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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, January 29, 2004, 11:59 PM


This weekend marks the XXXVIIIth edition of the Super Bowl. While I don't think it started for the first Super Bowl (there were over 30,000 empty seats in the Los Angeles Coliseum), for probably at least XXV of them food has become synonymous with the event. Nachos. Dips. Barbecue. Pizza. Sunday will be the single biggest takeout pizza day of the year.

I will admit two things: 1) I am a huge New England Patriots fan (not this huge), and 2) I love Super Bowl food just as much as the next person. One of my personal favorites is Dorito brand Corn Chips (plain, no flavor), and Pace Picante Sauce. Sometimes I make my own salsa, but the Pace is yummy too. I also love guacamole!!!

Here's a selection of Super Bowl recipes (and other Super Bowl food-related fare) from: (Note: some may be lifted from the backs of packets of onion soup mix.) The Boston Globe, The Charlotte Observer, The Chicago Sun-Times, The Detroit News (twice), The New York Times (free registration required), and The Washington Post.

If I don't post anything on Sunday, you'll know it's because I'm watching the game. If I don't post anything on Monday it's because the Patriots lost and I'm too bummed to even think about food.

 

Wednesday, January 28, 2004, 10:57 PM


10-ramen.jpgIn a city like Tokyo where high end restaurants inhabit every nook in the city, it's sometimes easy to forget that some of the most delicious food to be had is in the food stalls and tiny restaurants that exist in every cranny.

Anyone who has seen the movie Tampopo, pines for the small Japanese restaurant serving nothing but exceptional noodle soup. Ramen-Ya are everywhere, and as with many things in Japan, mythical tradition, lore, and competition make it not just soup, but a soup experience. Yes. Ramen has it's own museum cum amusement park located in Yokohama. The real question was how to pick.

Worldramen.net is a monument the love of ramen. They claim there are over 5000 ramen-ya in Tokyo alone, and they have separated the wheat from the chaff with their recommendation of nine "legendary" ramen shops. Of the nine, five are marked as a favorite. Each has a detailed writeup and background story. After reading them all Taishoken was the clear choice. The narrative starts off saying "no ramen shop out of thousands can defeat Taishoken." I need to see that competition. It goes on to describe how the proprietor Yamagishi-san, made soup for years until his wife died and grief made him close his shop for months and give up his life's work. Upon his return to his closed up shop the many handwritten notes from customers encouraging him to return to work inspired him to sign up for another tour of ramen duty. Just to be clear, this man's incredible dedication to delivering world class soup was even stronger than his grief for the loss of his wife. That's commitment and passion.

It may have been crazy to go eat a huge bowl of hot noodle soup in the middle of a Tokyo heatwave but that's exactly what we did. Luckily the line wasn't too long out front. After about 20 minutes the maitre d ushered us into the tiny establishment. We were seated at the eight seat bar two feet from Yamagishi-san himself. He was a huge sweaty adorable old guy. We watched him make fresh noodles, dunk them in a huge pot, cook them, and then dispense them into bowls of steaming soup.

We ended up trying two kinds of soup. I will admit that communication was a little difficult so I'm only 90% sure I got the names right. I had the Ramen. The broth was surprisingly complex in flavor. And it had almost a hearty texture to it, even though it was a relatively clear soup. The noodles were soft but firm. Al dente. Nice. We also tried the Tsukamen. This for some reason came with the noodles in a separate bowl. It was almost sweet with a touch of sour also. It was different than the first and also delicious. The portions were enormous. The prices were cheap. There was simply no way any of us could finish our soup. For awhile I kept eating as I watched the locals polish off their bowls and worried I would be sending the wrong message if I couldn't finish mine. When I started to worry about whether I'd be able to stand up, I finally conceded to that huge bowl of incredible soup and noodles.

The flavors we tasted were so interesting and diverse, one trip couldn't really do them justice. To really understand we'd need to try multiple ramen shops multiple times. Suffice it to say that even though we couldn't do a deep ramen drilldown, we had a fantastic lunch. I've never had anything like it.

 

Tuesday, January 27, 2004, 11:58 PM


Square watermelons are always fun to look at (courtesy of my friend Dave).

Double bonus. Marian Burros of the New York Times (free registration required) writes a review of Mario Batali's new tapas venture - Casa Mono. Not only are we heading to NYC soon. But she also appears to agree with me 100% on the value of food writers being anonymous.

"I have never been to the restaurant as a regular patron: I have known two of the owners professionally for years. But having been spotted at restaurants throughout my reviewing career, I have learned one thing: the owners cannot improve the food for the reviewer's sake. They can improve the service; they can make sure the food is hot. But if it does not taste good, they cannot make it better."

I completely agree!

 

Monday, January 26, 2004, 11:59 PM


Beer has not always been one of my favorite beverages, but on a really hot day there's really nothing more thirst quenching. Beer and hot chocolate may be the drinks whose likeability is the most volatile for me relative to the weather. I wonder if beer from countries with lots of spicy foods has even better thirst quenching power.

Christopher Lee of Chez Panisse has embarked on a new venture.

The Fancy Food Show happened recently in San Francisco. We went. Our write-up won't be up for some time, but here's one from the San Jose Mercury News.

Lauren and Alex are always complaining about white chocolate being a chocolate impostor. Now the government is worried about white chocolate impostors.

