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)

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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.

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

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Cacao: chocolates nacionales (4.5/5)

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Dulcecitos

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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.

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Warm Red Beets

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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.

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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.

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Sweet Grain Cereal

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White chocolate and quinoa

____________

Winter #2 (late January 2014)

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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.

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Rhode Island Suckling Pork

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

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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.

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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

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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.

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Lemon

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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.

2014-02-27 16.43.26

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.

Grace | Chicago | Mar ’14 | “herbal baroque”

4 Mar
  • Address: 652 W Randolph St, Chicago, IL 60661
  • Phone:(312) 234-9494
  • Price (after tax + tip, excl. drinks): $241
  • Courses: (9 main/15 total) 1 amuse / 4 bread / 6 savory / 3 dessert / 1 mignardises
  • Price/Main Course: $27
  • Rating: 18.5/20
  • Value: 2/5
  • Dining Time: 133 minutes
  • Time/Course (total): 9 minutes
  • Chef: Curtis Duffy (ex: Charlie Trotter’s, Trio, Alinea, Avenues)
  • In own words: “intricately plated food to be consumed in six bites or fewer — just enough before the palate, mentally, becomes numb to the same flavor.” [1]
  • Style: Avant-garde New American
  • Michelin Stars: 2

2014-03-01 20.18.22

Rating: 18.5/20

I knew almost nothing about Grace when I stepped in. I only knew that in the year that they were open since December 2011, Grace has had a meteoric rise, garnering two Michelin stars immediately. This is the restaurant that Chicago expects to be its newest 3-star Michelin restaurant.

Some people have called it “Chicago’s per se”. I think that is a mistake. The dissimilarities with per se are much more striking than the similarities. Firstly, the plating of food. The plating at per se is a style one might call classical, putting the main ingredients front and centre. The plating style at Grace eschews that to put the ingredients by the side; in two piles; even three dimensionally (see the Alaskan king crab). The plating has more in common with the chaos on view at Schwa. Secondly and more substantially on the flavours, make no mistake – Grace is exciting. Licorice, in particular, played a part in 4-5 dishes across the 18 we tried across both Flora and Fauna menus. It was not uncommon to have up to 15 different ingredients in one dish, as the kitchen strived for a very precise effect. Some touches, with the onion in the perigord truffle custard, were sensational and subtle. This paradox – baroque of taste and minimalist of plate – is what drives Grace forward.

2014-03-01 20.20.49

As a diner, you have a choice between two menus. The Flora and the Fauna menu.  The Fauna has the better mains. The Flora has (slightly) better desserts. Beware though: if you’re accustomed to having meat in some measure on your menus, you will likely be dissatisfied with Flora mains, which are much more intellectual-exercise than delicious-plate (a problem I had with vegetarian Kajitsu in New York as well). Strangely, the Flora menu isn’t vegetarian by default, I guess some animal products still find its way into the sauces. Most people, faced with this conundrum, order different menus across the table, so that everyone can try a bit. All kinds of herbs find their way onto both menus, and many of them hail from Asia. A Indian tamarind named kokum, Vietnamese herbs, bold use of licorice: at times it almost seems as if each dish was constructed around a single herb (USUALLY EMPHASISED WITH ALL CAPS). My overall verdict on the menus: each menu features very strong dishes, but they tend to alternate (the 2nd dish on Fauna, the 5th dish on Flora). There is already a 3-star Michelin menu on the table, if we take the strongest dishes of both Flora and Fauna.  The Fauna menu was the one served to me, and so apologies if my descriptions or recollections of the Flora menu are patchy.

2014-03-01 20.53.53

2014-03-01 20.54.02

Grace’s dining room is a classy muted bronze in colour. No natural light seeps in, except a brightly-lit kitchen sealed it by glass at the very head of the room. It is the open-kitchen concept that is all the rage today. Both of us were seated facing the kitchen, the metaphor of dining as theatre made explicit. Grace certainly has all the trappings and food to merit a 3-star rating (if the best of both menus are combined). I would be surprised if it doesn’t make it within a couple of years.

