Archive | May, 2014

Benu | San Francisco, CA | Apr ’14 | “saucing”

27 May
  • Address: 22 Hawthorne St, San Francisco, CA 94105
  • Phone: (415) 685-4860
  • Price I paid (after tax + tip, incl. a $16 beer and $25 supplement): $330/ ~$305 without drinks
  • Courses: (20 main/22 total) 18 savory / 1 bread/ 2 dessert / 1 mignardises
  • Price/Main Course: $15
  • Rating: 17.5/20
  • Value: 3/5
  • Dining Time: 160 minutes
  • Time/Course (total): 7 minutes
  • Chef: Corey Lee (ex. chef de cuisine at The French Laundry, Per Se, Daniel, Lespinasse, Guy Savoy, Alain Senderens)
  • In Own Words: “My family used to run through the cheese section of the grocery store,” he says—in flight from the unfamiliar dairy smell. At home, they kept two fridges, one for Korean food and one for American. “It informed how I see my American-ness versus my Korean-ness. There is some separation there. Benu’s food is about how those two can coexist.” – http://www.foodandwine.com/blogs/2013/12/17/corey-lee-wise-chef-of-the-west
  • Style: Asian-fusion
  • Michelin Stars: 2

After London, Lee spent time in the kitchens at Daniel and Lespinasse in New York. “You heard about it—there’s this kid that’s a badass and he’s an awesome cook,” Chang says. “He’s a fighter—a tiny pitbull. Nobody’s going to outwork him, and you’re not going to outthink him, either.”

“His commitment to his career was profound,” says Thomas Keller, who hired Lee to work at the French Laundry in Napa Valley and Per Se in New York City. “It was a rare—that’s an understatement—approach from a man so young, that kind of foresight and ambition and willingness to learn.” Lee was with Keller for nine years. To his physical endurance and mental wherewithal he added finesse, and the confidence to make his cooking personal.

“Thomas Keller was the first chef to do French interpretations of American food,” Lee says. “For him, it was mac and cheese. For me, it might be re-creating flavors from when I was younger, finding a way to refine them. It’s realizing that people can find your own experiences interesting.” – http://www.foodandwine.com/blogs/2013/12/17/corey-lee-wise-chef-of-the-west

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I approached benu knowing that this restaurant would probably have the highest probability for differing opinions. Dining at Atelier Crenn and Saison the previous days, I had heard nothing but the highest praise for Benu. My maitre d’ at Saison had worked at Benu, and my server at Crenn considered Benu and Meadowood to contain the highest potential for a truly great meal. But at the same time I knew most of the Asian dishes benu would riff on, inside and out. There would be little wow-factor for me in terms of novelty. And it turns out that what would wow me, were the superlative sauces.

I confess to having immediately left my meal at Benu slightly underwhelmed, primarily because I felt I had experienced most of the original touchpoints (Nasi Lemak, xiaolongbao, galbi) in Asian restaurants, and I felt that while they were interesting takes on them, they did not go substantially beyond the original dishes. However, with a month’s reflection behind me, I have substantially revised my opinion of Benu. In my mind, I perhaps came in with the wrong expectations, expecting innovation on top of Asian dishes. The dishes (xiaolongbao, galbi) were brought to a high-pitch of quality, and with the relative paucity of top-quality Asian food in the US, it is heartening to see Benu being a standard bearer for Asian-American cooking.

Saucing. While there were cute little visual tricks in the meal, such as the “oyster, pork belly, kimchi” being served in a Chinese take-out box, and a beggar’s purse being served, the star of the show was the sauces, which relied heavily on aging/fermenting and traditionally Asian condiments like gochujang and Shaoxing wine. They were thick, complex, rich. The dishes which really impressed me with taste combinations – “oyster, pork belly, kimchi” a creamy kimchi based sauced, “wild bamboo fungi and shoots, chicken, cabbage” had a really rich chicken broth that would put the watery cabbage dreck most Chinese restaurants serve to shame, “whole baby sea bream” had an amazing tangy tangerine sauce that I ate off the plate, “Okhotsk sea cucumber” had another amazing peppery sauce with gochujang. “Roast quail” had a cognac glaze with lam kok olive that was addictive. Any restaurant to have two or three amazing sauces has already hit a home-run. To have five, seems like carefulness.

