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!

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.*

Eleven Madison Park on Urbanspoon

Restaurant Gordon Ramsay – The Royal Treatment

Restaurant Gordon Ramsay
68 Royal Hospital Road
London SW3 4HP
Website
Map
Online Reservations (lunch only)
Dinner Reservations: +44 (0)20 7352 4441

Menus: Set Lunch £45, Dinner 3-Course £90, Dinner Seasonal 5-Courses £105, Dinner 7-Course (‘Prestige’) £120

(If you wish to view the full set of photos, they are available on my Flickr account)

Restaurant Gordon Ramsay – Royal Hospital Road provided us with a highly enjoyable and satisfying evening. The food was mostly classic in nature and nearly all of the numerous dishes we ordered were executed with a fine precision, with a few bits of fun thrown in for good measure. The service is simply extraordinary, and we were treated like regulars even though it was our first visit. The young Head Chef, Clare Smyth, is clearly talented, and it will be interesting to see how she develops over the coming years. It’s easy to see why people like eating here: its formula is tried & tested, but it works.

Driving to hospital

So, first of all: a little apology.

I’ve been busy recently:  busy working, busy eating, busy drinking (wine mostly), but not busy writing blog posts about what I’ve been eating (or about the wine I’ve been drinking).

In any case, my parents were in town a few months back, in the heart of what then seemed like London’s everlasting darkness, and I wanted to plan a special meal while they were here. Given that, at the time, there was only one 3-starred Michelin restaurant in central London and that we hadn’t made it there yet, I thought it was high time to pay Gordon Ramsay’s flagship outfit a visit. (Since then, Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester has been elevated to 3 stars as well).

While it has become easier to book lunch at Restaurant Gordon Rasmsay – Royal Hospital Road (RHR) in Chelsea, due to the fact that you can reserve a table directly on their website, it is far more difficult securing a dinner reservation, and thus I made mine approximately two months in advance. The difficulty likely stems from the fact that RHR is a very small venue, with only about 12-14 tables in total, and also due to the obvious factors of it holding 3 Michelin stars for years and being the pinnacle of Mr. Ramsay’s little (well, shrinking) restaurant empire.

A few other tidbits to note about the restaurant: it is one of the few remaining places requiring men to don jackets for dinner; it is only open Monday to Friday (so don’t think on planning a special occasion on a Saturday or Sunday there); and, of course, Gordon is not usually there himself (though he does make appearances). Since 2007, the kitchen has been run by Head Chef Clare Smyth, a very pleasant young lady in her early 30’s and one of the few women to run a 3-étoiles establishment.

Entering Ramsay’s world

As readers of this blog will probably know, I have been to a lot of Gordon Ramsay’s restaurants, both in the UK and the US – when Gordon Ramsay Holdings (GRH) still ran them – and I have generally been impressed with the quality of the food and service levels. Sure, there have been the odd fumbles and occasional disappointments, and they are not generally given to the most creative and inventive style of modern high-end cooking (though a few try to do this; I’m looking at you Maze), but overall I haven’t had all that much to complain about within GRH establishments.

Poor old Gordon has gotten it quite bad from the British press over the last year, and he’s certainly out to makeover his public image (having recently done the same for his face) and reinvent himself, both of which I suppose were inevitable given the nature of the British press and his own personality. I have to say that I do have a lot of respect and admiration for the man’s drive, ambition and achievements. Whatever you want to say about his restaurants, their finances or his diction, he certainly created a lot out of very humble beginnings and has both directly and indirectly helped to regenerate and re-energize the movement towards better food in Britain over the last decade or so. But enough about the big man himself, as he wasn’t in the kitchen during our meal.

Mrs. LF and I drove my parents to the restaurant and were graciously greeted and shown through the little hallway to a small bar which serves as a holding area for the restaurant. The entrance is funny because there are slits in the wall to your left, behind which lies the dining room. Some of these slits are mirrored on the side and some are compeltely empty, so you’re not actually sure if you’re looking into the dining room or not (you are). Anyway, after a little kafuffle over the position of our table (my father is even more particular then moi when it comes to table choice) – which the staff handled effortlessly – we had arrived and were ready to get this show on the road, or on the table as it may be.

Note: you can click on any of the images below for the full-resolution versions.

A Beautiful Table Setting & Hive of Honey

Speaking of the table, I have to say it was a beautiful little arrangement. There were fresh flowers on each table (and in the bathrooms), as well stunning modern lanterns with blue flames and luxurious tablecloths and cutlery. It is really a tiny room, but it doesn’t feel crowded and it isn’t loud. And it is one of the few restaurants in London that doesn’t have ANY background music, which is a godsend in and of itself.

The Royal Menu

We were shown the menus on offer, of which there is a 3-course à la carte, a 5-course seasonal, and 7-course tasting (‘Prestige’) menu at dinner time. But of course at these prices, and with its reputation, there are many other little treats awaiting you before, after and in-between your main dishes. Consensus dictated the 3-course menu and we all eventually agreed on what everyone else would order :).

The Royal Box (of Périgord Truffles)

As we were deciding all of this, the exceedingly lovely Maître d’, Jean-Claude, presented their quite impressively sized Périgord truffles within a wooden box that looked like it could have doubled as a jewellery display case.

The Royal Assortment of Breads (including Sourdough, Rosemary, Poilâne, Potato)

We were brought a good selection of breads, of which I liked the sourdough the best. I was a little surprised to see Poilâne on offer, as I figured a restaurant of this caliber would bake all of its own bread, but it is always good (we get it fresh from Waitrose as our mainstay bread for breakfast), so it wasn’t the end of the world! The butter, which was presented in beautiful cone shapes that reminded me of bee hives was excellent (salted and unsalted were provided), as you’d hope it would be.

Amuse Bouche 1: Basil Encrusted Potato Crisps

Then the food began arriving, and it kept on coming. The first teaser was an elaborately presented row of very thin fried potatoes. Encased within in each was a line of basil, which added a nice herbaceousness. I also detected a hint of cheese (most likely parmesan). I thought it ironic to start off such a luxurious meal with what were essentially crisps, but they were damn good ones.

Amuse Bouche 2: Cornets of Crab & Avocado

The second amusement in Ramsay’s culinary park was a cornet of crab and avocado, again fancily presented on a silver vessel. It was a very fresh, zesty and slightly creamy yet light morsel which went down a treat.

Amuse Bouche 3: Pumpkin Soup with Raviolo of Duck Confit, Truffle, Mushroom & Purée of Celery

A waiter explained that the last of the three amuse bouches was a seasonal one. A single raviolo was presented all by its lonesome inside a beautiful, shallow white bowl with wide-rimmed edge and then a bright orange pumpkin soup was poured carefully around it. The presentation was simple yet striking. The soup itself had a wonderful consistency (it was thick but not too much so) and also a real depth of pumpkin flavor. It married well with the raviolo, of which the delicious, slightly salty and crispy duck stood out nicely, with the vegetables playing their supporting roles well.

I would give the three opening dishes a score of 8.5 overall as they were cute, fun and had very good flavor and seasoning running throughout. They made an enjoyable start to the meal.

Starter 1: Ravioli of Lobster, Langoustine & Salmon Poached in a Light Bisque with a Lemongrass & Chervil Velouté

My mother and I opted to start off the meal with one of Gordon’s signature dishes. It has featured on the restaurant’s menu forever and I was really excited to see what one of the top dishes from such a famous chef would be like. It arrived sans sauce, and then the waiters poured the velouté onto the base of the shallow bowl (note: it was a different shallow bowl from the previous one housing the pumpkin soup, and was part of the Gordon Ramsay Royal Doulton collection from Wedgwood (I know, you were gagging for that little pearl).

Anyway, I have to say that I thought it looked rather odd, sort of like a brain vacuum-packed inside a thin covering of soft homemade pasta. When pierced, an abundance of seafood was revealed. It was all moist, flavorsome and fresh, and the sauce’s rich creaminess and lemongrass hint provided a nice coating (it wouldn’t have hurt to have a dash more sauce). But the idea of stuffing it all so tightly in inside the pasta seemed strange, as it appeared to be more naturally suited to the world outside the ravioli. The pasta itself was very good, but it was as if it was not really part of the dish and just got in the way more than anything. Overall, I thought it was a pleasant but pretty average dish for a restaurant of this level and I was let down by the fact that this was ostensibly one of the ‘best’ dishes that Gordon could create. I have no doubt it had been executed faithfully by the kitchen, but the overall effect for me was rather muted. 7/10.