 

Sunday, January 25, 2004, 7:46 PM


10-sauce.jpgI really love Chinese food. It's funny that I have to travel to Tokyo to have some of the best in the world, but understandable when you realize the high bar for food in Japan. I'd been to Chinese Iron Chef Chin's Akasaka Shisen Hanten several times and loved every visit. I figured it was time to try something new.

I've tried to find dependable sources for new restaurant recommendations in Tokyo several times with mixed results. I can't read Japanese so I'm limited to what's available in English. Since the first time we went we relied on going to Iron Chef restaurants, I figured going to Iron Chef Challengers who were victorious might be a good way to choose as well. Iron Chef:The Official Book profiles every challenger who ever beat an Iron Chef. I understand why they don't list the losers, but I bet they're pretty good as well. So on this night we went to Kanmeihou.

A smallish but nice restaurant tucked away in a typical impossible to locate warren of streets that's so typical in Tokyo. Luckily our cabbie found after a bit of hunting. It's a good thing he did as the Chinese Barbecue Pork was delicious. The yummy, smoky, slices, were a great way to start dinner.

Two kinds of soup were up next - Shark's Fin Soup with Egg White and Corn Soup with Crab Meat. The shark fin was subtle and smooth. The corn soup had a super "corny" flavor. Tjeerd - a member of our dining party - wished there was more crab flavor.

Next up were Sautťed Prawns with Red Pepper. They were absolutely delicious with a nice little kick. The less time from wok to my mouth the better. This tasted like it couldn't have been more than a 30 second delay. Then Sautťed Beef with Black Bean Sauce showed up. The beef melted in my mouth. It was coated in a sticky sweet honeyish sauce. The portions were not huge and we were ok with that. It let us try more things.

As the glistening Peking Duck arrived with all its accoutrements, the proprietor came by to show us how to make our own little pancake and duck creations. It was very cute. We think he assume that us American folks had never eaten Peking Duck. The demonstration was nice. And then we proceeded to eat some incredible duck. Tjeerd felt it was the best Peking Duck he'd ever eaten. High praise! The skin was so crispy, it really was amazing.

The standards for food in Tokyo are so incredibly different than in the United States. This restaurant would easily be the best Chinese food in Seattle. That's not saying a huge amount given that Seattle is not a great place for Chinese food (I don't really know why). But given that this restaurant was excellent but still not even close to the best Chinese in Tokyo is really the eye-opening comparison.

Kanmeihou was really enjoyable. On the way out I tried to meet the chef. The Iron Chef challenger listed in the book was female, the chef appeared to be mail. I mentioned her name and got quizzical looks. Did we end up in the wrong place? Had she retired or moved on? I tried sending e-mail, but the responses I received were mangled as I think they were all Japanese or Chinese characters. I suppose it doesn't really matter as we had a delicious meal anyway.

 

Thursday, January 22, 2004, 11:41 PM


Happy Chinese New Year's. What better way to celebrate the year of the monkey than with some dumplings courtesy of the Arizona Daily Star. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer pitches in as well with some additional recipes.

Bargain truffles. Discount flavor.

Here's a super article on cooking authentic Indian food at home courtesy of the LA Times (free registration required).

A conversation with Mario Batali (via Sautť Wednesday).

 

Wednesday, January 21, 2004, 10:46 PM


04-magurotemaki.jpgCan perfect seaweed make you fall in love with a restaurant? Apparently yes. As I've written before Tsukiji Tamasushi serves up the best sushi hand rolls (temaki) I have ever eaten in my life. Something about the crispiness and freshness of the seaweed (nori) just makes their hand rolls perfect. They are more cylindrical than they typical conical hand roll. They briefly touch the plate for a couple of seconds between when they leave the chef's hand and they enter your mouth. They are crunchy, they scream fresh, and they are absolutely delicious.

This sushi restaurant on the 13th floor of the Takashimaya department store near Shinjuku station is one of a few locations, and named after the famous Tokyo fish market - Tsukiji. There's simply something special about the hand rolls they make. There was a sushi chef in training trying to make some of our hand rolls. He was having a difficult time getting it exactly right, and the senior chef - his mentor - kept giving him coaching on his work. I can't tell you how fast my brain was working trying to figure out what they were going to do with the three hand rolls that the senior chef deemed not acceptable for us to eat. Tears started to well up at the thought that they might get thrown out. They got sent somewhere into the back of the restaurant I can only assume to folks in the kitchen to snack on. I still wish I could have wolfed them down.

Since Tsukiji Tamasushi was so near to our hotel we were able to stop in there a couple of times on this trip for a quick handroll fix. I can still taste them today.

 

Monday, January 19, 2004, 10:57 PM


After spending a bunch of time in Europe I was lucky enough to go to Tokyo for a week. I've written many times about my deep and abiding love for Tokyo, and Japan in general. The food is no small part of that. In a town with somewhere around 80,000 to 100,000 restaurants, life is good. In addition to the sheer quantity, the quality bar is so much higher in Japan when it comes to freshness and aesthetics that this may be the best food city in the world. Only New York and Paris compete I think. Needless to say, I was pretty excited about a week's worth of meals in Tokyo.

