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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.

 

Wednesday, December 31, 2003, 11:54 AM


Here's a little gift for the end of the year. One of the best meals of the year, and one of the last meals from our trip to Europe.

08-bruschetta.jpgI have long longed [note to self: must get someone to edit this stuff] for more restaurants that focus on small plates. I've talked about it many times before. Tapas restaurants abound. Dim Sum and Sushi count as well. But I want it to become a wave sweeping restaurants across the planet, leaving entrees as relics and things you learn about in museums. This is exactly the approach that Joël Robuchon's L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon in Paris has taken. And if you're going to have a chef try an experiment like this, you'd be hard pressed to do much better than Robuchon. He garnered three Michelin stars, made it to the top of his profession, won various awards, and then in 1996 closed his eponymous restaurant in Paris. In the first month of tastingmenu.com, we linked to an article describing the opening of this new restaurant. And finally in August of this year we got to try it out.

Believe it or not, Lauren, Alex, Debbie, and I went there for dinner after lunch at Arpège. Insane? Yes. Mandatory given that we only had a day or so in Paris? Yes. We had just enough time to remember what our appetites kind of felt like and walked over to Robuchon's place in the Hôtel Pont Royal. The restaurant is beautiful. It's basically designed like a sushi bar. Everything is done in beautiful black and red tones. One wall is decorated by a mosaic-like placement of large glass containers filled with various spices and herbs. The bar snakes around the restaurant for maximum surface area. Every seat has a view of the kitchen. There are no tables. If I had one complaint it's that there is a "moat" between the kitchen and the sushi bar so the wait staff can move around bringing dishes to the diners. In true sushi bar fashion I want to see what's going on and how my food is being prepared. I want the chef to hand it to me. No delays. No biggie. The place was still gorgeous.

You sit down, you open the menu, and here's what greets you - 22 small dishes, 21 entrees. We ignored the right side of the menu where the entrees made their home. As for the left side, we ordered one of each. That's right. One of each. Four people, 5.5 dishes each. Seemed just about right. (And if we hadn't had an enormous late lunch at Arpège it probably would have been fine.) As it happens we made it to about 29 dishes including desserts and a couple of repeats. To do it we ended up only trying about 18 of the 22 small plates, but now we have 4 reasons to go back.

Let's get to the food. There was essentially a barrage of dishes. Luckily we took notes as it was difficult to remember all of them given how many there were. That said, there were some that I can remember perfectly to this day. One was Le Jambon "Iberico de Bellota" Escorte de Pain Toaste à la Tomate - essentially, Spanish sliced ham with tomato on a bruschetta. I often wonder whether it's fair to judge a restaurant deeply on something like sliced ham. Shouldn't the purveyor be judged, after all, what did the restaurant really do other than slice and present? While there maybe a limited supply of ham of this incredible quality, there isn't a limited supply of credit. The purveyor deserves a ton of credit of course. But so does Robuchon for identifying the quality, and getting it onto my plate.

So how was the ham? The ham was perfect. Bursting with flavor. The funny part is that we forgot that it came with tomato bruschetta on the side. So when it showed up on a separate plate we thought it was the tuna dish we'd ordered. I don't know whether this is a comment on how inexperienced we are with food or how amazing the chef was at preparing some tomatoes. I think it's likely mostly the latter plus the fact that what you expect something to be factors a lot into how you evaluate it. I wonder if we could do some sort of experiment where people taste things blindfolded. Anyway, it's kind of embarrassing but here's what I wrote down about the tomato on toast. "The tuna was amazing. The combination of the oil and seasonings made for a singular sensory experience and the tuna was not overly cold." The "tuna" was actually tiny cubes of tomato coated in oil, salt, and pepper, just like tuna. Bottom line: any restaurant that can turn diced tomatoes into beautiful cubes of sashimi quality raw tuna is great in my book.

09-anchovies.jpgThe dishes kept coming. Les Anchois Frais Marinés À L'Aubergine Confite - beautiful to behold and eat. Le Gaspacho de Tomates Fraiches aux Petits Croutons - after the gazpacho at Passard's it seemed insane to order gazpacho again. We did it anyway - Fresh Tomato Gazpacho with Petit Croutons. It was worth it. The gazpacho was great. Super light and yummy. Le Caviar d"Aubergine Legerement Fume au Coulis de Tomates - this "baba" was fantastic. It was fresh with a smoky flavor and a little kick. La Brochette de Foie Gras de Canard aux Poivrons Verjutés - amazing foie gras. Meat butter grilled on a stick. Really special.

La Grosse Crevette en Vermicelle d'Herbes au Jasmin. The coating and frying on the shrimp was simply perfection - so light, served so hot. The sauce was delicious as well. Le Mille Feuille de Legumes de Saison Confits - this stack of vegetables (Mille Feuille is the name for a layered pastry) with mozzarella was beautiful. Lauren was worried about a "pile of vegetables" but ended up loving it. La Tapenade De Thon Aux Jeunnes Legumes Croquants - Debbie thought the tuna tapenade was great. I thought the vegetables were just eh The celery was limp. I guess not everything can be great.

Le Foie Gras Frais de Canard Cuit au Torchon - more foie gras, why not. This foie gras was also very very good. It had a special, peppery, nutty taste. The presentation was stunning as well. Like a painting. Le Tourteau en Rouelles d'Avocat a l'Huile Aromatisee - the avocado slices were like a dumpling wrapper around the crab. A brilliant dish in conception but a bit subtle in seasoning. Beautiful to look at.

For awhile we watched them carefully making what looked like Jello shooters. It turned out to be Le Fondant de Légumes Acidulé à l'Avocat. Apparently two gazpachos in one day weren't enough. A third was necessary. Specifically a delicious gazpacho parfait. Yum. And then a salad showed up - Le Fritot de Jeunes Legumes de Saison. It's hard to get super excited over a salad though this one was dressed perfectly.

I guess when you order one of everything off the menu, the kitchen takes notice. It was at this point we got four special treats from the chef - La Papillote de Langoustine Croustillante au Basilic. The crayfish was so delicately fried and wonderful in the beautiful basil sauce. It was essentially a tempura that was perfect, light, and salted just right. Traditional tempura isn't salted. The salt was fresh and new and unexpected. Whoever was doing the deep frying at Robuchon that night was really a master.

Le "Pimiento" Rouge Farci a la Brandade de Morue - tasty and gorgeous. La Tarte Fine de Maquereau auc Copeaux de Parmesan et Olives - mackerel pizza, beautiful to behold. L'oeuf Cocotte a la Creme Legere de Girolles - an egg, girolle martini. It was fantastic, creamy, savory. Cantaloupe Soup served in a cantaloupe. I love bowls made of food, Lauren didn't love the soup though.

Don't forget the meat. Les Cotelettes d'Agneau de Lozere a la Fleur de Thym - the lamb was great. It was one of the best Alex has ever had. Le Ris de Veau Cloute de Laurier Frais a la Feuille de Romaine Farcie - veal with a wonderful stock and vegetables that were filled with delicious smokey bacon. Delicious. Beautiful. Le Panache de Ris et de Rognon d'Agneau aux Girolles - the sweetbreads were wonderfully prepared, so flavorful.

30-mashedpotatoes.jpgAnd then it was time for Robuchon's famous mashed potatoes. What goes better with meat than potatoes? What goes better with potatoes than butter? Lots of butter. Specifically for every 2 parts potato you add 1 part butter. Two pounds of potatoes? One entire pound of butter. Greasy? No way. Though it looked like a vat of butter. And it kind of was. Stunning, creamy, smooth, perfect, beautiful. Like a warm butter flavored gelato. Debbie thinks it could work in a cone. This was really good.

Potato gelato not good enough for dessert? How about Pot du Creme - a super yummy pudding. Vanilla Cream with Chocolate Mousse - the vanilla cream was great, the mousse was just ok. The Peche was excellent and the Souffle? Stunning.

Since this restaurant embraces the concept of diversity so well I would only add the following requests. It would be nice if people could order like they order sushi at the bar. No waiters. Just talk to the chef. Every chef should be able to make the most of the dishes right in front of you. Even if that's not quite possible the chefs need to be much closer as the view was obstructed a bit of the cooking. I'd also kill the entrees (none of which we tried though some were just big versions of our dishes) and have an even broader selection of smaller dishes.

