Archive | December, 2013

La Mere Brazier | Lyon | Dec ’12 | “the most intricate platings”

26 Dec
  • Address: 12 Rue Royale, 69001 Lyon, France
  • Telephone: +33 4 78 23 17 20
  • Price (after tax + tip, excl. drinks): $85
  • Courses: (3 main/5 total) 1 amuse / 2 savory / 1 dessert / 1 mignardises
  • Price/Main Course: $28
  • Rating: 17/20
  • Value: 2/5
  • Dining Time: 107 minutes
  • Time/Course (total): 21 minutes
  • Chef: Mathieu Viannay
  • Style: French
  • Michelin Stars: 2

From the vaults:

A year ago today, I had a 26th December lunch at La Mere Brazier in Lyon. It is a storied restaurant – “The restaurant was established in 1921 and was awarded the prestigious 3 Michelin stars under chef Eugénie Brazier between 1933 and 1968.” [Wikipedia]. In recent years, the restaurant was re-opened under Matthieu Viannay, who has brought it back up to 2 Michelin stars. It is considered to be the second-best restaurant in Lyon, after Paul Bocuse’s 3 star establishment.

Though the food was delicate and quite well-cooked and plated, we didn’t have the best of seating arrangements, which was annoying. We (a party of two) were seated in the front foyer, not the main dining room, and the service staff were constantly milling around in the small front foyer room we were seated, making it hard to carry a conversation.

Notable write-ups:

  1. Andy Hayler, on La Mere Brazier

Rating: 17/20

Memory: Mackerel Bridge, Chocolate-Lime Ganache


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Exterior, we had hiked up the hilly northern part of Lyon to get the Rue Royale.

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Cream Quenelle in Mushroom Soup (4.25/5)

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“Mackerel Bridge” (5/5)

Lightly pickled mackerel stumps two ends of a crispy, savory bridge – which may or may not be fish skin. My favorite dish that lunch.

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some dessert

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Still-life. You can see us playing the coin game, from Mathematical Puzzles, A Connoisseur’s Collection:

“Coins in a Row”

On a table is a row of fifty coins, of various denominations. Alice picks a coin from one of the ends and puts it in her pocket; then Bob chooses a coin from one of the (remaining) ends, and the alternation continues until Bob pockets the last coin. Prove that Alice can play so as to guarantee at least as much money as Bob.

Have fun! Hint at the bottom.

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Chocolate ganache with lime, and sugared mint (5/5)

Brilliant. The sourness of the lime gel on top cut against the dark chocolate, and sugared mint across was delicate.

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Because under the old Michelin rules, silverware wasn’t just for cutlery. Swag.

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Hint for Coins in a Row: If there are 51 coins instead of 50, it is usually Bob (the second to play) who will have the advantage, despite collecting fewer coins than Alice.

2am:dessertbar | Singapore | Aug ’13 | “amateurs”

26 Dec

Address: 21A Lorong Liput, Singapore 277733

Phone: +65 6291 9727


One from the vaults. To enjoy good food, one must not only know where to eat, but also where not to eat. While I don’t generally focus on negative reviews, sometimes they need to be brought out into daylight.

Singapore is a place where you can eat quite well for $3 (street food) or $300 (high-end fine-dining), but something that goes unmentioned is that you can’t really eat well for $30. Mid-range dining in Singapore is non-existent – places like Lolla and 2am:dessertbar, supposedly representative of a hundred flowers blooming on the Singapore dining scene, have virtues much exaggerated. The number of people who write knowledgeably about food in Singapore can be counted on one hand, making separating the wheat from the chaff of Singaporean food hard – one either relies on someone whose taste is impeccable, or one tries it oneself.

The Singaporean food scene is undergoing its “sucker” phase now. Celebrity chef restaurants (Bruno Menard, Daniel Boulud, Jamie Oliver), hyped up tapas places (Lolla), hyped up concepts (2am:dessertbar), this Wild West of mid-range dining is designed more to part fools from their money than to feed them well. It would be a sad day when Singapore ends up with a restaurant scene like Los Angeles, which is based more on hype than on actual quality. But with an undiscerning consumer base, it is hard to see when the “Sucker Scene” will gradually change into a truly dynamic restaurant scene, like New York.

2am:dessertbar is bad. It relies on hype to charge extortionate prices, and represents the worst of contemporary cooking, using ultra-modern techniques without understanding the basic principles behind dishes. I’ve heard that 2am:dessertbar’s sous-chef was unable to distinguish between a souffle and a cake. With chefs like that, I think I’ll just go home and make my own desserts, thank you very much.

In Singapore, there is still a space for a real dessert restaurant – something that would serve desserts on the level of l’Arpege, birch, or RyuGin. I still look forward very much to trying that restaurant in the near future.

Rating: 8/20


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Cheese Avalanche (2.5/5)

Cheese with nuts. No value add. Cheese was not of the highest quality, and bland.

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Purple (2.5/5)

Purple potato puree was strangely tasteless, and made a jarring taste contrast with fruits of the forest sorbet. There was no reason to put purple potato puree in, other than its colour. It added nothing tastewise, and added nothing visually – because everything was already purple, and the potato puree was visually undistinguishable from the sorbet.

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Chocolate Tart (4.25/5)

The only decent dish of the night.

Tegui | Buenos Aires | Dec ’13 | “over-reaching”

25 Dec

Address: Costa Rica 5852, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Phone: +54 11 5291-3333

Verdict: Save your money, and go to a parrilla.

Rating: 5/20



My dinner at Tegui was a very disappointing experience. Tegui was lauded to high-heaven in Latin America’s Top 50 Restaurant List, ranking top in Argentina and #9 in Latin America overall. I was intrigued to take the measure of Argentine cooking. Here was the teaser text:

The playing with perceptions continues once again at the table, however, with Martitegui continually changing his style of cooking in order to create an air of mystery about his establishment. One week his menu could resemble that of a European restaurant, the next it could take on a more diner-like feel, depending on which ingredients the chef has been seduced by. It’s an approach that not only keeps the kitchen – and indeed the diner – on its toes but ensures the cooking is as fresh and inventive as the day the restaurant opened its doors.

Presuming you catch Martitegui in one of his more European frames of mind, diners can expect carefully created dishes that are just as concerned with texture and aroma as taste, such as burrata with strawberries, basil, balsamic vinegar and pistachios; king crab in coconut cream and mango and low-temperature cooked osso bucco and caramelized apples. Wine is an important part of the offer and each dish comes with a by-the-glass suggestion. – Hype Box

As mentioned in my post on La Cabrera, I wasn’t sure if Buenos Aires was a city geared more to high-end fine dining, or food with a more common touch. I tried Tegui on my first night in the city, but I had two major complaints with Tegui:

  1. Basic cooking mistakes. A roasted quail was overcooked to the point of greyness, with bland skin, A rabbit terrine was too dry and coarse.
  2. Truly bizarre combinations: cold sorbets juxtaposed with hot meats. A dessert course kills the appetite kindly by cloying you with sweetness and coldness at the end. The effect of having multiple hot courses with cold sorbets was that my appetite was killed many times over. This was weirdness for the sake of weirdness, a disease well-christened “twerking” by Ulterior Epicure Bonjwing Lee.

All throughout the meal, I thought of the words a friend who works at Momofuku Ko said to me the previous week while munching jalapeno-fried-chicken: “At Momofuku, we just do things the right way”. Those words echoed with me all throughout the meal. Here was avant-garde-ism for the sake for avant-garde-ism, reaching for sophisticated effects while neglecting simple things like making sure the quail is actually cooked properly.

Perhaps the kitchen was having a bad day, but towards the end of the meal, I wasn’t looking for revelation or inspiration any more, I was just praying that the kitchen would just give me something decent. Luckily, since dessert is hard to screw up, I got a couple of decent desserts, but those were unspectacular too. 


