About laissezfare

I am inspired by food, wine & travel; I created Laissez Fare to record my experiences and thoughts about the places I've visited and the things I've tasted.

Oz Clarke on Summer Food & Wine Pairings

Even though here in the U.S., people consider today the last day of summer, it is still technically summer until September 21!

In the above video, Oz Clarke — one of the world’s leading wine experts — gives some brief thoughts about food and wine pairings that he enjoys during the warmer months … from what do drink with Parma Ham and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and more.

This version of the video was made for readers of Laissez Fare, and was made possible by the Discover the Origin Campaign (@discoverorigin). They are an EU and professional body that works to raise awareness of specific PDO products’ origins and production processes — celebrating the qualities of excellence, tradition, natural resources and fair production of these products.

Hope you enjoy the short video! (Oh, and the “hot weather” Oz refers to is in the UK, where people aren’t accustomed to the type of heat they’ve experienced this summer).

Stay tuned, as I will try to post some highlights from a recent trip to France in the coming weeks.

All the best,

LF

An Interview with Olivier Magny, Wine’s Leading ‘Terroirist’

Best-selling author Olivier Magny's newly released "Into Wine" has something for everyone who's "into wine"

Best-selling author Olivier Magny’s newly released “Into Wine” has something for everyone who’s “into wine”

Paris native Olivier Magny is a true entrepreneur. And, as a sommelier, wine educator and TV host with his own Parisian wine bar, he’s got quite an impressive wine résumé. But somehow I don’t think that’s what he really wants you to focus on. I believe his true aim is to pass on his boundless enthusiasm for the richly diverse world of wine to anyone who wants to listen, and to make sure they enjoy themselves along the way.

Hence his newly released book, entitled Into Wine. It serves as a wonderful gateway into the often confusing and complex world of wine. And I recommend anyone with even a passing interest in wine to read it, and take its contents seriously. For although the book comes across as simple, there’s quite a bit of thought hiding behind its playful diction. Even so-called ‘wine experts’ are sure to find some useful information within its pages (take note particularly of the detailed appendices).

Into Wine is written in a colloquial style and broken into tasting-size pours — with interesting, and often provocative, statistical and anecdotal call-outs sprinkled throughout. The book brims with energy, enthusiasm, an unmistakable joie de vivre and a somewhat boyish sense of humor. You could say it pulsates with life. And that’s just what Olivier believes that soil should do … because this is what leads to complex, unique, interesting wines that reflect their local cultures.

Yes, you see, Olivier is a self-proclaimed Terroirist. Now terroir is one of those French words that don’t translate well into other languages. But if you had to approximate it concisely, you could say it means “a sense of place.” And many people believe that certain methods of farming and winemaking can lead to wines that actually express the “place” they come from in your glass.

The starting point for someone looking to craft such a wine (well, actually, any wine at all) is the vineyard. Today, there are strongly held beliefs and feelings on both sides of the fence about organic and biodynamic farming, and the so-called ‘natural’ wines that such methods often help to produce. No matter what side you tend to gravitate towards — and especially if you’ve never thought or heard about any of these things in the first place — the best policy is to let everyone have his or her own say. And that’s exactly why I asked Oliver to do via the below questions.

So I invite you to listen. And if you have comments, please use the comment function below on this post or contact Olivier via his own website.

Chin-Chin!

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Q: Why did you decide to write Into Wine and who is your intended reader?

Anyone with an appetite for wine and an open mind should enjoy Into Wine. The idea behind it is not only to share knowledge and insights, but also to take a step back and look at the bigger picture of what wine teaches us, far beyond wine.

Q: Your book comes across as refreshingly direct and down-to-earth, and is injected with enthusiasm and humor. Indeed, this seems to be the point: to write a wine book that doesn’t talk down to the reader or use unnecessarily flowery terminology. How do you strike the delicate balance between (a) retaining this attitude at all times, while (b) conveying what is often necessarily a lot of complex information that people will need to learn about the subject(s) at hand?

Thank you very much. I’ve perfected this art for ten years at O Château. Every day, I have people in front of me that come from all walks of the wine life. Your wine pro will be sitting next to a complete novice, and my job is to make sure both have a great time and learn a lot. My daily challenge for ten years has been to strike that delicate balance between informative and fun, for everyone. Keeping things factual and genuinely helpful is as much of a requirement for me as keeping them light-hearted! The fact that both seasoned sippers and complete rookies have been raving about Into Wine tells me that I didn’t mess up completely!

Olivier … with his hands full

Olivier … with his hands full

Q: You place huge emphasis on the notion of terroir, and the importance of becoming a ‘Terroirist’ — not just with respect to wine, but also in terms of one’s whole approach towards living. How would define the concept of terroir in its simplest form. And, if you were to distill its importance for you into five points, what would they be?

To me, terroir is this: a wine, an apple, a cheese or a person from ‘here’ should be different from a wine, an apple, a cheese or a person from ‘there’. That is what makes life not only delicious but also interesting. Terroir is absolutely essential and if I were to give you five reasons, I’d say:

  • Our world destroys differences at an incredible pace: the logic of terroir is first and foremost a logic of cultural resistance that fosters genuine diversity.
  • Our world destroys our soil at an incredible pace: we need to re-think the way we farm and terroir is the most reasonable angle to tackle this fundamental issue.
  • We are a very unhealthy crowd: exponential expansion of certain diseases and afflictions is closely linked to the way we eat and drink. Terroir helps fix that problem.
  • Terroir gives us deliciousness — which is rather significant in my book!
  • Terroir is about caring: for the soil, for the food, for the wine, for the ones we love. I think this whole world would be better off with a bit more TLC. 

Q: A significant part of the book is spent discussing “living” soil versus “dead” soil. How does this manifest in a wine (or in food that’s grown on the soil)?

Wine or food made from dead soil is somewhat similar to what zombies are to humans: they’re there, but good lord are they dirty and soul-less!

Q: Speaking of soil, there has been a lot of debate in wine circles recently regarding whether you can actually taste the minerals present in the soil that surrounds the vines in the final, bottled wine. What is your take, and how does this (or doesn’t this) relate to terroir?

On these subject matters, I try to stay clear from all the ‘blah-blah’ and look only for the hard science. And well, current science is not conclusive on this point. What I believe in (and what science does corroborate) is that the complexity of a wine vastly mirrors the life of the soil. Does it follow that a chalky soil gives us a chalky tasting wine? Honestly, I don’t really care! What I want is for that chalky soil to be alive and well, and for the wine made from it to be delicious!

Q: Let’s forget bout “minerality” for a moment. Can you describe why you see organic and biodynamic farming — not just for wine, but also for all produce — as such an important thing for the world? And can this really, as you suggest, help solve our environmental and cultural woes as well?

Well, what’s for sure, and I explain why in the book, is that the status quo would lead to more famines, devastations, hurricanes and wars. So we need a new model. And I believe the best model is simply one based on common sense and empiricism. Many pioneers have been showing the way, proving to us that another model was not only possible, but also eminently viable — from an environmental, financial and cultural standpoint. The more people realize this, the closer we’ll get to getting our governments to stop rooting for toxic and destructive corporations, and to start rooting for us instead.

Q: Even if the mass market of global consumers eventually decided that this was the way to go, there is the troubling issue of the economics of it all. At the moment, even middle-class people might have a difficult affording organically or biodynamically grown foods and wines (unless you think this is just an issue of priorities?). So how can this be a realistic goal for the population at large, and can this type of farming ever become less expensive than the techniques employed by ‘Big Ag’ today (i.e. GMOs and so-called ‘industrial’ farming)?

When you go all the way to the ownership structure, you realize that ‘Big Ag’ is owned by the same crooks that own ‘Big Pharma’, ‘Big Banks’ and ‘Big’ whatever. We say corporations, but at the end of the day, the singular should almost apply. So what you’re looking at is a tremendously profitable business model: feeding people to make them sick while keeping them ignorant and making money every step of the way. But it’s also, and more importantly, a sickening project, if you take the time to think about it. The fact that any menu at any fast food restaurant is cheaper than two pounds of regular (i.e. organic) tomatoes is not chance; it is because one side of the system is subsidized while the other is penalized. So ‘the market’ gives us a price, and we’ve been conditioned to accept it as the reflection of a form of truth, or at least of an acceptable order of things. But then again, if we confront that with a hint of common sense, we quickly realize that ‘the market’ is full of crap. Literally. 

I explain in the book that so-called ‘conventional’ farming is not cheap at all and that it does not even have high yields. It simply means that each farmer will produce a lot. The fact that this one farmer is crippled with debt (often leading him to suicide), the fact that he produces toxic food (leading to exponential cancer rates in the general population), or the fact that he kills his soil (thus making future generations even more dependent on ‘Big Ag’) never seems to trouble anyone.

Resistance is of course in order, and education is Step 1. Step 2 is changing what and where we buy. And if enough of us do this, then we’ll have something good going on, for the powers that be will see something that they care about: a market! And when the market is big enough: things will change for everyone.

The vineyards of Paolo Bea in Umbria, one of Italy's leading biodynamic estates (taken from a visit there in 2011)

The vineyards of Paolo Bea in Umbria, one of Italy’s leading biodynamic estates (taken from a visit there in 2011)

Q: There has been a lot of talk about the decline of French cuisine (with recent books such as Au Revoir to All That, etc.). You add to this general sentiment, and touch on the fact that France’s wine culture is headed seriously in the wrong direction (and fast). Why is this, and how do you think it can be reversed?

France is in the eye of the tiger of the globalist project. Cultural destruction in France over the past 40 years has been absolutely mind-boggling. The loss of the wine culture is just one tiny aspect of this cultural tsunami. But I’m hopeful: some young French people are starting to get interested in wine again — though not because they love the French culture; rather instead to imitate New Yorkers! Plus French wines are going through such a phase of Renaissance right now that the French won’t be able to ignore it too long even if they tried.

Q: As a Frenchman, and self-proclaimed lover of French wine, do you think the iconic wines of Bordeaux (i.e. the Grands Cru Classeés) will eventually become more terroir-driven and/or farmed organically or even biodynamically? Is this important at all?

The results of biodynamic farming are obvious and the word is spreading fast throughout the world. When they refer to Bordeaux, most people actually think of the 61 Grands Crus Classés. There are thousands of wineries in Bordeaux that do not have the luxury of having the wealthiest people on earth buy their wine no matter what. In Bordeaux, change will come from below. And it will slowly but surely force the iconic châteaux to come to it. When you see the tremendous progress of Château Pontet-Canet since they adopted biodynamic farming, you can only imagine how amazing Latour would taste if they went down that road!

The influential California winery Ridge Vineyards has started to put detailed labels on its wines — is this a good thing?

The influential California winery Ridge Vineyards has started to put detailed labels on its wines — is this a good thing?

Q: What is your stance on how wine is labeled? Some brave pioneers like Ridge Vineyards, for instance, are beginning to label everything that goes into their wine. Is this the way forward?

I have a general uneasiness with our current reverence for transparency. If everybody does their job properly (the winery, and also the wine store), such extremes are not needed. Decency and professionalism go a long way!

Q: A lot of newcomers to wine might not know how loose the rules are in US wine regions. For instance, the fact that 15% (or more) of the wine may not be the variety, vintage or region stated on the label. French AOC rules (and similar systems in other European countries) tend to be stricter. But there has also been criticism and disenchantment over the AOC system as of late. Are you a supporter of the AOC system and what do you see as its key advantages and/or failings? 

I think the AOC system is terrific. It fosters expression of local differences and deliciousness, while doing something we rarely do these days: recognizing the importance of our local heritage. Now clearly, out of mere coherence, the agency that regulates it needs to ban usage of many terroir-killing pesticides, and I believe it will down the road. But overall, wine producers and wine drinkers alike all much better off with the AOC system than without it.

Q: For people that are just after a reasonably wine that tastes delicious, and don’t want to engage intellectually in the process of learning more about wine, what do you recommend? Do you believe that progressively drinking better wine over time inevitably leads to increased curiosity in wine drinkers, and does this really matter in the end?

I’d say stop buying wines from a supermarket and start buying from a wine store instead. Then let them guide you! It’s that simple … and then, well, some people will end up becoming more well-off or more interested and will go for better wines, and some won’t. And you know what? Both are just fine!

Q: Are some wines simply better than others, or is beauty (and deliciousness) in the mouth of the beholder?

Both — fully.

Q: Where can people find the best values in terroir-driven French wines? How about outside of France?

In France I’d say the Loire Valley, Alsace and the Languedoc. Outside of France: New Zealand, Italy and Portugal would be my destinations of choice. But we live in a formidable period where the culture of terroir is starting to spread everywhere. It’s a very exciting time to be a wine lover!

Q: You talk about how important it is for people to get out and visit actual wineries and winemakers. If someone from the US has never been on wine-centric vacation, what is the first region they should the visit — one at home and one abroad?

In the US, well, I’d recommend exploring the wine regions of Oregon or Washington state. It is easier to talk to the people in charge than in California, which makes learning more fun and easier. The general vibe is a bit more rural and a bit less commercial. Abroad, well, I think Alsace is one of Europe’s best-kept secrets (especially if you like whites).