On our first night in Tokyo we did a business dinner at Takadaya. It's funny that in a city with so much good food my local co-workers have so consistently picked restaurants that don't shine. I did learn a little bit about why that may be though. As in the United States, restaurants in Japan are often known for a specialty, or single type of dish. It's funny but I think we get these very skewed views of the diversity of other culture's cuisines. In the US there's basically Japanese restaurants. They serve Japanese food. We often think of cuisines from outside the US as monolithic. Just as a restaurant in the US can serve New England seafood specialties and another can be a southern BBQ joint and both be serving "American" food, there are many facets and differences in Japanese food, and the restaurants here reflect that.

In some ways that's part of what was wrong with our meal. Takadaya specializes in soba. Soba are a delicious Japanese specialty of gray speckled buckwheat noodles. You eat them typically with a cold sauce. For some reason however, we ended up preceding the soba with an entire meal consisting of a broad range of Japanese dishes including tofu and seaweed appetizers; nabe - vegetables and chicken cooked in a dashi based broth; itamemono - a different dish of the very same vegetables and chicken but cooked in its dish over a burner at the table covered in a soy-based sauce; a vegetable salad; a plate of sashimi including katsuo (a slightly seared piece of tuna) and hotate (scallop); tempura of shrimp and various mushrooms served with a super salty salt colored with dry green tea; and some salmon maki-sushi.

On the one hand, I love the variety and smaller portions and tastes that let you experience a wide cross-section of Japanese food and ingredients. On the other hand, this restaurant's versions of each of these dishes weren't very good. The food just felt uninspired and the kitchen was not up to the rigors of delivering more delicate flavors in a way that makes a real impression on the palate. Not surprisingly however, the soba was the best thing we had. It made me wonder whether we really ever should have asked this soba shop to try and deliver all the other dishes. I imagine our dinner was not the only time they'd ever steered outside their buckwheat noodle boundaries, but if you go there I'd recommend sticking with the soba. It was pretty good and interesting as well. Not only did the soba come with a cold sauce in which I mixed chopped fresh scallions and wasabi, but it came with a different hot sauce as well. Even neater, as we finished our soba a thermos containing warm water that the soba was cooked in arrived at our table. You're supposed to mix that "broth" with the left over cold sauce from your soba and drink the concoction as a soup. I have to say, it was pretty good and a nice way to end the meal.

This meal was a good reminder lesson for me. This is weird but I've felt guilty not being as excited about certain types of Japanese food as I have about others. As long as I didn't acknowledge that I was viewing Japanese cuisine as monolithic and uniform I was torn about my professed love of Japanese food and my preference of certain dishes over others. As soon as I realized I had a view of the cuisine that was not as detailed as it should be I realized that my love of most Japanese specialties was not inconsistent with my lack of excitement about nabe or the cold kelp appetizers we  got. That said, since we ate them at a place where they weren't the specialty maybe I just have to find someone who makes them well to truly decide. Time will tell.

 

Sunday, January 18, 2004, 5:39 PM


As with many cuisines experienced in the United States, the traditions, flavors, and culture of countries with diverse populations and foods gets concentrated into one stereotype of that type of food that gets replicated in infinite instances with infinitesimal variations. Americans have expectations about what it means to eat Chinese, Mexican, and Italian food as well as less mainstream cuisines like Japanese and Indian. Some cuisines survive this transmogrification better than others. There are great sushi and Indian restaurants in this country. Authentic reproductions of specific regional cuisines they're often not. More like "greatest hits" editions with adjustments made for what restaurateurs think Americans will like.  Chinese and Mexican cuisines tend to thrive in areas where people of those ethnicities cluster. And conversely don't eat Chinese or Mexican food in most of the country where it's been transformed into a gross almost cartoon-like and depressing rendition of two great cuisines. I found Mexican food completely gloppy, heavy, and deeply unappetizing for the first 25 years of my life until I lived near Watsonville, California for roughly a year. It's there where I got to benefit from the fact that a concentrated population of Mexican-Americans, many of them agricultural workers, brought authentic (or at least what I think is authentic as I've never been to Mexico) and vibrant flavors of Mexico in the form of many small establishments. While it may not be politically correct, ethnically profiling the clientele of a restaurant is not a completely unreliable way to judge whether an ethnic restaurant is serving up a piece of home.

Recently Debbie and I did an exercise where we ranked the countries we'd most like to visit. I'm not sure how she prioritized, but food was a major factor for me. Given that I've spent significant eating time in Japan, England, and Israel, they weren't on my list, though I'd return to each in a heartbeat. Here is my current stackranked list of the countries in which I;d like to spend some significant eating time:

  1. Italy

  2. Thailand

  3. Spain

  4. Cambodia

  5. Vietnam

  6. China

  7. France

  8. Greece

  9. Morocco

  10. Mexico

  11. Turkey

  12. Brazil

  13. Peru

  14. India

  15. Australia/New Zealand

  16. Argentina

  17. Lebanon

  18. And I'm sure many more places I just can't think of at the moment, or don't yet know enough about.

Obviously, after writing a long paragraph on how national identities are not granular enough to describe most cuisines, my list should probably be more detailed describing regions I want to visit. But given how long it is, and how long it's going to take me to eat my way around the world, this will have to do for now.

And since Italy is at the top of my list, here we come. The trip is still some months away, and given the lag between eating, writing, and posting on this site, the writeups will be even further off. That said, Italy is definitely next. I bring it up now because I've just finished describing our trip to Europe. And in the final days of that trip the first thing I was thinking about was where we were going to go next.

