Thursday, December 06, 2007

No Comment

The Source
575 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington DC 20001
(202) 637-6100
Chef Scott Drewno
Dinner Monday through Saturday

The Source on Urbanspoon

Despite the slow decline and eventual closure of the Spago in Northern California following less than stellar experiences at Postrio, I was still looking forward to seeing what the East Coast expansion of the Wolfgang Puck empire looked like, especially after seeing the posts on Chowhound and remembering the elegant meal I recently had at Cut in Southern California. The following (unanswered to date) letter to contactus@wolfgangpuck.com from November 2007 summarizes my experience:


I had the opportunity to dine at The Source last weekend. While it is a sleek and modern space with an impressive wine list, there were a number of serious flaws in my dining experience. Having dined at a number of different Wolfgang Puck fine dining establishments (my favorite to date being Cut in Beverly Hills), I must say I was severely disappointed. However, I understand that the restaurant has only been opened for a couple of weeks, so I thought you would want to know what problems I experienced, to the extent they can be addressed with further time and training.

We tried the following items from your menu:
Hamachi & tuna sashimi;
Suckling pig with plum chutney;
Tandoori sea trout;
Lobster-daikon roll;
Sauteed crab cake & crab salad;
Pork belly dumplings with black vinegar, chili oil, ginger, cilantro leaves;
Blue crab & shrimp siu mai with Shanghai curry lobster-uni emulsion;
"Chinois style" chicken salad, Chinese mustard dressing, candied cashews;
Lacquered Chinese duckling, wild huckleberries, ginger, glass noodles.

In addition, we ordered a bottle of Karthauserhof riesling and a half bottle of Zilliken riesling kabinett (see comments on wine service below). For dessert, mango souffle, recommended by the server, and the cookie platter. (My coffee tasted burnt as though it had been sitting on a warmer but was still lukewarm; my guest's espresso was also lukewarm and had virtually no crema.)

The amuse of spicy green beans with charred cashews was lovely, and I wish the rest of the menu stood up to that first note. An overall comment about the menu is that everything we tried tended to be too sweet and treacly, and lacked balance. The hamachi and tuna sashimi pieces looked like they had been through a shredder. The rice on the plate was mushy and the over-tall shredded daikon salad on top looked like a presentation right out of the 80's. The tableside pouring of soy sauce on the side? That has to go-- not only did it bleed unattractively into the dish and the rice, it provides the diner with no control on how much soy sauce to use on the fish. (The dots of wasabi out of the tube should also be 86-d.)

The pork belly dumplings and crab/shrimp siu mai appetizers were not bad, but there was nothing distinctive or memorable about them. While they cost substantially more than what one might find at a standard dim sum place, they tasted no different. Similarly, the duo of crab cakes were not bad but unremarkable, and there were several bits of shell in the cold version. The elements and taste profile of the Chinois chicken salad were solid, but the presentation was a mess-- it looked like leftovers piled in a bowl.

The only entree we tried, the duckling, was burnt on the outside and generally overcooked and chewy on the inside, with none of the fat rendered out, so it was simultaneously dry and fatty. The glass noodles on the side were likewise overcooked and stuck together like a clump of brown play-doh, and the cilantro on top of the duck was far from fresh.

The one spotlight on the menu was the suckling pig, which was cooked to perfection with crispy skin and tender meat, demonstrating that the kitchen does possess the ability to execute. Conceptually, however, most of the flavor profiles on the dishes we sampled were clunky.

I wish the desserts fared better, but the souffle was so undercooked that it still tasted like batter. The accompanying coconut sorbet and peanut tuile, however, were lovely-- that should be a stand-alone dessert. The cookie selection was fine but sadly no more distinctive than what one might find at a hotel banquet function.

The worst offender of the evening was the service, which while well-intentioned, was horribly inexperienced (on the table service) and overwrought (on the wine service). For example, while dirty plates were replaced, dirty silverware were not. In one instance, the server placed a stack of new plates in front of my dinner guest then proceeded to move the top plate from that stack in front of me. I have NEVER seen anyone do that outside of a diner, certainly not in a fine dining establishment.

Lastly, the Source's wine director seems knowledgeable enough, except that she was too busy looking around the room to pay attention to the table she was serving at the moment, and her practice of tempering the glassware was pretentious, unnecessary, and cumbersome. Not only did the wine sidetable (that had to be moved around the dining room from table to table) get in the way of the already-inexperienced service, I also did not appreciate that she used up a good 3+ ounces from each of the bottles of wine I ordered in order to temper the glassware-- I would have preferred to wipe the glasses clean myself and keep the extra wine. (Speaking of inexperienced service, you really do not want this staff to be serving whole fish tableside. It was painful to watch the servers wrestle with, bounce around, and butcher the beautifully-fried whole fish.)

The space and kitchen clearly have potential, and the service just needs to be polished up, but someone needs to pay attention to bring these details up to the level of the decor. I thought you would want to know.

Top 10 of 2007

I cannot believe it is already December. As usual, I am behind on everything, including posting. I realize this is cheating but at least it gets me thinking about where I want to eat in 2008.

What are your top 10 picks for 2007?

10. Momofuku Noodle Bar
9. Canteen
8. Restaurant Guy Savoy
7. Terra
6. Pizzeria Picco
5. Sushi Sam's Edomata
4. Per Se
3. Manresa
2. Urasawa
1. KOMI

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Whose Food Do You Want To Eat?

It seems that everyone I know is completely addicted to Top Chef. My favorite episode to date was actually the Season 1 vs. Season 2 "all star" cook-off. I am continually surprised that people are still willing to subject themselves to reality TV (but then again, I never thought that people would actually pay for bottled water) but I love this show. I am thrilled that Bravo is already casting for Season 4.

