New York, New York, tasted on May 8, 2004 — I'm a fan of
ethnic markets. Especially when they have a cozy corner where they
serve sandwiches, and other treats. And to be honest, the selection
at Kalustyan's was great.
But so was lunch.
It's not just that I love
peace on a shelf, the selection overall was just fantastic. The
market was a warren of little rooms filled with yummy items including:
Persian shelled pistachios,
persimmon slices, and
Thinking of cooking middle eastern food? Come here and you will be.
Upstairs at the
not only was
gentleman holding court, but he was giving out samples of the
goodness behind the deli counter. The
was delicious. It was warm, large, and had a super sesame flavor (which
I adore). The inside was soft (as it should be), and the outside was
crispy fried (also as it should be). Tahina and a spicy mixture were
drizzled all over the salad and pickles that accompanied my falafel. On
the side I had an order of
chickpea salad which was warm and savory with plenty of turmeric (I
think) and lots of other regional spices.
Kalustyan's is a huge market, filled to the ceilings
with yummy middle-eastern ingredients from all countries, with one
corner dedicated to making you great falafel with delicious home-made
salads. It doesn't get much better than this.
New York, New York, tasted on May 7, 2004 — Let me get this
straight. There's a restaurant in Manhattan that's all about cheese.
They have their own mail order cheese business as well as an
aesthetically beautiful bistro style restaurant where you can eat
all that cheese
that they store in their
cheese cave. And they specialize in artisanal cheeses and even
Artisanal. Uh... where do I sign up?
As it happens, no signup was necessary. In fact the
reservation was relatively easy to get, and we stopped in for an early
first dinner. (Note: when we're on these crazy eating trips, we often
have at least two dinners.) Artisanal is lovely (almost as beautiful as
Balthazar) and done in a bistro style. Usually I don't worry much about
decor, but it really did seem like the perfect environment in which to
enjoy a whole bunch of yummy cheese.
Cheese is a funny thing as it's mainly made
from milk. Much like wine from grapes, it's amazing to realize the sheer
complexity and variety of flavors, textures, etc. you get by starting
from the same simple ingredients. The tone was set with a cheese item of
course, gorgeous and... well... super cheesy...
Gougeres. Yum. Artisanal also serves some complementary dishes, so
sure enough we started off with
Crisp Skate Wing with Blood Orange Grenobloise and Cauliflower. This
was a really enjoyable and simple flavor combination and balance. The
Oysters with vinegar and lemon were a nice followup.
Steak Tartare with tangy Parmesan tuiles was particularly enjoyable.
I'm a sucker for the acidic spectrum of flavors, and all the tart and
tanginess in the dish was quite good for me. I was particularly looking
forward to the
fondue, as you would imagine. There were several varieties, though
we got one of the classics. And unfortunately it was slightly underwhelming.
I couldn't taste enough of the wine. or enough salt for that matter. It
was, however, nice and creamy.
cheese course however really was the main attraction. And we partook
of six different cheeses. They say they have over 250 cheeses all "handcrafted and perfectly
ripened". I counted 192 on the separate cheese menu (with it's own spot
for notes). But who's counting. :)
In order, starting at just before 3 o'clock on the plate
Il Caprino Tartufo, goat's milk cheese from Italy.
We couldn't taste the truffle in this one which made it a little bit
of a bummer.
Serpa, sheep's milk cheese from Portugal. This was
certainly great! It was chewy and creamy at the same time but with a subtle but
Montgomery's Cheddar, cow's milk cheese from England.
It was a cheddar that had a parmesany consistency and horseradish
flavor. Definitely enjoyable.
Affidelice, cow's milk cheese from France. A super creamy triple cream
with an almost "aged meat" flavor.
Not tangy. Very good.
Aisy Cendre, cow's milk cheese from France. This one started out with
a truffley savory deep flavor, but spiked
on the finish with a touch of ammonia. It was likely overripe. We'll
need to try it again given the good start.
Epoisses, cow's milk cheese from France. A beauty as always.
All in all, I wish there was an Artisanal next door to
me. I might eat there every other night. There's something about an
almost endless cheese adventure that gives me a sense of security,
comfort, and happiness. I realize that may not sound particularly
"normal" but I'm comfortable with it.
New York, New York, tasted on May 7, 2004 — On the one hand I
am deeply wedded to the idea of chefs going deep and not flitting
about from cuisine to cuisine, or borrowing elements from another
cuisine they don't deeply understand to "dress up" their own food
and make it "interesting". On the other hand, even though I know
better, I often hope against hope that a fusion restaurant will have
found a way to combine elements from two cuisines that is deep,
original, and coherent. And for some reason, one of the favorite
regions to borrow from is Asia. Maybe it's the contrast with typical
European ingredients and flavors, and maybe the fad is over (though
I don't think so) but so many chefs throw in a sprinkle of Asian
dishes/ingredients that it almost goes unnoticed. And this
brings us to
Asiate which clearly states its fusion
front - French and Japanese. It's location also makes a statement. A
kissing cousin to the high end restaurant row at the Time Warner
building in Manhattan (with
Asiate has stiff competition.
