Making Up for Lost Time — 2012 in Food & Wine

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

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

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

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

But without further adieu

~ Best Meals of 2012 ~ 

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

Hedone (London)

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

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

Oyster at Hedone

Poached Dorset Rock Oyster, Granny Smith, Pickled Shallots

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

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

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

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

Roast Squab Pigeon at Hedone

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

Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare (Brooklyn)

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

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

Brooklyn Fare Window

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

~ Most Disappointing Meals ~

Corton (Manhattan)

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

“Scotch Egg” at Corton

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

wd~50 (Manhattan)

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

Jasmine, Cucumber, Honeydew & Chartreuse at wd~50

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

~ Best Surprise ~

L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon (Manhattan, RIP)

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

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

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

White Asparagus Gazpacho with Ossetra Caviar

~ Most Fun Meal ~

Torissi (Manhattan)
Chef’s Tasting Menu

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

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

Smoked Sable Cigarettes at Torrisi

Smoked Sable Cigarettes

Steak Tartare (à la Delmonico) at Torrisi

Steak Tartare (à la Delmonico) — for the men

~ Weirdest Meal ~

ISA (Brooklyn)

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

ISA Entrance

Welcome to ISA

ISA Bathroom

Welcome to ISA’s Bathroom

Wakame Biscuit with Yuzu Honey Butter at ISA

Wakame Biscuit with Yuzu Honey Butter — this was really good

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

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

~ Best New (Temporary) Opening ~ 

Frej (Brooklyn)

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

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

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

~ Best New (Permanent) Opening ~

Empellon Cocina (Manhattan)

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

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

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

~ Best Burger ~ 

Little Big Burger (Portland, Oregon)

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

Cheeseburger at Little Big Burger

Cheeseburger Cooked Medium (To Order) with Tilamook Cheddar

~ Most Disappointing Burger ~ 

The Spotted Pig (Manhattan)

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

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

Chargrilled Burger with Roquefort Cheese & Shoestring Fries

~ Best Fried Chicken ~

Mad for Chicken (Manhattan)

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

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

6x Hot & Spicy, 6x Soy Garlic Wings

~ Best Pasta Dish ~

Frankies 457 (Brooklyn)

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

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

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

~ Best Pizza ~ 

Don Antonio by Starita (Manhattan)

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

Montanara Pizza at Don Antonio by Starita

Don Antonio’s Montanara

~ Best Charcuterie ~ 

Soif (London)

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

Jambon Persille at Soif

Jambon Persille

~ Best Non-Restaurant Meat Dish ~ 

Courtesy of Stone Barns Center (NY State)

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

Bourbon Red Turkey from Stone Barns Center

Preparing the Bourbon Red Turkey from Stone Barns Center for Thanksgiving

~ Best Restaurant Meat Dish ~

Hedone (London)

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

~ Favorite New Brunch Spots ~

Allswell (Brooklyn)

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

Allswell Dining Room

Allswell’s wallpapers are almost as memorable as their food

Reynards (Brooklyn)

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

Rabbit Sausages, Juliénas, Cortado & Donuts at Reynards

Rabbit Sausages, Juliénas, Cortado & Donuts

~ Meal with the Best View ~

Afternoon Tea at The Fairmont Lake Louise (Canada)

Not much to say here. Just look at this …

View from Afternoon Tea at The Fairmont Lake Louise

Now THAT’S a view

~ Best Coffee ~ 

Sweetleaf Williamsburg (Brooklyn)

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

Sightglass Mora Mora Espresso at Sweetleaf

Sightglass Mora Mora Espresso

Macchiato at Sweetleaf

Macchiato

Cortado at Sweetleaf

Cortado

"Rocket Fuel" at Sweetleaf

“Rocket Fuel”

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

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

Moho River Dark Chocolate Bar

La Tulipe (NY State)
Canellés from La Tulipe

The daily batch of Canellés

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

Cannolo

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

Lemon Meringue Tart #1

Bouchon Bakery (Manhattan)
Lemon Tart from Bouchon Bakery

Lemon Meringue Tart #2

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

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

Dutch Desserts (NY State)
Chocolate Tart

Chocolate Tart

~ Favorite Wines for Every Occasion ~ 

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

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

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

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

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

Pierre Péters Cuvée Spéciale “Les Chétillons” Champagne 2004

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

Sean Thackrey “Orion” Rossi Vineyard 2005

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

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

Happy belated New Year!

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Frej Your Mind — The Rest Will Follow

Published: May 22, 2012 on The BespokeBlog

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunchoke, Pear, Elderflower & Beef Liver

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

Soft Poached Egg, Scallop, Porcini & Cauliflower

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

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

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

Cardamom Parfait, Raspberry & Walnut

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peering inside across the mysterious void…

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

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

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

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

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

The ‘menu’ for our meal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating

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

Service: 8/10

Food: 10/10

For more about my rating scale, click here.