Starter 2: Linguine with Shaved Périgord Truffles

Mrs. LF went for one of the simple specials, which was a linguine pasta dish served with a little bit of sauce and sprinkled (quite generously) with the Rolls Royce of French black truffles, those ginourmous globes from Périgord that had been presented in a royal box a bit earlier. It looked fantastic.

Mrs.  LF described her dish as such: “The linguini were al dente and had been cooked perfectly. And I prefer linguine to tagliatelle for this type of dish, as I find the latter to be too flat and lack a bit of bite in texture. The buttery sauce was somehow light (not like the significantly heavier version we had at Michel Rostang in Paris a few years ago in the exact same dish) and each bite was fabulous; you just wanted to come back for more. The Périgord truffles were nutty and sooo good. But I remained quiet eating my dish, careful not to over-promote it too much as I wasn’t willing to share it with even one, let alone tree other, gourmets! :) 9/10.

Starter 3: Pan-fried Sea Scallops from the Isle of Skye with Leek & Pancetta Ballottine, Sage Gnocchi & Caper Beurre Noisette

My father had opted for a dish which sounded very appealing to me, the pan-fried sea scallops. It also arrived bare, and the waiter poured the little beurre noisette over it. It was a very attractively presented plate. The scallops were large, meaty, sweet and perfectly cooked, and I thought all of the flavors worked well together. There was no rocket science going on here (nor any vegetal rocket either), but each element was executed precisely and gelled effortlessly. No fireworks, but very solid cooking. 8/10.

2004 Lafon Meursault, Burgundy

My father had kindly allowed me to choose the first wine of the meal, with the only caveat being that it should be “within reason.” His “within reason” can be bent slightly when it comes to wine, so I was able to get away with ordering one of the top white Burgundies on offer, a Lafon 2004 Meursault. It was divine, and did everything a Meursault should do for me. It was rich, complex and opulent, with a vivid streak of citrus and lively minerality. It also just happened to go very nicely with the seafood starters, as I had hoped it would. I think the rather pronounced acidity came from the fact that it was still quite young, as I would guess it would age well for another 5-8 years. It wasn’t ludicrously overpriced for a 3-starred restaurant as the mark-up seemed to be just under 2x the retail price (other wines were marked up much more, however).

Extra ‘Middle Course’ for the Table: Pressed Foie Gras with Peppered Madeira Jelly, Smoked Duck, Rhubarb & Walnut Crumble

Me being me, I had coerced the family into opting for an additional ‘middle-course’. And I can proudly say that this was a good decision. The pressed foie gras dish was superb, and by far the best one of the meal at this stage, in my humble opinion. It was daintily presented and while there were no huge leaps of faith flavor-wise, I thought it had a nice little flair of creativity about it. The foie gras itself was exceptional – smooth, rich and deep – and it was complemented splendidly by the thin layer of Madeira icing, the sharp notes of rhubarb, the sweet crumble and the smokiness of the little parcels of wrapped duck. The accompanying toasted brioche was also excellent and overall it was a flawless dish which I was very happy to devour. If Gregg Wallace had been there, he might have remarked, “Foie gras doesn’t get any better than this.” 10/10.

1999 Chateau Coutet, Sauternes

As this had turned into quite an indulgent meal (hey, we were celebrating a number of different occasions, and it’s rare to have my parents in London), we decided to have a glass of Sauternes each to go with the foie gras. It was a terrific one, and if you look closely at the above photo, you can just about make out the rich weight of the wine in the glass and the oily remnants it left on the fine stemware (I believe it was Riedel). It had tons of ripe honey on the nose and was very round and broad in the mouth, with some orange and floral notes, and a good deal of length. We ordered this extra wine on the spur of the moment just before the foie gras was to arrive, and had I thought about it earlier and more clearly, it probably would have made sense (at least financially) to get a half-bottle of a top Sauterne (I always dream of Yquem…) for around the same price as the glasses had cost us, but I wasn’t too disappointed.

Main Course 1: Roasted Fillet of Line Caught Turbot with Langoustines, Linguine & Wild Mushrooms

My main course of turbot was again simply but beautifully constructed, with the fish resting on a bed of linguine and surrounded by langoustines, a few greens and wild mushrooms, underneath which laid a splashing of sauce. The fish itself was cooked very well, allowing the delicacy of the turbot to shine through. Although not the most obvious accompaniment, the strands of pasta actually worked quite well with the fish and were perfectly cooked, as they had been in Mrs. LF’s starter. The langoustines were sweet and there was a nice rich fishiness running through the sauce. The wild mushrooms themselves were excellent and were one of my favorite things on the plate. The portion size was very generous and it was a straight-forward but excellent dish that had again been cooked to an exacting standard. 8/10.

Main Course 2: Roasted Loin of Monkfish with Chorizo Cous Cous, Baby Squid, Artichoke & Spiced Tomato Jus

Of her main course, Mrs. LF commented: “Sometimes it is difficult to remember what you ate, especially after a few months or so, but as soon as I saw the above pictures, all the flavours came rushing back into my mind. My monkfish dish was really excellent. All of the ingredients that had been gathered together managed to create a near-perfect balance, both in taste and texture. The chorizo cous cous with the spiced tomato jus energized the monkfish as well as my taste buds. I wish there had been a little more of the sauce, but I am sure that it was a case of asking the waiter for more, and it would have been provided to me. The Mediterranean touch brought warmth and an unpretentious quality to this lovely dish.” 9/10.

Main Course 3: Aged Casterbridge Beef Fillet with Fondant Potato, Ox Cheeks, Bone Marrow, Braised Root Vegetables & Red Wine Jus

My father had been naughty and opted for the richest-sounding dish of all the main courses. It looked quite stunning on the plate, but may have been a bit ambitious if you weren’t too hungry by this stage. Luckily he wasn’t, and was also kind enough to give me a few tastes. The meat itself was sublime and had been cooked just the way I like it, very red in the middle but not totally raw in texture (i.e. it wasn’t beefshimi). It was definitely one of the tastiest pieces of cow I’d eaten in a while. I loved the play on the marrow too: the potato fondant had been made to look like a bone, and inside the top of its open shaft laid the marrow itself. It was a clever little touch that didn’t go unnoticed. The marrow itself was as rich and fatty as marrow can be (in a good way) and the potatoes were very good indeed. The carrots and spinach helped to break through some of that richness but it was still very much a “manly man’s”plate of food, though an excellent one at that. 9/10.

Main Course 4: Roasted Loin of Highland Venison with Smoked Chestnut Purée, Pumpkin, Braised Celery & Périgord Truffle

My mom went with the loin of Highland venison, and as I only had a taste and can’t remember it in too much detail (though I remember I liked it), I will refrain from commenting too much or giving it a numerical rating.

2001 Chateau Pavie, St Emilion

My father’s half of the wine selection landed us in Bordeaux; St Emilion to be exact, at Chateau Pavie, in the year 2001. Being from the right bank, the wine is dominated by Merlot (it’s about 70%). It had quite a tight nose, although there were dark berries and maybe some aniseed evident. In the mouth it had quite significant tannins, but they were fairly well integrated. I thought it was powerful for a Merlot-dominated wine, but also had a certain of elegance about it. The wine exhibited tremendous length and will be extremely good in 10+ years, although it was also pretty good for drinking now (just a bit restrained compared to what it will likely become in the future).

Palate Cleanser: Smoothie of Pineapple, Champagne, Rum & Coconut

The palate-cleansing smoothie was frothy, light, fruity and had a nice undercurrent of sweet rum flavor. It was a served tres posh, in a fancy glass with a glass straw. I love smoothies and sweet fruity concoctions, so it did me just fine. 8/10.

Pre-Dessert: Crème Brûlée with Prune, Armagnac & Vanilla

A pre-dessert of crème brûlée was nestled on top of two round plates in a petite white porcelain pot. It was fantastic, with all three of the main flavors coming through nicely, and very crisp on top. 8/10.

