Archive | February, 2014

Schwa | Chicago | Feb ’14 | “magic”

28 Feb
  • Address: 1466 N Ashland Ave, Chicago, IL 60622
  • Phone:(773) 252-1466
  • Price (after tax + tip, excl. drinks): $140
  • Courses: (11 main/13 total) 1 amuse / 8 savory / 1 cheese / 2 dessert / 1 mignardise
  • Price/Main Course: $13
  • Rating: 18.5/20
  • Value: 5/5
  • Dining Time: 200 minutes
  • Time/Course (total): 15.5 minutes
  • Chef: Michael Carlson (ex. Trio, The Fat Duck)
  • Style: Avant-garde
  • Michelin Stars: 1
  • Notable: BYOB; Also, no Front of House staff – the servers are the chefs

Rating: 18.5/20

Memory: The buzz of really loud hip-hop, doing shots with the chef, butter poached lobster, marinated cuttlefish, antelope loin, Chimay Brulee, Root beer float, honeycomb brittle

2014-02-28 02.21.02 A restaurant I remember with great fondness. Here is fine dining with all the pretense stripped out. The front of house is the back of house, with chefs serving you – and they’re always knowledgeable about every dish that they serve. Chefs Joshua and Michael were really friendly, and made me feel at home. The pulsating rap made each table anonymous, in their own drunken revels – this place is BYOB. I enjoyed the casual fine-dining vibe here, carpeted floors and clawed chairs always make me feel a bit uncomfortable and stiff.

Set in a corner of Ashland Avenue that’s almost industrial wasteland, it’s easy to walk past Schwa. The “dining room”, if you want to call it that, is an orange-lit space that’s maybe 80 square meters in area. I knew all of this before I came to Schwa – the only criterion I would use to call my meal a success would be the food they would serve. From the packed dining room (and Schwa is notoriously difficult to get a reservation at), I would say a lot of diners agree – creature comforts are secondary to the food. And what a meal I had.

A tip for getting a reservation: I called around 1pm. Most people claim they have success from 12-4pm. The key is, if the dial-tone goes straight to the message that “the mailbox hasn’t been set-up” instead of ringing about 5 times first, that means someone is on the line. Spam your calls then.

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2014-02-27 22.59.31 2014-02-27 22.59.39 2014-02-27 23.00.18

1. A Night at the Movies (4.25/5)

Sour Cherry Dot (Sourpatch Kid); Pizza Cotton Candy; Inside-Out Nacho; Popcorn Soda

Recreation of a typical movie experience in America – nachos, pizza, gummies, and popcorn, except deconstructed – and remade. Tells of their playful nature. Flavors were remarkably accurate. Gummy was indistinguishable from the real thing, candy floss (another movie food) was well-seasoned with pizza flavor, soda tasted of that buttery popcorn taste, and the nachos were good.

2014-02-27 23.05.47

2. Butternut squash + cantaloupe jelly; Peanut Leaf; Curry Puree + Chocolate Nibs; Gooseberry as Palate Cleanser (4/5)

This was a more experimental dish. I remember the jelly having great flavour, which I originally thought was due to curry, but Josh said it was squash and cantaloupe. I have on my tasting notes “fruity taste of christmas pudding” somewhere on this dish.

2014-02-27 23.17.59 3. (Extra Course) Quail egg ravioli with parmesan shaved black truffle (4.75/5)

A schwa signature, this was served with no spoons. Picking it up with my fingers and downing it in one bite, a rich and luxuriant cream sauce was really delicious. I can see why this is an ever-green on the menu. It says as much about Schwa as it does about me, that I had no qualms greedily tipping the small bowl over my lips to get every lick of that sauce.

2014-02-27 23.29.28

4. Chestnut agnolotti with 3 types of consomme (sweet potato; iberico ham; persimmon) gelatinized into cubes; crispy prosciutto; shaved chestnut (3.5/5)

Agnolotti means little purses in Italian – and they held sweet chestnut puree. I was not the greatest fan of this dish, since I felt this was one of the rare times the flavor combinations were slightly off – the sweetness of chestnut + other two types of sweet gelatin cubes marginally overpowered the ham preparation.

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5. Carbonated pears with Ossetra caviar, white chocolate foam, basil chips in the style of kale chips (4.25/5)

Carbonated pear balls? Why not indeed! It was an odd combination, caviar and carbonated pear, but the white chocolate harmonised the dish with its fat content; and the textural contrast of basil crisps balanced it. But the combination wasn’t as enlightening as the following two dishes.

Afterwards I found out from my copy of Modernist Cuisine how to carbonate fruits. See below*.

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6. Butter poached lobster; lavender bubbles; soy skin “yuba” tuile, oyster mushrooms, orange segments, with earl grey foam; and our best approximation of crumpets – which is actually olive oil cake (5/5)

The conventional pairing of lobster would be with a citrus/mango sauce to provide fruity contrast. But I believe Schwa has provided a playbook to elevating those flavors. The secret is earl grey tea gel, which has the herbal taste that really triangulates between the rich chewiness of lobster and a baseline sweet fruit flavor. A dish of genius.

2014-02-28 00.28.52

7. Marinated cuttlefish, finger lime, a slab of apple ice, sunchoke + lemongrass panna cotta, herbal broth with many herbs (incl. cucumber and fennel) (5/5)

This dish worked on at least two different ways. At the centerpiece is the thumb-sized hard slab of apple-ice. First, it brought out the smooth cucumber and fennel taste from the salty, pungent and oily herbal broth. Second, the cut, marinated cuttlefish and finger lime was seasoned in a way to remind me of Thai papaya salad, Here apple ice was a sucking lozenge, its cool hard sweet apple flavor cutting through the Thai-papaya-style seasoning. Another great dish.

2014-02-28 00.54.37 2014-02-28 00.54.45

8. Thanksgiving Dinner (4.5/5)

Sweetbreads crusted and fried, with stuffing puree, mustard grains, foie gras + sweetbread gravy, and mock cranberry sauce (actually pomegranate)

Pleasant, the sweetbreads were expertly (diced and) fried. The foie gras +sweetbread sauce had a nutty taste like peanut. I may have had a greater reaction to this dish if I had had more experience eating Thanksgiving dinners.

2014-02-28 01.16.42

9. Antelope loin, shot down by a sniper, with trail mix crust, pickled pistachio, dried cherry leather and sauce (4.5/5)

The first time I’ve had antelope ever, I think. Michael explained that it was shot from a helicopter by a sniper in Broken Arrow Reserve in Texas 2 days ago. Due to the vigor of the antelope, if it is shot from any closer, the stressed out antelope would presumably attempt to flee, and in its stressed death would go into rigor immediately, making the meat completely unpalatable, hard and dry. This meat was served rare, and what a cut of meat – it was so soft, that it was pliable to the butterknife I was cutting it with (the kitchen gave us a butterknife for that reason presumably). The rest of the accompaniments were secondary – besides being a passable trail mix. I guess I had my first taste of ultra-high-density fast-twitch-reaction-fibre meat!

2014-02-28 01.30.08

10. (Cheese Course) Yeast ice cream, fermented huckleberry watermelon jelly, with Chimay cheese “brulee” (5/5)

Amazing. Chimay cheese below was treated with a creme brulee crust above (how did they do it?), and the funky taste of good bread came from the yeast ice cream. Ostensibly a cheese course, this was a great tribute to beer. Rounded. Completely unique. I miss it already.

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11. Root Beer Float (5/5)

Parsnip icecream with butterscotch shavings, to be dumped in a root beer float

Another amazingly balanced dish. The clean taste of parsnip was an inspired choice to be dumped into root beer – and a whole spoon of butterscotch. I wish I had had a whole mug of this!

2014-02-28 01.55.59

12. Honey Sorbet, yuzu gelee, bee pollen, honeycomb brittle (4.75/5)

I am haunted by the taste of that honeycomb brittle. Salty, sweet, with a lightly burnt taste. The thought occurs to me that if I came to Schwa every month for dessert, I would be a very happy man. The desserts have been absolutely outstanding, zany and off-the-wall, while remaining perfectly balanced and very pleasant.