I have known for at least twenty years that I want to visit Italy. I've had opportunities before, but have never taken them. And the opportunities have never been just right. In general, I have a large capacity for high expectations. I've found that overdoing this can lead to disappointment more often than is truly warranted. For that reason I try to lower my expectations. And to be honest, my expectations for Italy are enormous. I've not really made a serious effort at lowering them, yet. And because of that I've been waiting to go there until I could spend the right amount of uninterrupted time experiencing the place. That time is this year. We're only planning on going for a week and a half, but half the time will be in Emilia Romagna. Some would say this region is the capital of good food in Italy - ham from Parma, vinegar from Modena, and tons of Parmagiana Reggiano. Rome and Florence are on the agenda as well. The south, Sicily, and other regions will have to wait until next time. Bottom line, expectations are high. And of course, all of it will be documented in gory and glorious detail right here on this site.

In the meantime, there's plenty to write about before then including trips to Tokyo, Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, San Francisco, and New York, as well as the hunt for the best bagels in the world in Toronto, Canada.

 

Saturday, January 17, 2004, 2:34 PM


How cool. We've received mail from a reader with an alternative view on our recent "vegetarian exchange".

From: Rachel
Subject: Non hate-mail from a vegetarian :)
Sent: 8:49AM

Hi there, After reading yesterday's post, I wanted to write and tell you that I love your site even though I'm a vegetarian. I grew up eating meat, but gave it up when I was 12. All because of a dream about biting into a chicken McNugget and having it squeak at me. As ridiculous as it sounds, that dream really did play a role in me giving up meat altogether. I don't do it for animal rights, or anything like that, or even because I grew up in a religion that is known for vegetarianism (Seventh-day Adventist. I simply can't get past the texture.

But I found your site last year and love reading your fantastic descriptions of all the amazing food you eat. I have to say that I actually wish I ate meat so I could experience the same thing.

I know I'm limiting myself and missing out on the most delicious foods, but at least I can come to your site and read about how fabulous it all is!

Thanks for delighting us with your great photos and mouth-watering recaps of your dining experiences!

How nice. :) We're glad to continue to provide this public service for vegetarians the world over. If you can't eat meat, you can read about our carnivorous adventures.

 

Friday, January 16, 2004, 11:48 PM


It's about 4.5 months after we finished our trip to Europe and I've finally got just about all our adventures posted here on the site. My friend Kira said she's been getting sick of reading about London, so I suppose now is a good time to "come home". Spending a month in Europe was great. The roughly three weeks of it that we lived in London really let us explore what the city had to offer from a food perspective. It wasn't easy. We basically ate out lunch or dinner every day we were there. As exciting as this sounds, at some points it really was quite a bit of work.

For anyone living in or traveling to London we now have a pretty decent take on where to eat in that great city. Our London page now includes: 3 restaurants we loved, 10 restaurants we really liked, and an additional 12 that you don't need to waste your time with. You can also peruse the 13 we didn't have time to get to. Granted, giving you an overview of 25 restaurants in a city with thousands is not even tantamount to "scraping the surface". But still we felt that while there were likely many wonderful dining experiences in London that we didn't experience, we certainly had our fair share.

If I had to do it again, I'm not entirely sure what I would do differently. Some ideas come to mind: I might have tried to explore the country more and really find some interesting cheeses at their source; I might have worked harder to find more holes in the wall to dine at; I might have eaten more Indian food; I might have eaten more traditionally British food (then again, maybe not). London is a wonderful place to visit and has a ton to offer for the food "inclined".

One thing I definitely would do if I went back is go to The Fat Duck. It's funny. The night we ate at Waterside Inn, the waiter asked us if we'd eaten down the road at The Fat Duck. He asked if we'd ever had Lobster ice cream. Heston Blumenthal - the chef at The Fat Duck -  is a student of science. And he's exploring new techniques to help judge which flavors belong together in a dish. The waiter at Waterside Inn was certainly complementary, but you could tell that he thought that the restaurant down the road was "out there". The more we read about Fat Duck, the more interesting it sounded, unfortunately, by the time we realized we wanted to go, we'd run out of time in London. And sure enough, The Fat Duck just got awarded it's third Michelin star this month. (That's right, of three Michelin triple-starred restaurants, two reside in the small town of Bray 30 miles outside London). Given that we've already eaten at the other two 3 star establishments in England - Waterside Inn, and Gordon Ramsay - it sounds like a trip back is in order.

 

Thursday, January 15, 2004, 11:48 PM


Another milestone in tastingmenu.com history. Monday's post on Gordon Ramsay's at Claridge's has touched off the first pissed off mail from a reader. (I believe it's also the first Lauren Fan Mailô.) Here's the transcript from today's wacky back and forth:

 

From: Lorien
Sent: 11:54AM

I just discovered your site and read about your lunch experience at Gordon Ramsayís and just had to say that I feel such affinity and empathy for Lauren, because, as a vegetarian among meatloving foodies, I often have to content myself with a plate of sautťed veggies while everyone else dines on lamb and fabulousness. Itís disheartening, because meatless dining does not have to equal boring dining, however Iíve found that many chefs and foodies alike donít dare dive into this arena.

There is a stigma about vegetarians, that you, your very self, uphold (and I quote, ďLauren is as into food as a vegetarian can beĒ), that they do not/cannot enjoy food as much as meat-eaters, and that line of thinking is entirely false. Itís just that we choose not to include meat.