As full as we were after our morning at Arpege, Robuchon was the perfect apres Arpege. Fun, exciting, beautiful, diverse, gorgeous, delicious.

Postscript: if you don't find yourself in Paris anytime soon, head to Tokyo where they recently opened the second outpost of this wonderful restaurant.

 

Friday, December 26, 2003, 11:44 PM


05-swedishpancackes.jpgFirst and foremost, my friend Scott (whose birthday is today) got a rude birthday present when he found out (and then forwarded to me) the fact that Sears Fine Food is closing down permanently in a couple of days. Famous for their 18 little Swedish pancakes they are a must visit any time you're in San Francisco for breakfast. This is a major bummer. The article does state that they might end up selling their mix on the web. So I'll have to settle for that (hopefully). It's better than nothing I suppose.

In a few days Lauren and Alex will be having their annual new year's fondue extravaganza. This year Alex found some white truffles at Pike Place market. They weren't cheap, but they are delicious. What's more appropriate than Fonduta con Tartufi - White Truffle Fondue? Nothing. Nothing at all. What timing... I just found this recipe accidentally in Saveur. I would link to it on their web site but they've done so much to hide their content it's essentially impossible.

Fonduta con Tartufi (Melted Fontina with White Truffles) - Serves 4

Don't be tempted to use non-Italian fontina for this recipe; it won't have the same sourish, nutty flavor.

Ingredients

  • 5 oz. Italian fontina, trimmed of rind and cut into 3/4" cubes
  • 1 2/2 teaspoon flour
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 1 tablespoon butter, softened
  • 1 ounce taleggio cheese, trimmed of rind
  • 1 1-ounce white truffle, gently brushed clean
  • 4-8 slices Italian bread, toasted

Toss fontina and flour together in a medium heat-proof bowl, stir in milk, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate overnight.

The following day, stir egg yolks and butter into bowl with cheese-milk mixture. Set bowl over a medium pot of gently simmering water over medium-low heat and cook, stirring constantly, until cheese is completely melted, 15-20 minutes. Add taleggio and stir until it melts into fontina, about 2 minutes.

Divide melted cheese between 4 soup bowls and shave slices of truffle over cheese. Serve with toast.

Can't wait to try it!

 

Sunday, December 21, 2003, 9:01 AM


06-gazpacho.jpgWe'd been spending weeks in Europe - mostly in London, and some time in Israel. Lauren and Alex came to visit us. There was no way we could call the trip complete until we ate at least a couple of meals in Paris. The Eurostar train the goes under the English channel between London and Paris is to convenient for anyone to make any excuses about not dropping in for a visit. I've been to Paris before, but it was many years ago when my obsession with food was not quite as developed. So, we hopped on the train early one morning and headed for Paris. First stop, Arpège.

Alain Passard is one of the most celebrated chefs in the world. He has been awarded three stars by the Michelin Red Guide. And one day a few years ago he went vegetarian. Lauren aside, the word strikes fear in the hearts of people who love food everywhere. In a world of steamed vegetables why would anyone eschew some of the most wonderful and delicious ingredients available? I won't go into a lengthy discussion on the relative merits of vegetarianism here. If you want a great discourse, go get Jeffrey Steingarten's books. He writes at length about his own experiences as a recovering vegetarian, Passard's fantastic cooking, and some of the realities behind vegetarian claims and reasoning. Steingarten (as usual) sums up the crux of Arpège perfectly (pardon my paraphrase): most chefs cook vegetables because they have to. Passard cooks them because he loves them. Wow. So simple. Imagine that. I wonder how many chefs love their ingredients.

I once asked a chef I know if he'd ever considered applying his considerable talent to a different palate. He makes exquisite food where the center of gravity of his dishes is from Northern Italy. Why not make a meal of Indian or Thai food? I couldn't even imagine what incredible things he might produce with the varied ingredients. He squashed my fantasy quickly when he said: "I don't understand those ingredients. I like them. I enjoy eating them. But I don't understand them deeply, and they don't speak to me. I couldn't cook with them." Vegetables have spoken to Alain Passard. And I'm glad of it.

We knew this going in, but the waistaff didn't know we had done our homework. I have to say it was adorable when our waiter started off our dialog by telling us that his "chef had fallen in love with vegetables". We were obviously not local. I wonder if he has to warn the locals as well that the menu has an unusual number of vegetable items.

First things first. Passard hasn't really gone 100% vegetarian. The menu is devoid of red meat though chicken and seafood are quite present. That said, vegetables are very prominent inluding the "Collection Légumière" - a ten course vegetable tasting menu. Fish and fowl have taken on a lesser role on the menu. Almost reminiscent of the role usually played by... vegetables. Lauren was understandably excited. One of the best chefs on the planet is purported to have a fabulous vegetarian dining experience.

If we were there to put ourselves in the capable hands of the chef, we intended to do just that. When the waiter handed us menus we told him that whatever the chef wanted to cook was what we would eat. He should send out the best meal he could and we would gladly eat it all. As usual our one restriction was Lauren's rampant vegetarianism, but beyond that, bring it on. As we tried to explain this to him, in order to confirm our request he kept saying "white card", "white card". What the hell is a white card? To her credit, Lauren realized, he was confirming that we were giving the chef "carte blanche". A white card. White card it is.

It was at this point we spotted the Pain au Levain sitting at a serving station in the dining room. It soon found it's way to our table along with a huge mound of very salty but excellent butter. The butter is from St. Mazo. I should mention that Lauren loves this bread even more than she loves Chez Panisse upstairs bread. (Apparently this is high praise. As I haven't had the upstairs bread I couldn't yet say.)

First up was a Poached Egg with Maple Syrup and Sherry Vinegar. This first dish made it clear that there would be no screwing around in this meal. Nothing wasted. Nothing cliched. Everything special. This dish was a super unique baseline for our palates. The sweet flavor served as an unexpected foundation that got us excited for what was coming next. It was interesting and quite delicious. Just when we thought we had understood what was going on with the bread, Debbie got her second serving of bread and this time it was toasted. Toasted! What the hell was going on here? What kind of audaciousness was this? It was at this moment that I fell in love with Pain au Levain (this moment being the moment I stole some of Debbie's toast and smothered it in the salty butter). I also was so excited by the simple creativity of giving us fresh toast almost randomly. The bread kept rotating. I had to appreciate the diversity even though I wished every time that more toast would show up on my plate. The toast beguiled me. Why did I have to go to Paris to get wonderful toast with my dinner? More restaurants should try this once-in-awhile.

Now let's get serious. Tomato Gazpacho with Mustard Ice Cream. Weird? No. Eyebrow raising? Yes. But think about it. Tomato Gazpacho with Creme Fraiche would be lovely. How about if that Creme Fraiche were flavored with mustard? That would make sense. Now freeze it. That's what we got. If we'd gotten this dish at the French Laundry or Trio it probably would have been called Ketchup and Mustard. That said, the name doesn't matter when you have two flavors fused together so beautifully that you don't know where one starts and the other begins. The acidity of each were a big part of the fusion.

Next up was Carrot Consommé with Dumplings. I have decided that "melts in your mouth" is an overused term. There is only one dish I've ever tasted that be described using that phrase. This was it. You couldn't sink your teeth into the dumplings because by the time your mouth closed, the little raviolis had already melted on first contact with your tongue. The dumplings were fleeting. The consommé was incredibly special with varied flavors including carrot, cumin, and garlic. The dish also included super concentrated aspects of tomato and date. This dish was inspired. After eating it, a deep calm came over me. All I could say was "very nice". That huge understatement was not meant as small praise, but came from a place of incredible satisfaction where those were the only two words I could muster. Because the dish in fact was truly (please read the following words individually and remind yourself what they mean) very nice.

Martini glasses then arrived filled with Beetroot Jelly with Sweet Onions. The beet flavors were super focused, and the onions were so crunchy. The contrast was sheer goodness. Lauren got a Tomato Cream Soup with Sweet Onions. Its yellow/green color belied the hardcore tomato flavor within. Just when you thought pleasure couldn't be simpler that beets and onions along came a simple plate of Smoked Potatoes with Horseradish Mousse. How excited can you get about a potato? How excited can you get when it's the most perfectly cooked potato you've ever eaten.

