the end of the meal, you are graced with a strange printed menu which has been tailored to your particular experience. It tells you the name of each of the 18 dishes you have consumed. Each dish, by the way, comes with a wine (some wines can be imbibed with more than one dish) or this "splendid" sake. I was falling asleep at the table and had to ask them to stop serving me the wine. (As a result, my menu had the names of only the 6 glasses of wine I had been served).

Here are some of the names of the dishes: Wooly Pig, fennel, orange, squid; Taylor Bay scallop, hitachino white ale, old bay; Lobster, Queen Anne's lace, huitlacoche, gooseberry; Lemongrass, dragonfruit, thai basil, finger lime; Snow yuzu.

I remember that Snow Yuzu was a thin lemony layer of frost that I was to lick off the side of a small dish. Other dishes required me to combine the different ingredients served and eat them in whatever order I chose. For one dish (inspired by Miro), the waiter placed about a dozen spoons on the table in a disorganized array. Each spoon had something in it, and I was to eat each thing. The lamb dish that was the main course, was the least creative and the best dish of the evening. There was also a bowl of white truffle oil that I liked very much. I just drank it up with a small spoon.

The last dish (the third photo) was a long and dramatic presentation. A chef in his whites came out to my table with several jars and vats. First he placed a clean cloth on the table and then spooned several blobs of different-colored fruit sauces on to the cloth. After that, he placed a large black hollow sphere next to the blobs and poured a canister of smoking carbon dioxide into the top of the sphere. He picked up the sphere, threw it on the table, and walked away. The black sphere broke into large and small pieces, creating a very artistic work. The carbon dioxide mixture produced morsels of pumpkin pie and other fall sweets, either cold or completely frozen. It was my job to spoon this bizarre and frankly awful symphony of bad flavors into my mouth. The black sphere, by the way, was made of dark chocolate.

Alinea is one of most expensive restaurants in the country--of that I am sure. When I thankfully left my table and got into the taxi, the driver asked me what I had had. My answer was that that is not the question to ask. The next time I want to go to the theater, I'll have a good dinner and then buy a ticket to a Broadway play.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Asian Restaurants in Paris

This is a report of five different restaurants in the two Asian sections of Paris. Representative countries are Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, China. There are literally hundreds and hundreds of Asian restaurants in Paris, most of them terrible. However, if you land upon an authentic one (usually discerned by the length of the line outside), you have hit upon a jewel.

The first photo you see represents a luncheon offering of the soigné Lao Lane Xang 2 which is one of the few restaurants in the 13th arrondissement (the main Asian section of Paris) that has a pleasant decor, a Bib Gourmand, and elevated prices. It is not expensive, however. My friend; Françoise ordered the luncheon which consisted of three dishes and jasmine rice for 10,50 euros. She had a spicy Thai salad with shrimp and shredded green mango, a sausage dish in a lovely sauce full of tiny corn, an excellent dried beef salad and the rice. I ordered à la carte, and was not sorry. For a few euros more, I had a wonderful spicy angel hair noodle salad with luscious bits of chicken and whole shrimp. My main course was a Thai red curry with coconut milk and duck. Both of our dishes were truly delicious. The ingredients are fresh and of very high quality and that is reflected in the flavor of the dishes.

At this point in my life, I have been to several cosmopolitan Asian cities, and once outside the restaurant, I was struck with how much the street theater resembles the hustle and bustle of Bangkok or Hanoi or a city in China. People are milling about, selling their food wares on the street and moving in and out of the zillions of restaurants of all Asian nationalities that you can imagine. We went into Tang Frères which is the giant Asian grocery store chain to look at the food. I thought to myself that an Asian family could live in Paris and never eat French food--ever. For me, the myriad of things that we could buy was tantalizing and we made a mental note to return when we had more time for another lunch and a trip to Tang Frères.

With my new enthusiasm for the 13th arrondissement, I suggested to my friends, Pascale and Suzelle, that we try a place known for Dim Sum. Pascale had read about Tricotin 2 (Tricotin 1 is Vietnamese and Thai, whereas 2 is Chinese and larger), the oldest Chinese restaurant in the city and known for its steamed fare. I was game. It was a great meal. The three of us shared three types of dumplings and buns (i.e. bao and baozi), and although they were good, they don't hold a candle to the real thing that you can only get in China. We had pork buns, raviolis with shrimp and pork, and delicious duck and shrimp crepes with bamboo. The latter, with their interesting combination of ingredients were the best. Tricotin 2 is known for its soups and noodle dishes and my friends each ordered crunchy noodle dishes with various pork combinations. Later in the month, I went back and had an excellent sauté of seafood on the crunchy noodles.