Q: I’ve personally never experienced it, but many people say that certain wines give them headaches. Can you discuss the relationship between such headaches and SO2 (also the differences between volcanic S02 and SO2 that is a by-product of petroleum)? Is this what is causing these headaches?

The truth is, the hard scientific knowledge regarding wine and headaches is lacking. Excess is a common cause! Now, sulfites are a common scapegoat. But you look you at it in detail, you learn that the problem doesn’t lie in sulfites, but on the one part on their origin (that should ideally be volcanic) and in their dosage. Both for the wine and for the consumer, the problem is an excess of sulfites, not sulfites per se. As a general rule, do not settle for wines that give you a headache, as headaches from wine usually stem from sloppy grape growing or winemaking (or both). I have put together a list of wineries I recommend in the appendix of the book. Readers should find that to be a very helpful resource.

Q: What is the one thing you want people to take away from Into Wine?

That resistance has never been so necessary, and so delicious!

Q: You tell us quite about yourself in the book — but what is something that we may not know?

I am madly in love with my wife! :)

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If you want to get the book, there is a great deal if you purchase Into Wine through this link.

Please note: I have no personal relationship with Mr. Magny, and in fact have never met him or been to his wine bar.

Making Up for Lost Time — 2012 in Food & Wine

2012 was a great year for my family. After a long search, I finally got a new job in April. I now write about wine for a living, and must say I’m not missing the hectic, stress-filled “corporate culture” of international finance that used to encapsulate my working life.

With a growing family and a new direction for my career, I haven’t prioritized restaurant reviews as of late. And the inevitable flip side of the career coin is that I don’t have the budget I once did for global gastro gallivanting. But that doesn’t mean that I haven’t been eating (and drinking) some exciting things from time to time! What follows is a personal list of some of the best things I ate and drank during 2012 (plus a few surprises — both positive and negative).

Now that things are a little more settled with work, I do hope to be posting more often on this site in 2013 and beyond. In the meantime, and just in case I don’t happen to get around to it, you can always keep track of what I’m eating and drinking on:

In fact, many of the below pictures were instagram images, taken with my iPhone. Can you tell which ones? Probably. Apologies, but I just can’t be bothered taking ‘proper’ pictures all the time anymore, unless I’m pretty sure the food is going to merit it.

But without further adieu

~ Best Meals of 2012 ~ 

This ended up being a tie. The connecting thread between these two restaurants is their focus on the provenance and quality of single ingredients, and the aiding and abetting of these pristine centerpieces with elements that will enhance yet not overpower the star of the show. I suppose this could also be seen as the biggest restaurant trend of 2012: searching for the finest ingredients (the nearer by the better) and letting them shine, simply yet beautifully. Dead simple in theory, but very hard to get it just right. Both of these places do, thanks to the insane lengths they both go to in sourcing ingredients, and their precise conceptions and flavors.

Hedone (London)

Possibly the most controversial restaurant opening in London for some time, Hedone created a chasm between its early visitors (through dishes like Cévennes onions with pear shavings): there were “haters” and passionate proponents, nothing in-between. However, as time has passed, the self-taught Swedish chef Mikael Jonsson (a former lawyer and food blogger … and long-time Paleolithic diet adherent), seems to have found his stride.

This was the most memorable meal I had in 2012, helped by the fact that I spent it with two very dear friends. By all accounts, things only continue to get better. And the restaurant has achieved a Michelin Star within about a year of opening — no small feat, no matter what you may think of the tire company. You can find the full photo gallery of my meal there, along with a few of the many highlights below.

Oyster at Hedone

Poached Dorset Rock Oyster, Granny Smith, Pickled Shallots

Broken Duck's Egg, Fresh Peas and Morels, Bell Pepper Chutney

Broken Duck’s Egg, Fresh Peas and Morels, Bell Pepper Chutney

55-Day-Aged Black Angus Beef with Caramelized Echailions, Glazed Baby Carrots and Dauphinoise Mousseline at Hedone

55-Day-Aged Black Angus Beef with Caramelized Echailions, Glazed Baby Carrots and Dauphinoise Mousseline

Roast Squab Pigeon at Hedone

Roast Breast and Leg of Squab Pigeon, Smoked Potato, Parsley & Pistachio

Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare (Brooklyn)

When our good friends Mathilde (a true Foodista) and David visited in the early Spring, we had a few really good meals, as well as some great food (and wine) at home. Somehow, I had managed to secure us seats at the fabled Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare, which is one of (if not the) hardest reservation to make in New York. Unfortunately, photos are not allowed, but you can read my full review here.

Luckily, that’s not where the story ended. When another friend visited New York in December, he invited me to dine at César’s palace once again. I actually found the food slightly better on the second occasion (which is really saying something). Out of 20+ dishes, all except for a couple were truly exceptional. This is still definitely one of the best places to eat in the New York area (and possibly the country).

Brooklyn Fare Window

The only picture I’m allowed to share — that’s so Brooklyn Fare

~ Most Disappointing Meals ~

Corton (Manhattan)

I had really wanted to dine at Corton for a while. So, when the opportunity came to meet up with Kristian it seemed like the perfect place. Sadly, it disappointed on almost every level. Aside for a bite or two, the food was utterly forgettable and (even worse for a Michelin 2* restaurant) the service was downright horrible. Even the wine pairing was lackluster, save for one special glass. It felt like our table was on a conveyor belt. The same one everyone else was on. No effort was made to make us feel special about the meal, and the staff kept looking at their watches and chatting to each other, ostensibly eager to leave (and get us out of there) as soon as possible … even though it wasn’t that late. This is to be expected in a more casual setting, but certainly not in a restaurant many regard as one of the finest in the city. I can’t imagine returning, despite the surprisingly pleasant room — it’s much nicer than internet pictures make out. You can see all of the photos here.

“Scotch Egg” at Corton

“Scotch Egg” — one of the only memorable bites at this 2* Michelin disappointment

wd~50 (Manhattan)

That I was really unimpressed with wd~50 is even more sad, given that I had enjoyed meals here previously. On this occasion, I ate with That Hungry Chef (who is now heading the kitchen here) right after the new menu format was introduced. Let’s just say I preferred the previous meals. It’s all become very Japanese (not a bad thing in itself, of course), and there were very few standouts in a meal of many plates. The meat dishes were overall much more solid than the other savory courses. Aside from the food, the dining room just didn’t feel like it was running smoothly, or in sync with the kitchen in many instances. More minor quibbles included plates that were so visibly scratched and un-wiped before leaving the pass, that they shouldn’t have ever left the kitchen in a restaurant of this standard. Oh, and seemingly random sizes of Yuzu milk ice puffs for every diner (I, of course, managed to get the small end of the nitrogen poaching stick). You can read my dining companions’ entertaining review here, and view all my photos here if you care to. Oh well, I do wish Wylie and his team luck with their new venture, Alder, in 2013.

Jasmine, Cucumber, Honeydew & Chartreuse at wd~50

Dessert of Jasmine, Cucumber, Honeydew & Chartreuse — one of the few really good dishes at the re-launched wd~50

~ Best Surprise ~

L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon (Manhattan, RIP)

I had always liked L’Atelier in London as a place to get oftentimes astonishingly good haute cuisine in an informal atmosphere that was fun and engaging.  But after so many years in the limelight, followed by many years of falling from grace (Robuchon’s concept has famously been coined the McDonald’s of fine dining, i.e. you get roughly the same menu in any of its global locations, despite variations in local ingredients and cultures), I wondered if the ancient-by-restaurant-standards New York outpost would hold up to my fond memories.

Well, I dined there with my brother and we were both totally gob-smacked at how simply delicious everything was. You can actively go looking for faults in nearly anything, but here there were certainly no faults in the cooking. With a new chef and some of his own dishes, it was a fabulous meal. Sadly it’s closed now. Likely due to its awkward location within the Four Seasons hotel and the fickle dining trends of a large metropolis. You can read the full breakdown of my meal here. And all the photos are on my Flickr.

White Asparagus Gazpacho with Ossetra Caviar at L'Atelier New York

White Asparagus Gazpacho with Ossetra Caviar

~ Most Fun Meal ~

Torissi (Manhattan)
Chef’s Tasting Menu

This was another very difficult meal to book, but I seemed to have lucked out this year with tough tables. I had not been a fan of the original dinner service at Torrisi — having been rushed out so they could turn our table once, and feeling ‘meh’ about quite a few of the dishes (plus the annoyance of having no reservations and needing to wait from before 5pm to nab a table). I did, however, love the few lunches I had there.

So when they changed the format, and transitioned the ‘simpler’ fare to a location a few doors down (Parm), and focused solely on the more ‘refined’ food at Torrisi, I thought I’d give it another chance. Thank goodness I did. The sheer inventiveness, playfulness and presentation of the Chef’s Tasting Menu is fantastic. With it, the restaurant has morphed from being (proudly) Italian-American cuisine to a unique representation of historic New York dishes from all cultural backgrounds. There is a real nostalgia to the Chef’s Tasting Menu and the food was overall executed splendidly during our meal. It is worth trying to book based on my experience. A few of the more catchy dishes are pictured below as a little taster. The whole set can be found here (spoiler alert).

Smoked Sable Cigarettes at Torrisi

Smoked Sable Cigarettes

Steak Tartare (à la Delmonico) at Torrisi

Steak Tartare (à la Delmonico) — for the men

~ Weirdest Meal ~

ISA (Brooklyn)

There’s no real way of putting it gently: ISA is a weird place. I have only eaten there once, for brunch, and everything from the design of the menu, to the Brooklandia-ness of the waiters, to the odd amalgamation of dishes on offer made it the single most odd meal I had this year. Having said that, it was actually enjoyable overall and a few of the things we ate were really tasty. Those are pictured below, along with the menu and the bathroom (to give you an idea of what I’m talking about). You can see all the photos I took here.

ISA Entrance

Welcome to ISA

ISA Bathroom

Welcome to ISA’s Bathroom

Wakame Biscuit with Yuzu Honey Butter at ISA

Wakame Biscuit with Yuzu Honey Butter — this was really good

Chicken Leg with Sweet Potato Emulsion, Egg Yolk & 'Dirt'  at ISA

Chicken Leg with Sweet Potato Emulsion, Egg Yolk & ‘Dirt’ — a little sweet (and nuclear yellow), but pretty tasty

~ Best New (Temporary) Opening ~ 

Frej (Brooklyn)

My meal at the first incarnation of Fredrik Berselius’ cuisine (along with his then partner Richard Kuo) was one of the most enjoyable I had in 2012. I wrote a full review of it here, but suffice to say I am very excited about his new(ish) solo venture in the same space (Kinfolk Studios). He has imported a few pretty serious chefs to help out from his native Sweden, as well as enlarged the kitchen and dining room (plus made it a more comfortable space to eat).  I sampled some bar food there in December and will definitely be back for the full tasting menu — especially now that they have a full wine/beer/spirits program.

Goat Milk Custard, Seaweed Shortbread, Poached Pear, Allspice & Pear Skin at Frej

Goat Milk Custard, Seaweed Shortbread, Poached Pear, Allspice & Pear Skin (photo courtesy of: Jose Moran, aka The Spanish Hipster)

~ Best New (Permanent) Opening ~

Empellon Cocina (Manhattan)

After reading all about Alex Stupak’s foray into Mexican cuisine (Empellon Taqueria) following his departure as (a very respected) Pastry Chef for wd~50, I was curious. Somehow I never made it to Taqueria, but I’m not sweating it too much, because the sequel is sooo good (as I think @jezmd would agree). Employing modernist cooking techniques yet keeping things extremely authentic, Stupak’s food at Cocina can be mind-blowingly good. In fact, I’m getting hungry just thinking about my meal there (and am plotting a return as I write this). One of my favorite dishes (despite its off-putting, gnarly appearance) was the lamb sweetbreads pictured below. Oh, and the bread they start you out with is off-the-charts good. In fact, the baking throughout all the dishes was stellar. Just go already.

Lamb Sweetbreads with Longaniza, Parlsey Root and Salsa Papanteca (Pumpkin Seeds, Piloncillo, Sweet Spices) at Empellon Cocina

Lamb Sweetbreads with Longaniza, Parlsey Root and Salsa Papanteca (Pumpkin Seeds, Piloncillo, Sweet Spices) — tasted as good as it looked bad

~ Best Burger ~ 

Little Big Burger (Portland, Oregon)

I ate more than my fair share of burgers in 2010 and 2011 (it’s New York, right?), and although my consumption slowed dramatically in 2012, of course I still had more than a few. At this moment, the one that stands above the rest was also the most demure. But it was definitely the best-tasting burger. Cooked medium (to order), and eaten together with some truffle oil fries, it was pretty darn magical. The few photos I have are here.

Cheeseburger at Little Big Burger

Cheeseburger Cooked Medium (To Order) with Tilamook Cheddar

~ Most Disappointing Burger ~ 

The Spotted Pig (Manhattan)

Talk about burger hype. Aside from Minetta Tavern (which somehow lives up to its stratospheric reputation, and won Best Burger in my 2011 list) plus a few others, The Spotted Pig’s burger is right up there in the NYC pantheon of burgers. And just look at it (pictured below) — it appears to be amazing, right? Well, sorry to be the harbinger of bad news, but the one time I had it (all $20 of it), the meat was shockingly bland and totally overpowered by the Roquefort cheese that’s slathered on top of it. Terrible? No … but no better than average in my book. At least the (copious amount of) shoestring fries served by its side were nearly perfect. Some of the other things we ate are pictured here.