At the same time, Benu is a restaurant that is not particularly tied to California. Chef Corey Lee was originally slated to open Benu in NYC, and it really could open anywhere in America. Benu is not Californian in the stereotypical way (in the way of Manresa or Saison) – relying essentially on the quality of its native bounty and farms. What is distinctive about this restaurant is the care put into saucing, and its mission to modernise American conceptions of Asian cooking. Benu seems the state-of-the-art in Asian-American cooking today.

Rating: 17.5/20

Memory: “oyster, pork belly, kimchi”, “wild bamboo fungi and shoots, chicken, cabbage” , “whole baby sea bream”, “Okhotsk sea cucumber”, “roast quail”, “shad roe, bacon, horseradish, spring vegetables”

Notable Links: Andy Hayler and Ruth Reichl were recently in town, and had very similar menus to my own dinner, that the two of them liked different dishes than I did (and liked different dishes from each other) attests that Benu has no real absolute meh-dishes, just dishes that cater differently to the taste of different diners.

*This is a post from the road, with spotty wi-fi and all. It may have more typos than usual, and definitely has less links and details than I would like. Apologies.

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2014-04-25 22.17.19 2014-04-25 22.17.381. thousand-year-old quail egg, potage, ginger (4/5)

    • The century-egg process of harsh alkali, is paired with a neutral potage. This was reminiscent of the century-egg porridge one finds at dim-sum restaurants. What was particularly interesting about this preparation was the choice of quail eggs (higher yolk to white ratio) than chicken or duck eggs. I enjoyed it, but it did not differ much from the standard century-egg porridge recipe elsewhere.

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2. braised abalone with toasted grain jelly (4/5)

    • abalone from Big Island in Hawaii
    • yuzu and barley for toasted grain jelly

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3. oyster, pork belly, kimchi (4.75/5)

    • miyagi oyster, creamy,  and savory. not the main player. oyster gave it a creamy texture
    • Great. A novel combination, take-out box style is paired with oyster and pork belly. A bold flavor of kimchi.

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4. eel, feuille de brick, crème fraîche (4.75/5)

    • creme fraiche with lime salt
    • feuille dough, freshwater eel

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5. anchovy, celery, peanut (3.5/5)

    • caramelised anchovy, celery, peanut
    • Nasi Lemak combination. (anchovy, peanut form the complements to the Singaporean/Malayan dish Nasi Lemak) usually paired with cucumber for freshness – here celery. Ultimately what makes the original Nasi Lemak dish delicious is the creaminess of coconut rice, and the greasiness of fried egg and chicken wings. Therefore I felt it lacked a creamy counterpoint.

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6. homemade sunflower tofu (3.75/5)

    • Made from Sunflower seeds, real sunflower flavor
    • fermented sunflower tofu

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7. xo sausage with basil curd (3.75/5)

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8. beggar’s purse of treasures from the oak (3.5/5)

    • purse made from acorn flour, black truffle, iberico ham, red onion, quail egg yolk inside the beggar’s purse

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9. salt and pepper squid (4/5)

    • squidcracker, with squid meat
    • chilli powder, fried garlic powder, confit squid, pickled serrano chilli
    • good mix of tastes, a two/three-bite dish. rather insubstantial

2014-04-25 23.00.34 2014-04-25 23.02.26 2014-04-25 23.02.53(bread) orange blossom honey/wild ginseng, McClellan farms butter.

    • poured over the butter, for dipping with the bread

2014-04-25 23.04.01 2014-04-25 23.04.2110. wild bamboo fungi and shoots, chicken, cabbage (3.75/5)

    • a Chinese banquet dish, which could have been quite insubstantial – however the richness of the broth saved it from a being a mere bitplayer. the lightness was intentional. usually the light vegetable dish is the one I like least about Chinese banquet menus, because it (usually cabbage) contains neither texture nor has it been braised with meat long enough for it to complement the sweetness of cabbage.