2014-02-28 02.04.51 2014-02-28 02.05.02 2014-02-28 02.05.50 2014-02-28 02.07.03

13. (Extra Course) A crystal of cold air, then “lemongrass + ginger + ?” snow, and a bit of pee (yellow sauce incl. rutabaga) (4/5)

A common sight in the winter months everywhere is yellow snow (I.e. dog piss) I am glad to report this tasted considerably better than that! This was more of an effect dish – the crystal once popped in the mouth became menthol, and a rush of cold air killed my taste buds, and then shoving saucy snow into my mouth heightened the menthol taste. One of the oldest effects known to me (menthol + cold == more cold), this was evocative of the harsh Chicago winter I was about to step out into shortly.

 

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* APPENDIX. On carbonating fruits. There seem to be two ways to carbonate fruits

A. If you put fruit in a pressure chamber with carbon dioxide, the gas will permeate the skin and dissolve into the juice inside – Modernist Cuisine. vol2 p469.

  1. Chill fruit (The fruit must be ice-cold)
  2. Wet fruit and place in carbonation chamber
  3. Add liquid (optional: adding grape juice to apples with infuse apple with carbonated grape juice)
  4. Charge the chamber.
  5. Carbonate. Hold refrigerated long enough for gas to dissolve into the food
  6. Serve chilled.

B. Carbonating fruits with dry ice MC vol2 p472

  1. Put a layer of crushed dry ice (don’t come into skin contact with it) at the bottom of plastic sealable container (air pressure may cause glass containers to shatter)
  2. Place an insulating layer of paper towels/tea towel on the ice layer (protects fruit from extreme temperature of dry ice)
  3. Place cold fruit on insulating layer. Let it settle for a few minutes so the “steam” pushes out the oxygen in the container
  4. Seal the container.

Food-related Digest for February 2014

23 Feb

*** WORLD ***

1. Vedat Milor’s Review of Apicius. All of Vedat Milor’s reviews are worth reading (I am personally running through his archives to plan a May/June Paris jaunt as we speak), but this review resonated especially, because of his mini-essay decrying Michelin’s penchant for “beautifully designed, tiny, and precious multi-courses meals, at the expense of restaurants which do true justice to ingredients.” as well as research-lab restaurants:

I do not consider the Restaurant Magazine and top 50 list a credible source to take seriously.  But the “Guide Michelin” too, unfortunately, has been  promoting beautifully designed, tiny, and precious multi-courses meals, at the expense of restaurants which do true justice to ingredients.

It is hard to fathom the overall influence and cultural hegemony of Japanese Kaiseki cuisine over the Guide. Japanese Palace Cuisine has great merits, but may not easily be transported elsewhere.

I would blame Michelin for caving in and promoting the superstar-chef phenomena (and for some reason women are not part of the inner circle and they remain on the fringes).

A related issue is the fact that Michelin has rewarded chefs who became entrepreneurs by giving their name to restaurants in exchange for material incentives.  Dine in the two and three macaroon Robuchon Ateliers, Tables, etc. Once in a while you can eat well, but in general the food is disappointing, sometimes mediocre.  In the Keller establishments, the French Laundry, Per Se, etc., the food is uninspiring, may warrant one macaroon, not three.  Gagnaire can only turn out great dishes when he is in the kitchen and when one orders a la carte (try lievre a la royale).  Ducasse somehow manages to satisfy in Louis XV, but even there it is nowhere near to the early ‘90s,  when Louis XV was a great restaurant.

The Michelin Guide has become too politicized and too much part of big business circles, to keep its credibility. It is inconceivable that Arzak in San Sebastien keeps its three macaroons, whereas Zuberoa has been reduced to one and Elkano, arguably one of the top three fish restaurants in the world, is solely mentioned in the guide.  The Michelin guide is also unreliable for Italy.  Recently they have promoted  Duomo in Alba and Osteria Francescana in Modena to the top three macaroon status.  I had two meals in the former and one in the latter and found both of them wanting. My friend, ex-gastoville partner and now the chef of Hedone in London (you must try it if you are in London), will probably give 7/20 to both. I am more generous and rank the former 11/20 and the latter 12/20.  You can have some interesting and some badly conceived dishes in these restaurants, but I guarantee that you will not eat a satisfactory meal showcasing the purity of ingredients (except the reggiano parmesan and the veal ragu pasta at Osteria Francescana). It is ludicrous to rank restaurants that high which are more like research labs and concoct half baked, experimental and too precious, teeny-tiny and odd dishes, which look like Van Gogh but taste like carbon paper. These chefs are primarily interested in creating infinitesimal variations on the “texture” of ingredients by using molecular techniques, and I wish them good luck.  But it is unfortunate that a serious French guide sends the wrong signals to the young chefs by elevating these restaurants to the highest status.

In trying to please the judges, like Michelin and the jury of the “top 50”, who are the arbiters of taste, many great chefs are making unfortunate compromises.

I take my hat off to Vigato for paying no attention to such trends and expectations of the modern public which is obsessed with fat and heavy sauces.

It seems to me that Monsieur Vigato is still cooking primarily to please himself. I am sure that he is one of the very very few two to three macaroon chefs who likes to eat what comes out from his kitchen.

It is also good to see that he is financially very successful.  The French love his restaurant which is always full.  The beautiful “hotel particulier” where the restaurant is located used to be owned by the producer/filmmaker Luc Besson who recently sold the gorgeous property to an American closed fund.

From all I have been saying so far, it would be wrong to conclude that I am against the tiny portions in multi-course meals.

Sometimes the quality and nature of the ingredients warrant tiny portions. For instance, recently I had a memorable meal at IN DE WULF, and chef Kobe Desramault designs a menu around small portions, but they are well thought out. He also knows how to cook a lobster or a pigeon whole. Ironically the Michelin Guide rewards only one macaroon to this restaurant.

It is no secret that in a large number of Michelin restaurants, chefs buy previously sliced and vacuum packed pieces of fish and meat.  Sous viding is efficient, easy, cost effective, and many customers like it because dishes cooked sous vide become soft and uniform in texture.

But, with a few exceptions, sous viding is the modern day restaurant equivalent of industrial, TV food.  Making it look beautiful and painting the dish with multi-color brush strokes does not change its fundamental character.  (What happened to true sauces?)

I have eaten at Apicius eight to ten times, and I can also attest to the consistency of the kitchen.

I love the fact that chef Vigato tailors the scale of his offerings to bring out the best in the material at hand.

This is why he cooks many dishes for two people.

No. He will not buy every joint of a duck precooked or presliced and vacuum packed (to be later sauced and arranged on the plate with a few sprigs of herbs) as many macaroon and top 50 chefs do.

If he serves duck, he will roast it to order and serve it for two. He will also sauce it in the tradition of the grand French cuisine.

Don’t miss his roasted wild Breton turbot on the bone for two. It is the best turbot you can have in Paris.

Try his whole lobe of sweetbread. It is among the very best in Paris. (Other great fresh sweetbreads I had were at L’Ambroisie, Ledoyen, and La Repaire de Cartouche.)

All of these dishes are excellent because they are cooked to order from high quality and fresh ingredients.

How many so called “top 50” restaurants are doing the same?

Another reason I love Vigato’s cooking is because he makes great SAUCES.  The sauce was one of the hallmarks of French cuisine, and the great chef Robuchon is known to never have reheated a sauce.

Making a classic French sauce is very time and labor consuming. I doubt many apprentices and young chefs today know how to make a classical sauce, without using agar agar, xantam gum, etc.  Three macaroon kitchens are now invaded by Adria products/chemicals because of obvious reasons.

All this said, don’t think that you will eat heavy food at Apicius.

