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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.

 

Sunday, February 29, 2004, 10:29 PM

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Other Coast Cafe, Seattle, WA, October, 2003 — I grew up in metro Boston, Massachusetts. There is a construct from Boston (and the east coast in general) called the "sub shop". It is typically small, often serves pizza, has a sign that was paid for and carries the logo of Coke or Pepsi, and often has Italian-Americans behind the counter. The "sub" that is the object of the shop comes in many varieties both hot and cold. The poster child for the cold sub is the Italian consisting of deli meats, cheese, some veggies, oil, salt, and pepper. The prototypical hot sub is either the meatball (Debbie's favorite) or my personal nirvana - the steak and cheese (to which I add mushroom).

Something about this toasted roll filled with hot steak and mushrooms fresh off the grill, and melting cheese blanketing the entire concoction makes me very very happy. For me this makes other comfort food about as comfortable as an international plane ride in coach. The crunchy roll, the hot steak and cheese, the savory mushrooms, all combine to make this incredibly delicious, and satisfying sandwich. When someone told me that just such a shop existed in Seattle, I held my breath for fear of getting my hopes up too high.

And finally one day I found myself in Seattle during lunch and heading to the Other Coast Cafe. Their motto is "East Coast Sandwiches, Northwest Attitude". Hmmm... I could do with the east coast sandwiches, and I was hoping the northwest attitude didn't detract from the sandwich goodness. I walked into this "hip" sub shop and was immediately bummed that there were no steak subs. I suppose that there could be other sub shop archetypes other than my personal favorite from Boston. And after all, they did have tons of deli meats and cheeses (from Boar's Head) as well as the classic meatball. So I ordered two subs, one meatball and one Reuben.

I got my sandwiches and they were hot. Burning hot. I was psyched they toasted my sandwiches, but I almost burned myself. My sandwiches came on French bread, not sub rolls. Chalk one up for northwest attitude over east coast sandwiches. Also, they claimed the meatballs would be spicy. I didn't want spicy meatballs, I wanted traditional meatballs, but I'm happy to try. In fact they weren't spicy, they were herby. They were good but didn't ring true. One more for northwest attitude. My Reuben was big, and toasty, and there was some delicious mustard on the generous portion of meat. But it wasn't an authentic Reuben.

My take on Other Coast Cafe is that it suffers (at least with me) a little from the expectation it set. Maybe the motto should be "East Coast Sandwiches Transformed by Northwest Attitude". That's really what it is, and they do a good job at that. But it's not my sub shop from Boston. That said, for big, hot, fresh sandwiches, with quite a bit of flavor, Other Coast Cafe is a fine place for lunch.

 

Saturday, February 28, 2004, 9:52 PM

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Le Pichet, Seattle, WA, October 19, 2003 — A little French bistro is just what Seattle needs. And Le Pichet does a nice job fulfilling that need. Tile floors, laid back, open for breakfast on weekends. It's nice. We had a quick lunch there that included: Grilled Pork Sausage on a Baguette with Caramelized Onions and Black Currant Mustard; Creamy Pumpkin and Sherry Soup with a Slice of Blue Cheese from the Rhone Valley; and Air Cured Country Ham.

The sausage sandwich was the best. It had an interesting and unique flavor and the caramelized onions were way delicious. Eating the  bread with the sharp mustard was delicious. The soup was decent. And the blue cheese seemed like a good idea to me, but it just didn't work. The strength of the cheese distracted from the subtlety of the soup. Maybe subtle is a generous description as the flavor of the soup was hard to determine. Ham? Always a good thing. They gave us a generous portion.

Le Pichet was cute, warm, and friendly inside. We need to go back for dinner.

 

Thursday, February 26, 2004, 9:43 PM

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Ming's, Bellevue, WA, October 7, 2003 — There used to be a half decent Chinese restaurant in Bellevue, WA. They changed names at one point and became Ming's. I wish I could rave about its most recent incarnation, but it was just ok. Hot and Sour Soup was good and spicy, but overly vinegary. The shredded pork did not have good texture. The potstickers were not pan-fried well. The frying needs to leave the steamed shell in tact, these were falling apart. Scrambled Egg with Shrimp could be delicate and delicious, or a pile of fried egg with shrimp. This was the latter. Boring. The Chicken with Black Bean Sauce didn't hang together. We went a little overboard and also got some Peking Duck. It didn't have enough flavor. This restaurant used to be quite decent. It feels like they're aspiring to be something more than they were, but somehow they've backslid. Bummer.

 

Wednesday, February 25, 2004, 11:36 PM

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I think that I should be doing more cooking with pistachios (free registration required).

What's the difference between cider and juice?

Another article on the former Michelin guide inspector who is blowing the whistle on what he claims are some of their more questionable practices (free registration required). I have to admit I am a little bit gleeful at this, though I don't know if any of it's true. I certainly suspect that some of it is true. And if it is true, it just highlights for me again that restaurant reviews and food journalism are just as subjective as any amateur sharing their opinion. This is not to say that some people don't try to be fair and balanced, but this veil of absolute objectivity is simply silly. I'm going to need to write about this in more detail soon.

A day in the life of a British food photographer. Some very cool food pictures.

DebDu and The Food Section both mentioned this book - Cooking by Hand - to me just recently.

I still haven't eaten at Balthazar, but their cookbook looks gorgeous.

 

Tuesday, February 24, 2004, 11:58 PM

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Cafe Juanita, Kirkland, WA, October 3, 2003 — In my quest to find delicious Italian food in Seattle, I am always ready to try something new. Imagine my surprise to find out a that a highly recommended Italian restaurant was not only within striking distance, but located on Seattle's east side. Kirkland to be exact. For those of you who don't know (and I can say this as I live here), from a culinary perspective Seattle's east side is to Seattle proper as Boise is to Manhattan. It's a restaurant wasteland. Cafe Juanita kept coming up in conversation as the place to check out. And check it out we did.

Before we got started some breadsticks arrived. These were ok. Slightly cheesy. I always like more cheese flavor. Maybe that's my skewed perspective. Then things began in earnest. We started with Seared Foie Gras with Candied Ginger, Local Peach and Vin Santo. The foie gras was pan-seared wonderfully. The sauce was sweet. But a lot was going on in the dish. Felt complicated. I'd also long wanted to try baccala. We ordered Baccala Brasata with Tomato and Taggia Olives. The baccala was luke warm and oily. I didn't enjoy it. It tasted like fish soap. I'm assuming this wasn't representative of what everyone raves about. We also got some Prosciutto di Parma with Fall Fruits. It's hard to go wrong with prosciutto. It was good.

We ordered a couple of salads. First wasArugula, Grilled Nectarines, and Fennel with Pine Nuts, Lemon, and Ligurian Olive Oil. This dish had no identity. Just a bunch of stuff on a plate. Second was Local Pear, Pine Nuts, and Parmesan Cheese with White Truffle Oil. The flavors in the salad were great. That said, I found the pears mealy, but I think that might just be me. I'm not really a pear guy. Some other dishes followed that unfortunately were not that memorable: Taleggio Caramelle with Marsala Grilled Black Mission Figs, House made Figure Eight Corzetti with Chianti; and Parmesan Soup with Pasta and Black Kale. We had high hopes for the soup but it didn't have huge flavor. Sounded much better than it was.

The entrees included Duck Breast with Farro, Cavalo, Nero and Black Mission Figs. The duck was decent. And we also got Rabbit Braised in Arnels with Ligurian Chickpea Cake, Pancetta, and Chanterelles. The rabbit was "eh". Too much truffle oil and the chickpea cake was just not good. The texture just wasn't enjoyable and there wasn't any significant flavor.

At one point in the meal Ted said: "I couldn't see the possibility of it getting any better." This was a significant bummer. But there was one other dish we ate, Piemontese Plin of Rabbit with Sage Butter. Frankly, the plin kicked ass. Simple, flavorful, and rich. If the entire meal had been like this (or even if half of the dishes had approached this) I would be eating at Cafe Juanita on a regular basis.

What can I say about a restaurant that was really terribly average but served us one absolutely stunning dish? My first instinct is to wonder if they should just open up  a Rabbit Pasta stand. I would be there not just every week, but every day. Delicious. My second thought is that they must be capable of doing that to more than one dish. I doubt it's just luck that they nailed that one item. So I think I will have to return at some point and hope that there are some other dishes that can equal that incredible rabbit.

 

Monday, February 23, 2004, 11:52 PM

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The Food Section has some great links including: The New York Times new (temporary) food reviewer, as well as a fire at Per Se (free registration required).

Seen the ads for Atkins friendly food at places like Subway? The food industry is now fully in the throes of carb-reduction/rejection.

Speaking of dieting, Anna Nicole Smith lost a lot of weight on TrimSpa. They say it doesn't have Ephedra anymore, but I don't understand how this thing actually worked. I know my friend Scott would say it's all b.s. other than fewer calories and exercise.

