Memorable Morsels & Fermented Finds of 2011

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

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

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

But on to the task at hand…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~ AT HOME ~

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

Morning Sludge

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

Kale Chips

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

Some of our favorite steak & eggs

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

Four Mile River Farm Ribeye Steak with Brussels Sprouts

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

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

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

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

My Mother-in-Law's Poule au Blanc

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

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

~ ODDS & SODS ~ 

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

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

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

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

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

Margherita Classica from La Gatta Mangiona (Rome)

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

Pizza Night in Umbria

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

Panzanella from Salvatore Denaro at Arnaldo Caprai Winery

Caponata from Salvatore Denaro at Arnaldo Caprai Winery

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

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

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

Black Label Burger from Minetta Tavern (New York)

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

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

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

Quinoa Arepa from Palenque Food Truck (New York)

 ~ BENIGN BEGINNINGS ~

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

Burrata from Roscioli (Rome)

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

Ceviche di Spigola from Osteria La Gensola (Rome)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~ MAGNFICENT MIDDLES ~ 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~ SWEET SURRENDERS ~

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

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

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

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

Lemon Tart from Bouchon Bakery (New York)

Assortment of Macarons from Ladurée (New York)

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

Sfogliatelle from Rome…and the baker who made it

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

Mascarpone & Wild Strawberries from Trattoria da Teo (Rome)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~ FERMENTED FINDS ~ 

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

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

Sparkling 

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

White

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

Red

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

Sweet 

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

Beer

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

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

Kajitsu – Zen and Veganism in NYC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chef Masato Nishihara Whisking the Matcha

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eleven Madison Park – Searching for Soul

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

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

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

The second coming

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

Eleven Madison Park’s sweeping art deco dining room

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

The menu

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

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

Things were Humming along…

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

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

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

Gougères

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

Chilled Pea Soup with Buttermilk Snow & Ham Crisp

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

Goat Cheese Lollipops with Beet

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

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

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

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

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

Smoked Sturgeon Sabayon with Chives

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

Cow & Goat Butters

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

Bread

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

LETTUCE: Salad with Almonds, Mangalista Ham & Cucumber

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

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

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

LOBSTER: Poached with Carrots & Vadouvan Granola

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

BROCCOLI: Variations with Parmesan, Lemon & Lardo

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

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

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

PORK: Confit with Cherries, Onions & Guanciale

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

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

LAMB: Loin with Morels & English Peas

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

A small section of the huge kitchen

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

Alcoholic alchemy

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

Aperol Spritz with Liquid Nitrogen

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

Table-side egg cream creation

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

Eleven Madison Park’s Egg Cream

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

CHOCOLATE: Cannelloni with Espresso, Caramel & Yogurt

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

Double Macchiato

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

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

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

Stuck in the middle with you

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating

Ambience: 6/10

Service: 7/10

Food: 7/10

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

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

Eleven Madison Park on Urbanspoon

Racing Through Rome

Tiramisu di Fragola at L'Asino d'Oro (home of the best lunch deal in Rome)

I have written an article about the the food we ate on a recent trip to Rome for Parla Food, a site that records the personal thoughts of food and travel writer Katie Parla. I hope you enjoy the piece, as well as the rest of her Italy and Turkey focused content.

New Yorkers, Londoners and Romans (does anyone use that term anymore?) should take note that Katie is also introducing a series of culinary events later this year. These should prove to be very interesting and fun.

You can find photo sets of most of the meals we had in Rome (as well as in Umbria) within my Flickr sets.

Buon appetito!

My 7 Links

I was asked by esteemed fellow blogger @gourmetraveller to participate in a project called ‘My 7 Links’, which is organized by Tripbase. I haven’t really done a ‘meme’ post before, but thought this particular one would be a nice way to review my last two years of food and wine, re-focusing attention on some highs, some lows, and the unexpected. So, without further adieu, my seven links.

Most Popular Post:
The Fat Duck – A Blumen’ Great Day in Bray  

JELLY OF QUAIL, CREAM OF CRAWFISH: Chicken Liver Parfait, Oak Moss & Truffle Toast (Homage to Alain Chapel) … at The Fat Duck in Bray, UK

I guess it comes as no surprise that my most popular post is a review of one of the UK’s high temples of gastronomy: Heston Blumenthal’s three-star Michelin restaurant, The Fat Duck, which was also awarded ‘Best Restaurant in the World’ by the Restaurant Magazine / San Pellegrino ’50 Best’ awards in 2005, and has been in the top five since 2004. Given that a large portion of my readership still hails from the UK and that Heston Blumenthal has become a very popular figure on TV and in the country’s print media, it makes sense. Happily, it was also one of the better meals I’ve had the pleasure of eating since I started this blog. I also like the chef’s approach towards food and his concept of ‘the meal’, and think he’s one of the more consistent and genuine characters in the higher echelons of chefdom. I therefore have no qualms about the success of this post. 

Most Controversial Post:
Le Gavroche – Unfortunately A Very Mixed Bag

The Signature Cheese Soufflé ... at Le Gavroche, London (photo: goodtoknow.co.uk)

It is unfortunate that my most controversial post came from a restaurant that I so much wanted to like. You see, Michel Roux, Jr. was a new hero of mine at the time, and I desperately wanted to love his food and his restaurant, which I saw as an extension of him. Unfortunately, we did not have a pleasant experience at all – it was certainly not befitting of its dual Michelin-starred status. This was one of my first posts, back in the days when I didn’t take photos, so sorry for the lack of visuals, but this was probably the angriest review I have written (which just goes to show I’m a big softy). The anger wasn’t due to the fact that Mrs. LF annoyingly had a big crush on him (and still does), but rather the bordering-on-rude service we experienced. It put me off ever returning this traditional yet quirky subterranean dining room. The signature cheese soufflé and innovative wine pairings were the only things that mitigated what was generally a very disappointing experience.