Dessert:
*Assiette de l’Aubergine’ (for 2 people)*
~ Granny Smith Parfait with Blackberry Foam, Honeycomb, Blackberry & Cider Sorbet ~
~ Bitter Chocolate Cylinder with Coffee Grainté & Ginger Mousee ~
~ Carmelized Tarte Tartin of Apple ~
~ Marinated Pineapple Ravioli with Mango & Raspberries ~
~ Walnut Soufflé with Pear Sorbet & Chocolate Sauce ~

Both couples opted to go for RHR’s assiette of desserts, which gives you a little taste of all the main desserts on the à la carte menu. It’s good if you’re like me and usually want to try three or four of the desserts on the menu, if not all of them! :)

The First Trio: Granny Smith Parfait, Bitter Chocolate Cylinder, Tarte Tartin

A stunning trio of desserts arrived first on an ovular plate that was decorated with chocolate and squiggles that reminded me of a musical score. The Granny Smith parfait looked most intriguing to me, and I loved its sweet and sour, crisp apple flavor with smooth and rich blackberry and cider sorbet (in which the blackberry was certainly the more pronounced flavor). The four honeycomb squares that flanked each side were also delectable with the fruity flavors, and provided the necessary crunch. I also thought the little circle of thinly shaved apple slices resting beneath was a nice touch. 8/10.

The petit tarte tartin was classic and very good, but not spectacular compared to others I’ve had in recent months both in France and in the UK. 7/10.

Strangely enough, neither Mrs. LF or I can remember much about the bitter chocolate cylinder, so I can’t comment on it – it certainly looked nice, though, didn’t it?

The Fourth: Marinated Pineapple Ravioli with Mango & Raspberries

The pineapple dessert was extremely beautiful in its presentation. Simple, primary colors vividly caught the eye, and the flavors didn’t let it down. There was a pronounced, sweet pineapple flavor running throughout the centrepiece, which was enveloped in layers of the thinnest slices of pineapple. And, for once, the other fruits (raspberry, blackberry and blueberry) were actually sweet, though I have a feeling their natural level of sweetness may have been kicked up a notch in the kitchen through some kind of sugary trickery. In any case, it was light and very refreshing and everyone enjoyed it. 8/10.

The Fifth: Walnut Soufflé with Pear Sorbet & Chocolate Sauce

Unfortunately, the soufflé was a disaster. It was very eggy and hadn’t set correctly, so the texture was completely wrong. But as it was the last in the long line of desserts, we didn’t bother sending it back as we really didn’t want another one (I am not the biggest fan of sweet soufflés in the first place as I always think they’re going to taste amazing, but find them a bit boring after the first few bites in most cases). They were very happy to remake them for us and apologized profusely, but we just didn’t want new versions. For me, this was also because I’m not sure how well the walnut worked as the primary flavor in the dessert. It tasted okay when taken with some of the pear sorbet (which was lovely) and chocolate sauce, but it wouldn’t be my first choice for soufflé flavor. This dessert therefore gets a score of 3/10 as it wasn’t accurately executed and didn’t taste particularly great. If we had been the Michelin men (or women), that could have been dangerous liaison.

Petit Fours 1: Bitter Chocolate Truffles

Having seen a few posts blog posts about RHR in the past, I had been waiting for the silver alien balls (well, that’s what I call them in my head) to make their appearance. I always thought they looked funky and wondered what was inside of them. The funkiness of presentation didn’t disappoint, and they were just very simple and very good bitter chocolate truffles. I ate way too many of them. 8/10.

Petit Fours 2: White Chocolate & Strawberry Ice Cream Spheres with Dry Ice ‘Smoke’

I thought that these silver truffles were going to be our petit fours, full stop…but the kitchen had a few more surprises up their collective sleeves. Next up were some unannounced chocolate and strawberry ice cream spheres, presented in a silver dish from which emanated a lot of dry ice ‘smoke’. I am not usually a fan of white chocolate, but it worked very well with the cool filling of strawberry ice cream. I again ate too many! 8/10.

Petit Fours 3: Turkish Delight

The last of the petit fours were some extremely haute cuisine Turkish delights. Usually way too sweet and way too pink (or another very bright color), these were something else all together. The paired-down elegance of the Japanese-esque presentation was not let down by what went in the mouth. The texture was at once firm and soft, and the subtlest trickle of rosewater crept in after a second, and lingered in your mouth. They were exquisite. 10/10.

Espresso

I had a perfectly good decaf espresso to finish the meal (oh, and a few more white chocolate and strawberry ice cream balls – they brought out another bowl). :)

Posh Sweeteners

I don’t take sugar in my coffee, but I did have to take a picture of the fancy receptacle for the sweeteners.

The Final (Take-home) Sweeteners

And this being the restaurant it was, they were not just going to let the ladies leave Chelsea empty-handed without a shopping bag to take home. So they got their own little treats, replete with a miniature Gordon Ramsay black glossy bag.

The Damage

As usual, along with shopping bags come bills. Luckily, my dad was taking care of this one! :)

The Young Head Chef, Clare Smyth

Jean-Claude was kind enough to offer a tour of the kitchen, where I was shown the various stations. I was surprised by how large the kitchen was in proportion to the dining room! It was obvious that Clare was scrutinising every plate that was being sent out to the dining room at the pass, and both tasting and adjusting the presentation. She was gracious enough to speak with me for a minute and I was struck by how humble, straight-forward and easy-going she was (but then again, I wasn’t the one preparing dishes that she would be inspecting).

It was a great ending to what was overall a very enjoyable meal.

Tried & tested

We came away from RHR satisfied and happy. With one or two exceptions (i.e. the signature seafood raviolo and the #souffléfail), the food was consistently cooked to a very high level, and there were some dishes which stood out as being particularly memorable (the foie gras and the beef, for example). I certainly enjoyed the food here more on the whole than I have at Le Gavroche and many other 1 and 2 Michelin star restaurants in London.

But having said that, it does smack a bit of formula. A lot of the dishes have been on the menu for a long time, and many of the offerings do seem to be frozen in time in this sense. This is especially true when their creator, the chef himself, is not often there in the kitchen cooking them himself. I can imagine that the very capable Head Chef must want to inject her own personality, flair and creativity into the menu, and I don’t think there’s that much chance of that as it stands, at least on the main two dinner menus. Jean-Claude did inform us that on the 5-course seasonal dinner menu and lunch menu, she has much more freedom to express herself and cook ‘her’ food, so I think it might be fun to try RHR out for lunch sometime – it’s also much more affordable at £45/head. I wouldn’t say there was zero creativity here, as some of the dishes did have a certain fun factor about them, and everything was certainly artfully presented, but there is a certain tried and tested formula at work in the food here. This is, of course, just fine and is probably suited to the type of clientele the restaurant attracts and retains.

But in my view, the best thing RHR has going for it is the front-of house service. Once you pass through the front door, have no doubt that you will be looked after as if you are the most important customers in the restaurant that day. We had never been there, and they didn’t know us from a hole in the wall, and my dad left saying that he had never had better service in a restaurant (and this is coming from a man who has eaten in the best restaurants all over the world for many, many years). It is the kind of place where they anticipate your needs, cater to your desires, and nothing is too much trouble or too little a detail. This was evident in the decisive and nonchalant way they dealt with our (well, my dad’s) sudden desire to change tables, and also at the end of the meal, when we realized my mother had left her bag under the original table at which we were seated. Jean-Claude would not disturb the other diners’ experience by intruding beneath their table, and simply waited a few minutes for them to depart as he kept us entertained, smiling and laughing at what a silly situation it was.

Some Line-up

There are certainly an army of staff – I didn’t notice if there were too many, nor would I really be able to quantify this – but they all served their purposes well, with the exception of one young man who was slightly awkward now and again. And, for being such a ‘destination restaurant’, I did not find it overly stuffy or stiff; everything just worked naturally.

As I mentioned near the beginning, the room itself is quite small, but you don’t feel cramped. In fact, you feel as if you are cosseted from the outside world and are able to spend a number of hours relaxing, talking, unwinding and having some pretty fine food. My guess is that’s the recipe that Gordon created this space with, and I doubt it’s strayed too far from that original vision.

Rating

Ambience: 7/10

Service: 10/10

Food: 8/10

Wine: as you would expect in such a restaurant, the choice of wine is spectacular, with top producers and quite a bit of depth. It does tend to favor the old over the new world, but there are some good selections from all over the world. The mark-up policy seems quite varied, though, depending on the bottle(s) in question. If you want a look at the full list, it is available online.