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

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

L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon – Letting the Outside In

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seared Foie Gras and Kumquat Compote with Pain d'Epices

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

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

Long Island Caramelized Duck Breast with Candied Nuts & Salsify Confit

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

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

Cranberry and Mascarpone Cheesecake

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

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

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

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

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*

Marcus Wareing at The Berkeley on Urbanspoon

Viajante – Lofty Ambitions

Viajante
Patriot Square
London E2 9NF
Website
Map
Online Reservations

  • There are tasting menus of varying lengths (3, 6, 9 and 12 courses) and prices. We had the 3-course lunch for £25, which in reality comprised 9 different courses; the 12-course tasting menu is only available from 6.00-8.30pm
  • For the full set of high-resolution photos, please visit my Flickr set for this meal

Nuno Mendes’ new venture certainly warrants attention. Much like the “travelling” theme of the restaurant, it is clear that Viajante is embarking on a journey. Its kitchen has a fascinating pedigree and there are flashes of brilliance, both in the food itself and the design. I am eager to visit again once they have progressed further along their path to discover what it is they want to become. But for now, £25 for 3 courses with so many extras has to be one of the best fine dining values around!

Bringing it all together

True to form, I am pretty sure most London-based food bloggers have already reviewed Viajante, and if you are from London, you quite likely already know a bit about it. Nonetheless, I believe that some degree of context is always useful – but if you don’t need it, please skip ahead to the part about the meal.

Viajante is the newest venture of Nuno Mendes, an intriguing Portuguese chap who was formerly chef at London’s Bacchus and also runs a supper club called The Loft Project. Nuno also notably worked at El Bulli and has travelled the world working in various exciting kitchens. The Loft Project features notable chefs from all over the world who take up residence for a few nights to cook in an open kitchen to a table of 16 random paying guests (for reference, a review of the meal I had when Samuel Miller, Sous-Chef from noma, was cooking can be found here).

As I understand it, The Loft Project sort of proved as a testing ground for Viajante, while Nuno figured out what type of food and experience he wanted to offer diners. The restaurant itself took a long time to develop, and after a somewhat prolonged soft opening, it finally reached fruition.

Viajante, which is means ‘traveller’ and is therefore apt – also because the kitchen is made up of chefs who have done stints at major international restaurants – is located within the Town Hall Hotel in East London’s Bethnal Green.

There, now that wasn’t too painful , was it?

The travellers settle in

I dined there for lunch during my last week living in London (sob), and had the pleasure of sharing the meal with kindred foodie spirit (and actual person) @gourmetraveller. She, of course, had already dined here many aeons before our rendezvous. She said the food had been interesting and that it made for an engaging dining experience that was quite unique in London at the moment (see her review here), so she didn’t have a problem returning for another meal there. Either that or I’m irresistible.

In any case, I am pretty sure that she didn’t tag along just because the second part of her online identity shares the same meaning as the restaurant. Cue snare drums.

I had actually taken my first ever half-day off from work to have this lunch so that I wouldn’t have to rush back to the office, most likely too cheerful from inebriation that my colleagues would be highly suspicious given my otherwise rather cantankerous office disposition. I rode solo on the top deck of red London carriage and took in the rawness of the ever-effervescent East London landscape.

I see a street scene and I want to paint it red

It was a cold, wet and dreary afternoon, and I was all too happy to get inside the Town House Hotel’s front door a-sap.

A classic facade belies what's found inside

Upon stepping through the main entrance, there is a bar through the glass doors on the right, which interestingly is not housed within the dining room, while the restaurant proper lies through the glass doors to the left.

The hostess informed me that @gourmetraveller had already arrived and was in the bar. After some quick detective work (à la Jonathan Ames in Bored to Deathsans the horrible raincoat), I realized she was not there. It was just me plus Nuno and a couple of people who were obviously trying to pitch something to him over in the corner.

Some fishy information got me harpooned at the flash bar

A very friendly young barman gave me a drink list to peruse as I waited for the ghost of GT past to arrive. He said he could report no sightings of the said apparition, but I barely heard him as I was quite intrigued by the sound of some of the liberal libations on offer.

Breakfast Martini

Just as I was getting down and dirty (so to speak) with my Breakfast Martini, she appeared from the bowels of the building, where I presume she had been attending to her own bowels. Greetings were dispensed and a second drink menu was proffered for the good lady. Meanwhile, I was enjoying a slightly sweet concoction made from vodka (normally Chase Seville Orange Marmalade but they had run out so something else was substituted), Cointreau, fresh lemon juice, orange juice (or grapefruit if you prefer) and honey. It was certainly easy to drink.

A ‘Green Traveller’ for Gourmet Traveller

The tardy gourmand ordered the fascinating sounding (and looking) Green Traveller, seemingly not perturbed by the fact that she was taking this name similarity business to a whole new level. Her drink was made using fresh lemongrass, Tanqueray, Green Chartreuse, fresh lemon juice and orange bitters – with Thai basil bubbles to make you feel comfortable that the drink was worth what you were paying for it. She didn’t seem to be complaining, and my one sip had me liking this one better than my own pretty decent cocktail.

