Archive | March, 2014

La Carne @ Eataly | Chicago, IL | Mar ’14

26 Mar
  • Address: 43 East Ohio Street
  • Telephone: Tel: 312.521.8700
  • Website: http://www.eataly.com/chicago-la-carne/

It is really quite impressive how successful the Eataly concept, a “disneyland of Italian food“, has been. The idea is to combine a one-stop shop for premium Italian ingredients, with a whole bunch of food outlets showcasing Italian food – an emporium. The Chicago outlet is the second outlet in the US (opened in Dec ’13), after the New York City outlet in 2010. Both joints are co-owned by Mario Batali, and Joe Bastianich (the New York outlet is also co-owned by Lidia Bastianich, a long-time NYC Italian restauranteur). The concept began in Italy but has been a smash hit in the US, reportedly grossing $1700/sq ft in 2012, when even lucrative malls only take in $350-$500/sq ft.

But as Eataly’s second anniversary approaches on Friday, the surprise is that the 58,000-square-foot store has become a phenomenon in the world of retailing and restaurants.

Eataly’s gross revenues for its first calendar year were $70 million, according to Joseph Bastianich and the chef Mario Batali, two of its principal investors.

“That figure was way over their initial projection,” said Malcolm M. Knapp, who heads an independent restaurant consulting firm in New York that bears his name.

Predicted revenues for the second year are $85 million, “a huge figure, $1,700 per square foot per year,” Mr. Knapp said. He compared that to the Cheesecake Factory, one of the nation’s highest-performing restaurant chains, which in recent years has reported about $1,000 a square foot in sales. Even lucrative malls, he added, take in only $350 to $500 a square foot. – NYT

I was hoping on a cold Chicago Saturday to visit the Purple Pig, but got there at the all-too-late time of 1:30pm, and was quoted a wait-time of 1h45m. So the search began for an acceptable alternative. Our first heuristic was Yelp: Eataly popped up, a short walk away, so off we went.

When we entered, there were two storeys. The first level is a supermarket, dedicated to all manner of Italian produce, for the home-cook. The second level was a food court with multiple fenced off areas serving as sit-down restaurants. Among the eateries was a pasta outlet, a snacks outlet, a fish outlet. Facing dizzying wait times for most of them, we settled on the suspiciously half-full La Carne, in a quieter corner of the second floor.

But it turns out they were half-full not because quality as we suspected, but I suspect because most people thought it was a long + pricey sit-down meal, which it wasn’t. The light dishes we had were priced at $15-$25, and we were in and out of there well within 90 minutes.

2014-03-01 17.04.38

Vinegar Pork-Knuckle Dish with Egg (4.25/5)

A well-composed dish. The vinegar pork knuckle with bacon cubes went well with the salad bits, and who can argue with a soft-boiled egg with your bacon cubes?

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Roasted Quail

A spot worth visiting in central Chicago. I wonder if a Spanish mercado concept would quite take off in the US the same way Eataly has. Bourdain certainly thinks that NYC is ready for a world street food-centre. Will we see more successful emporiums of a single cuisine?

Related Links:

Food Digest for March 2014

24 Mar

GLOBAL

  1. Grandmothers posing with their signature dish. (2014)
  2. Old: David Kinch’s (Manresa) Tokyo journal (2009)
  3. How Chefs feel about food critics and food bloggers” (2012)
  4. MAD debates future of food criticism.