Please stop diminishing and devaluing this moral choice, as the only hinderance of a truly gastro-hedonistic lifestyle we have are attitudes like yours; the thinking that if thereís no meat, the mealís not complete.

 

From: Hillel
Sent: 2:59PM

Ha. Thanks for the note. A few things:

  • I think itís fair to say that a vegetarian can only be into food so much, and itís not judgmental. Itís like someone saying their really into shows, but will only wear blue ones. They are as into shoes as a blue shoe lover can be. :)
  • Note: I wasnít questioning laurenís love for food. I was questioning her ability to enjoy it fully given her self-imposed restrictions.
  • I understand restricting your food intake for personal reasons Ė I keep kosher at home. That said, Iím not enjoying food to the full degree thatís possible because of my choice. I donít feel bad about it. It just is.
  • You should read my writeup on Arpege.
  • I am not judging you or Lauren for you choices. But I will say that itís a bummer to have her along to dinner and have her not be able to enjoy all the things we eat. We want to share the experience with our friend fully.
  • You should read Jeffrey Steingartenís chapter on vegetarians (Vegging Out). While Iím not making value judgments on vegetarians, he makes some compelling arguments.
  • And finally, laurenís appearing to waiver in her vegetarianism. Who knows she may join the dark side soon.

 

From: Lorien
Sent: 3:33PM

Well, Iím not going to continue this on a point-by-point basis, but I do find it very small minded to think that oneís enjoyment of a meal hinges upon being able to dine upon the same items as yourself. Iím disheartened to find that you believe the foodstyle is steamed vegetables and not much else. On this point, you are sorely mistaken.

The challenge is not to blame the diner for their choices/tastes/likes, but rather to accommodate them and serve the same quality of food that one would serve a ďregularĒ customer. You say poor vegetarian for missing out. I say poor chef for not being able/willing to adapt.

 

From: Hillel
Sent: 3:49PM

Did you read the writeup of Arpege? It was an almost entirely vegetarian meal that I LOVED!

 

From: Lorien
Sent: 3:57PM

I did read it. Itís nice that you were pleasantly surprised at the creativity and dexterity employed by the chef.

However, it does little to offset the negative attitude Iíve seen elsewhere on your website. However, Iím still working around this analogy you presented, ďI think itís fair to say that a vegetarian can only be into food so much, and itís not judgmental. Itís like someone saying their really into shows, but will only wear blue ones. They are as into shoes as a blue shoe lover can be.Ē

It would be valid if all vegetarians ate were grapes. But only then.

 

From: Hillel
Sent: 9:55PM

Ok. well, Iím sorry you feel that way. Letís leave it at this. You can love and enjoy food just as much as anybody else. But I get to enjoy a superset of the food you do. :)

Postscript: for some reason Debbie was particularly incensed by this exchange and wanted me to point out that Lauren's vegetarianism is not a moral decision.

Here's my bottom line: 1) I do not judge Lorien for her choice to be a vegetarian. I feel bad for her that she doesn't eat meat. It's yummy, 2) I will judge Lorien for being a touch sensitive and misunderstanding my comments, 3) I do not judge Lauren for her choice to be a vegetarian (moral or otherwise), but 4) I sure wish she could try all the yummy things the rest of us eat all the time.

 

Monday, January 12, 2004, 11:27 PM


Our last opportunity for an interesting meal in London was rapidly approaching. It had to be something special. While I longed to repeat some of the meals we had, I also can't help but want to try new things. We settled on a compromise. As Gordon Ramsay's restaurant on Royal Hospital Road was so fantastic, we decided to try his outlet at one of London's upscale hotels - Claridge's. I was assured countless times on the phone that Gordon Ramsay's at Claridge's was the twin of the original with the chef unpredictably moving between the two locations ensuring that the food was of the highest standards. Finding out that there was a Chef's table sealed the deal, and we all trudged off to the Chef's table located in the beautiful and spacious kitchen at Gordon Ramsay's at Claridge's.

We were a bit of a sight with cameras clicking and notes being taken on every detail, but that's part of our fun, and a requirement so that you can hear about what happened right here on the site. We also mentioned countless times (both on the phone and at the restaurant that with the exception of our one vegetarian, we had no restrictions, and the kitchen should prepare as many different dishes as they cared to give us. This set of instructions had served us so well at other restaurants that we reiterated them here too. Other than Lauren's vegetarian dishes we all got the same things, but hey, if they're great, who cares.

Lunch started off in the foyer of the restaurant drinking champagne and eating canapes. These included a buttery foie gras pate with a deep nutty flavor as well as a taramasalata with caviar - both to be spread on little pieces of toasted bread. These were yummy, but didn't set a good tone with Lauren as neither were vegetarian. Lauren's dietary restrictions, lament them we may, should still have been a factor in canape choice as the restaurant knew that she was veggie. Next up were little tempura fried  shrimps as well as deep fried pastries with cheese in them. Both were a touch oily. Lauren compared hers to amusement park food. Not a ringing endorsement, but I was still hoping for the Gordon Ramsay experience.