Having Anthony Bourdain added as a frequent guest judge and blog commentator was a particularly brilliant decision on the part of Bravo TV, especially with Tom Colicchio's holier-than-thou attitude becoming more annoying with each season, which only serves to remind me of my less than stellar experience at Craft.

Like most viewers, I was surprised that Lia did not make it further on season 3, not necessarily because of what I saw but because of her credentials.

Is it odd that I am reluctant to try Perilla because I am afraid I might not like Harold's food as much as I liked him on the show? Same with Tre (although I got the impression from what little could be gleaned from watching instead of tasting, that his food would not be quite as refined as Harold's).

I think most people (including me) are betting that Hung will likely be at least among the last two finalists. He reminds me of Tiffani, not necessarily due to their respective televison portrayal of limited interpersonal skills (I definitely cannot throw stones in that glass house, even if I were not a lawyer), but because they are both daring in a way that I am most curious to try their food out of all of the contestants. The other two contestants whose food I would most like to try are Sam and Cliff, who were my picks for the final two contenders for Season 2.

Next in line of the contestants whose food I would like to try are Elia and Lee-Anne. I just could not tell whether they were really good, or just almost good. (I must say though the challenges have become much more interesting with Lee-Anne in charge of the challenges as culinary producer.)

No interest whatsoever in trying-- Dave, Betty, Howie, and Marisa. They got lucky a few times but they all seemed to share the delusion that their food was actually less mediocre than they appeared.

Between getting to be a judge on Top Chef vs. Iron Chef (well, if we're shooting for the moon, might as well go for when Batali or Morimoto are competing)? How jealous am I of Tim Allen.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

The Apprentice Surpasses the Master

Urasawa
218 North Rodeo Drive (2nd Floor, Via Rodeo)
Beverly Hills, CA 90210
(310) 247-8939
Chef Hiroyuki Urasawa
Dinner nightly

Urasawa on Urbanspoon

Tried: August 2007

Urasawa was everything Masa promised to be, and less, so to speak. I am almost reluctant to discuss price at all because the experience was so far beyond the mundane, but for almost half the cost of admission, Urasawa hit every single high note and exceeded all that I had been hoping to experience at the master's hinoki bar in New York.

Urasawa's creations made me recall how I felt when I first tasted fresh, creamy Bluefin tuna, when that taste awakened my awareness to the sublime beauty of fresh raw fish, eaten at its peak. Or that first really fresh, sweet and briny oyster that needs no sauce or dressing to add to the enjoyment of its unadulterated pure ocean flavor.

I was so entranced by the progression of one mind-blowing taste after another in the omakase meal that I refused to let my brain interrupt my tastebuds to note the various ingredients of each dish. Instead, I floated from one flavor to the next, noticing nothing except the sheer pleasure from each successive intense or delicate combination placed before me. (I even relinquished the sake selection to Chef Urasawa. If you are with a large enough group to order bottles, I highly recommend this approach, as that yielded the privilege of tasting sakes I had never tried before, to match the unrivaled sushi creations.)

I remember the popping of the bright orange, glistening miniature pearls of salmon roe accentuating the custard of creamy homemade edamame tofu underneath. I remember the thin slices of ruby-red beef, streaked with veins of sweet white fat (taken from the large slab of beef on the counter behind the chef's station), the sweet translucent-white shrimp, and generous slices of caramel-colored foie gras, each cooked for seconds in the konbu broth, for the world's most decadent shabu-shabu. The resulting broth, having imbibed all of those phenomenal flavors, was not only reminiscent of the incredible ingredients that passed through but created a whole new dish to be relished.

Next to the giant slab of Miyazaki beef was an equally large slab of dark pink tuna, from which the chef carved out several different preparations of toro-- completely raw sashimi, tataki topped with gold flakes with the interior still raw and lovely, "standard" sushi, seared cubes (on individual hot stones, seared in its own fat), and smoked sushi. The smoked toro tasted so much like prime rib that we kept asking what type of beef it was, only to realize after the chef repeated his answer for the third time that he was saying, "It's not beef."

The clam sushi was so fresh and alive that the edges of the shellfish curled on the chef's cutting board. For all of the sushi, served one piece at a time, we were instructed to eat within 10 seconds of service. I happily obeyed until I was so full I could barely move but could not stop eating in anticipation of the next great taste. I was never disappointed (although eventually I did have to stop eating).

Forget Tokyo, I need to get back to Los Angeles as soon as possible.

Monday, August 13, 2007

The Myth of Masa

Masa
10 Columbus Circle
Time Warner Center, 4th Floor
New York, NY 10019
(212) 823-9800
Chef Masayoshi Takayama
Lunch Tuesday to Friday
Dinner Monday to Saturday

Masa on Urbanspoon

Tried: August 2007

After reading innumerable articles about 1) the magnificence of the cuisine, 2) the elegance of the sushi bar, 3) the freshness of the fish, 4) the personal touch of Chef Masa Takayama himself, and 5) the exorbitant price of the experience-- all of which are reverent to the point that it seems one needs to read them in hushed tones-- I was really looking forward to finally experiencing Masa for myself (even more than I generally look forward to eating at Komi or Manresa). It was going to be my extravagant reward at the end of a particularly taxing business trip, following several heinous months at work. You would think that by now, I am old enough to realize that when something sounds too good to be true, I would adjust my expectations accordingly.