Chargrilled Burger with Roquefort Cheese & Shoestring Fries at The Spotted Pig

Chargrilled Burger with Roquefort Cheese & Shoestring Fries

~ Best Fried Chicken ~

Mad for Chicken (Manhattan)

Yes, it’s still open. And yes, it’s still good. Great, in fact. Despite the crowded market for fried chicken in NYC (Asian-inspired or otherwise), this stands as the best I’ve had (so far) in the area. The only question is, do you like the hot & spicy or soy garlic wings better? You can find The Skinny Bib’s take on our meal snack here too.

6x Hot & Spicy, 6x Soy Garlic Wings at Mad for Chicken (NYC)

6x Hot & Spicy, 6x Soy Garlic Wings

~ Best Pasta Dish ~

Frankies 457 (Brooklyn)

This is kind of a toss-up, but the “House-Made Cavatelli with Faiccos Hot Sausage & Browned Sage Butter” at Frankies 457 in Brooklyn was probably the most satisfying pasta dish I had in 2012. It was made even more delicious by the glass of Lambrusco I drank with it (Venturini Baldini Dell’Emilia NV).

House-Made Cavatelli with Faiccos Hot Sausage & Browned Sage Butter at Frankies 457

House-Made Cavatelli with Faiccos Hot Sausage & Browned Sage Butter

~ Best Pizza ~ 

Don Antonio by Starita (Manhattan)

2012 was the year of the Montanara as far as NYC pizza went. The best one I had was at Don Antonio. The crust, with just a hint of donut sweetness on the crisp outside, demonstrates the brilliance of textural contract with soft, pillowy dough inside. The slightly smoked mozzarella works well too. Overall, it’s the perfect lunch (with a green salad on the side and some house red in your glass). If you sit at the bar, you can be in and out in under 30 minutes and have a civilized meal that won’t cost you an arm and a leg.

Montanara Pizza at Don Antonio by Starita

Don Antonio’s Montanara

~ Best Charcuterie ~ 

Soif (London)

This is sort of an excuse to list Soif in my round-up. From a restaurant group connected by an owner that’s in the business of selling natural wines, and with siblings that also serve up delicious, simple French fare (with a particular flair for charcuterie), Soif may be the best yet … even ahead of my beloved Terroirs. It’s more restaurant than wine bar, but can function reliably as either. Along with Douglas, I enjoyed some fine midday dishes, with the most memorable being the Jambon Persille seen below.

Jambon Persille at Soif

Jambon Persille

~ Best Non-Restaurant Meat Dish ~ 

Courtesy of Stone Barns Center (NY State)

As @catty pointed out a few days ago at brunch (at The Lambs Club if you must know), I really did win the food lottery this year — a few times, actually. But securing this bird was the real lottery. At the appointed date and time (9am, and not a second before … literally), I sent an email off to the good folks at the Stone Barn Center (i.e. the farm associated with Blue Hill at Stone Barns) to see if I would be one of the lucky few to win pay a lot of money for one of their highly sought-after heritage turkeys for Thanksgiving. Actually I lied. I also sent an email from my wife’s account exactly 20 seconds after sending mine. And she got the turkey, not me! Anyway, suffice to say this is BY FAR the finest turkey I’ve ever had the pleasure of eating. It was a Bourbon Red and tasted like no other turkey any of us had ever eaten. So much so that my uncle, who hates turkey, couldn’t stop eating it. Let’s hope we’re as lucky next year.

Bourbon Red Turkey from Stone Barns Center

Preparing the Bourbon Red Turkey from Stone Barns Center for Thanksgiving

~ Best Restaurant Meat Dish ~

Hedone (London)

I won’t belabor the point. New Year’s resolution, you see. The “55-day-aged Black Angus Beef with Caramelized Echailions, Glazed Baby Carrots and Dauphinoise Mousseline” pictured near to top of this post was far and away the most superb meat I had at a restaurant in 2012.

~ Favorite New Brunch Spots ~

Allswell (Brooklyn)

In fact, I have ONLY been to Allswell for brunch, but many times. Aside from wanting to order nearly everything on the changing daily menu (they use Tumblr very effectively for this), they also have lovely service — which is child-friendly — plus a charming décor and ambience to boot. It’s casual but not annoyingly so, and the food is never casually executed in my experience. Their burger — which includes some well-aged beef in the blend, giving it a touch of appetizing funkiness — is also simple and delicious.

Allswell Dining Room

Allswell’s wallpapers are almost as memorable as their food

Reynards (Brooklyn)

I only had the chance to eat here once for a large family brunch. The interior design is spectacular and the brunch menu is equally alluring … as are the copious amounts of freshly baked goods they lay out next to the pass as you walk by to be seated at your table. The rabbit sausages I had there constituted one of the most satisfying dishes I ate this year.

Rabbit Sausages, Juliénas, Cortado & Donuts at Reynards

Rabbit Sausages, Juliénas, Cortado & Donuts

~ Meal with the Best View ~

Afternoon Tea at The Fairmont Lake Louise (Canada)

Not much to say here. Just look at this …

View from Afternoon Tea at The Fairmont Lake Louise

Now THAT’S a view

~ Best Coffee ~ 

Sweetleaf Williamsburg (Brooklyn)

This is by far my favorite café in the New York area right now. It is very serious about coffee, but doesn’t look down upon you if you’re not, and is laid back in a pleasant way (complete with a foosball table). They are very picky about whose beans they use to make their coffee though, and they generally know how to use the beans to the best effect. The barista in charge of quality control is often at the Williamsburg branch on Sundays (I am only ever in Brooklyn on weekends, so not sure about during the week), and it is worth seeking out a coffee made by his intuitive yet meticulous hands. The single best coffee drink I had in 2012 was the espresso he made for me from Sightglass Ethiopia, Shakiso, Mora Mora River Valley.

Sightglass Mora Mora Espresso at Sweetleaf

Sightglass Mora Mora Espresso

Macchiato at Sweetleaf

Macchiato

Cortado at Sweetleaf

Cortado

"Rocket Fuel" at Sweetleaf

“Rocket Fuel”

~ These Were a Few of My Favorite (Sweet) Things ~

Mast Brothers (Brooklyn)
Mast Brothers Moho River Dark Chocolate Bar

Moho River Dark Chocolate Bar

La Tulipe (NY State)
Canellés from La Tulipe

The daily batch of Canellés

Sal's Pastry Shop (Stamford, CT)
Cannolo from DiMare Pastry Shop

Cannolo

Mrs. London’s (NY State)
Lemon Tart at Mrs. London's

Lemon Meringue Tart #1

Bouchon Bakery (Manhattan)
Lemon Tart from Bouchon Bakery

Lemon Meringue Tart #2

Paul A. Young (London)
Brownie from Paul A. Young

Classic Brownie (as long as he makes these, and as long as I can manage to get hold of them, they will likely remain on my annual list)

Dutch Desserts (NY State)
Chocolate Tart

Chocolate Tart

~ Favorite Wines for Every Occasion ~ 

The following is a heavily syphoned-down list of wines I’ve tasted this year that struck a chord, and that also (mostly) offer value for their respective categories. There are ten wines in each category, organized from red to white, in chronological vintage order, and then alphabetically.

‘Weekday’ can be taken to mean good “everyday” wines (almost all are well under $20 a bottle); ‘Weekend’ means wines that are a little more special (mostly around $30 a bottle, or less); and, well, ‘Special Occasion’ is obvious.

First, though, are five sparklers that punch above their designations (i.e. NV Champagne, Cremant and California) — and most certainly their price tags (listed in alphabetical order).

 Favorite Sparklers That Won’t (Totally) Break the Bank
  • Ca’ del Bosco Franciacorta Cuvée Prestige Brut NV
  • Drappier Brut Nature Sans Soufre NV
  • PLR Legacy Blanc de Noirs NV
  • Pierre Gimonnet & Fils Brut Cuis 1er Cru NV
  • Roche Lacour Cremant de Limoux 2009
Weekday Wines
  • Weinhaus Ress KM501 Rheingau Dry Riesling 2009
  • d’Arenberg The Hermit Crab (Australia) 2010
  • La Petite Bellane Côte-du-Rhône Villages 2010
  • Sigalas Assyrtiko Santorini (Greece) 2010
  • Le Coin Sauvignon Gris Bordeaux 2011
  • Principe Strozzi Vernaccia di San Gimignano 2011
  • Fattoria Viticcio Chianti Classico 2009
  • Alambrado Gran Selección Cabernet Sauvignon Mendoza 2010
  • Château Florie Aude Bordeaux 2010
  • Domaine du Mistral “Plan de Dieu” Côtes-du-Rhône Villages 2011
Weekend Wines 
  • Domaine des Deux Roches “Chatenay” Saint-Véran 2009
  • Evening Land Pouilly-Fuissé 2009
  • Donnafugata “Tancredi” Sicily 2006
  • Fattoria Viticcio “Prunaio” Toscana 2006
  • Domaine Drouhin Pinot Noir Willamette Valley 2007
  • Oddero Nebbiolo Langhe 2008
  • Dashe Zinfandel Florence Vineyard Dry Creek Valley 2009
  • Owen Roe Syrah “Ex Umbris” Columbia Valley 2009
  • Boekenhoutskloof “The Chocolate Block” Western Cape 2010
  • Domaine de Nalys “Les Dix Salmes” Châteaneuf-du-Pape 2010
Special Occasion Wines
  • Krug Grande Cuvée Champagne NV
  • Château Bel Air Lagrave Moulis en Medoc Cru Bourgeois 1989
  • Godmé Père et Fils Champagne Brut Grand Cru 1999
  • Podere Il Carnasciale “Il Caberlot” Toscana 1999
  • Domaine Zind-Humbrecht Clos Saint Urbain “Rangen de Thann” Pinot Gris 2000
  • Tenuta dell’Ornellaia “Ornellaia” Bolgheri Superiore 2006
  • Pierre Péters Cuvée Spéciale “Les Chétillons” Champagne 2004
  • Haut Roc Blanquant Saint-Emilion Grand Cru 2005
  • Sean Thackrey “Orion” Rossi Vineyard 2005
  • Dominion Pingus “Flor de Pingus” Ribera del Duero 2009

Out of all these, the two most memorable wines of the year for me were the following (because of the wines themselves, as well as the company and setting):

Pierre Péters Cuvée Spéciale “Les Chétillons” Champagne 2004

Pierre Péters Cuvée Spéciale “Les Chétillons” Champagne 2004 — at Brooklyn Fare

Sean Thackrey “Orion” Rossi Vineyard 2005

Sean Thackrey “Orion” Rossi Vineyard 2005 — on Christmas Day (the wine was a birthday present from my brother, and its outfit a holiday gift from my wife)

So there you have it: 2012 in a nutshell. All the best for 2013, and let’s stay in (better) touch.

Happy belated New Year!

Frej Your Mind — The Rest Will Follow

Published: May 22, 2012 on The BespokeBlog

Frej
90 Wythe Avenue (at North 11th Street)
Brooklyn, NY 11211
Website
Bookings by email only: info@frejnyc.com

Frej is the first of the new-wave, Scandinavian-influenced restaurant in New York that really delivers on flavor and atmosphere — it is a pleasure for all the senses. Given the constraints facing the tiny operation, this is no mean feat. Hopefully they will be able to carry on in a permanent form in the longer-term.

Frej (pronounced ‘fray’), the Williamsburg pop-up that only opens for three nights a week in a schizophrenic venue that wants to be many things to many hipsters, is the first New York restaurant of its ilk that fires on all cylinders. While influence has clearly been drawn from the Danish restaurant with a hat-trick to its name, Frej defies its own transient nature and distinctly feels like it is in the right place, at the right time … as Sam Elliot says in The Big Lebowski, it just “fits right in there.”

The two chefs — one raised in Sweden, one in Sydney, and both formerly of Corton — have come up with the perfect equation. The formula? It’s “5×2 = >$45,” meaning: they advertise five courses on their menu, but in reality you’ll likely get about ten dishes. Given the quality of the food, this is the most preposterously great value in tri-state fine dining you’re likely to find. But the $45 price of entry is only one of the reasons to go now.

You see, now that they’ve finally been discovered and reviewed by the big boys, it will be even harder to snag a coveted seat at the seven-table, Monday-Wednesday night restaurant that is bookable only via email. But you owe it to yourself to try. The food and overall dining experience really is that good.

If you had to label the food, you could call it New Yorkic™, as it combines the sensibilities of New Nordic cuisine with the produce of the New York area. And, they were so taken with Jane Herold’s earthenware, they use it exclusively in the restaurant. Sure, it resembles the now oft-duplicated dinnerware of that Danish restaurant, but it’s handmade in New York. Just like the food.

Operating out of a kitchen that is literally the size of your average closet, with very minimal equipment and no assistance in sight, these two chefs are cooking the food they like to eat and operating by their own rules. The result is subtle, yet intensely flavored dishes that are minimally plated but wholly memorable.