Notable Links:

Curtis’ cooking was the sort of intricately plated food to be consumed in six bites or fewer — just enough before the palate, mentally, becomes numb to the same flavor. “You want diners to say, ‘I wish I had one more piece of Wagyu beef, one more piece of salmon,” Curtis said. “You want them to not have just enough of a dish; you want them to crave for one more bite.”

So the plateware, Curtis decided, should act as more than serving vessels and actually enhance the taste of a dish, even if just in the mind. A chestnut puree’s creamy texture might be accentuated, he reasoned, if it was served in a bowl with no edges. He ordered curved bowls from France that resembled overinflated inner tubes.

2014-03-01 23.06.04

____________

What we had:

  1. Amuse: “Log of Delights”
  2. Fauna #1: Chawanmushi: osetra caviar, yuzu, PURPLE SHISO
  3. Flora #1: Salsify: golden char roe, apple, OXALIS
  4. Fauna #2: Alaskan King Crab: kalamansi, cucumber, LEMON BALM
  5. Flora #2: Winter Vegetables: huckleberry, amaranth, TARRAGON
  6. Bread #1
  7. Fauna #3: Scallop: tamarind, smoke, FLAVORS OF LICORICE
  8. Flora #3: Beet: black garlic, apple, RED RIBBON SORREL
  9. Bread #2
  10. Fauna #4: Duck: sunflower, cranberry, MARJORAM
  11. Flora #4: Sweet Potato: picholine, grapefruit, YARROW
  12. Bread #3
  13. Fauna #5: Sweetbreads: ten grains, caperberry, SAGE
  14. Flora #5: Perigord Truffle: crème caramel, sherry, CHIVE
  15. Bread #4
  16. Fauna #6: Miyazaki Beef: romaine, peanut, VIETNAMESE HERBS
  17. Flora #6: Swiss Chard: red wine, elephant garlic, CHERVIL
  18. Fauna #7: Raspberry: lychee, kokum, NASTURTIUM
  19. Flora #7: Buddha’s Hand: passionfruit, brown butter, LEMON BALM
  20. Fauna #8: Pear: black sugar, licorice, LEMON VERBENA
  21. Flora #8: Medjool Date: chartreuse, honey, CELERY
  22. Fauna #9: Chocolate: pineapple, hazelnut, BANANA MINT
  23. Flora #9: Young Coconut: fennel, pistachio, BRONZE FENNEL
  24. Birthday Cake
  25. Mignardises

____________

2014-03-01 20.55.20 2014-03-01 20.55.292014-03-01 20.56.58 2014-03-01 20.58.29 2014-03-01 20.58.55

Amuse: “Log of Delights”

Quinoa chips, a lemon cup of intensely-lemon-scented(incl. zest and all) cold risotto, candied pineapple, ham with the slight taste of ginseng.

2014-03-01 21.01.15

Fauna #1: Chawanmushi: osetra caviar, yuzu, PURPLE SHISO (4/5)

Chewy “bubble tea” balls in a ham-flavored chawanmushi, with puffed rice, a sprig of seagrapes. Osetra caviar at the center.

2014-03-01 21.01.58

Flora #1: Salsify: golden char roe, apple, OXALIS (4.25/5)

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Fauna #2: Alaskan King Crab: kalamansi, cucumber, LEMON BALM (5/5)

A tremendous dish. This dish alone was worth the entrance fee. King crab and small cubes of cucumber sit at the bottom of the bowl, with calamansi (a particularly tangy and acidic Southeast Asian lime) juice surrounding. A neutral sugar glass holds up the upper deck of ingredients, the including trout roe. To begin the dish, I smashed the upper deck into the lower deck with a spoon. It was all you could have asked from a dish, in both taste and effect. In the effects department: it had 3-dimensionality, interactivity (diner plays the chef), and time-sensitivity. In the taste department, the meaty flavor of king crab was contrasted the small neutral refreshing taste of cucumber, and the sourness of the lime, transformed by the dissolving sugar glass into a dessert-like thin calamansi sauce. The sugar glass was just the right thickness, not too sharp and easily dissolved in the mouth. This dish will haunt my dreams for a long time.

