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Welcome to tastingmenu.com. My repository for thoughts and notes on my eating experiences. Hopefully you'll find something enjoyable, entertaining, or informative. Click here to see where I'm coming from.

 

Thursday, October 30, 2003, 10:55 AM


02-welcome.jpgMy friend Roee considers himself a food expert. Actually he considers himself an expert on a variety of things. He tells us that he lives the life of a world traveler going to medical school in London, interning in Africa, and starting out as a physician in New York. For some reason there's always a sense that just maybe he's making stuff up. But his stories are so entertaining and creative that they're enjoyable nonetheless. That said, if his restaurant recommendations for New York and London are any indication of a) his expertise, and/or b) the veracity of his stories, then believe every word he says. He is almost always on the money when it comes to sending us out to eat.

On this night we followed Roee's advice and found ourselves at Archipelago. We  didn't know what it would be other than a fleeting thought that maybe we'd be eating some food found in the Galapagos. What we found is an eclectic mix of cuisines and ingredients from ethnic cuisines from across the world. This is not your French/Chinese fusion restaurant. This is food from the tier of cuisines that hasn't gone through complete commercialization and globalization (yet) including: Tunisian, Singaporean, Jamaican, Persian, and Hungarian. Some are not even in that second tier requiring a trip to the home country or to a Manhattan to taste what it's all about. The animal ingredients are also diverse including peacock, crocodile, frog, kangaroo, and baby bee. All these interesting ingredients both cultural and literal combine in an environment that mixes varieties of tribal and ethnic art to create a cozy, friendly, and yet intricately textured home of the eclectic. Right above the entry to the restaurant, and under its name, is the phrase "exploring the exotic". The downstairs kitchen sending food to the dining area on a dumb waiter was also a cute touch.

Things started off smashingly (hey, this is England, I can say "smashingly") with the Incan Bread Boat. This included garlic salt focaccia, walnut bread, and sweet bread with raisins and sesame seeds. While I carefully avoided the raisins, the breads were quite diverse and delicious. Canapes arrived next including: fried parsnip with hot and sour sauce and greek yogurt sauce, as well as roast pepper bruschetta with cheese, and finally chicken salad with mandarin orange. Debbie fell in love with the spicy hot and our sauce. And rightly so. The sauce had a deep deep flavor with sweet honey, a touch of sour, and a touch of fire that gradually hits you - the "sweet chili dip" was great. When we asked how they made the sauce, the owner told us that a little old Thai lady in the kitchen cooks the chili sauce for two days reducing and reducing it until it's ready for our table. The red pepper also came through with bright flavors in the bruschetta.

Appetizers included the Cayman Islands - crocodile seared in vine leaves with yellow plum sauce, and Persian Drake - caramelized wild duck breast, with pomegranate and pistachio salad. The alligator was good, but neither of us were psyched about the grape leaf that it came in. Just not our favorite flavor. The cool part though was that they looked like little alligators. The duck had excellent deep flavor and texture. The pomegranates were yummy like dried blueberries.

Granates came next to cleanse our palate from the strong flavors including key lime and  black pepper. We got strawberry and blood orange. While I'm the first to advocate trying something new (black pepper ice) my deep and abiding love of all things blood orange. And sure enough it was deep, rich, light, and fruity with tiny chunks of ice. It was not smooth in a good way, and absolutely yummy.

 Next up was the Jamaican Mountain Chicken, a.k.a. wok-seared frog, cashew and callaloo with lavender rice. It was great especially the perfectly battered and fried legs which arrive on the bone resting gently on top of the dish. The rice was simply perfect, with great aroma and texture. The wok-fried frog was so tender and the cashews were a great balance in flavor and texture. The Hungarian Chili Pig quickly followed -  flash-fried honey and chili pork loin with citrus cous cous. It was fantastic; sweet, spicy, with Caribbean and African flavors. And the lime couscous and yogurt sauce were a perfect complement to the spiciness of the pork.

There were a couple of distractions, a horrible delay between the appetizers and the entrees. really spicy food with no air conditioning in the middle of a heatwave, and of course the super gross impossible to avoid smoking found almost everywhere in Europe. That said, we really enjoyed our meal and would definitely go back many times. Even though we passed on the chocolate covered scorpion (who wants chocolate in 90 degree weather) who knows, maybe next time.

 

Sunday, October 26, 2003, 12:35 AM


For Seattle readers, the 2003 Sushi and Sake Fest is happening on Wednesday October 29, 2003 from 5:00 - 8:30PM at the Grand Hyatt in Seattle. In a city with sushi perfection like Nishino, why go to a Sushi and Sake Fest? Well Nishino will be there. And if you ever get the itch to compare to other Sushi restaurants you'll be able to as many will be there including Rikki Rikki, Sushiman, Wasabi Bistro, and others. It's $50 - $100 for tickets. Contact (206) 320-1010 for more info.