At this point I suddenly remembered that I had still not yet eaten fish, fowl, or meat of any kind. And the odd thing was that I hadn't noticed. The dishes were so interesting, so exciting that it just didn't matter. That said, lobster did arrive next. And strangely enough though it was quite nice, it didn't attain the heights of the previous dishes. It was a Sweet and Sour preparation of Lobster Wrapped in Turnip "Petals". Apparently it's a signature dish of Passard's. I didn't fall in love as the lobster was a little hidden by the sauce. Lauren however ended up with Tomato and Orange Gratin with Reggiano. Each ingredient came through strongly and the entire dish was excellent.

Monkfish Grilled for 2.5 hours with an Artisinal Style Sauce arrived next. I'll admit that I'm not sure what that exactly means, but the fish was beautifully flavored and textured. Still though not as memorable as the earlier vegetable dishes. The veggie dish was Spinach with Carrot Mousse, Sesame Sauce, and Candied Orange Rind. The spinach was perfectly prepared. Don't underestimate how hard it is to do that with this fragile green.

A silver dish arrived next to our table on a serving table. On it was a pyramid of gray salt. Apparently a beetroot had been cooking inside the pyramid for 2 hours. It was carved tableside, much like you might see a steak carved tableside. And then it was served simply with, oh, 25 year old balsamic vinegar. A generous amount to boot. Even Lauren's obsessive balsamic vinegar love affair could not make her finish all the vinegar they gave her. The beet was simply fantastic.

For the rest of us a dish of farm fresh chicken arrived. It looked beautiful. Unfortunately it didn't taste the same. It was a bit dry. The vegetables that accompanied were either uninteresting or repeats from before. How funny is it that with her more constrained menu, Lauren's vegetarian fare outshone the few dishes we had with meat and fish. I suppose Passard may not love chicken as much as vegetables. That said, it by no means took away from the experience. It just made me appreciate the first several dishes that much more. And things were far from over.

26-passard2.jpgDessert rolled in with style and creativity. First a cheese plate. Excellent. Then Tomatoes stuffed with Fruits and 12 Secret Flavors and Mint Ice Cream finished tableside. (We think it was mint. It could have been vanilla that was made minty in our mouths by the contrast with the 12 secret flavors.) Tomatoes for dessert? Tomatoes? Dessert? What the hell? One word - "stunning". The spices in the fruit - yes, on this evening the tomato was a fruit not just according to the letter of the law but according to the spirit as well - were absolutely vivid. I also have to admit that I loved that the flavors were "secret". I don't think it was a KFC style marketing ploy as much as it was simply very difficult to decipher the ingredients from tasting given how complex the flavor was the was woven throughout the dish. And while I'm not a mint/sweet fan, the Mint Ice Cream was gorgeously creamy.

Just when we thought we had seen it all, along came an enormous Millefeuille. A millefeuille is a several thin layers of puff pastry with cream (or other fillings) in between each layer. It's typically a dessert. This thing was huge. We saw it sitting on a plate in a serving area and assumed it was enough for every patron there for lunch with some left over. In fact it was to be divided between the four of us. And when it showed up on our plates we dutifully ate it. Lucky thing. It was flakey and yummy with hazelnut flavored cream. The top layer had a wonderful glaze of burnt sugar. This is what it means to "go the extra mile".

At one point late in our meal, something special happened. The kitchen was winding down as most of the diners had made it through the bulk of their lunch. Alain Passard - who had been toiling away in the kitchen making our food, not off doing his show for the food network (he doesn't have one), not traveling to Las Vegas visiting one of the 13 other branches of L'Arpege (there aren't any), and not working on the latest of his cookbooks (there aren't any) - came out of the kitchen for a brief respite. And the assembled diners broke into spontaneous applause. Passard's face conveyed appreciation, humility, and a sense of humor. He sat down, and enjoyed a bite to eat and a glass of wine.

This was simply one of the best meals any of us had ever had. And it was simple. It was surprisingly and significantly vegetarian. Passard loves the ingredients and he knows them well. Lunch felt like an adventure. One without pretense. That said, there is one thing I should mention. This lunch was the single most expensive meal I've ever eaten. It was also probably one of the most memorable. Most people can't afford to have the meal we ate. That said, there were much less expensive fixed menu or even a la carte options that would be accessible to most people. Even if all you can do is go and order one dish, do it. Arpege and Passard are special, and something that everyone should experience at least once.

 

Thursday, December 18, 2003, 11:58 PM


I know I promised an overview of the most expensive meal I've ever had. But I forgot Channukah starts tomorrow night. (For those unfamiliar with Channukah, it's not the Jewish equivalent of Christmas. It's closer to Arbor day in terms of the relative holiday importance index. The Jewish equivalent of Christmas can be found here.) So the expensive meal writeup will have to wait for a couple of days.

In the meantime the Boston Globe talks about some holiday baking. Here's the recipe.

Jelly donuts (also known as "sufganiyot") are my favorite part of the holiday. The Jerusalem Post (free registration required) writes about a couple of kinds here. It contains a great quote as to how all Jewish holidays can be summed up the same way: "They tried to kill us, they failed, let's eat". Funny and true. :)

Weird but still topical, Jewish rock "stars" Dweezil Zappa (son of Frank) and Lisa Loeb will have their own food network show. The Los Angeles Times (free registration required) discusses their upcoming show over Channukah (and other Jewish) food with the pair here.

 

Wednesday, December 17, 2003, 10:23 PM


All this eating can get expensive. I'm lucky that I can go out to eat on a semi-regular basis, and travel to interesting places every so often. That said, not everyone has that flexibility. The question is: what role should money play in the write-ups you encounter on this site? First things first. What role does any factor play in how we judge a restaurant. The bottom line in every case is the food. Food matters to me more than anything. More than service. More than cost. More than location, decor, or most other things you might imagine. These secondary aspects certainly play a role. And in fact, when the food isn't superlative, my mind wanders to those other things. Their deficiencies can get magnified when the food is bad. Any deficiencies can also get muted when the food is wonderful. This site is about food, so I think that's appropriate.

That said, shouldn't price play some kind of a formal role in how we judge food experiences? Take the following question. If I had two identically wonderful meals. One costs $20 per person, the other $200 per person. Was the food better or worse in either of them? Sure, it's a bummer that the expensive meal can be eaten way less often and simply isn't as accessible to most people, but that doesn't change the food. Not only does perspective differ on what's expensive (depending on how much you can afford), but prices change so frequently that giving any kind of reliable measure of price on this site is just too difficult for us to do. So when you read about a restaurant here, we pretty much never discuss what it costs. If things are egregiously over-priced relative to the quality of the food then that will certainly get a mention. If things are super cheap, and a great value, then that will likely get a mention as well. Otherwise we leave it to you to figure out what things cost and what you want to spend.

Also, people need to be more creative when it comes to cost. You can go to a great restaurant and order less to save money. You can order only appetizers. You can go during lunch and likely get the same menu for much cheaper. And for restaurants that are just way too pricey, but have food that's divine, you could go there, and purchase one dish. It's a luxury, and likely won't constitute an entire meal, but once-in-awhile you can have some of this super experience for yourself.

Does expensive equal great? Definitely not. We're thrilled to spend $2 on an entire meal of wonderful cheap (typically ethnic) food. We're also happy to spend a lot more for a full service haute cuisine experience. Would I rather it was all cheap? Sure. But some approaches to making great food just cost a lot of money. Some don't. Ultimately I'd always love to save money, but while we need to be responsible and watch the bottom line when it comes to spending, ultimately the goal is to eat wonderful food. Expense becomes just another thing to deal with, like crossing traveling to another country, standing in long lines, or having to make reservations months in advance.

All this equivocation in advance of tomorrow's entry - the most expensive meal I've ever eaten.