Appetites and livers duly whetted, we headed over to the other side for the culinary shenanigans to begin.

Three becomes nine

Our table was booked quite late in the lunch service, and unfortunately the more extended tasting menu was not available at this time. We settled for the seemingly good value 3-course menu at £25. As there was no menu to choose from – the kitchen decides what they will serve you on the day – we took in the surroundings. We were seated in the back part of the dining room, which is semi-separated by a wall in the middle with wide passages on both sides.

A minimalistic yet warm space...

I was digging the calming blues and warm wood tones of the place, and liked the natural light that was afforded by the large windows – although it made it hard to take decent photos of the food, given my still pretty limited abilities as a photographer.

...replete with its own slightly incongruous green fireplace

The only thing that stuck out – and it really did seem out of place – was the old-fashioned green tiled fireplace nestled directly behind us.

I don’t know how much the light fixtures cost, but I liked them

Otherwise, it was a fairly sparse modern space, but I certainly didn’t find it cold or off-putting. It is the kind of room you can tell has been scrutinized in painstaking detail even though it doesn’t seem like there’s that much to it. Stilted? Maybe, but I was quite comfortable at our table, which was well-spaced apart from the other diners.

Just before our first plate of food arrived, the sommelier stopped by to ask us what we wanted to drink. There was apparently a pairing for the meal (also very reasonable at £15), which seemed to be the only option from what we could make out from his very rushed and awkward spiel. So, presented with no other real alternatives, we said ‘sure’. He did initially come across very odd for a restaurant that I would imagine places some importance on the pairings of the food and drinks. But before I had much time to think about it, he had disappeared.

Amuse Bouche 1: House Sashimi

The first dish was delivered on an interestingly textured circular plate, and we were told nothing about what was on it – this was part of the game, I suppose. Although the sashimi looked like a red fish of some sort, it was merely visual trickery as the deep red substance was in actual fact watermelon which had been slow-cooked and slightly charred. The melon had been topped with a variety of elements, including soy beans, sesame seeds and micro greens. It was a successful and refreshing start to the meal, and the textures worked well together to create some interest in the mouth. The only thing odd about it (besides the fact that ‘sashimi’ didn’t refer to fish) was that we were only brought one plate of it, and were meant to share it, which was slightly awkward given that we didn’t have little plates of our own. 7/10.

Amuse Bouche 2: Roasted Broad Bean

Next, a roasted broad bean was presented on a small square black slab of slate. Inside the beautifully presented specimen lurked a cream of the peeled beans themselves, which was pierced by three square shards of São Jorge cheese with a thin snake-like link of pea shoots residing on top. On the side, there was a dusting of toasted brioche crumbs.

It was a beautiful and dainty looking dish and it tasted very good. The peas themselves were just slightly seasoned, allowing their delicate natural flavor to shine, and they had a lovely soft texture. The cheese brought a nice sharpness to the dish, and I ate it with some of the crumbs which added a pleasant crunchiness. This was a very good second amuse, and further illustrated the inventiveness of the kitchen. 7/10.

Amuse Bouche 3: Thai Explosion

The third of the amuses was an Eastern offering. We were instructed to each take one of these miniature parcels in our hand off of our server’s plate and immediately pop it in our mouth and eat it in one bite. I took a quick photo of it, and didn’t really get the chance to ask what it was inside it. I believe that the exterior shells were made up of crisp bread on one side and crispy chicken skin on the other. Inside it tasted of an ever-so-sweet green Thai curry, with a gentle heat that lingered at the back of the throat after it had been eaten. The little coriander leaf was artfully placed on top and the flavor complemented the ‘explosion’ well. It was subtle and elegant, but it wasn’t out-of-this-world. 6/10.

Amuse Bouche 4: Ficelles with Whipped Brown Butter

The feast of amuses continued, and was brought to a brilliant finale with two ficelles (thin baguettes) and two artfully presented scoops of whipped brown butter – one pairing for each diner.

The ficelles themselves were extremely well made, and were probably some of the best baguettes I’ve eaten the in UK. They were perfectly crunchy and had a lovely softness inside. The real master stroke here though was the whipped brown butter. It was extremely light, slightly rich (with notes of caramelization, likely due to the fact that I believe it had been whipped with brown sugar), and it was garnished with purple potato powder, pancetta crumbs and bits of crisp chicken skin. I could have easily continued eating wooden tray after wooden tray of this brilliant combination well into the afternoon. 9/10.

Course 1: Cornish Crab, Textures of Beetroot, Goats Cheese, Leek Ash, Sunflower Seeds

The first course of the meal proper was an artfully arranged plate of food, to say the least. Unfortunately, I felt this dish didn’t quite come together, despite its curb appeal.