FRANCE

  1. Chez Pim talks about cooking for Alain Passard (2011). She’s now running Kin Khao in San Francisco.
  2. A documentary on Bernard Pacaud’s life and l’Ambroisie. (pre-2007) In French. Anyone have a subtitled (English or French) copy of this?
  3. Julot psycho-analyses Bernard Pacaud (2007). Also, a review of 3-stars in Paris circa 2007.
  4. A recent NYTimes article on French producers promoting the Burgundy truffle (2014) as an acceptable substitute for Perigord truffles (actually more likely to be found in SE France). It’s 1/4-1/2 the cost of the $1,200/pound Perigord (in bad years), and now France produces only about 40 tons of black truffle per year

    “Mr. Chabert has called in the chef Jean-Luc Barnabet to test recipes with the Bourgogne, or Burgundy, truffle, which is routinely snubbed in favor of its aristocratic cousin. He has created a scientific association to study it and has begun a national public relations campaign to promote it. Last month, he invited a dozen of the nation’s leading truffle experts to dine, serving them cream-cheese-filled choux pastries, puréed potatoes, dessert macarons and a sabayon parfait — all made with Burgundy truffles. They oohed and aahed.

    “The Périgord truffle will always be higher class and more valued all around the world,” Mr. Chabert said. “But we need diversity and flexibility. France needs the Bourgogne.”

    […]The Burgundy variety has a lighter, sweeter, less pungent smell, and it loses its taste in cooking. Even at Mr. Chabert’s dinner, the scallops had to be prepared with Périgord truffles. But when the Burgundy is freshly harvested and fully mature, it works just fine raw.”

  5. The spectre of Chinese truffles (1995)
    “Another, cheaper kind of black truffle, the tuber himalayensis from China, has been flooding the market. This influx has created a problem because unscrupulous dealers in France have been mixing the two and selling them all as French truffles, tuber melanosporum, to restaurants. Dealers in the United States have been doing the same.Although the two types look the same, the Chinese truffles, when cut, are likely to be blacker, with less veining. They tend to have a chemical odor and very little flavor.”
  6. A glimpse of Parisian haute-cuisine in 1982.
  7. In-depth conversation with Pierre Gagnaire.
  8. Biography of Paul Bocuse.

ITALY

  1. Chef owner Davide Oldani of 1* Michelin D’O talks about how he makes his 1* food affordable (2013) in Harvard case study. No waiters, seasonality, cataloguing all edible parts, getting heftier glasses to reduce breakage costs, lowering rent by locating outside central Milan. His dilemma is his next step.

    Michelin-one-star-rated restaurants in Europe have an average of 36 employees on the payroll, according to the case. D’O keeps a lean crew of 14 by multitasking. Oldani does not employ any professional waiters. Rather, the chefs at D’O take turns waiting tables. (In fact, when Pisano first dined there, Oldani was his waiter.) This leads to a significant reduction in labor costs, even while allowing Oldani to pay his staff higher-than-average wages. Still, the chef insists that the strategy is less about finances than about customer relations. [Kenneth: Note, similar to how Schwa keeps costs down in Chicago]

    “You can’t fully explain a dish that you haven’t prepared yourself,” Oldani said. “When a cook explains a dish, he can explain it very well because he made it. He doesn’t explain what he heard about a dish, he explains what he made.”[…] Oldani espouses the philosophy of “POP cuisine,” which aims for accessibility to a broad audience, in terms of both taste and cost. He maintains that he keeps food costs down and flavors bright simply by buying ingredients only when they are in season. “Ingredients are less expensive and of higher quality when they are in season,” Oldani said. “Following the season is the most important thing to do in the applied economics of a restaurant.”

    The chef also is fervent about not wasting food. The case includes a lengthy list he keeps in his office at D’O, detailing the edible portions of some 70 ingredients. A sea bass has an “edible share” of 47 percent, compared to 60 percent of a hake, for example. A fig: 90 percent. A strawberry: 99 percent. A lemon: 26 percent (juice) + 2 percent (grated lemon peel—only the yellow part, of course).

    Table settings receive similar consideration, both sensory and economic. On the sensory side: He has designed several eating utensils, including an espresso spoon that sports a hole in the middle so as not to break up the continuity of the crema on top. On the economic side: “He chooses glasses based on breakage costs,” Pisano said.