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The evening street of Palermo Hollywood

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Speakeasy-esque entrance

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The restaurant, cooking area is right at the back

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Wine-collection, at the entrance

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First snack: Cornet. Brie cheese and Tomato. (3.25/5)

A derivation of the famous per se/French Laundry cornets, right down to color key – but the differences was that the cone was not a crispy tuile, but had the texture of a digestive biscuit.

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Bread service

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Snack: Hot blinis with eggplant caviar and sour cream (3.5/5)

Eggplant caviar spicy.

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Snack: Goat Cheese, Tomato, Strawberry Granita (4/5)


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Main #1: Goat Cheese, Beet, Strawberries, Basil (3/5)

The goat’s cheese was shaved using a Microplane, a technique popularised by Momofuku Ko with their shaved foie gras, but ended up clumping together due to low temperature. The four ingredients had almost no synergy together, especially since the goat cheese was bland and unassertive. It did not help that I had a far superior version of a shaved cheese dish at ma peche (report to come) a few days before.

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Main #2: Almond soup, toasted serrano ham chips, fresh figs. (3.5/5)

Another discordant dish. The almond soup was cold and cheesy, which did not go well with the ham and figs. The ham and figs made a good combination, but was overpowered by the almond soup. This reminded me of a similarly overpowering combination of salmon with pistachio emulsion I had two years ago at Le Bernardin in New York. The almond soup was pointless.

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Main #3: Octopus, homemade salami, tapenade (dehydrated black olives), melon, avocado. (3.5/5)

Melon and octopus and salami were pleasant enough, but the avocado cream was a bit too much, if applied in the volumes suggested by the dab.

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Main #4: Rabbit Terrine, Corn Ice Cream, Apricot, Cucumber Yoghurt, Dabs of Hot Pepper (1/5)

Terrible, absolutely terrible. What was corn ice cream doing alongside a rabbit terrine? Not only was the dish bizarrely conceived, but the rabbit terrine was coarse, of uneven meat sizes, and some parts were dry. Was the terrine meant to be cold? Very well. But the terrine wasn’t cold, instead it was in the uncanny lukewarm zone, where it is just hot enough to suggest it should be a hot dish, and yet not hot enough, suggesting it was cooling after cooking. The lukewarm temperature was a turn-off.

Furthermore, the cold corn ice cream made for a very uncomfortable mouth-feel when eaten with the lukewarm, coarse, dry terrine. Really, really bad dish. I did like the corn ice cream on its own, so it salvages one point. The appearance of ice cream so early on, also may have played havoc with my appetite.

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Main #5: Ricotta Gnocchi, White Truffle Foam, Popcorn (3.5/5)

One of their specialties. Finally, a dish that was served on a plate that was actually hot. It was not bad, though not mind-blowing.

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Main #6: Quail, Malbec Reduction, Dried Fruit Sorbet. (0/5)

This time the plate was at room temperature again, due to accommodating a hot and a cold element. The quail was overcooked, to a ashen grey colour that was reminiscent of a very dead thing. The skin was bland, as if it had no seasoning. Terrible. Perhaps the ice creams were the kitchen’s way of apologising for inflicting such mal-conceived ideas upon paying diners.

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Main #7: 24 hour lamb, eggplant, thyme yoghurt, Mediterranean vegetables (2.5/5)

“herbs set on fire on top of lamb”

Again, plate and meat were lukewarm. The lamb was roasted in the oven slowly for 24 hours, and the meat picked to form a lukewarm and greasy terrine. The redeeming quality of this dish was the crust of lamb on top of the picked meats, which was crispy and quite okay.

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Melon, White Chocolate Granita, Licorice and Balsamic Vinegar Reduction (4.25/5)


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Strawberry sorbet, Blueberry Leather, Panna Cotta dabs (3.25/5)

Okay, if unexciting. Quality of fruits weren’t the absolute best I’ve had.

Avec (revisited) | Chicago| May ’13 | “the joy of small plates”

25 Dec

Address: 615 W Randolph St, Chicago, IL, 60661

Telephone: (312) 377-2002


One from the vaults. (in preparation for end-of-year belly-gazing lists of my favorite restaurants and my favorite dishes) The best meal I had in Chicago in 2013. While I lived in Chicago in the summer of 2012, Avec was one of my go-to places for casual “fine-dining”. I found the Mediterranean influenced dishes an absolute delight, and I am surprised that it still remains only on the Bib Gourmand list on the Michelin Guide. It deserves a star. The restaurant is exceedingly casual and also doesn’t take reservations, which may be why.

Avec was opened by Paul Kahan in 2003, to partner his existing restaurant Blackbird (next door, and also one of my favorites in Chicago). The opening of the restaurant is exceedingly cramped (one enters by a side door, like Blackbird), leaving little space to manoeuvre between reception and entrance. The place is perpetually crowded, and while waiting outside in the summer is acceptable, in Chicago winter it must become uncomfortable.

My first brief review on this blog was in the last month of Koren Grieveson’s stint as head chef of Avec, who is not currently cooking. The kitchen is now under Chef Erling Wu-Bower. I ate at Avec twice in two days, and had sterling meals both times.

As I’m currently on holiday, and away from my copies of the menu, I will describe dishes impressionistically.

Rating: 16/20

Memory: Wood-fired Squid Amatriciana, alcoholic cherries and Spumoni, the combination of dark chocolate and bergamot, always perfect trout.


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The Famous Avec Stuffed Dates (4.25/5)

I’m still not the biggest fan of these, though I’ve had them numerous times with different people, who rave about them. I think the bacon wrappings outside are too hard and cardboard-like in texture. One improvement I can think of is using the belly-fat of pork, often used in Chinese cooking for dong-bo-rou, cut it into thin-slices, and use that as wrapping instead. To achieve the crunchy texture, carefully blowtorch the fat. That would be how I would improve on these dates.

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Pea Puree Dish (4.5/5)

Very fresh, verdant tasting pea puree. Delicious

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Some Fish (4/5)

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Trout (5/5)

Avec is absolutely killer at Mediterranean seafood. What I remember: perfectly roasted trout, flaky savory skin, juicy inside.

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Wood-fired Squid Amatriciana (5/5)

My favorite dish this time round. A delicious baked-glaze, like a mac-and-cheese, on top of amatriciana that contained pork cheeks (guanciale?) and squid.

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Beet Salad (4/5)

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Whole Roasted Fish (4.5/5)

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Pork Shoulder (3.5/5)

I’ve always found the pork shoulder at Avec to be a bit dry to my tastes. Needs more time in the stew.

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Chocolate Crisps (4.5/5)

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Daily special: Bergamot-Dark-Chocolate Ice Cream (5/5)

mmmm. What an inspired pairing.

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Spumoni (5/5)

Oh, those alcoholic cherries, with the pressed layers of ice cream. I could eat twenty of those dark, intense alcoholic cherries,no problem.