2. The Rise and Fall of eGullet. A great history on the first-wave of internet gourmands, who congregated on eGullet and formed lifetime friendships. Many of them still blog today, like Docsconz, Gastromondiale, and Ulterior Epicure. But eGullet also fine-tuned the early dishes at Alinea, and inspired the Modernist Cuisine project by Nathan Myhrvold! “The site was filled with fascinating, generally friendly discussion from people in all walks of life with one major thing in common – a love and passion for food. Quite a few of the people posting on the site were culinary professionals, many of whom were already very well known like Jose Andres, Paula Wolfert, Anthony Bourdain, Michael Ruhlman and Nathan Myrhvold, who at the time was best known as the Chief Technical Officer for Microsoft, but later via the initial inspiration from eGullet went on to lead the project that became Modernist Cuisine; some of whom were becoming well known like Sean Brock, David Kinch, Alex Talbot and Aki Kamozawa amongst many others and as it turned out, there were many posting who weren’t particularly well known or even culinary professionals at the time, but subsequently became so, like Mikael Jonsson of the restaurant Hedone, Don Lee and John Deragon amongst others. There were also those, who like myself discovered a passion for culinary documentation. This would include people like Bonjwing Lee – the Ulterior Epicure, amongst others.” – Docsconz

Social media now showcases up and coming food writers but Lynes sees two key differences between eGullet and social media. The early days of eGullet were “filled with a real sense of exploration and discovery because eGullet was participant and not PR led. What’s going on now, people getting excited about ramen, burgers, pizza, doughnuts etc – I look at the early days on eGullet  and it was all there, but with more depth and substance.” eGullet was famous for argument and debate about food. “There was no ‘me too’ mentality, the opinions were tested” said Lynes.

Majumdar sees a distinction in motives between the eGullet writers and the social media herd today “In 01-02 no one had any desires to launch careers from it. The notion that it was a fulltime career was a million miles from my mind. I just wanted a few people to read it [my blog].” But he is optimistic for aspiring writers, “People fascinated with anything will find an outlet to talk about it and in 01-02 there was no blog to book outlet. Now they [the writers] have outlets like social media, but they still have to be good.”

But according to this story, it all came apart when:

The camaraderie and revelry amongst the eGullet family were about to change. Lynes was given orders to ensure the board members stayed on topics, didn’t stray from talking about food and above all prevent it becoming a virtual chat room for arranging real life meetings. Lynes said that it was “an attempt to control the way people acted in real life through the boards. It really pissed people off.”

This was the beginning of eGullet’s demise. eGullet originally attracted people dissatisfied from other food sites, who didn’t want their contributions hampered by arbitrary censorship rules or membership agreements or controls. Majumdar was irritated remembering the rules “people moved to eGullet because the Chowhound rules became too prohibitive.” Majumdar conceded that growth needs a level of control but the eGullet rules and interference from the moderators was annoying.

Majumdar said that the “breaking point came when a policy about real time events was brought in an attempt to restrict people getting together in real life.” The motive behind the decision made some sense. Lynes contended that “Steve [Shaw] wantedto prevent the site creating cliques and alienating other users; it should have promoted inclusiveness.” That didn’t work out well as Lynes explained “A meet-up would have to be pre-approved by a moderator, then you could post about the event. Any report back would have to be about the food.

*** SINGAPORE ***

3. Aun Koh of ChubbyHubby has written a manifesto on how the government should support the Singapore restaurant scene.

If we really care about food, I believe our government should establish a National Food (or Culinary) Agency, akin to the National Arts Council that can take on the duties of holistically driving our food sectors. This agency should promote our top talents locally, regionally and globally. It should open doors (internationally) for our food heroes to further build their reputations and their businesses. It should fight for our food businesses and help develop or change policies to make doing business here easier and more efficient. It should assist in spearheading new innovations that can help the sector grow. And it should assist in developing capacities and capabilities within the sector. It should educate citizens and food producers alike on diet-related health issues and promote wellness and nutrition. It should promote best practices and learning within the sector. It should work to preserve our food culture and heritage and find ways to archive, showcase and pass on knowledge. It should position Singapore as a true food capital and be able to fund programs and platforms that help ensure or cement this position.

I agree in large part with the spirit of this proposal, and hope I get the time to talk more about this of type proposal later on, when time permits. As I’ve remarked before, Singapore is a place where one eats well for $300, and reasonably well for ~$3, but the mid-range is sorely lacking, with such dire fare as like the overpriced tapas-bar Lolla, culinary-twerking 2am:dessertbar, and countless other offenders. Aun, I think, is trying to solve the problem of this mid-range chasm. As I mentioned in a comment on his post:

I think this is absolutely right. There are Singaporeans who are working at top kitchens in New York like Daniel, Momofuku Ko, who have little desire to return to Singapore because there isn’t a local culture of innovative food besides maybe 3-5 restaurants. (not talking about overpriced tapas)

On a recent trip to South America, I realised that countries like Bolivia are starting to create their own food festivals, and the Spanish-speaking restaurant world has Madrid Fusion. Latin American chefs and chefs in the Northeast US (where I currently live) constantly exchange ideas over Twitter and Instagram. This interconnectivity is why there is a creative explosion happening in the Latin world and the Northeast now.

There definitely is space for at least two things:
1. for Singapore to become a Southeast Asian mecca for fine dining
2. to export restauranteers to bring Singaporean hawker food elsewhere (like what Bourdain plans to do in NYC, and is happening in Copenhagen)

And Aun replies:

Thanks Kenneth. Agree. It is no coincidence that Jungsik, a restaurant partially underwritten by the Korean government, was able to earn 2 Michelin stars and help spread awareness of new Korean food in the USA and most importantly in the media centre of America.

If I were a government official in charge of promoting Singapore food, I’d be daunted. American food is undergoing an amazing renaissance – The Willows Inn, birch, Aska, atera, elements – are all great restaurants opened in the past few years, that’ve turned to an ingredients-first philosophy. The established giants like per se and Blue Hill are doing that too. However I think it is due to the increasingly good quality of produce available throughout American farms. I think that Singapore can become a Southeast Asian mecca for fine dining if we get the right logistics to ship ingredients from Borneo/Sumatra/Java and farms in the peninsula that focus on premium produce – but I don’t think Southeast Asian agriculture has this mindset just yet. To illustrate, Chef Andre Chiang, when I dined at his restaurant last summer, said he had faced difficulties communicating to local farmers his preferred methods of raising good agriculture. Therefore the immediate challenges in the fine dining space would be three-fold:

  1. (Ingredients) Build up a network of farms in the Malayan peninsula that sets aside a percentage of their output for premium ingredients.
  2. (People) Start enticing recent graduates of premier cooking schools in the world like the Culinary Institute of America to come back to Singapore. This can be done by subsidising restaurant spaces, grants etc. But ultimately great cooks want to cook for an appreciative audience. The government should work on the assumption that this appreciative audience can be brought into being within 5 years.
  3. (Foreign Promotion) I think the prospect of grants to set up restaurants in foreign countries, contingent on success within a 5 year trial period, will be a huge incentive to potential talent.

Since the problem of fine-dining restaurants in Singapore is complex and inter-related, only a concerted big push will solve the problem.

For hawker food, I’ll have more to say in separate post. But it’s a complex problem too, and we are in danger of losing our hawker food culture. The last link lists some reasons why:

4. Making no bones about that young bak kut teh hawker’s business.

The Kitchen At The Centre Of It All.

Interestingly, Jun Yuan also mentioned that at some point, for his business to truly work, they would need to expand to four to five outlets, and with a central kitchen supplying them. He said this when he posted his stall’s impending closure:

“You may or may not know that our model has always been premised on having more outlets.”

What’s more interesting than what he said, was what he didn’t say. Consider this – Jun Yuan is a first-class honours graduate in Management from the University of Manchester. One can safely assume that he has some idea of how to put together a business plan, forecast for various case scenarios and run some numbers to arrive at the conclusion that for a food business in Singapore to succeed and thrive, one needs scale. A scale that requires at least four to five different branches – a number of profit centres that help support one cost centre (the central kitchen) – in order to generate a healthy cash flow.

This is, if one reads between the lines, quite revealing. It shows two things:

1. Most food businesses in Singapore, in order to survive and thrive, require sufficient capital to provide the runway so that they can build the kind of scale required, and that’s likely to be to the tune of millions; and

2. That commercial rentals have skyrocketed beyond a tipping point such that most food businesses, even those that run hawker stalls, require the facilities of a central kitchen somewhere else – usually located in industrial estates with far cheaper rents – in order to manage costs.