2014-03-01 21.15.46

Flora #2: Winter Vegetables: huckleberry, amaranth, TARRAGON (3.25/5)

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Bread #1: Whole Wheat Croissant, Herbed Butter and Butter

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Fauna #3: Scallop: tamarind, smoke, FLAVORS OF LICORICE (4.5/5)

A whole Maine scallop from Desert Island, with licorice and anise hyssop purees. A coconut custard by the side.

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Flora #3: Beet: black garlic, apple, RED RIBBON SORREL (3.75/5)

2014-03-01 21.37.26

Bread #2: Red Onion and Black Olive Waffle

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Fauna #4: Duck: sunflower, cranberry, MARJORAM (4.75/5)

A duck confit tortellini, with cranberry and an intensely flavored duck-consomme. This was a very complex dish, and everywhere I scooped with my spoon there was new bit of sweet solid stuff which I could not place. Tastes of lemongrass permeated the dish.

2014-03-01 21.39.34

Flora #4: Sweet Potato: picholine, grapefruit, YARROW (3.5/5)

2014-03-01 21.50.43

Bread #3: Rye baguette with sprinkled rye berries

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Fauna #5: Sweetbreads: ten grains, caperberry, SAGE (4.5/5)

Perfectly fried sweetbreads, resting in a pile of multigrain, in a rich jus.

2014-03-01 21.53.23

Flora #5: Perigord Truffle: crème caramel, sherry, CHIVE (5/5)

Another amazing dish of the night. Shaved truffle – still retaining all its crunch unlike some that can taste like cardboard – is put on top of a custard that has the taste of sherry, with caramelised chipolini onions. Little slices of brik (Turkish dough) scattered on top provide textural contrast. Superb. Decadent. Sherry, custard, and the texture of fresh truffle. Divine.

2014-03-01 22.05.29

Bread #4: Pretzel with black lava salt from Hawaii

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Fauna #6: Miyazaki Beef: romaine, peanut, VIETNAMESE HERBS (5/5)

The discovery of Miyazaki” is how this dish was described to me. Miyazaki is perhaps the best beef in Japan, and the highest grade of wagyu. A slice of cured dreamy Miyazaki beef on top of a rice cracker, perfectly rare-cooked Miyazaki beef. Tender and full of fat. With something like fermented turnip undearneath, and various fresh, taut, Vietnamese herbs that evoked some of the street food I had in Saigon. It was paired with a cup of tom yum broth. This had some of the best elements of Southeast Asian cooking: the Indochinese rice cracker, the Vietnamese herbs, the peanuts and tom yum evoking Thailand. Tremendous.

I ate my Miyazaki beef using my rice cracker as a taco. Possibly the most expensive taco I’ve had to date.

2014-03-01 22.09.44

Sorry for the blurriness!

Flora #6: Swiss Chard: red wine, elephant garlic, CHERVIL (3.75/5)

2014-03-01 22.23.21

Fauna #7: Raspberry: lychee, kokum, NASTURTIUM (4.5/5)

A dessert building on the Ispahan-esque base (also see, Restaurant Andre’s version) – raspberry, lychee, strawberry substituting for rose. Strawberry sorbet, dehydrated raspberries, dehydrated lychee. The 4th and 5th wheels were a cylinder of earl grey (one of the trendy tastes in Chicago – I had it all three nights in a row at Schwa + Alinea + Grace) and kokum puree, from an Indian tamarind.