Sunchoke, Pear, Elderflower & Beef Liver

Highs from my meal in late March included a dish of “sunchokes, pear, elderflower and beef liver,” in which the ingredient listed last provided a tantalizing and binding flavor that had real staying power. Also stunning was a non-advertised course of “periwinkle, pork jowl, cabbage purée, pickled kohlrabi and bittercress.”

Soft Poached Egg, Scallop, Porcini & Cauliflower

But my favorite dishes of the night included one featuring the most translucent, sweet and succulent Maine shrimp I’ve tasted, a seriously divine fried veal sweetbread dish, with that trendy, orange-skinned Scandi rockstar (sea-buckthorn), padded out nicely with rosehip and miner’s lettuce. The cooking of the sweetbreads was perfectly judged, as were the textures surrounding it — something they pay very close attention to in their cooking. I was also enamored by a surprise dessert of (quite firm) goat milk custard that was flanked by seaweed shortbread crumbs, poached pear, allspice and crisped pear skin. It was one of the few savory desserts I have really savored.

Goat Milk Custard, Seaweed Shortbread, Poached Pear, Allspice & Pear Skin

The reason nearly all of the dishes are triumphant is that the chefs use a small number of high-quality, local suppliers and only select the best ingredients. Here, ‘best’ does not mean the most expensive produce, but rather off-cuts of meat and under-loved vegetables from which they will be able to tease out new and complex flavors, and that won’t cost and arm and a leg (although, in some cases, it may actually be leg they’re after).

Cardamom Parfait, Raspberry & Walnut

Still, for $45 a meal (excluding drinks, tax and service), I’m not quite sure how they can be making any money out of what is essentially a ten-course tasting menu of seriously considered small plates. This is likely the reason that Frej is only a pop-up … at some point, someone will be smart enough to snag this duo’s dynamic food, and help them open a more traditional restaurant. Let’s just hope they are able to stay true to their vision and the roots they’ve now firmly planted.

The list of all the dishes from my meal can be found below, and the current menu is available on their site. I don’t know if they always dish out two times what they promise, but if you happen to get a reservation, hopefully you’ll get lucky twice.

A word to the wine: they stock a full bar, and have a nice, concise wine list consisting of about ten versatile wines that pair nicely with a variety of flavors and range in price between $29-$49/bottle. We had a $39/bottle Loire red blend of Pineau d’Aunis and Gamay (called ‘Poivre et Sel’ from Olivier Lemasson), which was very pleasant for the duration of the meal.

Advertised Menu
- Smoked brook trout, egg yolk, dill, chickweed, rye bread
– Sunchoke, pear, elderflower, beef liver
– Soft poached egg, scallop, porcini, cauliflower
– Beef cooked in hay, rutabaga, apple cider
– Cardamom parfait, raspberry, walnut

Additional Courses Served
- Periwinkle, pork jowl, cabbage puree, pickled kohlrabi, bittercress
– Fried veal sweetbread, sea-buckthorn, rosehip, miner’s lettuce
– Maine shrimp, baby potatoes, sprat milk, bee pollen
– Skate, fennel puree, pickled baby carrots, pearl onions, bronze fennel fronds
– Goat milk custard, seaweed shortbread, poached pear, allspice, pear skin

Photo creditall photos are courtesy of Spanish Hipster (thank you).

*Note: I have dined at Frej once; our party paid for the entire cost of the meal; we were not given any ‘extras’ that other tables weren’t given also (to our knowledge); and were not known ahead-of-time by the house*

Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare — César’s Irreproachable Palace

Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare
200 Schermerhorn Street
Brooklyn, NY 11201
Website
Map
Phone: +1 718 243 0050 (reservations are taken by phone only, six weeks in advance)

  • Menus: There is only one menu available, a 20-plus-course tasting menu, which at the time of our meal was $225/person, excluding, tax, tip and drinks.

One of the best meals you’re likely to eat in the Tri-State area, served in relatively austere surroundings, with an atmosphere that changes depending on the particular make-up
of the diners on any given night. If you have an opportunity to go, don’t hesitate for an instant.

“That might just be the best meal I’ve ever had,” all of us were saying in our own way, the realization slowly creeping up on us, as we stepped back onto the nondescript downtown Brooklyn street after a staggering 3-hour performance.

I had tried to find the entrance to this holy grail of food fashionistas from inside the adjoining neighborhood supermarket … to no avail. My brother had, of course, realized that there was a separate entrance a few doors down. We were early, eager and — after peaking through the window of what is essentially an open kitchen with a D-shaped zinc bar for patrons to sit at on metallic stools — just a little nervous.

We still had about twenty minutes to kill. We stood outside; it was freezing. We tried the covered, heated area just outside the entrance; it was too warm. Eventually we put aside our fears (of disturbing the chefs’ prep-work) and decided to enter.

Peering inside across the mysterious void…

The one word that came to my mind during the first hour or so of sitting in this temple to pristine produce was ‘cold’ (despite the under-bar heating system pumping out way too much warm air). There was just something sterile about the place. It was, as Björk would say, “Oh so quiet.” There was little (if any) audible conversation between the chefs, or with their leader. And the chefs certainly didn’t say anything to us … much less acknowledge our existence.

Which was weird. After all, it had not been such an insignificant feat to get here. Dual-phone re-dialing weeks ahead (during a conference call!), prepayment for the entire food costs (not an insignificant sum for four people) a week in advance, the receipt of emails explicitly telling us what we may and may not do at the meal, and what we may and may not wear to this exclusive rendezvous.

I do have to say that the room is exquisite it its own way, though. It’s pretty much a perfect reflection of the ethos of the chef and his cuisine. No expense spared, seemingly simple, nothing a hair out-of-place. And you can’t help but dig the wine display cases.

But what of the food, you say? Well, as you probably know, there are no photos allowed, so I won’t be able to show it to you. And, given the sheer number of courses and ingredients, I won’t be able to explain each dish individually (you see, you are not allowed to take notes either … not that I ever do anyway).

The 20-plus-course affair began with a succession of what were probably the freshest, most beautifully prepared, and harmonious bites of seafood that I have ever had the pleasure of eating. The chef was kind enough to email me a picture of the ‘menu’ from his iPhone just as we left the restaurant, so you can see the main ingredients below, although it leaves much to the imagination (probably a good thing — no spoilers).

The ‘menu’ for our meal

If you know your dairy, you can see right on the ‘menu’ that the sourcing is impeccable as they carry Andante Dairy’s cheese, which is arguably some of the best in the country and rarely seen in New York (Ms. Scanlan’s operation is based in California). But I digress…

Each of the amuses was more or less a perfect composition — of art, of texture, of taste. Every time a new precious morsel arrived, it was immediately declared our new favorite, nearly every time. But it was still oh so quiet. We were each having our own little foodgasms inside our own little worlds, occasionally looking to our sides to confirm how mind-blowing whatever it was we just ate had been. It was mostly an internal dialogue, spoken in an atmosphere that seemed to call for reverence.

There is a very good explanation for why the seafood is really that good. You see, the adjoining Brooklyn Fare supermarket bankrolls the Chef’s Table. César explained after the meal that he essentially has an unlimited budget to get what he considers to be the best ingredients from anywhere in the world via the quickest shipping methods available. That is the most important thing to him: he must have the best ingredients. So the (mostly) raw seafood in our dishes was probably on par with what the diners in some of Japan’s top fish-centric restaurants were eating that very day (it seems that much of the seafood comes courtesy of Japan’s famous fish markets).

After mindfully consuming 10 or more of these minuscule masterclasses, I was kind of in shock. It was exactly what I had expected it to be, not far from perfection. But I still didn’t feel at home. None of us did. We felt exposed, disconnected from the people we had been staring at for the last hour.

I consulted the helpful sommelier*, and found out that the ‘proper’ meal had not even yet begun. This did excite me: it meant there was a lot more to come. The rest of the bar stools had recently filled up too. There was more interaction amongst the diners, and with the big man himself too. People were asking him questions, and by George, he was beginning to answer them, to a degree.

As if living out the Björk song in real life … “zing boom” … there was suddenly atmosphere, that most elusive of ingredients which help make a meal become truly memorable. As we ate — and ate — the mood lightened. Perhaps it was the wine, or perhaps this is the way it always is if you’re part of the Chef’s Table’s first seating, I don’t know. But we started flinging questions across the room to César and it seemed like he was beginning to enjoy the interaction a little bit more.

Based on all the reviews I had read, I assumed that the savory portion of the meal would be at least 95% seafood, so I didn’t even contemplate any other types of dishes ahead of time. Maybe I had missed something, but in retrospect, I am rather glad nobody had bothered to inform me how good the non-pescatarian food would be. These dishes alone were worth a couple of Michelin stars.

But the truly shocking thing was the desserts. I don’t think there is actually a pastry chef at the Chef’s Table, but if there is, he or she deserves to be recognized. These were some of the best I’ve ever had.

One of them, a spiced tonka bean sorbet with dark chocolate sauce, was delivered with what may be the most (unintentionally) hilarious pronouncement in my dining history. The waitress brought us each our dessert and recited what she and her colleague had just synchronously placed before us. “Tonka bean sorbet, chocolate sauce…” and then she turned her shoulders and walked away. Within a split second she realized she had forgotten to inform us of a crucial ingredient. She did a rapid about-face, looked us squarely in the eyes, and with a solemn whisper said, “…and gold.” Then she promptly went about her business as if she had said something as innocuous as “…and caramel.”

For whatever reason, that set us over the edge. We were talking about gold well into the night — “I only eat gold,” “Oh you’re so low-class, how crass, I don’t eat gold, I only drink it,” and so on (for some reason, all adopting ridiculous British accents as we made our increasingly ludicrous proclamations). We were drunk, in every sense of the word. Drunk with drink, drunk with food, just perfectly drunk in the best way that drunk can be.

So, what had begun as something unnervingly cold, kept improving, and eventually turned to gold.

Though what I wrote at the beginning was true — none of us could find much fault with any of the food we’d been served and, in the end, it had become a fun meal too — strangely enough, I haven’t thought back that often about my meal at the Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare. For some (as of yet) unknown reason, it just didn’t make as big an impression on me as some other restaurants have — say noma, for example. Part of this may be due to its location (which of course is not the restaurant’s fault). Because I live in the New York area, it is not a ‘destination’ restaurant I have to travel across oceans to visit, where English is not the first language. Such anticipation, and investment, can have a huge impact on your psyche.

Despite my own lack of a certain nostalgia for the meal, you would be hard-pressed to find better food in New York City, the Tri-State area, and possibly the entire country. Sure, you might find a truly spectacular dish or two, here or there, that could hold its own with César’s cuisine … but likely not in such a measured procession and with such consistently wrought perfection.

If you have the opportunity to eat at the Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare, do not hesitate for an instant.**

In closing, I think the Björk song I have been citing is a perfect expression of my time at the Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare***:

it’s. oh. so quiet
it’a oh. so still
you’re all alone
and so peaceful until…

you fall in love
zing boom
the sky up above
zing boom
is caving in
wow bam
you’ve never been so nuts about a guy
you wanna laugh you wanna cry
you cross your heart and hope to die

’til it’s over and then
it’s nice and quiet

Rating

Ambience: 7/10 (on average … it got better of the course of the meal)

Service: 8/10

Food: 10/10

For more about my rating scale, click here.

* The Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare was originally BYO-only. They recently got a full liquor license and now have a proper wine service. The wine list, from memory, is quite good, and there are some reasonable values from some of the lesser vaunted regions of France. We went through a lovely bottle of Champagne (Chiquet Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru d’Aÿ) for the amuse bouches, then an excellent white Burgundy (Jobard Meursault ‘En la Barre’), and a stunner of a Rhône red (Chave St. Joseph). It seemed more economical to drink three bottles rather than having them try to construct some type of pairing, which they didn’t seem to encourage.
** As you may have read, there are plans afoot to open a second Chef’s Table in Manhattan. Despite how counterintuitive that sounds (i.e. wouldn’t they then have to be called the Chefs’ Tables as not one chef can be in two places at the same time?), César informed us that the Brooklyn location is his “baby” and he still plans to be there the majority of the time, possibly five nights a week. I don’t much see the point of eating at the Chef’s Table when he is not “the Chef,” but it would be unfair to criticize something before it has even had the chance to open. Best of luck to them…
***My brother and I shared this meal with Mathilde and David, and their account of the meal can be found here.

*Note: I have only dined at the Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare once; our party paid for the entire cost of the meal; we were not given any ‘extras'; and were not knowingly known by the house*

L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon – Letting the Outside In

Thew New York branch of L'Atelier, based in the Four Seasons Hotel, is well worth a visit. The new head chef has introduced a number of new items to the menu and the cooking is as faultless as ever. It may not be the hippest dining destination in the city, but the food remains delicious.

“Each dish is like a jewel,” the gentleman sitting next to me exclaimed, as his painstakingly plated creation was set before him. “The question is: does it taste as good as it looks?” he said, and then proceeded to ‘mmm’ and ‘aah’ quietly to himself as each subsequent plate arrived….

The London branch of L’Atelier was a frequent haunt of mine when I lived there. The food was consistently delicious and I loved the casual interactions with the staff that were encouraged via the sushi bar style layout. You could sample any wine by the glass before buying it, and had the pleasure of observing the chefs meticulously cook and plate each dish before it reached its intended destination.