The restaurant is huge and lacks for decor, but this is par for the course in most of the restaurants of this ilk. People go for the food and not to hang out in the surroundings.

I actually learned about the next restaurant on You Tube when a French chef in Paris was asked what places he really likes in the city. As soon as I heard about it, I had to try Wen Zhou which is on the rue de Belleville in the 20th arrondissement. This is an area that has a more varied ethnic population with Chinese and North Africans living side by side. After the famous morning market where one can get very cheap produce, fish and meat, we walked up the hill to look for the restaurant.

While on the quest to find THE Wen Zhou, someone told me that the word means Paris in Chinese, and several restaurants next to one another have the same name. The one we chose, Restaurant Wen Zhou at 24 rue de Belleville, seemed to be the place we were looking for. In any event, it was very good and very cheap.

I am on the quest for the perfect buns (baozi) after having fallen love with these delicious items when I was in China. The ones here, filled with spicy pork, were fantastic!! The place was a real find. People come in off the street just to pick up a baozi or two. At the tables, there is a full menu. I ordered hot and sour soup (known as soupe Pekinoise in France), and that was great. However, we were most taken with the dumpling-bun bar and so shared steamed shrimp dumplings (great) and steamed raviolis stuffed with pork, ginger and celery. Who could resist the enormous crèpe stuffed with vegetables and pork? It was folded in a triangle and big enough for three. A copious lunch for us all came to 20 euros. I can't wait to go back.

One of my friends recommended a Chinese restaurant near to Tricotin 1 and 2, called Hao Hao. This place is also very popular and serves authentic Cantonese food. That cuisine is my least favorite of the Chinese regional cuisines, but it is the most popular as it is not spicy. However, I was game to try it as I was told that real Chinese people love it.

Roland and I decided to share three dishes the night we went to Hao Hao. The menu is very long with lots of choices and when you are there you wish you were a regular and knew what the specialties are. I adored the salt and pepper fried softshell crabs. They were not at all greasy, beautifully seasoned and just delightful. Less successful was the mussel dish with a sweet and sour sauce, and Poulet Si-Chuan (Szechuan chicken) which was lightly breaded chicken served in a brown sauce. I think the thing I like least about some Chinese food is the fact that when cornstarch is added to the sauce it gets thickened in a way I find unpleasant and artificial. There are other dishes at Hao Hao which would not suffer from this phenomenon but the mussels and chicken were not those. Roland, however, liked everything.

On the way home, I walked along the main Avenue de Choisy and made mental notes of the places that had long lines at 8 in the evening. I was very curious about Pho Banh Cuon 14 which was very crowded, and asked my friend Sayaka if she would join me there. She told me that this place is truly authentic Vietnamese and has the best Pho in the country if not in Western Europe. I could not wait to try it.

I had a lot of Pho in Vietnam and it is a dangerous soup for me indeed, as usually there is a lot of cilantro in it. However, I never had a problem there, as I knew how to say "no cilantro please!" and had a card with instructions in Vietnamese. Here, I speak French and the staff was eager to help me out. The wonderful noodle soup is so authentic that I could not eat it. I can see that for a cilantro lover it is superb, but there was not just cilantro as a garnish that they could leave off (which they did), but the broth was totally flavored with that herb. I had to content myself with enjoying the other dishes we ordered, like the made-to-order egg rolls (without cilantro and safe) and the squid salad. Everything in this restaurant is of a high caliber and if you close your eyes, you are in Vietnam. I would go back there for any of the other things on the menu.

Japan is noticeably absent from this report but that is because it is the Asian cuisine I know the most about and one I have written about in this blog several times. I am always discovering new and wonderful places in Paris and will write about those at another time.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Two New Restaurants in NYC

ABC Kitchen, the latest in the Vongerichten empire, is a terrific new American restaurant; and Robata ya, on a street in the East Village lined with Japanese restaurants, is an authentic Robata (grill) unlike any I have seen outside of Japan.

