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Posts from — January 2009

POD: Vlaamse Frieten @ Chipsy King (Amsterdam)

Here’s what I learned this summer. French fries are French in name only and fries in France are the suck. Belgians may have invented fries, but their fries are nothing special. Fries in Netherlands appear to be a national obsession and fries in Amsterdam are completely awesome.  There is a fry shop on every block and fries are all they sell.

I tried a place local chowhounds agree is better than most, but the best fries I found were in a shop on the edge of the Red Light district called Chipsy King (maybe that shouldn’t be a huge surprise).

Case closed. Amsterdam for teh win.

January 30, 2009   7 Comments

L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon (London)

The 2009 edition of the UK Michelin guide was released last week and Joel Robuchon added yet another star for his L’Atelier in London. Ironically, Robuchon has told the Michelin people to piss off, saying "as long as Michelin remains stuck in the past, I have no interest in being mentioned in it".  Today he has more stars than any chef in the universe.

Not everyone is thrilled with what Joe Robuchon is doing with his haute chain. Many people say the Paris location in particular isn’t up to the task . I visited the L’Atelier in London a while ago and thought both the food and the concept are fantastic.

High end cooking is usually reserved for special occasion restaurants. Places where you make a reservation weeks in advance, wear your most uncomfortable clothes, spend a small fortune on a meal and spend hours in company of not always attentive servers who make you feel as if you are lucky to be in their presence. Take the special out of the occasion and fine dining for the sake of food is a full time job. Tedious, predictable and mildly annoying.

With his L’Atelier concept Joel Robuchon turns the whole thing on it’s head. There is a dining room, but the best seat in the house is at the bar in front of an open kitchen. The whole thing resembles a sushi bar, though the fish has been replaced by dramatic displays of produce and a giant leg of jamon iberico mounted in a stainless steel harness.

Most of the menu consists of small plates (the ham isn’t the only nod to Spain), few large mains and desserts. You are just as likely to share the counter with someone who popped into L’Atelier for a snack as someone demolishing  a 12 course meal.

I didn’t do my usual romp through the menu and ordered a more reasonable lunch instead. It wasn’t cheap, but it was less expensive than what you’d usually spend for meal prepared at this level. The dishes had fancy French names, but were remarkably focused and restrained.

The starter with daunting name of “Le Jambon "Iberico de Bellota’ taille par nos soins escorte de pain toaste a la tomate” turned out to be few sublime shavings of the best ham in the world. It looks like this and it was delicious all on it’s own.

I still don’t really know what a cocotte is, but I ordered the “L’Oeuf cocotte a la creme legere de champingnons des sous-bois” and got a egg something or the other topped with wild mushroom froth. It was light, it was bursting with flavor and it tasted of egg yolk. To this date I think it rivals the L’Arpege egg as a perfect way to start every meal.

 La Caille au foie gras et caramelisse
avec une pomme puree truffee

The foie stuffed quail was very well prepared – tender and crisp in all the right parts – but the Robuchon’s signature mashed potatoes (rumored to have an obsene amount of butter) were in a league of their own. They remain a reference point for potato dishes for me.

I closed out with “un dessert je ne me souviens pas”, loosely translated as some dessert I no longer remember. I am pretty sure it had lemon and meringue.

L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon may be a chain, but it’s a chain I’d be thrilled to have in my home town (not happening). Despite having similar menus, apparently not all locations are the same and some cook at a very high level, which explains why someone from Paris would spend their time going to a French chain in New York. It also explains why Robuchon continues to amass Michelin stars without even trying.

January 26, 2009   6 Comments

POD: Smoked Ocean Trout @ Tetsuya’s

In a few hours I am leaving Sydney and getting on a plane back home, though not before stopping by Manresa for one final meal of this trip. No visit to Australia seems complete without an unfortunate a streak of disappointing meals, but unlike last year there were just as many great meals to balance them out.