 

Tuesday, December 16, 2003, 11:02 PM


I recently completed reading Michel Roux' Life is A Menu - Reminiscences of a Master Chef. Michel Roux and his brother Albert are often credited with bringing high-end French cuisine to England. They opened their London restaurant Le Gavroche in 1967, and then opened the Waterside Inn in 1972, just  outside London in Bray. In 1982 Le Gavroche became Britain's first Michelin three star restaurant (it has two today). In 1985, Waterside Inn became its second (it still has three). In 1986 the brothers separated their business interests with Albert taking Le Gavroche, and Michel taking the Waterside Inn. Today, the cuisine at both restaurants is executed by the brothers' respective sons. Michel's son Alain at Waterside, and Albert's son Michel Jr. at Le Gavroche. (Yes. Michel is Albert's son).

The various members of the Roux family are significant players in the London and International food scene. Having restaurants with Michelin stars helps. And Michel tells much of the story from his perspective in Life Is a Menu. I'm glad I read the book. It's fun to hear the story of the path he took in his career - starting out as a patissier, cooking for the Rothschild family, cooking in the army in North Africa, cooking at the British Embassy in Paris, and moving to London. Some of the dishes he describes sound delicious and he includes a smattering of his favorite recipes.

At times though I start to wonder how many pages I want to spend with Roux who is clearly recording some key opinions, judgments, and claims for posterity. His accomplishments including his successful restaurants, his Michelin stars, his cookbooks, his various awards, etc. are clear indications of a pretty significant career. However, it often feels like Roux has to go even further taking credit for things, or being annoyed. On several occasions in the book, for example, he takes a moment to point out that various accomplishments during his career for which he and his brother Albert were given credit, were really driven by him alone (often against his brother's wishes). With regard to their BBC television show, Michel wrote: "as in all our publishing ventures, Albert left the script-writing to me, but just as work began he insisted on swapping scripts." Apparently, according to Michel, Albert not only didn't do any work on their joint efforts, but also made things harder. It's not so much the insecurity showing through that's annoying as is the way these jabs come out of nowhere and then recede. They're  not the main story, and just distracting.

There are a few other distractions. The book is organized as a sort of menu with each chapter being a course or ingredient - Hors d'Oeuvres, Eggs, Fish, etc. It doesn't really hang together as a metaphor but that can be forgiven I suppose. However, some of Roux anecdotes fall flat. He tells a story about cooking for Boris Yeltsin at the Kremlin. The story is rife with challenges inflicted on him by the local "jealous" cooking staff, and then this oddly (and what I can only assume is partially) described incident where Yeltsin "lunges" at him and takes a bite of the cake Roux was presenting. It's not really so much funny as it is strange. Roux doesn't bother to explain. Additionally, the characters are either two dimensional, or are even once-in-awhile characterized by weird seemingly racial statements - as he describes an Italian member of his staff. Also, after reading Jeffrey Steingarten's books where no claim is left unsubstantiated or uninvestigated, some of Roux' offhand remarks about the mad cow crisis in England. He rails against overreaction as well as producers who caused the problems, and then talks about his standing up to the crisis and bravely eating and serving beef. But he never really dives deep. It's like the crisis is another opportunity for him to show what a pioneer he was.

14-langoustine.jpgEven though I wasn't quite  done with the book when we went to Le Gavroche I had a pretty good idea of my fears about the food produced by Roux. Le Gavroche was very good but a little staid. On this night we were headed to the Waterside Inn. If he seemed slightly aloof and self-centered in his book, would his food be the same way? Essentially I couldn't make a real comparison as the kitchen had been taken over by his son Alain. That said, I was eager to try and taste what Roux had described pretty well in the book.

Despite all my negativity I was still glad I read the book. Especially the tidbit about how they have a small boat attached to the restaurant that they can give to guests for pre-dinner outings. Sure enough Alex, Lauren, Debbie, and I showed up around 7:00pm and boarded the little boat they had tied to their dock. We didn't push off until at least 20 minutes later once they'd loaded us up with champagne, Spanish Almonds, and canapes. These included pork rillette, olive tapenade, and a mozarella which tasted like goat cheese. Each was placed on its own delicious buttery pastry foundation. Yummy! The champagne was excellent as well. Luckily the canapes were worth the wait (which was oddly long as we sat in the electric launch).

When we returned from our cruise down the river and sat down at our table we mentioned to the waitstaff that we were there to challenge the kitchen. They simply asked us how many courses we would like. Nice response. First up was an amuse bouche - Halibut Gravlax. It was beautiful, generous, and tasty. Enter the Vegetable Dome. A Dome of Provencal Vegetables Filled with Wild Mushrooms and Artichokes Served with an Herb Flavored Olive Oil. The veggies were a touch acidic, but came with these incredibly fine and delicious crisps. They were made from pressed tomato slices that were so concentrated in flavor they tasted almost like pineapple. Pretty great. We also got Crabmeat and Langoustine Tails with a rich Peach Cream and Crisp Cucumber. This dish was amazing. There were subtle hints of cayenne that gave the dish some oomph that was subtle but super distinctive. The flavor had a long finish.

Ever had chicken jello? Sorry, I mean a chicken consomme gelee. A few years ago I would have been afraid of this. No longer. I've never been much for the "skin" on the surface of gelatined dishes. Luckily there was no skin on this dish. The gelee was soft, and the chicken essence that came through in every bite was direct and flavorful. Anyone for foie gras? Can't say we were surprised that it showed up in front of us. We were also pretty grateful. Specifically they brought us a Terrine of Foie Gras with Chicken Breast Coated in Pistachio Nuts and Served with Grapes Marinated in Ratafia. Alex said this was the best foie gras pate he had ever had. The stripes of chicken alternating with the foie worked great.

Cliche or classic? You decide. But it's hard to refuse a dish that includes egg, mushroom, truffle, and asparagus. It's a tried and true combination. Specifically we got Two Poached Eggs Served in a Pastry Case with Asparagus Tips and a Light Mousseline Sauce. This dish was quite good. There might have been a touch too much mushroom as it started t overshadow some of the other flavors. Next up was Pan Fried Lobster Medallions with a White Port Sauce and Ginger Flavored Vegetable Julienne. The lobster was good. The sauce underneath it was great. More seafood. Pan Fried Scallops with Seaweed Tartare, Herb Salad, and Marinated Baby Squid in Saffron Flavored Vinaigrette. The scallop was beautifully cooked. The green sauce underneath was amazing, bursting with interesting and complex flavors. (Later we got to visit the kitchen. The huge vat of stock bubbling in there must have played a role in this sauce.)

Next was Fillets of Red Mullet with Couscous, Small Ribbons of Grilled Courgette and a Light Gazpacho Style Sauce Flavored with Basil. The fish was very good. Couscous and chickpeas are an interesting combination. Additional entrees we had which were both enjoyable included Rolled Loin of Lamb with Grain Mustard, Crisp Pancetta, Soft White Beans, and Girolle Mushroooms served with a Light Savory Jus; and Veal Medallion Lightly Pan-Fried, Served with a Sauce made from White Wine, Wine Vinegar, and Fresh Herbs with Macaroni and Mushroom Batons.

Dessert was rich and diverse and included: Melting Chocolate Mousse with a Running Pear Filling Scented with Ginger, and a Pear Sorbet; Strawberry Ice Cream Lightened with Meringue, and a Mixture of Summer Fruits Coated in a Light Mint Syrup; a Warm Raspberry Souffle; and finally A Selection of Six Mouth Watering Desserts of Michel and Alain Roux. I should add, this was followed by a two-tiered tray with a ton of petit fours.

One weird note. Restaurants in England love to give you some high end sparkling water. Waterside's choice was Badoit. It was very disappointing (the worst we had in England). Not nearly enough bubbles.

What can I say. We went to Le Gavroche and it was very good. A little stuffy but very good. I read the book and was glad I read it. It was pretty stuffy, but a good snapshot of a chef from an earlier age. And finally, we went to the Waterside Inn. It was very very good. The atmosphere was still old school. But the youth of the chef and the generousness of the waitstaff helped things not feel stuffy. Meeting Alain Roux himself was fun, as was the tour of the kitchen. The kitchen had a custom oven hood with Michel Roux' signature. And while dad's ego seemed to overshadow his book, his son's cooking came out of the shade. I think a full departure from the trappings (not the essence) of dad's legacy could propel Waterside Inn to the next level. And since the level it's already it is pretty lofty already, it's definitely worth the trip.