Post Whose Success Surprised Me:
The Loft Project with Samuel Miller from noma 

Samuel Miller Plating our First Course … at The Loft Project in East London

I really didn’t expect my post about a supper club in the East End of London to get the attention it did. But I guess The Loft Project is a pretty unique concept, as they do get some of the most interesting young culinary talents from around the world to cook for a few nights for 12 or so lucky guests. It’s not cheap, but for what you end up getting (sometimes 8+ courses with a wine paring included), it can often end up being phenomenal value. Anyway, the meal that Yorkshire man Samuel Miller – who is second only to Rene Redzepi himself in noma’s kitchen – stands out as one of the best dining experiences I’ve had anywhere. It was a wonderful evening in every sense, and for all my senses. The technical reason why I think it got so many views is because there was a television show on one night about noma, and Sam featured prominently in it, so I got a lot of people coming to the post after googling his name alongside the word ‘noma’. As of now, it is my 7th most popular post.

Post That Didn’t Get the Attention it Deserved:
Morgan M. – You Can Go Your Own Way

Oven-roasted Suffolk Red Leg Partridge, Sweet Potato Purée, Poêlée of Grapes and Savoy Cabbage, Liver Croûton, Bread Sauce … at Morgan M. in North London

Maybe it was the signature cheesy title, but I was surprised that my review of Morgan M. – which is one of only two reviews listed on Urbanspoon in nearly two years – did not garner more attention. Although the service was a little uneven, the food was certainly beautiful to look at and tasted very good to boot. I had really wanted to highlight this little gem of a place, which takes advantage of cheaper rent in North London but produces traditional French food with ample flair that competes with many of the more popular (and much more expensive) French restaurants in central London. The natural light during our lunch also allowed for some great pictures, making this one of the prettier posts I have done, IMHO. I was pleased to learn the other day that chef Meunier is, after many years, opening a second restaurant near London’s Smithfield Market.

Note: there was another post, which was somewhat controversial and also barely got any views, to which I would also like to direct your attention. It is an interview with the editor of Tong wine magazine, a publication that brings much-needed diversity to the global conversations taking place about wine. Read it here: Filip Verheyden is TONG – About Wine.

Most Beautiful Post:
The Sportsman – Captivating, Compelling, Complete

Cauliflower Tart … at The Sportsman on the Kent Coast

The food at The Sportsman, a one-Michelin star restaurant that could easily be mistaken for an unremarkable pub on an unremarkable stretch of England’s Kent coastline, is in many ways deceiving. It is presented simply and humbly, and you might not give it too much thought. However, the fact that a good deal of what you are eating comes from within a few mile radius of the restaurant, and that there is considerable technical skill and bounds of flavour packed into each bite, can take you by surprise if you’re not expecting it. One of the two brothers who own the pub is the (mostly self-taught) head chef and the other oversees the front of house. The interior has been honestly restored and locals still do come in for a pint at the bar, even if the bulk of the reservations now come from patrons living further afield. The tasting menu, which is available during the week, is well worth a visit, but requires special booking ahead of time. Although the dishes are certainly not as artistic as many other restaurants I have reviewed, I felt that overall, the images from this post were the most beautiful when taken together as a whole. The light was fantastic on the day, and for the most part, these images received almost no retouching. I hope you enjoy reading and looking at it. 

Post I’m Most Proud of:
noma – Northern Light 

break on through to the other side ... noma in Copenhagen

Not only was I proud of myself for simply finding a way to eat at what has now been ranked as the ‘best restaurant in the world’ for two years running, I was also pleased with the review I wrote. It was very long (hey, what else is new?), but it managed to synthesize my numerous thoughts and emotions about the restaurant and our meal. The food itself is also breathtaking to look at, and while my photos don’t really do it justice, this also made it a visually appealing post to me. Hopefully you feel the same. 

Most Helpful Post:
Lanka – The Perfect Little Place in Primrose Hill

Rum Baba ... at Lanka in London

I don’t know how truly helpful my posts are to readers – after all, I mostly just eat and don’t cook – though I did feel like I was providing a good service to the residents within walking distance of London’s Primrose Hill when I consumed copious calories over a number of visits to a cute little pâtisserie and café run by Japanese chef Masayuki Hara. These multiple visits confirmed that the pastries were generally very technically well made, plus some of them benefited from an injection of Japanese flavor (i.e. green tea features prominently in a few of the treats). They have also gradually expanded the range of food, which is simple but very tasty, and have a good selection of high-quality teas and coffee (they use Monmouth beans, or at least did on my last visit). If you are in the neighborhood, I’ve found it is normally worth the extra calories that a visit entails. The hot chocolate is also good.

I would now like to direct your attention to five great food-related blogs that I follow regularly, all of whom have agreed to do their on ‘My 7 Links’ post in due course. Look out for their reflections on their old chestnuts. The are listed alphabetically…like, duh.

Dinner by Heston Blumenthal – It’s Technically Delicious

Dinner by Heston Blumenthal
at The Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park
66 Knightsbridge
London SW1X 7LA
Website
Map
Online Reservations … but you will likely need to try the old-fashioned way on +44 (0)20 7201 3833

  • Menu: starters £13.50-16, mains £26-36, sides £4.50, desserts £9-12; the chef’s table accommodates up to 6 people and there is a minimum spend of £900 for the table
  • You can view the entire set of photos from this meal on my Flickr site

Heston Blumenthal’s first London restaurant has set the UK’s food media into a frenzy. And with some good reason – the food is pretty good. In a similar vein to the Fat Duck, there is a lot of work that goes into the creation of each dish – both intellectually and in terms of the technical skill required to consistently replicate each deceivingly simple dish on a much grander scale than any of his Bray outposts. The kitchen generally pulls it off, and the service seemed to be pretty spot-on when we dined there (though we were at the chef’s table, so you would expect nothing less). Don’t come expecting the dramatic culinary theatre that Heston is famous for at the Fat Duck – and on many of his TV programs – as the dishes here are far more straightforward in their presentation, with a few exceptions. With a windowful view of Hyde Park – thanks to the newly installed floor-to-ceiling windows – and its very own Swiss watchmaker-fashioned rotating gas-fired rotisserie for pineapples, it’s definitely worth trying when in London.