With the demise of commercial supersonic travel, it got me thinking that affordable supersonic travel is something that we really need in my lifetime. To speed transplantable organs to patients in need in time to save their lives? So the NBA can expand to Europe and Asia? All fine with me, but not my top priority. Why can't I go to Hong Kong for lunch, and Paris for dinner? I'd even compromise that I wouldn't be able to do that particular itinerary in the same day.

The Concorde flew from New York City to Paris in about three-and-a-half hours compared to seven for a Boeing 747. Even that's not fast enough. I want super supersonic travel. I want to be two hours from essentially everywhere. I'll settle for three hours to places that are really halfway across the planet. And I want to pay $100 roundtrip. Some people might say I'm being silly, but it's not like I'm asking to spontaneously grow wings or be able to breathe underwater without any help. Technology should be able to solve this problem. The only question is when it will be affordable so that I can head to Italy for a quick bite and be back in Seattle in time for bed.

 

Saturday, October 25, 2003, 3:35 PM


12-eggs.jpgMy first introduction to the fancy department store supermarket was in Tokyo. Multi-story department store after department store fills its basement with high-end impressions of open-air markets delivering endless variety of lone ingredients and prepared items. I didn't realize at the time that the inspiration for this extravaganza was the food emporium at Harrods department store in London. Much like Tokyo's finest, Harrods has a large variety of counters offering high quality items from vegetables to chocolates, and hams to sushi. Harrods, with it's classic flair, themes major rooms with different decor. The selection is broad (ostrich eggs anyone?), the prices are high, and the experience is fun. That said, while there are various counters at which you can sit, the finger food aspect that I love so much in Tokyo department stores is not quite as strong in Harrod's. Still if you're in London, don't miss it. Outside of the food "zone" itself there's also several restaurants including a creperie that made us delicious dessert.

(Note: the rules mean nothing to me when it comes to getting you pictures of great food from around the planet.)

 

Thursday, October 23, 2003, 10:47 PM


03-olives.jpgOK. We're in London for a month. We're trying to eat out as much as humanly possible. Thousands of restaurants in London and the laws of time and space as well as the unfortunately average size of our stomach cavities mean that we have to be choosy. Luckily, choosiness on this day led us to Momo. "Momo" is Mourad Mazouz, Algerian native. "Momo" is also a little slice of North Africa located in London. With a little market next door you walk up to Momo's and you're transported. It's super "done" with north African decor and music getting you in the mood for a great meal.

The staff was friendly and happy to make us comfortable seating us on some big pillowy seating, and giving us warm bread to eat. A bowl of great spicy green olives were like a kind of Moroccan kimchi. They were light and garlicky. We got a series of meze (appetizers) including Mechouia, a spread of roasted peppers, Zaalouck, an eggplant (they call it "aubergine" in England) spread which was great, a "Bourek" of chicken with fig with an incredible turmeric flavor, and finally a Briouat of Cod with a crisp shell and a potato like consistency. Each was simply delicious.

It's rare that one dish alone can rocket my estimation of a restaurant. It's not like I wasn't already in a pretty good mood, but when the tomato soup showed up I fell head over heels for Momo. To be specific, it was Soup de Tomate Glacee a la Coriandre. The flavor was so very strong with incredible savory touches. All four quadrants of my tongue were deeply affected and almost inflamed by how interesting and exciting the flavor of this soup was. The minced chives floating in beautiful pools of olive oil on top of the soup didn't hurt matters either.

Next up was the Margret de Canard - roasted duck breast with sweet potato and grapes. The flavor of the duck was wonderful. The texture a touch chewy. The wine-based sauce was lovely. And (according to Debbie) the best part was the great flavor and texture of the sweet potatoes. Then we got Couscous Brochettes D'Agneau. This was a HUGE portion of couscous, lamb on skewers, and a tomato based sauce with potatoes and veggies. The couscous was super fine grain - yummy. The lamb had a beautiful texture, and a rich spiced buttery flavor. The potatoes were a little undercooked, but the dish overall was delicious.

We hung out in the Momo "market" next door after lunch for a few minutes checking out the food and buying the Momo cookbook. I haven't had a chance yet to make anything from it and I'm kind of disappointed that it doesn't have the recipe for that tomato soup, but still I really enjoyed eating at Momo and I can still taste that soup. Next time I'm in London it's one of the first places I'll stop.

 

Wednesday, October 22, 2003, 11:57 PM


The Guardian's Observer has a section called Food Monthly. They sent five writers to five of the "best" restaurants they could find across the planet. They include French Laundry in Napa Valley,  El Bulli in Spain, Le Louis XV in Monte Carlo, Jean Georges in New York City, and Gordon Ramsay in London (which we recently went to and loved).