I hate to link to a site that charges money, but I'd love to read Gordon Ramsay's pancake recipe (paid subscription required).

I've been thinking a lot lately about how we describe our eating experiences, and especially about our "rating" system for restaurants. I worry about consistency, and I want to make sure we're being fair and providing a reliable service. I'll write more about this soon. But in the meantime, the LA Times has a good article on the Michelin Guide (free registration required).

 

Sunday, February 22, 2004, 9:29 PM


7 Stars Pepper Szechuan Restaurant, Seattle, WA, September 23, 2003 — Seattle is not a major home for great Chinese food. There are a couple of restaurants that do a decent job, but world class Chinese food is simply not to be had. (Feel free to let me know if you disagree. I would love to be wrong.) 7 Stars Pepper Szechuan Restaurant was actually quite interesting. I wasn't the dream I'm chasing, but things were different enough that the meal kept our interest and attention throughout.

Things started off with "amuse bouche" of pickled vegetables - celery, carrot, and cabbage. It was a great spicy fresh taste. We also got some broiled peanuts that had an anise flavor. They were not my favorites. This was followed by some hot and sour soup. It had a major heat that crept up on you along with a yummy smoky flavor.

Next up was an order of Fried Dumplings. These were crisp and pretty delicious as a matter of fact. We also had some dumplings in a Hot Pot. These were not so good and had a slightly soapy flavor. One of the more interesting items on the menu was the Cumin Lamb. I had to give credit to the restaurant for serving things that stood out from the generic set of standardized fare that infests Chinese restaurants across this country. It was different so of course we had to order it. And sure enough it was a bunch of new flavors for us. And everything we ate was spicy.

7 Stars is an interesting family run restaurant tucked away on the 2nd floor of a small shopping mall in Seattle's international district. I'd like to go back and see what other interesting dishes they have that I haven't typically experienced at Szechuan restaurants in this country.

 

Thursday, February 19, 2004, 11:19 PM


This is part 2 of our write-up on our visit to Trio. This is the first time a write-up has spanned multiple entries. I suppose that when you have a 25 course meal that's to be expected. Part 1 is located here. When we last tuned in, we were starting the second half of the meal...

45-Chilled Sweet Corn Soup Before.jpgThe second half of the meal started off nicely with Chilled Sweet Corn Soup with Spicy Cardamom Ice Cube, Peaches, and Basil. The soup arrived in a vertical tube placed in a bowl. When the tube was removed, the soup rushed out the bottom of the tube and filled the bowl. It reminded me of college. There was also bits of microbasil as well as Thai chilis in the soup. The soup had a super laser-like corn focus. Very smooth consistency. It may have been even a touch too smooth for me. But the flavor had a long finish. The chili's gave it a nice subtle but acute spicy undertone as well. The popcorn garnish was cute.

How about Puffed Lobster with Grapefruit and Oxalis? This was a lobster "chip", scrambled lobster roe, grapefruit, and oxalis (which is an herb) under lobster consommé. This dish has super lobster focused flavor. There was good concentration in the consommé. I found the dish interesting and good. Not one though that I would crave again. The lobster was followed by California Estate Osetra Caviar with Kola Nut Ice and Milk Foam. The little "bubbles" of caviar were mirrored by the bubbles in the milk foam. The bubbles in the foam were like little caviar ghosts. This dish was not only another interesting combination but tasted great. This wasn't the first point during the meal where we felt like we were being stretched and challenged to open our minds to new flavors. And actually the real challenge was to put away our pre-conceptions about whether these combinations of ingredients belonged together. Sometimes I wonder if people should just eat food without knowing what it is. That way they can focus on the flavor. So many people are so obsessed with knowing what they're eating. Need to investigate this further. Back to the meal.

Next up was Dungeness Crab, Coconut Milk, and Ten Bridging Garnishes. The garnishes included avocado with chili, coconut with vanilla bean, curried brioche with fenugreek breadcrumbs, passionfruit, cashews and cashew powder, green tomato, and lime. All I can say is wow! This reminded me of a riff on the Thai dish Miang Kum. I forgot to ask but I have to imagine that was part of the inspiration. The coconut "ball" in the middle looked and felt like a soft boiled egg, but it was no egg. It was this inflated ball of coconut filled with coconut milk. When the plates arrived we deflated the coconut not really sure exactly what was going to happen. As the milk oozed out we knew it was time to eat our way around the plate. It was way cool. The flavors kept changing as you'd take little bits of coconut and coat each piece with the various bits and pieces that formed a ring around the edge of the plate. Delicious, and fun to eat. I have a thing for food that requires some construction. It makes me feel like I have more of a stake in the food, and gives me more of a sense of accomplishment when I'm done.

53-Pork Two Ways.jpgThe simple name for this next dish - Iowa Pork with Figs, Truffles, and Fennel - belied how intricate it was. There were five kinds of pork on the plate: 1) tenderloin, 2) shank rillette, 3) short ribs, 4) rind, and 5) prosciutto. This massive selection was accompanied by fennel, truffle puree, shaved truffles, and fig. Tjeerd, who is always a little disbelieving when I tell him about good food opportunities had finally passed the point of no return in terms of loving this meal. This dish was simply amazing. Every facet of the plate was flavorful and delicious. I think I can safely say that more work went into cooking this dish for us then goes into preparing most meals consumed each day across the planet. I don't believe that a lot of work is necessarily a leading indicator for a great tasting dish. But in this case the time investment clearly paid off. Also, I love that we had freshly made pork rind at this high end restaurant. After the pork we got a bit of a palate cleanser, Frozen Muscadine Grape and Lemon Verbena. This was brought out to us on a block of ice. The ritual and interaction of how they brought this over to us was very cool.

If you're into Japanese food (or watch Iron Chef enough) you'll notice that often dishes are built in a fashion that's representative of some real world place, event, or other important cultural theme. For example: this dish is representative of Spring in Kyoto, etc. That's pretty much what arrived next in front of us. Specifically, Swan Creek Rabbit with Forest Vegetables and Evergreen Vapor. We ate forest rabbit almost literally in the forest. The plate of food arrived such that it was essentially floating in a bigger dish like a bain marie. The outer dish was filled with evergreen leaves and hot water was poured on them as the dish was served. The effect was that of forest scent wafting up from the dish, surrounding the rabbit and us as we ate. Like I said, we were in the forest hunting and eating little furry rabbits. When we put our sympathy for the rabbits aside (which took me about a nanosecond) we dug in to a delicious dish. At first I thought the evergreen vapor was a little affected. But with smell playing such an important role in flavor, even if it was a bit shticky, it still contributed to the experience and flavor of the dish. Which by the way was great. There were a variety of rabbit preparations and each was quite tasty.

Awhile ago I skimmed the book Outlaw Cook by Matt Lewis Thorne. I skimmed it because it droned after a bit. But it had one chapter on something called the Plowman's Lunch. This is 56-Hereford Hop.jpgbasically the combination of cheese, bread, onion, and beer that made for a standard lunch for workers in Britain. In the book various combinations of these basic ingredients make for an appetizing chapter. I'm not a food expert by any means, but I was particularly proud of myself that I got the reference when we got our next dish - Hereford Hop with Guinness, Onions, and Fresh Yeast. This was Chef Achatz' interpretation of the Plowman's lunch. And the combination of ingredients was delicious. Tangy, sharp, bitter, crisp, all coming together in a satisfying, slightly puckering combination. I can still taste it today.

If some of the previous dishes seemed out of the future, then the next two dishes sealed our impression. First was the Capsule of Mango-Spicy Yuzu. This was a yuzu thin pastry dough capsule filled with togarashi accompanied by a glass of mango yuzu juice. The spicy capsule was complemented by the cold sour-sweet chaser. The second future dish was the Tapioca of Roses. It consisted of rosewater tapioca, macerated raspberries, clove gelee, and heavy cream, all layered parfait-style into a thin tube. If the corn soup reminded me of college then this dish confirmed that somebody involved in the conception of this dish did a lot of beer drinking in a past life (I have no actual proof of this). This was another dish that not only tasted good but made me laugh. Another small touch: the three raspberries on the side as garnish were warmed before plating so their aroma would have more impact when the plate was placed in front of us. Details details details.

60-Bucare Chocolate.jpgInto the swing of dessert, the raspberry "shotgun" was followed by Bucare Chocolate, Toasted Mustard Seed, and Caramel cake. This was topped with caramel ice cream. It was like a fancy Snickers cake. It was absolute chewy, chocolatey, caramel, perfection. We probably should have stopped here as our final dessert item was a Lavender Cicle. It was like a frozen air freshener. But that couldn't dampen my spirits after this delicious and exciting meal/adventure.