The flavour of the crab itself was almost entirely buried beneath everything else, while the ‘textures’ of the beets really only seemed to be one texture presented in multiple hues (crimson and gold). Also, there was quite a high proportion of goats cheese lying beneath it all, which had a strong flavor that almost drowned out everything else when you took a bite of it. Finally, there were simply too many seeds, so the texture became too crunch too easily. There were also some onions floating about in the fray, which were nicely cooked. Overall, it was style over substance in this dish, which both @gourmetraveller and I felt just didn’t integrate well as a whole. 5/10.

2007 Tokaj Dry Furmint, Szepsy

Luckily, the dry Tokaj wine was a perfect match for the freshness of our first course. It displayed subtle melon on the nose, had a nice streak of minerality and decent structure but a pretty short finish.

Bread, blue and wine

I liked this photo, so couldn’t resist including it in the post.

Course 2: Halibut, Courgette, Sofrito, Egg Yolk

The second course was a particularly memorable dish, especially as I don’t care for halibut all that much. The fish itself was cooked absolutely perfectly, and aside from being artistically arranged, the courgettes actually added a nice subtle flavor that married well with the meaty fish. I wasn’t sure how well the deep red sofrito would mesh with the green and white components of the dish, but it did so admirably, maybe because it was quite mild in spice.

Egg yolk and sofrito detail

But the ace up Mendes’ sleeve was the egg yolk, which when pierced produced a perfectly runny bright orange glue which bound the whole dish together by acting as a sauce. The flavor of the little orange orb worked surprisingly seamlessly with the mild fishy flavor of the halibut. It was a fairly simple but genius concoction which I really didn’t expect to work, but which totally proved my instincts to be wrong in this instance. Really clever cooking. 8/10.

2009 Sauvignon Blanc, Life from Stone (Springfield Estate, South Africa)

I found the matching wine to be a rather typical ‘big’ new world Sauvignon, with lots of zing and grassy gooseberry and a touch of something else (maybe peppers). I have to say that while I have gone off this style of Sauvignon over the last few months, it went exceedingly well with the halibut dish, cutting through the fish and sofrito just enough to keep interest on both the food and the wine – it was truly complementary.

Daylight breaking through

So maybe I just like pictures of wine glasses on restaurant tables…here’s another one. 🙂

Palate Cleanser: Green Tea Granita with Sisho

Another dish, another plate and bowl. The pre-dessert was a beautifully-presented green tea granita with a bit of sisho (the Japanese name for the green leaf that is part of the mint family) perched on top in the center of semi-open egg shell receptacle. It was mild in flavor but worked well as a palate cleanser. Neither of us had too much to say about this one. 6/10.

Course 3: Pannacotta Ice Cream, Thai Basil Powder, Hazelnut Crumbs, Apple

I rushed into the dessert before I got a chance to snap a photo of it, so unfortunately this picture was taken when it was nearly half eaten…but hopefully you can get a sense of what it may have looked like (again, very pretty – surprise, surprise).

This was a delicate and light dessert which provided a soft closing to the meal. The ice cream itself was excellent, with a luscious texture, and it paired well with the milder-than-expected Thai basil powder. There were also discs of sliced green apples and some excellent toasted hazelnut crumbs. It was a very pleasant sweet, but not too sweet, end to the meal. 7.5/10.

Two dessert wine pairings

By this time, we had warmed to the sommelier a bit more, following the rather awkward initial exchange. I think he noticed we were quite interested in the wine pairings and therefore brought us a sampling of two wines to try with our dessert.

The first was a sweet German wine (2007 Ruster Ausbruch, Feiler-Artinger), which was made from a blend of Pinot Blanc, Riesling, Neuburger and Chardonnay grapes. I found it to be right on the edge of cloyingly sweet and, while nice to drink on its own as a dessert in its own right, it didn’t complement the subtle flavors of the dessert but rather overpowered them with strong notes of honey, caramel and biscuits.

The second wine was a simple Vin de Table Français (2007 Julien Courtois, Originel) which was quite dry and actually went pretty well with the dessert, though not perfectly. It was quite odd to drink on its own – not unpleasant, just strange. It was billed as a ‘natural’ wine and I believe he said it hadn’t been filtered or fined. The aroma was very muted to begin with, but both the smell and the taste seemed to develop dramatically in the glass after a short period of time. As I said, it was bone dry and fairly herbaceous, although there was some apple in there somewhere and possibly a touch of honey. It cut through the ice cream nicely and went well with the sweetness of the apple in the dessert. I suppose it was a welcome change from the ordinary as the wine definitely had a character of its own.

2008-2009 Clos Ouvert, Vino Puro

The sommelier let us try another ‘natural’ red wine after the dessert, which was interesting as it again evolved significantly the longer it spent in the glass. We couldn’t make our minds up as to whether we liked it or not, but certainly found it interesting. It developed some light raspberry flavor and I thought it had a touch of spice at the beginning that faded away after not too long (or maybe imagined it to begin with).

Petit Fours 1: Passion Fruit & Ginger Marshmallow and Cep Truffle

But hold your horses; our ‘3-course’ lunch was not yet over. After ordering some coffee (@gourmetraveller opted for tea) to finish the meal off once and for good, we were presented with an array of immaculate petit fours.