Central kitchens are fantastic facilities in that they can generate a large quantity of food in very short amount of time at possibly lower prices due to economies of scale, streamlining of duplicated functions and higher automation. But many food businesses – aside from catering services or large-scale food service businesses such as hotels – previously never needed to use central kitchens because it has always been that what was produced onsite is sufficient to cater for the required number of customers to help keep the business afloat. The fact that central kitchens are now a key factor in determining whether a food business can take off only means that existing kitchen facilities within each establishment may be insufficient to produce enough food quickly to supply the larger number of customers needed to sustain the business. This is worrying.

Make no bones about it – this means that there’s even less breathing room for small, independent food businesses in Singapore, moving forward. And that their chances of success have just shrunk to an even more diminutive number.

The NoMad | New York | Oct ’13, Nov ’13 | “crackling with late night energy”

21 Feb
  • Address: NoMad, 1170 Broadway, New York, NY 10001
  • Phone: (347) 472-5660
  • Hours: Breakfast: Daily 7-10am, Brunch: Sat, 11am-2pm, Sun 11am, 3pm; Lunch: Daily 12-2pm; Dinner: M-Th, 530-1030pm, F-Sat, 530-11pm, Sun, 530-10pm.
  • Price (after tax + tip, excl. drinks): $60-80
  • Rating: 17/20 (dinner)
  • Value: 3/5
  • Average Dining Time: 90-120 minutes
  • Chef: James Kent
  • Style: Contemporary New American
  • Michelin Stars: 1

Rating: 17/20 (dinner)

2013-11-10 11.51.342013-11-10 11.07.59

The NoMad is Eleven Madison Park duo Daniel Humm and Will Guidara’s sister restaurant, opened in April 2012. I came here twice towards the close of 2013; once for dinner, and another time for a weekend brunch.  The main dining room is topped by a glass pyramid which lets down natural light during the day, and has two other dining sections as well as a bar.

Instead of trying to appeal to a single new audience, however, Humm (who was named James Beard Outstanding Chef last week) and his partner, the restaurateur Will Guidara, have decided to jam a hodgepodge of styles under one roof. There’s a glass-ceiling Atrium for the ladies who lunch and a clamorous, stand-up bar area for the cocktail crowd. If you wish to sit with your bespoke cocktails and French wines and pick at casual snacks, you can do that in the Library, and if you’re looking for something more intimate, there’s the Parlour, which is appointed, like a Victorian sitting room, with burgundy-colored rugs and velvet chairs trimmed with gold. – NYMag

2013-11-10 11.08.06

During the night, a crackling electricity runs through the place. The average decibel level in this place is loud, with the constant buzz of conversation from tables tightly packed, if you sit in the main dining room. (It was much quieter during brunch). Classic rock is played at a moderate loud volume, the choice of music is no accident.

It’s difficult, for instance, to give your full attention to a meal at the NoMad once you have read the interviews in which Daniel Humm and Will Guidara, its ambitious young operators, talk about modeling the restaurant on the Rolling Stones.

They went through a branding exercise, writing down words that defined the band (loose, alive, genuine, deliberate) and molding the restaurant’s identity around them. Those words hang on a kitchen wall, not far from the enormous photo of Mick Jagger onstage, one leg goose-stepped up to microphone level. – NYTimes

Dinner was priced very reasonably for this level of cuisine, featuring a couple of tricks not done any, at about $50 per person. Tables were turned over quite fast at around 10pm (I’d estimate about 90 minutes per table). Brunch is priced about $20-25 per person, and there is no overlap between the two menus.

Other Notable Write-ups:

  • Bloomberg reviews the NoMad, recommends roast chicken, foie gras and suckling pig.
  • “Under a skin of lacquered brown the color of a loaf of challah lies a stuffing of brioche with foie gras and truffles. It is a dish from another era, when chicken breast was still seen as a worthy canvas for great chefs. Taste it and you know why. This is white meat for sybarites. On the side is a fricassee of the dark meat with morels, almost an afterthought. If served at a dark no-reservations tavern in the Village, it would be enough to put the place on the map.”

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(Unfortunately, I lost the pictures from dinner, so I shall rely on credited photos taken by others.)

SUNDAY DINNER

Snack: Rosemary Focaccia with Grapes (3.5/5) A huge slab of rosemary focaccia, laid on with grapes. Fresh from the oven.

Tagliatelle. King Crab, Meyer Lemon & Black Pepper. $28 (4.5/5) : Considered one of the restaurant’s signature dishes, I liked this dish very much. The bright lemon made eating the king crab and tagliatelle very appetising. There’s a visual and textural similarity to the flat noodles (mee pok) used for my favorite Singaporean hawker dish – bak chor mee. The sourness that opened the appetite (“开胃” in Chinese) was a simple application of lemon juice.

Photo taken by Eatingwithziggy.com

Photo credit to EatingwithZiggy. Also, see the Gastronomy blog for a great photo and write-up.

Lemon.Custard with Almond Shortbread and Ricotta. $12 (4.75/5)

I came to the NoMad on the strength of a SeriousEats write-up about their lemon tart. It was slightly on the bitter side for me, but with a strong lemon taste and ingenious method of coating the lemon with pastry. A great dish.

Photo Credit: SeriousEats

On first glance, the tart appears to be surrounded by a thin, shiny layer of caramel or mousse. In fact, the covering is made of shortbread. [Mark] Welker explains that they start with a classic French-style tarte citron that’s baked in a half sheet pan before the lemony discs are punched out and frozen. Then a traditional almond flour-based shortbread is pureed in a blender until the heat melts the butter, creating a molten mixture. The discs are then dropped in liquid nitrogen and then dipped into the shortbread batter. The shortbread coating solidifies as soon as it comes into contact with the cold lemon discs.

The result is a beautiful, even layer of glossy shortbread that tastes as good as it looks. Both the shortbread and the lemon filling are soft in texture and easy to pass a fork through. Those who might miss the crust from the absent tart shell will be pleased to see some almond shortbread crunch on the plate that easily replaces the lost texture. Similarly, Welker says the (subtlety flavored and light) ricotta ice cream serves to replace the traditional role that meringue plays in balancing the tart citrus. Some iridescent confit lemons are artfully arranged on the plate. – Niko Triantafillou, SeriousEats.

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BRUNCH

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OMELET (4.5/5)

Hen of the Woods Mushrooms, Spinach, Chevre & Toast. $18

A well-executed omelet with a creamy center of cheese and mushrooms. I’m not the biggest fan of brunch food but this was a well-executed omelet.

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HASH

Chicken, Sunny-side up eggs & Roasted Potatoes $20

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Condiments for Scones

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“I suppose that finally New York is a Broadway theater where one play after another, decade after decade, occupies the stage and the dressing rooms-then clears out. Each play is the biggest possible deal (sets, publicity, opening night celebrations, stars’ names on the marquee), then it vanishes. With every new play the theater itself is just a bit more dilapidated, the walls scarred, the velvet rubbed bald, the gilt tarnished. Because they are plays and not movies, no one remembers them precisely. The actors are forgotten, the plays are just battered scripts showing coffee stains and missing pages. Nothing lasts in New York. The life that is lived there, however, is as intense as it gets.” – Edmund White, City Boy.

Central | Lima | Jan ’14 | “Peruvian terroir, art on a plate”

20 Feb
  • Address: Ca. Santa Isabel 376, Miraflores, Lima – Perú
  • Telephone: [511]242-8515 / [511] 242-8575 | Email: reservas@centralrestaurante.com.pe
  • Website: http://centralrestaurante.com.pe/
  • Hours: Lunch: Monday-Friday, 1-330pm, Dinner: Monday-Saturday, 8-1130pm
  • Price (after tax + tip, excl. drinks): $120
  • Courses: (8 main/13 total) 2 amuse / 1 bread / 6 savory / 2 dessert / 2 mignardises
  • Price/Main Course: $15
  • Rating: 19.5/20
  • Value: 5/5
  • Dining Time: 140 minutes
  • Time/Course (total): 11 minutes
  • Chef: Virgilio Martinez (also proprietor of Lima in London, and another upcoming in London. ex. Lutèce (NYC), Can Fabes, Astrid y Gastón), Pía Leon (ex. El Celler de Can Roca)
  • In Own Words: “My food is very visual, to me landscapes, feelings, romance, emotions are very important. I believe that my cuisine is very close to nature but in an artistic way.” [1]
  • Style: Avant-garde Peruvian/Amazonian
  • Notable: Rated by an influential local guidebook as best restaurant in Lima; platings are works of art.