Over the years, Mr. Robuchon has brought this concept to many a metropolis across the globe. The model has been branded by some as “the McDonald’s of fine dining,” as virtually the same menu may be presented whether you happen to be dining in Taipei or Las Vegas. With so many destination restaurants now celebrating particular regional cuisines and the provenance of their ‘unique’ ingredients, some have branded Robuchon’s restaurants as increasingly irrelevant; such critics argue that this was how fine dining used to be, but not how it should be today.

L'Atelier New York Dining Room (Image: Four Seasons Hotels)

The New York outpost of L’Atelier has many things working against it. It is oddly housed inside the soaring ceilings of the I.M. Pei designed Four Seasons hotel, all the way in the back corner. There are both tables and bar seating, creating a somewhat discombobulated dining space. It is not sufficiently closed off from the adjoining hotel bar, and the bar music and clatter is audible as you dine. Plus, the menu can take a while to decipher, and the accompanying explanation the waiters are seemingly required to recite can leave you even more perplexed.

But, as my dining companion stated, “Once the food began arriving, everything was perfect.” I concurred.

In January, the restaurant welcomed a new head chef. Christophe Bellanca who previously worked at the three Michelin star Pic in Valence and has graced the prestigious New York kitchens of Le Cirque and Aureole. Christophe is only the second current head chef in the group to truly come from outside the Robuchon stable, perhaps a sign that Mr. Robuchon understands that in order to sustain his success, he must allow new ideas and creative energy to flourish within his kitchens. The New York menu, which changed markedly about a month ago, now includes around eight dishes that are all Bellanca’s own. These dishes even permeate into the tasting menu, and with them breath new life into this venerable culinary ‘workshop’.

An amuse bouche consisting of three layers – foie gras cream, a port reduction, and parmesan foam – was delightful and set the theme for what was to come: each element was clearly discernible and worked together in concert to create something greater than the sum of the parts. At once rich, sweet and salty, and packed with umami, it deftly balanced the inherently strong flavors. It was also amazing that the foam smelled exactly like freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Seared Foie Gras and Kumquat Compote with Pain d'Epices

My dining partner and I opted for the tasting menu which, for $190, provides the expected quotient of luxury ingredients, and its nine courses are nearly devoid of missteps. The opening course of white asparagus gazpacho with Ossetra caviar was surprisingly refreshing, with the vegetal flavor remaining dominant amongst the briny roe, luscious cream and sweet pepper accents, all of which served to enhance the primary ingredient. The Hamachi sashimi had an ever-present complex acidity that danced confidently with the delicately minted avocado.

The signature Robuchon crispy langoustine papillote was succulent and faultless, yet somehow did not live up to what came before or after it. A seared morsel of foie gras had not been properly deveined, but it was delicious when eaten together with a single kumquat (and accompanying compote), which made for an unusual yet successful pairing.

Long Island Caramelized Duck Breast with Candied Nuts & Salsify Confit

The crisp mustard-seed encrusted skin of the sea bass provided a welcome kick that melded perfectly with the jalapeño and cilantro garnishes, the fish itself being both pristine and impeccably cooked. An extra course of sweetbreads was presented and, under a leaf of lettuce, lay hidden a stash of finely diced bacon which elevated the dish with a persistent note of smokiness.

While the menu does not actively promote the sources of its ingredients, the waiters can tell you just about anything you want to know about where your food came from. Both the Long Island caramelized duck breast and seared Idahoan Wagyu hanger steak were evidence enough of excellent sourcing. Serving as alternative endings to the savory portion of the menu, neither meat course was boring or overly heavy, and I particularly enjoyed the fresh wasabi served with the perfectly saignant beef.

Cranberry and Mascarpone Cheesecake

Desserts included the most beautiful cheesecake I have ever seen, though its cranberry sauce was slightly too cloying. An extra dessert of the famous Robuchon Bulle de Sucre was also nearly too pretty to eat, but similarly over-celebrated the ingredient with the star billing. These minor sins were more than forgiven, however, when the final dessert of Araguani chocolate cream, bitter chocolate sorbet and crumbled ‘Oreos’ arrived. This was as intense and delicious a chocolate dessert as I can remember demolishing – eminently satisfying in every way, and the perfect finale to what was overall a superb meal.

If you have not visited L’Atelier before, or have not been to the New York location, it is indeed a good time to go. I am pretty sure that once the food starts arriving, you will be glad you did.

L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon
Four Seasons Hotel New York
57 East 57th Street
New York, NY 10022

Note: I was invited to review L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon New York and did not pay for the food or wine, only the service.

Commerce – The Profit in Sharing

A buzzing neighborhood restaurant in the West Village with deceivingly sophisticated food

Having recently moved back to New York after a 10-year hiatus, I feel a little like a tourist when it comes to the city’s restaurant scene. It would be an understatement to say everything has changed, in restaurant terms, during that time. Besides the fact that I was just starting out back then and couldn’t afford the luxuries that I am now able to, New York’s gastronomic landscape changes every few months. Younger chefs are breaking rank to create something they can call their own, and the old guards’ empires continue to expand or morph with equal ferocity. The sheer number of dining establishments and new openings is astonishing and it makes it difficult for the uninitiated to know where to begin.

A good place to start is the historic site of 50, Commerce Street in Greenwich Village.

Commerce's Dining Room (Image: Antoinette Bruno)

Originally a speakeasy during the Depression era, it is now home to an excellent restaurant that serves contemporary American fare with flare. Chef Harold Moore’s cuisine is at once generous, technically adept and eminently satisfying. With years of experience in the kitchens of French luminaries Daniel Boulud and Jean-Georges Vongericthen, there is no doubt of his abilities. But what is comforting is that a meal at Commerce is not a stuffy affair. Au contraire, it is a convivial and sometimes communal experience in which you will be well looked after and sumptuously fed.

If there is one thing I have taken away from my few visits, it is Chef Moore’s desire for each of his diners to be respected and taken care of, something that has been lost at too many perfectly good restaurants that unnerve you with table time limits and other conditions.

Commerce's Amazing Bread Basket (Image: Vicky Wasik)

One recent evening began with an assortment of starters that ran the gamut between hamachi ceviche and devilled eggs. The fried oysters with rémoulade were sufficient evidence that the raw state of this mollusc can be improved, or at least equaled, by pristinely preserving its refreshing, saline qualities within a light, crisp, battered casing. A deceivingly simple salad appeared and provided the perfect zing to arm us with what to come – I didn’t learn until later that it contained no less than 20 herbs and lettuces.

What you must order when you go to Commerce are the plates designed for sharing. The signature dish is a whole roasted chicken, which is stuffed with, and sits proudly atop, some of the richest accompaniments you can dream up (foie gras is only the beginning…). The bird was our final savory course, and lived up to the hype (you can watch the chef prepare it in one of my dining companion’s video).

Whole Roasted Chicken for Two with Foie Gras, Bread Stuffing & Potato Mousseline (Image: Antoinette Bruno)

The sharing dish that I enjoyed the most was actually the rack of lamb that, in a seemingly counter-intuitive but appropriate progression, preceded the chicken. If there were a perfect pink, a precise level of juiciness and just the right amount of flavour for a roast lamb, this was it. I don’t think I’ve ever tasted better, and I’ve eaten a lot of things that go ‘Baah’ in the night.

Desserts are straight-up classic Americana, perfected. The chocolate pudding (the American kind) is deliciously rich and wholeheartedly recommended. However, it was the most unlikely of desserts that stole my heart: the coconut cake.

I know, it sounds like something you might see at The Cheesecake Factory, but Chef Moore calls it ‘The Best Coconut Cake’, and he is not wrong about that fact. Its multiple layers of moist sponge and cream flirt dangerously close with being too sweet, but manage to toe the line. It will cost $10, but other than the lamb, it was my favourite thing of the night.

Our table went through a few bottles of a particularly delicious and reasonably priced Oregon Pinot Noir, which suited the wide selection of dishes to a tee. The wine list is fairly compact and French-heavy but is well chosen and even includes some French Crémant (sparkling wines from outside of Champagne), something I would like to see more of in other US restaurants.

You can either start your evening at the bar or end up there; some people come in for just a drink… but usually stay for more. It has that kind of energy. It always seems to be alive. In fact, a different evening at Commerce began with a pungent glass of Fernet Branca, but that is another story….

Commerce
50 Commerce Street

Greenwich Village
New York, NY 10014

Memorable Morsels & Fermented Finds of 2011

I know I haven’t been as actively blogging this year. Lots of things have changed. Our daughter is now one and a half, and I have been eating (and generally spending a lot more time) at home than I did in 2010. That doesn’t mean that I haven’t been traveling and going out to eat – I have, but just not as frequently, and more often at casual places that we can go to together as a family.

I have still made it to my fair share of more ambitious restaurants, just not at such a frenzied pace as in the previous two years. I have also been eating much more near where we now live (in Connecticut) rather than Manhattan – not because it’s trendy to ‘eat local’, but because it’s easier and there is actually an abundant variety of excellent eateries nearby, particularly in ethnically diverse towns and cities such as Port Chester, NY and Stamford, CT. Sometimes, you find the greatest things when you don’t expect to, and these are the best discoveries.

While I still plan to keep writing on this site going forward, beginning in 2012, my words and images will also be appearing in some other places, including the ever-entertaining Arbuturian and the newly launched Bespoke Blog…so look out for my features there. My first piece for The Arbuturian, which recounts a fantastic meal at a vegan Japanese restaurant in New York, can be found here.

But on to the task at hand…

It is always hard to siphon down a year of eating and drinking, but I’ve tried my best to include only those dishes and drinks that were truly memorable. Hopefully I’ve gotten the balance right and you enjoy seeing both some familiar and not so familiar names in my rambling list.

Given what I mentioned above, this year I am also including a segment on the food I have enjoyed eating most at home, which I hope will highlight some of the amazing farmers, growers and restaurants/food retailers we have in the Tri-State area, particularly in Connecticut.

Although much of this year’s list comes from the US (as I haven’t been traveling as much), there a number of entries from the short but hugely enjoyable trip I made to Copenhagen, a longer trip to Italy (including Rome, Umbria and Tuscany) and a brief sojourn in my former home of 10 years, London. I also had some great food during my first trip to Brazil, but somehow none of it made it onto the list.

Sadly, I didn’t make good on last year’s resolution of cooking more often (well, really learning how to cook in the first place). I have my wife to blame (or thank?) for that as she is so good there often seems little point in me trying. But I’m going to make it my resolution again. Maybe I will try my hand at baking since she doesn’t know how to do that. I haven’t checked to see if I have cold hands, but hopefully I won’t get cold feet.

In any case, enjoy the list and, as always, please send your suggestions of new and exciting places I should try.

Here’s to a wonderful 2012 ahead, and thanks for continuing to support me through another great year.

PS – while I haven’t been blogging as much, I am quite active on twitter and, more recently, on instagram (username: ‘laissezfare’), so follow my tweets and picture posts on those channels as well if you so desire. Also, many of the photos below come from my instagram or un-filtered iPhone images, so apologies in advance for the inconsistency in quality.

~ AT HOME ~

For a number of months now, each morning at Chez Laissez begins with a glass of what I have affectionately coined the ‘green sludge’. It is not as bad as it sounds, and is actually quite tasty once you get used to it. It all started when we purchased a great blender earlier in the autumn. The concoction consists of a variety of organic leaves, usually including a mixture of kale, chard and arugula (rocket), spirulina and macca powder and goji berries, with a touch of banana or apple to make it more palatable. The natural and slowly released energy boost is amazing, and it helps to ensure we get a good dose of enzymes to tackle the day. I find I actually don’t need any coffee in the morning now, but since I like it so much I still often have an espresso or macchiato – not a Caramel Macchiato, which ‘doesn’t exist:) – once I get to Manhattan.

Morning Sludge

We also recently purchased a very good dehydrator for our home kitchen, and my wife has been making all kinds of healthy and delicious snacks for us over the last few months, which you may have seen me tweeting about. We use only raw ingredients for these snacks (i.e. not heated/pasteurized) so they retain their full nutritive properties. My favorites are the kale chips, for which she makes a variety of seasonings. More recently, she is also making cookies from raw cacao, coconut oil, dates and nuts (cashews and almonds), which are also excellent.

Kale Chips

We don’t eat a whole lot of meat at home, but when we do, we like to know where it comes from and how it was raised. This means we source most of it from local farmers markets.

Some of our favorite steak & eggs

Our favorite beef comes from Four Mile River Farm, which practices excellent animal husbandry and sells dry-aged beef of very high quality at very reasonable prices. We have also bought grass-fed steaks from New York Beef, which is also good.

Four Mile River Farm Ribeye Steak with Brussels Sprouts

We love the eggs we get from Fishkill Farms at one of our local farmers markets. They come from pasture-raised, heritage breed hens that move in mobile coops and their eggs are downright delicious.

Fishkill Farm Eggs & Tarry Market Bread (Tuscan Farm Loaf)

We now buy these by the boatload, and often have them for breakfast with some excellent bread from Tarry Market, which we rate as the best bakery in our area. I have heard that they supply much of the bread to Batali/Bastianich restaurants in the NY area, but have not had this corroborated…they do have a huge facility that takes up a large block in Port Chester. Fishkill Farms also sells excellent organic fruit and vegetables (although they’re not officially accredited), which we buy weekly.