US

  1. Reflection on High-End American dining (Gastromondiale, 2012)
  2. The Economics of Dessert/Pastry Chefs in NYC (2014)

UK

  1. The rise of the Gastro-pub (Bruce Palling, 2014)
  2. An industrial food producing wonder, Thanet Earth

SINGAPORE

  1. Very excited to try the Tippling Club, reviewed by Aun Koh here. (2014)
  2. Joel Robuchon restaurant is reviewed very favorably by food blogger Bu Pun Su on CH. (2014)
  3. The Labyrinth (Modern Singaporean food!!) is reviewed by Evelyn Chen. Looks like a very interesting set of modernist takes. (2014)
  4. Singapore’s food security strategy.

Astrid y Gastón | Lima, Peru | Jan ’14 | “the 20 year retrospective”

20 Mar
  • Old Address: Cantuarias 175, Miraflores District 15074, Peru
  • New Address: Av. Paz Soldán 290, San Isidro, Lima 27 – Perú
  • Phone: +51 1 2424422.
  • Price (after tax + tip, excl. drinks): > $100
  • Courses: (20 main/22 total): 1 amuse, 1 bread, 16 savory, 4 dessert
  • Rating: 14/20
  • Value: 2/5
  • Dining Time: 240 minutes
  • Time/Course (total): 11 minutes
  • Chef: Diego Muñoz (Mugaritz, el Bulli, Royal Mail Hotel, Bilson’s in Sydney Australia)
  • Style: Peruvian
  • Notable: First fine-dining restaurant to focus all the way back in the 90’s on Peruvian food

I think this 20 year retrospective menu, which AyG only served in the last month of their operations in their old address, in January 2014, was one of the more memorable meals I had partaken. (They’ve since moved to the Financial District of Lima, in a new space called “Casa Moreyra”.) Was the food great? In all honesty, not really. There were no eye-opening combinations, nor any dish I thought was excellent (i.e. 5/5), though I remember the liquid nitrogen chirimoya dessert (like styrofoam pillows), and the peking cuy (guinea pig). Puzzling was the chifa dish that was just a fried piece of fish and puffed rice in oyster sauce. “Sole meuniere” was just a slab of plain fish. Chicken liver, an ingredient pinched in taste compared to its fowl-ier brethren, was presented without embellishment. Purely gastronomically, I had much better experiences at Central and Maido.

But it seemed almost beside the point. The food was secondary to the story-telling. The special menu was a celebration of the history of the restaurant. The constraints were clear: the kitchen was going to select a dish from each year, and feature it as a 20 course menu. From there, they wove a story about how a French restaurant in an unstable Lima, eventually found its voice championing the native dishes of Peru, and set up branches all over Latin America and Spain. How they became more experimental over the years, especially the dessert courses. It was interesting to see the evolution of restaurant before our eyes, told through 20 courses.

It seemed purely experiential, the evolution of a restaurant told in 20 dishes. While I didn’t fully enjoy the gastronomic side of it, it appealed to the sentimental side of me. Since it seems churlish to criticise a special menu working under a stringent set of constraints, below I present the menu and photos without further explanation, so you can take my place tableside.

Other Notable Links: Spanish Hipster write-up on the El Viaje menu, the year-long menu directly preceding this, planned together with Massimo Bottura of Osteria Francescana.

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The side alley in Miraflores

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Voyeurism

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To the right, the waiting area

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Dining room

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The kitchen, helmed by Diego Muñoz.

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We arrived early, by Latin American standards. (8pm, most guests started filling the room at 9pm)

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Cholopolitan

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Cono de Mango

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Panes

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1994: Foie Gras Times
Apple, grapes, port, chicken foie.

July 14th 1994. French revolution.
The restaurant opens its doors with a sign that said:
Astrid y Gaston Restaurant.
Haute cuisine.

It was time for morels,
and foie gras.
They were different times.

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1995. Tartare Times
Artisan bread, beef tenderloin, bone marrow, smoked yolk, herbs

Astrid leads.
The freshness of her 20 years conquering it all.
The bar, dining room, tables, dishes, like a dance.

Her dance.