For more about my rating scale, click here.

*Note: I have dined at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay – Royal Hospital Road once, and it was for dinner.*

Gordon Ramsay on Urbanspoon

Guest Interview: The Phantom Medic Does el Bulli

Welcome, Phantom.

First of all, thank you very much for agreeing to come onto Laissez Fare and share your dining experience with us.

 

As some readers may have already deduced, you are none other than the ‘Dr. J’ who cooked up a storm a while back at your home for moi, Mrs. LF and a bunch of other friends. So your culinary prowess precedes you :).

 

What readers may not know is that you have a very large appendage – by which I mean camera – that you carry around with you most places, and have been known to take a spectacular snap in your time. So, I am very happy to post your photos of this modern-day temple to gastronomy below, although I understand that they were taken with a rather smaller member than that which you usually carry. However, despite this appended appendage, there are still some great shots.

 

But first, let’s play 20 questions!

1. Before we get down to the nitty gritty, can you tell us a bit about who the Phantom Medic is and what makes you tick, tock, balk?

  • A long time ago, in a galaxy, far, far away…I’m not going to keep that one up, am I? Well, I am a doctor who turned to the dark side of medicine about 10 years ago (I’m only private now). I lead a team of specialists in a private clinic and our very generous patients often take us out to fantastic places to eat. And so my love of restaurants began. Apart from eating, I love climbing mountains and my big orange cat – all evil world-dominating mad geniuses have one, so why can’t I?

2. So, how the hell did you land a table at El Bulli in the first place? Did you have to use Jedi mind tricks? Who did you dine with?

  • Well, one of the Phantom’s patients called and said, “Phantom, what are you doing on Thursday?” I said, “Well, nothing much.” And he said, “Meet me in Barcelona, in the morning sometime.” I asked, “What are we doing there?” He said, “We’re going to have dinner.” I said, “Where?” He said, “Somewhere yummy,” and that was that. I think his new girlfriend had cancelled on him for that evening, and he owed me dinner, so there you go.

3. If you were writing a twitterish-length review of the overall experience, what would it say?

  • Experience is sometimes a place, sometimes a film, sometimes a big event. But never before for me has a truly great experience appeared in my mouth. It wasn’t a meal, it was a milestone.

4. Speaking of twitter, I hear something rather unexpected happened while you were there, thanks to the ever-increasing influence of social media?

 

  • Well, yes indeed. Upon entering the humble interior of El Bulli, a stunningly dressed woman caught my eye as she was enjoying what looked like a balloon of white chocolate. For her, El Bulli was already underway. I thought nothing much of it, turned and took my seat and soon our own show began. As every course manifested – not only with what it was, but with how to eat it – I sent messages via text to you (Laissez Fare), partly in my excitement and, of course, to generate sufficient envy as I know it is you who should have rightly been in my place. But hey, do not underestimate the power of the dark side. So, at course 29 (or thereabouts), I heard a shriek from the unexpectedly animated table behind us that had previously caught my attention. I saw glee emanating from the two diners who were ogling a chest of drawers that revealed a chocolate paradise that they were photographing intently before the final assault. One of the women suddenly turned towards me, lifted her head, and said, “I am a chocolate blogger, that’s why I’m so excited.She then said, “Can I ask you a question…? Are you Dr. J?” Flabbergasted, I said, “Uhh, yes,” wondering how on earth anyone could know who I was inside some random Northern Spanish region at the end of a single-tracked path. It turned out that you had been tweeting my texts, that @chocolateguide was following your tweets and she couldn’t believe that you were there in ethereal presence, sending one of your drones in place of yourself. So that is the power of the internet. Me texting you, you tweeting me, followed by her (who follows you), who’s looking for me, who didn’t see, and then a shriek, and then she saw. And there we were.

5. What was the most memorable thing you ate out of your 30-something courses?

  • By far, the olive. A mercury-like visual consistency, kind of wobbly, clearly not an olive, but deceptively olive-like when sitting still. The instructions were to place the olive in your mouth; that was all. I lifted this weird oil-wrapped ‘olive’ into my mouth and the simple pressure between tongue and palate made it burst open, the shell dissolving, and the full essence of thirty olives consumed me. It’s like a word just shouts in your brain, “O. L. I. V. E.” It was weird; I’ve never heard fruit speak to me. Mechanically incredible. Extraordinary.

The El Bulli ‘Spherical Olives’

6. What was one thing that really didn’t work for you on any level, if any?

  • Look, out of the 35 courses that the 8,000 people who visit this place every year will taste, by the law of averages, no one will like every single course. In fact, I was extremely surprised that I so deeply enjoyed the taste and didn’t “morally object to” the surreal courses that came our way. Almost every course was not only extraordinary and palatable, but has ingrained a memory in me that few entire meals ever have. The only thing that didn’t work for me was a magnificently crafted ‘black strawberry’. I don’t know, it just didn’t work, dude.

‘Black Strawberry’ at El Bulli

  • The other equally interesting bit was when the Maître d’ asked if we were allergic to any foods before we began. We said no. Then he said, in a slightly more sinister tone, “Are you allergic…to anything?” WTF?! And then, he said, “Do you have any moral objections to anything?” by which I presumed he meant certain types of food (i.e. offal or worse) that some may find questionable. I replied, “No, as long as it’s consenting.” I don’t he think he understood.

7. What was the craziest thing you ate?

  • I reckon the oyster leaf. A leaf that turned into an oyster. Uh, yeah.

The El Bulli ‘Oyster Leaf with Dew of Vinegar’

8. What was the most interesting part of your evening?

  • Well, being bamboozled by a cocktail of surreal gustatory delight, and the power of twitter.

9. How long were you there for all in all – did you get bored at any point?

  • C’mon, bored? I left at 4am on Thursday and arrived at home at 8pm on the following day. There was not much time for boredom. Incidentally, the restaurant at the hotel we stayed at, Mas Pau, whose head chefs are apprentices of Adrià, would rate in London as a top-10 dining destination.

10. What’s the overall vibe? For being the so-called best restaurant in the world, was it stuffy, relaxed, or a bit of both? Was the service good overall?  Clinical?  Theatrical?

  • It was definitely serious, but not stuffy. You walk in and they take you to the kitchen. If the plethora of silent machines were not clothed but naked, the gleaming aluminium worktops and military precision could well have been mistaken for a coke factory. To the left, there was a hot room, where hot stuff was being made, and opposite, what must have been an extremely cold room with dry ice, like clouds of frosty air, billowing from the door frame. And that was even before we sat down…it was also a nice bit of theater to shake Adrià’s hand even before we ate. The waiters were very attentive and friendly, but it was weird. The place felt more like a relaxed North London trattoria, or a Greek place like Vrisaki (which is pretty good, by the way), but had none of the airs and graces of a 3-star joint, and I liked that.

11. Did you get full, or was each course small enough that you didn’t need to make your excuses halfway through, hurl everything up in the bathroom, and re-emerge ready to tackle your next 15-odd courses?

  • So here’s the thing. You try eating 30 mouthfuls of everything and you’ll get pretty full. And not everything was a ‘mouthful’; some were little plates of food. So, yes, there is no question, if you can stomach everything, you will be stuffed by the end. However, the total running time for the show was near enough five hours – that’s normally the distance between my lunch and dinner. So everything sort of flowed kind of at the same pace as my digestive track…let’s leave it at that.

12. Was the food just ‘interesting’ (i.e. made for the people of Tatooine) or did you actually really enjoy the cooking? Is this the kind of food you’d love to have every week or every month, or just once in a blue moon?

  • Honestly, some things are only special because they happen the once, or perhaps the first time is always the best. If it was my last meal, then no, I know exactly where I’d want to eat my final fillet steak…and that is for another guest blog entry on Laissez Fare…but I feel seriously privileged to have tasted something the once that is like what I guess a classic symphony is in the world of music. I think my definition of food has changed; it’s not food as you know it here. It’s art that you can see and touch and taste. As a doctor, I’m dubious as to the nutritional value of the food, but that’s the very last thing you think about at this place. I normally consider it a bonus if the food is good for you at other amazing restaurants I’ve been to, but that just didn’t matter here. I suspect one might start looking a bit like Alexander Litvinenko in his final days after his small but rather fatal dose of Polonium 210 if they ate at El Bulli often. No, that’s not fair, the food was no doubt of the utmost quality, but would you go to Dali’s museum every year?  More than that would be an overdose for me…decadent.