Much ado about something

First things first. This post is late in coming. Very late. I won’t bore you with why, but apologies for the lack of activity for the last month or so.

This is the last of my posts from the at-one-point recent trip to London I made earlier this year. And what a way to end. But in every end there is a beginning, as one of my favorite poets often said.

The only way I could actually score a table at what was then being billed by most as the hottest restaurant opening in London in a long time, and by some as the best new restaurant in the world (which was probably taking things a little too far), was to book the chef’s table. When I enquired, I found out that there is technically no fee for booking the table, but there is a minimum spend of £900, which can be split amongst up to six guests…so definitely the more the merrier. The £150/person price, in the case of six, pays for the tasting menu, which enables you to sample much of the à la carte menu. Drinks and service will cost extra.

One small point, which relates smaller people. We wanted to bring our daughter with us (who at the time was nine months old), and although this seemed to present a problem at first, the issue was eventually resolved (indeed, there had been no issue in the first place but we seemingly had been misinformed the first time around), though not without some time and effort.

In any case, I will assume for the benefit of most readers that you know who Heston Blumenthal is (if not, see my previous review of his Michelin 3-star restaurant in Bray), and that you know that ‘Dinner’ is his first restaurant in London. You can read about the word play – a typical example of Heston’s historical whimsy – on the restaurant’s website or in many of the other reviews out there. Apparently, the Mandarin Oriental, in which the restaurant is housed, insisted that they use his name on the masthead, even though he personally will not be the chef at the restaurant – a fact he has been refreshingly transparent about from the beginning. Heston’s right-hand man, Ashley Palmer-Watts is in charge of quite literally a small army of chefs (there are more than 40) and kitchen staff, most of whom remain cleverly shielded from the restaurant’s customers, who are likely none the wiser.

Conference of the chefs at the pass

There are 126 covers at Dinner, which makes it by far the largest of Heston’s restaurants – the Fat Duck only has about 40 covers by comparison, and his two pubs in Bray (the Hinds Head and The Crown) are also far smaller. The part of the kitchen that is visible to diners is open, though mostly covered by a sheet of glass that comes down from the ceiling. There are two large islands in the kitchen, which were custom-made by Rorgue, that utilize multi-point induction hobs. As many readers will already know, Heston is well-known for using the sous-vide (or ‘water bath’) method for cooking many of the proteins in his dishes, and there are correspondingly seven large built-in water baths in the main kitchen itself. There is also a Josper oven, which can reach temperatures of over 930° F, which is used for the beef dishes.

A chef in the hidden prep kitchen behind the chef’s table (the thin windows can be automatically made opaque whenever they wish so diners can’t see through)

In addition to all of this, there is a pastry kitchen, which is more or less hidden behind the chef’s table, and there are more prep kitchens located out of site in the bowels of the hotel.

A casual yet carefully considered interior

The design of the restaurant is pleasant enough, without demanding your attention. But once you begin to look around, you do notice that in true Heston style, no detail in this Adam Tihany designed room has been left unconsidered. The space is very open, with high ceilings and floor-to-ceiling windows that were newly installed with the changing of the restaurant’s guard. Brown and gray hues dominate the lower reaches, with wood flooring, unadorned wooden tables, and classy cushioned banquettes. Then there are the oft-noted jelly mold (or possibly cake mold) lamps and the Swiss watchmaker Ebel-designed chrome and steel pulley-operated rotating gas fire rotisserie…for what else but pineapples. The front of house is also smartly attired in well-tailored suits and waistcoats.

We were lucky enough to be dining at the chef’s table

Being at the chef’s table, we had the benefit of each course being presented by the head chef himself. The table itself is very spacious and comfortable for the full party of six, and is arranged in a u-shape that directly overlooks the pass of the semi-open kitchen. Ashley wasn’t there on the day of our visit, but we couldn’t have been happier with the extremely personable Sous Chef Dale, who was heading up the kitchen in his absence.

With Baby LF comfortably seated in one of the corners of the bench seating, some of us opened the beautiful boxes that had been laid down in front of us to peruse the tasting menu.

Lunching at Dinner

The good thing about sitting at the chef’s table is that you get to try a lot of what the normal menu has to offer. In fact, there are no special courses, but rather tasters of the à la carte menu, plus a little surprise at the end which has not yet been rolled out to the main dining room so far as I am aware.

No, it’s not a jewellery box, it’s just your menu, complete with a metal scroll-holder

We did have a quick a look at the menu, although you can obviously keep it a surprise and take it home as a souvenir. However, I wanted to ensure we would be able to taste all of the dishes I had in mind – by this point I had distilled all of the reviews into a list of must-try dishes – so we ended up adding a couple more things to share between the table, something the kitchen was happy to accommodate.

Bread & Butter

While we waited for the first course to arrive, we nibbled on some good quality bread and salted butter, and got comfortable in our little semi-private enclave.

HAY SMOKED MACKEREL (c. 1730): Lemon Salad, Gentleman’s Relish & Olive Oil

This was a pleasant, light and flavorful beginning to the meal. Gentleman’s relish is the nod to history within the dish. Also called patum peperium, it is basically an anchovy paste, which in this case was quite mild and was formed from garlic and anchovy paste as well as a lemon mayonnaise. The pickled lemon salad on top interplayed well with the smoked mackerel, which had a good texture to it. It was perhaps not the most cleanly plated dish, but the flavors worked harmoniously and I enjoyed it. 7/10.