 

Sunday, October 19, 2003, 5:57 PM


Nobu is the eponymous sushi restaurant/hip spot that Nobu Matsuhisa has spawned across the planet starting with Manhattan and now including places such as Las Vegas, Tokyo, and London. We had lunch at the London location (not to be confused with their sister restaurant Ubon who they claim has the same menu). Countless guidebooks and websites all refer to Nobu as a "happening" hangout. But that's not why we went, we went for the food. Here's a reasonable question one might ask: why go all the way to London to eat at Nobu? Isn't it essentially a chain? This was my first question as well. But if you've been to Nobu in New York, you know that it is not only a "cool" spot (or at least used to be) but has Nobu Matsuhisa's an exquisite modern take on Japanese cuisine. That same one might then ask: fine Nobu rocks, but why go there in London? There is a unique challenge to reproducing a high quality experience in multiple restaurants. And Nobu is one that I'd experience anywhere. My rationalization would suffice  if Nobu London had reached the heights of the New York and Vegas meals I'd had. Unfortunately the meal didn't stack up, and my rationalizations have run out of steam.

Nobu London was a bummer. This is a bit of an unfair statement since Nobu is already competing at such a high level. It's hard to have low expectations when going there. But still, they set the bar, they should meet the bar. First off, the environment. While not strictly a factor, I have to admit, after hearing so many guides talk about what a hotspot Nobu was in London I expected something a little "hotter". Instead, the decor was "Ikeaesque" (nothing wrong with Ikea, but I expected more "style"). Not only was it mundane, but some of the furniture, especially the chairs (and the tables a bit too) were simply dilapidated and looked run-down. It's like this place was hip five years ago, and nobody told them they needed to keep up. Ok. Enough about that, what about the food?

We started off with Wagyu Tartar with Oscietra caviar. Hard to complain about having caviar twice in 24 hours. It was delicious. (I have to remember to take bites of things such that the part of the bite  with the most flavor hits my tongue and not the roof of my mouth. It's surprising how something so simple can make such a difference in how much you enjoy your food.) Next up was the Nobu signature dish - New Style Sashimi. We had ours made from whitefish. It was the best thing we ate. Something about the combination of raw fish with hot oil and various other yummy flavors is just delicious. The oil not only starts ever-so-slightly cooking the fish, but just a warmth to the whole dish - both temperature and flavor-wise. The menu hadn't seemed to change much since the last time I'd been to Nobu but I don't have a photographic memory so I can't be 100% sure. Either way, the Anti-Cucho Peruvian Style Spicy Chicken Skewer caught my eye. Seemed like something "new". The dish was beautiful to behold. Two chicken skewers covered with two interlacing kinds of sauces/oils, coated with Nobu's signature microscopically chopped chives. While gorgeous looking, the chicken actually didn't have much flavor. Luckily the sauce was quite nice, but stayed quite apart from the chicken it was layered on top of.

Next up was Rock Shrimp Tempura with Spicy Creamy Sauce. If you had to take only a couple of dishes onto a desert island, this could very well be one of them. And sure enough the dish started out as perfection, but I guess we were a bit too slow in downing these delicious morsels, because by the bottom of the dish the remaining tempura were a bit oily. The selection of sushi was certainly nice. Though nothing blew me away. The Tamago was super interesting in that it had a super smooth and dense texture. Debbie thought it was too dense, but I thought despite that it was airy and quite nice/different. The Spicy Tuna Temaki had very very good nori. Reminiscent of the best I've had in Tokyo.

Ok. So we probably shouldn't have gone to Nobu in retrospect. And when I'm in Tokyo in the future, I definitely won't waste a meal going there. But I'll bet you that the original in NYC (and its progenitor Matsuhisa in LA) are still very worth the trip. I'll keep you posted.

 

Saturday, October 18, 2003, 11:53 AM


Some might say going to Europe in August is crazy. Everything's closed and it's hot hot hot. But in fact, I researched heavily before we made the trip and August  in England is supposed to be a bit more temperate, and our trip to Paris is late in the month when many of the good restaurants will have reopened from their break. How could I know that London would be experiencing a record-breaking heat wave upon our arrival? While universal air-conditioning has not yet reached the EU, the myth that Europe has no ice has been just that. Everywhere we go out we are offered water - still or sparkling with ice. The amount is anemic compared to how much ice you get in the States, but enough to chill the beverage. Maybe we have something to learn from Europe in this regard. And please don't point out that I paid for sparkling mineral water only to have ice made with tap water melt into it. Until restaurants make ice from mineral water I'm just going to pretend this paradox doesn't exist. But I've gotten off path.

The real dirty secret during the London heat wave is not lack of ice. It's lack of soda machines in the Tube. The Tube - the London Underground - is the very efficient and relatively clean, extensive subway system that sprawls underneath London's streets. It's a pleasure to use. But these days it is hot and sweaty down there. This is nothing that couldn't be rectified by either a) the most expensive air conditioning system in the world, or b) a few well placed cold soda machines at each station. And at first your heart will sing as you sight some sort of vending machine. Then your heart will sink as you realize the goodies inside are not refreshing sodas, waters, and juices, but chocolate candy bars. That's right. The London Underground is rife with vending machines offering Cadbury chocolate bars. I am at a loss to explain this.