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Rating: 19.5/20

The Chef. Chef Virgilio Martinez’s fame precedes him. In the last year, he has opened a restaurant in London (called Lima), and he has another restaurant in Cuzco, gateway to Machu Picchu. An advocate of Peruvian cuisine worldwide, he is only 36 years old, and Central has been reviewed by Lima’s foremost dining guide (a little red book) as the best restaurant in Lima. Previous to opening Central, he worked at Lutèce (New York); Can Fabes (Sant Celoni, Spain), and served as executive chef at two restaurants of the Astrid y Gastón restaurant chain (prevalent in the Spanish world), in both Bogotá and Madrid.

You know what, I spent some time in Madrid and in Barcelona 10 years ago. After awhile, I went back to Peru and I saw more calm in the city. In the gastronomic sense, it was just okay, it was good. I had this epiphany when I went to Southeast Asia and I saw how people were very proud of street food. That really inspired me to go to the very unknown parts [of Peru]. So I got to know these parts, and I got to know all these ingredients. When I saw 200 ingredients that I’d never seen in my life, I was like, okay we have to do something with this because this is just amazing. And then we started to do the research on recipes with those ingredients. That was my personal motivation to go back to Peru and do my thing. – Virgilio Martinez

Two Visions of Peruvian Haute-Cuisine. Of the four high-end restaurants and menus I visited in three days in Lima, I could split them into two kinds – the first as Peruvian fusion (Astrid y Gaston’s [AyG] 20 years menu, Maido’s Nikkei menu); and the second highlighting Peruvian terroir (Central, Malabar, more casual: Amaz). I felt that the first type of Peruvian fusion haute-cuisine was not as enjoyable for me – it was almost as if I was being treated to a menu by committee, where disparate elements (Chinese shortrib and glutinous rice at Maido, Peking cuy and cannoli at AyG) were being put on my plate just to punch home the point that Peru was a cultural melting pot of Spanish, Italian, Incan, Chinese and Japanese immigrants. As if the presence of diversity on the menu was more important that the way tastes could unfold on the menu. In almost all of the cases, these “affirmative action” style dishes flopped. Fried rice with cod and oyster sauce does not a good dish make, AyG. The “affirmative action” trap is an all-too-common one that fusion restaurants fall into. The fusion restaurant gimmick: Ingredients from culture A are mixed with ingredients/preparations of culture B to produce a decent dish, but one in which the ingredients are replaceable, and there isn’t an essential reason to mix those two cultures. Very few fusion dishes follow an inner logic of the tastes themselves. A good rule of thumb seems to be: if fusion results in a dish that is merely interesting, don’t serve it. In the past year I could count on one hand the fusion dishes which were brilliant (sake-souffle at RyuGin, and Pejerrey Tiradito at Maido off the top of my head). Even at Maido (a restaurant I enjoyed very much), the only fusion dish which was essential was the tiradito; the other fusion dishes were well-executed but forgettable; and the chifa (Chinese-Peruvian) style dishes were consistently the weakest parts of the menu at both AyG and Maido.

I much preferred the Peruvian-terroir type restaurants. I learnt while researching Lima’s dining scene that there was a deviant strain of terroir-restaurants called “Amazonian cuisine”, attributed to Pedro Schiaffino of Malabar and Amaz. While I enjoyed both Malabar and Amaz, I felt that Peruvian-terroir took a big step up at Central. The flavors here were more precise and complex. It also has a larger canvas to play on – while a big part of Central’s ingredients comes from the Amazon, but it also encompasses all elevations and climes.

“Scientists have calculated that there are thirty-four types of climatic zones on the face of the earth. Peru has twenty of them. ‘In Inca Land one may pass from glaciers to tree ferns within a few hours,’ Bingham wrote, still astonished years after arriving.” – Turn Right at Machu Picchu, Mark Adams.

The Food. The menu I had was called Mater Uno. It has been expanded to about 18 courses now, but remained at about 13 courses when I visited in early January. The most memorable tastes were (1) the cut chirimoya fruit with cocoa – the chirimoya had the texture of pineapple with the taste of soursop; remarkable; and (2) the cushuro cyanobacteria with mashed frozen potato. The chefs at Central plate with painters’ brushes. In their hands, elegant paintings appear on our plates, feasts for the eyes. Occasionally the dining experience crosses over into didactism, where native Peruvian ingredients are placed on our plate just because the average diner has zero familiarity with them, and Central is trying to educate us on their provenance. But I always found the tastes precise, calibrated, with no flavour overwhelming the dish. Even though the food was unfamiliar, the tastes were balanced.

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MATER UNO

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SEA: Seaweed Calamari (4.5/5)

Ceviche style.

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COAST: Native Corn (4.5/5)

Intense corn taste.

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AMAZON: Spicy Root (4.5/5)

Yacon (a sweet water chestnut-like root) smeared with a bit of charapita spicy pepper.

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ANDES: Tuber Chamomile (5/5)

Camote (Andean sweet potato) that tasted like apple pie.

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Special mention for the bread service goes to the “butter” (5/5), which is actually hardened butterscotch that is made solid. I ate a lot of it after taking this picture.

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SNAPSHOT OF THE SEA (5/5)

Scallops, Kañihua, Tumbo, Borrage [10 mbmsi]

Raw scallops coated with kanihua (mountain grains); tropical fruit notes from the tumbo (banana-passionfruit sauce).

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COASTAL INTERACTION (5/5)

Octopus, Purple Corn, Olive, Limo Chili [500 mamsi]

Perfectly roasted octopus, in a purple corn “corn-somme”.

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WATERS OF THE LOWER ANDES (4.75/5)

River Shrimp, Sacha Inchi, Native Herbs, Chia [1200 mamsi]

The nutty and salty river shrimpes were paired with raw, verdant native herbs and chia. It was a complex composition, no taste dominating.

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EXTREME ALTITUDE (5/5)

Frozen Potato, Cushuro, Mullaca Root, Paico [4500 mamsi]

This may have been the best dish of the night. Sour and springy cushuro (a type of cyanobacteria, which I also had the previous day at Maido), paired well with the mild taste of mash potato. It was a joy to crunch through the springy cushuro (which had a touch of turmeric taste) . Paico is a herb that starts off anise-tasting, and ends up minty.

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RED JUNGLE (3.75/5)

Arapaima, Airampo, Huito, Hearts of Palm [800 mamsi]

The Amazonian arapaima riverfish is considered a delicacy for producing boneless steaks; here it had a savory ham-like texture. airampo, a cactus fruit stained the fish. Huito, charred on top, had a nutty almond like taste.

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ALTIPLANO AND LAKE (3.25/5)

Lamb, Kiwicha, Tarwi, Chamomile [3800 mamsi]

Okay. Cheese taste from (chamomile?) cubes overpowering.

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PURE AMAZON (4.25/5)

Bahuaja, Huampo Wood, Maca Root, Taperiba [500 mamsi]

Huampo root, boiled down (the green puree) had a menthol slightly limey flavor. Bahuaja nut, the central mass, was like a nutty semifreddo. Maca root crisps provides a taste of Froot Loops on the outside of the Bahuaja Nut; Taperiba formed the olive-colored gel.

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MOUNTAIN RANGE AND FOREST (5/5)

Cacao, Coca, Chirimoya, Chaco Clay [2500 mamsi]

I loved this dish. I had chirimoya desserts at Borago, Gustu, Astrid y Gaston; but this took the cake. Chirimoya was served simply as the main dish; a fruit with the texture of pineapple and the taste of soursop. It was served simply with chocolate-coca soil. Simplicity.