MEAT FRUIT (c. 1500): Mandarin, Chicken Liver Parfait & Grilled Bread

I don’t think there is much to say about this dish if you have already read about it elsewhere. Suffice to say that if you did not know that the inside consisted of chicken liver parfait, you could easily be forgiven for thinking it was an actual mandarin orange, so accomplished was its guise (for those interested, the parfait is frozen so that the gel can set and then it defrosts naturally). The only thing that was not edible was the faux stem and leaves plucked into the top of the creamy spread. What I will say is that the mandarin flavor provided by the outside jelly casing provided a faint but lovely citric counterpoint to the rich foie gras pâté. Jelly is historically a common partner to foie gras, so perhaps this was the nod to the past that the dish was going for. The bread was grilled nicely, with five distinct lines of char, and was the perfect vessel to carry this little ball of mandarin madness to your eagerly waiting mouth. (As a side-note, I am sure the hotel is not too upset that the this dish has almost become the mascot for the restaurant given the fruit after which it was fashioned :)). 9/10.

2006 Disznókö Tokaji Aszu, 4 Puttonyos

Much like Billy Joel, we were quite content with a bottle of white and a bottle of red for our meal (even though it wasn’t an Italian restaurant) as not everyone was drinking. However, with the meat fruit I sort of made people have a glass of this above Tokaji. Good thing too, because it was pretty remarkable. It was elegant and had a lingering clean finish that kept it from being anywhere in the vicinity of cloying, and it paired remarkably well with the meat fruit. Highly recommended.

RICE & FLESH (c. 1390): Saffron, Calf Tail & Red Wine (Extra Course)

I had really wanted to try Heston’s version of Risotto Milanese, which at Dinner dons a rather more evocative moniker. The table was split on this one. While the rice was perfectly al dente and the calf tail was gorgeously rich, the dish did have a very strong zing of acidity to it – I would assume from the saffron – and while I didn’t find it off-putting, some did. I thought the garnishing of red amaranth was a nice touch. I will refrain from scoring the dish as everyone just had a spoonful or too and it wasn’t mine alone.

SALAMUGUNDY (c. 1720): Roast Quail, Marrowbone & Horseradish

This dish seems to have gotten a bad rap from many people who have been to the restaurant and reviewed or commented on it. I am happy to be contrarian here as everyone at our table – including me – thought it was pretty excellent. Maybe it was because ours had quail, and I think that the version most people have had contains chicken oysters instead. The quail’s breast was very nicely cooked and went well with the little wobbly discs of bone marrow and the roasted vegetables. The dish was bound together by a horseradish fluid gel, which was made from milk that had been infused with horseradish and then thickened. Some people have commented about the (lack of) quality of the salad leaves, but they seemed perfectly acceptable to me on this occasion. The plating, as with the first course, did seem a little haphazard, but I guess this was purposeful. 8/10.

ROAST TURBOT (c. 1830): Cockle Ketchup & Leaf Chicory

There were lots of varieties of ketchups swimming around before Mr. Heinz reared his head (there is cockle, cucumber and mushroom ketchup on Dinner’s menu alone), and this was the historical element in the turbot dish. Besides the fish, there were baby chicory leaves which were quite bitter and some cockle ketchup which was meant to offset the astringency; the ketchup was made from thickened mussel stock, combined with fresh cockles, capers, gherkins, pickled lemons, pickled shallots, herbs and a tiny bit of tartar. Unfortunately, I don’t think anyone enjoyed the flavors of this dish too much, although the turbot was skilfully cooked. A persistent taste of the sea, which was not particularly pleasant to me, seemed to overwhelm everything else on the plate. Possibly someone else’s cup of ‘t’, but not mine sadly. 5/10.

BLACK FOOT PORK CHOP (C. 1860): Pointy Cabbage & Robert Sauce

Our palates were soon enjoying themselves again, however, as the next course was one of the favorites of the afternoon. This was one of the best pork chops I have ever tasted. We were only given a few slices each, but the whole chops are very thick and come from the fabled Spanish Pata Negra pigs which have excellent marbling that helps to create a very juicy piece of meat. The crunch from the cabbage and the punchiness from the small amount of the modernized Sauce Robert were the perfect complements for this perfectly simple dish. This was a case of sous-vide cooking working perfectly. The texture wasn’t gummy and it almost felt as if you were eating a fine piece of steak. 10/10.

Heston’s famous triple-cooked chips

I had forgotten to order some of Heston’s famous triple-cooked chips, but luckily the kitchen had taken care of this without me asking, and was kind enough to bring out a number of little tins of these thick-cut beauties. They were simply divine. Although I do prefer a thinner frites, it is hard to argue that these are not textbook perfect – so crispy on the outside and so soft and luscious at the core. It was a wonderful bit of starch to go with the last savory dish, which arrived at the same time. 10/10.

SPICED PIGEON (c. 1780): Ale & Artichokes

Dale explained that when they were doing their research for the menu, they came across two historic pigeon dishes, one served with ale and one with artichokes. So they decided to combine these. The pigeon breasts had been gently cooked in a water bath at 56° C for 20 minutes, which rendered them nice and tender; however the skin did have some welcome crispy caramelization to it. Amongst the artichokes were also sprinkled a smattering of onions, rocket and thyme, and the pigeon sauce was finished with an organic ale, which was fairly bitter – but this contrasted nicely with the sweetness from the artichokes and onions. Mrs. LF has never to my knowledge enjoyed a pigeon, but she couldn’t stop raving about this one. I had been worried that the sous-vide cooking might make it a very bland dish (I have recently had meals at very accomplished restaurants where this method took the enjoyment out of the main meat courses) but it again worked well in this instance and made for a thoroughly enjoyable and memorable dish. 10/10.