2014-03-01 22.23.01

Flora #7: Buddha’s Hand: passionfruit, brown butter, LEMON BALM (4.5/5)

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Fauna #8: Pear: black sugar, licorice, LEMON VERBENA (4.5/5)

Another good dessert. A dome of (white chocolate?) covers licorice-tinged financiers, and Asian pear ice-cream. The licorice here was a star player, cutting through just pear and butter, and elevating the financiers.

2014-03-01 22.32.32

Flora #8: Medjool Date: chartreuse, honey, CELERY (3.75/5)

I found this a bit one-dimensional, with the starchy sweetness of medjool date overpowering the other ingredients.

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Fauna #9: Chocolate: pineapple, hazelnut, BANANA MINT (4.25/5)

A rooibos-infused goats-milk, strong tasting, into a traditional preparation of chocolate-hazelnut and pineapple.

2014-03-01 22.44.39

Flora #9: Young Coconut: fennel, pistachio, BRONZE FENNEL (5/5)

Amazing, I remember – a cylinder of young coconut pairing with a tart cherry. A cylinder of coconut meringue and pistachio gelato were good, but all it needed was that sensational squiggle of coconut with a tart cherry.

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Birthday Cake

Chocolate ganache, with passionfruit. Mmm.

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Mignardises

Bonbons and apple “tartlets”.

____________

Memory: Alaskan King Crab; Perigord Truffle Creme Caramel; Miyazaki Beef; Young Coconut

Alinea | Chicago | Feb ’14 | “pack in the plebs”

1 Mar
  • Address: 1723 N Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60614
  • Phone:(312) 867-0110
  • Price (after tax + tip, excl. drinks): $340
  • Courses: (13 main/13 total) 10 savory / 3 dessert
  • Price/Main Course: $31
  • Rating: 16.5/20
  • Value: 1/5
  • Dining Time: 138 minutes
  • Time/Course (total): 10.5 minutes
  • Chef: Mike Bagale
  • Style: molecular
  • Michelin Stars: 3
  • Notable: Widely considered the best restaurant in America from around 2007-2011

2014-02-28 23.25.21

I had waited for two years to dine at Alinea. In 2012 I was denied the opportunity when Alinea suspended taking reservations for two months while they got their new ticketing system set up. In 2013, I had set-up a virtual assistant to watch over Alinea cancellations for the one Wednesday I was back in Chicago (I did my math, about 75% of the time, a Wednesday 2-top or 4-top would be released), but it didn’t happen.

But for my birthday, I managed to snag a 2-top for Friday way in advance. But perhaps I shouldn’t have bothered. What a disappointment. Firstly, the legendary meals lasting 4 hours, with 23 course extravaganzas are long over. Alinea’s hey-day, it seems from browsing food posts on Chowhound and blogs, was 2005-2011. Alinea has streamlined down to 13 courses. (14 if you count the birthday surprise). But a by-product is that meals last about 2 hours, maybe 2.5 hours tops. Considering that I had been royally entertained at Schwa for 3.5 hours the night before at half the cost of Alinea’s top-of-the-line price ($340 per pax), I felt I was just one more diner in a conveyor belt fine-dining experience. You come, and for two hours, are mildly entertained by a parade of Harry Potter dishes. Then you leave and another couple comes take your place. Encapsulating what I felt was the scene before me. A couple from Pittsburgh (Alinea neophytes, like me) had flown in, and taken the wine pairing (probably at 530pm). They were out by 730pm making gushing noises, and at 8pm another identical couple (Alinea neophytes, once again), had flown in, and taken their place at the same table. Quelle horreur! The thought occurred to me: what if this table was turned over three times a night, with 3 identikit mid-30s couples taking their seats again and again? Was this the theatre of the absurd, the Myth of Sisyphus incarnate? Certainly our servers, in serving the same tricks to the four occupied tables on the first floor, seemed to be afflicted by a peculiar type of whimsy without fun.