The building itself is gorgeous. There's also some
distractions if you happen to arrive early for lunch or dinner. These
include the insanely well stocked WholeFoods supermarket in the basement,
the Williams Sonoma with the aggressively helpful staff, the Mandarin
Oriental Hotel, and the Dean and Deluca serving
Doughnut Plant doughnuts in the middle of the Borders bookstore.
Despite all the "fanciness" the staff at Asiate was
super welcoming. Right off the bat they saw the camera and encouraged us
to take pictures - "take pictures please". Most restaurants
don't mind (I've only ever been told not to take pics at two restaurants
and one eventually relented). But the waiter at Asiate was even
encouraging which was nice. He also saw how we were ordering, lots of
dishes to share and immediately understood we were doing a tasting, to
which he was amenable. Nice. It's hard to imagine, but some restaurants
get nutty when you go off the predictable path. Finally, to set us in
the right mood some Nori and Gruyere Gougeres arrived from the kitchen.
It was funny as they looked like they might be hard, but they were in
fact quite soft. They had a super interesting flavor which was deep with
an almost barest bitterness. All told they had some major umami. The
Sourdough Roll with Black Seaweed had decent nori flavor. When you ate
the roll at a normal or fast pace it tasted like "grilling" on the roll.
But when you slowed down and placed the bread at an angle against your
tongue you really tasted the seaweed essence of it. It's funny that this
should make a difference, but time has proven (at least to me) that
slowing down when you eat lets you enjoy the flavors of high quality
food in an entirely different way than you might be used to. It's very
very important. If you're going to the trouble to eat well, why not slow
down and enjoy it.
Next up was the
with Green Mango, Pomelo Vinaigrette. I've had this dish before in a
different and simpler form. This one was pretty decent, though more "uhngehpatchked"
(my grandmother's word for messed with more than it should be). But the
dusting of sumac gave this version a unique and interesting tone. The
Prawn and House Made Pasta en Papillote with a Shellfish XO Sauce was met with mixed reaction from me and
Alex. Basically the shrimp
was too mushy. That said, the sauce was delicate yet had some strong
ginger notes which were enjoyable. The noodles had a rustic homemade
texture and were very good.
At this point I noticed a theme starting to emerge.
Typically I eschew dishes where there's a lot going on. Not because of
that fact, but because it's typically an indicator of seeming insecurity
on the part of the chef. It's like their inner voice says "the customers
won't recognize the value of this perfectly cooked piece of fish so I
have to add a whole bunch of crap to it so they think can see all
the work that went into it as opposed to tasting how much time we
spent making it great." And then of course the extra crap on the plate
becomes the crutch as why bother working hard to make the main
ingredients superstars when nobody will be able to see them much less
taste them given all the other stuff on the plate. And while there were
a lot of things on each plate, I felt like the chef was mostly making it
work. Daniel Boulud has this particular skill in spades. Even though
there were a lot of elements to each dish, for the most part the food
was delicate and interesting. The ingredients were harmonious instead of
jarring distractions. The mustard seeds and ikura on the
Tuna, Avocado, Daikon Radish Salad, and Ponzu Sauce were
notable examples of interesting combinations working out well.
After the tuna was
Crusted Scallops, Etuvée of Clams, Seasonal Vegetables,
Coconut-Lemongrass Broth. The scallop coated in polenta was super
neat. The scallop itself was super juicy and
light. The dish was also helped by the coconut broth which on its own
made for a delicious soup and was nice in combination with the scallop.
Finally we had the
Muscovy Duck Breast, Haricots Blancs, Duck Prosciutto, Black Pepper
Sauce. And I knew with this dish that
amid all the fusion, the chef was able to really feature a main
ingredient when it was called for. The duck was no exception. It was
clearly the star of the dish with a laser focus. The duck was slightly gamey in
a good way. It was juicy and strongly flavored with a seared seared
texture and bacony flavors permeating its sausage-like presence.
Accompanied by a perfect
and light almost fruity jus which was studded with spicy cracked peppercorns,
this dish was simply awesome.