POACHED RHUBARB (c. 1590): Rosehips & Rhubarb Sorbet

The first of the sweeter dishes was upon us, and there was a bit of controversy here. Most people didn’t care for it too much, but more interestingly, all of us could swear that we tasted beetroot somewhere in the dessert. Not that this was a bad thing, but the kitchen confirmed that this was definitely not the case. We were stumped. So far as I could tell, it was composed of a rhubarb sorbet with fromage blanc and rosehip jam beneath it, plus a (possibly raspberry) tuile. The beautifully presented stalk of rhubarb on the side had been soaked in Campari and was nice enough. It was a fresh and pleasant dessert but the taste of it certainly didn’t wow me. 5/10.

What do you do for a living? Oh, I glaze pineapples

I decided to have a closer look at the craziness of the pineapple grilling apparatus, and got a few pictures of the glazing process. It may be gimmicky, but it is a pretty classy gimmick if you ask me. Luckily, I got to taste the fruits (literally) of the poor pineapple glazer’s labor a little while later.

TIPSY CAKE (c. 1810): Spit Roast Pineapple (Extra Course)

This was without a doubt my favorite of the desserts we sampled. The brioche cake was soaked in the most luscious mix of sugar and brandy (and quite a bit of brandy, hence the name). I can never get very excited about bread and butter pudding – although it is one of Mrs. LF’s favorite things – but I would definitely look forward to eating this most nights. The effect of the rotating roasting on the pineapple was perfect as it had been cooked evenly through and was nicely caramelized on the edges. I thought it was a marriage made in heaven. 9/10.

TAFFETY TART (c. 1660): Apple, Rose, Fennel & Blackcurrant Sorbet

We had eaten what I believe was pretty much the same dessert at the Fat Duck a while back, and I remember writing that besides being one of the most beautiful desserts I had ever come across, it was also truly delicious. I don’t know if my taste buds have moved on or what, but I just didn’t enjoy it this time around. The dessert divided opinions around the table, as had a few of the earlier courses, and I was very let down as this was one of things I was most looking forward to. It still looked very pretty, though instead of being rectangular it was now triangular, reminiscent of the poshest slice of pie you might ever see. It consisted of caramelized puff pastry, and from the bottom up there was a caramel jelly, then caramelized apple, then fromage blanc with rosewater. Beside the blackcurrant sorbet were some crystalized rose petals, fennel seeds, apple fluid gel and some actual fennel. To me the sorbet was too strong and the lovely apple flavor I remember from the Fat Duck version seemed to be absent this time around. 5/10.

NITRO ICE-CREAM TROLLEY

I am not quite sure how the white futuristic ice-cream trolley, from which ice cream is fashioned before you through the use of liquid nitrogen, harkens back to the Halcyon days of British gastronomy, but this is Heston, so you have to give him some leeway, right? In any case, the pastry chef came out of the kitchen and whipped it up in front of us. They said they were still trying to work out some of the kinks with the machine and this is apparently the reason that they haven’t brought it out to the main dining room yet. They said they wanted to make it look like it could have actually been a mixer of some kind way back when, which I guess they have succeeded in doing, but I am not sure why they made it look like something from the Jetsons instead of something more archaic (like they did with the spit roast, for example).

Getting my nitro fix

In any case, there was only one option in terms of flavors: vanilla. So we all had this plus any combination of the four toppings we wanted. I chose freeze-dried raspberries, as the above picture can attest. I didn’t particularly like the ice cream itself because it was simply too soft and hadn’t set properly yet (you can also see this from the photo, which was taken right after it was handed to me). The cone, however, was downright delectable, and was made in-house. After so much of a build up, the ice cream was a bit of a let down. I am sure they will perfect it eventually though. 5/10.

Earl Grey Tea & White Chocolate Ganache with Caraway Shortbread Biscuits

This intensely sweet concoction was served in a little teacup (without a handle) and saucer in a nod to the tea-flavored component of the ganache. I found it slightly awkward to eat and it was also a little too sticky and sweet of an ending for me. The bergamot taste came through well, but it was just too overwhelming for me after all we had eaten. 5/10.

All’s well that ends well

I don’t want you to get the wrong idea of my overall feelings about the restaurant from the somewhat mixed thoughts I (and my friends and family) had about the food. Generally speaking, there is a tremendous amount of technical skill that goes into each dish at Dinner before they even make it to the open kitchen to be finished for serving. There is also a ton of thought put into not only the historical inspirations behind the dishes, but also into the flavour combinations and balance of textures within each plate of food. While it may not be presented as fancily (or fancifully) as it is at the Fat Duck, the technical prowess of the kitchen would be hard to fault. However, this undertaking is at the other end of the spectrum from other new and interesting restaurants in London and elsewhere, which tend to focus on the quality of the produce itself and attempt to let the natural ingredients speak for themselves to different extents. These establishments do not employ the technical wizardry (or the 45 or so chefs) that Dinner does. This doesn’t make one better or worse than the other, as the enterprises have very different philosophies and aims, but it does make it a very different experience.[1]

Our own experience at Dinner was overall a very positive one. From the moment we were greeted and seated at our table, we were exceedingly well looked after. (The only instance where this didn’t happen was right toward the end as service was winding down, where things seemed to lag a little bit). Mathilde (@mathildecuisine), who joined us for the meal, was observing Lent at the time and they catered to her needs well from what I could see. Being Mathilde, when Mrs. LF asked the kitchen for some yogurt for Baby LF, she also asked for some too. Yes, this is the same woman who asked for hot chocolate at noma when only tea and coffee were offered :). As with the Danish hot chocolate she received then, she was very impressed by the quality of the simple offering of yogurt at Dinner.