Well, I got 3 out of 5: the fish was certainly fresh (but not by an order of magnitude, as the pricing would suggest); the blonde Hinoki wood counter of the sushi bar was beautiful and so amazingly smooth that if I were blindfolded, I might think I was touching baby skin; and the price of the meal was definitely exorbitant. Actually the price was absurd. This is in the context of someone who has willingly paid absurd prices for the sake of gustatory experience.

Mashed toro topped with caviar, better executed than at the touristy Nobu but hardly novel and somewhat underseasoned despite the generous mound of caviar. Corn-truffle tempura, lovely albeit unsurprising flavor combination and also underseasoned. Uni risotto with summer truffles, much more ordinary in flavor than the name would suggest, with the uni getting completely lost in the mix. Baby kohada, toro, pike mackerel, unagi, copper snapper, and other assorted sushi-- no disputing the freshness, but none of the ingredients were beyond the realm of other good sushi restaurants I have enjoyed in terms of flavor, texture, or seasoning.

Sake is sold in "carafes," which are ceramic bowls shaped like gourds, presented in a dark wooden tub of ice, decorated with small bamboo stems with leaves. While very pretty to look at, these carafes hold maybe 300 ml at most, with prices ranging from around $50-$150 each. If you drink any quantity of sake with your meal, this adds up very quickly on top of the already ridiculous per-person price of the omakase meal.

Why do people insist that this place is worth the price? Cognitive dissonance? (Not even I can delude myself that much.) Have they never had good sushi that does not require taking out a second mortgage, or do only millionaires go out for sushi in Manhattan?

Last but not least, despite numerous reports that the restaurant closes when Chef Takayama is unavailable to be at the restaurant himself, he was nowhere to be seen. I was informed by a fellow diner that during August, he goes to the Hamptons on the weekends. I wish I had read an article that gave me that bit of information in advance. For the price of my meal at Masa, I could have flown to Tokyo and had sushi outside Tsukiji Market.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

I Want To Eat at Chez Remy

How do you make rats in the kitchen appealing? (Actually the scenes look so real that some of the mass rat scenes are kind of gross.)

I'm not one to laugh out loud in a movie theatre, but this movie was irresistible. It also made me crave a Bordeaux-- the Lafite label was so realistically drawn that if it were 3-D, I would reach out to grab the bottle (so was the Latour, but not quite as impressive since that label is much simpler). I'm not sure that how well a Lafite would match with Ratatouille, but I really wanted to taste both. And the special sweetbread dish.

Tastes portrayed as swirling colors... The scene where the critic is transported back to his childhood with a taste... Remy having the soul of cook in the body of a rat...

I LOVED THIS MOVIE!

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Finally, a Good Lobster Roll in San Francisco

Woodhouse Fish Company
2073 Market Street
San Francisco, CA 94114
(415)437-CRAB
Lunch and dinner daily

Woodhouse Fish Company on Urbanspoon

Tried: June 2007

Perhaps because of my less than stellar recent dining experiments, I was rather skeptical about venturing into the Woodhouse Fish Company. I had been so disappointed after the rubbery, chemical-tasting lobster roll at Old Port Lobster Shack, so contrary to the positive endorsements I had seen, that I started with something safer, like fish and chips. The cod was moist on the inside, well-seasoned, and crispy on the outside. I loved that each table had malt vinegar as a standard condiment, in addition to salt, pepper, and ketchup. (Why do restaurants serve fish & chips and never bring over the malt vinegar?) But the chips were still wrong. Standard thin fries-- not bad, but not chips-- which could not stand up to the vinegar without wilting. Thankfully, the tartar sauce was properly creamy, without being gloppy, and piquant, without too much or too little relish.

The fried seafood platter-- oysters, clams, and calamari-- was acceptable but not remarkable. Although the oysters were briny and fresh underneath the fried coating, the batter was a bit too brown and doughy. Plus, the clams and calamari were both on the rubbery side.

The lobster roll, though, was fantastic. The 3 oz. roll, accompanied by fries and cole slaw, is $16 and the 6 oz. roll is $24. I asked for the roll "naked," with the mayonnaise sauce on the side. Instead of gravelly, chemically celery salt, the tender chunks of lobster (with the chunky whole claw meat clearly visible on top) were decorated with miniature dices of fresh celery. The roll was buttery and soft with a lightly crunchy golden layer on the outside. I was really craving a fabulous Meursault to go with the lobster roll. (The wine selections are not horrible, but it is not the type of place that would have an extensive wine list, unlike Swan Oyster Depot; better to stick with beer-- I quite enjoyed the Shipyard Export Ale, mildly caramelly with body, and not too sweet or watery.)

I may have to go back tomorrow.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Food Rut

After a few disappointing dining experiences at both new and old places, I find myself seeking out my reliable favorites repeatedly, rather than risk another disappointment with the latest and the supposedly greatest. Better than staring despondently into my kitchen cupboards and/or the list of restaurants on Opentable, hoping to be inspired by either. Looking at the menus from my recent less successful dining experiments, I found it too demoralizing and uninspiring to write about various shortcomings-- who wants to relive those?

Instead, I have stopped by El Norteno taco truck for my favorite taco triple (cabeza, carnitas, carne asada) so many times lately that despite the throngs of people that crowd the truck daily, they now know me by sight.

I have tried every single possible combination and permutation of the omakase at Sushi Sam's to the point where they had to leave for vacation to get rid of me (but they're BACK).

Manresa and Komi I can't get to as often as I would like due to travel and credit card constraints, but the memories of the meals by Kinch and Monis keep haunting me such that I start to wonder whether I am ever going to enjoy any other restaurant as much.

If Canteen weren't so small, I would be able to go there for dinner whenever I fancy a fancy meal without the fancy price.