Here's the really weird part - for some reason, Debbie and I assumed the chocolate bars in these machines were refrigerated. And after days of complaining about this oddity (and with London's heat wave past us), today Debbie said that she was starting to want a cold chocolate bar. So we popped in our pence and out came one misshapen Cadbury Dairy Milk chocolate bar. First things first. The candy bars are not refrigerated. Neither of us know how we went on for days assuming they were, despite the fact that there's absolutely no indication anywhere on the machine that the chocolate would be dispensed at anything but the ambient temperature of the machine. (Debbie insists that I note that she thinks she saw an indication on of the machines that the contents were "chilled". I attribute this to the intense heat addling her brain and causing hallucinations.) I have a theory though - temperatures throughout the heat wave easily averaged well above 90 degrees and on one day hit 100 degrees. The tube stations were worse than outside. I think our brains noted that there's no way in hell chocolate bars could survive in a hot and humid set of tunnels under the city of London. Then I think our brains logically assumed that nobody would be stupid enough to put a metal box full of chocolate in hot tunnels and expect people to pay for it, so it must be chilled. Wrong.

Given that the heat wave was over, and we were experiencing average summer temperatures of 75-80 degrees, you could assume that this weather would not result in melted chocolate. Wrong again. Today's chocolate Chihuly came out not only mangled but melted. Explain that. Mangled I might understand from the recent heat wave, but still melting during normal summer weather? The British have stocked their subway stations with vending machines that are essentially guaranteed to turn chocolate bars into chocolate syrup during the summer months. I am at a complete loss to explain this. Though I should note that the only person I've seen the entire month putting money into one of these machines is me. Maybe the London populace has long outsmarted the cynical partnership of the Cadbury chocolate company and the London Underground trying to stain clothing everywhere with their liquid chocolate bars.

One final note: on the very same day that we decided to finally give the chocolate machines a try, we finally happened upon a soda machine at the Euston Square Tube stop on the Hammersmith and City line. What excitement! What joy! Who cares that there's not even an indication of how much money to insert in the slot. Debbie immediately demands all the change that I have, inserts it in the machine, presses the Diet Coke button, and is rewarded with a warm can of diet coke.

 

Thursday, October 16, 2003, 11:59 PM


Why don't I have a house in Italy on an estate with an olive grove that produces 2000 to 3000 liters of olive oil each year? The Boston Globe also includes this sidebar on using olive oil in cakes.

Soup in France is evolving according to the Financial Times. The LA Times (free registration required) is partial to mushroom soup.

Sometimes I think about how much I love eating duck. I think about it a lot. Maybe too much. I wonder how these taste. (free registration required)

 

Monday, October 13, 2003, 11:56 PM


J. Sheekey was recommended by multiple sources as a great London Restaurant. Who are we to argue? If I had to give one of those short descriptions that try and capture a restaurant's cuisine, J. Sheekey's would be - modern seafood with respect for British traditions. One tradition that annoyed me a bit was the admonishment I got from one of the waiters about taking pictures inside the restaurant. I suppose I understand that they don't want wacky American tourists taking pictures of celebrities enjoying their dover sole. And while I didn't see anyone famous, I did somehow convince them to let me take pictures as long as I limited my field of view to the food in front of us.

Things started off "smashingly" with delicious soft white and brown crusty French bread with a warm center. We followed that up with Potted Shrimps and Wholemeal Toast. This was essentially a bunch of tiny shrimps swimming in a British mayonnaise mix. It was interesting, especially the anchovy essence. That was followed up with Seared Rare Tuna with Fennel and Sicilian Tomato Salad. It was certainly yummy and the fennel was a great base flavor, but it wasn't amazing by any stretch. It's hard to do a raw tuna dish that tastes original or impressive.

It's not exactly a huge test of the kitchen, but we couldn't help ourselves but order the caviar with blinis and sour cream. The Oscietra was definitely yummy but we couldn't help but wonder if we should have splurged and gotten the Beluga for stronger flavor. One thing I did notice. When taking a sushi cooking class from local Seattle super sushi chef Tatsu Nishino, he taught us to take a piece of ngiri sushi (fish on rice) and turn it upside down when eating so the fish landed on our tongue and not the roof of our mouths. I shouldn't be surprised that such a simple recommendation with such incredible positive effects would scale to foods other than sushi. Note: when eating your caviar upside down, make sure not to spill any. You don't want to lose any of those delicious eggs.

Next up was Filet of Cod Milanese with Saffron Risotto and Prosciutto. The Prosciutto was so salty it was simply difficult to taste the rest of this dish. This was especially a bummer as I wanted to order a fish dish that wasn't shellfish, not to mention the fact that this was the special of the evening. I suppose you could argue that because it was the evening's special that it hadn't gotten the same kind of practice in the kitchen that other dishes had. That said, you could also argue that if anyone had tasted the dish before it went out they would have renamed it "Salty Prosciutto with some other stuff on the side". We also had the Lobster Thermidor. The lobster comes in and out of the shell. It was good and flavorful.