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If on a Chicago summer night a traveller…

Blackbird (revisited) | Chicago | May ’13 | “dessert at one of Chicago’s great restaurants”

25 Dec
  • Address: 619 West Randolph Street, Chicago, IL, 60661
  • Telephone: 312 715 0708
  • Hours: Lunch, Weekdays 1130am-2pm; Dinner, Daily 5-10pm; F, Sat 5-11pm
  • Price (after tax + tip, excl. drinks): $30
  • Courses: (3 main) 1 starter / 1 main / 1 dessert
  • Price/Main Course: $10
  • Rating: 17/20
  • Value: 5/5
  • Average Dining Time: 70 minutes
  • Time/Course (total): 23 minutes
  • Chef: David Posey (ex. Alinea)
  • In own words: “a very minimalist plate, which is three or four components.  We try to execute [these components] as best we can. […]  The longer I cook here the more I find that my dishes are simple — a vegetable, a meat, a condiment and a sauce.” [1]
  • Style: Minimalist New American
  • Notable: $22 prix-fixe (pre tax and tip) is one of the best deals in Chicago


Rating: 16/20

Blackbird is one of my favorite restaurants in Chicago, and an institution in the city, where it has been around for 16 years. It doesn’t look one bit its age; the interior kitchen is clean, uncluttered – modernist in design. Having been there a couple of times in the summer of 2012 (Chef Dave Posey and owner Paul Kahan have created one of the best value prix fixe menus in the city, for $22, demonstrating that great food doesn’t need to be expensive. It was my go-to fine-dining fix in the Loop), on the prix fixe menu I was most impressed by their desserts. Pastry Chef Dana Cree’s desserts are understated, but elegant. I still remember the beads of condensation that accompanied the “Blueberry Buttermilk Affogato with Blackberries and Cinnamon Basil“, a cool-relaxed dessert eaten in an austere dining room – which aesthetically brought to mind Roy Lichtenstein’s Mirror Portrait. (I had visited the (Art Institute of Chicago) ARTIC’s Lichtenstein retrospective a few days before in 2012).


Roy Lichtenstein, Self Portrait, 1978

The minimalist “cool” aesthetic at Blackbird isn’t all my own imagination:

What are you proudest of here on the menu?
The thing I’m proudest of is something that I don’t think you can find in Chicago and that’s a very minimalist plate, which is three or four components.  We try to execute [these components] as best we can. At lunch right now we have a duck leg confit that comes with roasted broccoli, a raisin puree and potato granola. Four components to a dish — a Michelin one-star dish — is kind of hard for you to find in Chicago if it’s not like a pasta dish at Spiaggia or something. I think that’s what I’m most proud of. And the longer I cook here the more I find that my dishes are simple — a vegetable, a meat, a condiment and a sauce. – Dave Posey

Another favorite dessert, that I had on a later visit in 2012, was a wonderful peanut brittle based dessert. I thus came prepared for the full Blackbird dessert experience, to savor the talent of the pastry crew at the restaurant.

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Plated using the “drowned-arrangement” soup technique

Inspired by a dish at Jacques Maximin’s restaurant Chantecler, Ferran Adrià began in 1985 to serve soups in an unusual style. A shallow soup plate was set with food in a manner that suggested it was a complete dish.Then, just before the diner would tuck in. the waiter would pour in a soup or broth, drowning the food on the plate, ruining its careful composition and arrangement. What appeared to be a dish in its own right was turned into a garnish for the soup. The surprising twist was an early experiment in challenging the assumptions of the diner. – Modernist Cuisine, Vol 1 p. 52 

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Prix Fixe courses, all great elegant food. Their duck confit is ever-reliable. Blackbird’s prix fixe fish main wasn’t that great on the previous times I was there, and I skipped the fish option for the duck.

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Roasted Peanut Ice Cream (4.5/5)

Carrot-barley sponge, honey mousse, pickled carrot, opal basil

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Roasted Rhubarb (4.25/5)

Cardamom Danish, Whipped Delice, Green Almond, Anise Hyssop

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Goat Cheese Cake (4.75/5)

Cajeta Ice Cream, Burnt Grapefruit, Avocado

Delicious. Cajeta is a Mexican thickened syrup made of cows milk, belying the positive Mexican influence that Rick Bayless has brought into the city. Wonderfully complemented by burnt grapefruit and avocado. A decadent thick cheesecake with the funkiness of goat.

Asagi | Tokyo | Jun ’13 | “Michelin-starred tempura”

25 Dec

Address: Asagi Building 1F, 6-4-13, Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo, 104-0061


One more from the vaults. As I’m writing this in December 2013, the big news of the Michelin-starred tempura world is that 3-star 7chome Kyoboshi has been downgraded to 2-stars for the 2014 Guide. 

After two great meals at RyuGin and Tapas Molecular Bar, I decided to try a good tempura place. I had first walked into Asagi the day before, but the counter was completely full with businessmen during the lunch service, and Asagi-san told me to come back the next day. Asagi, his name-sake restaurant, is located in a narrow alley behind Ginza that I would have had a hard time finding without Google Maps. Asagi-san has been frying tempura for more than 40-years, and evidently the restaurant has flourished, because Asagi-san owns the entire building in which his restaurant is located. The small counter seats 8, and Asagi-san’s amiable wife serves as waitress.

When I arrived on Thursday, in stark contrast to the day before, I was the only diner there for lunch service. Throughout the meal, Asagi-san prepared all the ingredients in front of me, and he explained that since I was visiting in summer, it was a uniquely difficult time for tempura. Summer’s high humidity makes it difficult for the batter to stick, therefore he changes the batter composition with each season. When my spoken Japanglish failed, I used Google translate on my phone to translate my queries. For a very reasonable price (around 8,000 yen), I could pick the mind of the tempura master for the duration of my entire meal.

While it was a very high quality tempura meal, I learnt gradually through the meal that tempura as a category of food leaves me cold. I did not react to the food viscerally, nor did the virtuosity of frying Asagi-san demonstrated translate into something that I would crave and remember long in the memory. I’m not entirely sure I could differentiate properly between the high-end tempura of Asagi-san, and some of the cookie-cutter tempura I’ve enjoyed in Singapore and the States. Asagi-san’s was notably not greasy, but the rest of the differences were so subtle I might be imagining them.

Notable write-ups:

Rating: 15/20

Memory: Tendon with Rice, a simple cold Dessert


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The narrow Ginza alleyway in which Asagi is found

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Asagi’s nondescript entrance

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Lunch service

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Asagi-san prepares the batter. (tempura starts with a cold batter)

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… and the oil

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Prawn (4/5)

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Ika (Squid) (3.75/5)

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Whitefish (4/5)

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Prawn heads (5/5)

The previous dishes had lacked a savory element, the prawn heads here tasted like the South-east Asian anchovies, ikan bilis.

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Ayu (4.5/5)

The slightly-bitter melon taste of the ayu head was again evident. I first had ayu at RyuGin a couple of days ago.

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Beans (3.5/5)

To stick the two beans together, Asagi-san used a toothpick, and laconically swirled them around in his tempura vat of oil for about 20-30 seconds.

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Virtuosity comes from sticking two discrete objects together

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Eggplant (3.5/5)

Young and green

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Sweet potato (4/5)

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Underside of sweet potato

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Asparagus (3.5/5)

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In preparation for the anago, I had a sour-salty prawn paste, and salt.

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Anago (4.5/5)

Very good, with prawn paste and salt. Anago became my favorite seafood in Tokyo, having had a revelatory sweet-sauce on it at Sushi Bun at Tsukiji.

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Tendon with Rice (5/5)

One of perhaps two dishes which stuck with me in the memory. This tendon was fried as a single agglomerate, which takes a lot of skill on the chef’s part. Drizzled with a sweet-savory sauce, this was absolutely addictive. I could have had three to five bowls of this without question.

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Dessert (5/5)

A most perfect and composed ending to a fried meal. A delicious single scoop of matcha ice cream, with red beans, brown sugar, and jelly.