It is also frustrating to have to drive across the bridge all the way out to Larkspur for that perfect, simple margherita pizza followed by the ideal dessert-- soft serve ice cream with sweet olive oil ladled on top and decorated with sparkling opaque salt crystals.

So I have not exactly been deprived of good eats but not much fodder for blogging...

Monday, May 07, 2007

The World's Best?

Click on the title of this post for Restaurant Magazine's World's Best 50 Restaurants List for 2007.

Personally, I thought that my last two meals at Le Bernardin (no. 26) were superior to my most recent one at The French Laundry (no. 4), although between the two, I must admit that I do prefer the atmosphere at The Laundry, as the stone cottage in Yountville is prettier and more welcoming than the conference room like dining room at Le Bernardin. I'm sorry if this angers the culinary gods but I find Eric Ripert's cuisine more precise and better articulated than even the fare at Per Se (no. 9).

I cannot imagine that Nobu London is so drastically different from Nobu in Manhattan that it actually belongs on any Top 50 list. Alinea (no. 36) I found to be more flash than substance. I certainly cannot argue about the inclusion of both Charlie Trotter's (no. 30) and Jean Georges (no. 18), although I might have reversed the rankings.

Komi is still better than all of the above-named, and I find it surprising that Manresa did not make it this year-- Kinch's current creations are more exciting than ever.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Bait and Switch

Vivace
Four Seasons Aviara
7100 Four Seasons Point
Carlsbad, CA 92011
(760)603-6800
Chef Bruce Logue
Dinner nightly

Vivace on Urbanspoon

Tried: January 2007

I was quite excited to try Vivace in the Four Seasons Aviara Resort in San Diego. The chef had been described as the next Mario Batali and had even worked at Babbo in New York.

I did not mind that the maitre d' refused to seat us anywhere in the large empty dining room except near the front exit even though we were the only people there for at least an hour and a half. I did not mind that we had to ask twice for the wine list (the first time after we were presented with the dinner menu and the second time after the server asked whether we had decided what to order). I did not mind that the server knew virtually nothing about the wines on the list that was eventually brought to us, yet still valiantly attempted to sell us the more expensive of the two barolos listed.

I was disappointed that the pappardelle was overcooked, although ameliorated by the rich and savory meat ragu. I was disappointed when the lardo in the salumi plate (I guess the chef did work with Batali; the menu cleverly described it as “prosciutto bianco”) was presented in the form of an oddly charred cube, instead of thin ribbons, resulting in a rubbery texture that made it taste like chewy salty fat instead of melting sweet fat. I was, however, impressed by the well-seasoned dry aged steak that was cooked to a perfect medium rare, not bloody yet mostly pink with a slightly redder center.

What made this dining experience unforgettable, though, was what transpired when I asked for the wine list again to order a second bottle of wine. The first wine list we had received was a single sheet of paper with wines by the glass listed on top and wines by the bottle at the bottom. The second time, however, I received a leather-bound book with pages and pages of wines from all over the world. Where was this tome when I first asked to see the wine list? Were they waiting until we ordered enough food to make it worth their while to pay attention to what we were drinking? At this point, you may be wondering whether I had shown up dressed in ripped jeans and a dirty T-shirt. Hardly. To be fair, there were one or two diners in jackets and ties, but for the most part, people were dressed in slacks and button-down shirts, and many showed up in considerably more casual attire than our dining party. It is a beach town, after all.

I let my slight annoyance ebb away when I spotted a relatively reasonably priced Domaine de la Romanee-Conti Echezeaux in that second wine list. I decided to splurge and go for it, quite excited at the prospect of such a treat. A few minutes later, the server showed up to present the botttle: “Here’s your wine, a lovely Echezeaux.” Except… it was a Louis Jadot Echezeaux. So I informed her that she had made a mistake and that this was not the bottle I had ordered. She then responded, “Yes I know, we’re out of the bottle you wanted.” Huh?

Okay, I found this approach problematic to say the least. I have on many occasions selected wine from a list, only to have an apologetic server come back to tell me, after a period of waiting, that they were out of that particular wine. (At one restaurant, it happened four times in the course of one dinner, but I did not mean to digress here into my pet peeves about wine service.) But I have never had a server present me with a completely different wine and pretend as though it was the one I had ordered. Did she think I would not notice? I could no longer conceal my building irritation and curtly asked for the wine list again-- the big one please. I then watched her consult with someone in a suit, who then came by our table and offered me a Domaine de la Romanee-Conti Grands-Echezeaux that was not on (either) wine list. He apologetically added that it was more expensive than the first one. I probably should have declined, but I had already gotten my heart set on getting to taste a DRC burgundy.

It was expensive. It was magnificent. I wish I could say I was no longer annoyed.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Much Ado About Nothing

Molecular gastronomy, avant-garde cuisine, scientific cooking, food chemistry-- is there a problem when the primary point of interest is what to call it? I have not seen this much "controversy" about labels and political correctness since I was in law school.

I will admit right off the bat that I have not had the privilege of trying the cuisine of either Ferran Adria or Heston Blumenthal. I have, on the other hand, had the opportunity to try Minibar, wd-50, Moto, and Alinea. Among them, Minibar and wd-50 led the pack, but if I were to compare them to traditional, non-molecular, non-scientific restaurants I have tried and loved, there is no contest. I would rather be entertained by a sushi chef masterfully wielding his knife than a technician dipping olive oil into liquid nitrogen. I would rather eat a satisfying BLT than a piece of bacon suspended on a wire. I would rather have caramel corn than flavored pop rocks. I would rather sit in a kitchen than a laboratory. While I am all for advancements and innovation in the restaurant arts, this trend or fad or way of life seems to be the ultimate in form over substance.