Asiate started out with me wondering if it could
overcome the standard assumptions someone might make: 1) fusion
restaurants rely too much on fusion and not enough on flavor, 2) dishes
with lots of elements are usually cover for people not trying hard
enough, and 3) where the rent is really high, restaurants spend more
time worrying about atmosphere than food. Yet, I found none of those to
be the case. While I did find myself a little too low in my banquette to
reach the table comfortable, I'll gladly assume it's because I'm just
as long as I can enjoy that duck dish again.
Anaheim, California, tasted on May 4, 2004 — A trip to
Southern California with the kids does not afford many opportunities
for higher end dining. That doesn't mean that you can't get high
quality low end food, just that you're usually restricted to that
end of the spectrum. On this night however we got babysitters. The
fact that we were willing to leave our children with a babysitter
who we'd never met and was recommended by the hotel sitting service
indicates one of two things. Either our cavalier attitude towards
the welfare of our children, or our singular focus on getting as
many high quality dining experiences as possible. And of course,
it's possible it indicated both.
Aubergine, located in Anaheim not too far from where we were
staying, came highly recommended and that's where we went.
I really do hate to be late for a reservation. I
feel that it's rude. While I've never worked at a restaurant it's clear
to me after many years of observing them that trying to keep people
moving through the dining room at a leisurely pace while making sure all
the seats are filled as often as possible is an incredibly difficult
task. It's made all the more difficult when customers are not too
concerned about when they arrive (or even if they show up at all). It's
even worse when you're the last reservation of the night as you ended up
being the long pole for everyone working in the restaurant. Every minute
you're late is another minute they have to stay that night. And sure
enough we arrived at Aubergine five minutes late. Believe me, even
though it was only five minutes I felt bad. We'd been driving around the
area trying to find the restaurant and had trouble locating it. And when
we walked in the first thing I did was apologize.
Normally I really don't mention service much when I
write. And the truth is because I'm willing to put up with almost any
level of service if the food is really really good. It's when the food
is bad that all of a sudden I start to notice things like service,
price, decor, etc. But quality of food is really 95% of what I care
about. And yet, the reaction of the hostess to our arrival does bear
mention. She listens to my apology and then gives us a super long super
snotty look while she looks at her watch and then looks back at us. We
even got a couple of lecturing words on being late.
I have to take a moment to ask, what was the point of
this? I understand if they wanted to be hardcore and say that we'd
missed our opportunity. I might think it an extreme reaction to being
five minutes late, but I would understand they were following their
rules. But in fact, the seated us and served us. So what was the point
of the lecture and shitty look? I think it was just to try and make us
feel bad, which as you know is really the way you want to start off a
meal. It's not like we weren't contrite about being late. I understand
them either serving us or not serving us, but having the hostess trying
to make us feel bad seemed unnecessary. And frankly, given how nice
everyone else was to us the rest of the evening, I'm going to assume she
was an anomaly. A mean-spirited, small-minded anomaly. And to be fair,
maybe she was just having a super crappy day. Still, it made an
impression. OK. Enough of that. Now on to more important things, like
Things started off with an amuse of
Blood Orange and Foie Gras Terrine with Aged Balsamic. This was a
fantastic start to the meal. The gelee had a deep caramel focused dark
blood orange flavor spiked with three gorgeous stripes of nutty, rich,
deeply flavored foie gras. The balsamic had a deep flavor as well but
was almost light compared to the blood orange and foie gras flavors.
Very nice acids in this dish. I barely even noticed the distracting
frisee cause everything else was so good. (Though, while we're on the
topic, why does anyone who can make a terrine as wonderful as this one
feel the need to "adorn" it with a blob of frisee? I blame customers who
think that if they see food that looks spare and simple they think
they're getting ripped off.)
A small dish of
Crab Salad followed. It was super light with some tones of fresh
citrus. Everything was super clean tasting and enjoyable. A nice
contrast from the terrine. The other crab we had was also delicious. A
Crab Cake which was not the least bit heavy and had a tiny kick on
the finish. Our alternative
Foie Gras (this time sauteed) was also very enjoyable and well
After our crab and foie gras courses we moved on to a
Corn Soup. The lovely sweet flavor of the corn was accented by smoky
bacon. Essentially perfect. It helped that there was a small pile of
niblets and other additional goodness.
I thought I knew where we were, but then came the
Seafood Stew. I often don't view chefs who flit from one culinary
tradition to another as adventurous... typically their food comes off as
random. However when the seafood stew with its Thai and Southern Indian
flavors came out I was surprised but pleased. The spice, cilantro, and
coconut flavors were delicate and super present and generally very
enjoyable. So who cares that we shifted gears... the dish was excellent.
Kira aren't big fans of sweet breads. I think
it's sort of a traditional aversion to non-traditional meats. And it's
not like I'm the offal master so I'm not in a huge position to judge.