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1996. The debut of the Tuna
Tuna, tumbo, oriental salad

Something new starts
to beat in 1996.
The beef, the sole
they couldn’t agitate
the heart as they used to.

Winds of change.
We could feel them come.

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1997. The a lo pobre that wanted to be entrecote
Black beans, sweetbreads, banana

And suddenly, hidden between goose
and grapes, the tacu tacu made its entrance

Fearful, confused.
not knowing if he would stay.

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*meeeeep~~*

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1998. Duck tasting
Cured, rillettes, confit

We were always taught
that the kingdom of the duck
was in France.

No-one told us his place
was also among the Mochica.

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1999. Ingredients get an ID
Free range egg, “Huacho” sausage, quinoa, and asparagus.

Mother earth. Land of the water, the sun, the wind and fire.
Together they transform the products.

They create life.

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2000. Down to Chile
Sole menieur, hazelnuts.

We were ignorant
of so many things.

We could only feel.
We felt we could share our dream.

That we were at last ready.

2014-01-04 23.35.11 2014-01-04 23.38.302001. A voyage across the World
Shrimp melcocha

Like our own love story,
Peru and France finally transformed into a single plate.

It was time to fly, to discover, to dream.

2014-01-04 23.47.48 2014-01-04 23.54.30 2014-01-04 23.54.362002. Preparing the Land
“Chupe” rice, corn and lobster

One never knows why things occur.
They just do.

Ideas align, words lose meaning,
everything falls into shape.

Everything finds its purpose.

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2003. Revelation
Causa de pallares, paiche, “charapita” chilli.

But something was missing.
Something deep, meaningful,
irreplaceable.

A voyage across
the Peruvian territory.

Drink from its past,

feel its present,

visions of the future.

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“Playboy for the hormonal New World crew”

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2004. Culinary adventure
Pulpo al cilindro

And the adventure started.
Ancient faces,
ancient people,
nothing was left out.

The peace of knowing
that in the kitchen
there are no hierarchies

2014-01-05 00.26.032005. Peru as doctrine: 500 years of fusion
Chifa style fish

To discover oneself.
Take off our masks
and feel the joy
of belonging to a place and time.

The joy of being free.

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2006. From Peru to the World
Street food ceviche

And with freedom comes trust,
dreams, forwardness.

Free we could conquer hearts, fearless,
without the heavy fear
of the dark alley.

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Finished.

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2014-01-05 00.50.58

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2007. Peruvian cuisine, a movement.
Goat, watercress and roasted onions

Fear, vanity,
disbelief were left behind.

By ourselves are no-one,
together we are heaven.

We were cooks,
we became a movement.

2014-01-05 00.59.41“Shadowplay”

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2008. Mistura
Peking cuy

How to build a bridge
between the countryside
and the city?

Between kitchen and tables?

How to celebrate together?

Mistura.

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2009. Pachacutec: The dreams of the youth
Suckling pig, sweet potatoes and Andean herbs.

The kitchen can become a window for our dreams.
We just have to open it.

2014-01-05 01.18.13 2014-01-05 01.19.20 2014-01-05 01.20.08 2014-01-05 01.19.292010. Peruvian cuisine as the Ambassadors of our country
Suspiro loco

The voice of Peru sounds different.
In its tone we do not find violence nor fear.
Her new voice provokes, seduces, agitates.

2014-01-05 01.24.36

2011. A new challenge with new blood
Chirimoya Alegre

It has been a long journey since
Behind we are held by an army of youth,
firm and steady march.

It is their time.

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2012. Story Telling
Sensitive sphere

Experience and youth, savour the future.

To tell stories.

Through our kitchens, stories are born.

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2013. The farewell
Beso de Camu Camu,
Sable salado
mango vainilla,
Formula 44
Sol y Somba

Cafe finca “Tasta”
de Edith Meza Sagarvinaga
Satipo Junín

The end of a lifetime.
20 years of love and battle.

A new life and home await for us.