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11. shad roe, bacon, horseradish, spring vegetables (4.5/5)

    • shad roe (which I made bottarga with in April, tossed perfectly with a squeeze of 1/4 lemon, (European) parsley, and al dente spaghetti) has a 3-4 week season every year when the saltwater shad spawns, and can only be found in the colder waters of the Northeast. It was easy to find it in Rhode Island in spring, but I was pleasantly surprised to find the restaurant had imported it from the northeast. What I especially like about shad roe is the size of shad eggs – small enough to have a macro-texture, large-enough to be distinct if you really want to emphasise it (like curing it for bottarga, as I did). The size occupies a happy medium.
    • here you can read a paean to shad roe: http://www.saveur.com/article/Kitchen/Rite-of-Spring-Shad-Roe.

As a meal, it’s terribly sophisticated and satisfying. And it makes me feel part of a legacy of legendary bon vivants: Joseph Mitchell, the midcentury New Yorker’s streetwise columnist, gathering tales of the Fulton Fish Market over an early-morning shad roe omelet at a fishmongers’ hangout. Or Eartha Kitt singing Cole Porter: “Why ask if shad do it? Waiter, bring me shad roe.”

    • here at benu, wrapped in bacon, and grilled. the day I had it was the last day on the menu!
    • bacon added a savory flavor, though the actual presence of bacon was unnecessary, since it had imparted its flavor to the shad roe fully.

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12. pig’s head with lentil hozõn and bõnji (3.75/5)

    • hozon (a miso-paste-analogue applied to non-soy products, namely fermented nuts and grains) and bonji (a soy-sauce-analogue applied to non-soy products) are products dreamt up by the food-entrepreneur David Chang of Momofuku. Benu is I think the only restaurant outside of the Momofuku chain I have encountered these products in. The two (Benu and Momofuku) share a similar commitment to bring bold Asian flavors to an American audience
    • taste of the Chinese sausage lapcheong, with Shaoxing wine, dates, and black peppercorn
    • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hozon
    • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bonji

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13. lobster coral xiao long bao (4.25/5)

    • good, xiao long bao with lobster. sauce = yuzu(?) and banyeuls vinegar

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“five tines a winner”

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14. whole baby sea bream, spring onion, lily bulb, aged tangerine peel (5/5)

    • tai. deboned painstakingly
    • done in a gently steamed style (literally, qingzhen, which means “lightly steamed”). raw radish and raw lily bulb. hard to see how it could have been improved upon.
    • usually chinese sauces aren’t edible by themselves. but this aged tangerine sauce was just restrained enough to be sticky sweet, eat-off-your-plate

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15. Okhotsk sea cucumber stuffed with shrimp, cucumber, perilla, fermented pepper (supplement) (4/5)

    • Okhotsk Sea == off the east coast of Russia, from Sakhalin Island.
    • peppery, good sauce, with gochujang – the sea cucumber itself had a pleasant hard gelatin flavor, but there are limits to how exciting a homogeneous mass of gelatin can be, even with a sea cucumber as excitingly-shaped as this one. (do I use it to comb my hair or what?)
    • but the action was all in the sauce.
    • a savory and pungent fermented Korean condiment made from red chili, glutinous rice, fermented soybeans and salt.” – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gochujang

2014-04-25 23.57.2116. roast quail, lam kok olive, dandelion, walnut, hot mustard (5/5)

    • the apogee of saucing tonight – (quail from Wolf Ranch, Northern California) – with a bitter horseradish, cognac glaze, Michigan cherries and Lam Kok olives. It was earthy, coffee-ish, and reminded me of the champagne pork ribs (sauced with some hard liqueur and coffee) I like at Singapore’s old-school Teochew eating-house Por Kee

2014-04-26 00.10.4917. beef braised in pear juice with oyster plants (3.75/5)

    • shortrib cut, galbi. brisket-like in taste and tasting of harsh low-quality beef. (though I’m sure the kitchen did not skimp, but that was the effect) not a fan of this cut of beef.

2014-04-26 00.20.50 2014-04-26 00.20.56 2014-04-26 00.21.02 2014-04-26 00.21.17 2014-04-26 00.21.2618. “shark’s fin soup”, dungeness crab, Jinhua ham custard (4.25/5)

    • shark’s fin is made from an artificial soy base, the manufacture prompted by Chef Corey Lee’s attempt to incorporate the wavy and pliant but crunchy texture of shark’s fin without using the actual product. the product he came up fulfils the _crunchiness_ of shark’s fin alright, but doesn’t have the pliancy of real shark’s fin. Benu faux-Shark-fin Veracity: 50%
    • the taste profile is similar to the classic Chinese soup “Buddha Jumps over the Wall”, which is characterised by scallop, ham, chicken, abalone and shark’s fin). Here the seafood taste was provided by dungeness crab, and the ham custard gave it the pork flavor.