Brent Savage at the Bentley Restaurant continues to be one of my favorite chefs anywhere. I love everything about Bentley, serious food served without the prerequisite bullshit that usually comes with it, truly creative dishes that let superior ingredients speak for themselves when the time is right, the fact that it can pull off a liquid nitrogen Hemingway without coming across as a gimmick,  and the very idea of a $50AU 8 course lunch in a city like Sydney. Or Houston, now that I think about it.

Quay was everything L2O should have been, with really strong dishes built around great fish and produce at the same level as Manresa (and better than L’Arpege). No one seems to have heard of Peter Gilmore outside of Australia and he deserves far more credit than he currently gets.

And finally, despite where the Restaurant Magazine ranks Tetsuya’s in comparison to others, I thought my meal there was better than French Laundry and one of the best I have had anywhere. Food should put you in your happy place and Tetsuya’s did just that. I am going back to all three next time I am back in these waters.

IMG_9409 Smoked trout, avruga caviar, egg yolk

Until I get all the pictures up, you will have to make do with just one. The smoked trout and avruga caviar was one of the best dishes at Tetsuya’s. Avruga caviar is a bit of nonsense (it’s actually herring roe), but the real standout here was the frozen yolk that tasted as if it has been slowly poached to soft boiled egg consistency. The dish had the texture and flavor of perfectl breakfast of eggs, smoked fish and caviar.

More to come later.

January 17, 2009   2 Comments

Anonymity bites

I received a comment from a lady named Jenn that may deserve it’s own post. Here’s what Jenn said:

Misha, I’m not sure if I can take your reviews as a guide for restaurant going, y’know? Cafe Annie last night was a bit of a disappointment… service was incredibly disappointing (we had to ask for a wine menu, then actually had to ask for the wine we had ordered to be brought out!!!), food was fine but not exceptional. On the other hand Glass Wall last week was AWESOME. It’s almost like Ruth Reichl’s infamous “favored patron” vs. “normal person” experiences. Though I do like reading what you write just to get a take on what it must be like to be one of those people who the chef comes out to visit while you dine…

And my reply:

Jenn – I don’t know if you should take what I write as a definitive dining guide, if such a thing exists. I am not a reviewer, in fact I work for a software company. Food is a hobby for me and this is as much of a journal of personal experiences as anything.

There are other things you have to keep in mind. I don’t care about service and I don’t drink, so my restaurant experiences are very different from people who find those things important. I know a grand total of 4 chefs in Houston and that’s only because they have blogs and all 4 of them have spent significant time at the Tenacity dinners. They currently work at Rainbow Lodge, Voice, Textile and Beaver’s. I have also met the folks at Feast, but that happens when you go to a restaurant a dozen times or more.

Finally, every time you sit down for lunch or dinner is different. It’s very difficult for a restaurant to have a 100% consistently good kitchen (consistently bad is another story). My whole point about Cafe Annie was that I never found it especially impressive, as you found yourself. The two business lunches I had were within 30 days of each other and each time I ordered pan seared fish, which was exceptionally selected and handled. It could very well have been prepared by the same line cook (who may become the best chef in Houston in the future), who only works during lunch and has since rotated to a different station or maybe even another restaurant, like the Glass Wall. I’ve had a number of meals at Cafe Annie and the Grove and in my opinion Robert Del Grande minds the business more than the kitchen. Nothing wrong with that, but I don’t go to his restaurants unless someone else is paying at this point. That sort of thing works quite well for a business meal.

As for Glass Wall, I have only been once. The chef used a coffee rub on a steak that burned pretty badly. I thought it was a poor choice, unless you have a kitchen that knows how not to turn things into charcoal on the grill. I haven’t been back for a variety of reasons. The place is too loud for a business meal. They don’t serve any vegetarian food for a dinner with my wife. So I haven’t been back. It doesn’t mean its a bad restaurant, it means that through a confluence of factors the one thing I ordered there once wasn’t great.

I don’t know if any of this helps, but that’s all I have right now:)

Having said all that, I do not believe anonymity is all it’s cracked up to be. It’s an important part of food reviewers ethics guidelines, but bloggers aren’t food reviewers. I do this for fun.