Lastly, one of the best things I ate this year came courtesy of my mother-in-law who just returned to Normandy after a two-week long stay at our home. It was a traditional Norman dish of Poule au Blanc and it was simply out of this world. We bought two old hens from Fishkill Farms and she did the rest. The iPhone picture doesn’t do it justice, but the cream sauce was almost literally to die for. We had this for her 77th birthday.

My Mother-in-Law's Poule au Blanc

Also excellent was a house-made foie gras terrine (mi-cuit) from Restaurant Jean-Louis in Greenwich. We had this with some toasted brioche and a sweet and sour onion spread, which worked great together. The next night, she used the fat from the foie gras to sauté some fingerling potatoes – that was also something to remember.

Foie Gras Terrine from Restaurant Jean-Louis (Greenwich, CT) Paired with 2006 Château Suduiraut

~ ODDS & SODS ~ 

There is a Mexican restaurant named Bartaco near our house that makes you feel like you are on vacation when you dine there during the warmer months of the year. It is on the water and is designed like a beach resort of sorts. Their food is generally good, but there is one dish we always order…strangely enough, it’s a variation on corn-on-the-cob (pardon the iPhone pic). It’s about as good a version as I’ve had.

Grilled Corn with Lime, Cayenne & Cotija Cheese from Bartaco (Port Chester, NY)

Another nearby restaurant we discovered was Chili Chicken in Stamford, CT, which serves Indian Chinese food. Their fried okra dish was addictive as crack (not that I would know) and is the best thing we’ve had from there so far.

Crispy Fried Okra with Onions and Green Peppers from Chili Chicken (Stamford, CT)

I was lucky enough to enjoy some very good pizzas this year, the best of which were in – go figure – Italy. A casual family restaurant in Rome’s Monteverde neighborhood served an excellent Neapolitan style margherita. All the photos from that meal can be viewed here.

Margherita Classica from La Gatta Mangiona (Rome)

At our relatively new family hideaway in Umbria, a local pizzaiolo constructed an excellent meal of at least a dozen different types of pizzas for about 30 people. The standout of the evening for me was the speck pizza, and I also enjoyed the non-traditional dessert pizza with Nutella and peaches. Below, you can see the first pizza he made: just dough sprinkled with sea salt and a touch of olive oil. All of the photos from this meal can be found here.

Pizza Night in Umbria

While on the same trip to Italy, we had an unbelievable lunch at Arnaldo Caprai winery cooked up by Salvatore Denaro, who has to be one of the most jovial chef/hosts I’ve encountered. There were two courses that particularly stood out as being perfect versions of their respective dishes, the caponata and panzanella. There are tons of photos from this lunch, including some funny ones from the kitchen, all of which can be seen on my flickr set.

Panzanella from Salvatore Denaro at Arnaldo Caprai Winery

Caponata from Salvatore Denaro at Arnaldo Caprai Winery

Back in the US, I also had some great sandwich-type foods this year. My new favorite sandwich shop in New York is the Cambodian sandwich specialist Num Pang, whose five-spice glazed pork belly is definitely a standard bearer.

Five-Spice Glazed Pork Belly Sandwich from Num Pang (New York)

Ever late to the proverbial party, I finally had the chance to sample the famous Black Label burger at Minetta Tavern in the latter part of the year. I really can’t think of how it can be improved; it is a thoroughly conceived and rigorously executed beefy affair. Sure it’s $26 but that’s all you need to eat for the meal and it’s both perfect and perfectly satisfying.

Black Label Burger from Minetta Tavern (New York)

My favorite burger closer to home comes from the excellent Burgers, Shakes & Fries. Their meat is a bespoke blend from Master Purveyors in the Bronx (who supply a lot of the famous steakhouses in the Tri-State area) and is really good. The twist here is that the sandwiches are served on ‘Texas Toast’, which in this case is simply toasted bread that has been slathered with butter on both sides. After trying the various iterations, I like the single patty burger with a slice of cheese. The meat does all of the talking and doesn’t need much support. They also serve the best onion rings I have ever tasted.

Double Cheeseburger & Onion Rings from Burgers, Shakes & Fries (Greenwich, CT)

On a healthier note, my favorite food truck for lunch in the City is a rather new Colombian operation that serves arepas. All of their ingredients are organic and meticulously sourced. In addition to the traditional corn base, they also offer more innovative versions, for example one made with quinoa flour, and others with brown rice flour and flax seeds or sesame seeds. My favorite is the quinoa, and I either get it with just hogao and all the fixings, or occasionally a vegan ‘chorizo’ sausage (which is made from soy and comprises over 20 ingredients, including red wine for the color). They are small but if you eat it slowly it fills you up for the rest of the afternoon. Delicious.

Quinoa Arepa from Palenque Food Truck (New York)

 ~ BENIGN BEGINNINGS ~

One of the best appetizers I had this year was seemingly one of the simplest, a burrata from Roscioli in Rome, which is definitely the best version of the creamy cheese dish I’ve had so far. All the photos from that excellent meal are here.

Burrata from Roscioli (Rome)

Along the same lines, the ceviche di spigola (marinated raw sea bass with oil, lemon, onions, chili and fresh coriander) I had at another Rome restaurant – Osteria La Gensola – was vibrant, bright and fresh, the perfect beginning to our meal.

Ceviche di Spigola from Osteria La Gensola (Rome)

Another wonderful light starter came from the most unlikely of places. Spuntino, Russell Norman’s third of five London restaurants in roughly two years, is known more for some of its delicious yet artery-clogging dishes. But the thing I most enjoyed during my meal there was a salad. Possibly this was because it came after a few of those very rich dishes and my stomach was craving greens, but in any case, it was excellent and definitely worth ordering if/when on the menu. My review of the meal can be found here.

Duck Ham Salad with Pecorino & Mint from Spuntino (London)

Another stand-out appetizer also hailed from Italy, although this time from a restaurant in the picturesque hilltop-perched Umbrian village of Montone. During a great meal at La Locanda del Capitano, chef Polito served his own variation on the cappuccino, which included a hill cheese fondue, a quail’s egg and fresh truffle ‘snow’. Need I say more?

‘My Cappuccino’ from La Locanda del Capitano (Montone, Italy)

While in London during the spring, I had the pleasure of sampling James Knappett’s food at the two Michelin starred Marcus Wareing (he now cooks with Brett Graham at The Ledbury), and one dish still sticks out in my mind, both for its beautiful plating and its unique flavors. You can read more about the excellent cold, raw scallop dish I enjoyed here; it really was as pretty as a picture.

Raw Orkney Scallops, Tapioca, Australian Finger Lime, Wild Strawberries, Lemon Vinegar & Thai Basil from Marcus Wareing (London)

The last of the lighter plates to make the list was also a cold plate, served in Copenhagen during a very cold January evening spent within the warm environs of noma. You can read a full description in my review of the meal, but the main ingredient was sea urchins – it was a breathtaking dish. There were many other things from noma that could have easily made this list (including a plate with pine branches and one centered around an intense Gotland black truffle sauce), but this was my personal favorite.

Sea Urchins and Frozen Milk, Cucumber & Dill from noma (Copenhagen)

~ MAGNFICENT MIDDLES ~ 

It is often difficult for the ‘main’ dish, or dishes, in a multi-course menu to stand out as the most interesting of the meal, even if they are delicious in their own right. The preceding procession of nibbles and smaller plates are designed to whet your appetite, inducing you to salivate and preparing you for what is still to come. By the time you arrive at a meat or fish course, the portion is usually more substantial and can often become too rich and/or monotonous to finish. Happily, I had a number of ‘middle’ dishes that rebelled against the odds and still live on in my memory.

One of the best ‘middle’ dishes I had in 2011 came from a meal at Eleven Madison Park that started out great but didn’t finish as strongly (the meal was toward the midpoint of the year, before chef Humm and the General Manager bought the business from then-owner Danny Meyer). It was one of the best-cooked lobsters I’ve had and was completely delectable.

Lobster Poached with Carrots & Vadouvan Granola from Eleven Madison Park (New York)

We had the pleasure of dining at the chef’s table at Heston Blumenthal’s first London opening in the spring, and many of the dishes were excellent. The one savory course that stood out, however, was the pigeon. My wife doesn’t ever like pigeon, and she was licking the plate with this one. Other excellent dishes that almost made it onto the list were the Black Foot Pork Chop and now ubiquitous Meat Fruit. You can read more about the pigeon dish, and the meal as a whole here.

Spiced Pigeon (c. 1780) with Ale & Artichokes from Dinner by Heston Blumenthal (London)

One of the most interesting and delicious main courses I had was actually a vegetarian dish from the Japanese restaurant Kajitsu in the East Village of Manhattan. It was painstakingly plated and stood out for the variety of textures, temperatures and flavors. A full account of the meal can be found here.

Autumn Vegetable 'Fukiyose', Cedar Grilled Yomogi Nama-Fu and Portabella Mushrooms & Komatsuna Oshitashi from Kajitsu (New York)

A diametrically opposed dish, in both spirit and substance, was equally as tasty. This came from the excellent Commerce Restaurant, which is ironically in the West Village, the opposite side as Kajitsu. While it doesn’t often get the press it probably should, Harold Moore is a terrific chef that is both generous to his patrons (he is there night in, night out and actually cares that all of his customers are well taken care of), humble in his manners and genuine in his spirit. His food strives to make you comfortable and satisfied, and it doesn’t pull any punches. Some of the best things I sampled there were his carnivorous sharing plates. My favorite was actually the lamb (and pardon the instagram image below), although the chicken is more fabled, as you can see from this Ozersky TV video. One of his classic American desserts is also included in my favorite desserts of the year…read on.

Rack of Lamb on the ‘Things to Share’ Section of the Menu from Commerce Restaurant (New York)

La Locanda del Capitano makes its second entry with a superb main course of cinghiale (wild boar) that was hunted, killed, prepared and served by the head chef. It was the best example I’ve ever had of wild boar meat, and is worth seeking out if you’re ever in the area.

Montonese Wild Boar Braised with Scallions & Celery Herb Seasoning from La Locanda del Capitano (Montone, Italy)

Last of the top main courses of 2011 was a pleasant surprise from a casual little Ethiopian restaurant in Westchester County, NY called Lalibela, a name shared by many Ethiopian restaurants (indeed, our favorite one in London had the same name). We had a combination platter for two, which was great for lunch.

‘Taste of Lalibela’: Siga Wat, Yebag Wat, Doro Wat, Misir Wat, Shiro Wat & Gomen from Lalibela (Mt. Kisco, NY)

~ SWEET SURRENDERS ~

Although 2011 was a much healthier year food-wise than 2010, I managed to sample a great number of sweet treats which were totally worth the sugar and calories. In addition to some of the staple sweets we stock at home, such as Mast Brothers dark chocolate bars, we found some other great desserts in our local area. These included the best cannoli I have found in the Tri-State area (courtesy of a rapid-fire tour of Stamford, CT with perennially well-informed Jim Leff), wonderful pistachio and dark chocolate gelato from Daniella’s Gelateria in Greenwich, and also Daniella’s hot chocolate.

Cannolo from Sal’s Pastry Shop (Stamford, CT)

Gelato & Hot Chocolate from Daniella's Gelateria (Greenwich, CT)

Some other treats I enjoyed outside of restaurants were from some of the better-known bakeries, including Bouchon Bakery’s classic lemon tart and Ladurée’s traditional macarons, of which the rose flavor consistently one of the best – but all are exceptional. I am glad they finally have a shop in New York, although they may still be working out some kinks, as there seem to be variations in quality from many reports.

Lemon Tart from Bouchon Bakery (New York)

Assortment of Macarons from Ladurée (New York)

A number of great sweets were consumed on our trip to Italy, but the following were my favorite. Unfortunately, I cannot for the life of me find the name of the bakery in Rome from which I had the amazing sfogliatelle. But I have a picture of the lovely man who made them!

Sfogliatelle from Rome…and the baker who made it

Also excellent was a simple dessert of two components from Trattoria da Teo, which serves rustic dishes in Rome’s Trastevere neighborhood. It was so good we ordered a second.

Mascarpone & Wild Strawberries from Trattoria da Teo (Rome)

My other favorite restaurant dessert from Italy also contained cream and berries and came from L’Asino d’Oro, home of one of Rome’s best-value lunch menus. You can read more about the meal here. I didn’t expect much from the description of the odd-sounding ‘Strawberry Tiramisu’, but the proof in this case really was in the pudding.

Strawberry Tiramisu from L’Asino d’Oro (Rome)

One of the most satisfying desserts of the year came from Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, its second appearance in this year’s round-up. It was essentially a brioche and butter pudding with brandy, with the addition of one of the most meticulously roasted pineapples you are ever likely to find. You can read a full description in my review of this meal here.

Tipsy Cake (c. 1810) with Spit Roast Pineapple from Dinner by Heston Blumenthal (London)

My favorite apple pie comes from Mrs. London’s in Saratoga Springs, NY. Wendy (aka ‘Mrs. London’) makes it at the bakery, but also serves it at her son Max’s restaurant next door. The ice cream is homemade too. Both places are worth visiting if you’re even in Saratoga for the horse racing or other reasons. The bakery also serves a very worthy version of Kouign Amann.