13. One thing I always wondered about El Bulli is what recommendations they make for wine. Given all of the weird and wonderful culinary concoctions they serve, what did they suggest you do for drink, and what did you do? I assume you didn’t just opt for a pint of accarrgm?

 

  • As the founder of Sarment Wine was with us, I assumed he would know a thing or two about fermented grape juice, but the menu we had that day was very weighted towards foods that lent themselves to whites and we too readily went red, in my humble opinion. That might have seriously put a spanner in the works in many other meals, but quite honestly, the wine was totally surpassed by what we saw, handled and tasted. The Pinot Gris at the end (Trimbach 2000), was exceptional, I have to say.

14. How do you feel now that Adrià is closing/evolving El Bulli into something else from 2012?

  • His insignificant rebellion will soon be crushed.

15. What was it like in the kitchen? Noisy?  Quiet? Was it like an assembly line of robots – did you spot R2-D2 or C-3PO?

  • Refer to above commentary, Laissez Fare. There were something like 40 or 50 R2-D2s, none of them said a word. It was like Attack of the Clones, except everyone was nice.

16. This may be a bit sensitive, but how much did it cost all-in-all?

 

 

  • I would say to allow £1,000 for the 38 hours door-to-door, bells and whistles included (i.e. flight from London, hotel, wine, etc.).

17. Did you do anything else in the area around El Bulli? Is it a nice part of Spain?

 

  • Surreal is the operative word, however clichéd. Catalonia oozes oddness. It seeps from the brickwork to the paintings and, in El Bulli, to the food too. The following morning we went to the Dali museum. It was twenty years almost to the day since I’d been there. I left dizzy, bamboozled, amazed. Just like I did those years ago, and the same as I felt the day before at the restaurant. There is a weird congruity between the artists, maybe something in the Catalan air.

18. How would you advise someone to prepare for El Bulli?

 

  • I guess I’d love it if everyone that went to El Bulli could be as surprised as I was, hearing that I would be going just a couple of days before, and knowing that I would never have made it by going through the X-year waiting list. I’d recommend not over-planning El Bulli and waiting for serendipity. But then again, if everyone did that, then no one would go.

19. Is the force strong with Ferran Adrià (i.e. was there a vergence in the force on May 14, 1962 in L’Hospitalet de Llobregat)?

  • Well, look. The table sitting next to us had been bought on auction by four bankers for charity for $17,000. A couple of weeks earlier, Roman Abromivich et al had been turned away at the door: he hadn’t booked. Adrià must be doing something right. I don’t think it’s all just hard work; there is a serious stroke of genius there. The force is strong with this one.

20. And finally, if El Bulli were one of the Star Wars films, which one would it be and why?

  • Hmm. Well, I’d say it was A New Hope, then the Fat Duck and others appeared, and then the Empire Struck Back, raising the bar yet again. I guess with its ‘closure’ / ‘transformation’, we can only wait for The Return of the Jedi.

If you would like to see the full El Bulli menu, the Phantom Medic has compiled a short video below, humming Star Wars music in the background…

 

…Now, please enjoy some more the good doctor’s photos, in no particular order. If you wish to clone them, please ask me for the Phantom Medic’s permission, otherwise a war on your hands you might have.

l’Arpège – Alain Passard’s Perfect Pitch

l’Arpège
84, rue de Varenne
75007 Paris
France
Website
Map
Reservations: +33 (0)1 47 05 09 06

Dinner tasting menu at €360/person; à la carte dishes quite randomly priced, but all fairly expensive

We had a tremendous meal at Alain Passard’s l’Arpège. There were a number of pleasant surprises and a few truly exceptional dishes which will live on in my memory for years to come. His food is simply but beautifully presented, and there is a clever, playful and unique streak running through all of the dishes. Aside the tiniest of niggles, the food was excellent throughout. Service was warm, professional and efficient through four-fifths of the meal, but unfortunately ground to a halt towards the end as the restaurant filled to capacity, something they did try to rectify near the conclusion of the meal. It was the most expensive meal I’ve paid for on a per-person basis, but after careful consideration, I have come to the conclusion that it was worth it to have experienced Chef Passard’s creations, if only once.

When in Paris, consult a snob

When my wife and I decided to spend three days in Paris before heading up to Normandy to spend the winter holiday period with her family, I quickly began ravenously drooling at the prospect of hitting-up some of Paris’s top restaurants. But I knew I would have to reign myself in given that Mrs. LF was pregnant and was having very serious aversions to most ‘heavy’ foods (the truth is she basically fancied bread and butter and not much else at this stage in her pregnancy). However, she did concede the point that we had to book meals ‘somewhere’ for the three dinners we would be having, so I proposed a compromise of eating at one really nice restaurant for dinner (but one which had ‘light cooking’); one nice (but not overly pricey) restaurant, also with ‘light cooking’; and going to Le 404 for some couscous one night (we have heard rave reviews from friends, and for those who are not aware, Le 404 is owned by the same guy behind Momo and sketch in London).

So, as neither my wife nor I have much actual knowledge of Parisian restaurants – although I do have a ton of theoretical knowledge, as I try to keep abreast of what’s happening in the top restaurants and general trends in French cooking – I knew I would need help if I wanted to ensure that the few meals we did have would be memorable ones. And who else was I to turn to but the master of finer fare, Food Snob himself? After a rather lengthy and exceedingly helpful email correspondence, he helped me whittle down the choices and we booked one dinner at l’Arpège (which is, from what I can tell, his current favorite restaurant in Paris if not the entire world) and one dinner at Le Chateaubriand, plus the couscous evening we already had planned. We had a few places in mind for ‘serious’ but not-too-expensive lunches with ‘light cooking’ if we so fancied, also courtesy of Food Snob (they were Frenchie and Yam’Tcha).

In the end, due to the Eurostar debacle, we were lucky to have just one-and-a-half days in Paris, and had to cancel Le Chateaubriand and Le 404. But as you already know, we did make it to Chez Passard (aka l’Arpège), and also had a pleasant lunch at Chez Janou on the outskirts of Le Marais on the other day (see my mini-review here in a French food porn photo post).

If you want more background information on Chef Alain Passard, whose only restaurant is l’Arpège, I suggest you consult Food Snob’s excellent and detailed review. There is also a very nice review from Ulterior Epicure, and both have beautiful photography to drool over. But, as far as I was concerned at this stage, there were three main points of interest:

  1. According to Food Snob, Passard was a master of meat (‘maître rôtisseur’), having spent 30 years establishing himself at his craft. Then, in January 2001, he declared to the world that he would focus his cooking efforts on vegetables, which created a shockwave throughout the French food community.
  2. As Food snob explains, “In 2002, he bought the Château du Gros Chesnay, in Fillé-sur-Sarthe, about two-hundred kilometres from Paris, near Le Mans, sharing the property with the previous owner, Madame Baccarach, who minds the house whilst the chef visits the two hectare garden each weekend, employing three gardeners to tend to it fulltime. Using only natural fertilisers, non-mechanical tools (like horse-drawn ploughs), a rotating small-plot system and pesticides made exclusively of vegetable extracts, this organic potager is a ‘showpiece of permaculture’; there is even a purpose-built lake on the grounds and four bee-hives to help maintain a balanced ecosystem (and provide l’Arpège with its very own honey)…The garden contains one-hundred-and-fifty different breeds of plant and supplies eight to ten tons of produce per year – nearly all that the restaurant requires. The crops can be picked at seven in the morning, in time for the ten o’clock TGV to Paris; no refrigeration is necessary and transport times are short – therefore the légumes lose very little of their freshness and flavour – and thus, that morning’s bounty is able to become that afternoon’s lunch. What l’Arpège does not consume is sold on a small counter at la Grande Épicerie du Bon Marché and any kitchen waste is returned to the garden for use as compost.
  3. As far as I am aware, l’Arpège is Chef Passard’s only restaurant and he is therefore normally there in the kitchen and dining room overseeing things.

The master at work in his jardin

So the real question was, would l’Arpège and Chef Passard live up to the very high expectations I had built up in my head?