First, I tried the brown and orange duo which were presented on individual hollow ceramic cubes (each one is slightly different in color and design). The small orange box was a passion fruit and ginger marshmallow with a light crust, which was tasty. But more interesting was the dark chocolate and cep truffle, that had been topped off with a fleck of Maldon salt. I joked that they should make a ‘truffle’ truffle (i.e. truffle mushrooms in a chocolate truffle), but I guess that might be too obvious for the obviously clever kitchen. Anyway, the truffle worked well as you tasted the flavor of the cep, but not so much that it spoke louder than the chocolate itself. All in all, a delightful pair. 8/10.

Petit Fours 2: Crema Catalana

The other petit four was a fairly traditional Crema Catalana which had been infused with some citrus flavor. The texture was spot-on and the flavor was just superb – I just wish the glass had been half-full and not four-fifths empty! 🙂 8/10.

Single Macchiato

Aside from being one of the most striking coffee drinks I’ve been served in recent times, it was a perfect macchiato. I didn’t ask whose beans they used, but I think it may have been Square Mile. It was one of the best coffees I’ve been served in a restaurant. Or I was quite plastered by this time.

Artful surroundings

I couldn’t have been all that plastered, though, because I did find my way to the bathroom, ducking beneath a great vertical rectangular sign (or piece of artwork?) on my way down the stairs.

We were meant to continue the enjoyable afternoon by checking in on Ben Greeno, yet another former cook a noma, who at the time was preparing for dinner service at his now-closed Tudor Road supper club. Before heading out, however, Nuno came over to introduce himself – something I believe he was doing with all of the diners. I was struck by his shy modesty and his seemingly genuine intrigue in whatever we happened to be saying. He was exceedingly nice and polite and you could really tell why other chefs would be interested in collaborating with him. He made a distinct impression.

Refined, ambitious, almost there

As you can tell, I liked the space and design of the restaurant. In our conversation, Nuno had made a point of telling us that every dish was served on its own plate (or vessel) and he clearly believes that the serving medium is an essential component of each dish – indeed, he said that some of their culinary creations had actually taken direction from the shape and textures of the plate that had been selected. This could surely be seen as pretension taken to a new level, but coming from Nuno, it actually seemed to make sense, as did the conceit of the room, although it didn’t seem to be quite fully realized yet.

I had similar feelings about the food. All of it was tasty,  save for perhaps the crab dish which didn’t do much for me. Every dish – including the not insignificant extras – demanded attention, firstly because they had been presented so beautifully and secondly because (just like the Transformers) there was usually more than met the eye. The sheer diversity of the meal made it fun and engaging, and again reflected the name, and I suppose ethos, of the restaurant. While I don’t think any of the individual dishes will make my “Top Dishes of 2010” (watch this space), the overall experience was intriguing, and brimming with potential. And I don’t think you can find any other place in London serving such inventive food for a £25 meal in which you are given no less than nine individual courses (4 amuses, 3 courses, 1 pre-dessert and petit fours) – for that alone, it is an  amazing fine dining bargain.

My gut reaction is that Viajante is a place with a certain pedigree that is still in the process of defining itself, and is not in a particular hurry to get there. I, for one, am certainly interested to find out what it ends up becoming, because there is something very different about this place from any other restaurant I’ve visited in London as of late.

As my favorite poet put it, “Fare forward, travellers!

Rating

Ambience: 7/10

Service: 6/10

Food: 7/10

Wine: I didn’t actually see the wine list so can’t comment per se, but they do certainly have an interesting wine program, with a keen and increasing focus on natural wines.

For more about my rating scale, click here.

*Note: I have dined at Viajante once, and it was for lunch*

Viajante on Urbanspoon

Viajante

Morgan M. – You Can Go Your Own Way

Morgan M.
489 Liverpool Road
London N7 8NS
Website
Map
Online Reservations

  • For dinner and Sunday lunch, the 3-course à la carte is £41, the seasonal 6-course tasting menu is £50 and the 6-course vegetarian menu is £45 – wine pairings with the tasting menus are £26.50 or £29.50, excluding dessert wine
  • During the week, a 2-course set lunch is £23.50 and the 3-course is £29.50, with the tasting menus priced at £45 (seasonal) and £39 (vegetarian)
  • For the full set of high-resolution photos, please visit my Flickr set for this meal

I really enjoyed my first meal at Morgan M. The complexity and quality of the cooking was on par with many better-known London restaurants, but was much more affordable and a wholly more personal dining experience. It’s worth making the short trek up Liverpool Road to sample Chef Meunier’s food. Based on my meal, if the front-of-house experience can be smoothed out a bit, and if the kitchen can consistently turn out dishes as good as what we sampled, they certainly deserve consideration from the ever-elusive Michelin man.

Not just any given Sunday

So I’ve moved to the US. I’ve been here two months and I’m still posting from my backlog of London meals. Because of my penchant for being anal, I am trying to write about all of the memorable meals I had during my last few weeks in London…before posting about anything I’ve had so far in the US. Clinging to the past? Maybe. There are three UK meals left that I’d like to write about – all of which took place in my last week in the country.