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The remains of the day

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Me and Asagi-san


La Cabrera | Buenos Aires | Dec ’13 | “enough food to stuff a small elephant”

23 Dec
Address: José Antonio Cabrera 5099, Buenos Aires, Capital Federal, Argentina
Phone:+54 11 4831-7002


When I first visited Buenos Aires, I wasn’t sure if it was a city geared more to high-end fine dining, or food with a more common touch. After having been to a couple of the city’s best parrillas (Don Julio, and La Cabrera), snacking on empanadas, and having been to what was touted by Latin America’s Top 50 restaurants as the best restaurant in Argentina (Tegui), I came out satisfied out of my parrilla and empanada meals, and very disappointed with my meal in Tegui (report to come). I thus made a tentative conclusion in my second day in Buenos Aires that food with a common-touch would be my best shot at eating well in Buenos Aires, a conclusion that was strengthened with each passing great street food meal and parrilla meal.

My knowledge of Argentinian steak before this trip came from a book by Mark Schatzker I read last year, Steak, in which he describes the Argentine love affair with beef. In it, he makes the allegation that Argentinian steak has moved form deliciously grass-fed, to proudly corn-fed. I wasn’t expecting the most amazing porterhouse in the world, but rather the parrilla experience.

Before leaving for Argentina [the book was published in 2011], I had read a number of reports that contended that Argentina was abandoning its grazing beef industry for the American model: growing corn and erecting Texas-size feedlots. And this was all due to the fact that Argentines loved steak so much.

In 2001, the debt-laden Argentine economy crashed. When it began recovering, the price of beef started climbing. Farmers were making good money selling Argentine beef to Europe, Russia, and Israel, but Argentines were finding htier three-pound-per-week habit was getting hard on the wallet. The price of steak got so high that at one point Argentina’s president suggested that his people might consider eating less beef, which was the political equivalent of asking eagles to give up flight. Sensing the darkening national mood, he cut beef exports.

For a while, this flooded Argentinian butcher shops with cheap beef, the price of beef dropped by a third. But the flood of cheap beef was soon cut off by furious, not to mention poorer, ranchers and farmers, who were so angered that they banded together and blockaded roads so that food-laden trucks from the countryside couldn’t deliver to cities. The first thing to disappear from store shelves was steak, followed by pork, lamb, and chicken, and much later pasta. People leaned out of windows, hung off balconies and stood on street orners banging pos and pans together to voice their anger.

The ranchers backed down, butcher shops were filled again. Cheaper steak was grilled and eaten.

But the ranchers’ income was shrinking. Some decided to get out of the beef business altogehre. Farmers who held the best land in Arngetina, whose families had for centuries sneered at the very idea of crop farming, did what the law of supply and demand predicted: they cleared the cattle and planted crops. They laid down fertilizer by the ton and sowed corns and soybeans and wheat and anything else that was getting a good price on world markets.

The cattle went to marginal land, land that had never been considered up to the task of finishing cattle. To get them fat, Argentinees began herding them into pens and feeding them corn, which they now had in abundance. – Mark Schatzker, Steak, Argentina Chapter

Sidenote: By the way, speaking to locals, Argentina seems to be in another economic crisis, with 30% inflation. The USD officially trades for the Argentinian Peso (ARS) at 6.25, but the blue dollar rate (black-market rate) is about 9.0-9.4 currently. Tourists to Argentina can get a very favorable rate if they exchange currency in the cities themselves. I didn’t do this, and was kicking myself.

Steak. A steak in America, would be a lazy choice for me, one that I almost never make. Great steak, if one has the equipment, seems possible to consistently replicate at home with a sous-vide machine, a blowtorch, and maybe liquid smoke. But the parrilla promised an authentically Argentine experience, and the wood-burning asado tradition adds a touch of unpredictability to how the beef turns out. And if beef consumption is such a cornerstone of Argentine life, then in Buenos Aires do as the porteños do.

La Cabrera is probably the most famous parrilla in Buenos Aires. All the tourists know it, all the expats know it, all the locals know it. Located near the heart of hip Palermo Soho, it is located on its namesake street. It is so popular that it opened a overspill second restaurant, 50m away from the main one, called La Cabrera Norte. It’s exactly the same restaurant.

Rating: 15/20


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Morcilla Criolla (3.75/5)

“Creole blood sausage” – savory. This differs from Basque Blood sausage (Morcilla Vasca), which is sweet.

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Kobe Beef Wagyu Cuadril 500gms, Rump Steak (4/5)

This dish was a bit dubious in name – I remembered very well last year’s viral column by Larry Olmsted in Forbes claiming that there isn’t real Kobe beef. Still, I was expecting something like Snake River Farms beef, where the beef have Kobe heritage. After all, the marbling is what counts. Of course, all was forgotten as we order the rump steak, a very non-fatty cut. A bit of a mind-fart.

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Churrasquito con Panceta (4.25/5)

“good portions of roasted fat”

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Bife de Chorizo (Sirloin Steak) (4.5/5)

Bife de Chorizo is the cut that Argentinian guidebooks said to get. Here, the steak was smothered in a garlicky sauce. I personally prefer a naked steak, but this floated by boat very well*

*we packed the steak, and ate it for dinner too.

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What is special about the thing is that La Cabrera just stuffs you with all kinds of side dishes, that leave you staggering for the exit door.

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The Lollipop Tree.

A final send-off.

Bike Tour | Ho Chi Minh City | Jun ’13 | “Saigon street food”

17 Dec

I fell prey again to TripAdvisor. My first full day in Saigon*, and I was sitting in the number #1 rated restaurant, on TripAdvisor**, a place called Cyclo Resto. As I picked through an uninspired and terrible meal of deep-fried prawn, and greasy string beans, I decided that sniffing the lead of TripAdvisor algorithms was not going to be enough. It was time to get a guide to what local Saigonese were eating, and avail myself of the local expertise.

* (Actually, I was supposed to go on a Street Food tour on my first day, but suddenly Saigon fell under one of those sudden, intense showers, and the night’s tour was cancelled due to safety issues)

** (My friend who once worked at TripAdvisor, on the food rating algorithm: “I wouldn’t trust it.”)

The quest for eating well for me is like an inner fire in my  belly. It is tied to the very furnace of my being. After a good meal, the fires are temporarily quenched, and gradually builds up again with the passing days and weeks. But one sure way to kindle to fire to a roaring blaze is to eat a terrible meal. A terrible meal is depressing. It suppresses the morale, it harms the digestion, it disappoints. The oldest maxim in the world is that we have a finite amount of meals in our belly. A bad meal is a meal sadly wasted.

The epicure’s fire is not exactly the appetite. The appetite comes and goes a few times a day. We’ve regimented it into 3 meals. The Romans had one large midday meal, lunch. The epicure’s fire waxes and wanes over many meals, days, weeks, months, years. It is as stimulated by the aesthetics of plating, the taste memories of childhood, and the conviviality of good conversation. My own epicure’s fire is satisfied with imaginative, modernist food. I’m a sucker for new flavours, I’m a sucker for new platings. I’m still a new-born babe in encountering modernist foods, grasping tentatively with nubbly fingers my dehydrated beet candy studded with pop rocks. 

Time was ticking, and I only had one more full-day in Saigon left. It was time to get some serious help. TripAdvisor would do something useful that trip. I looked in the activities section, and came across a few food tours. One of them particularly intrigued me. It was run by a husband-and-wife duo, the husband of which had worked at Alinea. The “Back of the Bike” tour sounded quite interesting.

One thing I’ve learnt about trying street food: Get a guide. Always. It can be your food-loving friend, or it can be paid, but there is absolutely no way one is going to get lucky multiple times without some local knowledge. Food blogs (but of course, not yours truly) are a Babel of tastes, not all of them discerning.

Saigon is a city of motorcycles. When traffics lights flash green, about a hundred motorcycles will cross your way. If jaywalking in Saigon, remember that you should just keep looking straight ahead and not hesitate. The name of the game is predictability, you want the riders to extrapolate where you will be going and avoid you. Don’t look at the riders. In my first day, I had walked the length of the old city, and avoiding the motored terrors by following this golden rule. Now, in my second day, I was going to join their ranks. Whee!