Apple Pie & Homemade Vanilla Ice Cream from Max London’s (Saratoga Springs, NY)

One the most surprisingly good sweet things I ate this year came from Commerce, which served the rack of lamb I mentioned above. I have never had a coconut cake I particularly liked, but the name of the dish speaks for itself, and is not incorrect, at least in my own experience. Its moniker is simply ‘The Best Coconut Cake’. While it carries a price tag of $10, it is money well spent. Sadly, I don’t have a great picture, but you can get the general idea from the image below. It has the perfect consistency and is not overly sweet, the main problem that affects most examples of this cake.

‘The Best Coconut Cake’ from Commerce Restaurant (New York)

As a testament to the fact that great things often come when you least expect them, one of the best key lime pies I’ve had comes from a small steakhouse chain whose Boca Raton, Florida branch I visited twice in the last 12 months or so (the other location is in Boston). It was just as good on both occasions, the secret being that they (of course) use real Key limes and also make a delectable graham cracker-esque crunchy crust. If you ever go, their bone-in filet mignon is pretty darn good too.

House-made Key Lime Pie from Abe & Louie’s (Boca Raton, FL)

As it is getting cold now, I am reminded of a part-frozen dessert I had while in Copenhagen. It was my final course at Kødbyens Fiskebar, which consisted of sea-buckthorn as both a grainté and gel, with a base of crème made from tonka nut and white chocolate. The tart and creamy contrast was perfectly judged. You can read the full description here.

Sea-buckthorn as Grainté and Gel, Crème with Tonka Nut & White Chocolate from Kødbyens Fiskebar (Copenhagen)

~ FERMENTED FINDS ~ 

Most of the wines listed below are not particularly pricey (though all is relative), so I particularly enjoyed discovering them as I can afford to buy them again in the future. There were a few precious – in both sense of the word – bottles that I enjoyed on special occasions, but these were mostly the exception this year.

Now that I have a proper wine storage solution, thanks to the impressive Liebherr unit that arrived on my birthday courtesy of my generous parents, I have been buying a lot more wine as of late. I have also found that I’ve been buying a lot of my wine online, through excellent new sites such as Lot18 (click here to join, it’s free). There are also a number of excellent wine merchants I frequent, including Zachys, Sherry-Lehmann, Chelsea Wine Vault, Tarry Wine Merchants (which adjoins to the aforementioned Tarry Market) and the extremely competitively (online) priced Rye Brook Wines. Frankly Wines is also a great little shop, but I rarely get downtown to visit. 

Sparkling 

  • N.V. Claude Genet Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru
  • N.V. François Chidaine Montlouis-Sur-Loire
  • N.V. Jacques Lassaigne Champagne Les Vignes de Montgueux Blanc de Blancs
  • N.V. Jaillance Crémant de Bordeaux Cuvée de l’Abbaye
  • N.V. Pierre Gimmonet & Fils Brut Blanc de Blancs Premier Cru
  • N.V. Pierre Moncuit Blanc de Blancs Grand Gru Oger
  • N.V. Scharffenberger Brut
  • 1997 Salon ‘Le Mesnil’ Brut Blanc de Blancs
  • 1998 Henriot Brut Millésimé
  • 2002 Moet & Chandon Dom Pérignon Brut

White

  • 2007 Casa Lapostolle Chardonnay Cuvée Alexandre
  • 2007 Domaine du Chalet Pouilly-Fuissé
  • 2008 Bruno Giacosa Roero Arneis
  • 2008 Domaine Huët Vouvray Sec Clos du Bourg
  • 2008 Nicolas Joly Savennières Le Clos Sacré
  • 2008 Wind Gap Chardonnay
  • 2009 Arwen, Lilleø Vin
  • 2009 Casa Marin Sauvignon Blanc Laurel Vineyard
  • 2009 Evening Land Vineyards Pouilly-Fuissé
  • 2009 Monastero Suore Cistercensi Coenobium Lazio IGT
  • 2009 Paul Hobbs CrossBarn Chardonnay
  • 2010 Arnaldo Caprai Grecante
  • 2010 Cakebread Sauvignon Blanc

Red

  • 2003 A&G Fantino Barolo ‘Vigna dei Dardi’
  • 2003 Paolo Bea Montefalco Sagrantino Passito
  • 2005 Baigorri Rioja Crianza
  • 2005 Bodegas y Vinedos Finca Anzil Toro Vendimia Seleccionada
  • 2006 Yering Station Shiraz-Viognier
  • 2007 Ampelos Pinot Noir Lambda
  • 2007 Barons de Rothschild (Lafite) Médoc Réserve Spéciale
  • 2007 Bodegas Felix Callejo Ribera del Duero Crianza
  • 2007 Clos Du Val Pinot Noir Reserve Carneros
  • 2007 Sella & Mosca Cannonau di Sardegna Riserva
  • 2007 Seventy Five Wine Company The Sum
  • 2009 Domaine de Villeneuve Châteauneuf-du-Pape ‘Les Vieilles Vignes’
  • 2009 Venta Morales Tempranillo
  • 2010 The Pinot Project

Sweet 

  • N.V. Josette et Jean-Noel Chaland Chardonnay Vendange Botrytisée
  • 2006 Château Suduiraut
  • 2006 Disznókö Tokaji Aszu, 4 Puttonyos
  • 2009 Domtalhof Rheingessen Riesling Auslese
  • 2009 Hermann J. Wiemer Riesling Late Harvest
  • 2009 Joh. Jos. Prüm Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Auslese

Beer

  • I am not the world’s biggest lover of, or expert on, beer (by a long shot) but my friend recently introduced me to the Three Philosophers, which is quite nice.

I hope you enjoyed my review of the best bites & sips from 2011 and look forward to keeping you up to date on my findings in 2012 and beyond!

Kajitsu – Zen and Veganism in NYC

Kajitsu serves exquisite vegan Japanese food in the Buddhist fashion; it's good and interesting enough that you probably won't miss the meat - I didn't.

Kajitsu, the name of the discreet subterranean Japanese restaurant in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, means ‘a fine day’, which is something you can be assured of having should your diurnal cycle happen to conclude within its enlightening confines.

Upon entering, don’t let chef Nishihara’s youthful glow fool you. He spent over 12 years learning the intricate art of kaiseki cuisine; 10 in Kyoto and two in Nagano, where he specialised in producing the multicourse affairs of hand-made buckwheat soba noodles. He brought all of this experience with him to New York two years ago and, for some unknown reason, no one really seems to have noticed. That is, if you ignore Messieurs Michelin, who promoted the restaurant to two stars in last year’s guide.

Kajitsu serves shojin ryori cuisine, a purely vegetarian form of gastronomy that was popularised in the 13th century by Chinese Zen monks in Japan, and is still served in Zen temples today. And, if these monks’ food is anything like what I recently sampled, no wonder they always seem so happy.

The meal was a fascinating vacillation between the paring down and joining together of exquisite ingredients.

Fried Trumpet Royale Mushrooms with Fresh Persimmons & Pine Nut Cream (with Gyokuro & Lahpet)

Our opening course set the tone for what was to come. The most delicately fried cubes of Trumpet Royale mushrooms had been wedded to fresh persimmons and pine nut cream. The green and golden pyramid was presented insideindividual clay dishes which resembled blossoming flowers. The ingredients bled umami on the palate (luckily not the plate), with the sweet and tangy persimmon ably dabbing up the spillage.

So immersed was I in this dish that I was taken aback when a fellow diner at the other end of the chef’s counter snuck up behind me and tapped me on the shoulder. “I also photograph my food,” he offered. I felt like telling him, “That’s probably not something you want to gloat about to a stranger – even if he also has the peculiar habit of recording every potentially memorable bite he consumes – especially now that you’ve got the chef’s attention, numbskull.” Rudely ignoring my internal rant, he continued, “I was so eager to taste this course that I forgot to take a picture of it before I dug in. So I was wondering if, um, I could take a picture of yours.” My dining partner and I couldn’t help but smile, and let him complete his simultaneously innocuous and brave task before shuffling back to his stool to show off the stolen image to his other half.

The next course, a seemingly simple carnelian yellow and “scarlet-tinged” minestrone soup consisting of kabocha squash, bell peppers (which I normally hate – and yes, hate is a strong word), yellow yuzu and the mild but flavorful shichimi togarashi (seven spice), maintained my interest throughout, with citrus and chili notes peppering my tongue while I enjoyed the savory yet ever-so-sweet sweet broth.

And so it went: complex followed by ‘simple’.

Our third course was fittingly composed of three separate dishes, each more elaborate than the last. Let’s just say it involved wheat gluten which had been fashioned to resemble yellow maple leaves with orange edging; three rice cigars wrapped with tofu skin, crowned with beads of ‘land caviar’ (cypress seeds) and complemented by the best ginger I’ve ever tasted, and an immaculate pile of braised enoki mushrooms with nori, daikon and a radish wedge that provided a peacock-worthy splash of color.

This was followed by soba noodles with dipping sauce. While this is a dish you can order in any number of Japanese restaurants, the noodles won’t likely be made in-house and certainly won’t taste or feel like this – the texture was springy and superb – and the unusual addition of fresh wasabi was a welcome one.

Chef Masato Nishihara Whisking the Matcha

The main course was certainly the triumph of the evening, both in visual affect and deliciousness. An assembly of vegetables – some raw, some steamed, some fried; some warm, some cold, some neither – resembled autumn leaves that had been raked together into a pile similar to those you see at the end of proud homeowners’ driveways. The foliage was sprinkled with edible ‘pine needles’, which were actually brittle green tea noodles. This was both substantial and without a doubt one of the tastiest dishes I’ve eaten in some time, endlessly dazzling in its variety of textures and tastes, with no dud notes to speak of. Lying next to the leaves was a wooden wrapper, beneath which lay a row of cedar-smoked, green wheat gluten and portabella mushrooms that was surrounded by soft walnuts and a sticky combination of red miso paste and salsify. This was also surprisingly, and quietly, good.

A straight-forward bowl of steamed rice dotted with chestnuts was pleasant enough, but it was the trio of pickles residing next to it that made a good case for being a dish on its own.

Desserts continued down the same path, each containing only a few ingredients that were perfectly confident spending time with themselves. A diminutive mochi pancake with dates and sweet azuki bean paste was branded with the logo of the restaurant – a circle/square/triangle image descended from an ancient Buddhist story in which the master tells the student that once he realises the meaning of these three shapes he will truly be wise. I am, alas, still pondering.

Soft and delicate, the pancake led us to our final unassuming course of rice cracker candy and green tea. The chef whisked the matcha right in front of us and, while there was not much liquid in the bowl, it packed a punch. The surprise of the meal was learning just how good a sweet rice cracker could be – it was out of this world (well, definitely from out of this country), and perfectly offset the intensity of the frothy green tea.

The meal hadn’t actually lasted that long, and my companion and I lingered for another hour or so talking about relationships and food. At one point, the chef came up to us and smiled as he presented us with an extra nibble: a mini sweet potato ice cream ‘hamburger’ with a single walnut topping. This was subtly divine, and I was glad that the crunch of the light rice cracker ‘bun’ – coupled with the flavour of cool, sweet yams – was my final bite of the evening.

As I left, I felt completely content and not the least bit bloated. Despite a successful pairing of five sakes, I also felt remarkably lucid. The meal was something of a revelation as, without basic kitchen foundations such as dairy butter (the food is suitable for vegans), chef Nishihara was able to create a delightful meal that never seemed wanting in any regard.

In fact, his food resembles the enigma of traditional Japanese culture I experienced when I visited the country some years ago: it has been developed over a long period of time; it is undeniably beautiful and painstakingly considered, and it has a sea of emotions bundled up at its core. You may or may not experience the emotions, depending on your state of mind at the time, but they are worth discovering.

Given that the seasonal menu changes with the months, there is much still to be unearthed from this serene and (still) hidden goldmine.

Kajitsu
414 East 9th Street|
New York, NY 10009

Eleven Madison Park – Searching for Soul

Eleven Madison Park
11 Madison Avenue
New York, NY 10010
Website
Map
Online Reservations 

  • Menus: at lunch there is a 3-course menu for $56, a 4-course menu for $74 or a tasting menu for $125; at dinner there is a 4-course menu for $125 and a tasting menu for $195 (all prices without wine). The new menu concept does not offer specific dish choices, but rather a selection of main ingredient for each course, which the kitchen will construct a dish around, catering to any of your particular likes/dislikes/allergies
  • You can see all of the high-resolution photos on my Flickr set for this meal

There is no doubt that Eleven Madison Park is a beautiful restaurant with a chef and a kitchen that can turn out beautifully plated and often truly delicious food. After having eaten both dinner and lunch there over the past year or so, I can’t say that I am in love with the restaurant, but I can’t deny that I have had some incredible dishes either. At times, I felt the service, though well-intentioned, to be a tad overbearing. But the one thing I am still searching for is the identity of the cuisine. There are flashes of brilliance, but as Samuel Jackson's character Jules famously asserted in Pulp Fiction, “personality goes a long way.”