 

Monday, December 15, 2003, 11:59 PM


My friend Roee usually makes excellent restaurant recommendations. When he mentioned the view as being a key feature of Harvey Nichols' Oxo Tower Restaurant and Brasserie, I should have known that he was using a different framework to make this recommendation. I like nice views. But I like great food even better. Unfortunately, Harvey Nichols came up short on the latter. It should be noted, we ate at the Brasserie and not the Restaurant which was a bit more upscale. I seem to recall it was the same kitchen serving both but I may be wrong. This seemed like a nice place to get us going as Lauren and Alex joined us for the last week of our trip to Europe for some excessive eating adventures.

Things started off kind of oddly when we get some bread but no bread plates. I don't mind a bunch of crumbs on the tablecloth, but it was a little strange. There was also a floured roll with way too much flour. Maybe I missed the point. One highlight was the soup of the day - Tomato Aubergine (that's what they call eggplant). The soup was great. A touch spicy with a wonderful texture. It got the appetite going.

Next up was Fried Chili Duck, Crispy Peking Pancakes, Cucumber and Green Pawpaw Salad. The duck was surprisingly good as there were lots of small pieces that were fried up nice and crispy as well as a great spicy sauce. After the duck we ate Pan-Fried Pancetta Wrapped Prawns with Warm Creme Fraiche Linguini. When eating shrimp wrapped in pancetta you're not exactly starting at a deficit. That said, even with a decent baseline, this dish wasn't special. The creme fraiche on plain linguini was... plain. When you got a bit of every ingredient into one bite it was good, but that was often a difficult construction task.

Lauren ordered Warm Artichoke Potato Frittata, Asparagus, Aioli, and Rocket Salad. Her reaction was "lunch counter, and not in a good way". The artichoke was tender and delicious but was overwhelmed by the blandness of the rest of the dish. This was followed by the Wild Mushroom Tart with Mesclun Salad and Semi-Dried Cherry Tomatoes. The dominant flavor in the tart was salt. Salt is there to enhance other flavors, not take over.

Next up was Rosemary Lamb Rack, Spiced Aubergine, Piquilo Pepper, and Couscous Dressing (that's right - couscous dressing). The lamb was uninteresting and over rosemaried (sp?). People overdo herbs. Not sure why. Another thought that crossed our minds was that couscous shouldn't be used as a decoration. It's kind of a tease. Following the lamb was Seared Scallops, Thai Vegetable Salad, Tomato and Lemongrass Coulis. The scallops were unfortunately not seared well. The sauce was good, but the texture was bad. We ordered a side of Sugar Snaps, Flaked Almond, Garlic Butter. With that description and those simple ingredients how do you screw it up?Unfortunately they knew just how. The dish was oily and the "pea-ness" didn't come through. (Don't say that out loud.)

Dessert included Lemon and Almond Cake with Blackberries and Mascarpone. This was delicious! There was also a Blueberry and Sour Cream Brulee with Shortbread. This was fine, but not as inspired as the lemon and almond cake.

Essentially our meal started out decently and just went downhill from there. One interesting observation we made was that there was lots of over-wiping of the table. Perhaps this was to compensate for the lack of bread plates. And while the view of the river was quite nice (especially from the balcony) it also didn't compensate. In this latter case the compensation would have been for the on average (with a couple of exceptions) mediocre food. Bummer.

Don't worry though. While this wasn't a great way to start the week, we went to a ton more restaurants after this one. Not just in London but in Paris too. More tomorrow.

 

Sunday, December 14, 2003, 11:58 PM


I made gnocchi from scratch tonight. I took the recipe out of Mario Batali's Babbo cookbook. They came out surprisingly yummy for my first try. Basically mashed potatoes, flour, egg, and salt. So squirmy but fresh and light tasting. I improvised the sauce - garlic, mushrooms, olive oil, pine nuts, white wine, grated parmesan, tomatoes, cilantro, salt. It was missing something. Maybe lemon.

Administrative notes: on some key pages (including this one) there is now a box (in the upper right hand corner) that helps you search the page you're on. This is key for the restaurant pages when you don't know what category a restaurant is in. Thanks to Chris for this suggestion.

Additionally, I'm realizing a lot of people get to this site through Google. I think they end up right at the city by city restaurant pages. I'm starting to wonder if people even know what to click on those pages. I've added a chunky "guide" to the top of each page. At some point people may get annoyed and I'll need to add a "Hide Me" button. Here's the guide:

 

We'll see what happens. Comments always welcome.

 

Saturday, December 13, 2003, 8:38 PM


Now this is way cool. It may be old news for most of you as it was posted back in March, but underground restaurants are popping up around the U.S. (free New York Times registration required). I've always wanted to run a pirate radio station. What about a pirate restaurant? Not the one from the Simpsons. I'm going to have to see if I can find one. There's an old thread on Chowhound.

Leslie sent in this (warning: some may find it a bit, um, yucky). I'll admit it was based on a conversation a bunch of us had, so she's not entirely to blame for bringing up this topic.

 

Friday, December 12, 2003, 9:11 PM


During our month in London we decided to spend a week visiting Israel. Israel is an absolutely incredible place for food. Unfortunately because things are a little dicey security-wise we weren't really able to go out an indulge in the entire food scene. However, there's one thing we were able to appreciate even during our limited stay. It's not the results of the almost Dr. Moreau-like experiments that they do with dairy and citrus which yield an incredible variety of delicious items in both categories. It's not the absolutely amazing sesame breads and rolls that inhabit every corner store and street vendor's stall. It's not the street food with an endless supply delicious salads and toppings. It's not the various savory and fantastic grilled meat items inhabiting tiny restaurants served by Jews and Arabs alike. And it's not the Lahmejun  (lamb "pizza") that the Armenians serve. It's Israeli tomatoes. I believe most people in the United States (and in the world for that matter) will never even once eat a tomato as good as the ones Israeli's eat on even a bad day.

A good tomato should be firm and not mushy, crisp and not mealy, bursting with juice, and have an incredible almost sweet and sour flavor that fills your mouth. I care little about the color to be honest, but a deep red can always be nice for presentation. Though I've had tomatoes that were not covered in red and had some green areas that fit the bill flavor and texture-wise. It's certainly possible that in my quest for crispness, and my almost maniacal avoidance of mushiness, that I could sometimes be accused of eating a tomato that's not 100% ripe. I'll admit that I walk the tightrope sometimes, but in Israel it's easy. The tomatoes there are incredible. It's also nice that breakfast and dinner in Israel both rely heavily on vegetable salads as a main component of the meal. Gives you more opportunities to eat the tomatoes. The closest I've ever come to them in the United States was shopping at the farmer's market in Santa Cruz buying beautiful plum tomatoes from a local grower. At some point down the road I will delve into the details of the whys and wherefores of this tomato nirvana. But for now, know that I am gladly eating up slice after slice of delicious juicy goodness.

Note: just to make sure to present a balanced picture of the food in Israel, there is one thing to call out that's decidedly negative. While there are many cuisines that are only available in tolerable or mediocre form in Israel, and various other things to lament, it is Israel's complete and utter lack of a decent scoop of vanilla ice cream that holds it back from being a truly modern nation. What passes for vanilla in Israel is some sort of weird thin and antiseptic flavor that's somehow reminiscent of vanilla. It's as if it saw vanilla once and is now doing a bad cruise-ship comedy quality impression. To add insult to injury there is typically a weird coffee-ish aftertaste. In a country where it's hot so much of the time, I think vanilla ice cream that conforms in even the most basic fashion to international notions of what constitutes vanilla-ness is mandatory.

 

Thursday, December 11, 2003, 11:12 PM


Veeraswamy - Britain's oldest Indian restaurant was recommended to us via a variety of sources - in some places as the best Indian food in London, and one of them notably recommending it as a good place to take kids on a Sunday morning. While the latter seems true enough, the former is not. However, just because you're not the best, doesn't mean you're not good. And Veeraswamy served up some very nice Indian brunch for us.  Not only was the food tasty, but the deal seemed alright as well. Three courses - starters, mains, and desserts - with the starters and mains consisting of three types of items each, plus naan, dal, and rice, all for £15. And it's all you can eat.