Secondly, the tables are too close together, strengthening the nagging suspicion that Alinea is now in the pack-in-the-plebs stage of its existence. It doesn’t matter when there’s loud music like Schwa, but in a hushed gastronomic temple vibe like Alinea, the tables can be too uncomfortably close for conversation. (It reminded me of another bad offender, Restaurant Andre in Singapore.) It didn’t afflict our table, but that’s because we were fairly experienced diners – but Alinea has a duty to its neophyte diners too. The two tables to my left were clearly special occasion tables, and they were uncomfortable with the table distance for their whole two hours, and spoke in hushed whispers. I felt for them – more personal space should have been given.

Thirdly, and most importantly, the flavours were too safe. Peruvian food is fine, but if I wanted to eat straight up Peruvian I would go to a Peruvian restaurant. Duck with 60 pairings? I once made the terrible mistake in Prague of seasoning my own steak tartare, which came out a tasteless mingy meat-mash, instead of being a delicious glob of myoglobin. From that fiasco, I learnt that the genius of the chef is in his proportioning the dish just right. So proportioning the seasonings to my own duck came across to me as a gimmick. A orange-sweetbread in the style of Panda Express was simply awful. Deconstructed Indian food remained deconstructed and never came together. The highs were a rambutan and finger-lime (what is it with finger-limes and Chicago? I’ve had them twice in a row, and nowhere else) jelly dish, and the signature hot potato cold potato. But they were few and far between. I came to Alinea because I heard that Grant Achatz was that rarest of chefs, someone who combined the molecular wizardry of Harry Potter food, with a sensitive understanding of flavor combinations. But rare glimpses aside (the rambutan dish), the tastes were big and one-dimensional, rarely emphasising interplay of two or god-forbid, three ingredients. In short, it felt like I was served merely Harry Potter food.

If Alinea continues turning out meals of this quality, it is hard to see how it can maintain three Michelin stars on merit for much longer.

____________

2014-02-28 21.12.20

CHAR ROE: banana, ginger, passion fruit (3.5/5)

Banana cream and passionfruit foam, with roe of char (similar to “ikura”, except ikura is roe of salmon). This was okay, primarily distinguished for the rocking bowl it was served in that thwarted a good picture of it for about 15 seconds.

2014-02-28 21.17.37 2014-02-28 21.17.44 2014-02-28 21.19.05

SCALLOP: citrus aroma, thirteen textures (3.5/5)

Yuzu, lemon grass and lemon verbena formed the hazy citrus aroma. A very pretty pot and clam shell hid a carbonated ceviche sauce, with Maine diver scallop, and some onions. It was all told, simply Peruvian ceviche with Maine scallop. Not unpleasant, but unspectacular in substance. Maine scallop was more to be applauded for its bare fact of existence on our plates (this year’s Maine scallop catch has been low and some areas have prematurely ended their season by imposing moratoriums) than its taste, which lacked the sweetness of scallops I had recently in Momofuku Ko and Peru’s Maido and tasted more meaty than anything.
2014-02-28 21.26.40

LOBSTER: curry, earl grey, grapefruit (3.5/5)

From Peru to India. A cumin and puffed rice ball; dehydrated yoghurt; curry and carrot puree sauces; grapefruit “caviar”. I, who sang the praises of Schwa the night before in tripling-up lobster, citrus and earl grey, am puzzled by the appearance of earl grey on the menu. I did not taste any earl grey anywhere. Anyway, the deconstructed Indian food dish never came together. I dislike deconstructed dishes which do not in some way proportion the food. Was I meant to mix it all up? But it was too big and there were so many ingredients. Was I to bite each ingredient individually? But where is the harmony?…

2014-02-28 21.26.09

A precursor to a future dish was also set down in front of us.

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EBI: celtuce, caramelized miso, yuzu (3.75/5)

Most memorable for the clean taste of celtuce cubes (something like braised kai-lan, for Southeast Asian readers). Again, pleasant without being mindblowing. The precursor to the next dish was set on fire.