The second coming

I first visited Eleven Madison Park last summer for dinner. I was very excited about the restaurant as many critics and bloggers seemed to agree that its Swiss chef Daniel Humm and his team had really begun to hit their stride. We had a very pleasant dinner, but only a few things remain engrained in my mind over a year later: the unbelievable roast duck with lavender glazing that was presented whole and then carved up by the side of our table, and the uncanny knack of the front of house staff to anticipate our every need and desire in a casual and subtle fashion. Everything else is a little bit blurry, no doubt in part due to some of the excellent wine that we consumed that night.

Eleven Madison Park’s sweeping art deco dining room

Earlier this summer, I had the opportunity to return for a rare leisurely weekday lunch with a friend of mine who was visiting from overseas. We were both curious to see how this New York Times 4-star and Michelin 1-star restaurant (not to mention #24 on the most recent World’s 50 Best list) would live up to our expectations, and I was personally curious to hear my friend’s own views given his considerable culinary background and talent.

The menu

At my first meal, there had been a traditional structure to the menu, but this changed in September of 2010. Now, for every course, the diner chooses the main ingredient for each dish, and the kitchen then constructs a dish around the selected core element, taking into account the diner’s personal preferences and/or any allergies. I never asked, but would be curious to know how this works logistically in the kitchen as they presumably only have so many iterations or frameworks for each ingredient thought out, tried and tested ahead of time for each star ingredient.

Although four courses (plus all of the extras) would probably have been more than sufficient, we opted to go for an unadvertised tasting menu (well, it is mentioned on their website, but it wasn’t visible on our lunch menu). In the end, this turned out to be a mistake as it didn’t equate to good value for money given that we spent nearly 70% more for what amounted to be only two extra courses.

Things were Humming along…

I will try to keep my commentary to a minimum and let the pictures speak for themselves (as you may notice, I’ve also made the pictures larger than in prior reviews – let me know if you prefer this). It is suffice to say that the opening progression of small bites and dishes was fun, well-balanced and impressive.

NV Claude Genet, Brut, Blanc de Blancs, Grand Cru, Chouilly, Côte des Blancs (Champagne)

I remembered that I had been quite taken with the Champagne I sampled on my prior visit, and luckily they still had it on menu by the glass. The delicate grower-produced blanc de blancs (meaning from Chardonnay grapes only) Champagne was perfect with the meal’s preamble.

Gougères

The golden, plump gougères were made from an excellent choux pastry and had just the right amount of cheese so as to be present and pleasant, without overshadowing the light dough. 8/10.

Chilled Pea Soup with Buttermilk Snow & Ham Crisp

A chilled, sweet pea soup was accented by some even cooler milky ‘snow’, with a crispy ham cracker lending crunch and saltiness. The combination worked well and was also artfully presented. 7/10.

Goat Cheese Lollipops with Beet

Besides being colorful and playful, the goat cheese lollipops were also downright delectable. The beet coating not only added vivacity to the presentation but also lent a subtle flavor which melded well with the cheese. 8/10.

Goat Cheese Croquettes with Watercress & Chive Dipping Sauce (not pictured)

These little blonde spheres of (fried) bread and (goat) cheese were also delicious, with the rich flavor and saltiness of the cheese being offset by the watercress in the light emerald dipping sauce. 7/10.

2009 Thalassitis Assyrtico, Gaia (Santorini, Cyclades, Greece)

We had run out of Champagne and the sommelier recommended this Greek wine to see us through a few more courses. It went fairly well when sipped with the next mini-course.

Smoked Sturgeon Sabayon with Chives

The saboyon was heaven in a hollowed out eggshell: luxuriously smooth, smoky, creamy, with a touch of acidity and perfectly seasoned. I wanted three more three-quarter filled eggshells full of it. 10/10.

Cow & Goat Butters

Two types of butter were served for the meal, one from a cow (left) and one from a goat (right) – both elegantly presented and quite delicious.

Bread

The bread was freshly baked and of very high quality, with a lovely crispy crust. The presentation – they arrived in a little taupe-tinged blanket – reminded me of the way the ‘snacks’ are served at noma. 7/10 (I wish there had been a variety of breads offered).

LETTUCE: Salad with Almonds, Mangalista Ham & Cucumber

The first of the ‘real’ courses was a wide assortment of lettuce seemingly randomly arranged and interspersed with two slices of excellent ham, moist almonds and edible flowers. I wasn’t expecting too much; however, once I began eating it, I fell in love with the dish. The salad possessed a great variation in textures and flavors that spoke to me. The dish now adorns the banner of my blog, so I guess that says something. 10/10.

2009 Meroi, Sauvignon, Buttrio (Colli Orientali del Friuli, Italy)

A medium-bodied and deliciously fragrant Sauvignon Blanc was suggested for the rest of the non-meat courses. It fared better with the broccoli dish than the lobster course that was next upon us.

LOBSTER: Poached with Carrots & Vadouvan Granola

The next course was even stronger than the salad. The most perfectly poached lobster I can remember having was complemented beautifully by the butter sauce and sweetness of the carrots, which didn’t overshadow the self-proclaimed star of the dish (‘LOBSTER’ is in all caps on the menu), with the of-the-moment vadouvan granola giving my jaws some more serious work to do. In a word: stunning. 10/10.

BROCCOLI: Variations with Parmesan, Lemon & Lardo

I wasn’t sure about the broccoli dish at first; however, it grew on me as I ate more and more of it. One thing they understand very well at Eleven Madison Park is the importance of texture in a dish, and this shone through here as well. The various forms of Parmesan were delicious and they pierced through the distinct iterations of the green flowering cabbage very well. 7/10.

2008 Domaine Fougeray de Beauclair, Clos Marion, Monopole (Fixin, Burgundy)

For the meat dishes, we decided to go for a half-bottle of a red Burgundy that was suggested by the helpful and friendly sommelier. Unfortunately, despite having had another good wine from Fixin not that long ago, I wasn’t inspired by this one. It was perfectly drinkable, but didn’t strike a chord.

PORK: Confit with Cherries, Onions & Guanciale

The food elements of the meal had thus far been progressing very well. Sadly, when we reached the two final savory courses – both of which featured meat – the beautiful overture began to decrescendo.

The pork dish certainly looked the part. Another thing the kitchen excels at is constructing a striking plate of food. However, the cylindrical shaped loin had been, so far as I could tell, cooked sous-vide, which in this particular case hadn’t done it any favors, or given it much flavor. The texture was monotonous and there was no complexity of taste. The little confit cube was mildly more interesting (the belly’s crackling could have had more crackle), but I didn’t feel that the sauce or the accompaniments made this dish more than the sum of its parts. 6/10.

LAMB: Loin with Morels & English Peas

The lamb course was almost identical in its conceit, and received a similar reception from myself and my companion. The long pink strip, which had almost certainly been cooked in a bag, presented the same problems as the leaning tower of pork. The darker meat – was it lamb breast? – was more flavorful, but again, we felt let down by the supporting cast as they didn’t seem to interact naturally with the star to create a memorable scene. 6/10.

A small section of the huge kitchen

At the intersection between savory and sweet, our waiter suggested that we might like to take a brief tour of the kitchen to see us through the interlude. We followed dutifully and were in awe of the mini metropolis that housed the small legion chef whites. I noticed that the back-of-house space had been enlarged since my last visit. The area where we had sat last year – a slightly awkward and dark rectangular room at the back right of the restaurant – had been converted into a sort of interim room where smaller but important tasks, such as making the coffees, were being handled.

Alcoholic alchemy

We were seated at two stools against a wall in a less busy area of the kitchen and watched as a resident mixologist concocted a couple of cocktails, which involved the use of liquid nitrogen in the final stages.

Aperol Spritz with Liquid Nitrogen

The Aperol-based cocktail, which also contained what I believe was a blood orange sorbetwas really delicious, but I did find it slightly awkward to drink it in the midst of the bustling kitchen. It was like being a fly on the wall, but a human-sized fly that everyone could see!

Table-side egg cream creation

To mix things up even further, after we were escorted back to our table, we were asked if we would like to try the restaurant’s version of a classic egg cream. Now I should state that my father is a native New Yorker and has been known from time-to-time to harp on about the glory that is an original New York egg cream. I guess I am not my father’s son in this sense, since I have never much cared for the combination of seltzer water and milk (call me crazy). However, I am open-minded when it comes to all things edible and I thought I’d give a second (or ‘eleventh’) chance.

Eleven Madison Park’s Egg Cream

I don’t think their version used any chocolate, but it definitely had malt, vanilla and olive oil. Anyway, I can confirm to you that no matter how good the ingredients might be – and I am sure this was probably the most luxurious version you could ever have – I will just never like sparkling milk. I will refrain from giving this a score as I was predisposed not to like it.

CHOCOLATE: Cannelloni with Espresso, Caramel & Yogurt

I was really underwhelmed with the dessert, which on paper sounded like a great combination of flavors, but in reality didn’t provide any excitement on the palate. In particular, the caramel sauce was simply too sweet. I had hoped for a more creative and satisfying dessert, especially as I realized that the egg cream must have served as our pre-dessert. 5/10.

Double Macchiato

For a restaurant, they can make a pretty decent macchiato though, and I was glad to savor this with some colorful petit fours. 8/10.

Petit Fours: Pâte de Fruits, Macarons & Tuiles with Grains and Seeds

I know a lot of people who don’t really care for the jellies you often get in fancy restaurants at the end of the meal (or pâte de fruits in French), but I have a sweet tooth and if they are well made, I like them. These were pretty good, and the macaron and the tuile were both pleasant enough too. 6/10.

Stuck in the middle with you

This was really a tale of two meals within one. Everything sang until the meats arrived, which was a shame as the first half of the meal contained some of the best dishes I’ve had this year. I just didn’t understand the conception of the meat dishes – besides cooking one type of meat two ways, which hasn’t been that original for a long time – and it really put a damper on the meal as a whole, especially as this and the disappointing dessert came at the end, as they usually do.

In terms of ambience, the room, while being grand, was absent of a certain animation which was present when I first dined there. The room was also not full, and it was eerily quiet for most of the meal. Don’t get me wrong, I abhor background music in a room and restaurant like this, but the atmosphere felt a little flat.

I would also like to briefly comment on the service. I think that the Union Square Hospitality Group must have the best CRM system on the market. When I arrived they definitely knew who I was, when I had last been there, and that I had been a particularly interested/ engaged diner on that occasion.

It was plain to see that they were going to go the extra mile – or run a marathon – to make sure that we were well taken care of. There is, of course, nothing wrong with this, and this is the right way to run a business. Heck, it’s probably the main reason Danny Meyer and his establishments are so successful. However, I felt that the approach taken towards our table on this occasion was too overtly over-the-top and oftentimes crossed that thorny border into the realms of being cheesy (sorry, that is the best word I can find to describe it). The problem was that it felt like we had to enjoy everything because it was made to seem like they were pulling out all of the stops for us.

I have no idea if this is the way that every returning (or even first-time) guest is treated at Eleven Madison Park if and when they appear to be particularly interested in the food: very possibly so. I try to be as discreet as possible when taking photos, but people do sometimes notice, and I am sure they did on this occasion, which may have led to slightly special treatment. The last thing I want to do is come across like a whiney blogger who complains about receiving extra attention at a nice restaurant, but all I can tell you is what happened and how it made me feel. It felt like they were trying too hard, like it wasn’t quite natural. There is a way to cosset guests and make them feel like they are at home, and I didn’t feel like this at Eleven Madison Park.

Lastly, with regard to the food, I can’t quite eek out its identity. It contains the occasional homage to America but overall, since there are single ingredients listed on the menu, I can’t get the sense of the cuisine’s personality or ambitions. I wonder how chef Humm would describe his food. To me, it seems to incorporate some very modern techniques (i.e. liquid nitrogen in the cocktail, and various ‘snows’ for garnish), as well as some classic European ones (i.e. that truly wonderful roast duck I had the first time around). But from my two visits, it doesn’t appear to be beating its own drum or leading the pack, but rather incorporating various trends that are going on throughout the higher echelons of international cuisine. Perhaps I am not familiar enough to be a fair judge, but by focusing on individual ingredients without any obvious overarching conceit, the food seems to lack a sense of soul.

In any case, it is a very good restaurant that is capable of some incredibly high highs. I just wish my most recent meal would have been more cohesive and consistent. Perhaps my expectations were as grand as the dining room.

Would I return? Yes, but not for a while, and I would probably ‘just’ get the three or four course menu and inquire and/or direct more specifically how each dish will be prepared to avoid potential disappointment.

Rating

Ambience: 6/10

Service: 7/10

Food: 7/10

Wine: they have one of the most extensive and best-chosen wine lists in NYC, and it is truly a pleasure to peruse. There are trophy wines and undiscovered gems alike. France, Italy, Spain, Germany and California feature heavily, but other regions are represented throughout as well. They have a very nice selection of half-bottles of red and white wines, which is much better than you typically see. My only gripe is that they should have a few cheaper options by the glass.

*Note: I have been to Eleven Madison Park twice – once for dinner and once for lunch – and paid the full price (with no known freebies thrown in) both times. I was not invited by the restaurant or its PR team on either occasion.*

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