2014-04-26 00.33.14 2014-04-26 00.33.4219. sake lees sherbet, strawberry, nasturtium (4/5)

    • a play on “strawberries and cream”
    • nasturtium for pepperiness, needed more. taste of nasturtium didn’t come out

2014-04-26 00.46.46 2014-04-26 00.47.1120. fresh and dried yuba, almond, white chocolate (5/5)

    • not bad for texture
    • really profound almond flavor, with white chocolate. The soft form of yuba was a bit unnecessary, but the crisp type of yuba, with almond streussel and almond tuile was a textural delight.

2014-04-26 00.55.23 2014-04-26 00.55.34mignardises.

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Manresa | Los Gatos, CA | Apr ’14 | “the early spring garden”

9 May
  • Address: 320 Village Ln, Los Gatos, CA 95030
  • Phone: (408) 354-4330
  • Price (after tax + tip): $334 (incl. drinks [$20 pre-tax] and cheese supplement [$35 pre-tax]) // ~$250 without
  • Courses: (11 main / 22 total): 5 amuse / 5 bread / 7 savory / 1 cheese / 3 desserts / 1 mignardises
  • Price/Main Course: $30
  • Rating: 18/20
  • Value: 2.5/5
  • Dining Time: 220 minutes
  • Time/Course (total): 10 minutes
  • Chef: David Kinch (ex. Quilted Giraffe, L’Esperance, Akelarre, Sent Sovi); Chef de Cuisine Jessica Largey (ex. Providence (LA))
  • In Own Words: “When we’re young cooks, what we do is we’re always putting one more thing on the plate – “what can we add to this plate?” But the older you get and the more confident you are, and the more you realise that really – what nature gives us is the key to what we do, it’s – “what we can take off the plate?”” – source
  • Style: Vegetable-focused
  • Michelin Stars: 2

 

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The town of Los Gatos, CA is one of the most prosperous communities I have seen in America. Think immaculate bushes, and, tastefully decorated houses. It is among the richest communities in the Bay Area, and America at large. (verified according to this Businessweek report). The town is home to some notable personalities, including the immortality researcher Aubrey de Grey.

In the midst of this wealth stands a restaurant dedicated to vegetables, Manresa, the spiritual counterpart to l’Arpege (Paris) in the United States. Its debt to l’Arpege is clear in many ways. In his cookbook, Chef David Kinch devotes a chapter to Alain Passard’s philosophies; Manresa has an egg dish explicitly named the “Arpege egg”. Indeed my meal would show a similar care and respect for vegetables, (the signature “Into the vegetable garden…”), as well as an impressive duck dish featuring harmonious ingredients colours, reminiscent of the similar colour-coded cooking of some of l’Arpege’s most spectacular dishes, a signature Passard “style”.

In my visit there, I thought the flavor profile was subtle, seeking a quiet harmony. Manresa is not a restaurant that seeks out to shock and awe in every course – a sign of a mature aesthetic. There is something of the Japanese kaiseki philosophy in Chef Kinch’s cooking – trust in the ingredients, restraint. Dishes which I was not sure whether I liked right after eating them, have in the course of remembering them, grown in my estimation.

The cooking wasn’t always this vegetable-forward. My server for the night had been with the restaurant from the start. Conversing with him about the changes he has seen, I found out that about 70-75% of their clientele is regional, from around California, and the remaining 25-30% is national, with internationals still forming quite a rare minority. This is probably due to Los Gatos’s geographical position right in the very end of the Bay, more internationals passing through the further SFO (San Francisco) than SJS (San Jose) – it takes a special effort to head down to Manresa. In the early years Chef Kinch, cooked in a more rustic French style, but that shifted towards his current vegetable forward fare. The transformation of the restaurant towards haute-fare was made complete this year, as now Manresa only serves a $195 tasting menu.