But first, something else, although also from the UK. You see, I had the opportunity to swing by London en route to Sweden a few weeks ago. I only had one Sunday, so I was determined to make the most of it. It turned out pretty much all of the places I wanted to have lunch at were closed on Sundays, except for one little place which had always intrigued, yet continually eluded, me. It was the mysterious Morgan ‘M’. It’s not really that mysterious after all, as when you google ‘Morgan M’ the chef’s name, Morgan Meunier, comes up in the restaurant’s site’s metadata…but I digress.

It turned out Mr. Meunier’s gaff was open and, even better, they had a table for me. So I had my plan:

  • Lunch at Mr. M with Ms. P
  • A leisurely, and it turned out much-needed, walk to Paul A. Young’s shop in Camden Passage to pick up supplies for my better half (they make the best brownies either of us have ever tasted, amongst other wonderful and imaginative chocolate concoctions – visit if you haven’t)
  • A long stroll into town to have cocktails with some foodie friends at one of my favorite London haunts, Bob Bob Ricard
  • And finally, a short walk to dinner with the non-foodblogger, food tweeter @jezmd at the newly opened Les Deux Salons (it had only been open a week when we visited), which has quite a pedigree, and then fly out to Sweden the next day

But you probably want to read about my review of the restaurant. This is a food blog after all, not a review of my travel itinerary. So, without further adieu…

On the outskirts of Paradise

Opening to critical acclaim in 2003, French chef Morgan Meunier has been going strong at his small haute cuisine restaurant in the somewhat unlikely location at the top of Liverpool Road in North(ish) London.

Meunier was formerly head chef at the Admiralty, and prior to that cooked at the Michelin-starred Monsieur Max in Twickenham. He has been going strong since 2003 with mostly positive reviews, yet without much publicity, so I was definitely interested to see what this Frenchman had up his sleeve.

We cabbed it to the restaurant from (real) North London and arrived on time for our table.

Formerly a corner pub, now home to modern French restaurant Morgan M.

If I had not seen a picture of the restaurant’s facade beforehand, I could have easily confused its corner location for a pleasant local pub, which it in fact used to be prior to its conversion to the present fine dining restaurant.

Well spaced tables and tasteful decor define the charming little room

However, once you step inside, everything changes. Meunier has succeeded in producing a lovely setting within the somewhat awkward space. The colors are warm, soft and comforting; the tables well spaced; the mood refined yet not too stuffy. Apparently the artwork which adorns the walls (and is on the cover of the menu) is painted by the chef himself.

Our table for two lay at the end of the side that was sans windows

The restaurant was about half-full and we were given one of the larger tables for two near the back of the restaurant along the wood-panelled wall.

Our places were set, and our appetites whet(ted)

A pretty decorative place setting was there to greet us as we sat down, and I slowly began to notice the attention to detail throughout our environs. The green pattern on the plate matched the scarves of the waitresses, and similar green accents were present throughout…on the wall, on the chairs’ upholstery, on the menu, and so on. Although teetering on the edge of obsessiveness, it was all tastefully done.

But what to order...

Our menus were soon presented and we concerned ourselves with the not so easy task of deciding what to eat. ‘Not so easy’ because, firstly, the dishes all had very complicated descriptions – not a bad thing in itself as it all sounded delicious and there were certainly some interesting combinations – and secondly, we weren’t sure how much we wanted to eat.

Choices, choices, choices...

Therefore, we hand the quandary of à la carte or choosing one of the two set menus (seasonal and vegetarian). In the end, we decided we weren’t hungry enough to take on either of the tasting menus which sounded a bit too ambitious given the rest of the day’s plans.

Meritorious Mastication

As we sat chatting, eagerly awaiting our first dishes, we decided we really liked it in here – it had a nice air about it.

Initial offerings

After our orders had been placed, we were greeted with an inviting tray of homemade bread.

Baguette

My choice of baguette was perfectly nice, with crisp and flakey crust and was even better with the high-quality salted butter, which came on its own silver pedestal. A quick note about the bread: strangely enough, this was the only time we were offered bread throughout the entire meal, even though we ate our single pieces of doughy goodness very quickly after receiving them. This certainly wasn’t a bad thing for our waistlines, but I found it very odd, as with some other of the front-of-house experience (more on that later).

Amuse Bouche: Turnip Cream & Trompettes

The amuse bouche was simple yet delicious. It immediately displayed the kitchen’s ability to handle vegetables as the cream effectively drew out the rich taste of turnip on the palate. The trompette mushrooms nestled within were also clearly expressed as a complementary secondary flavor. There were deep flavors going on here and I was interested to see what was to come next. 7/10.

Starter 1: Seared Diver-Caught Scallops, Poêlée of Cèpes, Glazed Pumpkin & Nut Biscuit, Butternut Coulis

This strikingly presented pair of trios was a wonderful beginning to the meal proper, no?