The starters consisted of Chicken Tikka in a marinade of white spices and cheese - tasted yummy and even more yogurty than regular Chicken Tikka; Lentil and Minced Lamb Kebabs - these were sort of like falafels; and Crisp Wheat Puris filled with Potato Mix, Yoghurt, and Chutneys - this was super interesting, like a little surprise in a delicate fried shell. The mains consisted of Red Snapper Fillets with Onions and Peppers; Lamb Knuckles and Potatoes in a Tomato Gravy; and Chicken in a Coconut Cream with Kashmiri Chili, and Onion Gravy - this was super delicious, we had seconds. Desserts were a choice between sweet dumplings with ice cream - these were sweet and pretty decent; and Rice Pudding with Minced Dates - this tasted like Quaker Oats. All in all a lovely meal. Good fresh flavorful Indian food. And not too expensive.

Yet another administrative note: I still have not been able to traverse the jungle of my server software to get searching the site to work the regular way. So in addition to depending on Google for our new ad system, we're going to depend on them for searching the site too. So, search is back in the top navigation. Enjoy.

 

Monday, December 8, 2003, 10:12 PM


18-crisp.jpgMichel Roux is the French born chef credited as one of the people to bring fine French cuisine to England. He and his brother Albert started Le Gavroche in 1967 and a few years later became the first restaurant in Britain to receive three Michelin stars. It is now run by Michel Roux Jr., nephew of Michel Sr., and son of Albert. With this information, and my nose buried in Roux' Sr.'s memoirs - Life is a Menu, Reminiscences of a Master Chef, we trundled off for dinner at Le Gavroche. This is what you call a "fancy" restaurant. And when I say fancy, I mean "old school"  fancy. While a tie is not required, I think that owes to the times as opposed to the true desires of the restaurant but that's just speculation on my part. Dinner at Le Gavroche has an element of theater. The restaurant itself is tucked away into a discreet building. The first floor housing a small reception, bar, and smoking area where guests are encouraged to relax. A set of stairs leads you down to the basement dining room where it seems like hundreds (ok, maybe tens) of wait staff greet you with smiles, "madame"s, "monsieur"s, and a confidence that you are going to have a very structured and positive experience. It's fun in its own way.

As a side note, Le Gavroche is yet another restaurant where photography is not allowed (I managed to convince them to let me photograph the food without revealing why I was doing it), but smoking is. For an establishment that puts so much time, energy, and money into creating a culinary sensory experience, it amazes me that they are ok letting it get ruined by the odoriferous cigars that filled the air during our meal. We forgot to ask if there was a non-smoking section. (Debbie thinks that if we started directing lawsuits at smokers instead of tobacco companies, the whole problem would go away in a hurry.)

Dinner overall was very good; we ordered the tasting menu. And Le Gavroche really pulled out all the stops when it came to delivering a meal. Champagne, caviar, foie gras, lobster, and truffles all made their appearances at various points in the meal, in various combinations (some more than once). With an experienced kitchen, it's hard not to make an impression with that roster of "luxury" ingredients. And there were a couple of dishes that made lasting impressions. One of the amuse bouche we got was a near perfect piece of smoked salmon coated with a sprinkling of herbs, on top of cucumber threads and a touch of honey mustard. The salmon was so close to perfect it could wave to it. In thinking about what would have gotten it all the way there I think it's only my selfish desire for a slightly bigger piece. But in a world where restaurants are always giving you too much (even in their tasting menus) I shouldn't be complaining about Le Gavroche where the portions really were absolutely right on. The Artichoke Filled with Foie Gras, Truffles, and Chicken Mousse was a "wow" dish. I'm not typically one for a lot of gelatinous layers to a dish, but this had several layers of contrasting soft textures, and frankly an incredible flavor. It was inspired.  The Langoustine in a Light Ginger Butter Sauce was sublime. The leftover butter sauce at the end did not escape our spoons before the wait staff collected the dishes. If spoons and mopping up the butter sauce with bread hadn't polished off the job, then I was seriously considering bringing the bowl to my mouth and drinking the remainder. I wonder what the waiters would have done then? Probably just stand there mouths agape. Or maybe smile knowingly. I suppose we'll never know.

The other dishes were all very good. Rare Peppered Tuna, Smoked Salmon, and Broad Bean Salad with Caviar Dressing; Rack of Lamb, Sweetbreads, and Grilled Kidney, with Garlic Jus (Debbie is really breaking out trying the kidney and the sweetbreads); Rocket Salad with Parmesan, Balsamic Vinegar, and Summer Truffles; Bitter Chocolate and Praline Indulgence (does gold leaf really have any flavor?); Crisp Layers of Puff Pastry with Strawberries and Mascarpone Sorbet (the sorbet was very very good); and a beautiful selection of Petits Fours. But to be honest, there was something missing as well. Dinner did not blow us away. How do you speak with texture about an experience that had all the right ingredients (literally and figuratively) but wasn't moving. Are we going out so consistently to eat great food that our bar has changed? There's no doubt we have more perspective now than we used to, but I believe that super food experiences can make a seriously memorable impression on me anywhere, anytime. Le Gavroche was kind of like the musical that's been running in London's theater district for 30 years. It's still a high quality production. It's still reminds you of all the reasons it's been there for 30 years. But it also seems a little bit tired.

Administrative note: we're trying something a little new on the site. Ads. Google does a nice job keeping them topical and subtle. So, we'll see how things go. Feel free to click on any link you're interested in as these folks are in effect sponsoring our website and keeping it free to each of you.

 

Sunday, December 7, 2003, 11:32 PM


I am starting to think there may be an algorithm for determining your likeliness of experiencing good food in a particular city. There are a number of factors I can imagine that go into it. I think the first is likely the number of restaurants in the city. Tokyo reputedly has 80,000 restaurants. I've heard London has 15,000. But that can only be one factor, as there's no accounting for taste. What after all explains the incredible consistent quality you find at restaurants in Tokyo (and Japan in general) versus what you'd find in the US or in England where we'd been visiting. I'll continue to ponder the Good Food Likeliness Index™ (GFLI). Without further investigation I can only make broad assumptions not based in scientific fact - New York City has a high GFLI, and Topeka has a low GFLI. In the meantime, here are signs that London's GFLI is on the rise.

05-chilichickenramen.jpgOn this day, one spot for lunch wasn't enough. Instead we ate at branches of Wagamama and Yo! Sushi for lunch one right after the other. In their Islington incarnations they happen to be neighbors so it made our lunch travels minimal. Let's start with Wagamama. The chain of Wagamamas across London (with a few outside of London and Europe entirely) are modern European interpretations of the noodle bars that exist by the thousands across Japan. These are clean, beautifully designed, modern restaurants with row upon row of long lined tables and benches where strangers are seated next to each other to enjoy their ramen and soba. From your spot on a bench you have a clear view of the kitchen while you wait for one of the roving waiters with their wireless ordering systems to come by, take your order, and then deliver your food in a flash. And btw, Wagamama is a no smoking restaurant. Important in London where cigarettes can easily become a main ingredient in everything you eat.

Speaking of the food, it's great. While the community and efficiency of the Japanese noodle shop have thoroughly modern interpretations, the food is much closer to the original. Can it compare head-to-head with one of the best noodle shops in all of Tokyo? Probably not. Does it need to? Nope. In Tokyo, it's very difficult to get a bad meal when frequenting various small shops serving local specialties. In general the quality bar is just much much higher there. And Wagamama meets the bar. In addition to serving bowl upon bowl of  delicious noodles and soup - we had a thoroughly delicious hot Chili Chicken Ramen, Wagama also serves other dishes including the Japanese specialty of fried cutlets - Tonkatsu. I had the Chicken Katsu with Rice. A perfectly fried chicken cutlet - light and crispy, with a delicious curry sauce, a mound of (slightly overcooked) rice, and a some greens and red pickles on the side in a Japanese dressing. Thoroughly scrumptious.