I have a singular goal – to have a superlative dining experience with every meal. If that requires buying the tasting menu, because it’s the most expensive item on the menu and may cause the kitchen to pay closer attention to what it puts out, then that’s what it takes. I want the “A team” cooking every time I eat and I am willing to pay for it.

If that means ordering overpriced specials that sound like they don’t belong on the regular menu, then I’ll do that. There is a good chance the chef took a chance on a dish and put special care in sourcing the ingredients. Sometimes it blows up in my face, but it’s worth the risk. I take the lumps and move on.

Sydney 158 Live scallop crudo at Icebergs on Bondi Beach in Sydney

This scallop crudo was one of the very best things I’ve eaten last year – impossibly fresh and sweet, with an almost crisp texture. Even the freshly opened live scallops at sushi bars somehow don’t come close.

Sydney 144

Would you expect something like this from a place that caters to people more interested in the view than the food?
(the rest of the food was painfully average)

Sydney 155

Sometimes it requires knowing the chef personally. They spend their days cooking for people who only go to the restaurant because it impresses their clients. Many of their customers care more about how they are served, rather than what they eat. I am sure they get requests for steaks and burgers more than they would like to admit. I want the people making the food to know I am there only for them and I will eat things they would not dream of serving their other customers, if they think it tastes good. That requires a personal relationship. It’s no different than becoming familiar with a sushi chef and ordering omakase ten times in a row before he gives you the bits he usually keeps for himself.

There is nothing wrong ab0ut the way I approach eating. If everyone did the same, restaurants would be very different than they are today and many of the best chefs would be much happier. So go ahead. Tell the chef you are really into food and you’ll eat anything he puts in front of you. You’ll be one of his very best friends for the next hour.

January 11, 2009   5 Comments

Going down under

A year after my first trip to Sydney, I am back. This is a great city and worth every minute of the painful flight you have to endure when crossing the Pacific. 

Eating plans for this trip aren’t as ambitious as my visit to Europe in the summer, but there are some definite highlights. The one I am looking forward to most is Tetsuya’s, which has been hovering in the Top 5 position on the Restaurant Magazine list for years. I underestimated the need to call at least a month ahead for a reservation last year, but this time I come prepared and armed with a much stronger US dollar (hard to believe, but true).

More important than Tetsuya’s ranked among the restaurant glitterati is that the meal will focus the best in Australian and Japanese seafood. If there is anything I learned about Australia last year is that the quality of seafood is outstanding.

Sydney 125 
The amazing display at the Sydney Fish Market, second largest in the world outside of Tokyo in range of species, is a post in itself.

Sydney 141 
A trip to Yoshii, est. and Marque may be in the cards as well, though Oscillate Wildly is still booked out a month in advance, so it seems unlikely.

I plan to revisit Bentley, which was a sleeper hit last year in the “neighborhood molecular gastronomy bar” category. I will probably make time for Rise, which does a nice and rather informal kaiseki menu a few nights a week. I will definitely be back at Pizza Mario, which puts out flawless VPNA certified Neapolitan pies out of a small storefront located in the back of a residential tower.

 
Viva Goa, Sydney

With all the promising restaurants I sampled last year (Neil Perry’s Rockpool was a total bust), surprisingly the place I am looking forward to revisiting most is Viva Goa, which produced one of the best Indian meals I have ever had. I see an occasional Goan curry on Indian menus, but this is really the first place devoted to it as a cuisine.

The restaurant is located in a beat down part of Pyrmont in Sydney that cabs abandon as soon as they drop off their fare. But the chef is the real deal, so devoted to Goan cuisine that the sole North Indian dish (butter chicken) comes with a written apology in the description. The cooking is inspired, taking no shortcuts with the ingredients or the flavors. 

 
Swimmer crab at Viva Goa

I do not know if it was the access to great local seafood, the interesting blend of Indian and Portuguese cuisines, where chorizo shares the plate with curry and bacalhau on the menu, or simply the fact that it was the only strongly spiced food I was able to find in Sydney, but the dinner I had at Viva Goa delivered on every level.

Stay tuned.

January 9, 2009   4 Comments