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WAGYU: parsnip, black trumpet, kombu (4.25/5)

A5 wagyu is the highest grade of wagyu obtainable in the United States, it was precooked and for visual efffect roasted in a fire, along with roasted parsnip (tastes like carrot with the texture of ginseng) and a black trumpet puree, with a strip of (mushroom?) leather and (parsnip?) cream. This was not bad. The beef was a bit lukewarm, but I can’t complain given the long period where it was sitting in the fire, pretending to cook while actually cooling down.

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LILY BULB: rambutan, distillation of caviar lime (4.75/5)

The first dish which I enjoyed for its sake alone, this was a palate cleansing dish after the rich wagyu. Slivers of lily bulb (bai he, an occasional ingredient in Cantonese cooking usually used for shrimp or vegetables), with shaved rambutan, and squeezed-out sacs (vesicles) of finger lime, and finger lime jelly, with a distilled syrup of finger lime and ginger. One advantage of using finger-lime, as I understand it, is that its vesicles or “citrus caviar” is easily squeezed out. This dish was vaguely Southeast Asian in provenance, combining the rambutan and lily bulb with the Australian finger lime. Very refreshing.

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SWEETBREADS: orange, ginko nut, mustard (2/5)

“Done in the style of Panda Express” said my server. I would not consider that a compliment. Sweetbreads, fried in the style of Sino-American “orange chicken” (cornstarch, flour, egg), is sat in an orange sauce, with a gingko nut and carrot sauce around the plate. This was uncannily similar to Chinese take-out food. Perhaps this was the intention, but I came to Alinea specifically to eat something unique, not take-out Chinese, and I couldn’t help feeling that a course had been wasted on providing verisimilitude to something I normally take pains to avoid eating. I mean, sure, Alinea can probably make the greatest donner kebab in the world, complete with day-old spit grease, but that doesn’t mean I want to eat a donner kebab at Alinea…

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WOOD EAR: pig ear, allium, black garlic (4/5)

Wood ear, or “mu er” in Chinese is a black fungus that has the texture of jellyfish – very similar to the European fungus jew’s ear. Here it was set with a deep fried pig’s ear (delicious, but can we have more than a single sliver?), and black garlic and onion sauces made savory with parmesan. What was interesting to this Chinese palate was the pig’s ear, which was really expertly fried. At this point of the meal, I sensed a disconnect – perhaps this sort of “world cuisine” could have been mindblowing to someone who had not been eating wood ear and pig’s ear since childhood. Perhaps the novelty of the rambutan dish would have been starker if I wasn’t intimately familiar with all ingredients. The ceviche dish I might have considered top class, if I hadn’t been to Peru the month before, and tried ceviche ten different ways. To this Southeast Asian Chinese diner, Alinea’s Chinese-inspired dishes were solid but not mindblowing. Similarly to a Peruvian traveller, that Peruvian dish would be merely solid.

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HOT POTATO: cold potato, black truffle, butter (4.75/5)

This Alinea signature was luxuriantly rich, a hot sphere of Yukon potato topped with a slice of black truffle and butter and Parmesan cheese, into a cold truffle soup. A pin preserves the temperature of the individual ingredients, before being dropped into the soup. Time-sensitive, and every bit as good as people claim it to be.

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DUCK: ……..?????…………!!!!!!!!!!!!! (4/5)

60 different garnishes for 5 different preparations of duck. I think there was roast, confit, foie gras with a graham cracker base. “Choose your own adventure” with the toppings, the servers advised. As I said above, the genius of the chef is in his proportioning the dish just right. So proportioning the seasonings to my own duck came across to me as a gimmick. All parts were well prepared, but this dish was clearly an effect dish, rather than a tribute to the vision and taste of a single chef.

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PISTACHIO: marscapone, strawberry, black walnut (4.25/5)

A pleasant dish of pistachio gelato, marscapone, lemon gel sphere, Missouri-black-walnut chocolate cake, and dehydrated strawberry marshmallow. Good, solid.