When we were finally done we got little thank you cards with the our dishes listed out as well as some kind words: "On behalf of the entire staff at Trio, we would like to thank you for joining us. We hope you had an exciting evening savoring all the flavors of our restaurant. We appreciate your support for the culinary arts and we look forward to seeing you again soon." That sentiment really nailed it for me, especially the parts about savoring all the flavors, as well as "supporting the culinary arts". I love that we got to try everything. I don't like the idea of missing out on things. And really Trio's "20" course tasting menu was almost a modern art installation. And we were participants  helping them continue too express their art, push boundaries, and generally try new things.

Eating the 20 course tasting menu at Trio is definitely an experience that people who are really excited about food should have. I don't think anybody would say that it's something you should do on a regular basis (or maybe even more than once a decade). While I haven't yet gone and had a six course meal at Trio, I could easily imagine six or even nine dishes out of the 20 we had that would make for a fantastic dinner that I could have much more frequently. There's one reason why I really enjoyed Trio - the food. Many of the dishes we had were simply special. Not just well executed, but frankly delicious and enjoyable. Not every dish hit this bar, but it didn't matter. Because they were trying. I'd rather they try and not bat 1.000 than pull their swing and end up with something typical and boring. In their way, Trio is trying to do something special. For that reason it's worth giving them a try. For the dishes that hit that extra high mark (and many do), it's well worth going back.

 

Wednesday, February 18, 2004, 11:57 PM


41-Pushed Foie Gras.jpgTrio, Evanston, IL, September 21, 2003 — Is cooking an art or a science? The first obvious answer to this question is: who cares? And frankly that's mostly what I think as well. But ending this entry right here might make for a lousy read so lets delve further. So if I care just enough to have an opinion, it's not clear that my opinion even really counts. I'm no expert on cooking as I'm not a great cook. But lack of expertise or talent has never stopped me from having an opinion before, so why start now. I think cooking is somewhere in between an art and a science, it's a craft. The dictionary defines a craft as "Skill in doing or making something, as in the arts; proficiency. An occupation or trade requiring manual dexterity or skilled artistry". Combine that with the works of Harold McGee and that sounds about right to me.

Why all this convoluted and affected conceptual preamble? Because the topic for today is really creativity. At some point in the future I will write up a long discussion of exactly what I look for in a restaurant or an ingredient to determine that it's something I like or love. And while the end result - the food - is always the basis for  bulk of my opinion, there are other factors - like creativity. And I'm the kind of person who values effort. The effort needs to pay off, but effort is important. I'd rather go to a restaurant that is trying to do something special and fails half the time, then a restaurant that's not trying and has no failures - just a series of well executed safe dishes. And creativity is not about outlandishness to me (though that doesn't detract for me). It's about an effort to make a memorable dish. It's about trying to be special and unique. So, if you're ready for some "creativity", read on.

Chicago is not a city I visit often. And while I have nothing against it, there are  just usually places I'd rather be. That said, it is home to one of the most memorable meals I've ever had - eating at the kitchen table at Charlie Trotter's. That was special. So I found myself needing to head to Chicago for roughly 24 hours. And of course we would need dinner. My constraints were challenging. Sunday night isn't exactly a major restaurant night. Many are closed. And I didn't want to repeat somewhere I'd been, though I would eventually love to go back to Charlie Trotter's. And while I pored over the web trying to decide where to eat I happened upon a restaurant in Evanston, a suburb of Chicago, that was trying to do something special. It's chef, Grant Achatz, was an alumnus of the French Laundry in Napa, and some write-ups I saw on the web had debates over what people thought of some of the "wackier" dishes served there. I picked up the phone and dialed Trio.

In the course of making the reservation the woman on the phone told me that I could choose between a six and a nine course tasting menu. There's clearly no choice there, I took the nine. I happened to mention that the only other time I'd eaten in Chicago was at Charlie Trotter's where eating at the kitchen table was quite an experience. The woman on the phone told me that Trio had a kitchen table as well. Was it available? Yes it was. But at the kitchen table you had to order the twelve course tasting menu. Had to? You couldn't stop me. And that's when she mentioned that there was still the option of the twenty course tasting menu. Twenty courses. My mind boggled. Twenty courses. Was it possible? Could I last? This seemed like a challenge to me. My competitive spirit can get the better of me at times. This was one of those times. Twenty courses it would be. Strangely enough I had to spend five minutes convincing the reservationist that we really wanted the 20 courses in the kitchen instead of nine or twelve in the dining room. She kept insisting that the right way to experience Trio for the first time was in the dining room. Be that as it may, I kept explaining to her that I don't come to Chicago often, I may not be back for some time, and there was no way in hell I was going to sit in the dining room shy eight courses and without a view of the action. No way. She finally caved and we started wondering how we would survive.

I knew that the chef was not intending to feed me as you would a foie gras producing goose, so I expected that the 20 courses would be sized and paced appropriately. But still... 20 courses. That's a marathon. El Bulli in Spain does 30. (During the meal I came to realize that the Chef at Trio was influenced by among others Ferran Adrià at El Bulli.)  To me, offering a 20 course tasting menu is not just a challenge to my abilities to experience it, but a challenge to creativity. How do you deliver 20 courses that are interesting, flavorful, balanced, memorable? How do you deliver 20 courses that people can actually finish? I've never even wanted to try those challenges at some family restaurants where if you eat the - fill in the blank with: 30 scoop ice cream sundae, 72 ounce steak, etc. - you get it for free. I did however want to see if Trio could make me a great meal, in 20 steps.

Trio is yet another restaurant proving that location is not what it's all about. Evanston, IL is not famous for its collection of quality restaurants. In fact, I have no idea if it's famous for anything at all. Trio is located off the lobby of a small hotel. The restaurant is certainly nice, but understated as well. And given the magnitude of what the chef is trying to do, the restaurant's relatively uninteresting decor, and the understatement of it's entrance is somehow in contrast. But I found that reassuring. The chef was trying to do something huge, but was doing it from a small and unassuming home. We were escorted to the kitchen table, which sat elevated and out of the way on a platform to the side of the kitchen. We had a good view of the action, but not a great view of the details. Still we didn't feel too isolated.

Awhile back as I prepared for, and eventually enjoyed, a meal at The French Laundry, I first encountered Thomas Keller's sense of humor. It was certainly not my first encounter with the mix of humor and food, but it was the first time I'd seen someone have a little cleverness when it came to what most people consider "high end cooking". Whether I think it's clever or not almost doesn't matter as I view at as an expression of the chef's creativity. It's part of the emotional experience they are trying to create. The example often used from Keller is his dish of Pearls and Oysters - which in fact is oysters resting on a bed of tapioca custard. Grant Achatz at Trio, having worked for Keller brings even more of that same sense of humor to his meal. Case in point, our first dish "Cheese 'n Cracker". Any of the dishes with their monikers in quotes were cleverly titled. The "'n" in this case doesn't mean "and" but refers to the fact that the cheese is in the cracker. Specifically, a homemade "puffed" cracker whose pocket was syringe injected with melted Wisconsin cheddar. I can't explain how hard the timing must have been on this dish. You can't take a bite of it, you have to put the whole thing in your mouth because as soon as you bite into it, the cheese oozes out all at once. For those over 25, it's like Freshen Up gum made with cheese and cracker materials. (And I mean that in a good way.)

10-Tomato Watermelon Juniper.jpgThis was followed quickly by a Tomato Watermelon Juniper combination that was so beautiful it could have been in a museum. It hung off a fork suspended in mid-air. And as surprising as the burst of cheese was in my mouth from the previous dish, this had its own moment of inspiration. It was like a bite of savory fruit juice. I don't know any other way to explain it. Next up was Pacific Sea Urchin (Uni) with Frozen Bananna, Puffed Rice, and Parsnip Milk. This dish was also flavored with Saigon Cinnamon. The first two items on the menu were interesting and good. This dish was super super interesting and absolutely great. On paper it seemed like an odd combination of ingredients. In my mouth they all made perfect sense. Weird? No. New? Yes. Good? Definitely. This dish was almost like a dessert breakfast cereal. I realize quickly that this meal was going to tax my already modest food description skills.

A quick beverage made up the next course -  Spice Water. It included black truffle oil, hazelnut foam, star anise, and peppercorn. I'm not a big Christmas person (in fact I'm really not a Christmas person at all), but to me this drink tasted like Christmas. I appreciated the new flavors even if I wouldn't be buying 2 liters of Spice Water to take home. I didn't need to wait long for something I would take home - Free Range Hen Egg with Nasturtium grown in Trio's Garden. The egg sat on a smoked pepper and lemon brioche, along with the leaf, bloom, puree of nasturtium and lemon sel. This dish had such incredible contrasting textures and flavors. This dish made me laugh. I just started to giggle because the combination of flavors was so unexpected and so enjoyable. The lemon periodically poked onto your tongue from underneath the the other flavors. Very cool.