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On my way back from the War Remnants Museum (a museum of American atrocities during the Vietnam War), I come across the colourful central market. I have pictures from the museum but they don’t belong on a food blog post, to understate.

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All is well 20 minutes before the storm

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Uh oh.

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The tropical calm before the storm.

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Market closing

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Rain-lashed road.

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Given shelter by a kind woman at the Cafe Zeus, I corroborate further praise of Cyclo Resto. I end up disappointed.

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On my way to Cyclo Resto for dinner, I see a narrow alley where people are eating. What are they eating? Why is it so crowded? I had to take a picture, the set-up reminded me of the traboules in Lyon.




Kenneth Tiong presents: Saigon Street Food, as seen from a Bike.


#1 Le Van Tam Park

Address: Võ Thị Sáu, Đa Kao, Quận 1, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam ‎

Saigon was fresh from a second storm. We made our way to Le Van Tam Park, where I promptly had the best papaya salad I think I’ve ever had.

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Spicy Papaya Salad “Gỏi Đu Đủ Bo” (5/5)

“Julienned Green Papaya, Thai Basil, Dried Beef Liver, Toasted Peanuts, Prawn Crackers. Sauce: Chili Sauce and Light Fish Sauce”

What I remember about this dish was that the beef was a tender beef jerky, not unlike a less greasy bak kwa (Chinese beef jerky). Also of note, were the prawn crackers, which were denser than the ones I find in Singapore. Apparently, it is because the seller uses rice flour instead of tapioca flour. What I especially liked about it was the contrast between several different textures, well-elaborated below.

The sellers are three women at the park entrance. In the words of a local:

Actually, this is probably my #1 recommendation for a Saigon snack-eating experience. First, the Gỏi Đu Đủ (green papaya salad) created by the three woman at the entrance to Le Van Tam Park is superb.  It’s a masterpiece of textures!  The shredded papaya is fresh, cool  and crunchy.  The dried beef is chewy, yet tender (yes, that’s possible) – and so richly flavored.  The rice crackers sitting on top of the salad are light and crisp.  And the peanuts are firm and plentiful.  The crowning accent to the salad is the special home-made dressing. Sweet, sour, spicy, yummy, and sweet again.  Perhaps improperly, I even subteley slurp down any dressing still in my bowl at the end of the salad! – Eating Saigon

Here is an attempt to replicate the dish in the US.

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Photo of sellers – taken by Eating Saigon


#2: Bánh Mì Huỳnh Hoa

Address: 26 Lê Thị Riêng, Bến Thành, 1, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam ‎

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A very busy banh mi shop

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“Baguette, Sliced Pork Sausage, Sliced Pate, Pork Floss, Pickled Carrot and Cucumber”

A very fresh sandwich, and the best banh mi I’ve had. This softer pastes of pate and sausage contrasted with the airy crunch of warm baguette, along with pickled vegetables. Another food with complex texture contrasts.


Intermezzo through the streets

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#3: Bún bò huế Chú Há

Address: 160 Võ Văn Tần, Quận 3, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam

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Bun Bo Hue (3.5/5)

“Spicy Hue style pork and beef soup, with Lemongrass and Mắm Tôm. Served with Sliced Beef, Pork Sausage and Shaved Vegetables.”

This was predominantly a beef noodle soup. It was quite a balanced, if oily dish. Here’s what Wikipedia has to say:

Bún bò Huế or bun bo is a popular Vietnamese soup containing rice vermicelli (bún) and beef (bò). Huế is a city in central Vietnam associated with the cooking style of the former royal court. The dish is greatly admired for its balance of spicy, sour, salty and sweet flavors and the predominant flavor is that of lemon grass. Compared to phở or bún riêu, the noodles are thicker and more cylindrical.

I guess the question is: does this constitute Vietnamese haute cuisine? Haute cuisine usually arises out of the old imperial courts, the three great (long) monarchic traditions that gave us rich fine dining traditions being the French, Chinese, and Japanese. Of note also would be the Turkish Ottoman feasts. A monarchic, or generally feudal, tradition seems to be a necessary but not sufficient factor. Britain, for instance, does not seem to have historically developed a fine food culture. A couple of reasons I’ve thought plausible for this would be: [A] availability of good produce (and thus weather; genetic bequests, etc.), [B] developed transmission and communication methods between cooks (whether through mobility of labour, printing presses, etc.)

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Vietnamese noodles are usually accompanied by a basketful of herbs, and other sauces

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Shredded banana blossoms (yellow)

Shredded morning glory (green)

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Fish sauce “Nước chấm

Here’s a passage that’s made sense to me on Vietnamese food:

If you don’t use sauces, sides, and condiments, as they were intended, your Vietnamese meal is almost certainly going to be far worse than it otherwise would be. The food will be either too dry or discordant. – Tyler Cowen, An Economist Gets Lunch


Intermezzo 2

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Saigon at nightfall: a city of neon lights

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High speed, blurry photography

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#4: ?????

Address: Lo 004 Chung cu Ngo Gia Tu (Ngo Gia Tu Local Apartment) – Su Van Hanh street District 10

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A street stall, making banh xeo

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Bánh xèo [ɓǎɲ sɛ̂w], literally “sizzling cake”, named for the loud sizzling sound it makes when the rice batter is poured into the hot skillet[1][2] (Khmer: បាញ់ឆែវ: Khmer pronunciation: [baɲ cʰaeʋ])[3] are Vietnamese savoury fried pancakes made of rice flour, water, turmeric powder, stuffed with slivers of fatty pork, shrimp, diced green onion, and bean sprouts. Southern-style bánh xèo contains coconut milk and certain Central regions skip the turmeric powder altogether. They are served wrapped in mustard leaf, lettuce leaves or banh trang wrappers, and stuffed with mint leaves, basil, fish leaf and/or other herbs, and dipped in a sweet and sour diluted fish sauce. In the Central region, the pancake is also dipped in a special sauce which consists of fermented soy bean and sticky rice sauce, ground pork liver, ground and toasted peanut and seasonings. – Wikipedia

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Diếp Cá

Some comments on Vietnamese herbs:

The Fish Mint or (Diếp Cá) is an extraordinary leaf. It tastes every bit as fishy as a real fish. It has a muddy, fishy smell, similar to catfish. It is very assertive, and often used for medicinal purposes. I chewed it on its own, and while I found the fish taste very strong, there was a savory aftertaste.

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Shiso leaf, part of the mint family

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Wasabi leaf/Mustard leaf

“tastes exactly like what it sounds”

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Sliced, raw, sap-py young starfruit.

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Vietnamese hot mint

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Nuoc Rau Ma (4/5)

Pennywort Juice. Here’s a recipe.

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Bo La Lot (4.25/5)

Minced Beef grilled in Aromatic Leaves; Green Banana, Starfruit, Lettuce for wrapping. Served with anchovy and pineapple sauce”

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Fish sauce (Nuoc cham?)

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Pineapple sauce

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Banh Xeo (4.5/5)

Crispy, hot, fresh from the griddle. Perfect street food.


At this point a challenge was issued.

“Would you like to try balut?

Balut, as you might find in an Internet compendium of bizarre foods, is a duck embryo that has developed partially. In the Philippines, the balut has developed for 21 days, and is much more developed than the Vietnamese version, which has only developed for 15 days.