Going "backstage" into the kitchen in a restaurant during business is always fun. You really don't belong there, but you get to go in anyway. You feel special. The most important skill you need in this situation is staying out of the way. This is true even in the new class of restaurants that were designed with having a chef's table in mind. At Charlie Trotter's this clearly was not the case as the chef's table is squarely in the middle of the kitchen, whereas at Gordon Ramsay's at Claridges we were in our own elevated corner of the kitchen viewing various stations form our perch.

Lunch began in earnest with chilled mint soup with a dollop of creme fraiche. This was a fine foundation for the flavors to come but didn't make a big impression. Next up was a ravioli. This was a variation on the wonderful seafood ravioli we'd had at the original restaurant. This one was larger, and still had the brain-like appearance, but the lobster and other seafood ended up being a bit dry instead of succulent and smelling of essence of lobster. Lauren's dish consisted of some pretty striaghtforward pasta and cheese morsels on top of diced vegetables sitting in a tomato consomme. The consomme was bursting with a savory flavor that I can still taste to this day. While things were off to a bit of a mundane start, this consomme gave us hope. It was a flash of what we'd found magical at the original Gordon Ramsay's.

The kitchen staff was superbly friendly to us, and relatively relaxed given that they were cooking for 60 or so other people just outside the kitchen doors. As it turns out, not only was Gordon Ramsay himself not there that day, but neither was the head chef of the restaurant. While I have been thinking a lot lately about how it's possible for the truly exquisite chefs to scale their talent beyond one restaurant, I am not one to imagine that there couldn't be a multitude of talented sous chefs perfectly capable of dazzling us with their culinary skill. Not only did they cook for us, but at this point in the meal they took us on a tour of the kitchen. This was quite nice and we really enjoyed touring the stations, seeing everyone at work, seeing how unbelievably clean, professional, and organized everyone was, as well as the utterly huge cauldrons bubbling with the most recent chicken and veal stocks that were the basis of so many of the sauces that ended up on our food.

As we returned to our table our next course arrived - pressed and smoked hamhock and and chicken confit surrounded by a ring of frisee with capers and diced tomato and a vinaigrette. This was interesting and tasty. Alex felt there were too many capers. A debate ensued between Alex and Debbie about whether that mattered. Debbie pointed out that he could just not eat some of the capers. Alex replied that he assumed he should eat everything put in front of him as the chef intended it to be experienced that way. I found that eating a little chunk of everything on the plate in on forkful was actually quite a nice combination. I also sided with Alex in his argument with Debbie, though I didn't agree that there were too many capers.

If our kitchen tour wasn't enough, our friendly waiter showed up with a set of chef's white jackets for us to don and announced that we were about to head back into the kitchen to prepare out next course. Cool. While the food wasn't blowing us away yet, the "activities" included in the meal, and the friendliness of the kitchen staff really made the time enjoyable. We went back into the kitchen and started preparing our next dish. In reality we only got to plate it, but I think Alex and I were reluctant to do much else as we didn't want to ruin our lunch or injure ourselves or anyone else. Once one of the chefs had pan-fried our salmon, we all headed over to the plating area to put together our dishes - pan-fried salmon on a bed of crushed peas with fried potatoes, grilled asparagus, and a light sauce. The dish was decent, though I have to imagine our slowness at plating probably didn't help it in terms of reaching our mouths at optimal temperature. I blame me and Alex for that. Lauren got a pea risotto. She claims that Alex makes it better than they did that day. Since Alex makes a mean risotto that's not out of the question, but still not a super sign for a Michelin starred restaurant.

The next dish to arrive was a Roasted Cannon of Cornish Lamb served with Confit Shoulder (cooked for 8 hours) white bean puree, baby leeks, and rosemary jus.  I love dishes that combine two preparations of essentially the same ingredient (scrambled eggs with caviar is another that comes to mind). I preferred the cannon over the shoulder but it was a good dish. The lamb was incredibly juicy. Lauren got a plate of what appeared to be colorful steamed, braised, and sauteed vegetables. No matter how colorful, or artfully prepared, it was still basically a plate of vegetables. I had one of the caramelized onions which was quite delicious. But Lauren was undeterred in her disappointment - essentially at the lack of creativity. It was still basically a plate of cut up vegetables, no creativity, no star. It came with a nice tomato sauce, but that didn't lift her spirits. Our lamb arrived with a dish of truffled mashed potatoes. Not Robuchon's but probably the second best I've ever had. (Though comparing to Robuchon's is simply not a fair fight, as even a second best is a distant second.)

Dessert involved a cheese course; a Compote of Blueberries with a Basil Pannacotta and Mint Granite. There were also another couple of items including an additional pannacotta surrounded by berries. Petit fours included the signature dark chocolate balls filld with caramel, and frozen white chocolate balls filld with strawberry ice cream. Those were truly delicious. Before we could finish those, our waiter arrived with souvenir boxes of Gordon Ramsay chocolates as well as copies of our menus.

All in all, eating at the Chef's table at Gordon Ramsay's at Claridges was an exciting and thoughtful experience. This was mostly due to being behind the scenes, the various inclusive "activities" they planned for us (and I assume they offer to most people at the Chef's table) and the friendly folks in the kitchen. That part of the experience I recommend without reservation. I don't know whether it was because they were only half-full and not spurred to do their best, or because Ramsay and his head chef were nowhere to be seen, but the food was unfortunately not exciting. It had some of the hallmarks of our magical meal at the original Gordon Ramsay's but missed the mark in terms of really nailing flavor, texture, temperature, and combination. Mind you, the bar we're talking about here is high, but still considering how pricey these restaurants are, I don't think the bar is unreasonable. This was a tough experience as were hoping for an encore of the original, and I wonder if we returned on an "on" night  if we wouldn't get food that was much closer to our expectations. Next time we're in London, hopefully we'll have a chance to find out.