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BALLOON: helium, green apple (5/5)

Hehehe. Finally, an effect dish that is so one-of-a-kind it makes the experience of dining at Alinea worth it! Another Alinea signature – the green apple balloon is filled with Helium and brought to diners anchored to a pin. Diners bring their mouths to the balloon, and gently… kiss it, sucking out the helium and making funny noises. It’s a riot. Also very messy.

Making of Video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cGMCmbLq2qs

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Birthday Course: Chocolate Ball with Creme Anglaise

Happy birthday A+K!

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MILK CHOCOLATE: pâte sucrée, violet, hazelnut (3.25/5)

Another Alinea signature technique: a dessert is plated on a whole table, covered with a silicon mat. A chef plates it in two minutes. The milk chocolate and frozen milk had a bit of a sour tinge that didn’t appeal to me, though the pate sucrees (very similar to kueh bangkit or Bengawan Solo’s nut pastries, for Southeast Asian readers) was the best part of the dish. Notes on visual effects: The squares come from micro-protrusions in the silicon tablecloth, which the violet syrup would settle into a square if it’s the right viscosity. The colour change of certain squares to blue uses a natural pH indicator, the squares of which are added citric acid, I think.

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____________

After I returned, I logged onto Chowhound, and through the mass of reviews, I noticed a trend among the sentiments of repeat Alinea diners in the last year: they too concurred that Alinea had been losing a bit of its sparkle:

Sadly you might have noticed a trend there. My first four Alinea dinners remain among my several meals ever but recently I had a fairly disappointing experience. My meal lasted barely over two hours (prior meals were nearly four), service not as attentive or friendly as with prior visits. Also some amateur mistakes were made, such as we were twice asked if we needed a cab, both times said “no” and as we were leaving were informed our cab was waiting (not something you expect from a three Michelin star venue regarded as one of the world’s best). While some of the courses were memorable and phenomenal (loved the scallop course and the corn dessert) and a couple other quite good, a majority of the menu was no different (or only tweaked) from my last visit nearly a year back (and a few unchanged from my first meal there – including a rather boring, uninspired ginger course that is fine once but weak as a repeat and ridiculous the fifth time).

Chef Achatz has been spending less time in house (turning a lot of the creative and executive duties to Chef Bagale), they lost some wonderful front of house staff and Achatz/Kokonas seem as though they have placed expansion of their brand and maximizing profits ahead of customer satisfaction and trying to continue having Alinea evolve and improve. To an extent they seem to be coasting on their reputation and past success (which can only carry you for so long). While I hope this is just a hiccup in Alinea’s lifespan and Achatz and company rise to the challenge and opt to make another push towards Alinea becoming the world’s best restaurant (they certainly have the talent), unfortunately Alinea may be past her prime and Grace very well could become widely regarded as Chicago’s top venue in the not too distant future.

I found my last dining experience at Alinea to be a very poor value – especially if you have dined there within eighteen months and are expecting a significantly different menu rather than a watered down version of what you previously consumed with a handful of new courses interspersed. Several fine dining venues just in Chicago now have better service (Grace and Boka really shine in this area), most undergo significant menu changes seasonally (Grace, Moto, Boka, El Ideas, Sixteen, Elizabeth for example) and Grace and Goosefoot have IMHO better tasting food (with others such as Moto, El Ideas, Schwa, L2O, Boka and Elizabeth serving nearly as good cuisine). All of these venues are less money (some considerably so) and aside from Elizabeth do not require the hassle of non-refundable tickets (and Elizabeth does have some flexibility with regards to tickets sales if a conflict arises).

Alinea is certainly no longer the United States’ best restaurant and unless improvements are made it is no longer head and shoulders above other top tier venues in Chicago. – user Gonzo70 at http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/928306#8525639

I hope that this ultimately disappointing visit to Alinea is a hiccup, and the Alinea that stood head-over-shoulders over all other restaurants in Chicago will return. Until then, it is doubtful I will revisit any time soon.

Memory: Lily Bulb with Rambutan, Hot Potato Cold Potato, Green Apple Balloon

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