Not that I find no value in experimentation. For example, despite recent negative press due to reality television, I happen to enjoy foams and find their delicate texture quite inviting in the right context. Restaurants manned by chefs who skillfully apply molecular/chemical/scientific techniques (sparingly and purposefully) are truly enjoyable, like Coi, Manresa, and of course French Laundry, to name a few. This furor reminds me of the thankfully short-lived raw food movement a few years back. A technique to be incorporated into a chef's arsenal? Great. An entire meal? No thanks. Can we go back to arguing about why I won't be allowed to have foie gras in 5 years?

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Printemps in Los Gatos/Les Chats

Manresa
320 Village Lane
Los Gatos, CA 95030
(408)354-4330
Chef David Kinch
Dinner Tuesday through Sunday

Manresa on Urbanspoon

Tried: March 2007
Guest Chef Alain Passard

(Manresa last tried: April 2007)

I have been enchanted by Chef David Kinch's cuisine since I first tried Manresa several years ago. As soon as I heard that Alain Passard of L'Arpege was coming to Manresa to cook with David Kinch, I begged and pleaded with General Manager Michael Kean for a spot. At $285/person plus $95 for wine pairing ($195 for the reserve wine pairing), the privilege did not come cheap, but I figured it was still less than a plane ticket to Paris.

The amuses included the familiar fresh baby radishes with beurre blanc sauce blended with chives and parsley (I usually keep the sauce to put on bread, even though the dark yellow salty butter served with the bread is quite richly scrumptious as well), followed by the tiny gumball-size deep fried croquettes, which on past visits have been filled with either corn-vanilla gelatin or foie gras creme. This time, they were filled with lettuce creme. Who knew lettuce could be so opulent? The wines selected for the amuses were nonvintage Krug for the reserve pairing and nonvintage Henriot for the standard pairing. Both were lovely, with generous refills.

The nonvintage Krug was also the pairing for the first course, a wakame (seaweed) consomme gelatin topped with a quenelle of osetra caviar served in a martini glass, accompanied by a thick slice of brioche speckled with bits of seaweed. Generally, this is a presentation I have never cared for, as I find martini glasses appropriate only for martinis, but the flavors were so incredible, I forgot all about the discomfort in reaching into a tall glass with a spoon. The consomme with the caviar was both refreshing and decadent and delightfully well-matched. The standard pairing with this dish, Sawanoi junmai ginjo sake, highlighted the briny sea flavors while the Krug brought out the creaminess of the caviar. As for the seaweed brioche, although everyone else seemed to ooh and ah over it, I actually found it a bit too cakey in texture and too buttery to be able to taste any of the embedded seaweed.

The second course was by Chef Passard (the menu listed the dishes by Kinch in English and the dishes by Passard in French), braised baby leeks in a foamy emulsion of oyster, cream and muscadet wine vinegar. Displaying Passard's obsession and expertise with vegetables, the bright green leeks were so creamy and sweet that it was hard to tell where the leeks ended and the oyster foam began. Both the standard (2001 Leon Bayer Riesling from Alsace) and reserve (2001 Weinbach Cuvee Theo Riesling from Alsace) pairings for this dish were elegant and complementary with this sublime creation.

Kinch expertly returned the serve with a dish that could only be a Kinch-Manresa creation-- braised Monterey Bay abalone with a slow-cooked soft boiled egg cut open to reveal the golden liquid yolk inside, with sweet beets and radishes, all dressed with puffs of fennel foam, looking like a piece of priceless modern art and combining a host of different flavors and textures (creamy, crunchy, chewy, briny, sweet) into a series of mindblowing tastes and sensations. This dish was my favorite of the evening. On the wine pairing, this time I preferred the standard selection, 2005 Vieux Telegraphe Chateauneuf-du-Pape Blanc, to the reserve, a 2002 Rayas Chateauneuf-du-Pape Blanc.

The following two courses were both by Passard: monkfish and smoked potato, followed by sweetbread with chestnuts and black truffles. I absolutely adored the smoked potato, a tiny brown potato, the size of a kumquat, that tasted like it was made of just the fluffy center of the world's most perfect baked potato and surrounded by an invisible coating of bacon, apparently the result of just the smoking process. It was the most amazing potato I have ever tasted and clearly the star of the dish. The small square of braised monkfish that accompanied the potato was soft, delicate, and not the least bit chewy. With a glass of the 2000 Domaine Leflaive Puligny-Montrachet, I could have died from pleasure. (The standard pairing was a 2001 Jobard Bourgogne Blanc, a perfectly nice wine but it paled in comparison with the Puligny.)

Oddly, I was less enthralled with the sweetbread dish, which is apparently one of the signature dishes of L'Arpege that Passard has not been able to take off the menu for fear of customer revolt, despite his almost-exclusive focus on vegetables since 2001. I assumed that this less than ideal execution was likely the result of the fact that he was not working out of his own kitchen, compounded by jetlag and exhaustion. Yet I was still disappointed that the sweetbread was somewhat tough and overcooked, notwithstanding being masked by the delectable sliced chestnuts coated with crushed black truffles. I also found the ringmold-like presentation a bit dated. The reserve wine, 1999 Bruno Clavelier Vosne-Romanee, accomplished a great deal in bringing this entire dish together. (The standard wine, 2004 Domaine le Sang-des-Cailloux Vacqueyras, did not work as well, as it overpowered the chestnuts which were the best part of the dish.)