In the Philippines, balut eaters prefer salt and/or a chili, garlic and vinegar (white or coconut sap) mixture to season their eggs.[2] The eggs are savored for their balance of textures and flavors; the broth surrounding the embryo is sipped from the egg before the shell is peeled, and the yolk and young chick inside can be eaten. All of the contents of the egg may be consumed, although the white may remain uneaten; depending on the age of the fertilized egg, the white may have an unappetizing cartilaginous toughness. In the Philippines, balut have recently entered haute cuisine by being served as appetizers in restaurants, cooked adobo style, fried in omelettesor even used as filling in baked pastries. In Vietnam, balut are eaten with a pinch of salt, lemon juice, plus ground pepper and Vietnamese mint leaves (southern Vietnamese style). In Cambodia, balut are eaten while still warm in the shell and are served with nothing more than a little garnish, which is usually a mixture of lime juice and ground pepper. – Wikipedia

I was game.

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Balut is served.

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Finished balut (2/5)

I didn’t really enjoy my maiden balut. The bones of the embryo were still undeveloped, and where bones should have been there was a soft bone crunch, like those Taiwanese whole fried chickens that have been soaked in a strong base to tenderise the meat. The entire egg was a not-extremely-pleasant mix of the meatiness of breast meat, a tough meat-like yolk, and jelly-ish parts.


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#5 and last stop: Chè Thái Lan 280

Address: 272A Nguyễn Tri Phương Q.5, Ho Chi Minh

To end off, a pleasant array of desserts at a local dessert store. Nothing mindblowing (or even exotic, for a Southeast Asian palate) – I guess dessert is what really binds together Southeast Asia culinarily!

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Rau Cau Dua (3.75/5)

“Young coconut, water of which is made into jelly”

The top is either made of almond/custard/coconut milk. I encountered this is Kuala Lumpur as well, in a pasar malam (a dying tradition of night market).

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Dau Hu Ca Cao (3.25/5)

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Sinh To Mang Cau (4/5)

“soursop smoothie)

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Bi Sua Hot Ga (3.5/5)

“Vietnamese pumpkin bread pudding”


At the end of the trip I was stuffed. The next time you’re in Saigon, I recommend taking a bike tour to try the street food as well! [The personal tour I did was the Back of the Bike Tour (TripAdvisor link), but there exist others] Daytime tours will be slightly different, since different stalls open at different times.

Blue Hill at Stone Barns | Pocantico Hills, NY | Dec ’13 | “a farm-to-table pilgrimage; 4 hour extraganza”