So much to be thankful for.
So much to give back.

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End

Asta | Boston, MA | Feb ’14 | “two highlights, both desserts”

18 Mar
  • Address: 47 Massachusetts Ave, Boston, MA 02115
  • Phone: (617) 585-9575
  • Rating: 15/20
  • Price (after tax + tip, excl. drinks): $110
  • Courses: (8 main/10 total) 1 amuse / 6 savory / 2 dessert / 1 mignardise
  • Price/Main Course: $14
  • Rating: 15/20
  • Value: 3/5
  • Dining Time: 137 minutes
  • Time/Course (total): 14 minutes
  • Chef: Alexander Crabb (ex. L’Espalier, noma)
  • Style: Ingredients-Driven
  • Memory: Carrot+Coconut

I had a recent 8-course tasting at Asta  (crowned Best New Restaurant of 2013 in Boston by Boston Magazine), and I’ve spent some time mulling over what kind of rating Asta should get.

  • One of the dishes I strongly suspected was using inferior quality produce: truffles which had a texture of cardboard, and a volatile chemical smell. On top of that, the dish did not seem well-conceived to me at all – featuring apples and roasted celeriac, but with no umami or salting.
  • Some dishes seemed minimalist for no reason than was the trend – the ingredients (salt cod; warm oyster) did not speak with any degree of clarity. When Alain Passard does minimalism, that is because his ingredients are a joy to behold and taste. Here it seemed done simply because it is the vogue.
  • No main savory dish stood out, except for little technical details, like the crispy skin on dry-aged duck. Somehow there was an unbalanced sense of composition about the main savory dishes. This could be due to a harmful adherence to minimalism for its own sake, for example a beef heart dish that could have been much better with a jus/third-ingredient-sauce. Also very likely, a zest for experimentation, leaving each dish behind before it has been perfected.

But the plus points:

  • A truly memorable carrot juice and coconut foam dessert. Sublime in ingredient pairing and conception.
  • A very good cream-puff dessert based around black sesame.
  • Hints of inspired pairing for the mains (beef heart and beets)

I was hovering between a 14/20 and a 15/20 for Asta, but I think it should receive the benefit of the doubt by virtue of being a young restaurant. There are glimpses of Chef Crabb’s ingredient pairing talent, but his attention is divided between a constantly rotating 3, 5, and 8 course menu, all of which share no overlap. If Asta streamlines the menu options into two menus at most, and focuses on perfecting those dishes, then I can see it becoming better. One thing Asta must do though, is not to serve questionable ingredients: at this price point inferior ingredients are unacceptable.

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Chef Alex Crabb

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8-course menu

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Amuse: Lardo with herbs (3.25/5)

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1. warm oyster: turnip, salted radish (3.25/5)

bland.

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2. salt cod (3.75/5)

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3. beef heart: beets (4/5)

A strong concentrated taste of heart muscle, with sour citrusy beet sauce and beet cubes. Almost a great pairing with the sour beet sauce, but let down by enforced minimalism. Beef heart was dry. Served with chips.

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4. celery root: black truffle (2/5)

Served with apple, and apple+black truffle puree. A befuddling dish. The celeriac had very little salting, and little umami – eating it was like eating a huge wedge of starchy stuff, or the tasteless starchy danggui in a long-broiled Chinese herbal soup. To add insult to injury, the black truffles were cardboard-y. A let down.

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5. duck breast: fermented rutabaga (4.5/5)

Air-dried for 7 days with a fan to reduce moisture, and then cooked on a plancha to achieve a great crispy skin texture. Like Chinese roasted pork. Great meat, though the merits were the duck’s alone.

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6. sunchoke: black trumpets (4/5)

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7. carrot & coconut (5/5)

An inspired pairing. Coconut milk and cream is made into foam, and sits on top of a bowl of carrot soup with a bit of ginger. Sprinkled on top is toasted coconut. Refreshing, and decadent at the same time.