Bent on finding out, on a rainy evening in late December, we ventured from the comfort of our hotel near Opéra to the metro in search of the 7th, which is apparently not a very typical arrondissement for seeking out the gastronomic pleasures that Paris has to offer. We found the restaurant just fine, as it is less than a five-minute walk from the nearest metro station (Varenne).

Portland, Oregon or Paris, France?

The experience leading up to the meal had been a good one. We had been able to book without a problem, and they even had the consideration to call us on the day to ensure that we were still coming as they saw that we had a +44 (the UK) country code in our phone number and they had heard about the problems with Eurostar. The positive service continued as we entered the restaurant. Our table had been booked at the extremely early time of 7.30pm (if you’re going by Parisian standards) and, as such, we were the first to arrive at the restaurant that evening. We were seated at a very nice table in the corner directly opposite the entryway, which afforded us a nice view of the entire upstairs (which is the main) dining room. I noticed later, during a visit to the bathrooms, that there was further seating downstairs in a cosy little rectangular room. The maîtresse d’hôte, whom I will assume was Hélène Cousin based on Food Snob’s and others’ descriptions of her, gave us a warm and inviting reception, and engaged in a very pleasant conversation with us as we sat down at our table and got acquainted with her and the restaurant.

The view from our pleasant corner

As I had seen from others’ reviews, the décor was indeed fairly spartan, with rich yellow-orange wood panelling throughout that really reminded me of how lots of restaurants are (or were) decorated in my native Pacific Northwest in the US – lots of warm wood panelling. Even the little spherical glass artwork that faced us (see picture above) reminded me of art from Portland, Oregon or Seattle, Washington. It was a very calming dining space if a tad dull, and the only real theme running throughout it was the overt use of wood and a specific shade of red, which was employed in the chairs’ upholstery, featured as the main color in the decorate plates when we arrived, and lined the edges of many of the serving plates during the meal. I found it to be simple, modern, concise, consistent and effective.

The simple & individual decorative plates, made of resin

As we were perusing the menu, some white radishes from Chef Passard’s garden were brought out for us to munch on. They were very nice with the accompanying gray salt and served their intended purpose of getting our mouths salivating.

Fresh radishes courtesy of Chef Passard’s très, très ‘bio’ garden

I was also salivating at the offer of a glass of champagne. The restaurant’s ‘champagne of the day’ (why doesn’t every restaurant have this concept?!) was Laurent-Perrier’s top cuvée, which is called Grand Siècle. Given my rather newfound love of champagne I was eager to see what this famous name had to offer.

My exceedingly lovely glass of Laurent-Perrier’s Grand Siècle champagne, their top cuvée

When the champagne did arrive, it was presented in its very own glass (with the brand and cuvée clearly labelled), and it didn’t disappoint. It had lovely, tiny soft bubbles which served to create a luscious mousse. The champagne was citrusy without being overly harsh and had a lot of length. It was an excellent liquid beginning to the meal.

The magically appearing vegetable tartelettes

After a lengthy and informative consultation about the menu, we had finally decided on our dishes. We opted not to go for the tasting menu, as (a) I don’t think my wife would have been up for it given her aforementioned disposition and (b) my menu, the one which had the prices on it (how gentlemanly), had the digits three, six and zero all in a row, preceded by the Euro sign in the upper-right corner of the tasting menu page. After asking whether this was the price for one or two people (I did, seriously), and being told that it was the price for one person, I thought we might do better going à la carte. But price aside, I thought I would actually prefer picking two specific dishes from what was certainly an intriguing little menu. My only real concern was whether we would still get the fabled Passard egg. I reticently asked if we would, and was assured that “Yes, of course! Everybody who dines at l’Aprege gets Alain’s egg!” So, with a tiny bit of egg already on my face, I was now satisfied and ready for the games to commence.

The vegetable tartelettes began magically appearing...

And commence they did. Just after placing our orders, Chef Passard’s vegetable tartelettes began magically appearing in pairs, in a steady yet slightly random fashion. First off, a plate of 2 pairs, then another plate of 2 pairs, then a single tart for each of us. They were all made with vegetables from the aforementioned garden, and nearly all of them dazzled. The first plate contained one with red cabbage purée and one with a mélange of diced-up vegetables, both of which were excellent.

...one after another, in a leisurely succession, the tartelette onslaught continued

A second wave or tartelettes featured one with an avocado mousse, and another with a fine jelly cube nestled atop another vegetable mousse. They were all delectable and very more-ish.

Then, the moment of the fabled egg arrived

The procession of tartelettes was temporarily interrupted by the egg that I had been asking about. I have to say that I adored the simple splendour of the presentation. There was a succession of two red-rimmed white plates, on top of which rested a silver cup that coddled the plain brown shell of a soft-boiled egg which had been severed about three-quarters of the way up.

So what did it taste like? Well, unlike others, I didn’t find it a complete revelation, but I did think it was excellent, and also liked it within the context of the pacing of the meal thus far, which had been subtly growing like a wave still deep at sea making its way slowly but steadily to the shore.

There were four main components to the dish: the brilliantly yellow yolk, which remained unbroken until prodded by my spoon; some sherry vinegar; a touch of cream; and some real Canadian maple syrup. When the yolk of the egg was broken and all of the components oozed together in concert, it create a very pleasurable flavor sensation, with the slight astringency of the vinegar being balanced by the creaminess of the yolk and the cream itself, and the sweetness of the maple syrup taking pole position as the strongest taste in the mouth. I have a sweet tooth and like eggs, so it was right up my alley. 8/10.

French country bread & St Malo buerre de baratte (butter)

The bread and butter had also arrived by this point, and the crusty, chewy French country loaf was really excellent. The butter, a beurre de baratte (baratte simply means ‘churned’, and in this method the milk is usually soured with bacterial starter cultures) which hailed from St Malo in Brittany, was very good, although not as nice as the butter we had at The Fat Duck. 9/10.

Ah yes, more tarts, some more unusual & ambitious than others

Before the main courses arrived, another little flurry of tarts was presented to us, and they were actually just placed on the side of our silver egg cups (see above). This particular one didn’t work as well to either of our palates. It was made up of carrots, red cabbage and cocoa and I didn’t really like combination of flavors. But as Meatloaf might say, ‘two [portions of tarts] out of three ain’t bad’. 9/10 for the tartelettes overall based on their ingenuity, honesty, creativity, freshness, surprising nature (in terms of quantity), and one mark off from being perfect due to the not too pleasant carrot/cabbage/cocoa combination.

Clever constructions, plural portions

I wasn’t quite sure what my starter was going to look or taste like, given the somewhat mysterious description of the dish, plus the fact that my French ain’t that great. All I knew was that celeriac was going to feature quite heavily. What arrived was certainly interesting on many levels.

Starter 1a: Ronde de céleri rave 'Monarch' à la truffe noire, carpaccio (tagliatelles)

As far as I was aware, this single plate of what looked like a traditional pasta tagliatelle with some generous shavings of black truffles, was to be my starter. It smelled amazing, but I was slightly disappointed at first, as it appeared quite simple and was a fairly meagre looking portion. However, the clever surprise was that the pasta was not pasta at all; it was made out of the celeriac! It had been carved to look exactly like pasta, and the texture was also remarkably pasta-like, although obviously crisper and less soft than actual pasta. The flavors all fused together effortlessly. The little cream sauce had a remarkable depth of flavor, and paired with the lovely aroma and subtle taste of the black truffle and the crunch of the celeriac, it was a very enjoyable starter. It also put a smile on my face as I liked the playfulness of the faux pasta.

Starter 1b: Ronde de céleri rave 'Moncarch' à la truffe noire, carpaccio (celerisotto)

After I had finished, our waiter came back and asked if I had liked it, to which I replied with a firm ‘oui’. She then asked if I was ready for the second part of my starter, to which I enthusiastically provided her with another ‘oui! Indeed, the fact that there actually two parts to my first course had somehow gotten lost in translation (I am sure it was my fault). The second portion of the course was another case of visual trickery. It appeared to be a risotto of sorts, but instead of the ‘rice’ actually being rice, it was again celeriac – this time chopped up into tiny little cubes. It was soaking in a strikingly bright green sauce, and was again topped with shavings of black truffle. It was equally as good as the first half of the starter; it was subtle, creamy and truffle-y, with a good fresh bite being provided from the still rather crisp celeriac cubes. I was now satisfied with my starter and was eager to see what Chef Passard had up his sleeve for the next course. I score this dish a 9/10 based on the flawless execution and clever playfulness – the taste was nearly perfect, but didn’t quite reach perfection for me in the sense that I think I will remember the play on pasta more than the actual flavors in the dish.