Again, the blogger “Food Snob” has written the canonical post about Chef Kinch’s history, so I won’t re-invent the wheel and direct you to his write-up if you want to find out more about Chef Kinch. An excerpt:

Kinch first hit the national headlines in the summer of 2004, when at the behest of Eric Ripert, he prepared a meal at Le Bernardin for a group of journalists. Ripert had just eaten at the chef’s then newly-opened restaurant and was amazed: ‘that guy is seriously talented. I was like, Son of a *****! He has an incredible, obsessive knowledge of his products and the rare talent to elevate ingredients to their best.’ The assembled guests were stunned and delighted by what he had cooked with the local produce that he had brought with him all the way from the Bay Area.

Since then, inspired by Passard’s biodynamic gardens, Kinch has followed in his footsteps, establishing a partnership with farmer Cynthia Sandberg to create their own potager to produce Manresa’s produce. This search for superior ingredients, in combination with his creativity and talent as a chef, has won him loyal and growing admiration locally and globally. In 2007, he was invited to speak at Pamplona’s I Congresso ‘Vive las Verduras’ and then at the Festival International de la Gastronomie de Mougins the year after. He is currently recognised as a chef on the forefront of gastronomy.

[…]

Kinch believes that ‘there are two characteristics that enable restaurants to transcend the ordinary. First is that someone has a vision…the other is a sense of place – the restaurant couldn’t be anywhere else than where it is.’ He wanted the cooking to reflect who and where he was and to, like Chapel had, ‘create a sense of place’. Thus, sandwiched between the mountains and the ocean (thus bringing to mind the Basque country) and amid some of the richest farmland in the United States, he quickly fell in love with the area’s unique and fruitful terroir. Whilst in Saratoga, the chef had his own herb garden and employed a forager on nearly full-time basis, but after the move to Manresa, he expanded his local supply lines: he buys from (and surfs with) the producers at the much-loved Dirty Girl Farm; sources his cherries, apricots, peaches and nectarines from the nearby Novakovich family; and knows well the retired IBM software developer, Gene Lester, who owns twelve acres filled with hundreds of rare and exotic citrus to which he lets friends help themselves.

Each of these suppliers is important yet secondary. It is actually a two-acre plot in Ben Lomond, twenty-five miles from Manresa, which shares a mutually-dependent and mutually-rewarding relationship with the restaurant. It is called Love Apple Farm and run together with attorney-turned-farmer, Cynthia Sandberg. Several years ago, it dawned on Kinch that local chefs were ‘go[ing] to the farmers’ market and all…buying the same organic leeks and lettuces. We’re all doing the same thing. I wanted to do better.’ To him, the natural next step was growing his own. Originally, he thought about buying a farm, but after tasting some of Sandberg’s organic tomatoes, he asked her to supply him exclusively. When it came to negotiations, each had a final condition, which fortuitously turned out to be the same thing – to try biodynamics. By November 2005, the pair had made their first ‘preparation’ of manure-stuffed cow horns to be buried beneath the soil. By summer 2006, the garden’s crop was on the restaurant’s menu.

http://foodsnobblog.wordpress.com/2009/04/10/manresa-los-gatos/

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Manresa is famous for its sole-customer relationship with Love Apple Farms; the farm supplies exclusively to Manresa. When I went in late April, there was going to be a celebration in Los Gatos the next day to celebrate the release of the film “The Farmer and the Chef” – the film about the relationship between David Kinch and Love Apple Farms proprietor Cynthia Sandberg. It is one of the great culinary partnerships.

I would recommend Manresa to a diner who is tired of the sensational but anonymous New International style of cooking – dashis, gelees, exotic citruses, foie; mindless trend-following – cooked up in so many Michelin-starred kitchens. Here is a kitchen that intelligently brings the taste of California to the diner.