Roast spring lamb with dates, kale, and root vegetables, this one by Kinch, was the final savory dish. The lamb was cooked perfectly, with the gaminess both controlled and highlighted by the sweet dates. The pairing was a classic one, Bordeaux with lamb, although this was another time that I preferred the standard (1994 Pichon Lalande) to the reserve (1997 Cheval Blanc). The Cheval Blanc was a bit too harsh despite multiple decantings for days prior to service.

To conclude, we received two desserts-- the first by Passard, the second by Kinch-- followed by the miniature olive madelines and pepper jellies usually served at the beginning of the meals at Manresa. The Passard dessert wins points for originality, baby carrots in a chocolate sauce, but it tasted as odd as it sounds. The carrots were lovely, and the chocolate sauce would have been perfect on anything but. I would have preferred the carrots with ginger sorbet, vanilla ice cream, mascarpone sauce, or even plain, as they were certainly sweet. But this combination I could only describe as interesting. The wine pairing was a banyuls (1961 Andre Parce for the reserve and nonvintage Mas-Blanc for the standard), which obliterated the carrots but matched nicely with the chocolate.

The final dessert, a small ramekin of meyer lemon souffle, was perfect-- fluffy, creamy, ethereal, and the small size kept the souffle from being overwhelming (why doesn't every restaurant do it this way?). To me, a souffle always sounded better than it actually tastes. This time, I finally understood why people are so obsessed with souffles.

Overall, I loved the experience, and I thought that cooking with Passard brought out even more of Kinch's creativity, and Manresa was the perfect setting for this amazing Duo of Chefs showcase. Passard even made the rounds several times in the dining room to talk to the guests, which was an added treat (although I can't decide whether it was endearing or sexist that he seemed to ask only the women diners whether they cooked).

The only thing missing? I wanted the Arpege egg! A comparison of the Kinch rendition with the original would have been fascinating. N'est-ce pas?

Thursday, February 22, 2007

A Case I Could Sink My Teeth Into

Hot Doug's in Chicago, previously featured on Chicago's "Check Please" program, became the first restaurant to be ticketed for violating the city's ordinance against foie gras which took effect last August. Even though I'm not sure how good a foie gras hot dog would be, I must admit I am curious, mostly because I am hopelessly addicted to the stuff (yes, both hot dogs and foie gras). Somewhat outside of my practice area, but I'm impressed with the owner's defense.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Pigging Out at Momofuku

Momofuku Noodle Bar
163 First Avenue
New York, New York 10003
(212)475-7899
Chefs David Chang and Joaquin Baca
Lunch and dinner daily
$15 per person minimum for credit cards

Momofuku Noodle Bar on Urbanspoon

Last tried: December 2007

Fried sweetbreads with sweet/spicy soy dipping sauce with scallions tasted like top shelf popcorn chicken-- absolutely rocked. Oysters were meaty, briny and fresh but the spicy fennel mignonette was somewhat bitter. The spicy "rice cakes" (Westernized version of duk bok ki, Korean street food) had terrific chewy texture with charred exterior that is far more sophisticated than the original version, but sadly the sauce was too sweet. The brussel sprouts and bacon with kimchi puree was as satisfying as before, but this time, the brussel sprouts were a bit mushy.

Momofuku ramen, on the other hand, is perfection upon perfection, with Tampopo-like broth, noodles, and pork, and deserves its porky respect.


Momofuku Ssam Bar
207 Second Avenue
New York, New York 10003
(212)254-3500
Lunch and dinner daily

Momofuku Ssäm Bar on Urbanspoon

Last tried: August 2007
Previously tried: February 2007

The Momofuku restaurants-- both the noodle bar and the ssam (phonetic for "wrap" in Korean) bar-- are reputed to be an addiction for chefs. I was fortunate enough to try both during a recent trip to New York, and I can see why. Both are hip and trendy without being pretentious, with adventurous flavors and ingredients from local farms combining to provide rib-sticking, satisfying food.

At the noodle bar (literally a bar, no tables), the offerings are not only hearty, generous, and inexpensive but also soulful and elegant, with intriguing and original flavor combinations such as charred brussel sprouts spiced with kimchee puree and pancetta, garnished with carrots sliced as thin as angel hair pasta. The compact menu offers small dishes such as smoked chicken wings, fried sweetbreads, and steamed pork buns, ranging from $9 to $13; generous servings of crudos and shellfish plates at $13-$16; and enormous bowls of noodles with pork, duck or chicken for $9-$16. As if that were not enough, the noodle bar even sports quite a nice beer and sake list, including Japanese microbrews and even a namasake ($8/glass; $38 bottle).

I started with the hamachi crudo, comprised of about 8-10 slices of pink and creamy fish as fresh as one would find in a top notch sushi bar, dressed with yuzu and topped with sweet, vibrant blood orange segments and julienned pieces of dark green nori. I also tried the fluke sashimi served with a miso-onion marmalade, as well as the grilled cuttlefish on rice noodles, dressed with yuzu and intermingled with transparently thin slices of jalapeno peppers, topped with bits of what looked and tasted like spicy rice crispies. Although the fluke was the least successful among the three appetizers (I would have preferred thinner slices of the fluke, and the fish got lost among the flavors), I loved the savory marmalade, which was reminiscent of the sauce on Korean-Chinese black bean noodles, purportedly a favorite of Chef David Chang.

Among the noodles, my favorite was the Momofuku ramen. I loved the absolutely decadent thick slices of braised kurobuta pork belly, with glistening, melting (literally) fat studded with tender pork meat swimming in the rich broth. The Momofuku ramen bowl also includes a mound of shredded kurobuta pork-- better than any carnitas I have ever tasted-- with a poached egg resting on top of the handmade noodles and garnished with fresh, chopped chives. I have no doubt that the savory brown broth is loaded with pork fat, yet it is not the least bit heavy or greasy. It was the perfect dish to combat a bitter cold February winter day.