As we wound down our meal we couldn't help but feel like J. Sheekey's "respect for British tradition" was maybe an unfortunate heavy-handedness that made the food obvious in its direction, indelicate in its flavors, and just kind of "sitting there" on the plate and in your stomach. And while this is still better than typical America overfrying, it just left me disappointed. J. Sheekey is not a bad restaurant by any means, but I didn't see the attraction.

 

Sunday, October 12, 2003, 12:35 PM


London's food guides (at least those that I could find) do not do a great job listing the tiny ethnic restaurants that are the city's gems. On days here when I need a quick bite, I figure I'll take my chances and hopefully happen upon a gem randomly. This day was not to be that day. I stopped at Nam Bistro near Angel station in Islington - a small Vietnamese place.

I love Vietnamese food. Or maybe I should say, I love what I consider the best Vietnamese food I've had in the U.S. It occurred to me as I thought about this that I don't really know whether the food I'm eating is authentic Vietnamese or some Americanized approximation the way much of American Chinese food can be. Either way, the freshest and most flavorful Vietnamese food I've had in the states is truly wonderful. Bursting with strong, fresh, and complementary flavors, Vietnamese food is something I could eat just about every day.

Nam Bistro was kind of a hit or miss proposition. I think they were amused to have some lone American eating late lunch in their tiny establishment and photographing his food. Unfortunately that didn't prompt them to rise to the occasion food-wise. My Goi Cuon (Vietnamese fresh spring rolls) just didn't have a fresh tight quality about them though the sauce they came with (not peanut) was delicious - a fish sauce based mixture with an excellent balance between sweet and sour and a nice kick. Lots of shredded veggies in that sauce too.

The chicken sate was quite good though it was mostly because of the peanut sauce layered across the top of the skewered chicken. The meat which had turned a lovely yellow color was a bit dry in places. The sauce was mostly crunchy, without a smooth consistency (this was a good thing in this case) and the plate was dotted with pools of yummy oil from the chicken and the sauce. Rounding things out was an order of deep-fried butterfly prawns. I honestly didn't know what about them was Vietnamese though they did have a name in Vietnamese - Tom Lan Bot. The auce they came with was gross. A citrusy liquid with tons of white pepper. The combination tasted more than vaguely soapy.

I really just want to travel to Vietnam to find out what's what. Lauren insists it's no great shakes, but remember - she's a vegetarian. She couldn't possibly appreciate what I imagine to be the endless stalls serving delicious hot grilled street food mostly consisting of various meats on various sticks. All of it intended for me.

 

Saturday, October 11, 2003, 11:46 AM


05-appetizerselection.jpgIf you're going to go to London and care about what you eat, not trying an Indian restaurant, or two, (or 20) is a crime. Whatever you may think of Britain's native cuisine, there's no denying that for it's adopted cuisine (judged to be so based on the sheer number of Indian restaurants) London presents a dizzying array of options. Armed with a recommendation from a friend who loved food we made our way to The Red Fort.

With a beautifully designed exterior and interior the place reeked of "cool". The Akbar bar beneath the restaurant and the burly guys at the front door checking people (and warning me menacingly not to take pictures - I did anyway) completed the picture. You always have to wonder where a restaurant has spent a bunch of time on being hip whether they had any left over attention for the food. Luckily they did.

We started off with an array of appetizers including: Pocha Hera Jhinga - marinated prawns in crisp light batter that were crunchy and flavorful; Monkfish Tikka - chunks of monkfish smoked with ginger that were super juicy, structured, and almost chicken-like with excellent flavor; Tandoori Phool - roasted broccoli with olives and crushed pepper that was crunchy and yummy (Even Debbie, notorious olive hater - liked it); Murgh Tikka - skewered chicken which was fantastic, extra juicy, and absolutely bursting with flavor. The chutneys that came with were delicious as well. These included: Tamarind - so flavorful, sweet, tangy; Mint Chutney; and unripe Mango Chutney - excellent!

The food at Red Fort is from two regions in India - Maghad and Hyderabaad. "Very authentic" according to the waitstaff. Until I make my trip to India I'll have to take their word for it. As with any Indian restaurant, I made my standard request for onion chutney (this was popular at Indian restaurants in Boston). I used to think people looking at me as if I was from another planet and claiming to have never heard of onion chutney was the worst possible response. At Red Fort they told me they knew of it, but it wasn't served cause it was "not popular." That I won't take their word for. How could anyone not love onion chutney?

Standard note on eating good food in Europe: they may not compromise on the quality of the food, but smoking is allowed. Yuck!

On to entrees. We had the Seekh Kebab - spiced roasted minced lamb. It was quite good. After all, it's hard to say anything negative about a yummy kebab. That said, the chicken from the appetizer plate was even better. Next up was Avadhi Gosht Biryani. This dish was the chef's family's 300 year old recipe of lamb, rice, burhani sauce, yogurt, garlic, and chili. It was very very good. The flavors were exciting - many of which I simply could not identify, and the texture of the rice was just perfect. We then had Phaldari Kofta - vegetable dumplings in a light tomato and turmeric sauce. The sauce was so so good with a slightly thick consistency, a light flavor, and a kick that showed up in the finish. The bread assortment was narrow. But what we got was great and light.