Not as cool as what was up next. Black Truffle Explosion. Imagine a ravioli filled with liquid black truffle, black truffle shavings, and seated next to a dab of broccoli puree. The fish was beautiful to look at and lived up to its billing. It literally was a black truffle grenade in your mouth. This was yet another dish that you had to eat in one bite. One spectacular bite. You dragged the ravioli through the puree and then popped it in your mouth. If not for the delicate nature of the creation, I could imagine eating a bag of these "snacks". (Don't think i'm diminishing the impact of the dish by using the word "snack". I'm not.) At this point in the meal, the pacing was great. We were moving fast. And that's what was required to get through 20 dishes. We also got a nice warm roll with a little mound of butter. The butter was incredibly airy but didn't feel whipped.

24-Heirloom Tomato.jpgWe saw them being prepared, and were super excited to get Trio's version of a Caprese salad - Balloon of Mozzarella with Heirloom Tomatoes, Basil, and Burnet. What's burnet? It's a vegetable that tastes like a cucumber. This dish was salted perfectly, and visually gorgeous. The individual flavors of the different heirloom tomatoes was much more diverse than I imagined possible. The balloon of mozzarella was just cool. Working my way around the dish trying each variation with some of the mozzarella I was struck by the attention to detail and the perfect salting down to the exact perfect count of salt crystals added to the dish. Beautiful tasting and looking.

Next up was Poached Loin of Lamb with Floral Infusion, Artichoke, and Orange. The citrus puree, crisp artichokes, and herbal tea shavings were nice complements to the lamb. The dish was also accompanied by a consommé geleé which mirrored all the flavors that were on my plate along with some shaved Thai peppercorn. A dish that's interesting isn't necessarily delicious. Everything on the plate was certainly beautiful and tasted good individually. But somehow the balance could have been better. I wish the lamb (or the artichoke for that matter) had been more featured. And instead it felt like just another supporting member of the cast. This dish was a bit of a muddle even though maybe a more focused version of it could have been fantastic.

Next up was the famous "Pizza" dish I had heard talk about but didn't know what it was. One covered plate arrived at the table for each person. With a simultaneous flourish, each cover 36-Pizza.jpgwas removed to reveal a needle standing upright in a bowl full of wax. Perched atop the needle was a centimeter square slip of rice paper covered with a tiny mound of pizza "spice". I didn't ask, but I assume this was made by taking a pizza, drying it out, and then shaving it down to it's crystalline pizza essence. There was a deep tomato powdered flavor. I'm not sure it was enjoyable as much as it was amusing. This felt to me like how the Jetsons eat pizza. If we'd added water I truly believe it would have grown to full size. It was kind of funny. Some chefs might call this silly and a waste of time. Maybe it was. But I did think it was cool that Chef Achatz was trying new things. And if that meant that sometimes he went overboard, I didn't care, because at least he was trying. Glad I experienced it even if I wouldn't necessarily be ordering more of it for halftime at the Superbowl.

Our next dish was Cap of Prime Beef with Parsley Root and Leaf, Green Peanuts, and Sassafras. It was like some kind of 21st century Thai beef salad. After that was our "Salad". Deyhdrated pizza powder? Why not salad ice crystals. They juiced romaine, watercress, and arugula, and froze the results. The shavings made up this dish and were topped with olive oil and Cabernet Sauvignon vinegar. Salad granite. This dish was shockingly good. Even though it was another clever surprise, this is something I'd want to eat again. In fact, I am getting quite bored of the fruit/herb palate cleansing combinations that I get at many restaurants. Why go half way with the herb. This really was an intensely salad flavored set of ice crystals. And the vinaigrette was deliciously complementary. Yum. My understanding is this is a dish borrowed from El Bulli. (I still have to get the new El Bulli coffee table cookbook to confirm, or I could just go to El Bulli. But that will have to wait for another time.)

I wondered when the foie gras would arrive. I didn't have to wonder much longer. Soon we were presented with Pushed Foie Gras with Dolga Crabapples and Cider. Crabapple glaze of cider, foie gras "jimmies", crabapple sorbet, and a savory slice of crabapple all made for an unbelievable dish. This was an apple dish. The foie gras bits melted in the mouth to provide a perfect counterbalance. This was the best dish we had eaten so far in the meal. Just an astoundingly mouthwatering mix of sweet and savory, tangy and smooth flavors. I can still taste it today. (I'd still like to taste it today.)

This was followed by a dish that was super interesting and beautiful but didn't imprint the same flavor memories that the prior dish had. We got Mountain Huckleberry Soda with Five Flavors Gelled. These included: corn, sage, smoke, milk chocolate, and pine nut. As neat as the whole dish was, I didn't love it. It was like a Yoko Ono art exhibit. That said, the chocolate cube was one of the most incredible deep, rich, creamy chocolate flavors I have ever tasted. It was  incredible. I suppose even in a dish that I found memorable only for its effort to be interesting, there was still an example of incredible flavor in the chocolate. The counter I guess was the "smoke" cube which though beautiful, tasted icky.

Chanterelle Mushroom-Mint was next. Chanterelle Ice Cream with Mint Sorbet. You suck on it like a hard candy. The savory mushroom and mint flavor combination was quite nice. I need to point out that though we ordered the 20 course tasting menu, we ended up with 25 courses. The mushroom-mint sucker marked number 13 and therefore is the halfway point. Yes. At this point we were only half way through the meal. And it was somewhere around this point that we got up from the table (at the waiter's suggestion) and took a break. We walked outside for a bit, cleared our heads, and got our energy back to try more things. I know I shouldn't be looking for sympathy that we had to eat a 25 course exciting meal, but I do want to note that as enjoyable as it was, it still required a degree of concentration and stamina. :)

This meal was so huge we'll need to cover it in two entries. So, stay tuned for part two. To be continued...

 

Tuesday, February 17, 2004, 7:02 AM


Someone I just showed my site to asked my if it was just about restaurants or about cooking as well. Granted we've focused a ton on restaurants, but I promise we'll do more cooking over time. He forwarded a link to this site I'd never seen. (It's amazing how you think you've seen everything on the web and then you find yet another very cool website.) It's www.hertzmann.com. Basically a site filled with very cool recipes. But don't think you understand what I mean without going there. For example check out this amazing foie gras recipe. He goes into a level of detail that I love. (And in fact, in a future section of this website you'll see just how much.) Honestly the food looks so simple and special. Or this compendium of cauliflower recipes complete with pictures of every single one. The navigation is sometimes weird on the site, but as often as it may be a bit confusing (lots of windows popping up), it's just as often fun. For example this cool page with a bunch of different soup recipes. This guy is focused. I love it. Very very very cool.

 

Sunday, February 15, 2004, 11:14 PM


22-Profiteroles.jpgLe Gourmand, Seattle, WA, September 19, 2003 — It's a small restaurant. It has a small kitchen. It's located in Ballard, a neighborhood of Seattle, that's sort of out of the way. There's a garden in the back where they grow fresh herbs. The cuisine is French. There's a loyal following of customers who like the homey but upscale food. And the staff is super friendly. Welcome to Le Gourmand.

From the name along you know you're somewhere where they welcome people who love food. And yet, they were still surprised and excited by our request to "just make us dinner". We didn't order, we just put ourselves in the hands of the chef. Only limitation is our one vegetarian. Otherwise, bring it on. And soon after we sat down some rolls from the Tall Grass Bakery in Ballard arrived with some Plugra (my favorite butter) for spreading. They were yummy, with a slight tanginess on the finish.

Soup showed up next. Specifically, Peach Basil Soup in Clarified Duck Sauce with Leeks, Peaches, and Basil from their Garden. This was complex, rich, and deep. The peach undertones were delicious. The vegetarian version was a bit salty. After the soup we got Butter Braised Endive.  This dish was super rich and complex as well. It smelled almost peanut-buttery. Yum.

Foie Gras? No problem. Sautéed Foie Gras with Choked Cherry Sauce, Cognac, Port, and Duck Stock Reduction. The choked cherries were like red currants. The Foie Gras was buttery. Debbie absolutely loved it. Alex and I thought a touch more searing could have made it perfect. It didn't matter much though, as the sauce was incredible. It reminded Alex of a curry and Peyman tasted fruit, raspberries. The sauce was rich and deep but had flashes of bright flavors. Sensing a theme? Very complex and interestingly flavored sauces. More were ahead.

For example, a Zucchini Mint Infusion in Vegetable Stock. Also very good. Next was a Gratin of Fresh Dungeness Crab and Steelhead. The steelhead , we were informed, was swimming in the Pacific the previous day. The dish was complemented by a reduced crab stock and fresh tarragon. The crab was shredded in a super rich sauce. I thought it was just good. Alex thought it was great. Lauren hit the jackpot next with the Sally Jackson Sheep's Cheese Blintzes. These were incredibly good. I mean 'dream about them' good.