I generally enjoyed the food, but the lows and highs seemed to be more exaggerated that I had expected they might be. I suppose the only dishes I didn’t really enjoy were the roasted turbot and the Taffety Tart. Although a few of the other dishes didn’t stimulate my taste buds all that much, the pork, pigeon and tipsy cake were pretty amazing in their own right.

I didn’t feel like a lot of things were all that new at Dinner (though their descriptors may try to convince you otherwise with their historical verbiage) but I did think a lot of things were excellent. And they made us feel very comfortable. We had a lovely long lunch, with Hyde Park as our backdrop, and got to catch up with old friends in a splendid setting. And you can’t really complain too much about that.[2]

Rating

Ambience: 8/10 (for the chef’s table only; I haven’t dined in the main room)

Service: 8/10 (again for the chef’s table)

Food: 7/10

Wine: the list is comprehensive (as you would expect) but the mark-ups can be stiff, and seemed to average about three times what it would cost you in a retail shop.

For more about my rating scale, click here.

*Note: I have dined at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal once, and it was for lunch at the chef’s table* 

*Note regarding the title: In case you were wondering (I know you weren’t), the title of the review is a play on words with regards to the famous jingle (in America) for the iconic breakfast ‘cereal’ Lucky Charms.*


[1] For example, this other breed of restaurants – call it the ‘new naturals’ or what you will – also focus heavily on seasonality and availability of local ingredients, whereas I could envisage the menu at Dinner could remain more or less the same throughout much of the year, serving what it wants to serve, rather than what is abundant and fresh during each season. This is not a criticism so much as an observation.

[2] One thing I think they should watch out for is not to fall into the same trappings of the Fat Duck with regards to the menu remaining fairly static over time. As this is a larger restaurant and people will be able to return more easily than at the Fat Duck, they need to mix things up to keep it interesting for diners. I would also humbly suggest that they try to at least acknowledge the changing of the seasons when introducing new menu items.

Dinner by Heston Blumenthal on Urbanspoon

Marcus Wareing at The Berkeley – Petrusalvation

Marcus Wareing at The Berkeley
The Berkeley
Wilton Place
London SW1X 7RL
Website
Map
Online bookings

  • Menus: prix-fixe lunch menu at £20 (2 courses), £28 (3 courses) or £50 (3 courses plus wine pairing chosen by sommelier); dinner is £80 for the 3-course à la carte menu, £85 for the ‘du jour’ menu (weekends only), £98 for the ‘prestige’ menu & £120 for the ‘gourmand’ menu (weekends only)
  • You can view all of the photos from this meal on my Flickr page

I was pleasantly surprised by the generally wonderful food I ate during a recent lunch at Marcus Wareing’s plush premises, which still retain the refrain of red Bordeaux from their previous proprietor’s rein. Nearly every dish was unabashedly redolent with robust & clearly delineated flavors that sang on the palate, while service was professional & well-meaning. Sure, the backdrop may be a bit dated & smack of economic excesses; and yes, the clientele seems to fit a particular stereotype, but the food certainly makes the attractively priced prix-fixe lunch tempting. And once you’ve had that, you might be tempted to explore further should your purse strings be flexible enough to cope. It’s not the most exciting or trendy restaurant in London right now, but the cooking certainly sets the bar high.

Curing my curiosity

I had been in London for a week, mostly for what turned out to be an exceedingly stressful and long week of work. However, after visiting Mrs. LF’s family in France on our second weekend in Europe, and returning to London with two days off before heading back to the US, I was looking forward to some relaxation, and hopefully a good meal…or two.

The day after our arrival the weekend prior, we had the good fortune to dine at the chef’s table of Heston Blumenthal’s new restaurant, and his first in London. I hope to post about that meal next, as we had a great time – Baby LF included – and generally enjoyed the food. My only other fancy meal for the trip was originally supposed to be at Pied à Terre, the dual Michelin star stalwart on Charlotte Street, at which I enjoyed a meal with my parents a number of years ago. However, with news that its head chef Shane Osbourne was to be departing rather soon, my dining colleague and I decided it might be more fun to try somewhere else.

In fact, in planning my London trip, I had originally thought about trying the seemingly good value prix-fixe lunch menu at Marcus Wareing at The Berkeley, despite the fact that I have never been a great fan of the current name adorning the restaurant’s masthead. Having never met the man in person or tasted his food, ‘who am I to judge anyway’ is a fair enough question. I guess I have just never liked the way he comes off on camera, or in press comments/interviews, or through accounts of him from people I know. However, I was informed by my partner in crime that the kitchen’s current head chef was definitely a talent (formerly holding the position of sous-chef at noma in Copenhagen) and, as I had always wanted to see what all the fuss was about anyway, it seemed like a grand idea – or at least a grand setting.

The restaurant’s Bordeaux red tones remain the same, even if the name has changed

If you enter the hotel from Wilton Place, just off Knightsbridge, you head straight to your right, through an open and pleasant informal dining space. Once through this area, two doors stand before you, they are opened (of course you would not open them yourself at a 5-star hotel), and you enter a fairly intimate rectangular dining room.

As I was the first one to arrive, I was seated on a cushioned bench at one of the three squat tables that serve as the waiting area, and I must admit I felt rather awkward on my own seated next to two smartly dressed older couples who were enjoying aperitifs and some nibbles before taking their proper seats. After fiddling with my phone for a bit, I was about to order some Champagne as this seemed to be what one should do (and I never say no to some good Champagne), but my partner in crime arrived just in time to prevent a minor fleecing of funds from my wallet.