I can always rely on my foodie cousin, Jenny, for the best recommendations in NYC. She seems to be the first one in every new and interesting restaurant as soon as it opens. Her suggestion that we try ABC Kitchen on our last outing met with my great enthusiasm.

Unlike his other fancy French or authentic Asian restaurants, Jean Georges Vongerichten has opened a quintessential American which is supplied by local organic farmers. The menu is a simple but attractive list of the daily offerings and on its back are the names of all the different producers from where he gets his ingredients. A varied à la carte menu is easy to navigate and one can order a number of small tasty appetizers to share for a lovely lunch, or move on to the main course dishes which are more substantial. The list of wines is also representative of different regions in the USA.

Jenny and I had a delicious lunch of five appetizers and two rich all-American desserts. The stunning crab toasts with lemon aioli were spectacular. Jenny had had these at another meal and I was happy that she was up for trying them once again. We also had a dish of raw diver scallops with sea beans, serrano chile, lime and a salty succulent seaweed that I know in France: salicorne. roasted beets with home made yogurt could not have been more attractive or more delicious. Two more salads followed: Roasted carrot and avocado with crunchy seeds, sour cream and citrus (this one was a bit too sour for me), and a phenomenal sugar snap pea salad with parmesan dressing and fines herbes.

With this meal, I had a glass of a Handley Cellars Chardonnay 2009, from Anderson Valley, California.

We had been so "good" with our salads, that I suggested we splurge on desserts. I was not sorry. The all-American carrot cake with cream cheese butter cream was sensational, as was the rhubarb almond crumble tart with rhubarb whipped cream. It is no wonder that Jenny enjoys going back to this place again and again.

Several days later, I met another cousin, Becca at Robata-ya. As I am interested in all things Japanese, I was intrigued when I read that on 9th Street in the East Village, a Japanese restaurateur had opened several new places. I chose Robata-ya because I love the robata grills and they are few and far between outside of Japan.

When I reserved, I knew that it would be important to sit at the counter. So often in Japanese restaurants, sitting at tables is much less interesting and exciting than at the counter, where one can see the preparation of the food.

At Robata-ya, all the ingredients are arranged around the customer-side of the counter, and of course, the chefs are behind it. when you order, it is not unusual to see a chef jump on to the counter to reach the fish or the vegetables you have chosen. The food is then grilled, and the chef "hands" it to you when ready on a large paddle with a long handle (see photos). With our meal we had boxes of cold sake, and frankly, could not have had a more fun and delicious time.

To start, our neighbors at the counter recommended that we try the goma kanpachi which is sashimi of yellowtail (my favorite) dusted with sesame seeds. After that, we chose kaki karaage served in a lovely cool broth. This is a dish of succulent fried oysters and they are truly excellent. I suggested grilled corn on the cob, and a variety of grilled Japanese mushrooms. We had grilled el hire--dried stingray that you dip in mayonnaise. Our pièce de resistance was a whole grilled rainbow trout which was wonderful.

Ordering is made easier both because all the ingredients are in front of you and also because there are many photos in the menu itself. Informative as well as the recommendations from the other people at the counter.

As with all Japanese food, the meal was simple, beautifully prepared and practically fat free. So there was definitely room to order a light dessert: green tea ice cream with malt powder.

Robata ya is a wonderful place to go for a great meal and an amusing show. It makes dining out a lot of fun. I could have sat and watched the chefs jumping on the counter and serving the food for hours.

Monday, 15 August 2011

Boston: An Old Favorite and Two new Middle Eastern Gems

The Daily Catch, a staple in the life of two old friends; Oleana and Sofra--two popular places in Cambridge, MA.

When Carol came to visit me in Paris, she told me about her favorite seafood place in Brookline, MA where for very little money, one can get perfectly cooked fish and shellfish. It is a casual hole in the wall and lots of fun. I knew it from my many years living in Boston before I moved abroad, and was eager to try it again. My next trip to Boston provided the perfect occasion.

We were all old friends that evening at the Daily Catch, and had to wait until a table large enough for all of us was liberated. (This is a "no reservations" restaurant.) Definitely "no frills", many of the dishes are made and served in the blackened bent frying pan in which they are cooked and this adds to the fun atmosphere of the place. Calamari is a specialty and we tried a cold squid salad to start. Ed and I ordered one of the specialties of the evening, written on the blackboard. This was braised monkfish with littlenecks, mussels and calamari in a spicy tomato Fra Diavolo sauce. It was served over black pasta. Susan and Carol both chose the sensational fluke which was sautéed with mushroom, fennel, sundried tomato picata and served over linquine. Eric ordered the signature calamari sautéed in a white wine, herb and garlic sauce and served in the fry pan. The wine was a simple white from Sicily and everything was very good.

There are three Daily Catch restaurants in Boston and this attests to the popularity and success of the place.

Oleana has been a big Cambridge fave for years. Middle Eastern food is served in mezze-sized portions and it is fun to order several so as to be able to taste many. Everything is fresh, beautifully presented and flavorful. The combinations are quite creative and interesting as well.

I also went to Oleana with my old friend, Richard, his daughter Sophie and a friend of theirs, Gemma. I was game to order many things, and as we were four, we were able to taste a variety of dishes from the menu. I satisfied my creative gastronomic yearning with round flat bread (lamejun) with pink crushed red pepper, grilled peaches, cubes of roasted Haloumi cheese and a beautiful green salad to start, followed by spinach felafel with tahini, yogurt, beets and crinkled watercress. Gemma and Sophie sprung for skewers of octopus and olive served with a smoked wheat salad and skordato (a garlic sauce). Richard had a dish of beautiful summer vegetable crudités and a warm Tuscan olive oil with green herbs and garlic. This was followed by spicy fideos (crushed toasted vermicelli) and chick peas with green chard and orange aioli. As the menu reads, it is truly inventive with a utilization of so many different ingredients that are not usually seen on Middle Eastern menus. We were seated in the atmospheric outdoor courtyard and had a thoroughly delicious and pleasant evening.

An off-shoot of Oleana is Sofra which recently opened next to Richard's wine store (Violette) in Cambridge. Sofra is a bakery, take-out, eat-in place where one can get a terrific lunch or afternoon coffee with pastries. The mezze there all follow suit from Oleana and there are a variety of daily offerings. The cakes and cookies are sinful and delicious.

The old friends I went with were two women I have known since I was a baby. That's the perfect definition of old friends. Janet ordered several plates of small things so that we (Carol, Janet and I) could all try everything. The seeded bread was wonderful. We had beet tzatziki (a mixture that is delicious and of a gorgeous purple color), pepper and spring onion salad; smoked eggplant with pine nuts; whipped feta with sweet and hot peppers and zucchini pancakes with yogurt. I had to have some espresso-hazelnut coffee cake (it was my vacation after all), and also an Earthquake: a chocolatey cookie with chocolate chips dipped in powdered sugar. The day this place opened, it took off. Despite the fact that there are very few tables and a small outdoor porch with a few seats, we had a very comfortable lunch.

Oya--a wonderous restaurant in downtown Boston

In 2008, Frank Bruni, the then culinary critic at the New York Times, named Oya the best new restaurant in America. It has kept up its reputation. Below is my review.

Frank Bruni (the New York Times' restaurant critic) said that Tim and Nancy Cushman, the couple who conceived of and run Oya, play two important roles. Tim dazzles and Nancy comforts. This description is correct. Here are two Americans who have nailed the preparation of creative "American style" Japanese food and who have created a lovely welcoming space in which to experience it.

(I say "American style" because it is only in America that you find such creative combinations for sushi and sashimi. The Japanese are 100% purists.)

For the comforting aspect, Nancy and her staff are available and reassuring to clients, going out of their way to make for a relaxed and welcoming atmosphere. I won't go into the ups and downs of the complicated pilgrimage that I experienced getting to Oya. Just to say that I endured flight cancellations from NY to downtown Boston on a day when thunder was predicted on the east coast. Throughout the ordeal, the staff was attentive and helpful when I called (several times) to tell them my progress at the airport. It was unclear as to whether I would leave NY at all and I have to say that I was most upset about missing my reservation. So, when I did walk into the restaurant with my friends John and Phil, I had to pinch myself to make sure I was really there. And there was Nancy with the sake menu and her offer for us to choose our apéritif which would be on the house.

Nancy is the sake maven which is quite a title for an American woman. She has developed an extensive and beautiful list and we were able to try two excellent sakes with our apéritif and later with our meal.

Tim dazzles: there is no other way to describe it. Although there are hot dishes, this chef's menu is concentrated on the on sushi and sashimi offerings, which are totally unique and delectable creations. Each exquisitely fresh piece of fish is garnished with something miraculous. Tim conceives of the combinations, and the Japanese sushi chefs are in charge of the execution.

We were immediately served a wonderful sashimi of Kumamoto oyster with watermelon pearls and a cucumber mignonette. This was another house offering. After that, we were on our own to order to our hearts' content. Everything sounds so wonderful that we were relieved when our waiter offered to guide us to what he thought were representative and delicious choices.

We had a sushi of scarlet sea scallops with white yuzu sauce and yuzu tobiko. Tobiko are flying fish eggs and yuzu is a Japanese lemon and so its marriage with the seafood was lovely. Next came Kindai bluefin maguro (tuna) with soy braised garlic and micro greens. Another Kumamoto oyster came, this time in a tempura with yuzu aioli and squid ink bubbles. Needless to say these bubbles taste of the essence of the food they represent. Hamachi(yellowtail)-spicy banana mousse followed. Other choices were wild ivory king salmon with a spicy lemongrass curry sauce, toasted garlic and sesame; a lovely warm eel dish with exotic flavorings, and hamachi with ginger and a verjus (a special French wine) sauce and spiced chile oil. At the end, our waiter wanted us to taste the diver scallop with sage tempura, olive oil bubbles and Meyer lemon so he ordered it for us and it too was offered by the restaurant.

The Oya tasting menu is both extensive and expensive. We preferred and thoroughly enjoyed exploring the menu in depth and ordering many things with our helpful waiter.

This was a memorable meal. One would not find these dishes anywhere else--they come from Tim's heart and soul. I have been to American translation of Japanese restaurants many times, but this one WAS truly dazzling and one dish after another was surprising and wonderful.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Return to Bigarrade for a sublime gastronomic experience

Review of one of THE BEST restaurants in France!

When we arrived at Bigarrade, we knew we were in the right place: a warm yet dignified welcome. As I had been there several times, they knew me, but were pleased to see that I had brought friends from Los Angeles: Rusty and Joel.

I have written about Bigarrade before and could continue to wax eloquent about the creativity of the chef, the wonderful ambiance of the restaurant, the rhythm of the meal, and the delicious creations we sampled for the 3 hour meal. The chef, Chrisophe Pele, really outdid himself this time. And Philippe, the director of the restaurant and wine expert, was ready to pair wines (very reasonably priced) with the various dishes.

Everything was wonderful. The beautiful meal is comprised of small plates of both shellfish and flatfish dishes, exquisitely prepared vegetables, and finally a poultry or meat dish. Inventive techniques and combinations result in a myriad of wonders on the plate: clams that were blow-torched, paired with a fragrant olive oil and served with a knife plunged into the clam, making it easy to open; skewers of grilled mussels paired with a Japanese sweet mustard, karachi; spicy turbot broth with fresh peas and flowers; a beautiful piece of turbot with green mango and grilled peanuts; a just-picked stunning spring leek simply deep-fried like tempura; and finally a luscious piece of rack of lamb garnished with a bit of anchovy, succulent greens, tamarind jam and a paper thin leaf of squid. Desserts included a beet and wild strawberry granita; a shot of mango, mint and chlorophyll juice to drink all at once, lemon cream with a bit of kohlrabi; a delicious cherry ice cream with mushroom powder and a ginger wafer; a gorgeous dish of shaved coconut atop melted caramel; the requisite chocolate tart with sel de Guérande (a special salt from Brittany); etc. etc. and ending with luscious creamy dacquoise macarons. In all, there were over 20 small courses. The chef's creativity was not only interesting and mind boggling but also wonderful! Even the most far-out combinations were delicious.

Bigarrade is very different from many other ultra-creative restaurants I have been to. Here, things are delicious to eat first, and then amusing and interesting. One wonders where the chef gets his ideas, but one always wonders that with truly creative people. As the dinner progresses, the excitement builds and the diner is truly dazzled throughout the experience.

We were lucky to get a table right in front of the open kitchen. Joel, Rusty and I changed places so that we all had some time to view the preparation of our wonderful meal. The chefs were very focussed and quiet, and the kitchen was miraculously shiny and clean throughout the meal. After the lamb was served, the staff thoroughly scrubbed the stoves and counters and made ready for the creation of the desserts. 22 dinners of 20 courses are served in a perfect rhythm--like a gastronomic symphony.

I left Bigarrade thinking about the next special occasion for me to celebrate there. That is a sign of a great restaurant: leaving one with the desire to return.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Le Chateaubriand: The 9th Best Restaurant in the World: are they kidding?

Le Chateaubriand: A review of an established modern bistrot in Paris that is of world renown.

I was amazed to read in the Herald Tribune that Le Chateaubriand, a restaurant in my neighborhood which I have always thought was a hole in the wall with a "genius" chef won a top mention on the annual San Pellegrino list of Best Restaurants of the World. Inaki Aizpitarte tops Robuchon, Gagnaire, Passard, Keller and many other brilliant chefs who create delicious dishes. His reputation over the past 10 years has soared and he is considered to be the one to watch and one of the best chefs in France.

After he received the award, I knew I had to see for myself, and the occasion of a visit from my LA friends, Joel and Rusty was just the moment to do so. Reservations are taken exactly 14 days in advance between the hours of 3 and 6. After a few busy signals, I was in. This was in contrast to the number one restaurant on the list which apparently receives 26,000 calls on the day reservations open. Destination dining is now the new trend.

We arrived at 8:30 PM which is early by Paris standards and we were surprised to walk into a fully packed house. We were rudely received and the waiter who led us to our seats reprimanded me for leaving my first instead of my last name to reserve.

A set menu consisting of three to four amuse-bouches followed by three courses, two desserts or cheese at 55 euros is offered. At least it wasn't more expensive.

The small appetizers started to arrive, and they made a special ceviche for me, without cilantro but with the fish marinated in blood orange juice. Nothing to write home about. Next came a bit of grilled rouget en tempura--not exactly tempura but rather the fish coated with crunchy puffed rice. The fish was good but the rice detracted from the dish and added an unpleasant texture and burnt flavor. Thin noodles in a parsley coulis on a bed of raw casserons (baby squid) followed. This combination didn't work although the squid was quite tender. An earthy soup followed. It was a duck broth flavored with anise and tarragon with bits of mushrooms floating on top. I liked this very much and thought it was a high point. For my friends, the anise flavor was too pronounced.

Two fish courses followed: raw mackerel marinated in white wine and then sauced with red wine and a variety of red berries (!?) and baby carrots; Bonite de St Jean de Luz (a type of tuna) barely seared with grilled fresh baby asparagus and fresh lima beans along with different types of crunchy seaweed and tiny rolls of cucumber slivers. This dish, although good to eat, was strange in its presentation with an unappetizing film of transparent seaweed on top of everything. It looked like some algae-covered detritus you might find at the beach. The mackerel, on the other hand, was both ugly and inedible. Finally, the savory part of the meal closed with a tough piece of beef that had been seared in tandoori and served with amaranthe leaves, braised Trébon onions and toasted grains. The presentation was quite unpleasant to the eye and likely so to the palate. The amaranthe leaves left a bitter aftertaste.

Desserts were very strange: first strawberries with a fresh pea purée and small fresh peas (the best of the three), and Cerise Sabayon which was a dish of beautiful macerated cherries covered with a sabayon and a few salty olives. The olives really didn't work for me and made it unbearable to eat the whole dish. It was topped with two pink wafers (they looked like pieces of ham) that I could not identify (see photo). The final "sweet" was a cube of repulsive, stringy rhubarb sprinkled with colored bits of Indian spices.

In general the food is extremely poorly presented and unpleasant to the taste. Nothing looked appetizing and it was difficult to find something that was good to eat. I was at first a victim of the hype and left thinking that the food was very interesting and not bad. In retrospect I realized that I had succumbed to the Emperor's New Clothes Syndrome. Who rates these restaurants anyway and who really can say what is the BEST restaurant in the WORLD? You would not leave Le Chateaubriand thinking, "I must get that recipe for the raw mackerel-fruit dish" and nothing was truly delicious. My friend Joel thought that the best things were the few grilled vegetables on the tuna plate. Although Le Chateaubriand is considered by some to be one of the best restaurants in the world and therefore the best restaurant in France, I heartily disagree.