It's not that these were the best Japanese noodles and katsu I've ever tasted - though frankly they were very very good. It's that they even exist. The likelihood that thousands of small stalls serving quick and delicious authentic cuisine for a small amount of money will spring up in your favorite metropolitan city (where they don't already exist) is virtually nil. Wagamama has packaged up the best of the experience to scale and is delivering it across town. A city like Seattle (which I call home), that prides itself to a certain degree on being enlightened and appreciative of quality ingredients and food, can't even come close. Here's hoping Wagamama expands to the US.

03-dryspicytuna.jpgThree words I don't like hearing in a row are "fast food sushi". But we'd had such a good experience at Wagamama and were still feeling a bit peckish. And after all, we have a duty to you our reader to eat as much as possible. Despite concerns about a fast food sushi chain, we trudged in bravely. And we were pleasantly surprised. Though not owned by the same folks as Wagamama they seem to have taken Wagamama's principles as their own. And this is a good thing.

Corner sushi shops abound in Japan. They often deliver a decent quality of sushi in a short amount of time. You grab sushi off a conveyor belt eating just as much as you want. Tea is delivered to within inches of your seat via pipes ringing the conveyor belt. And there's an entertaining "changing of the guard" as the sushi chefs rotate every so often clambering through some tiny secret opening below the conveyor belt and counter. While the conveyor belt as sushi delivery device is a novelty in the western world, it's a matter of practicality and convenience in some of the small sushi shops in Tokyo. What better way to get as wide a selection of sushi into your face as quickly as  possible. It accomplishes both.

While I wouldn't stack the sushi at Yo! Sushi against some of the best in the world, the fish is fresh, and what they lack in refinement they make up in creativity. While not traditional, various enticing creations crossed in front of us on the conveyor belt - many made it into our mouths as well. A dry spicy tuna maki, shrimp and greens with black tobiko maki, various ngiri, gunkan makis, sashimis, slightly seared salmon sashimis encrusted with black sesame seeds, yakitori, salads, and even fruit, all rode by. The ones we ate were quite good and fresh.

Soy sauce, bowls, napkins, wasabi, and pickled gari were all available from built-in compartments that were spaced every few seats at the bar. In between them were stacks of glasses and taps dispensing water - still and fizzy. No green tea though. Different color dishes denote how much each item costs. Unlike in Japan the dishes flying by had small plastic covers - probably (though I haven't confirmed it) acquiescing to some health department regulation. While Wagmama's atmosphere was modern European, Yo! Sushi's was a riff on trendy Japan.  Exposed concrete and piping, beautiful wood counters, mirrored logos, and flat screen TVs promoting the various dishes all made for a fun environment.

To me the fact that Wagamama and Yo! Sushi have both tried to exemplify the best of the Japanese food stall/corner restaurant, and scale it up to a modern chain across London. Most importantly, they've done this while actually keeping up a pretty impressive quality of food. Wagamama is a bit better, but I think sushi is a bit more challenging food to get right. Either way, you're lucky to have this kind of fast food available if you live in London.

 

Friday, December 5, 2003, 10:38 PM


04-flakead.jpgWho knew that London would be experiencing a heat wave when we decided to pay it a visit. Luckily this pushed me to some investigation of some of the frozen treats London has to offer. Nothing fancy, just some basics. First off is the orange juice popsicle. Not an orange flavored popsicle. Not one of those fancy fruit chunk popsicles. An orange juice popsicle. The brand I found here was called Sainsbury's Real Orange Juice Lollies. It's pretty much the best orange juice popsicle I've ever tasted. You can try making these at home, but inevitably on your first couple of sucks, the juice will travel down your throat and you'll be left sucking on a plain ice cube. I need to look into the freezing methodology to find out why this is. The Orange Juice Lollies here in London come pretty close to avoiding that problem. You can suck lots of the juice out of the frozen popsicle slab, and then when a chunk is ready to be bitten off it still tastes pretty full of juice. I think there's still some distance between this and perfect orange juice popsicles, but I'm wondering how much physics will get in the way of perfection - a chunk of ice can't produce yummy ice cold orange juice without end, can it?

Next up is the soft ice cream you'll see sold by street vendors and ice cream trucks all over town. Specifically, a dollop of vanilla soft ice cream swirled into a cake cone. By cake I mean the substance that ice cream cones that are neither sugar cones or waffle cones are made of. This is the same substance that chocolate wafers are made of. And by cone I mean literally a container with a conical shape. Typically when you order a "cake cone" in the US it's actually a cake cup with a flat bottom preceded by a 2x3 or 2x4 grid at the bottom holding little boxes of melted ice cream protected only by the walls surrounding them that could do damage to your gums if your not careful. As it turns out, this soft ice cream treat is not complete without popping in a Cadbury Flake bar. (This may have something to do with all the signage these street vendors have which is covered with the Cadbury logo much like sub shops in the US have Coke or Pepsi on their signs.) The Flake bar is a chocolate bar the size of two AA batteries laid end-to-end. It's surface is like that of a round rolodex with little chocolate ridges (i.e. "flakes") expose themselves. The chocolate bar is supposed to make you feel like they'd layered multiple super thin layers of chocolate on top of each other to create this bar. Almost like Tamago done in chocolate. The texture of the flake bar is actually quite good, but the chocolate isn't great, and sometimes tastes a little dry. For that reason I can take it or leave it when it comes to my soft ice cream cones in London. Typically however I take it just to jazz up my treat.

A really good soft ice cream (I'm talking about the hardcore stuff that's served by teenagers across the world and requires no fancy ingredients; not talking about gelato, etc.) should be like a very very very thick really good milkshake. It has a processed quality that makes it uniform but not too smooth. It's really cold, almost but not quite to the point where there are the tiniest ice crystals forming and has the slightest rough touch to your tongue. It also tastes a touch light and airy. The first time I got a cone on London the soft ice cream fit these criteria to a tee. But since then just about all of the soft ice cream I had in London was too heavy. It was too creamy. I started to try and remember where I had that first delicious soft ice cream, as well as details about the places that were giving me sub-par frozen goodies. After many half-eaten cones (ok, maybe two-thirds eaten cones) from vendor after vendor I noticed they all had Italian-made Carpigiani soft ice cream machines. Most were the same model, but a couple had older versions. It didn't seem to make a difference. I started to wonder if there was another variable that I hadn't taken into account like the configuration of the machine, the brand of raw ingredients, etc. But then I happened upon my original vendor, the stand on the street outside the Piccadilly Circus London Underground Station. Not only did the gentleman behind the counter serve me an excellent soft ice cream (not quite as transcendent as the first time, but still much much better than the competition), but he proudly pointed out to me that he wasn't using that "Carpigiani shit", but rather employed the Electro-Freeze. He was proud of the machine, it's resiliency, their consistent servicing and fastidious cleaning of the machine. He was quick to point out that it was likely it's British heritage that was responsible for its superior soft ice cream, and that it was definitely the different machine that was responsible for the different qualities in the soft ice cream.

There is a variation on the soft ice cream treat described above supplied by none other than McDonald's. I often think about doing a tour of the world's McDonald's and only eating the items that are unique to the McDonald's in that country - their attempts to be "local". These include things like the Teriyaki Burger in Tokyo, the Lobster Sandwich in Canada (where the Golden arches have a tiny pandering maple leaf in the center of their logo), and the McFalafel in Israel (this last one is a joke). (Note: after I wrote this, I found out there is indeed a McFalafel in neighboring Egypt. Wild!) Inevitably when I want to try that unique McDish I am in a bind. I debate endlessly about filling my stomach with McDonald's in a city like Tokyo where every minute counts, and I am running out of time to try as many of that city's approximately 80,000 restaurants as I can in a few days. If I fill up on Teriyaki Burgers how will I have room for eating at some new restaurant. (If you're thinking I should take a bite and throw the rest out, that is unfortunately not a realistic option for me these days as I hate wasting, and I like eating.) Maybe because it's a dessert the decision went the other way in London when faced with trying their new Peach and Apricot Waffle Cone

The Peach and Apricot Waffle cone is (much as you'd expect from its name) a waffle cone filled with vanilla soft ice cream and topped with a peach and apricot sort of marmalade/jam. In some sort of homage or at least in competition to/with the Cadbury Flake, McDonald's has stuck a "Chocolate Swizzle Stick", (what we would call a Pirouline) into the ice cream after the "sauce" has been applied to finish off the dessert. The entire item didn't make a good first impression on me as it looked somewhat different than the its picture in the ads which had romanced me for the previous two weeks. But like the women I imagine I would meet on the internet, looks can't be everything. Right? So how does it taste? Not bad, not great. The ice cream is not the good stuff that came out of the Electro-Freeze machine - I stupidly forgot to find out what machine was making their soft ice cream. The waffle cone was quite tasty and crunchy as was the "swizzle stick". But the jam (or at least what I'd hoped would be a jam) was really more of a sauce. And in fact the McDonald's literature described it as such so I shouldn't have been surprised. Not only was I not into the consistency of a sauce, there really wasn't much if any of the sourness of the apricot present. After a eating quarter of it (ok, maybe half of it) I chucked the rest. Gotta save room for the next London treat.