Starter 2: Fines ravioles potagères, oignon sturon et poireau de Carentan (1st & 2nd portions)

Mrs. LF had the following to say of her starter: “At first, just like my husband, I didn’t realise that I would be getting a second portion, so I initially thought that the portion size was a bit mean too, considering I knew I would have to share it with my ever-greedy husband! The ravioles were floating in a clean vegetable consommé which had a distinct but subtle celery flavour. The pasta itself was very thin and transparent, which allowed the colour of the vegetables inside to pierce through, and I felt it added a purity and demure quality to the dish. I recall liking all of the ravioles except for the red-colored one, which had a strong flavour and the bitter taste of horseradish. The yellow one was my favorite, with its soft onion flavour. 8/10.”

The wholesome(ness) of the parts

Following our fresh and lovely starters, we were afforded a small and welcome break in the proceedings. After a while, a waiter emerged from the kitchen clutching a large silver tray with two smaller sliver dishes placed on top. One contained my main course of duck and the other contained Mrs. LF’s main course of sole. Both the animal and the fish were presented whole in a bit of culinary theater (which reminded me of our experience at French chef Pierre Gagnaire’s sketch Lecture Room & Library back in London), before they were taken back to the kitchen to be prepared and plated up for us to eat.

Main Course 1: Canard de Challans a l’Hibiscus (1st portion)

I was very excited about my duck course, which was not on the menu and had been explained to me by our waiter. What emerged on my plate was yet another simply presented but exquisitely beautiful arrangement of food. The duck, which had been cooked in hibiscus, was presented on top of a deep reddish-orange sauce, and was surrounded by dark purple cabbage, bright orange carrots and a narrow quenelle of a bright yellow mash of some sort. The bold colors contrasted nicely with the shiny white of the large and round serving plate. It smelled out of this world, and with the aroma wafting about I quickly tried to take some pictures to capture the moment before devouring this petit canard.

Well, I can say without exception that this was the best duck dish I remember eating. Everything about it just worked perfectly. The skin of the breast was crispy, and beneath the skin the meat itself was soft, succulent and cooked between pink and red, just to my liking. But that sauce…oh my god…that sauce…it was the most sophisticated sweet and sour concoction I have ever tasted, with the undertone of hibiscus ever-present yet not overpowering. It was as if it was created solely to be the perfect coating for dead ducks when they go to heaven (i.e. my stomach). The yellow mash was another revelation, as it tasted distinctly of orange peel and possibly a touch of lemon, and was absolutely delicious when eaten together with a bit of duck and the sauce. The accompanying vegetables were also divine. The carrot, glazed in the sauce, and the purple cabbage, were equally as good on their own as they were when I cut small bits of them to eat together with the duck. I cannot emphasize how good this dish was, and it was probably the single most memorable dish of 2009 for me – and that’s saying something given the calibre of dining we partook in during the year. But wait, that’s not all…

Main Course 1: Canard de Challans a l’Hibiscus (2nd portion)

After finishing what I presumed to be my entire main course, the waiter asked me if I was ready for my second helping of the main course. In addition to grinning widely, I think I may have given out a small yet audible laugh, such was my delight. I was beginning to think the only word I needed in l’Arpège was ‘oui’. The second portion arrived similarly presented, though on a smaller plate, which this time carried the trademark red rim and also dipped slightly in the middle. This time, there was a leg and a thigh, which meant that the skin was even a tad crisper (a bonus) but it was a little more work extracting the meat from the bones than in the previous iteration. That said, the flavors were exactly the same, and I can confidently say I would have happily eaten a third portion had it been offered. I have no hesitation in giving this wonderful dish a full 10/10.

Main Course 2: Pêche côtière grilée sur écailles, pointe de Bretagne (1st & 2nd portions)

Of her main course, Mrs. LF commented: “As I wanted something simple, I opted for the sole. The fish was cooked to perfection, and had been kept delicate and as soft as down, as it should be. The sauce was light and ever so slightly creamy but not heavy, as it had been tempered with vegetable stock. It also had a hint of white wine in it, and was a beautiful and subtle sauce to accompany the fish. But what really stood out for me was the small potatoes, which had a nutty, smoky flavour. I could not get over it, and once again was reluctant to concede a taste of it to the constantly hovering Mr. LF. 9/10.”

After the main courses had been cleared, service, which to this point had been friendly, professional and highly efficient, began to slow down considerably. In fact, we felt slightly abandoned as we waited to see the dessert menu and/or hear about the cheeses on offer. Eventually, we caught a waiter’s attention – something the customer should never have to do in a 3 Michelin star establishment, in my view – and the dessert menus were then promptly presented and explained to us. Mrs. LF noted that “…this was because the waitress who was in charge of our table at the beginning of the meal was switched to a different station after a while, and that the new waiter who was assigned to us for some reason didn’t take any notice of our table although he was interacting non-stop with one of his tables of four and his one table of one. Since the earlier waitress had moved stations, I couldn’t understand why he didn’t take over our table as we were clearly in his section.” As you can see, Mrs. LF doesn’t miss a trick :).

When we finally did get the waiter’s attention, we were asked if we would like a cheese course before dessert. I was intrigued to hear more about the cheese because there was a huge block of what looked like Comte in the middle of the dining room, and I wondered if this was the only cheese on offer. Indeed, it was, and I was informed that it could be served with shaved black truffles on top, which would accentuate the whole experience. So, without thinking, I said the only French word which I seemed capable of uttering that evening: ‘oui’! Immediately after the waiter had left our table, Mrs. LF shot me a crazy-eyed glance, and asked me what the hell had I just done – wasn’t I aware of how much those truffles might cost?! I had clearly gotten caught up in the excitement and hadn’t given it a second thought.

Comte and black truffles – what can be bad about that?!

The cheese arrived and was once again beautifully presented, and boy was there a lot of it! At first, I wasn’t sure if I would be able to stomach all this cheese, but luckily the Comte was excellent and I had no problem polishing it all off in the end. The Comte was very salty and sharp and the extremely thinly sliced truffles therefore helped a lot to balance out the flavors. It was a wonderful cheese course and I scoffed it all down in record time considering the richness and decadence of the whole thing. They also came to apologize for bringing us the cheese course so late, which was a well-received gesture. 10/10.

Desserts to die for

Next up were desserts, and I certainly had found room for them upon reading their descriptions on the menu. After having seen tantalizing photos from Food Snob on twitter of Passard’s apple tart, one of us just had to order it, so I gave the honor to Mrs. LF as she is keen on “…good, properly made French apple tarts.” I opted for another rather traditional French dessert of millefeuille.

Unfortunately, our original sommelier seemed to have suffered a similar fate to that of our first waitress (having also been reassigned to the other side of the dining room mid-service), and they seemed to forget about our wine needs in the shuffle. Hence, there was no offer of a dessert wine, and we couldn’t get the new sommelier’s attention in time before the desserts arrived. And as readers of this blog will know, I do like my sweet wines. Boo-hoo :(.

Dessert 1: Tart aux pommes Boquet de Roses©, creation Hiver 2008

Mrs. LF didn’t have too much to say about her dessert, but I think this because she may have been at a loss for words (for once): “Amazing, the best apple tart I ever had. The apples, which I presume were French Boscop apples, were pealed and had been crafted into a beautiful bouquet of rose buds. These rested on a perfect pâte brisée, which is the name of the French pastry used for their tart. And that’s it! No fuss, a perfect pâte brisée with perfect apple flavor, nothing else. No compote, no custard, and no other silly or unnecessary add-ons: a tarte aux pommes in its simplest and best form. Well, actually, come to think of it, they did sprinkle the tart with a tiny bit of salty caramel sauce, which to my mind wasn’t necessary, although it did taste very good. 10/10.”