Next to arrive was Fresh Albacore Tuna with Shiso Plum Sauce. At first I wondered if the tuna was overcooked as it wasn't really pink. But in fact it was quite juicy. I guess you always need to be aware of your own expectations coloring your meal. I ran my theory by Peyman, he disagreed and thought it was slightly overdone. But DebDu agreed with me that it was quite good. The vegetarian option was an Omelet with Wild Plum Sauce. Lauren thought it was delicious.

It's funny, at this point the strength of the restaurant, the incredible, deeply complex, and richly flavored sauces, were starting to wear us down. Don't get me wrong. Each was unique and pretty amazing. Always a set of flavors that I've never experienced. But the fact that every dish had one started to fatigue a little. Then again, we were doing an extreme version of a typical meal at Le Gourmand. We were only up to our fourth course, and more were to come. And while the sauce focus was certainly typically French, the sauces were anything but typical. The flavors were fresh, and interesting. Anyway, back to the meal. And maybe the kitchen recognized that we needed a break as the next item to arrive was a Pear, Champagne, and Rosemary Infused Sorbet. Palate cleanser.

Then we got the main courses of the evening. Foraged Chanterelle Mushrooms, Veal Medallions, Veal and Duck Stock, Port, and Cognac; and Duck Breast with Cassis. The duck was clearly the best of the bunch. We also got sides of Chard and Potatoes; and Mushrooms in Tomato. And in traditional fashion, the main part of the meal closed with a salad. This one was composed of Calendula, Nasturtium,  Bachelor Button, and Rose. I didn't think I was in the mood for a salad, but in fact it was peppery and refreshing. Sally Jackson's Sheep's Milk Cheese aged in Chestnut Leaves with Poppy Seed Crackers helped as well. They make their own crackers daily using seeds for poppies they grow themselves. Overkill? You decide. But remember to try them before you judge. They were good crackers.

Dessert was up next. This included: Poached Pear in Caramel Anglaise, Chocolate Ganache, and Crème Anglaise; Profiteroles with Chocolate and Caramel Sauce; Creme Brulee with Brandied Raspberries; Red Currant Sorbet; Lemon Ginger Ice Cream; Chocolate Praline Ice Cream; and Cigarette Tuile Cookies. Wow. They pulled out all the stops to try and make dessert match the depth of our meal. And this showed all night. The waitstaff took great care of us (despite the fact that our waitress described everything as either "amazing" or "incredible"). And the chef, Bruce Naftaly (who seemed like a real sweetheart) came out at the end of the meal and was super flattered that we were so appreciative of the diversity and deliciousness of the meal. Apparently nobody had asked him ever to just make them dinner. And we were rewarded with a great meal where none of the dishes were even on the menu. Le Gourmand is an understated gem with delicious food, and a friendly staff that are happy just making you happy. Can't argue with that.

 

Friday, February 13, 2004, 11:11 PM


Awhile ago I posted a link talking about Amazon's new "Search Inside" feature. It lets you basically have reference books like Larousse Gastronomique available online for free. There's another cool online reference for a variety of things including food - Wikipedia. It's a collaborative encyclopedia. Not sure how accurate it is, but as with many net projects, people appear to post with the best of intentions. It has cool entries on: French Cuisine, Slow Food, Fast Food, Food Writing, and many more.

Queer Eye food expert offers Valentine's recipes courtesy of the St. Petersburg Times.

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer writes about Chuck Williams as in Williams Sonoma.

 

Wednesday, February 11, 2004, 11:37 PM


Bruce Cole on his excellent Sauté Wednesday site has a great writeup on how to use salt.

I would have bet a lot of money that the Superbowl half-time "show" would have no reason to ever be mentioned on this website. Apparently, I was wrong.

A website all about cheese. Nothing wrong with that.

The Valentine's Day food articles have begun. Don't make the same mistake we did (though if you're going to make this mistake, copying us isn't a bad way to go). Valentine's day is not a good night to go out to restaurants. Basically, people who go out to dinner only once a year go out on Valentine's Day. The restaurants have to cater to these people's narrow tastes and enormous expectations. Not a good night to go out. Though I will admit we're going to try it this year, but we're going to go somewhere where "lovers" don't go for romantic meals. Maybe Vietnamese food or Korean.

Handmade marshmallows. That's cool! (Free registration required.)

OK. Now it's time to explain the new link in the upper right hand corner of the page.

Tastingmenu.com started out as a hobby for me and a bunch of friends. It's become a regularly visited website with tens of thousands of hits a month. People from all over the world visit, hopefully find useful information, and sometimes live vicariously through the eating experiences we document here. We don't do this to make money. But it costs money to do this nonetheless.

We pay for hardware, software, internet connectivity, photography equipment, phone calls, travel, and of course... food. We don't go out to dinner and beg for comps in exchange for a good write-up. We pay for dinner like everyone else. And given that some (but luckily not all) of the places we eat are rather pricey this can be an expensive proposition.

It's been suggested that we charge for access to the website. I don't have any ideological problem charging for the website, some adherence to a moral code that requires any digital creation to somehow be in the public domain and free for everyone. That said, I also know that 1) if we charged, we wouldn't make very much money as charging for content on the internet is a difficult proposition at best, and 2) if we were to charge, then fewer people could enjoy the site.

If we were to collect money in some way you might imagine we would spend it on the technology and food listed above. But the truth is that we'd likely spend almost as much money on technology, travel, and food with or without the website. But there are things we'd like to do that go beyond our current eating out budget. There are long term projects, events, content, and write-ups that frankly we need a capital investment to deliver. We'd spend the money either on the costs of putting on an event, or on hiring staff to start working on some of these projects on a more full-time basis.

You might ask: what about those ads on the side of every page? Aren't you raking in the bucks? In all honesty, we get about $10-$15 a month from those ads. They're really not a great revenue generation device at this time. There are four reasons we keep them there: 1) they look cool, somehow the site looks more professional with the ads, 2) there are sometimes useful links, Google does a good job serving up interesting stuff, 3) they might make real money some day even if they don't today, 4) as a side effect of having them there we get good page impression tracking for free from Google, thanks Google!

So, if you enjoy the site, and would like to see more of it, as well as some of the special content and events we'd like to start delivering, please give what you can. Thanks to amazon.com Honor System for providing this service. If you have any questions, please don't hesitate to let us know at give@tastingmenu.com.

One more bit of administration for the geekier folks in the audience. You may have noticed two new links in this entry. Comments and Permalink. Comments is a way for all readers to add their thoughts to the site. The service is provided free of charge to us by Haloscan. I'm uncomfortable having all the comments stored on a third party site, but I figure we'll try it for awhile and see how it goes. The permalink item is now there for other folks to link to our site. I know it's dopey that it's taken this long to get permalinks, and even dopier that we don't have an RSS feed. The problem is that this site is generated manually. I've investigated every software out there for creating sites, and none of them really do what we want. This means that we're going to need to write our own software to make this website. In the meantime (as we have no time for writing our own software), everything is done manually. It's slow, but it works.

 

Tuesday, February 10, 2004, 11:46 PM


Satomura, Tokyo, Japan, September 12, 2003 — I do love Japan very much. The culture, the people, the language, the design, the food. Everything. The fact that I get to travel there once-in-awhile is really a bonus. And while I often get to go out to eat on my own, there are sometimes work related dinners to attend. Those are always cool opportunities to get to know people you're working with. Unfortunately I never get to pick where we go to eat. I've tried, but the folks who pick always seem to get stressed out by this idea. Sometimes they say I'll pick a place that's too expensive. When I reassure them that costliness does not equate to quality, they kind of don't believe me. I finally got one dinner to be at a yakitori place. I decided that these dinners always ended up at restaurants that were just ok. But that our hosts insistence on ordering a bunch of food that's not the specialty of the house. Sushi at a soba restaurant? Nabe at a sushi place? After a lot of back and forth they finally agreed to pick a yakitori place for dinner. My only caveat was that we needed to order only yakitori. No tempura, or other Japanese cuisines that weren't the specialty of the house. My gracious hosts agreed, and we were off to Satomura.

Well, I suppose it was bound to happen. It was only a matter of time given how many restaurants there are in Tokyo. But the odds are so good there of having a great food experience no matter where you turn, that it's still kind of a surprise. I have had some of the most incredible Yakitori (essentially grilled meat and sometimes vegetables on sticks)  of my life in Japan. The best ever was in Kyoto, and happened before the creation of this site, so I have no idea what it was called. It was fresh, mouthwatering, stunningly flavorful, and delicious. To this day I can remember almost every bite. Satomura was not that. It was just eh. I'll admit, it would have been a decent restaurant here in the U.S., but in Japan it wasn't even close.