Starter 1: Diver-Caught Scallops Detail – Seared to Perfection

Each scallop had been delicately handled and perfectly seared, revealing a fragrant sweetness that was enhanced by the succulent carrots and the crunchy biscuit below, which provided a good crunch in contrast to the fleshy feel of scallop and carrot.

Starter 1: Cèpe Detail – The Best Things Often Come in Small Packages

The cèpes themselves were excellent – intense, meaty, not at all overcooked – and might just have been the best thing on the plate. I personally didn’t think the butternut squash coulis added that much to the mushrooms (or the scallops for that matter), but it did create certain visual flair in the plating of the dish and represented autumn strikingly well on the plate. 8/10.

My starter was paired with the Sauvignon suggested on the tasting menu (Paul Buisse, Sauvignon Touraine, Cuvée Prestige, 2008) and was very good. But what we found very odd was the awkwardness in communicating with our waitress in trying to select a few glasses of wine to go with our meal. As all of the dishes we had ordered were included in the Autumn tasting menu, and therefore had suggested wine pairings, she simply told us to order those wines. When we tried to politely ask why (and maybe try to get her to recommend an alternative), she couldn’t really express any reason and just pointed at the menu, saying that this is what they recommend. We found this to be a substantial shortcoming for a restaurant whose food certainly seemed to be sophisticated, and we were pretty frustrated with the whole experience in this regard.

Starter 2: Cream of Puy Lentils with a Parsley Coulis, Garlic Beignet

My dining partner enjoyed her starter, which was straight-forward and let the lentils speak for themselves, so to speak. I was graciously offered a spoonful and thought it was very good, though not particularly memorable – the beignet was a nice addition, though. I did enjoy the visual aspect, and likened it to a little island of golden sand replete with its own green forest, floating on top of autumn-colored seas.

Main Course 1: Seared Fillet of John Dory, Jerusalem Artichoke Soubise, Poêlée of Swiss Chard, Girolle Cappuccino

I also loved the presentation of my fillet of John Dory. The skin of the fish was nice and crisp, and the fish was well cooked, though ever so slightly too firm for my liking (and I am being finicky here…we’re talking maybe 10-15 seconds too long). What stood out again here was the deep flavors present in the vegetable components of the dish. The creamy Jerusalem artichoke was an excellent marriage with the slightly buttery fish, and there was an extra layer of luxury provided by the light foam of girolles that was poured on one side. Despite its visual impact on the plate, the taste of the chard did not overpower the fish and was a clever addition for the texture it lent the dish. The mushrooms on the side were also full of flavor and I thought the dish was well thought out and executed pretty precisely. 7/10.

The John Dory was paired with the suggested Sancerre (there seemed to be no other option! :)), which was okay as far as Sancerres go, but certainly not one to write home about.

Main Course 2: Oven-roasted Suffolk Red Leg Partridge, Sweet Potato Purée, Poêlée of Grapes and Savoy Cabbage, Liver Croûton, Bread Sauce

My dining companion much enjoyed her gamey main course. The meat was initially brought out a tad too pink for her liking (I am no game expert, but think it was probably fine except one particular spot which did seem too reddish to my untrained eyes), and it was sent back. It reappeared a few minutes later, as beautiful as it had been the first time around.

Main Course 2: The View from Behind

She really liked the dish, although felt that the portion size was very large, especially given the quantity of rich liver on the plate, which she loved but couldn’t finish. I had a few bites and thought it was a very tasty dish (I agreed it was very rich) that had been elegantly presented – it was a nice snapshot of the autumn season on the plate.

Pre-Dessert: Rice Pudding, Mango Sorbet & Orange Tuille

The pre-dessert was both beautiful and satisfying. It consisted of a central core of rice pudding that had been wrapped by a caramelized orange tuille, topped with mango sorbet, standing at attention in a pond of mango syrup. The tuille itself was good and, while not the best I’ve ever had, it performed its function of providing crunchiness. The rice pudding itself was a little too cold (maybe due to proximity to the sorbet?) and got slightly lost in the strong fruity flavors, but I must say that the combination worked well and it was a pretty delicious few bites that simultaneously stimulated and cleaned the palate. 7/10.

Dessert 1: Apple and Lime Soufflé & Coulis, Granny Smith Sorbet

As readers of this blog may recall, I am not the biggest fan of dessert soufflés, but I liked the refreshing sound of this one, and figured that since their seemed to be some serious precision going on in this French-led kitchen, I may as well give it a whirl.

I can happily say that I wasn’t disappointed; to the contrary, I loved my dessert. It was presented in textbook perfection, with good height, and was extremely light and fluffy. The waitress poked a hole in the top with her spoon and poured in some of the bright green coulis and we were off.

Dessert 1: Soufflé Detail

The soufflé itself was to my liking and not overly eggy or chewy (i.e. not the texture of scrambled eggs) – and as I said before, it was exceedingly light. The crisp and zingy flavors of apple and lime were an excellent match and I really enjoyed the overall effect, although I think they could have poured a little less of the liquid into the center as it was on the verge of overpowering the delicate soufflé.