Rating: 18/20

Memory: “Into the Vegetable Garden…”, Duck and rice, “yuzu-jalapeno”, Rhubarb compote with elderflower

Other notable write-ups


The Early Spring Garden (late April)

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Garden path

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Promotional Flyer for a May visit by Eneko Atxa (Azurmendi, 3* Michelin, Bilbao)

2014-04-27 20.35.23 2014-04-27 20.38.46 2014-04-27 20.39.35 2014-04-27 20.41.41Santa Cruz 75 Cocktail (Osocalis Brandy, Lemon, Love Apple Farm Honey, NVI Lasalles Brut Champagne)

2014-04-27 20.49.35 2014-04-27 20.49.411. Petit fours “red pepper-black olive” (4/5)

    • A cute piece of visual trickery, where similar looking dishes are presented at the beginning and end of the meal. (also see, Eleven Madison Park)
    • Here black olive madeleine, a buttery delight. On top of petit-four of red pepper. Strong and intense capsicum scent and flavor.

2014-04-27 20.52.58 2014-04-27 20.53.152. Kohlrabi and meyer lemon croquette (3.75/5)

    • Liquid center of lemon and kohlrabi. Lemon butter (rich) was the dominant taste, complemented well with side ingredient kohlrabi, root-vegetable taste.

2014-04-27 20.57.153.Olive oil and spring savory (4.25/5)

    • Olive oil ice cream, made from Sciabaca olive oil, an exceptional and fruity olive oil.
    • On top a kale chip savory.
    • This was served as a palate cleanser.

2014-04-27 21.09.33 2014-04-27 21.09.564. Abalone and local milk panna cotta (4.5/5)

    • A Manresa specialty. Abalone of Monterrey Bay, CA. Dashi gelee made with braising liquids of abalone. Radish greens.
    • Taste profile of the dish was towards savory side.
    • Highlighted the rubbery texture of abalone, in small bits so it did not become unpleasant.
    • I appreciated the qualities of the dish, but my personal opinion is that the rubber-iness of abalone is a lesser quality to emphasise in an abalone, at best an acquired taste. I had eaten an abalone dish at Saison a few days earlier where the meatiness was emphasised (by roasting), which appealed much more immediately.
    • (Context is everything) In Singapore, rubber-iness of abalone is de-emphasised. Cantonese fine-dining restaurants choose to braise it for hours in dishes like “Buddha jumps over the wall” to achieve the ideal texture of a gelatin-meat.
    • The sociological reason for this general Singaporean preference, I suspect, is there is a prevalence of low to middle grade canned-abalone in Singapore, the canning process of which increases the rubbery texture. So the “luxury” connotations of abalone in Singapore attach themselves to non-rubbery abalone.

2014-04-27 21.20.34 2014-04-27 21.21.055. Arpege farm egg (4.5/5)

    • By special request, I had to try the Manresa version of the l’Arpege egg. (famous due to the hot-cold contrast of cold sherry cream with just-poached yolk, and ginger and chive for spice, topped with maple syrup. Thanks)
    • I had made this myself using Kinch’s recipe a month before
    • Was equally delicious, though I have to say, ironically I did enjoy my version of the Manresa egg a bit more than the actual Manresa version of the Manresa egg (because I blitzed mine with maple syrup, unlike the Manresa version which was a light drizzle) Here they use Tahitian maple syrup.

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2014-04-27 21.33.29 2014-04-27 21.34.10 2014-04-27 21.34.17Bread: One of everything

    • Clockwise from 12 o’clock: Levain [using a low production Einkorn flour], Baguette, Onion Roll, Brioche (sitting on top of Sourdough). My favorite was the buttery brioche

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    • Sciabica olive oil, fall 2013 cold pressing, from Modesto California. You may buy it from http://sunshineinabottle.com/. A real paragon of fruity olive oil

2014-04-27 21.41.11 2014-04-27 21.41.286. Cherry salmon and roasted grapefruit, hazelnut (4.25/5)

    • Cherry salmon/ its own roe/ freeze-dried tangerine. Assertive and strong fish flavor from the cherry-salmon roe, cut by citrus from roasted grapefruit and dried tangerine. Dried tangerine crisp, with crisp of fish skin. Not bad.
    • Cherry salmon: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oncorhynchus_masou

2014-04-27 21.49.557. Asparagus with a norinade (3.25/5)

    • “norinade” = seaweed tapenade.
    • Blue cheese, grapefruit. A bit lackluster.