Red Fort would easily be the best Indian restaurant in a city like Seattle. And as good as it was, we knew when it comes to Indian food in London, the space is very very competitive. Bottom line: the food was excellent. The design was beautiful. You just have to not get distracted by the fact that the your fellow diners are likely there more for the atmosphere than the food. After several exuberant comments from us about the food we got the feeling that the staff at the restaurant simply weren't used to people eating there being really into what they eat. Odd, but yummy.

 

Sunday, October 5, 2003, 4:33 PM


19-rumpannacotta.jpgIt's difficult to tell where to eat in a new city (read: city that's new to me). There are guides aplenty on the web and on the bookshelves but you always wonder if you and the reviewer are on the same wavelength. (Most of these guides in my opinion are at best surveys than real true heartfelt guides with authors going to great pains to make sure you only have the most fantastic experiences.) What I typically end up doing is triangulating choices based on a variety of factors including various guides, personal recommendations from friends and acquaintances, and little factoids about a restaurant.

Gordon Ramsay scored on multiple of these criteria and as such we decided to head out there to eat. I was too late to book dinner there (as of early August their first booking was in September) so we decided to eat lunch. This was confirmed as a great choice when they told us that lunch has a superset of the menu available at dinner. My biggest fear of course is that by going to lunch I would not be able to experience everything Gordon Ramsay had to offer. And luckily the opposite was true.

After a 15 minute walk from the nearby tube station, we entered the purple doorway only to be transported by the long hallway that leads from the street into the cozy, refined  dining room. After a couple of minutes of attentiveness and warm smiles from the French accented waitstaff we sat down to what was clearly going to be a formal, French, fancy lunch. The three 'f's. Our opening remarks to the waitstaff at the beginning of a meal has become somewhat standard at this point. It goes something like this: "Hi. We love to eat. We're here to experience the absolute best this restaurant has to offer. And we believe that the best way to do that is to try as many things as possible. We have no dietary restrictions at all, and taking the time to choose items off the menu would just delay the moment when the food starts arriving in front of us. After all, who knows better which dish is best - the chef who knows what's fresh and the best example of his strengths or us reading a short description off a piece of paper? We just want the kitchen to show us their stuff. Please... [dramatic pause]... [as the hero says in movies before he's about to kick ass on an enemy that appears vastly stronger] bring it on!"

And sure enough, in a restaurant we thought might be a bit rigid, the maitre'd's face lit up with recognition of truly appreciative patrons and said the response that we love to hear. It goes something like this: "Here on our menu you can see we already have listed our most extensive tasting menu. But how about I talk to the kitchen and have them multiply the number of unique dishes by the number of people at the table. This way even though there will still be the same number of courses, each of you will get something different each time and be able to share so you taste a maximum number of creations our restaurant has to offer. Of course the portions will be sized so that you will have room for all the fantastic food we're going to be putting in front of you. And by the way, the kitchen will probably be so excited by your order that they will add a few extras here and there making this a truly special dining experience."

I'm thinking of getting this little dialog printed onto cards so I can just hand it to waiters whenever we go out to dinner instead of having to recreate this scene from scratch each time.

It's not like my expectations weren't already high, but there was a detail that just caught my eye and made me smile. I had ordered sparkling water. The waiter came by to pour some into my glass. Instead of pouring it at a normal speed and losing some of the bubbles, or tipping the glass so that fewer bubbles burst, he did something that I didn't see a single waiter or bartender do the entire rest of our month in London - he poured it slowly. Very slowly. He wasn't in a hurry. He was deliberate. And he was trying to give me as many of the bubbles as came with the water. This tiny act of patience, restraint, and confidence just set the tone for the meal.

Bread arrived quickly. The olive bread was crusty with soft light sweet insides with generous air bubbles to hold the salted or unsalted butter. Much as I adore warm bread, really really good bread stands on it's own at room temperature. As much as I love wine, the wine pairings with tasting menus usually kick my ass. If I drink them all I just fall asleep. As a compromise, they brought us 3 glasses of wine in total - a sweet, a white, and a red - which we split. Yes, it's wimpy, but at least this way I wouldn't fall asleep before dessert.

Before we could wonder what our first dish would be, it arrived. This amuse bouche took the form of a small bowl of gazpacho with mozarella served with crostini with parma ham. It's difficult to find a more perfect way to start a meal. The soup was less gazpacho than it was essence of gazpacho. The parma crostini was the foundation for this unbelievably refined soup. And as if to let us know at the end that he knew exactly why it was good - the perfect combination of refined fresh flavors - the chef added one more in the form of a small mound of avocado puree at the bottom of the bowl. Since by your fourth spoonful the soup was only fantastic and no longer as magical as it was on on the first two spoonfuls, this "secret surprise" added new flavors and a sense of wonder to the dish.