The accompanying sorbet was Granny Smith herself frozen in a cryogenic state and was again nice and crisp, with the sorbet not being overly watery. The beautifully presented apple crisp was a nice touch, too. I thought this was a really accomplished traditional dessert, especially given that the cards were stacked against it given my personal biases. 9/10.

Dessert 2: Warm Red Wine & Fig Soup, Roasted Fig

My friend immensely enjoyed her dessert too, which she ordered without the accompanying Pain d’Epice ice cream due to dietary restrictions. I had a bite and agreed that it was wonderful. It was the kind of dessert I could imagine enjoying on a brisk night in a log cabin high up in the Alps (we can dream, right…), and the red wine soup displayed a perfect balance between sweetness, acidity and spice. I am sure it would have gone perfectly with the ice cream, and I was slightly disappointed not to be able try it – but hey, it wasn’t my dessert after all!

Déjà vu?

After we had finished desserts, our table was once again dressed with a decorative plate in-keeping with the design scheme – although this time it was petit

Petit Fours

…presumably because it was making way for the seven fours. 🙂 The narrow silver tray of dainty treats was both generous and tasty. I ended up ‘having’ to eat most of them as my companion was completely stuffed by this point – I know, poor old me.

Petit Fours: Chocolate Truffle and Financier Detail

The financiers were particularly good (perfectly cooked with the right consistency), as were the nougat and the dark chocolate truffle (with the chef’s signature on it, as with most things in the restaurant).

Petit Fours: Lemon Tartelette Detail

The real stand-out here, though, was certainly the miniature lemon tart. It was perfection in a single bite. I wish I could have had a full-sized one to take home with me! These were much better than your average petit four offerings. 8/10.

Single Espresso

I finished this excellent meal off with a very good single espresso. Or so I thought…

An ice cream cone for the road

It seemed the kitchen had other ideas, as we were given one final parting gift, a miniature ice cream cone! It was a nice touch 🙂

The omnipresent signature of the chef

The overall damage was fairly reasonable given the quality the food, totalling £150 for two à la carte menus, with a supplement for the scallops, three glasses of wine and service.

Dial M for Meticulous

I really enjoyed the food and ambience at Morgan M. His complicated yet clean modern dishes were generally a delight on the palate and stunning to look at. It is evident that this is a very personal restaurant where the chef is attempting to project his personality and vision throughout each element of the dining experience. I would imagine that the precise execution of the dishes is pretty consistent as Meunier himself is normally there cooking each day.

This M. is not as secretive as Ian Fleming’s...he came out and greeted each guest after their meal

He makes a point of greeting each table after they’ve finished their meal – it’s not just something he does for visiting critics or bloggers who identify themselves through their photographing of the food. While this can be a slightly awkward experience – for example, what if you have something not particularly nice to say? – it is a nice gesture and confirms that you are not eating in a ‘celebrity’ chef restaurant, but in a chef’s chef restaurant.

An easy comparison could be made with Alexis Gauthier, another somewhat iconoclastic Frenchman who held fort in the slightly odd location in Pimlico at Roussillon for many years. He too has an amazing ability to bring out the best from vegetables and gained quite a reputation for his careful and refined cooking, holding a Michelin star from 2000 while at Roussillon. He focuses on timely British produce and his menu changed with the seasons, and once he broke out on his own, he never went back to the establishment – almost eschewing the central London celebrity chef gang in favor of his own unique culinary expression. He has now moved in closer to town (Soho, see review here) but is still very much an independent spirit and operator. The parallels are obvious to see.

Whether or not Morgan M.’s location is strange or not is sort of beside the point, as his food is certainly worth seeking out. Possibly in part because of the location and the small size of the premises, he is able to offer very substantial a la carte and tasting menus at very reasonable prices (none are over £50) compared to other French fine dining affairs in the center of town.

The only thing that let us down was the awkward and uneven service provided by our waitresses. While they were warm and tried to be professional, we were not offered a refill of bread, the whole ordering of wine experience was very odd indeed, we waited for them on many occasions and not the other way around (especially when trying to get the bill), they almost gave my bag to another party who departed before us, and so on and so forth. I hope that this was merely a one-off, but who knows.

What I would say is that, if the front-of-house experience had been smoother and if the food was turned out consistently as good as what we sampled, the restaurant is certainly as deserving of a Michelin star. But that is another matter altogether, with many deserving London chefs still waiting for their fabled macaron to arrive.

Oh, and if you’re wondering about the second subtitle, the restaurant resides across the street from ‘Paradise Park’ – no joke.

Rating

Ambience: 7/10

Service: 5/10

Food: 7.5/10

Wine: I barely got a chance to peruse the wine list, but noted it was French-dominated and seemed to have some interesting and good value options.

For more about my rating scale, click here.

*Note: I have dined at Morgan M. once, and it was for lunch*

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