The ssam bar, a few blocks away from the noodle bar in the East Village, is more spacious, including a few tables, but everyone still seemed to vie for the seats at the bar where you can better spy the action in the open kitchen. In addition to beer and sake, the ssam bar offers a compact list of well chosen wines to match the food, including a variety of sparkling wines from Spain, Australia, Loire Valley, and of course, Champagne, and even a magnum of 2003 Valderiz Ribera del Duero for $120.

My favorite ssam was the marinated hanger steak ssam-- thick slices of medium rare beef tenderized by a marinade of soy, apple juice, sesame oil, and spices-- accompanied by two sauces, a spicy (but not overwhelming) kimchee puree and a refreshing ginger/scallion puree which complemented one another beautifully. Instead of the traditional green leaf lettuce for ssam, the wraps were large leaves of fresh butter leaf lettuce. Quite upscale for ssam and quite delicious.

Interestingly, my favorite from the ssam bar menu was the spicy honecomb tripe stew. I only like tripe when it completely loses any semblance to tripe. But this was unadulterated tripe-- the kind that I would normally squeamish away from. A giant bowl of spicy kimchee-flavored broth with rectangles of tender yet still slightly chewy braised tripe, garnished with finely chopped sweet white onion. With a bowl of Japanese sushi restaurant quality sticky white rice and a sake, it was heaven. On the other hand, I was not as crazy about the Momofuku ssam, which although still tasty, was basically a giant carnitas burrito, with kimchee puree in place of salsa and edamame instead of refried beans. Even in the course of a single visit (two, if you count the noodle bar), the kitchen had already spoiled me into expecting something unusual and unexpected.

I was also less enamored with some of the small plates I sampled. First, because they were not small. While I appreciate the value factor, the giant bowl of black truffle chawan mushi was quite simply gigantic and overwhelming. Although the custard was properly done to the requisite jiggly, panna cotta consistency, the size detracted from the quality of the dish. Chawan mushi is supposed to be piping, scalding hot in a tiny cup. That giant bowl could never get to be the right temperature without overcooking the custard, and the truffles and escargot accompaniments, while opulent, did not match as the result was heavy and rich, whereas chawan mushi should be ethereal and light. The uni with yuzu-whipped tofu and black tapioca pearls (the giant kind you find in Japanese sweetened cold teas) was really interesting. Sadly, I am spoiled by the quality of uni I can get in California, and these were rather tough in texture.

I wish I could have tasted more dishes at both places, but I am really not exaggerating when I say the portions are huge. If I had to choose between the two variations, the noodle bar seemed to be more seasoned and better articulated, but I suspect the ssam bar will catch up soon. Sitting on a bar stool slurping ramen and sipping sake-- life as a lawyer does not always suck.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Death Row Meal?

Talk about the wine dinner of your (actually my) dreams. If you had $25,000 per person to spare and the time and expense to fly to Bangkok, would you die for this meal? I might beg/borrow/steal just to get a sneak taste of the wines...

http://www.epicureanmasters.com/web20/pdf/gala_dnnr_menu.pdf

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Mining for Gold at Perbacco

Perbacco
230 California Street
San Francisco, CA 94111
(415)955-0663
Chef Staffan Terje
Lunch weekdays
Dinner Monday through Saturday

Perbacco on Urbanspoon

Last tried: February 2008
Since the restaurant was jam-packed on a Tuesday night, I suspect the restaurant has hit its sweet spot. For my personal taste, though, everything I tried was merely not bad, with the high notes being the vitello tonnato and the pasta offerings.

The scallop crudo with chunks of cucumber and transparently thin micro-radish disks was a pleasant beginning, with the sweet pool of olive oil and crystal specks of sea salt almost masking the slightly tired scallops. The mortadella was oddly perfumey, like hotel shampoo, but the rest of the salumi platter was acceptably satisfying and certainly generous in portion size. The grilled squid was generally fresh and nicely charred, although the bed of buttery pureed potato on which they were served nearly drowned out its flavor.

The agnolotti with cabbage and veal was the perfect combination of sweet cabbage, savory veal, and rich and flavorful yet not the least bit overwhelming sugo d'arrosto. The pappardelle, clearly homemade, had perfect texture, although somewhat marred by the oddly flavored duck confit with citrus and cilantro adding a jarring Asian accent.

Other people seem to love this place. With its generous portions and well-priced wine list, I can appreciate its appeal for a business lunch or dinner, but I think I'm done now.


Last tried: June 2007
Perbacco seems to be hitting its stride a bit more consistently. The tortelloni filled with prosciutto in brodo with fresh peas was well balanced and better than any of the dishes tried on my first visit. The strawberry sorbet was refreshing yet creamy with the right amount of sweetness and fresh tart flavors (the supermarket-type strawberry shortbread rounds I could have done without).

I'm curious to see whether Perbacco will continue to improve.


Tried: January 2007
Perbacco is the new restaurant in the space that formerly housed The Gold Coast, an unpretentious watering hole in the San Francisco financial district that used to have cups of cigarettes at the bar, flouting the nonsmoking regulations. The only remnant of the old bar appears to be the exposed bricks. The entire space, although still somewhat awkward in dimension, has been transformed into an impressive-looking restaurant, a destination worthy of client entertainment. However, with Aqua on the same block and Italian restaurants the caliber of A16, Quince, and Delfina just a short cab ride away, Perbacco needs some seasoning before it can stand up to these establishments.