(Author's note: I want to pause our lunch at Gordon Ramsay to bump up a level and give a slightly broader perspective on this dish. Taken out of context, by someone not as excited by food as I am, the previous paragraph could sound silly. Magical soup? Give me a break. But the truth is, it really was. And it's experiences like this that I absolutely live for. All at once they are incredibly rare, and incredibly possible. It is not luck that creates experiences like these, but incredibly talented kitchens with ingredients from experienced and focused producers. And when I say I "love" a dish or a restaurant, this is why. It's because they give me these kind of memorable experiences. Memories I can recount for months and years. Tastes that can be described using terms typically reserved for our most emotional interactions with human beings - not for our experiences with food. But as food is so much a part of interacting with other people, it's not a surprise to me that the best food earns these kinds of descriptions. If it is a surprise to you, then you're not trying hard enough to eat something wonderful.)

Our foie gras course was up next. And as promised we each got a different take. FIrst was pan-fried foie gras with chicoree chutney, shallot confit, pomme rosty, and a Sauterne  sauce. This dish was the hardcore essence of classic foie gras. It was perfectly pan-fried, the sauterne sauce was silky, and the overall portion was super generous.  Second was foie gras with pigs feet stuffed with sweetbreads and ham, celeriac remoulade, truffle vinaigrette, baby girole mushrooms, and a quail egg. This dish felt like a more modern and adventurous dish where each ingredient took you in a new direction, but the overall dish stayed balanced and delicious. If the first foie gras was like a string quartet, the latter was more like a symphony.

Seafood dishes were up next. We started with a cannelloni of salmon and crab on a bed of spinach and dried cherry tomatoes and chervil with a fish stock based creamy sauce with chive. It's counterpart was a ravioli of langoustine and salmon on a bed of spinach and tomato chutney, dressed in a lobster vinaigrette. The canneloni was quite good with a combination of fresh texture and flavors. The dried tomatoes gave nice bursts of tanginess. But my favorite of the two was the ravioli. It's brain-like appearance no doubt added to the fun, but it's flavor and juiciness was incredible. It was like a French seafood shumai dumpling with vinaigrette for "pop". And while the lobster vinaigrette was not required as the seafood in the ravioli was so steamy juicy seafoody good, the light sauce that echoed the seafood inside the pasta really completed this special dish. Debbie loved the canneloni the most. She said it was very focused on the core seafood flavors, and the tomatoes were intense.

At this point I have to note that while I thought the kitchen was trying to be sensitive to our stomachs, the portions were still enormous. I suppose I'm assuming some intent on the part of the chef, but I'll characterize the portions as generous. Maybe a little bit too much so. That said, it's not like they were entree size portions, and most Americans would probably still complain they were small, but we were starting to have trouble finishing our dishes. Of course, given how good the food was, this was not the worst problem we could imagine having. We found this to be especially off as the waitstaff politely warned us three separate times about how small the portions would be.

Our fish course had an interesting twist. We both got identical dishes but with different pieces of fish. There was turbot and John Dory. I'd never heard of John Dory before but it seemed popular in England while we were there. According to the Larousse Gastronomique (my beautiful English edition) the John Dory is a  "an oval deep-sided fish found along rocky coasts. [It] rarely probides more than four servings, since the enormous head, the fins and the bones account for nearly 60% of its weight." That said, Larousse reassures that the John Dory is one of the "best sea fish" and can be prepared much like turbot. Both pieces of fish were beautifully seared, sitting on beds of lettuce, celeriac fondant, and celeriac puree, in a beautiful haddock-stock-based sauce with asparagus resting gently on top of the whole affair. They were both delicious. But something about the John Dory was just over the top. The side that was seared tasted like the most perfect slice of bacon I'd ever eaten. It had this smoky savory salty flavor that just lit up my tongue. I could not stop bugging Debbie about it. "It tastes like incredible bacon. It tastes like incredible bacon." Other diners were starting to notice. I had to calm down.

Next course: Beef and Lamb. First, Filet of Beef, with White Onion, Girolle Mushrooms (the French name for chantarelles), Syrah Reduction Wine Sauce, and a Quail Egg. Then, Cornish Lamb, sliced and served au jus, sitting on a bed of Lamb Shoulder Confit. This was served with bluefoot mushrooms, red pepper sauce, white onions, and rosemary.The beef was hearty, robust, and the wine sauce had so much flavor, it felt alive. Debbie felt the dish was a touch oversalted, but delicious nonetheless. I thought the salt was on the precipice, but not over. The lamb was also very good. The two preparations complemented each other but the herbs made the dish.

As stuffed as we were, we somehow found room for some delicious selections from the overflowing cheese cart. Those were accompanied by walnut date bread, wholewheat rye, and "charcoal" crackers (no real charcoal in them, just charcoal color).