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8. cream puff: black sesame, smoked maple (4.75/5)

A black sesame cream puff on the outside, with black sesame cream, and smoked maple syrup drizzled on top. A dish celebrating black sesame that was really well-executed.

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Mignardises: rabbits and buttered popcorn

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5-course menu pictures

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1. cauliflower: bottarga, anchovy

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2. monk fish: roasted brussel sprouts, bacon broth

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3. braised celery: black garlic gnocchi, chicken skin

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4. lamb: hearty winter leaves, chestnut

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5. black cocoa pavlova: passion fruit, olive oil

Malabar | Lima, Peru | Jan ’14 | “Amazonian”

18 Mar
  • Address: Av Camino Real 110, San Isidro 15073, Peru
  • Phone: +51 1 4405200
  • Price (after tax + tip, excl. drinks): $140
  • Courses: (10 main/ 13 total): 1 amuse/1 bread/8 savory/ 2 desserts/ 1 mignardise.
  • Price/Main Course:  $14
  • Rating: 13.5/20
  • Value: 1/5
  • Dining Time: 97 minutes
  • Time/Course (total): 11 minutes
  • Chef: Pedro Miguel Schiaffano
  • Style: Peruvian / Amazonian

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2014-01-06 14.20.52

Malabar is a bit different from 3 other renowned restaurants I visited in Lima (Astrid y Gastón, Maido, and Central). Strangely, none of the waitstaff speak English, so it was off to the races with my halting Spanish to comprehend the dish explanations. One can only imagine that this is a deliberate choice on the part of chef-owner Pedro Miguel Schiaffino, since during my lunch at Amaz (his more casual twist on the Amazonian concept, located in the upmarket Miraflores district) two days earlier, there were plenty of waitstaff who could speak English.

Another difference about Malabar was that it was the only one of the four in the San Isidro financial district, about 5km away from the Miraflores district.

While Malabar’s food was pleasant enough, I have to confess that reflecting on the meal 2 months later, no tastes really stick with me. It was nicely plated, but no one dish grabbed the stomach or made me remember the food besides that it was quite pleasant. Having had no immersion at all in this cuisine and its ingredients, I was running based purely on taste and smell. If one could eat with one’s eyes, this would be great cuisine. I have faith that the ingredients sourced here from the Amazon (which Chef Schiaffano leads a vanguard) are all very rare, but the concept of this restaurant seems to be first a showcase parade of unfamiliar ingredients brought into elegant visual forms, presented to the diner experimentally, to see which Amazonian ingredients are a hit with gourmands. I ended up appreciating Schiaffano’s gastronomic project to support conserving the Amazon ecosystem and culture, much more than the direct gastronomic results themselves.

For a better version of this type of Peruvian terroir cuisine, I would recommend Central over Malabar, which had at least 3 very memorable dishes.

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Menu

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————

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‘Mugaritz-style’ stone potatoes.

This is a very labour-intensive carnival piece. Each potato is baked with flour water brushed on top, 3-4 times each to get the desired stoney effect. For pure whimsy this dish was a home-run. This dish is the infamous stone potato of Mugaritz restaurant in Spain. – my Tapas Molecular Bar write-up.

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Pisco Sour

Malabar is known for its Pisco cocktails. This was a great afternoon drink. The most memorable part of the meal for me.

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Bread

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Queso de castaña: Flores de jengibre, tomates confitados y congonilla (4.25/5)

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Taidai de pescado con jugo de tumbo, mastuerzos y tobiko (4/5)

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Yuca: Mojo de naranja agria, fariña, tapioca y masato (4.25/5)

[Cassava: Mojo sour orange, farina, tapioca and masato ]

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Huatia de papa: Papa cocida en su tierra, charqui de alpaca y quinua negra (4/5)

[Huatia Potato: Potato, their land, jerky alpaca and black quinoa]

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Octopus, Pepper, Seaweed (4.5/5)

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Paiche en aji negro: Habitas regionales guisadas y maduros (3.75/5)

2014-01-06 15.31.57 2014-01-06 15.42.02

Escolar en adobo: Cebollas de trenza y camotes crujientes (4.75/5)

The most remembered dish of that lunch – a spicy sambal-like covering around the escolar fish. I feel it is a bit facetious to serve the escolar in such meagre portions, but such is the tyranny of the tasting menu – would it not have been better served in a large portion, family-style? (I’m going off my experience with sambal stingray in Singapore, best served in hearty portions).