That said, for whatever reason, I do love well-prepared
sweet breads and these were goregeous. Resting on some lovely lima
beans, there was a fine grain seasoning on the surface of the sweet
breads. The dish was super savory with a super juicy inside as well.
Even Kira enjoyed it.
Rabbit (with its little bones sticking out) was great. It had a
smokey flavor permeating the juicy and delicate meat. The foie gras
pastilla added extra smoke flavor. The crunchy shell of the pastilla was
also enjoyable texture-wise.
Pork was fine but not super interesting. That said the polenta had a
nice cheesy flavor and the bacony cubes were great. It's difficult to
find a dish with a nice cheesy starch and cubes of bacon that I'm not
going to find a way to enjoy. The
however, was excellent. It had a peppery flavor and was cooked well. Not chewy
like some lobster can be.
The crunchy vegetables were a nice complement. We were stuffed, but
managed to pound our way through some
desserts as well.
All in all (weird watch incident aside) we had a pretty
great meal at Aubergine. There are a lot of restaurants doing this style
of food in the U.S. right now. Haute cuisine with the regional American
touch. And frankly, it can be hard to stand out. But Aubergine wormed
its way into our hearts in its own quiet way. They didn't have to use
any crazy ingredients, or pull any tricks, they just focused on making
each dish super high quality with deep flavor. And that's really all
anyone can ask for.
It turns out that this is a bit too late (an unfortunate
side effect of the delay we've had in posting reviews).
Aubergine is being sold, but the owners are opening a new
restaurant. Perhaps the owners will bring what we found enjoyable about
Aubergine to their new venture.
Cheese, tasted on August 15, 2005 — I have been accused of
being a cheese snob by only listing European cheeses that I really
enjoy. I claim ignorance not snobbery, as I simply have not eaten
nearly as many cheeses as I'd like in my life. The other day I was
engaged in one of my favorite past times - standing at the
WholeFoods cheese counter trying as many slices of new cheeses as I
could shove into my mouth.
The first was Estrella Farmhouse Reserve. It was sort of
a cross between Neapolitan ice cream and havarti, but better than both.
:) Sheep, cow, and goat milk havarti like cheese is melded together in
three multi-color layers. At first you find the texture novel and the
flavor mild. But there is this inescapable kick on the finish that made
this particular cheese stand out for me. BTW, I say this despite the
woman next to me at the cheese counter who also tasted it and made a
condescending face when I said I liked it. It was this faux politeness
where she tried to give the impression she was holding back her
disagreement, but made a face that said how stupid she thought my
opinion was. And then of course her opinion came out anyway as how could
she not tell the "truth" about her dislike of the cheese. I hope I never
see the judgy cheese lady again. Luckily, the next cheese made me forget
about her quickly.
Next was the Quillascut UFO goat cheese. This was super
ripe and super enjoyable. It compared to some of the strongest triple
creams I've enjoyed from France. It was soft, but not liquidy, and
strong without having any ammonia qualities. This was a big cheese that
deserved a big wine to go with it. I stupidly only bought a small wedge
and should have bought way more.
I'm sure there are plenty of other domestic cheeses that
are quite flavorful and tasty, and I'm eager to find them. One cool
thing is that these two both come from my home state of Washington. So
perhaps, my enjoyment of local cheese will make up for my lack of
enjoyment of local wine. I'll try not to complain too loudly as I suffer
to find out the answer.
Officially Over, September 8, 2005 — Shockingly, some of you
might not have noticed that tastingmenu remained unupdated
for the month of August and well past Labor day. And the truth is
that I'm not sure my malaise has retreated. I do know that I am
determined to try and do something interesting and significant when
it comes to expressing opinions about food.
In some ways, not much has changed. I still love to eat.
I still love to go out to eat. I still love to share information about
great places to eat with friends (and strangers). And yet, I still
wonder if there's a way to have an impact beyond this site's barely
perceptible micron-sized dimple of a footprint on the way people eat.
Maybe it's too much to ask to be able to improve the quality of dining
and diners in America through a blog. But that doesn't mean I won't try.
One thing I have done on vacation is read a lot of other
people's websites. Mostly non-food-related. And one thing I've found is
that the best of them share one key trait - honesty. Brutal,
embarrassing, honesty. In a world where people are regularly full of
crap, honesty is a rare commodity that is recognized and cherished.
So, while I still feel a little lost, and wonder how
long I can keep up this crazy website for, I do have some degree of
renewed purpose. I believe two things (for the purposes of this entry):
there are some basic tenets for people who eat and
people who make food that if followed can improve our overall
culinary existence in this country
there are people all over the world making great
food that you should know about, and that I need to eat (the food,
not the people)
I'm going to spend the next phase of this site focusing
on those two things and we'll see how it goes.