2014-04-27 21.59.01 2014-04-27 21.59.03 2014-04-27 21.59.10 2014-04-27 22.01.518. Into the vegetable garden… (5/5)

    • This was the signature Manresa dish that had brought me to the restaurant. It did not disappoint.
    • https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fpN-sUXJZnQ At 14:00 in this video Kinch discusses this dish, comprised of purees, vegetables, their juices, flowers and stems. It is a dish about showing respect to ingredients
    • Each of the vegetables were cooked to individual perfection, including the best peas I have ever tried – petite, juicy, not a trace of starchy texture, firm to the bite, one could almost describe them as “pea caviar”.
    • The smells and scents of this dish reminded me a wafting cloud, within which I could only grasp at only a few familiar scents… wasabi, mint, pea, carrot, anise.
    • The last time I was so bewildered was when I dined at Central, in Lima Peru. I could not even begin to describe the unique tastes I was trying. Here, my palate was insufficient to distinguish a third of the 60-70 ingredients, other than to say it is an amazingly complex dish. An invigorating taste of Northern California.

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Hands all over the plate. It’s that good, folks.

2014-04-27 22.12.48 2014-04-27 22.12.599. Sweet potato and spanish mackerel, apple aioli (4.25/5)

2014-04-27 22.22.09 2014-04-27 22.22.452014-04-27 22.22.2610. Carrot and onion with candied olive (4.5/5)

    • Smoked carrots, musky roasted lentils and grains, juniper (giving a complex anise flavor to the broth of roasted grains and earthy carrot)

2014-04-27 22.35.38 2014-04-27 22.35.4911. Black cod ‘demi-sel’ with fava bean  (4/5)

    • Paired with morels, reminding me slightly of a Cantonese preparation of cod with black fungus. The earth (morels) and sea (roasted cod)  was paired with fava bean puree, and leek oils on top.

2014-04-27 22.49.12 2014-04-27 22.49.22 2014-04-27 22.49.3712. Duck and rice, “yuzu-jalapeno” (4.75/5)

    • An intriguing dish was served as the last savory. This was a dish about presentation and complimentary flavors. Roasted aged duck, with Japanese rice underneath, and the fermenting blend of yuzu+jalapeno (yuzu zest+chopped jalapeno) had been fermented since December. Daikon.
    • The invigorating scent and taste jalapeno brought to mind wasabi. My mind associated this dish with a sort of roasted-duck wasabi sushi.
    • The focus on complimentary color, pink-ish roasted duck meat, pink herbs, pink daikon, the pink yuzu-jalapeno brought to memory for a second time l’Arpege, where Passard often cooks dishes of the most brilliant color harmonies
    • I was not immediately taken by this dish. But the memory of it refuses to die, it was one of the most interesting dishes I was served on my California trip.
    • This was a dish with an intriguing taste, but rooted in an amazing play on color. Two points of harmony.

2014-04-27 23.08.39 2014-04-27 23.17.57 2014-04-27 23.18.0413. Cheese Cart (supplement)

    • I liked very much the Meyer lemon-pepper inflected Sandy Bottom, (Sullivan Pond Farm, Wake, VA), goats cheese. Apparently it is aged in grape leaves. (5/5) top row, right
    • Also of note was the Kinderhook Creek sheep, Old Chatham Co in Hudson Valley, NY. bottom row, middle. (5/5)
    • Thanks to my server Bryan who was also the cheese curator. Very interesting selection

2014-04-27 23.45.11 2014-04-27 23.45.18 2014-04-27 23.47.2014. Rhubarb compote with elderflower (4.75/5)

    • Another exercise in quiet harmony. Rhubarb foam with elderflower sorbet, and leaves of micro arugular. Elderflower pearls beneath (made with agar), and poached rhubarb. Green grapeseed oils on top

2014-04-27 23.57.49 2014-04-27 23.58.1715. Strawberry shortbread, fennel and lemon verjus (4.25/5)

    • strawberries from Cook County CA, with fennel fronds, fennel puree, crushed shortbread. Vanilla parfait. Freeze dried strawberries. Pleasing.

2014-04-28 00.05.23 2014-04-28 00.05.46 2014-04-28 00.06.0616. Sorrel and chocolate (4.5/5)

    • Sorrel gave it a herbal flavor, rounding out chocolate

2014-04-28 00.19.37 2014-04-28 00.19.43 2014-04-28 00.19.54 2014-04-28 00.20.0517. Petit fours “strawberry-chocolate” (4.25/5)

    • Reversed, now a chocolate madeleine and a strawberry petit-fours. Visual doppelganger.