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SOLAR INFUSION

Cullen, Stevia, Macambo, Lemon Verbena [1200 mamsi]

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Notable Links:

Momofuku Ko (lunch) | New York | Feb ’14 | “sushi sensibilities”

11 Feb
  • Address: 163 1st Ave, New York, NY 10003
  • Phone: (212) 500-0831
  • Website: http://momofuku.com/new-york/ko/
  • Hours: Lunch: Fri-Sun, 12pm onwards. (1 seating) Dinner: Mon-Sun, 6pm onwards (2 seatings)
  • Price (after tax + tip, excl. drinks): $225
  • Courses: (20 main/23 total) 1 amuse / 17 savory / 3 dessert / 1 mignardises / 1 take-home
  • Price/Main Course: $11
  • Rating: 18.5/20
  • Value: 5/5
  • Dining Time: 225 minutes
  • Time/Course (total): 10 minutes
  • Chef: Sean Gray (ex. Momofuku Ssam Bar)
  • Style: Asian-influenced contemporary
  • Michelin Stars: 2
  • Notable: No photos during service, a few photos allowed after service (i.e. “I’ve been here” shots), strong seafood line-up

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Momofuku Ko is the crown jewel of a David Chang empire that spans 3 countries, with 5 restaurants in New York alone. I’ve tried many times to get a seat at the restaurant, refreshing the Ko reservations page at 10am sharp with credit card in hand. The stars, prior to this weekend trip, unfortunately didn’t align. But when I took a last-minute decision the Thursday before to head to the city, I looked at the Ko page, more in hope than expectation, where to my surprise – there was a seat for 12:10pm! I snapped it up immediately. And the meal I proceeded to have showed me why Ko tickets are in such high demand.

But first, a question I had as a Ko newbie. What’s the difference between lunch and dinner? Lunch, as evidenced by its higher price of $175 to dinner’s $125, contains more courses (16 to dinner’s 10), takes longer, and is more experimental than the dinner menu. The sole dish that unites the two menus is the signature frozen foie shaved over lychee and Riesling jelly – named 2008 dish of the year by New York Times. Here’s an illicit photo. I enjoyed the slower, relaxed pace of lunch, as I can imagine the necessity of two seatings might rush dinner a bit more.

I knew nothing of Ko’s menu prior to my visit. What would be served? It turns out that the Ko team is very strong in seafood. All sorts of seafood were prepped with delicate care, to showcase their textures and tastes at their best. I think for versatility, saucing, pairing with ingredients, the seafood at Ko beats what I’ve had at Marea or Le Bernardin. The sensibilities of the 3-man Ko kitchen crew (chef Maximus Ng and gang on the pass) reminded me of sushi as done by Jiro in that famous documentary. The various preparations and ingredient-pairings served to highlight the differences between the kinds of seafood (maybe 10 kinds over the course of lunch). It was enlightening to have bay scallops slightly poached in a mushroom-vinegar broth, grilled sepia with charred rice cakes, slow-cooked smoked trout with everything bagel spice (etc. etc.). Most seafood was lightly cooked, but quite a few were also cured prior.

No photos unfortunately! The pictures I carry in my head; the rest is up to your imagination.

Rating: 18/20

Memory: Potato cigarette with smoked cheese & chives, Cured bronzino, Mushroom consomme with bay scallop, Grilled Sepia, Puffed Egg, Maine Lobster with Brioche, Chocolate Black-Trumpet Ice Cream

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  1. English muffin with sesame (3.25/5) | Sliced popover with popcorn (4.5/5). I enjoyed the sliced popover, which was filled with popcorn cream, intense in flavour. In contrast though, the mini English muffin was a bit lukewarm and couldn’t taste the sesame (though I could see the coloration with my eyes)
  2. Shigoku oysters from WA | Mixed spice pepper vinegar | Paprika oil (4/5), Salty and plump. Naturalistic, a splodge of red oil on the oyster. Fruity in a very west coast way (the east coast oysters tend to be very salty)
  3. Potato cigarette with smoked pimento cheese and chives (5/5) Golden potato rolled in a cigarette, filled with smoked cheese, topped with chives. Great! Smoked flavor in the salty cheese was really delicious. It reminded me a bit of the addictive 7-Eleven Cheese Taquitos I used to buy every week on my way back from school in Singapore, without the pervasive grease.
  4. Braised daikon, with american caviar, nori (4.25/5). A flower-shaped column of pink daikon, slightly bitter, topped with caviar. Sprinkled with ash. A slight bitterness reset my tastebuds.
  5. Red snapper tartare | jelly made from its bones | Lime | Shiso. (4.25/5) Red snapper, a muscular fish, gave a sinewy and chewy tartare. Specked with bits of bright green lime “caviar”(?), which here functioned as capers to the standard beef tartare.
  6. Cured bronzino | Radishes | Puffed farrow (5/5)  The silky, fatty bronzino melted in my mouth – a cherished feeling. In combination with the previous dish, it was a showcase of contrasts: a lean sinewy fish before a fatty fish.
  7. Mackerel pickled in salt, its skin seared | a ring of shallot | blood orange zest | mustard seeds (4.5/5)– the mustard seeds were sprinkled last. The oily mackerel was pickled in salt to firm up the fish | topped with a small onion ring. Best part of dish: juxtaposing pickled mackerel with the seared skin surface.
  8. Chopped raw sunchoke | Caper pesto | Sardines (4/5) Raw sunchokes tasted like chopped water chestnut. A quiet dish, refreshing.
  9. Beet smoked and pickled | beet candied | Tarragon | Crispy trout skin | Slow cooked smoked trout | everything bagel spice (4.5/5) – A riot of colour, reds, light pink beet wafers, contrasting with the green of pesto.
  10. Mushroom consomme with black vinegar | Bay scallop | Pear | Raw mushroom underneath (5/5) Brilliant dish. You could call it a mushroom-black-vinegar consomme, but it reminded of nothing so much as a mee-pok broth. Mee-pok, done well, is my favorite Singaporean hawker dish of all – and the key is a black-vinegar based sauce with mushrooms. Knowing Chef Max as Singaporean, I do wonder if there was some Singaporean influence on this dish! But taken on its own merits, it was superb, a hot consomme is quickly poured into a bowl containing slices of raw bay scallop, the heat quickly poaching the external side of them and making them firmer. The pear was the right refreshing fruit note, not competing with the flavour of mushroom+vinegar. The best was the raw mushroom, its mushroom walls still retaining a firm texture and earthy crunch – filled with flavour from the broth.
  11. Grilled sepia | Charred rice cakes | Potato broth (4.5/5) – enjoyable charred rice cakes with grilled sepia (type of cuttlefish)
  12. Venison tartare | Quail Egg | Truffed Capers (3.5/5) I thought this might have been the weakest dish of the lunch (which also speaks to the high sustained quality of the experimental Ko lunch menu.) A variation on steak tartare, with two quarter-slices of hard-boiled egg (custard yolk consistency). Fine but standard fare. Venison offered a game-y twist on it.
  13. Puffed egg | shio kombu. (5/5) An apparent Ko old dish (as a veteran Ko diner recounted to me) – this egg was puffed up like a sponge. Taking bites of the eggy sponge, the shio kombu kept re-washing over the exposed bits, making the newly exposed egg sponge salty with kombu again. It was like dipping an ice cream cube into chocolate fondue – the chocolate crust perpetually forming on the diminishing ice cream is the gift that keeps on giving. Same here with the egg sponge – keeps on giving. The puffed egg was boiled in a pot, and I’ve no idea how they get the spongy texture.
  14. Roasted Maine lobster | Torn pieces of brioche | Sauce made from lobster roe | Miyage, shiso leaf and other herbs (5/5) Amazing. Tender bits of Maine lobster, an unexpeakably rich lobster roe sauce with the sweetness of egg and sugar, mixed with bits of torn brioche – a rich knockout.
  15. Tortellini with cream filling | shaved black truffle | Celery root chips (3.5/5) – a quiet and plain dish.
  16. Uni sauce with charred brussel sprouts | compressed apple cubes with apple juice | Meaty slices of grilled halibut | Burnt apple powder (4/5) It was pretty to see green cubes of apple in the orange uni sauce. I felt though that the uni sauce was overpowering in proportion to the apple cubes which were refreshing. The main player, a meaty halibut was perfectly cooked, tender.
  17. Lychee | Riesling gelee | Foie, cured frozen shaved | (4.5/5) Chef Christie used a microplane to carefully shave the foie over lychee and riesling gelee. The reason for shaving is to give the foie a lighter texture to compliment its heavier taste. The idea is very good, and has been used in Chang’s other restaurants (a cheese course at Ma Peche in particular) – though coming straight after the halibut and uni sauce,  it seemed the kitchen was going full throttle to satiate our appetites.
  18. Slices of pork ribs with secret awesomesauce rub | kimchi and caramellized red onion (4.5/5) The thick-slices of pink pork ribs (great) are almost incidental to the glorious spice-rub, the rub having been applied on identikit meats like lamb and venison before. Chef Max’s rub uses primarily cumin, fennel, 6 or 7 other spices I couldn’t catch [soy sauce? oyster sauce?], and the secret ingredient was the addition of an almost (for me, fully) imperceptible amount of star anise, the licorice taste of which heightens the meaty flavour. The principle comes from the Singaporean-Chinese dish called kong-bak.
  19. Roast barley sorbet with grapefruit foam | roast barley (4/5) A good palate cleanser and come-down after a trio of hard-hitting dishes, the bitterness of grapefruit a welcome cutting against the fat.
  20. Chocolate + black trumpet ice cream | candied black trumpets | almond biscotti tuile | huckleberry (4.75/5). My first reaction was incredulity. My second reaction was “you’re kidding”. Black trumpet, an intense tasting mushroom with truffle notes, in a dessert? And incorporated in an essential way in the ice cream? But it gave a wonderful mustiness to the chocolate, and this was better executed I think than truffle ice cream I had in Singapore’s Jaan the summer before – because the earthy taste of mushrooms was not overly unfamiliar, being helped by the strong chocolate flavour. Sidenote: “On the East Coast, the black trumpet is a summer and fall mushroom, with unpredictable swings in abundance; on the West Coast it’s a predictably common mushroom in winter among hte dense tanoak forests of the coastal mountains.” – Langdon Cook, Mushroom Hunters.
  21. “Rice cream cone” | Mochi ice cream, sticky rice in an ice cream cone (3.75/5)
  22. Chocolate macaron with amaro filling
  23. A Ko onigiri to go.