As you would expect, the dining room tables were traditionally and faultlessly appointed, with perfectly ironed linen, fancy napery and so on and so forth. As many UK readers will know, this restaurant was formerly called Petrus, and was run by Gordon Ramsay Holdings before Marcus and Gordon went their separate ways in not such an amicable fashion. Ramsay recently, and rather ridiculously if you ask me, opened a new restaurant of the same name not that far away from the original one. Old habbits, and aging egos, die hard it would seem.

In any case, the dining room that David Collins designed in 2003 for the original Petrus remains largely the same so far as I could tell, with rich claret being the color of concentration. The metal gridding adorning the windows is reminiscent of a wine rack, reinforcing the theme. Tables are very well spaced, and parties of two are seated at four and eight o’clock. It is a formal room and most of the guests on the day we dined were probably over 50 and all very well turned out. I wondered if the food would be as traditional as the setting.

Tour de flavor

We were presented with a number of menu options, but in the end decided to go with the prix-fixe menu, which gives you two options for starters and mains and three choices for desserts, plus the amuse bouche(s), pre-dessert and petit fours that you expect at a restaurant that is catering for an inspector or two from a particular tire company. All in all, I thought it was pretty good value at £38 if the cooking would hold muster, and even better at £50 with a wine pairing thrown in.

In order to be completely transparent, for one reason or another – either because of our photo snapping or because of the name on our reservation – we did receive a few extra courses, which we had not asked for and for which we were not charged (these were: starters 1 and 3, which came with accompanying wines, plus possibly an additional pre-dessert).

Canapé 1: Crispy Fried Chicken, Pickled Mustard Seed Mayo & Waffle

First out of the kitchen was a warm and delectable little morsel. The textures of crispy chicken skin and soft waffle were appealing, with a slight trace of good poultry flavor and an excellent creamy mustard giving it some verve. If someone in America’s Deep South tried to distil some of the classic dishes from that region into a refined party canapé, this quite possibly would have been the result.

Canapé 2: Taramasalata, Radishes & Herbs on Melba Toast

One of my dirty kitchen secrets is that I quite enjoyed a particular supermarket’s tub of taramasalata when I lived in the UK. Slightly pink, creamy and salty, it always did the trick for a quick no-hassle snack. This version, besides being extremely beautiful to look at – with the micro herbs and delicate radish slices – was miles removed from the commercial stuff. It was definitely the best taramasalata I have I’ve ever had, including versions from well-known Mediterranean restaurants and a few home kitchens. Another extremely refined nibble that was not shy in the flavor department.

Canapé 3: Smoked Aubergine Dip with Mint Yogurt & Melba Toast

Sticking with the Mediterranean theme, we were given some more crisp melba toast in a basket, with a wonderful dip of eggplant and mint yogurt, which was quite ambitiously salted, but this worked due to the creaminess of the yogurt and the faint sweetness of the mint.

I was surprised with all three canapés as I had expected to be served very traditional French or British foods at the restaurant, and we had already been flown to the South of the USA and back to Greece. I was wondering what would come next.

I would give this opening trio of snacks an 8/10 as they were bursting with flavour and pretty original, at least within this context, and compared to my expectations.

Amuse Bouche: Butternut Squash Soup, Ginger Foam & Ginger Crunch – Served with Peanut Breadsticks

Our next course came in a narrow glass that contained what appeared to be some sort of deep orange milkshake, replete with whipped cream and toppings. It was in fact a butternut squash soup, which had a lovely creamy texture and was perfectly seasoned. The slightly sweet accent from the froth on top and the spice of ginger elevated this dish to live up to its appetizing presentation. Another strong dish, another 8/10.

Starter 1: Raw Orkney Scallops, Tapioca, Australian Finger Lime, Wild Strawberries, Lemon Vinegar & Thai Basil

We both received the next dish which, in my opinion, was one of the more beautiful plates I have had the pleasure of looking at in while. Luckily, the taste again lived up to the promise of the presentation. This dish was all about the sweetness of the Scottish scallops being married to the bright acidity and tang of the finger limes and lemon vinegar. Some additional sweetness was provided by dainty wild strawberries and a few sprigs of Thai basil. This cold plate warmed my heart and reminded me of my frozen plate of sea urchins at noma a few months prior (possibly because of the connection between the Orkney Islands and the lone Scotsman who caught the sea urchins at the Northern tip of Scandinavia). 9/10.

Starter 2: Smoked Goats’ Cheese, Shallot, Mint & Potato Bread

Next came the starter I had actually ordered from the menu. This was pure genius and not at all what I had been expecting to find at a ‘fine dining’ restaurant. It was probably not such an expensive dish to put together, but its rich flavors proved you don’t need fancy ingredients to make something taste amazing. The shallots had been beautifully cooked and were hence exceedingly sweet. This allied well with the smokiness that ran through the dish, from both the cheese and the char on the potato bread. The yogurt was excellent, as it had been in our canapés, and the mint – which arrived in both liquid and leaf form – not only added a pretty visual accent, but a significant layer of flavor too. I almost licked my plate clean. 9/10.

Starter 3: Langoustine, Black Pudding, Blood Orange & Leek

Another unannounced dish was presented shortly thereafter, and this one was also a looker. A classic combination of black pudding and langoustines was executed very well, but it was again the minute but flavorful accents that set this above other versions that I’ve had of this pairing. Besides its citrus notes, the blood orange added good acidity to cut through the sweetness of the langoustines and the richness of the black pudding. The langoustines were very close to the texture and sweetness of the ones I had at noma, and they were cooked very well, retaining their moisture and soft texture. 8/10.