First things first. We were told that we weren't just eating yakitori, but we were eating high quality ji-dori yakitori. My best understanding is that this means they use free range chicken. What came out of the kitchen after this introduction was plate after plate filled with various parts of chickens grilled on sticks. Chicken hearts, chicken stomachs, chicken cartilage, chicken livers, and once-in-awhile... chicken. I tried everything. I'd never had hearts, stomachs, or cartilage before but I felt like I had to try it at least once. Honestly, it wasn't that enjoyable. The hearts were probably the best thing, and they were just kind of chewy. the stomachs were not interesting, and the cartilage was just yucky. It was really mostly a texture thing with all three as opposed to a flavor thing. It's amazing how much texture dictates preference when it comes to food. When the straight chicken meat came out, it was actually pretty good. So was the bacon wrapped asparagus.

Tjeerd may have had the best point of the night. As dish after dish of various chicken parts came out he observed that it was as if the value of each dish was calculated by how many chickens had to die to make it. The more chickens the better. "Chicken feet? Well there are two of those per chicken. Chicken hearts? That's way better. You have to kill twice as many chickens to make the same dish." Bottom line, I may try the weirder stuff again, but first I'm going to find a yakitori place where even the basics are memorable. I was bummed to have out last meal on a bit of a down note, but our trip to Takashimaya Times Square the next morning to stock up on snacks for the trip set my mood straight. Japan is amazing.

 

Monday, February 9, 2004, 11:58 PM


13-rabbitspaghetti.jpgCanoviano, Tokyo, Japan, September 11, 2003 — The more I think about it, the more I may be falling deeply in love with really really high quality Italian food. There is a simplicity about many Italian dishes, a clarity of flavor, and a freshness that I think about for months after I've eaten a representative dish. Who knew that I would have to travel all the way to Tokyo to get a perfect example of this cuisine. It's no surprise given that a) we picked an Iron Chef challenger that won, and b) so much food (of any style) is better in Japan than in the U.S.

Canoviano, located deep in one of the typical windy streets that criss-cross the Ebisu district of Tokyo (and all of Tokyo for that matter), is a gorgeously designed little restaurant. It's small, hip, has cool print on the walls, and has a wraparound window that surrounds the kitchen that's at the heart of the establishment. There you can see Takamasa Uetake cooking up a storm. He moves so fluidly it's like ballet. We just sat and watched him for10 minutes towards the end of the meal. He acknowledged we were there, but went about his business, calmly, professionally, beautifully. I was full when I started watching, but started getting hungry again by the time I was done watching him cook.

A person who we think was the maitre'd ended up being our waiter for the evening. We think it was because of his super English skills. He'd apparently spent time in the states working. He was also unbelievably friendly, helpful, and flexible. We explained to him that we wanted to try as many things as possible and he was very receptive. He even suggested that they give us half portions (tasting menu portions) so that we could try more items. Super nice.

First up some bread and a bowl of beautiful and pristine olive oil showed up. This seemed fine until we took a bite. The olive oil had a subtle but distinct spicy kick. Typically if you get a spicy olive oil for dipping it will have the pepper seeds and other pieces mixed in. The fact that they took the time to get the oil spicy and then clarify it of even the tiniest impurity really felt like a level of attention to detail that would bode well for the rest of the meal.

08-caprese.jpgNext up was our selection of appetizers. They took the time to subdivide the dishes so that each of us could have our own portion. How do you make a raw tuna dish in Japan at an Italian restaurant and have it be clearly Italian with uniquely Japanese (understated) touches? You serve Tuna with Okra, Edamame, Cauliflower, and Tomatoes. Really just a dish you could cry over. The tuna was so soft and tender. The flavors were so fresh and Italian. If that wasn't enough, the Caprese was the best we'd ever had. Carpaccio, Mozzarella (imported from Italy), Peas, Endive, and Peeled Tomatoes. Awesome. The tomato was a concentrated bomb of tangy tomato flavor. I don't know how to describe it. I couldn't tell if it was cooked or not. How he focused that much flavor in that tomato I do not know. But it was incredible.

There was also a raw fish appetizer - Octopus, Amaebi (raw shrimp), Peas, Tomato, and Cabbage. It was characterized by subtle seafood essence that permeated every bite. We also had Pigeon with Shredded Spinach, Parmesan, and Eggplant. The flavor was warm and earthy. The sauce didn't overwhelm but set a positive tone.

12-tomatomozarellacapellini.jpgWhen I think of Italian food, the first thing that comes to mind is a simple spaghetti with tomato sauce. That's exactly what we had next. Simple. Spaghetti with Tomato Sauce, Mozzarella, and Basil. Unbelievable. Absolutely unbelievable. Bursting with freshness and an incredible balanced flavor. It couldn't have been simpler. And yet given how many attempts I've tasted at this very same dish that have come up so short, I know that it must be hard to get it this right. That's the only explanation I can come up with for why I can't get this dish done this well anywhere in my time zone.

Quail Spaghetti with Pancetta and Chinese Short Beans arrived next. A gorgeous dish. The bright green of the beans, against the pasta background was a sight to behold. The beans tasted almost like corn. The sauce was delicious. It was a vegetable and quail stock with a touch of tomato and cream. The spaghetti with tomato sauce was magical. The quail was only fantastic. Meals like this are truly torturous.

Next up was Garganelle with Pigeon and Vegetables. The sauce was yummy and meaty. This was the same sauce from our pigeon appetizer with balsamic vinegar added. We then had the Veal with Grilled Greens. The veal had a touch of fat. It was so juicy. Tjeerd declared it "most special". I never thought you could combine grilled (yes grilled) lettuce and cubes of zucchini and have it be delicious. But it was perfect. The absolute right crispy, grilled texture, perfectly complementary to the buttery veal.

We then ate Duck with Okra, Japanese Green Peppers, and Chinese Short Beans and Balsamic. The balsamic was a perfect complement to the sauce which had a nutty flavor. Next, Lamb with Eggplant, Arugula, Edamame, Cauliflower, and Potatoes. This was juicy as it had lots of yummy fat on the meat. Tjeerd thought it beat the veal and the duck. We fought over this. (None of the meat dishes beat the veal. Trust me.) Again, a really tough problem to have.

23-chocolatefigs.jpgDessert was also quite good. Refined, special, unique. There was a dessert Zuppa - berries in wine sauce with rosehip ice cream. There was also Cioccolato and Pistachio Nuts with Figs and Balsamic Vinegar. And finally we also got a Creme Brulee with Coffee Jello. This last item, while not for me because of the coffee flavor was definitely refreshing. Tjeerd compared it to a caffe frappa he'd had in Greece. The berry soup was amazing. It was like a microcosm of nature. A little live berry bush. The herbal aspects were actually nice, not yucky. And the chocolate parfait, even with the coffee flavor, was just perfect. Both the texture and the flavor were great.

The food at Canoviano was super interesting. It leveraged local seasonal ingredients and imported the other ones directly from Italy. Tjeerd, our resident designer rendered his opinion on the design "minimal but cozy". The open kitchen in the middle is not just so the patrons can see the cooking, but also so the folks in the kitchen can see the patrons enjoying their meal. And enjoy it we did. The spicy oil at the beginning of the meal really set the tone. It's not just the food that was making us so happy either. The hip design of the restaurant, the amazing service, the perfect portions, and the excellent timing all made our meal so special. At one point when I got up to take pictures it set off a chain reaction where the staff was worried that we were impatient for our next course. This isn't just a Canoviano thing, (pardon the generalization) but not an unexpected outcome for the incredibly polite Japanese society.

As great as the meal was, and believe me, it was superlative, it ended with a cool little detour. Our English speaking host was opening a bar/wine club downstairs below the restaurant. It wasn't open yet and was being rented out to various people as wine storage. He led us down these tiny stairs and through a Star Trek like door that receded when you passed your hand over a hidden sensor. We walked through the door and around a curvy walkway under the restaurant only to see a gorgeous wine cellar behind glass, and the walkway open up into a beautiful custom designed bar and lounge area. It was surreal that this amazing creation lay buried under Tokyo with nobody enjoying it yet as it wasn't set to open for a couple of months. Just another cool moment to cap off an incredible experience at Canoviano.

Postscript: Michael, was in Tokyo on business recently. He had only one night to go out to dinner. He'd already had Chinese somewhere else in Asia. Of course I recommended Canoviano. The verdict? He loved it. Cool.