2014-01-06 15.42.06

2014-01-06 15.48.15

Puca picante de costillar de res (4.5/5)

Tasty and pliable to the knife.

2014-01-06 15.48.51 2014-01-06 15.58.08

Chirimoya, plátanos manzanos y yogurt orgánico (4/5)

2014-01-06 15.58.402014-01-06 15.58.222014-01-06 16.04.09

Cacao: chocolates nacionales (4.5/5)

2014-01-06 16.04.14 2014-01-06 16.10.27

Dulcecitos

2014-01-06 16.10.34 2014-01-06 16.10.42

A spicy sweet.

birch | Providence | Winter Season ’13-’14

11 Mar
  • Address: 200 Washington St, Providence, RI 02903
  • Telephone: (401) 272-3105
  • Price (after tax + tip, excl. drinks): $65
  • Courses: (4 main/6 total) 1 amuse / 3 savory / 1 dessert / 1 mignardise
  • Price/Main Course: $16
  • Rating: 17/20
  • Value: 5/5
  • Average Dining Time: 90-120 minutes
  • Time/Course (total): 15-20 minutes
  • Chef: Benjamin Sukle (ex: La Laiterie, The Dorrance)
  • In Own Words: “We don’t do massive plates. We don’t do massive starches. We don’t do anything like that. It’s very vegetable-forward, it’s very clean, it’s very healthy in some aspects.” [1]
  • Style: New Naturalist (*)
  • Notable: High quality cocktail list (The Dorrance alumni); focus on Rhode Island ingredients; subtle use of microherbs

Previous write-ups from me:

  1. Summer dishes @ birch
  2. Fall dishes @ birch
  3. Guest chef Erik Anderson (ex. The Catbird Seat) @ birch

birch has really made senior year at Brown a treat. Located about 20 minutes by foot from campus, it’s my default go-to for fresh and inventive New Naturalist cooking. The following is a compilation of my last 3 visits in winter season at birch , now we’re finally at the end of it! (It has been a long and bitter winter in the Northeast.) Here are some thoughts on their winter menu offerings:

____________

Winter #1 (early December 2013)

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Spaghetti Squash: Enoki Mushroom, Marjoram, Pumpkin Seeds, Sour Cream (4.75/5)

Spaghetti squash here made to live up to the heartiness of its namesake spaghetti, richly coated with cream, with crisp enoki mushrooms on top. Counterpoint a herby marjoram. Hearty.

2013-12-13 19.43.52

Warm Red Beets

2013-12-13 19.44.00 2013-12-13 19.44.20 2013-12-13 19.45.01

Crispy Heirloom Potatoes: Preserved Green Tomato, Egg, Potato-Miso Cream (5/5)

(Vegetable ash on top) Another great dish, the egg binding together the roasted potatoes underneath a head of miso cream. Green tomato provides the tart notes.

2013-12-13 20.10.08

Rhode Island Chicken: Brussel Sprouts, Pumpkin, Chervil and Quince (3.5/5)

A chicken confit with brussel sprouts and quince. Was not a big fan of this, wasn’t sure what the brussel sprouts added. This has been a mainstay of the menu since December though, so I’m may be in the minority.

2013-12-13 20.23.49

Chocolate with Rhubarb

Refreshing.

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Warm Apples: Caramel Custard, Malt Cookie, Bourbon (5/5)

Brilliant. The malt cookie shields the warm apples, doused in caramel custard, underneath the apple ice from the sog. Originally a descendant of a dish from the Catbird Seat dinner. Unfortunately not on the menu right now.