Main Course: Cornish Pollock, Orecchiette, Dead Nettle, Preserved Lemon & Olive

Unfortunately, one of the two dud notes in this thus far edible symphony was my main course. I have had Pollock a few times before, and it has never been my favorite of fishes, but I thought in such a kitchen they might be able to elevate this humble craniate to new heights. Sadly it was not to be. The fish itself seemed a little too dry to me, and it just didn’t have much flavor. The same couldn’t be said of the accompaniments, which were actually excellent…on their own, that is. I really enjoyed the robust flavors that came from the green nettle (mimicking pesto in texture), the particularly sweet tomato (did they add a sweetening agent?), some bittersweet preserved lemon and purple olives. The homemade pasta they came with was first-rate too, cooked as al dente as you’d get in a proper Italian restaurant. So if it had just been a bowl of pasta with sauce, great, but unfortunately the fish and the rest of it just didn’t integrate at all and I almost didn’t see the point in finishing the fish itself. 6/10.

Men at Work

Our waiter asked us if we would like a tour of the kitchen as we waited for our desserts, and we certainly had no reason to decline. It turned out Marcus was not in the kitchen – I would guess he was in St Pancras Renaissance Hotel at the then soon-to-open (and now opened) The Gilbert Scott, his second London restaurant – but his head chef, James Knappett (who is on twitter, by the way), was present and had a lot of interesting things to say. I think the three of us actually ended up talking for nearly half an hour, and we learned a lot about the restaurant’s extremely high quality of sourcing of ingredients, plus the serious effort they put into making as many things as they can in the kitchen from scratch (including all of the pastas, for instance). It was also great to see them finishing all of the plates going out at the pass.

Pre-Dessert: Cubed Cake (Possibly Caramelized White Chocolate) & Honeycomb

After our seventh-inning, and eight-course stretch, we returned to our table, where we were met with another delight. I am not sure exactly what this creamy cube of a cake was called, but it was delicious, with a decadent dark chocolate layer on top, and some crumbled honeycomb whose crunchiness and mellow sweetness worked perfectly with it. 8/10.

Pre-Dessert 2: ‘Manhattan'

Given my current city of work, it was a shame that the other real shortcoming in my meal was the ‘Manhattan’ pre-dessert. I really can’t recall much about it except that both my dining partner and I didn’t like it at all. It was a shame considering it was quite an attractive little glass. I prefer not to score this as, if I did, it would probably be around a three and disproportionately bring down the score for the overall meal. My strong reaction to it was probably due to my dislike of the flavors inherent within the glass (I remember something like blackcurrant and/or kirsch, neither of which I care for much).

Dessert: Custard Tart, Rhubarb & Black Pepper

We both ordered an evolved version of Marcus’ Wareing’s now classic British dessert, which originally made it through to the final event in the first series of The Great British Menu television, and, and was served to HRH herself. I didn’t fall in love with it, but I did enjoy most elements of the complicated plate, with its pink, creamy Hershey kisses, candied rhubarb, crispy crumbs and ice cream. The custard tart itself was very good, but I thought there was too much going on otherwise – it all seemed a sideshow, a distraction. The flavour of black pepper did come through very strongly, and I had mixed feelings about how this interacted with the sweeter-than-expected rhubarb flavour and the firm custard itself. I think the original version may have been better, though I never tried it. I would personally pare this down a bit more, at least presentation-wise. 6/10.

2005 santadi latinia (sardinia)

The sommelier recommended a sticky wine from Sardinia to go with dessert and it was pleasant enough though it didn’t get my palate racing. It was also quite aggressively priced, but I couldn’t complain given the extra courses and wines we had been given.

Bonbon Trolley

We were both totally stuffed at this point and, despite my noted sweet teeth, I couldn’t bring myself to sample a single sphere from the prodigious and immaculate bonbon trolley. 😦

A splendid surprise

As I pointed out at the beginning, my expectations were not very high before our meal, and most of the food we were served far exceeded them. For the most part, each dish had been technically very well prepared, and the unifying theme – as there didn’t seem to be a particular type of cuisine being served – was the fullness of the flavors. Out of the all the dishes we tasted (and that was a fair many), the only dish in particular seemed lacking in this department was my companion’s starter of mackerel, cucumber, beetroot, carrot, finger lime and chilli.

Pretty Picture, Muted Flavors

It looked beautiful (see the photo above), but it just didn’t function well as a whole, and was quite bland, with the star of the show – the mackerel – leaving something to be desired. (I must add that his main course of beef cheeks and bone marrow was completely the opposite, with deep flavors that begged to be eaten). The only other thing we both didn’t like was the cute little ‘Manhattan’ pre-dessert, but this is nitpicking. The fact is the food here certainly belongs in a small handful of the best London ‘fine dining’ restaurants.

Marcus, Part Deux

The service throughout the meal, which was delivered by a diverse cast of characters, was generally very good. Besides one person who I think took himself a tad too seriously, everyone was knowledgeable, friendly and professional. The interaction was definitely on the formal side, but this is what you expect at such a venue.

If I still lived in London, I don’t think I would be chomping at the bit to return asap, but I certainly would like to explore more of the menu as I think the kitchen is performing at a very high level. And if I had a business meeting or formal occasion to celebrate, this would definitely be one of the places I would consider. I guess this is proof that you can’t always judge a chef by his TV cover(age). Good show.

Rating

Ambience: 7/10

Service: 7/10

Food: 8/10

Wine: the wine list is a seriously thick, heavy, leather-bound tome of over 40 pages, which has some great wine from excellent producers. There is a good selection by the glass and half bottle too, although it seems very aggressively priced across the board, with mark-ups of 4 times or so common throughout. You can see a list of the wines we had by the glass that the sommelier chose for the pairings with our dishes.

The wines we drank

For more about my rating scale, click here.

*Note: I have dined at Marcus Wareing at The Berkeley once, and it was for a weekday lunch. Please note above that we received two extra starters – with accompanying wine – plus possibly an extra pre-dessert, for which we did not ask and did not pay of, likely as we were either known to the house or simply because they saw that we were interested and taking photos of the food*

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