Contra | New York | Feb ’14

9 Feb
  • Address: 138 Orchard St, New York, NY 10002
  • Phone: (212) 466-4633
  • Hours: Dinner: T-Th, 6-11pm; F-Sat, 6-12am
  • Price (after tax + tip, excl. drinks): $70
  • Courses: (5 main/6 total) 1 bread (extra $3 charge) / 3 savory / 2 dessert
  • Price/Main Course: $14
  • Rating: 16/20
  • Value: 5/5
  • Dining Time: 81 minutes
  • Time/Course (total): 13.5 minutes
  • Chef: Jeremiah Stone (ex. Rino (Paris), Isa (NYC)), Fabian von Hauske (ex. Jean Georges, Faviken)
  • Style: New Naturalist
  • Michelin Stars: N/A

Contra is a restaurant on the Lower East Side that serves a constantly-changing tasting menu. At 5 courses for $55, it has been rightly called one of the bargains of New York. The food is New Naturalist in style – a style I believe is defined by:

  1. a “let-it-fall-where-it-may” plating aesthetic
  2. vegetable-and-(heirloom)-grain forward
  3. de-emphasis on meat
  4. 3-4 principal ingredients all mixed up

The sauces were very good: I found myself often licking and finishing whatever remnants of sauce remained on my plate, and I don’t remember not licking my spoon clean.

Contra often has guest chefs over; bringing in chefs such as birch’s Ben Sukle (Providence), and Alma’s Ari Taymor (L.A.). This ferment of guest chef stints is one of the chief reasons why East Coast cuisine, is incredibly dynamic today.

Rating: 16/20

Memory: Beef + Broccoli + Scallop; Tangerine + Popcorn

Other write-ups:

  1. Spanish Hipster – the beet dessert (which I had) features in their 2013 roundup
  2. Docsconz – a lamb head at Contra features in his best of 2013 list

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1. Beef, broccoli, scallop (4.75/5)

What do rough kale, raw beef, and XO sauce have in common? They contrast divinely with slices of sweet raw scallops. Haunting.

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2. Butternut squash, grains, mussels (4.25/5)

A hearty gruel on a cruel winter’s night. Or so I fantasised, eating whole wheat grain porridge, mixed with jardiniere-cut butternut squash, with meaty plump mussels (an ingredient I’m generally indifferent to), along with a mussel stock emulsified with oil, tasting remarkably of American cheese.

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3. Lamb, eggplant, mustard greens (3.75/5)

Lamb sirloin, eggplant puree, sweet sunchoke mash, mustard greens, green garlic sauce. The lamb was well cooked, and reminded me a bit of llama from Gustu (La Paz). The best part of the dish was the sunchoke mash, bringing out the delicate sweet flavour of sunchoke well.

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4. Tangerine, popcorn (5/5)

Toppings: Popcorn powder, malt crumble, tangerine granita.

Underneath: Popcorn mousse, olive oil jam, slices of tangerine.

Bright, fruity, energetic. A slight bitterness from the olive oil jam melded perfectly with the sweet popcorn. The tangerine cut against the oil, and left this diner feeling refreshed.

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5. Beet, hazelnut, yoghurt (4.5/5)

  1. Yoghurt Sorbet
  2. Chocolate-hazelnut cremeux
  3. Beet puree

Yoghurt went very well with the hazelnut cremeux (milk-sour turning nutty-sweet), pliable to a single stroke of the spoon, and the earthy taste of beet brought this dish metaphorically back to Earth. This seems a mainstay of the menu, featuring prominently in Spanish Hipster’s 2013 roundup.

A great menu; I shall certainly be back the next time I’m in New York.

Maido | Lima | Jan ’14 | “Nikkei delight”

5 Feb
  • Address: calle San Martín 399 (esquina: calle Colón), Miraflores, Lima, Perú
  • Telephone: (511) 446 – 2512
  • Website: http://www.maido.pe/index.php
  • Hours: Lunch: Mon-Sun: 1230pm-4pm. Dinner: Mon-Sat: 730pm-11pm.
  • Price (after tax + tip, excl. drinks): $135
  • Courses: (15 main/15 total) 13 savory / 2 dessert
  • Price/Main Course: $9
  • Rating: 18.5/20
  • Value: 4/5
  • Dining Time: 95 minutes
  • Time/Course (total): 6 minutes
  • Chef: Mitsuharu Tsumura
  • Style: Nikkei (Peruvian-Japanese fusion)

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Twiddling my thumbs on a lazy Sunday in Lima, when all the major restaurants seemed to shut down all at once, didn’t appeal to me. With a bit of scheduling jujitsu, I decided that the optimal way to partition my three precious days in Lima before I went to hike Machu Picchu was:

  1. Astrid y Gastón on Saturday dinner (it was not open on Sundays and Mondays)
  2. Maido for Sunday lunch (most permissive of the major restaurants)
  3. Central for Monday dinner. Later I added Malabar for Monday lunch.

Of the four major restaurants I went to in Lima, Maido and Central were the ones that left the greatest impression. There are two menu options are Maido, the Japanese set menu, where the restaurant conjures up an authentic Japanese experience, and a Nikkei menu, a Japanese-Peruvian fusion menu. While I’m sure Maido would have served good Japanese, I wanted something a bit more unique to the city – so I took the Nikkei menu option.

“Nikkei” is a term that means the Japanese diaspora. Peru is of course one of the countries with the largest and most prominent Japanese diaspora – former President Alberto Fujimori was the first leader of Japanese descent of a non-Japanese country, and helped to crack down on the Shining Path, which only two decades ago terrorised the cosmopolitan playground of Miraflores with a truck bomb. Today Miraflores is an semi-autonomous district in Lima, with its own tourist police force, 5-star hotels, and an excess of casinos. Its self confidence finds its way into some of the best food in South America, with Astrid y Gaston, Central, Amaz, and Maido all located within a tight 2km area.