13 Dec
Address: 630 Bedford Rd, Pocantico Hills, NY 10591
Phone: (914) 366-9600
Blue Hill at Stone Barns. Located 15 minutes from Tarrytown, where they have the routine of taxis shuttling between the farm and station down-pat, the Stone Barns are part of the old Rockefeller estate owned by David Rockefeller and his daughter Peggy Dulany. On the maxim that the best place to make a place interesting to a cut swathe of the general public, the restaurant Blue Hill at Stone Barns was created in 2004 by the Barber family. (the same year as per se, an annus mirabilis for New York dining). Under the guidance of Chef Dan Barber, the restaurant serves farm-fresh cuisine, with all kinds of novel platings seldom seen elsewhere. The farm as a whole is a Center for Food & Agriculture. I arrived here on a wintry Sunday afternoon – the only day on which Blue Hill is open for “lunch” hours (1pm).
Aside: Is it not interesting how rapidly a top-class restaurant can gentrify a rough area? I’m thinking of the gentrification of Melbourne’s back-alleys, formerly home to dumpsters, with coffee shops. The story is well-told in the documentary Human Scale. From being areas where Melbourne citizens feared to tread for the risk of robbery, they now thrive with human activity. I also recall the anecdote of a Nordic restaurant gentrifying a tough Copenhagen neighbourhood. In a city with modern transport infrastructure, sourcing ingredients is no longer a problem, and urban philanthropists (AKA restauranteurs) may do good upon any blighted part of the city, simply by setting up a top-class restaurant there. On a small scale, this is what happened to the Keong Saik area in Chinatown with the opening of Restaurant Andre. A restaurant, driven by the rising fine-dining spend by younger professionals, seems to be the fastest way to transform a neighbourhood. In the short term (as long as this rising dining spend lasts), urban planners may seek out alliances of convenience with restauranteurs.
In its focus on local ingredients, Blue Hill is at the very epicentre of the farm-to-table movement that is sweeping America today. All the better. The local-vore movement is making dining interesting. Whereas previously a hundred restaurants in a hundred cities might aim towards replicating a French experience, more chefs are paying regard to their surroundings, and using ingredients nearer them. The enforced constraints breed artistry. birch, in Providence, is a great example of building on local food roots in Rhode Island. Aska seems to do the same in the Northeast. They are relentlessly local in a way a restaurant like per se (or any single Singapore restaurant) is not. The plutocrat’s reach is a global terroir – 3* Michelin places like Masa, Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare, cater to this excellence-at-all-cost mentality. Every ingredient is part of the chef’s canvas. Local-vore restaurants turn away from this maxim.
Aside 2 for Singapore/Malayan readers: It is strange that for Malaya, there is not (and nowhere near) a real top-class restaurant with local Malayan ingredients. Imagine what one could do with sago worms, or the manis plant. One of these days, someone will create the noma of Malaya. And that is when the dining scene will get interesting.
The food. Wonderful platings. Wonderfully fresh vegetables, even in the infancy of winter. Highly memorable, food with a purpose, educating diners on seasonality (via a cute handbook they hand out at the start of every meal), ingredients (kohlrabi, wheat, bio-char charcoal), the taste of ricotta from cows in summer and cows in winter… Also, some of the best service I have received. A wonderful weekend that included dining at per se and Aska was rounded off at the best and most memorable place of the trio, Blue Hill. My meal there was long and involved (it lasted 4 hours, and I counted around 30+ courses), but I came out of it happy as a lark.
Rating: 18/20
Memory: Bio-charred Cabbage, Mokum Carrots, Stone Barns Pork, Speck, Kohlrabi ‘Tacos’, Concord Grape Soup with Yoghurt Sorbet, “Party on a Pear Tree”
Book: Mike Tyson, Undisputed Truth
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From Grand Central to Tarrytown
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The entrance to the complex
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Private dining area, outside
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Courtyard, looking out
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Restaurant Entrance, afar
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Private dining area (1)
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Stairway to private dining area
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Stone Barns the education center.
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Blue Hill at Stone Barns, entrance.
Grazing, Pecking, Rooting
“A ton of amuses”
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“Vegetables on a Fence”
Sprayed simply with salt water to highlight the innate qualities of the veggies
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Turnip served from a cone (not pictured)
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Young ginger soda
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“Party in a Pear Tree”
Dried fig, crisped ham, a sour red paper, potato chip clasping a leaf (reminiscent of techniques from Joel Robuchon & Cesar Ramirez)
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Pig’s Heart Pastrami, Pickled Carrot, Mustard Seed (on bird foot)
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Celery Root Jerky with Wintergreen Berries
“The wintergreen berries form the spearmint taste of your chewing gum!”
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A most excellent Tarragon Pesto, which I ate with…
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Young Pea Shoots, “harvested” with Scissors
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Brussel Sprout Tree, “harvested” with Machete
“Brussel sprouts come from the same family as broccoli, and it shows”
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Beetroot Sushi (4.5/5)
The second time I’ve had beetroot sushi, the first was at Alain Passard’s L’Arpege. I enjoyed this a bit more, since the wasabi wasn’t overpowering, and I enjoyed the heresy of including seeds and puffed rice to add a different texture to the sushi. Nutty.
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Left to right:
Vichyssoise (sic?), sauerkraut, and pork crackling
Squash Whoopie Pie
Trumpet Mushroom + something
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Action Shot!!!
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Rhode Island Whitebait
“You know I love you, Rhode Island. Also, reminiscent of whitebait that’s commonly used by my mom.”
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Pork Liver and Chocolate. (4.25/5)
“Reminiscent of atera’s chicken liver sandwich, which wanted to be an Oreo”
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Beet Burger (4/5)
on a bed of sesame seeds.
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“Coppa Pizza”
Coppa and Corn Flatbread. (4.5/5)
“Great coppa (dry-cured pork shoulder), a rounded gentle meaty taste. Very pleasant – could eat it with cornbread all day long”
20 Minutes at the Kitchen Table
At this point, I was on to the main courses, and promptly whisked off to the kitchen table, to catch the workings of the chefs. Brilliant.
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Main Section
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Amuse-Bouche Section
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Winter Berry Tea
“Since you enjoyed the winterberries”
That made me feel special.
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Tomato Tartare (4/5)
with Vegetable Flatbread
“Sour, with a sundried taste, the quail egg bound them together and made it come alive”
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My server explained that charcoal in New York was usually now done in two petroleum drums drained of oxygen. Blue Hill was extending the concept of charcoal beyond just wood, but also to bones – specifically pig bones. “One step further than nose-to-tail!” – exact words. So now, even the bones of a pig are used for cooking. The charcoal imparts a different, meaty flavour to dishes. The technical term is “bio-char”.
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Bio-charred Cheese (Goats Milk) (3.75/5)
Pickled Plum, Bone Marrow Sauce
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Bio-charred Celery Root, Squid Ink (4/5)
“The squid ink was reduced to sauce with bio-charred vegetables. A geometric risotto of acute angles.” Reminiscent of the celerisotto from L’Arpege.
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Bio-charred Cabbage
“It’s been inside, rotating for a bit. But what’s interesting is that there’s a convection zone underneath the char, which is steaming the cabbage underneath the outer layer”
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Bio-charred Cabbage, Quince, Speck (5/5)
The most successful of the bio-char mini-sequence of courses for me. The sauce was a meaty sauce, which was probably from the pork speck (a cured meat made with pork leg). The cubes of speck and quince on top of the cabbage made the exquisitely tender hunk of cabbage like a “cabbage steak”. Quince sauce by the side.
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Tevalde Wheat from Washington and Canada
Milled daily in a chute right in the restaurant, which is “very noisy”.
Similar to milling barley in Scottish whisky distilleries
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Whole Grain Brioche (4.5/5)
made from just-milled Tevalde Wheat.
Winter Green Marmalade & Cracked Pepper
Very fragrant.
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Ricotta, about to be sieved.
“The cows eat hay in winter, and this affects the ricotta made from their milk. The taste differs from season to season”
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Blue Hill Farm Ricotta Cheese (4.5/5)
& Whole Grain Brioche + Winter Green Marmalade (4.5/5)
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“We’ve been breeding giant kohlrabi in partnership with a farm Upstate one hour North of here.”
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“They grow in black dirt, dating from an ancient glacial lake. Extremely fertile. There’s some here, but a lot less”
Why do you need a giant kohlrabi?
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Kohlrabi Tacos!!!
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Here are your accompaniments…
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Clockwise from 12 o’clock: Broccoli Guacamole, Salt with Crushed Lobster Roe,
Smoked Beef Strips, Carrot Yoghurt, Fermented Corn, Watermelon Hot Sauce
Center: Maine Sea Scallops
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Kohlrabi ‘Taco’ (5/5)
The conceit is original (to me). The kohlrabi had a moderate sweetness, like a sugar infused turnip. A triumph of presentation.
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Potato Bread
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From left to right:
Hudson Valley Butter, Blue Hill Pig Lardo, Fennel Salt, Beet Salt
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Blue Hill Farm Egg (4/5)
Speck, Cabbage
An incredibly fresh egg with speck from the pig’s leg, on a beautifully polished wood plate. Simple and satisfying.
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The leg of speck. The speck served was German style, which means that the bone was removed. I would end up being served two courses involving speck: (1) the bio-char cabbage, and (2) the speck with egg above. From the prosciuttopedia:
The key to its exquisite taste and quality is the well regulated production method which is based, as much today as in the past, on the raw material used. The so called creative phase is the salting, and seasoning of the meat with juniper, laurel and rosemary. The dry curing process is never longer than three weeks but varies in intensity according to the manufacturer. It is then ready to be smoked. A gentle alternation between smoking and drying, ensuring that the temperature never exceeds 20°C, represent the distinctive characteristics of Speck production. And lastly an additional maturing phase in a temperature and humidity controlled environment for a period that rarely exceeds 6 months, which enhances the typical aroma and flavor of Speck. During the maturing phase a thin layer of mold forms on the surface conferring a distinctive aroma to the product (reminiscent of nuts and porcini mushrooms, it is said!). The resulting flavor is simply unique. 
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Stone Barns Pork (5/5)
Jerusalem Artichoke, Brussel Sprouts
… including blood sausage, and pickled jerusalem artichoke (sunchoke). The pork was of the highest quality, tasting of divine pink silky bacon.
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Blue Hill Farm Goat (4.75/5)
Mokum Carrots, Toasted Spices, Tatsoi
The goat was good (tasting of an Indian braised curry preparation), but surprisingly for me, not the star of the show.
That honour belonged to the Mokum carrots, hauntingly roasted to be just chewy enough. Different colours of carrots tasted different. This was one of the top 3 carrot dishes I have tasted this year, along with birch’s roasted carrot and Eleven Madison Park’s carrot tartare.
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Rupert Cheese from Vermont, aged 16 months (3.25/5)
Candied Squash Seeds, Quince Jam
Rye Pretzel
“A little harsh and hard”
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Lemon Sorbet, Kumquats (4/5)
Served on a bed of smoked salt, lemon sorbet with olive oil poured over. Kumquat peel was great
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Clockwise from 2 o’clock:
Concord Grape Soup and Yoghurt Sorbet (4.75/5)
Cranberry Sorbet, Squash, Rosemary Pistachios (4/5)
Sweet Potato Sorbet with Stone Barns Honey, Ginger Granitas (4.25/5)
The most memorable sorbet was the concord grape soup with concord grape raisins. To get that much soup, more than a few grapes needed to be crushed. We are well and truly into concord grape season, Momofuku Ko (lunch edition) also had a concord-grape amuse a few weeks ago apparently.
Concord grapes remind me of the intense grape flavour of Kyoho grapes. Delicious.
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Final Feast:
From left to right:
Hazelnut Meringue Needles (amidst the bush)
Carrot Crisp
Chocolate Truffles
Almond Pralines
Apple, Cored
Rye Sourdough Biscuits in a Bag with Squash Jam
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Rye Sourdough Biscuit
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Lighting the path.
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Goodbye Stone Barns, till we meet again.

Aska | Brooklyn, NY | Dec ’13 | “Nordic stateside”

12 Dec
  • Address: 90 Wythe Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11249
  • Phone: (718) 388-2969
  • Price (after tax + tip, excl. drinks): $140
  • Courses: (10 main/17 total) 4 amuse / 1 bread / 7 savory / 1 snack / 3 dessert / 1 mignardises
  • Price/Main Course: $14
  • Rating: 16/20
  • Value: 4/5
  • Dining Time: 195 minutes
  • Time/Course (total): 11.5 minutes
  • Chef: Fredrik Berselius
  • Style: New Nordic
  • Michelin Stars: 1
  • Notable: Aska 1.0 has closed. At the time of writing (14th March 2014) it will be looking for a bigger space.
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I had never tried New Nordic Food before I set foot in Aska.

The style of cooking is most closely associated with FoodCamp’s host chef, René Redzepi of Noma in Copenhagen. It is sometimes called “new Nordic,” although he and some other chefs from the region prefer the broader label “authentic cuisine.” It is earthy and refined, ancient and modern, both playful and deeply serious. Instead of the new (techniques, stabilizers, ingredients), it emphasizes the old (drying, smoking, pickling, curing, smoking) with a larger goal of returning balance to the earth itself.