 

Thursday, December 4, 2003, 12:04 AM


Believe it or not we have mail to go through today. First up was mail from the Vittles Vamp asking for a link exchange. I'm not entirely sure about the name (something about the word "vittles" makes me uncomfortable, like a toothless old man is about to attack me with his frying pan), but that said the site is cool. Many food experiences recounted in obsessive detail. Nothing wrong with that.

That site led me to The Food Section. This is a very cool food site. It's mostly focused on New York City. This seems fine as NYC certainly warrants the attention when it comes to food. It appears that every week there's a listing of local food events. I'm going to need to spend some more time eating in New York City.

The Food Section also has a good point about how Amazon's new "Search In Book" feature makes for some interesting reference possibilities. Larousse Gastronomique is now online. Thanks Amazon. Thanks Food Section.

Derrick Schneider of Obsession with Food (another great food site), writes in response to my statement below that allowing smoking in a restaurant shows a distinct lack of respect for the food and anyone who wants to taste it. Derrick adds the following: "I'm not a fan of smoke in restaurants, even as I recognize that there's no stigma attached to it (quite the opposite in fact) in European restaurants. But I suppose one could make the point that given the high probability that the entire kitchen staff smokes, eating the food in a smoke-filled environment is a closer realization of how the chef tasted it when preparing the food. Actually, Anthony Bourdain's take on it is that most chefs underseason their food because they're worried that they're overseasoning to compensate for their smoke-bludgeoned taste buds. Hmm. Now that I think about it, it's an interesting argument. Few would argue that the French,Italian,Spanish, and Japanese don't know how to appreciate or show respect for food. But it is in those countries where smoking is the heaviest." Derrick makes excellent points. It's still horribly gross and borders on ruining a great eating experience in my opinion. Note: I'm not a crazed anti-smoking activist. Just a crazed eater. I don't mind noise, kids, or even bad service once-in-awhile. But smoke competes for the senses I rely on most when it comes to enjoying my meal.

 

Wednesday, December 3, 2003, 7:52 AM


Could it be that Seattle's not the only city in which you can't find really great Italian dinner? Granted, Seattle's not a major city, but London is. And closer to Italy to boot. One of the books I used as a resource to find great food in London claimed that Locanda Locatelli is the best Italian restaurant in London. I hope the authors of that guide are either liars or were born without tastebuds. The alternative means that London is a city without good Italian food because Locanda Locatelli ain't it.

Located near Marble Arch, Locanda Locatelli invites you in with an understated double-"L" logo and their menu under glass outside their door. The Italian staff greets you and seats you, and you start to get excited for some great food. The first courses were classics yet difficult to form an opinion on. When someone gives you a plate of various salamis, and delicious cured pork products it's tough to evaluate anything but the ingredients - which were quite good. However, the Caprese salad and Cured Beef with Goat Cheese Dressing held hints of what was to come. First the Caprese.

A perfect plate of juicy and flavorful tomatoes, mozzarella cheese, basil, and olive oil, is simply hard to beat. What's better? Unfortunately this was not that plate. The tomatoes were simply not good. At first I started thinking about whether good tomatoes were available in England. I remembered getting decent ones at my local supermarket here in London. Not great but good. Either way, they were better than what sat in front of me . The mozzarella was quite good (and generous) but the tomatoes were  still bugging me. Not only were they of varying dim shades of something like red, but they lacked flavor. What little taste they had was removed (accidentally?) from most of them in that it looked like the seeds and juice had been scraped out of the centers. And finally the worst aspect of the tomatoes (because I know it was inflicted on them by the kitchen deliberately) was the way they were cut - bad salad bar style. Food comes in all shapes and sizes. Tomatoes often come in wonderful little portable and self-enclosed packages. Sometimes (as with cherry and grape tomatoes) those packages are even bite-size. If you're going to cut an ingredient before incorporating it into your dish there can be several reasons for this. A few include: getting maximum flavor, getting the right texture, making something "bite-size" highlighting the shape of the ingredient, etc. But what excuse is there for cutting a tomato into four pieces (or a larger tomato into eight pieces). These extra thick "wedges" are almost useless and the hallmark of yucky salad bars across the United States. They are just too big to be bite-size so they need to be cut. That wouldn't be a problem if there were some other advantage. They've been cut too thick to highlight the shape of the tomato. And in this case they've been cut sloppily. Instead of a "rustic" look (which may be what they were going for) the tomatoes looked ugly and uneven, their mealy surfaces were exposed for maximum unappetizingness (is that a word?), and often their seeds and juice had leaked out to remove any minimal flavor they had to begin with. A tomato wedge can be a wonderful slice of heaven when a) it comes from a high quality tomato, b) it fits in your mouth, c) it was cut cleanly, and d) it still contains all the seeds and juice. Please report violators to me so I can put them on my "avoid at all costs" list.

Ok. Sorry for the tomato tirade. By the way, did I mention that allowing people to smoke in restaurants shows a distinct lack of respect for the food, and anyone who wants to taste it? Ok. Sorry again. Back to dinner. The beef carpaccio was devoid of flavor and the drenching in the goat cheese dressing only helped it taste more like goat cheese dressing. I love gnocchi. It's like a little seafood-like treasure, somewhere between a shrimp and a scallop, often made mostly from potatoes and flour. These succulent little morsels can either be chewed for their delicate texture or sometimes just swallowed hole. Delicious. Locanda Locatelli's gnocchi were fine. You'd think they'd get some help from the truffle slivers that they came with. But the dish was not memorable. We ordered a red onion pasta with a Chianti sauce. The combination was very interesting I'd love to figure out a way to build on this combination in my own kitchen. As served however the pasta still sort of lay there. Even the sparks of flavor couldn't resuscitate this dish. My best theory on this is timing. The best pasta dishes I've ever eaten have an unbelievable short window in which to make their appearance in their perfect form. I wonder if ignoring this window isn't the culprit at Locanda Locatelli. I suppose it could also be the freshness of the ingredients. I don't really know, but timing and freshness all contribute to dishes coming alive in my experience.

Speaking of freshness - and the restaurant makes a point of pledging it on their menu where they caution the diner not to throw a hissy fit if their choice isn't available as availability is subject to the whims of whatever shows up fresh at the restaurant every day - the lobster in the pasta dish wasn't. It had a distinctly fishy taste. Yuck. Combined with the underdone pasta (I know al dente, and this had not yet gotten to al dente) it was basically inedible. (It didn't matter than the parmesan we asked for never came, as we decided not to eat any more of the dish anyway). The rolled pork in the other main course came in sausage casings. The pork had been rolled with herbs. I hungrily sliced into one and took a bite. There were so many herbs in the rolled meat, that a dish that had possibilities just got overpowered, and the flavor of the meat never came through.

We decided to skip dessert, but the friendly wait staff came by not only with our check but with some petits fours. While paying a non-insignificant amount of money for a bad meal is not a fun way to end a meal, at least the meal was ending. There was one sweet note however - the almond meringue cookie they served us was the best almond cookie I have eaten in my entire life. A robust almond flavor, and a chewiness that was delicious as opposed to gummy. Yum. I'm hoping that London still has good Italian food, and that I just chose poorly. I hope I get time to test the theory before we have to head back to Seattle, but it's not looking good.


 
     
     
     
     
     

 

 

 

 

 

   

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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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