Something that was interesting to me was to hear Japanese being spoken at least half the time amongst the chefs. This gave me an foreshadowing of the authenticity, discipline and precision that chef Mitsuharu Tsumura instills in everyone at the restaurant. The chef, I’m excited to report as a Providence-resident, studied at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, and then apprenticed at an Osaka sushi restaurant. He returned to Lima, and worked at the Sheraton Lima – until he was 28, when he struck out to create Maido. – [biography]

There were many standout dishes. The best was a liquid nitrogen ceviche tiradito, which was unforgettably served in a petri-dish. In every dish, I felt precision in execution, as if the flavors summoned in the chef’s mind, was being transmitted directly to my tongue, through precise technical skills honed by repetition. I’m a fan. Maido’s a must-visit when I next return to Lima.

Rating: 18.5/20

Memory: Pulpo al Olivo, Pejerrey Tiradito, Bahuaja, Temaki Sushi

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“Nikkei Experience – The Third Reality”

“Life is movement. Nothing is static or absolute. No one is. We are in a state of constant flux, just like the Earth, the tides, bacteria, light, the blood in our bodies, colors, seeds. Like family trees, cuisines are constantly being redefined, their identities enriched by an intense intercultural exchange which has formed the basis of all civilization ever since humans shared their first sounds, products, ideas, and customs. Fusion cuisine is just that: cooking, an inclusive word that perfectly encompasses it all. The fireplace is where bloodlines merge, where people come to sing, individual and group histories are forged, life gestates. The fireplace is where dialogue is fostered, the elements meet, opposites attract. Thus was born Peruvian Nikkei cuisine: from a complex history called Peru; and another, equally complex, far-off and foreign history called Japan that merged to live in harmony and create the third reality: Nikkei Cuisine.” – Mitsuharu Tsumura – Josefina Barron

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The menu is cutely shaped like an olde Japanese passport.

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1. Pulpo al Olivo (5/5)

Grilled octopus, botija olives tofu and crispy black quinoa

Brilliant. Perfectly grilled octopus, crisp, warm, tender. Olive tofu. Cold. Textured by crispy quinoa. All three ingredients played their part.  A single bite, very harmonious.

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2. Hassun (4.25/5)

Whelks in soy sauce with kiuri and apple sorbet – Southern squid, wakame, Porcón mushroom in two textures

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Southern squid, wakame, Porcón mushroom in two textures

This was very good.  A visual pun on maki sushi, where instead of green seaweed wrapping white rice, we have a strip of white squid wrapping around wakame seaweed. Served amidst mushroom paste on a mushroom chip.

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Whelks in soy sauce with kiuri and apple sorbet

The sweetness ice of apple sorbet made the whelk almost dessert-like.

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3. Nikkei Ceviche (4.25/5)

Cabrilla, clam, camaron, tobiko, crispy yuyo

Especially enjoyable was hunting down those last bits of tobiko (flying fish roe) in the ceviche sauce.

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4. Paracas Scallop with Maca (4.5/5)

Paracas Scallop, maca emulsion, fukujinzuke, kimpira gobou

A fukujinzuke (Japanese vegetable pickle medley) soil with succulent scallops.

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5. Pejesapo Sandwich (3.75/5)

Steamed bun, pejesapo, tartar sauce, creole salad

A fairly ordinary sweet bun sandwich. Citrus notes.

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Liquid Nitrogen. Foreshadowing.

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6. Cuy-san (4.5/5)

Cuy confit with molle pepper, chilled harusame noodles with sanbaisu and rocoto.

Cuy, the infamous guinea pig, here is confit, packed into a spring roll, and served with a simple sweet dish of cold noodles. Appetising in its simplicity. Garnished with a single corn leaf.

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“Tree” times a charm

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Ceviche sauce with nori, chalaca, shichimi, cancha

This was a dish that was all the good and great of Maido’s clash of cultures. From Peru, ceviche sauce was cooled with liquid nitrogen in a mixing bowl, and put with nutty toasted corn (cancha). Slivers of pejerrey fish were served tiradito style, thinly sliced – the tiradito style itself being an offshoot of sashimi. Finally, topped with a Japanese 7-spice powder. Brilliant. A knock-out dish.

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8. Nigiris from the Sea (3.75/5)

Deep fried rock fish nambazuke – Smoked mackerel with yellow chilli, onions and masago

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9. Rice Tamale (4/5)

Banana leaf, smoked nitsuke style bacon, cocona pepper

This was reminiscent of many Chinese dim-sum lunches I’ve had over the years, so much that I thought (and still suspect) it’s a chifa (Peruvian-Chinese) style dish. A single cross-section of savory tamale, crested with a bit of heart of palm.

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The encounter of Chupe de Camarones and Chawanmushi

Sweet seafood surrounded by egg-custard chawanmushi. A pleasant seafood sweetness seeped into the chawanmushi.

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11. Nigiris from the Earth (4.5/5)

Cylinder duck – Crispy panceta – Outside skirt Wagyu aged for thirty days A Lo Pobre

Well-executed.

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12. Gindara Pancayaki (4.25/5)

Gindara marinated in miso, panca chilli and yellow chilli, camotillo potato cream, crispy leona potato, Pachacamac greens, purple corn powder

Sablefish (gindara), if I remember correctly, tastes like cod. A quieter protein. Roast corn was done perfectly, like the octopus in the first course.

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13. Estofado Nikkei (4.25/5)

Nitsuke braised short rib, white fried rice with cecina and benishoga

Another quieter dish, here nitsuke – a sweet braise – performed on beef, with fried rice, reminded me of the Asian home cooking I grew up with.

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14. Bahuaja (5/5)

Milk, ice cream and crispy “castaña”, mango, cranberry, cushuro, mochi

A sublime dish. A sweet milk ice-cream with an array of delicious ingredients. No ingredient outshined the other – but the most curious was “cushuro” –

Known by its scientific name, Nostoc commune is a type of cyanobacteria, more commonly known as “blue-green algae,” although it’s not exactly blue-green in color nor is it a true alga.

These bacteria form colonies of spheres which measure 1 – 2 centimeters (0.4 – 0.8 of an inch) in diameter. The spheres are soft and watery and glow in the presence of ultraviolet light. Their green pigmentation is due to the presence of chlorophyll; their blue pigmentation due to the presence of phycocyanin. Additionally, the presence of phycoerythrin, a reddish pigment, in combination with the other pigments, explains why some are more brownish in color.

Cyanobacteria can be found in diverse habitats around the world, aquatic or terrestrial, and are characterized by their tolerance of extremes in temperature and conditions. They are capable of remaining dormant for long periods of time and can abruptly restart their metabolic activity upon rehydration. They are capable of carrying out both photosynthesis and nitrogen fixation, nitrogen fixation meaning that they take atmospheric nitrogen and convert it into a form that we can utilize, a precursor to amino acids and proteins.

Nostoc commune is only one of the world’s edible varieties of cyanobacteria. Another, for example, is the “facai,” consumed in China during the time of festivals. This is the Nostoc flagelliforme(Takenaka et al, 1988) which grows slowly in the desert regions of northern and north-western China. – source

Cushuro was one of the most wondrous discoveries of my gastronomic travels in South America. It’s textured like a tender bubble-tea pearl, and tastes like mild earl grey tea. Maido perfectly incorporated it in a “Treasures” themed dessert.

The origin of the name “Bahuaja“. Another write-up from Comosur:

Micha followed the contemporary Asian dessert with a dessert named after an Bahuaja Sonene National Park, the rainforest in the southern part of Peru known for its wealth of biological diversity and, in more recent years, evidence of indigenous groups that have avoided contact with the rest of the world. The dessert used cashews in a variety of forms – as ice cream, milk and crunchy sprinkle – as the base, adding mochi, cushuro and tapioca infused with camu camu.

Some of those words evading you? Mochi you may know as the squishy rice dough that is often wrapped around ice cream and available at Japanese restaurants. Cushuro is a fascinating green bacteria sphere that grows at higher altitudes in parts of Peru. They have little to no flavor but feel like a mix between tapioca bubbles in bubble tea and caviar. Camu camu is a cherry-like fruit that is native to the Amazon, in this case the Peruvian Amazon. It is gaining attention for it’s supposed anti-oxidant properties. I wouldn’t be surprised if this was the new acai in the near future.

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15. Temaki sushi (4.75/5)

Nothing is what it seems. The seaweed is chocolate. The rice, is strawberry cream. And those salmon roe… dessert pearls. Whimsical.