 

Sunday, January 11, 2004, 6:37 PM


09-scallops.jpgWhen we told Lauren and Alex we were heading to London the first words out of their mouth were "Sugar Club". Sugar Club is a hip London restaurant where Australian Chef David Selex creates tasty dishes with light oceanic and heavy Asian influences. Needless to say, we waited until their arrival in London so we could all go there together.

The restaurant is a hip "designey" sort of place with an appropriate crowd. And I think the name is great as it evokes a sort of pacific sensibility and gets you in the mood. While the menu had a set of appetizers and entrees we intrepidly created our own tasting menu by picking some from each side, and explaining to the waitress how we wanted them brought out - essentially the items we ordered were parceled out into two waves of complementary dishes, and we explained to the waitress we would be creating our own tasting menu and sharing everything. She seemed amused but up for our odd behavior.

Things started off with a Roast Tomato and Red Pepper Soup with Cabernet Sauvignon Vinegar. Soup that's made from roasted tomatoes and red peppers is difficult to not really enjoy. This one was no exception. This was followed by Rocket and Parmesan Salad with Anchovy and Sage Fritters. As much as I like Parmesan, it's easy to make a boring salad by throwing together some greens and some cheese shavings. However, the batter dipped and fried anchovies with sage not only enhanced the dish but became the featured players turning the salad into a nice foundation - which in this case was exactly what it should be. We also got a Blue-fin Tuna Tataki with Ginger Tosazu, Purple Shiso Cress, and Coriander. This had an interesting flavor, and contrasted well with the other dishes. Next up was the Bayonne Ham which came on a plate with chili jelly and was accompanied by another plate with a grilled nectarine and a Perroche goat's cheese crostini. This was really yummy. The chili jelly and fruit contrasted nicely with the ham and cheese.

The second wave began with a plate of Seared Queen Scallops Three Ways - Lemon Miso, Harissa Miso, and Yuzu Ponzu. Splitting these little morsels was difficult but somehow we managed. Each was delicate, flavorful, and delicious. Next up was the Spicy Kangaroo Salad with Mint, Peanuts, and Lime-Chili Dressing. Having never tried Kangaroo before this was an obvious choice. The dish was delicious and the Kangaroo was a star tasting like a wonderful duck breast with red delicious centers of a series of slices of excellently cooked meat. The dressing and salad went great with the meat.

This was followed by the Roast Globe Artichoke, Grilled Asparagus, and Broad Beans with Ragstone Goats Cheese, Piquillo Pepper, Caper and Currant Relish; Thai Massaman Duck Curry with Charlotte Potatoes, Pearl Onions and Crispy Shallots; and Crispy Steamed Pork Belly with Pan-Fried Daikon Cake, Pickled Ginger, Chili Sambal and Sweet Soy Glaze. These were all quite good and accompanied by a bowl of Sugar Snap Peas - which were delicious, buttery and nicely seasoned; as well as a bowl of truffled mashed potatoes. I'm sure that everyone else in the restaurant really enjoyed these seemingly fine potatoes, but through no fault of the Sugar Club we couldn't. It's a mistake to order mashed potatoes in the weeks following a bowl of Joel Robuchon's version of the staple. You can't help but compare, and given how incredible Robuchon's are, comparisons are never kind. But that couldn't take away from an altogether fun and yummy dinner.

Dessert included sorbets; Valrhona Chocolate Mousse Cake with Star Anise and Blueberry Compote; really special Banana Fritters with Cinnamon Ice Cream; and a plate of biscuits and chocolates. At the center of this plate was a lone and soon to be fought over chocolate chip cookie. The cookie itself was probably the low point of a delicious array of desserts. But the idea of the cookie was momentous. Why don't more restaurants serve chocolate chip cookies for  dessert? I love all the various creations, and imaginative desserts that I've been lucky enough to taste. But sometimes simple is best, and a fantastic chocolate chip cookie can be a wonderful dessert. I'm shocked that this is the first time I've seen it, and I hope it becomes a trend.

For those readers that live in Seattle and have eaten at Dahlia Lounge, Sugar Club is its London twin. Sugar Club is a both warm and trendy in a fun way. The food is original, but comfortable with fresh and interesting flavors. Really good Asian fusion is hard. Sugar Club has it down. The Australian influence helps differentiate as well. If we lived in London we'd be there once-a-month for sure.

 

Saturday, January 10, 2004, 11:58 PM


I should probably mention that Alex and Lauren had another successful and tasty new year's eve party. Here's the pictures from last year. Since the theme is always fondue, i found a recipe for a truffle fondue and posted it recently. As Alex had some white truffles, I figured, why not. Unfortunately the fondue was not that great. Don't get me wrong, melted cheese and shavings of white truffles are certainly lovely to eat any time. But the whole thing was just too mild. Derrick from the excellent food site Obsession With Food also wrote in about the recipe to let share the following:

"Just noticed something in that recipe from Saveur you posted. The headnote helpfully tells you to avoid non-Italian fontina, but they don't narrow it down enough. Classically, one should use authentic Fontina Val d'Aosta; other Italian fontinas exist but none can compare to the real thing, which is high up on the list of world's greatest cheeses. Of course even the other Italian fontinas have their merits, and I'm sure the fonduta was delicious regardless if you used the authentic stuff or one of the others."