Dessert 2: Millefeuille 'caprice d'enfant' goûter croustillant

My dessert was also heavenly. The nearly weightless thin and crisp layers of pastry were injected with a fine cream of vanilla which had the faintest hint of whisky. I can count the number of truly excellent millefeuille I’ve had in my life on one hand – they are so often made with too heavy a hand, especially by pastry chefs in the UK – and this one was probably the best one I’ve had. It was crisp, crumbly and balanced perfectly with the luscious yet still light cream that seemed to be randomly placed throughout the brittle layers. No question that this was a perfect example of its kind. 10/10.

Petit fours, including some unusually flavored macarons

The only downside to the desserts was that we weren’t offered second portions of them! That said, we were offered petit fours as a consolation.

They were presented on a sliver tray, and consisted of two individual roses from the apple tart (which were again excellent), a wonderful nougat with beetroot (the combination surprisingly worked really well), some moist carrot cake which didn’t leave me that inspired, and three types of macarons. The macarons all revolved around vegetable or herb flavors – as far as I recall, one contained aromatic herbs, one was basil-based, and one was of red cabbage – and I didn’t particularly love any of them. 6/10, but only because of the nougat and the apple tart roses.

End of the line, folks

After the petit fours, le bill was artfully presented on a silver tray, folded halfway to conceal what was to be the only painful part of the meal (with the possible exception of a few of the macarons). To be honest, at the time I wasn’t actually that bothered to pay it as it had been a very relaxed, entertaining and enjoyable meal.

On the way out, my wife literally bumped into Chef Passard as we were waiting for our coats to be fetched. He had been making appearances in the dining room throughout the evening, and seemed like the consummate host. He seemed to do a floating dance through the slightly awkwardly laid-out dining room, donning a constant and pleasant smile. A few times, he looked over at our table from across the room and visibly winked at us, presumably because we were smiling and/or laughing, and the gesture seemed to indicate that he was happy we were enjoying ourselves.

In any case, Mrs. LF struck up a conversation with him in French and told him that we had essentially travelled from London to eat at his restaurant, to which he responded by saying, “That is the ultimate compliment that a chef can receive.” After a very pleasant discussion (I didn’t understand much, but Mrs. LF said he was very humble and nice), he asked us if we had our car waiting outside. Mrs. LF informed him that, in fact, we were travelling via metro, which he thought was a good idea. So a practical chap as well :).

The price of perfection

As should be obvious by this point, we had a thoroughly enjoyable evening at l’Arpège and, aside from a few very minor wobbles, the food was exceedingly excellent throughout. Some courses were truly inventive and good-humoured (to wit, my starter of celeriac mock pastas), others were more traditional (Mrs. LF’s main course of sole), and some were just outright beautiful (the duck and the apple tart composed of individual ‘roses’)…and all were all delicious. As I stated before, the duck cooked in hibiscus was without a doubt one of the most memorable dishes I’ve eaten in my adult life.

Service had been excellent up until the point of cheese and desserts, when we did feel quite abandoned. They did apologize for this however and attempted to rectify the mistake toward the very end of the meal. I was also pleasantly surprised to notice that we were not charged for the cheese course in the end, which was good news as I had sort of been dreading how much this might cost given the copious sprinkling of truffles on top of the Comte. I took this as a kind a gesture from the front-of-house team, and not as a mistake, and if this was the case, I think it was the correct and polite thing to do.

But I guess the heart of the matter with l’Arpège, and restaurants of the same ilk, is the total cost of the meal. Our bill ended up being 520 Euros, and that was with only one glass of champagne and two glasses of wine (as Mrs. LF was not drinking), and was sans the cheese course, whatever that may have cost. So, was the meal worth that much money?

If you take it at face value by adding up the cost of the ingredients, the operating costs of the restaurant (staff, rent, etc.), plus take into consideration a rational profit margin, I am not sure what the answer would actually be, but would posit that it would be a ‘no’. This may be mitigated by the fact that their vegetables apparently travel from Chef Passsard’s garden via TGV each day to reach the Paris-based restaurant, and the fact that there were a few luxurious ingredients in our meal (namely a healthy dose of black truffles and a whole high-quality duck and sole). That said, a lot of the ingredients were vegetables and couldn’t have cost all that much, even including the TGV season ticket.

The other obvious way to approach the matter is to compare l’Arpège to the cost of other 3-star restaurants in Paris, but given the fact that I have not been to any of those recently, I simply have no clue how the prices compare (please do let me know if you can put this in context for me). It was quite shocking to see starters at over 70 Euros and mains over 100 Euros, but maybe this is the case at other temples of Parisian gastronomy (?).

The most obvious recent and relevant comparison I can find within my own dining experience is The Fat Duck, simply because it is another Michelin 3-star restaurant and was the runner-up for my most expensive meal of 2009 on a per-person basis. Our Fat Duck lunch was £415 and included a full wine pairing for me (again, Mrs. LF was not drinking), a bottle of water and ludicrously expensive teas. L’Arpège ended up being £477, so even more expensive, especially considering we went à la carte (remember the tasting menu was 360 Euros/person), whereas at the Fat Duck there are 13-15 courses depending on how you slice it, and we only had three glasses of wine at l’Arpège.

In terms of the overall dining experience, The Fat Duck wins hands-down due to the pure theatrics and unwavering perfection and inventiveness that ran through both the conception and execution of the dishes. By contrast, l’Arpège is more of a traditional restaurant, although the meal was also replete with pleasant surprises (regenerating vegetable tartetlettes, faux pasta, the mysterious egg, double portions of most dishes, etc.). I guess at this level of cooking, you are paying for the unique personality of the chef behind the restaurant and it is all very expensive when considering 3-starred restaurants. I really appreciated the fact that Chef Passard was there on-hand during our meal (and from what I understand he is there nearly every day), which is certainly not the case with Heston at The Fat Duck or with so many other multiple-starred celebrity chefs, i.e. Pierre Gagnaire, Alain Ducasse, Gordon Ramsay, Joël Robuchon, etc. So, in a way, I guess that our bill was just what it costs to get the authentic Passard experience and, on this occasion, I was glad to have had it. The meal has certainly lived on in my memory and I expect it to keep doing so for some time to come. In this sense, I guess you could say that I thought it was worth it.

About halfway through our meal, a group of four French investment bankers took the table just next to us. They briskly informed the waiter that they were short on time and would like to eat quickly; could the chef prepare an express menu of sorts for them? They talked business the entire time and seemed to give less than a second thought to the food that was being served to them. I thought this clearly illustrated the depressing fact that always stares me (and most other diners) in the face: it is so often the case that the truly rich, or those with enormous expense accounts, get to eat in the most amazing restaurants and barely seem to appreciate the rare commodities that they ingest as a distraction to their conversation, whereas those who truly appreciate good food are so often not able to even enter the doors of such restaurants due to the cost-prohibitive nature of the meal. I am lucky enough to be able to afford to splurge on expensive restaurants once a month (during a good period), but it does slightly turn my stomach that so much of this amazing food literally goes to waste in the mouths and stomachs of people who care more about the fact that they can dine at these restaurants (indeed, it seems to be the ultimate boast for them) than what they are actually eating. This is not to say that there aren’t investment bankers/loaded people who do truly appreciate good food, but in my experience, they are in the minority.

In a word, was l’Arpège worth it? Yes. It was a unique dining experience in which I felt very privileged to have partaken. But, just like other restaurants of a similar calibre, I would only go back once in a great, great while, both because that’s all I can really afford and also because I think they might begin losing their unique pleasure if they were experienced too often.

Hats off to Chef Passard, it was a meal to remember.

P.S. – in case you don’t get the title, l’Arpège is French for the Italian musical term arpeggio, which is a broken chord where the notes are played or sung in sequence, one after the other, rather than ringing out simultaneously. Hence the musical play on words.

Rating

Ambience: 8/10

Service: 7/10 (only due to the severe lapse in attention toward the end of the meal)

Food: 9/10

Wine: I had two glasses of wine, but in atypical fashion have completely forgot what they were (that’s probably not a good thing). I only looked at the wines by the glass and half-bottle sections as my companion was not drinking, and they were both perfectly fine and (as you’d expect) heavily French focused. The mark-ups were not horrible compared to other 3-star restaurants and there was a good variety of solid producers to chose from.

For more about my rating scale, click here.

*Note: I have dined at l’Arpège only once (sadly), and it was for dinner.*