2013-12-13 20.34.04

Sweet Grain Cereal

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White chocolate and quinoa

____________

Winter #2 (late January 2014)

2014-01-30 21.20.06

Cornmeal Hush Puppy

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Rhode Island Beef Tartare: Wrapped in Cape White Turnip with Crispy Rye, Chives and Ramp Capers (4.75/5)

A descendant of one of the dishes from the Catbird Seat guest dinner, I think. Flat beef slices rolled in a turnip shell, and finished off with a sauce of jus and sherry vinegar.

2014-01-30 22.00.30 2014-01-30 22.01.15

Rhode Island Suckling Pork

As great as ever, with a sweet sunchoke mash this time around.

2014-01-30 22.20.45 2014-01-30 22.21.08

Lemon: Maraschino Cranberries, White Chocolate, Poundcake and Picotta (5/5)

Great lemon flavor throughout this dessert. Burnt-lemon-flavored meringues, lemon poundcake, shaved white chocolate and sour cranberries. The scent of lemon, and the sweetness of the white chocolate + lemon poundcake cut by tart cranberries.

2014-01-30 22.42.28

Whoopie Pie

____________

Winter #3 (early March 2014)

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Warm Butternut Squash: Melted Leeks, Pumpkin Seeds, Marjoram and a Brown-Butter Shellfish Bouillon (4/5)

Squash is now mashed and for textural contrast, artichoke slices and pumpkin seeds are added. Marjoram seems to be a favored pairing with squash, and a rich third leg – earlier in winter it was cream sauce, but now a brown-butter bouillon. A hearty broth.

2014-03-03 20.03.46

Roasted Carrots

2014-03-03 20.21.23 2014-03-03 20.23.53

Rhode Island Lamb: Roasted Celeriac, Creamed Chicories and Nasturtium (4.5/5)

Descendant of the pork dish, which went out of season, the roasting brought out the sweetness of the celery root (tasting something like wolfsberry crossed with the earthiness of danggui (angelica sinensis)), and the roasting of nasturtium gave it a crunch not unlike kale chips. Flavorfully roasted slices of lamb shoulder.

2014-03-03 20.34.41 2014-03-03 20.34.50 2014-03-03 20.34.59 2014-03-03 20.40.02

Lemon

2014-03-03 20.51.55

Whoopie Pie

____________

(*) – A note on style: I think I’ve been hopelessly confused about what I mean by New Naturalism in the past. I’ve used the term to denote restaurants like Borago and atera, in the style of noma and In De Wulf, which feature minimalist plates with tweezered details and foraged ingredients. Those I would now call Foraged Restaurants. There is a distinct style of cuisine by Contra or this restaurant, which I call New Naturalist. Pete Wells calls it “mumblecore cuisine“. This is a unhelpful name. I think a better name for it is “we-mix-it-all-up + soft-pliable-food”. For now I’ll call it New Naturalist. The four criteria are:

  1. 3-4 principal ingredients all mixed up on the plate
  2. vegetable-and-(heirloom)-grain forward
  3. meat as best supporting actor (at best)
  4. a “let-it-fall-where-it-may” plating aesthetic

XOCO in Chicago is ever-green

10 Mar
  • Address: 449 N Clark St, Chicago, IL 60654
  • Telephone: (312) 661-1434
  • Price (after tax + tip): $25
  • Rating: 13.5/20
  • Value: 5/5
  • Average Dining Time: 15-60 minutes
  • Style: Casual Mexican
  • Notable: Great hot chocolate

Every time, I’m in Chicago, I stop by XOCO for some casual Mexican food.

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The wood-grilled pork ahogada sandwich, in an onion-y tomato broth. (4/5)

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The chicharrones, dusted with hot sauce and queso. (4.5/5)

2014-02-27 16.41.13

Finished off with an Aztec hot chocolate. (5/5)

One of the casual places well worth packing into any Chicago itinerary.