Thanks Derrick for the Fontina intelligence. I'm not sure which one Alex used.

 

Thursday, January 8, 2004, 11:22 AM


Some interesting notes from friends and readers of tastingmenu.com today as well as some neat circulation milestones.

My friend Scott has been writing a food blog. It's not so much about loving food as it's about loving food too much.

Not only have we hit over 20,000 homepage visitors (actually over 21,000 as of today), tastingmenu.com now delivers about 10,000 page impressions a month. I forget how many people come here via Google. It's shocking.

Speaking of Google, here's a neat trick: search for "bagel recipe". We're first. Yep, first. Wacky. This is what must have led Dean Allen to actually try the recipe and report on his results on his Textism website. Very very cool. He also recommends a couple of modifications to the recipe. As soon as I get a chance I'll try them out and report back.

Speaking of bagels, you can expect an in-depth report on my favorite bagel bakery in a few weeks. We got to visit and go "behind the scenes".

One person wrote to ask what camera I use to take all the food photography. Up until a few days ago it was the Sony DSC-F707. But I just got the Sony DSC-F828. It's very very cool. I have no idea how to use it. I'm counting on Peyman to teach me.

 

Wednesday, January 7, 2004, 10:00 PM


Jean-Marie Amat used to be the chef at St. James restaurant outside Bordeaux. Last time Lauren and Alex went there they had a fantastic meal. Since then Amat was fired and went on to open Bon in Paris. Along with designer Phillipe Starck they created a hip and slightly odd restaurant with a selection of dishes that doesn't appear to have highlighted the side of Amat that Lauren and Alex saw in Bouliac. To be fair, we showed up for Lunch only three days after the restaurant had re-opened from it's August vacation. The not-small restaurant was eerily empty for most of our meal until an odd couple sat down at a nearby table towards the end of our visit.

The design of the restaurant was odd to me. Sort of like the set of a 1980's Stevie Nicks music video with flowing white sheets draping everything, and candelabras. Picture that set in a ski lodge, with one room to the side with a huge table in the shape of a cross with space constellations pictured on its surface and a courtyard with a furry facsimile of a small pig staring up at another candelabra covered in melted wax. Not sure what he was going for, but I didn't go along for the ride.

I wrestle sometimes with whether it's fair to judge a restaurant based on ordering a bunch of items that require little cooking. The truth is that there are so many things that go into making a wonderful meal, this is an easy argument to make. It is fair to judge a restaurant based on every bit of food they put in front of you. So what that the slices of cured ham didn't require hours of preparation. They do require someone to know how to pick their pork, and have purveyors that can supply the very best. And sure enough while the slices of cured ham we had at Bon were good, at Robuchon's the night before they were amazing.

Lunch included: gazpacho; a raw tuna dish; a crab salad that alex loved; a foie gras terrine served with figs that actually made me enjoy the figs; a plate of cured spanish ham; oscietra caviar with all the fixings (I know, who the hell eats like this? I guess we do); a string and fava bean salad; goat cheese wrapped in grilled eggplant; and beef tartare (yes, we had beef tartare) with "grosse" frites.

Maybe it was our timing but it felt like Amat was going for something with this restaurant that just didn't click. Alex really loved his crab dish, but beyond that nothing really stood out as special or memorable. The food was certainly not bad, it just was. And when you're in Paris - as we knew from two unbelievable meals the day before - you can do better than that. Way better.

 

Sunday, January 4, 2004, 5:46 PM


Welcome to the first post of the new year. I'm pretty shocked that we've stuck with it this long. But so far we're having fun. If you've been reading along you know we're at the tail end of our long trip to Europe eating mostly in London, and having a few meals in Paris as well. Two of the last three postings of 2003 were of two of the best meals we've ever had - ArpŤge, and L'Atelier de JoŽl Robuchon. While I don't think that these postings are to be preserved by every reader for posterity, quite a bit of time does go into many of them, and I worry that because of the format of this site that once they are a few days old, nobody sees them.

If you weren't offended enough by clip shows on television then this is for you. Pretty cheap if you ask me, but here are some of the key writings from 2003 I want to make sure you didn't miss:

And don't forget our best food photography of the year:

09-totonnospizza.jpg 08-perfect.jpg 08-egg.jpg
19-rumpannacotta.jpg 07-chivedumplings.jpg 05-olives.jpg
14-langoustine.jpg 06-gazpacho.jpg 08-bruschetta.jpg

We're also feeling good that we think the site has gotten better. Not just in terms of coverage - trip to Europe and all, but the site itself as well. Search works across the site and within pages, we have cool contextual ads, instructional assistance at the top of certain pages and more. That said, we're not resting on our laurels in 2004. We have big big plans. These include improving the interface for the site even further, more photography, coverage of additional places including Japan, more Manhattan, and a bunch of time spent in Italy! We also are planning new ways to get you even more closely connected with some of the best chefs, restaurants, and ingredients on the planet.

Thanks for your continued attention. Tell your food obsessed friends about tastingmenu.com. Stay tuned.


 
     
     
     
     
     

 

 

 

 

 

   

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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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