Using rutabagas and whey; pine and juniper; and shells, hay, and twigs as its kitchen tools, it seeks to turn the culinary dial back toward the natural world. “The huge wave of technical cooking has passed,” said Rosio Sanchez, a pastry chef at Noma, who grew up in Chicago and has worked in some of America’s most technologically advanced kitchens, like Alinea and WD-50. “I came here because I wanted to get more into the product.”


The movement can be traced to 2004, when a dozen prominent chefs from around the region signed a Kitchen Manifesto agreeing to rededicate themselves to “purity, freshness, simplicity and ethics” in cooking.

– NYTimes

New Nordic is the rage, and it has come stateside. Aska is located in a grungy industrial sector of Williamsburg, part of Kinfolk Studios, which is a bike shop, a daytime cafe, a late night bar complete with DJs, and a creative agency. Previously, it functioned as a pop-up called Frej.
Mr. Berselius, who last year ran a kind of beta version of Aska called Frej in this same space, knows the latest kitchen technology from his time at Corton and Seäsonal. At Aska, he mostly confines himself to older methods. He cooks cream for hours until it is as thick as toothpaste and the color of butterscotch, then stirs in sour milk. It tastes like dulce de leche without the sugar and makes a dizzyingly rich sauce for pork belly or a tender strip of short rib. – Pete Wells
I was excited to try something fundamentally new. Cutting-edge food is a vocabulary unto itself, and Aska would teach me a few words, to follow a new tune.
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The vibe of the place was young, with dried foliage bringing a memento mori of winter outside, indoors. Hunched yuppies bent over their candlelit tables. No one was wearing a suit, which meant that people here were dining for pleasure.
The plating was be austere. A parade of snacks was be solemnly highlighted on wood of similar grain and color to my table. Most of the mains were one or two bites, tops. The food was more meditative than purely delicious, though the sunchoke dish and pigs’ blood croquette were very delicious. Some dishes whispered “education”, such as vinegar marinated skate-wing, my first main, and oatmeal in a sweet onion broth. The line between education and pretension is fine. Take the oatmeal dish, for example. I could have made a similar sweet onion broth with oatmeal myself – the key there was the imagination of the chef, pairing the two ingredients together in a not immediately delicious way, as if to say that “these are the pairings of New Nordic food, take it or leave it”. Does one acquire a taste for such things? With many novel dishes, I found some favorites (a milk sorbet with spruce sauce) and some that left me cold – which is natural.
Aska seems to be a paradox if we think of New Nordic Food as a involving Nordic ingredients only. What are Rhode Island squid and oyster doing on the menu? But New Nordic Food isn’t just about these things:

To focus only on the ingredients of that region, chefs say, is missing the point.Ryan Miller, the chef at Momofuku Ssam Bar in the East Village, who worked in the Nordic region last year, explained. “It’s not like I learned about some new Danish cheese and came back and put it on my menu,” he said. “I learned to respect organization and education and making food in the most natural way possible.”The movement can be traced to 2004, when a dozen prominent chefs from around the region signed a Kitchen Manifesto agreeing to rededicate themselves to “purity, freshness, simplicity and ethics” in cooking. – NYTimes.

(Claus Meyer of noma also has a ten-point manifesto for New Nordic food.)

The question to me, is what really separates Aska from Blue Hill at Stone Barns, say? Blue Hill is pure, fresh, simple, and highly ethical in creating its food. No, the difference really seems to be:

  1. Austere Plating (A. as much wood as possible, the deader the better. B. make sure the food takes up less than 20% of the plate)
  2. Vinegar
  3. Anything to do with Pines, because winter.
  4. Survivalist Whole Ingredient Philosophy – take the squid’s ink and make a sauce, use burnt leaves for a consomme. (“Get your piping hot tripe!“)

That Nordic austereness is what really comes through with the food at Aska. I’ve been thinking that how food is plated is a major part of a restaurant’s philosophy. Chinese restaurants pile on the food, to simulate plenty and banquet feasts. Japanese sushi is served simply and without ornament at a sushi bar, to highlight the single-minded focus on fish. French restaurants ornament their plate to simulate sophistication. And Nordic food seems to be plated austerely to simulate Immanuel Kant.

A first impression, anyway. 

Rating: 16/20 (BTW, service was great)
Memory: Brown Butter Flatbread, Sunchoke 5 ways, Pigs Blood Croquette, Milk sorbet with spruce sauce.
Book: Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s I am Zlatan.
Weekend Tasting Menu
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Scallop Chip
“Unmistakably seafood, like a prawn cracker. Delicious”
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Crispy Kale, Chamomile Emulsion
“Nice fatty middle, kale chip sandwich”
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Dehydrated Roast Beet with Beet Vinegar
Everything with the hand. A sweet delicious candy; I think dehydrated beets are the best expression of beets. One of my favorite dishes from birch in Providence is this dehydrated-rehydrated beet dish.
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Molasses Shortbread & Smoked Cheese.
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Brown Butter Flatbread
Fennel Loaf
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Salted Whipped Butter
Snacks Verdict: I loved the flatbread (5/5) easily, and the sweet beet especially.
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vinegar, skate
A jolting start to the meal. Skate wing was cooked in dill pickle vinegar, and covered with cauliflower puree and crumble. The skate has a sweet taste, and unfolded like preserved sweet noodles. Not a taste memory I was very familiar with.
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hedgehog mushroom
The 2nd dish turned out brilliant. This is the best sunchoke dish I have yet tasted. It may be dubbed “sunchoke 5 ways”.
  1. Strips of roasted sunchoke skin
  2. Discs of fermented sunchoke
  3. Rehydrated sunchoke chunks
  4. Fermented sunchoke jus, calrified and cooked with elderflower and butter
  5. Sunchoke puree.

Coaxing a bewildering amount of different flavours and textures from one ingredient. Bravo, absolute mastery of the sunchoke. The only barbarians on the plate were the little hedgehog mushrooms.

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elderberry, herbs
The capers actually turned out to be capered (vinegared?) underripe elderberries. The squid was Rhode Island squid, the upper half cut (not fried), and lower tentacles fried. Sauce made of butter emulsified with squid stock and squid ink. Very good buttered/fried calamari.
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“Burnt leaf consomme. With charred cabbage. ugh.”
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quail egg, cream
Pickled herring, soft boiled quails egg, sour cream. Alien to my tastes
2013-12-07 21.59.23
Verdant taste of shaved fennel and broccoli, with Pt Judith RI Oyster. Blue mussel stock with broccoli oil. Oyster surprisingly sweet, without any trace of salt
Like tasting a fruit at the bottom of a clean river bed.
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Pig’s Blood Croquette
A sweet, chocolatey flavour. atera also brought out the chocolatey flavours of pigs blood. It’s a thing. A sprinkling of sea salt.
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onion, rapeseed
Pickled pearl onions cupping rape seed oil, set upon steel cut oats cooked with sweet onion soup.
Oatmeal for dinner is a first. Assertive sweetness.
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100 day beef. A basement level of funk. Bound by a sticky funky beef jus.
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Very creative. Baked potato, with sorbet of potato skin. Brown butter caramel.
A tribute to traditional baked potato, transported to the dessert section.
Pity the potato skin sorbet didn’t remain standing on the potato!
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A “hot” apple broth was lukewarm, and had a spicy eggnog taste. A clean tasting, but weak and puzzling dish.
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blueberry, spruce
Favorite dessert. A menthol broth from spruce sauce. With a milk sorbet and blueberry compote, garnished with fresh yarrow.
Tasted like wintertime. A delicate herbal broth
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Last Bite: Chocolate Arrack Cookie
“Arrack = a Swedish liquor”
Good write-ups: