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.