 

Sunday, February 8, 2004, 9:30 PM


12-tonkatsu.jpgKatsuyoshi, Tokyo, Japan, September 11, 2003 — I don't know why it sounds funny to me that Japanese cuisine has an entire branch dedicated to deep fried pork cutlets - tonkatsu. After all we have an entire branch of American cuisine dedicated to sliced cured meat sandwiches - deli. Humorous or not, I knew I needed to try it. The most famous Tonkatsu restaurant in Tokyo is Tonki. I had assumed that I would end up going there, but then I happened upon a recommendation for another tonkatsu place called Katsuyoshi. This place was supposed to be run by a a man obsessed with the perfect pork cutlet. Someone who would go to any length for the ultimate tonkatsu. When I read that he custom ordered his own oil for deep frying I knew this was the place we must go.

Buried in the basement of the Yebisu Garden Place Tower Complex (that also houses a restaurant from Joel Robuchon), Katsuyoshi is a small, cool, spot with complementary industrial and rustic Japanese decoration. It's both traditional and hip. And the big vats of custom oil in which your food gets fried are right near the entrance with the entire process visible to any interested bystander. I was the most interested.

Soon after we sat down a plate of mustard and pickles with some sort of horseradish-like stuff arrived. A soy-based sauce accompanied. We also got some miso soup. It was hearty. Yummy.

We had tried to order a suite of various tonkatsu items. The basic tonkatsu with lard (yes, lard) was delicious. I'm not surprised. We also ordered a super expensive version of the pork cutlet, but it actually came out dry. I admit I'm not entirely sure what the difference was in terms of the description. Though the sauces that accompanied were quite savory and flavorful. There was a mound of shredded cabbage and some potato salad (yes potato salad) on the side which were super complementary. One order also came with a perfectly breaded and fried shrimp.

So here's the deal. If you want an absolutely delicious deep-fried breaded pork cutlet, you can't go wrong going to Katsuyoshi. Not only won't you go wrong, but you'll enjoy a juicy, delicious, crispy, freshly fried, piece of cutlet. I'll admit I don't have much to compare it to, but I would love to go to Tonki the next time I'm in Tokyo so I could get a baseline. I'm also still trying to come up with a reason why I need to order some custom oil.

 

Thursday, February 5, 2004, 9:06 PM


17-gruntfishspinning.jpgLa Rochelle, Tokyo, Japan, September 10, 2003 — When my interest in food started really getting serious, I also happened to get to visit Tokyo a couple of times. It just so happened that this coincided with a year of obsessive watching of the television show Iron Chef. At some point I got the bright idea that if I was going to be in Japan anyway, why not eat at the Iron Chef's restaurants. Each of them had their own restaurant in Tokyo (except ironically Iron Chef Japanese who worked at Nobu in New York and later opened Morimoto in Philadelphia). Sure enough we planned an entire trip to Tokyo to eat at every Iron Chef restaurant we could find. One of the best we ate at was La Rochelle.

La Rochelle is the flagship restaurant of Hiroyuki Sakai, Iron Chef French. Located atop one of Tokyo's seemingly countless futuristic skyscrapers it occupies only part of the floor. The rest contains Sakai-san's cafe and is private dining area. Our last experience at La Rochelle was phenomenal. The place was packed. The food was exquisite, special, and amazing French with Japanese soul. Our Persian waiter was a sweetheart. And Sakai himself was in the kitchen.

Granted I should feel lucky to have such problems, but whenever I'm in Tokyo I am torn between trying one of the 80,000-100,000 restaurants I've never tried, or returning to one that I've been to before and fallen in love with. On this trip I did my best to have no repeats, but a visit to La Rochelle seemed like a requirement.

I did my best to try and make a reservation from the U.S. speaking a few words of Japanese mixed in with English. I was repeatedly told they were booked. For some reason I tried again from Tokyo, but this time had the concierge at our hotel try, and there was no problem getting a table. I think things had just gotten a bit lost in translation due to my inability to speak Japanese. Given the challenge of getting a reservation we were super surprised to show up to find La Rochelle empty. It was absolutely empty. Sakai was off on vacation. Our Persian waiter friend was there and thrilled to see us. But we were the only table in the place. Later some other diners showed up, but it was still weird. Our waiter explained that there was some national holiday and that people still hadn't gotten back from vacation. We weren't aware of one, but I suppose it didn't really matter. It was still weird to be the only ones there.

And while we were bummed that Sakai wouldn't be cooking for us, we were still very excited to eat dinner. We didn't have to wait long. A Foie Gras Amuse Bouche arrived in no time. It had a smoky meaty flavor as well as pistachios as a nice complement. Yummy. A warm roll also arrived with some soft butter on the side. So simple, but a lovely combination. Why more restaurants don't serve bread warm, I don't know. I think I can safely say that bread is almost always better warm.

Then they brought us a platter with three items each: 1) Turtle Soup Flan with Shark Fin Consommé, 2) Abalone, and 3) Chinese-Fried Cuttlefish in Chestnut Oil. This was way cool. Three from the sea. Each item's perceived simplicity belied the huge amount of work that went into it. The flan was like a super flavored reconstituted soft boiled egg. The cuttlefish which normally I am not a fan of, was soft and delicious. And as it turns out, I still am not into abalone. Too rubbery for me.

Next up was Amaebi (raw shrimp) with Canadian Lobster and Iranian Oscietra Caviar on Fennel Mousse and Turnip. There was also an improvised variation of Shrimp, Squid, Caviar, and Clam in Vegetable Soup, with Abalone from Hokkaido. The shrimp, lobster, and fennel dish was fantastically flavorful and delicately balanced bringing together all the seafood flavors like a smooth warm ocean taste. The improvised dish was eh. We had asked them for variation so I give kudos for trying. And invariably when you try something new it doesn't always work. I think we sometimes forget what it takes to perfect a dish and get it just right. This was a helpful reminder. Since we are all sharing, we didn't mind too much anyway.

What better way to follow up the seafood than with two preparations of foie gras. The first was Foie Gras sauteed with Radish on a Soba Crepe with Mushroom Tempura and Aged Japanese Vinegar. The soba was a nice touch. The vinegar sauce somehow had a softened flavor. Not as acidic as I was expecting. And it was made without a stock. It was very good. The other dish was Foie Gras Croquette with Truffle and Champignon Sauce topped with a Parmesan Tuile. The sauce was perfection - warm, bursting with savory flavors. On the croquette with its ridged textured surface the sauce was really amazing. So cool to deep fry foie gras in a gorgeous Japanese croquette. The Japanese have an entire cuisine dedicated to frying pork in this style (Katsu). French. Japanese. Cool.

Two kinds of soup arrived next. Corn Soup with Niblets and Spinach Oil, and Pumpkin Soup with Cream of Tapioca. The corn soup was cold (i was surprised) but delicious. Essence of corn, simplified and concentrated. The pumpkin soup was not my favorite but it had an unbelievably smooth texture.

The fish course came next. First was Sautéed Grunt Fish in a Veal Stock with Grapes, Lentils, and Okra Tempura. Delicious. Okra tempura - brilliant. We also got Steamed Cod with Balsamic Vinegar and Oil. It was a pretty dish but the Cod had an odd flavor. A little palate cleanser came next - a Lemon Thyme Granite. Maybe herb sorbet and I aren't close friends, but it certainly cleansed the palate and the lemon flavor was nice.

I already had known about Kobe Beef. I learned about Miyagi Beef. And now I got to try Misawa Beef. Misawa Beef in Red Wine Sauce with Mustard Blini to be specific. This was a very nice dish. I realize "nice" seems like such a generic way to describe it. But I mean stranger hands you a $100 bill nice. The dish was incredibly well executed. The beef was like butter. Soft and super juicy. The sauce very flavorful. The blini was a great counterpoint to the beef both in texture and flavor. The Misawa beef made me feel good. And as much as I liked the beef dish, the Squab was even better. Squab Breast and Leg with Cabbage in a Squab Stock. The leg was good (with claw and all - hardcore!). The breast was the best I've ever tasted. It was essentially a delicious steak, but lighter and gamier in a good way. Very very juicy.

Dessert was just overboard. They make their desserts every day and put them on a huge dessert cart. Our waiter offered us as much of whatever we wanted on the cart. Not only was he being nice, but I believe much of it would have been wasted if we hadn't eaten it. I felt bad not eating more, but I was absolutely stuffed. Pear mousse, chocolate yogurt, ice cream, various sorbets, gorgeous pieces of fresh grapefruit, berry pies, cream pies, and a tarte tatin made with pineapple (is it still a tarte tatin or just a pineapple cake?). And don't forget the petit fours. I didn't taste even a fifth of what they had to offer. More to try next time.

Was the experience the same as last time? At it's heart, absolutely. La Rochelle is one of the best restaurants I've ever eaten in. The fact that the dining room was empty, and Sakai was gone are what I think led to the inconsistency. But the truth is, for me, a great restaurant is not great because every dish is perfect. A great restaurant is one where many of the dishes are incredibly memorable, and the chef isn't afraid to try new things. Even when a dish isn't great, I'm often glad they tried. Especially if that dish at least was interesting even if it wasn't something I'd want to try again. La Rochelle is a singular experience. I intend to go back, especially when Sakai is there.