Speaking of charcoal, I'll probably end up mentioning this again throughout the countless reviews of European meals, but how can a restaurant that puts so much work into making a wonderful meal let people smoke in their restaurant. I won't say it completely ruined our meal, but it was still pretty gross. The smoke from other tables presents such a striking (and distracting) contrast with the wonderful flavors being presented at the table that you have to wonder if people who really appreciate good food would really stop going to great restaurants if they weren't allowed to smoke. Britain needs to get with the program and ban smoking from public places (or how about just banning it from restaurants with great food).

Dessert included a wonderful pineapple dish. Candied pineapple, creamy pineapple yogurt, pineapple puree (like apple sauce), and a pineapple sorbet. It was beautiful to look at and tasted even better - sweet, light, delicious.  Other desserts included chocolate Parfait inside chocolate cake with raspberry sauce on the side, and ice cream on top. Yum. There was beautiful dessert anchored by a sliver of star fruit, as well as a bowl of crisp chocolate truffles filled with caramel. And don't forget the bite-size financiers (made from sponge cake mixed with egg whites and ground almonds) flavored with orange and frangipane (a type of pastry cream). And finally, served on a beautiful glass dish, two jewel-like treats - strawberry ice cream wrapped in white milk chocolate.

Gordon Ramsay delivered us a really fantastic, flavorful, and exciting meal. The formality we perceived when we walked in the door belied the warmth of the food and the waitstaff. We've been to other restaurants where they put on airs, and deliver a really high end experience, but this one not abandoned soul for tradition. On our way out the door, we recognized Chef Ramsay himself surveying the dining room after things were winding down in the kitchen. It's nice to see a famous chef doing the cooking. I think we were more lucky than we know that he was there to make our lunch. Hopefully if you go to Gordon Ramsay, he'll be there to make yours as well.

 

Saturday, October 4, 2003, 1:39 PM


One night at home for dinner we had cornish pasties from a Kosher market on the outskirts of London. It's basically a flaky pastry filled with a sloppy joe... kind of like a British samosa. It was yummy in it's own slightly heavy way.


 
     
     
     
     
     

 

 

 

 

 

   

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  Garlic has long been credited with providing and prolonging physical strength and was fed to Egyptian slaves building the giant pyramids. Throughout the centuries, its medicinal claims have included cures for toothaches, consumption, open wounds and evil demons. A member of the lily family, garlic is a cousin to leeks, chives, onions and shallots. The edible bulb or "head" grows beneath the ground. This bulb is made up of sections called cloves, each encased in its own parchmentlike membrane. Today's major garlic suppliers include the United States (mainly California, Texas and Louisiana), France, Spain, Italy and Mexico. There are three major types of garlic available in the United States: the white-skinned, strongly flavored American garlic; the Mexican and Italian garlic, both of which have mauve-colored skins and a somewhat milder flavor; and the Paul Bunyanesque, white-skinned elephant garlic (which is not a true garlic, but a relative of the leek), the most mildly flavored of the three. Depending on the variety, cloves of American, Mexican and Italian garlic can range from 1/2 to 1 1/2 inches in length. Elephant garlic (grown mainly in California) has bulbs the size of a small grapefruit, with huge cloves averaging 1 ounce each. It can be purchased through mail order and in some gourmet markets. Green garlic, available occasionally in specialty produce markets, is young garlic before it begins to form cloves. It resembles a baby leek, with a long green top and white bulb, sometimes tinged with pink. The flavor of a baby plant is much softer than that of mature garlic. Fresh garlic is available year-round. Purchase firm, plump bulbs with dry skins. Avoid heads with soft or shriveled cloves, and those stored in the refrigerated section of the produce department. Store fresh garlic in an open container (away from other foods) in a cool, dark place. Properly stored, unbroken bulbs can be kept up to 8 weeks, though they will begin to dry out toward the end of that time. Once broken from the bulb, individual cloves will keep from 3 to 10 days. Garlic is usually peeled before use in recipes. Among the exceptions are roasted garlic bulbs and the famous dish, "chicken with 40 cloves of garlic," in which unpeeled garlic cloves are baked with chicken in a broth until they become sweet and butter-soft. Crushing, chopping, pressing or pureeing garlic releases more of its essential oils and provides a sharper, more assertive flavor than slicing or leaving it whole. Garlic is readily available in forms other than fresh. Dehydrated garlic flakes (sometimes referred to as instant garlic) are slices or bits of garlic that must be reconstituted before using (unless added to a liquid-based dish, such as soup or stew). When dehydrated garlic flakes are ground, the result is garlic powder. Garlic salt is garlic powder blended with salt and a moisture-absorbing agent. Garlic extract and garlic juice are derived from pressed garlic cloves. Though all of these products are convenient, they're a poor flavor substitute for the less expensive, readily available and easy-to-store fresh garlic. One unfortunate side effect of garlic is that, because its essential oils permeate the lung tissue, it remains with the body long after it's been consumed, affecting breath and even skin odor. Chewing chlorophyll tablets or fresh parsley is helpful but, unfortunately, modern-day science has yet to find the perfect antidote for residual garlic odor.  

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