The first obstacle we encountered was the inexperienced service. Although very friendly and well-intentioned, our server had little knowledge about the menu or the wine list. When I asked about the difference in sauce between the agnolotti with sugo d'arrosto and the tagliatelle with pork sugo, she either did not know or could not explain and ended up just reciting the written contents and descriptions of the menu back to me. After several such problems, we decided that we should navigate the menu on our own. Fortunately Perbacco's menu offers many delicious-sounding options, ranging from crudos and salumi to small plates, pastas, and main courses of fish, poultry, and meat. Perhaps most diners do not order items from each category? After our first several courses, all of the plates, breadsticks, and silverware were cleared away as though we had asked for the check even though we were still awaiting the grilled dry-aged sirloin steak.

The second obstacle was the inexperienced kitchen. Our crudos were served too warm (fortunately they were fresh enough to withstand this minor mistreatment); our pastas were all overcooked; and our steak was so rare that the meat was bloody and pulpous as though it had just been slaughtered and laid to rest for a moment on one side near the grill. I could see, however, that the flavors and seasonings were well integrated. Had the temperature issues been addressed, the dishes could have been quite good.

The upside. The grissini (thin breadsticks) and salsa verde served in lieu of the standard bread and butter are almost worth the trip alone. The long, thin, buttery, crunchy breadsticks are spectacular, and the bright green pureed salsa verde has just enough spice and garlic to complement the breadsticks beautifully.

Perbacco has potential. But it faces a lot of competition in San Francisco to be offering this type of cuisine without some critical attention to the details to make it come together.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Too Much Going on at Go Fish

Go Fish
641 Main Street
St. Helena, CA 94574
(707)963-0700
Chef Cindy Pawlcyn
Ken Tominaga, Sushi Master
Chef Victor Scargle
Lunch and Dinner Daily

Go Fish on Urbanspoon

Tried: January 2007

Nothing was bad at Go Fish. In fact, the New England clam chowder was probably one of the best I have tasted-- with fresh clams that are not overcooked and a briny yet rich broth, not the least bit gloppy or thick, with the addition of Pernod adding a dimension of savory depth, topped with buttery, crispy crouton bits accentuating the fluffy chunks of potatoes and diced carrots and celery. The dining room was spacious yet comfortable, with large windows facing Main Street and a long sushi bar lining the back of the restaurant. The atmosphere and the food, including the enormous (and consequently unwieldy) menu, all reminded me of Lettuce Entertain You restaurants in Chicago. While consistent with Cindy Pawlcyn's background, this impression did not enhance my pleasant but unremarkable dining experience at Go Fish.

The problem. While nothing was technically bad, nothing was great at Go Fish either, apart from the service which was attentive and welcoming without being overbearing. The sushi, particularly with Ken Tominaga from Hana in the billing, could have been better. The kanpachi carpaccio was actually hamachi, and not really "carpaccio," just slices of less than ideally fresh hamachi swimming in a thick yuzu-miso vinaigrette that tasted more like creamy Italian dressing. Although thinner slices of the fish would have diminished the creaminess of the hamachi, I expected something different or unique with the description, "carpaccio." I liked the cucumber and ikura (salmon roe) garnishes on the hamachi, but the ikura were not fresh enough nor brined enough to provide the requisite salty accent. The hirame sashimi, on the other hand, served with wedges of creamy deep-pink ankimo (monkfish liver, my favorite after duck liver) topped with pine nuts and served with ponzu were as delicious as they were pretty.

My favorite among the sampled dishes was the seared scallop topped with seared foie gras served in a nest of kaitafi-- sweet, crispy shredded phyllo dough-- accompanied by hearts of palm and wedges of grapefruit and orange. It was rich, sweet, savory, and refreshing all at the same time. If I had a complaint about this dish, it would be that I wanted more of the perfectly seared and seasoned foie gras. I did not try the shellfish raw bar items, the soup of the day, sandwiches, ceviche, sweetbreads, steak, the Japanese noodles or the tempura.

The featured item on the menu, "Fish Your Way," included five different fish selections ranging in price from $18-$27, prepared in one of three cooking methods (sauteed, poached or grilled) with the diner's choice of sauce-- a la Tom Colicchio's menu styling at Craft-- scallion ginger sauce, tartar sauce, red wine fumet (concentrated fish stock infused with leeks, onion, celery), lemon caper brown butter, olive and piquillo pepper tapenade, and ginger curry butter. This does not include any side dish which must be ordered a la carte, but both the fish and the side dishes are quite generous in portion. I selected the opakapaka, poached, and asked that the chef select whatever sauce would go best with the preparation. The result was not bad, even though the electric green scallion ginger sauce was undersalted and the fish overcooked, and the opakapaka was quite fresh, which I appreciated. I preferred the Pacific Snapper, with its crispy sauteed skin, in a clear carrot-ginger broth, even though this too was underseasoned. The broth was soothing and the thin slices of sunchoke, radish, and carrot garnishing the fish were vibrant.

For dessert, I tried the lemon verbena panna cotta with quince doughnut and huckleberry compote. The flavor of the panna cotta was nice but the texture was too thick such that it seemed more like a custard, and both the huckleberry compote and the quince doughnut were a bit on the too-sour side.

I guess I was expecting more from the announcement that Scargle had become involved with this venture. Since he is not even listed on the web site, I am wondering whether this is just an interim gig for him until he finds something more stable and permanent, given the rumors about the financial viability of COPIA, where his previous restaurant, Julia's Kitchen, was housed. I'm glad I tried it and may even go back if Scargle remains long enough to streamline the menu and add his own touch.

Ambivalent About Momofuku

First, am I the only person who thinks "Momofuku" does not mean Lucky Peach or refer to the name of some obscure ramen person from...