 

Wednesday, February 4, 2004, 7:23 AM


Derrick Schneider of Obsession with Food has a couple of entries of casual dinner parties he did with a bunch of cool and yummy looking dishes.

I've always wondered about higher level theory with regard to matching particular sauces with specific pasta shapes. The Boston Globe has a take on this.

Nola.com has a cool weblog about New Orleans food replete with food quote from George Bernard Shaw. It's not update super frequently but has interesting recipes.

 

Monday, February 2, 2004, 11:23 PM


05-shrimp.jpgTen-Ichi, Tokyo, Japan, September 10, 2003 — The tempura at Ten-Ichi is absolutely perfect. It's also pretty expensive. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that perfection doesn't often come cheap. Nine pieces of tempura and a salad for $70 a person is not for everyone. While I might not be able to eat this way every day, I would certainly come back to Ten-Ichi as often as my wallet could stand. Even if you can't do a whole meal there, I think it's worth it to go in and have one exquisitely fried shrimp. Be prepared though to be ruined from loving tempura of lesser caliber.

Ten-Ichi is a chain of tempura restaurants all across Tokyo. We had lunch at the original located in the high-fashion, high-priced section of town called Ginza. The restaurant is a typical warren of small rooms, wonderful traditional Japanese decoration, and friendly staff. As a tempura restaurant it's separated from other establishments by the tempura station manned by the tempura chef. The station has a spot for all the raw ingredients soon to be coated with the perfect tempura coating as well as a large vat of oil heated to just the right temperature. A hood protects the diners seated at the bar from oil spatters. Years of experience protect the chef.

I have often wondered whether I could enjoy an entire meal of just tempura. Don't get me wrong, I love deep-fried, batter-ensconced, seafood and vegetables. But an entire meal? As it turns out, it's not a problem. In fact the only problem at Ten-Ichi was stopping so that I would still have room to eat a fabulous dinner. I'd also wondered how much difference there could be among tempuras. Certainly I'd like something well-fried, without too much oil, crispy, hot, and delicious. But I didn't realize how good it could get. Ultimately for me it came down to the post-frying batter.

The ingredients were fresh. The batter I'm sure was some special recipe. The oil was likely held to the highest standards. But somehow the combination resulted in a tempura unlike anything I've ever tasted. For starters was the way it looked. Instead of a glistening, oil-sparkling, item straight from the deep fry, these tempura appeared to have an almost matte texture. This was odd to me at first. Tasting them confirmed the impressions of their visual appearance. The batter tasted almost dry - in a good way. In addition, the batter stayed very very close to the item it was encasing. Instead of the batter frying and almost crystallizing like some I've tasted, this tempura batter stayed very close to it's charge. And as free of oil as the casing was, the item inside, be it seafood or vegetable, was bursting with moisture and heat. The combination was absolutely special. I realized that somehow this batter seemed to almost repel oil. There wasn't a hint of greasiness in the taste. The rapidly replaced papers that served as welcome mat for the tempura between frying and my mouth showed that there was a touch of oil to absorb, but the taste was still absolutely flawless.

A green salad with kiwi and miso vinaigrette dressing preceded the tempura procession. It was good. What followed included shrimp, an edamame/chickpea-like ginko nut, and shiitake mushroom stuffed with shrimp. This last item was shockingly delicious! The crab was soft, delicate, and amazing.  I also love those Japanese green peppers - Shisedo. Additional items included a "ball'o'shrimp" (not sure how it stayed together), and a yummy tempura'd scallop.

Tempura is one of those deceptively simple foods. Vegetable or meat and batter deep-fried in oil. How hard could it be? As with most delicious simplicities, making it is not hard. Making it to perfection approaches an artform. Our adorable tempura chef handled his frying utensil with precision and perfection. The result was simply the best tempura I've ever had. Deep-frying with these kinds of results is truly a skill that should be more common around the world. In the meantime, Ten-Ichi awaits.

 

Sunday, February 1, 2004, 11:39 PM


Saryna, Tokyo, Japan, September 9, 2003 — It occurred to me that since we were in Tokyo it was time to try one of the local delicacies - Kobe Beef. Alright, it's not really local to Tokyo, but rather to Japan. As it turns out this is really not so simple. Kobe beef is only the most famous (in the U.S.) expensive beef coming out of Japan. It's certainly not the only beef, and many in Japan claim it's not even the best. There's other famous cattle in Japan. Different regions have their favorites, and some are even immortalized in poetry.

As with every style of food in Japan there is typically a restaurant that specializes in it - sushi, soba, tempura, katsu, etc. With that assumption I set out to find a Kobe Beef restaurant. I was surprised at first when I realized there aren't any. I quickly figured out that Kobe Beef isn't as much a style of cuisine as it is a prized ingredient. This may sound obvious in retrospect, but it took me a little while to get there. Once I did the question was: which style of cuisine would highlight the ingredient the best. Teppanyaki was really the best choice. This is the style of cooking translated for Americans in the form of the Benihana restaurant chain. And while the Japanese version has fewer theatrics, it's still basically a big cooking surface, fresh ingredients, and a chef cooking in front of you. The food goes from cooking surface to plate to mouth very very quickly.

The big question to ask about Teppanyaki is whether it really matters where you go. Certainly the chefs require a certain degree of skill and master, and there's no doubt that it varies from restaurant to restaurant. How large is the variation in quality? I don't know and I didn't want to take a chance. We ended up at Seryna. At the top of one of Tokyo's super skyscrapers was yet another collection of very expensive restaurants, Seryna among them.

We went to the top of the Sumitomo building and found our way to the cozy/fancy Saryna on the 52nd floor. We were quietly ushered into a private room towards the back of the restaurant. Everywhere you looked there seemed to be an incredible view of Tokyo. If you haven't been there, my friend Tjeerd summed it up best when he said, "Tokyo is designed for when flying cars are invented". It's like being on the Blade Runner set but everything's real.

Our chef arrived and started delivering dish after dish. First up a salad - sprouts, spring onions, wonton strips and a vinegar-miso dressing. Yummy. Then there was a three item amuse plate. It included a cream cheese item, crab in aspic, and a broccoli ham item. The first item was like a cream cheese and vegetable fruit rollup. Surprisingly tasty. As for the crab, the aspic was actually good - not too much "day old jello" texture. Caviar showed up next, we ate every last egg. It was cool that it was served on soba blini.

I don't know if you've ever seen a fresh huge chunk of foie gras seared right in front of your eyes, but that's what happened next. Needless to say we didn't complain. The foie gras was like air. Then we were served mushrooms cooked in little tinfoil packets. The mushrooms were incredible, almost bitter but not quite. They were definitely in season. Super fresh.

I admit, Japan sometimes presents new challenges for me when it comes to what I'm excited about eating. I act tough on the website, but I'm really kind of a wuss. When the live abalone was placed on the hot cooking surface I couldn't help but wince. Watching it writhe and shrink in front of us was pretty freaky. It was over pretty quickly, but it was visceral watching an animal become food in a matter of seconds right in front of you. Makes you really appreciate your food more.

The chef then coated some scallops in flour, prawns in salt, and both with white wine, and then covered everything on the grill. Both were just ok. Hard to beat simple freshly seared seafood. But it wasn't really special in any way. A few minutes later the chef served us the prawn heads and tails after they had continually cooked for awhile. They were super  fried. It basically turned them into tasty crunchy shrimpy chips.

It was finally time for the star attraction. The beef. As it turned out, the Kobe wasn't available fresh that day, so we were offered Miyagi Beef. This region of northern Japan also raises special cattle, but doesn't have quite the global marketing muscle that the Kobe folks have. The chef and the manager of the restaurant told us that not only was it fresh that day but that it was better than Kobe. The verdict? It rocked. It was so soft and buttery tender that it was like the entire cow had been turned into one large foie gras. They served it with two sauces - salt and garlic - perfect.

After the beef nirvana, they fried up some bean sprouts. A glass of water would have had more nutritional value not to mention flavor.  We also got some garlic fried rice or cold noodles. Pickles showed up, and then things finished off with melon.

I'm not quite sure how to explain this meal. We had some very good food. The experience was very high end. The prices were stratospheric. The beef really was incredible, but I'm not honestly sure the meal was worth it. They trotted out one luxury ingredient after another, but I could have done just with more beef. In the United States this restaurant would be a very successful super high end Benihana variation. In Japan it seemed to be more appropriate for businessmen than for food lovers despite some of the culinary high points. I think that to really experience all the beef in Japan I'm going to need to spend a couple of weeks traveling to Miyagi, Kobe, and the other regions that claim to have the secret to the tenderest and most flavorful beef in the world.


 
     
     
     
     
     

 

 

 

 

 

   

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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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