Monday, July 31, 2006

This Is How I "Iron Chef" ...

Even though business travel has long ago lost its glamour, I can sometimes still find the silver lining in the cloud of drudgery of having to endure yet another series of long plane flights and generic hotel rooms. Or should I say the iron lining?

In the last year and a half, I have managed to squeeze in opportunities in between billable hours to check out La Rochelle in the Shibuya district of Tokyo, Rokusan-Tei in the Ginza district of Tokyo, Morimoto in Philadelphia (and recently New York), and Bar Americain and Babbo in New York City. Whose cuisine reigns supreme?

The seafood dishes at Hiroyuki Sakai’s La Rochelle were as good as I would have expected from an accomplished Japanese chef. Disappointingly, the meat and dessert courses did not live up to the initial promise of the opening courses. Although the menu, with smiling photographs of Chef Sakai and glaring shots of the food bore an uncomfortable resemblance to a Denny's menu, the wine list was quite impressive, including a wide selection of older Burgundies (I had a 1990 Vosne Romanee), as was the service, which was suitably formal yet friendly. The restaurant is sumptuously decorated, like a wealthy grandmother’s antique living room, which contrasted with the tourists in sweatshirts packing the dining room but the glittering panoramic city view was spectacular.

What about the invincible Rokusaburo Michiba’s Rokusan-Tei? Chef Michiba’s interpretation of Kaiseki-ryori (traditional Japanese seasonal tasting menu) alone is worth the plane trip to Tokyo, especially the unique sashimi offerings and the most amazing and tender duck individually cooked on a ceramic charcoal grill at the table. The desserts, however, may be somewhat sketchy for the American palate, e.g., mixture of fruit, rice dumplings, and sweetened gelatin cubes. Be warned that while the food at Rokusan-Tei is quite international, incorporating multicultural influences from Europe, the restaurant itself, including the staff, is very traditionally and exclusively Japanese, meaning that there is no English spoken or written anywhere and the bathrooms have squat toilets only.

Morimoto in Philadelphia was delicious although not quite as innovative as I would have expected based on what I had seen of Masaharu Morimoto on television. The tasting menu is similar in concept to Nobu in New York but significantly better executed, particularly the toro with caviar. Service, however, was a bit on the unpolished side, such as dumping off dishes with no explanation (In New York, service was substantially better, but the food was unspeakable).

What about Iron Chef America? I have not had a chance to try Mesa Grill or Bolo, both of which have garnered critical acclaim, but Bobby Flay’s Bar Americain was disappointing. The $100 seafood appetizer platter was mundane and heavy-handed in seasoning, and most of the raw shellfish items were quite a distance from fresh. The moules frites with green chile broth, however, was solid. The orange, retro-60’s d├ęcor is quite au courant, and the service was as smooth as you’d expect from a notable Manhattan eaterie. After this, I approached Babbo with cautious skepticism. Although Babbo lived up to its hype, I still think A16, Quince, or Delfina in San Francisco could give Babbo a run for its money.

One last note: None of the name chefs were in residence on the nights that I visited these restaurants. Nonetheless, I am still curious to check out Chen Kenichi’s restaurant in the Akasaka district of Tokyo and one of Bobby Flay's original ventures in New York.

Allez Cuisine!

2 comments:

paul said...

A great idea and an even better post. Thanks for sharing the results of your own kitchen stadium battle.

neotokyotimes said...

Bar Americain is less than Mesa Grill. It's too "Times Square Steakhouse" than innovative southwestern cuisine. I haven't been to Bolo.

It's Restaurant Week in NYC. I'm going to Mesa Tomorrow.

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