2014-04-28 00.32.57

The kitchen. In the absence of Chef Kinch, Chef de Cuisine Jessica Largey presided over the kitchen.

2014-04-28 00.39.30

A bowl of caramels

2014-04-28 00.41.56

MANRESA

Saison | San Francisco, CA | Apr ’14 | “fire”

2 May
  • Address: 178 Townsend St, San Francisco, CA 94107
  • Phone: (415) 828-7990
  • Price (after tax + tip, excl. drinks): $325
  • Courses: (14 main/19 total) 1 amuse / 12 savory / 2 dessert / 1 bread / 3 mignardises
  • Price/Main Course: $23
  • Rating: 20/20
  • Value: 4/5
  • Dining Time: 150 minutes
  • Time/Course (total): 8 minutes
  • Chef: Joshua Skenes
  • In Own Words: “There are a number of principles that resonate throughout the menu: if I buy a piece of fish or meat, it has to be the best specimen possible of that product. It has to be the best I’ve had in my life. If it’s not, I need to keep looking for it. It’s the same with the cooking process. If I tasted something and it’s not at that level, we need to keep searching for it.” – http://eater.com/archives/2012/04/18/joshua-skenes-interview-part-one.php
  • Style: Ingredients-driven
  • Michelin Stars: 2
  • Notable: #1 restaurant in the United States for OAD 2014.

 

2014-04-24 20.21.19 2014-04-24 20.22.09

PREAMBLE

There are three things above all to look for in a great restaurant. The first is the ingredients: how dedicated is the chef to getting the best produce possible to the table? How does the quality shine through? The second is the cooking style: what is the merit of each individual dish? Does the chef have a vision? What is the level of originality? How is the menu structured? The third is the service: is it a joy to step into the room? I only rate restaurants on the first two things, but I am also watchful for great service. I am glad to report that the service at Saison was top-notch. We felt right at home.

On the 3 above counts, Saison delivers. Rarely does the Triforce of ingredients, cooking, and service, come together in one package. But it does here.

2014-04-24 20.33.59 2014-04-24 20.35.41 2014-04-24 20.35.51


COMPARING REACTIONS WITH GASTROMONDIALE

It was instructive on this San Francisco trip to contrast my reactions with the famous food critic, Vedat Milor (of Gastromondiale, and the late Gastroville blog with Hedone chef Mikael Jonsson), especially since we shared two touchpoints he has written about in detail (Saison & Manresa). Of the major critics, I would say that V Milor I have found who is the one closest to my taste so far. We share similar opinions about Per Se, EMP, Blue Hill at Stone Barns, and Alinea, as well as l’Arpege – so the first two nailed-on names on my San Francisco trip were Saison and Manresa, restaurants he believes are the two best in the Bay Area. It indeed ended up that out of the 5 high-end restaurants I visited this trip (in chronological order, Atelier Crenn, Saison, Benu, Manresa, Meadowood), Saison and Manresa were my two favorites.

 On the face of it, Saison should absolutely be the kind of the restaurant that V Milor, a noted ingredients and barbecue fanatic, likes. (see his reviews of Asador Etxebarri) Chef Joshua Skenes is also an ingredients fanatic. (see “in own words” quote above) Yet he rates it 17.5/20 (for him, “a restaurant that offers outstanding food made with exceptional to outstanding ingredients but where there is room for improvement with respect to ingredient sourcing, executions of the preparations or where the originality or style is not clear.”). – Source

In ingredients-sourcing, Chef Skenes is certainly among the most diligent:

Recently, though, Mr. Skenes began to work with a Bay Area fishing captain who reels in all kinds of species, monkey eels and idiot fish, and delivers them live to the restaurant. “We’re going to try to wean ourselves off Japan, so we’re more representative of the Bay Area,” he said.

Subsidizing a boat to custom-catch fish for Saison is an expensive proposition. There is also the cost of the seaweed forager and the poultry ranchers who raise pigeons to Saison’s exact specifications. Mr. Skenes said that his ingredient costs are barely covered by the menu price, and that a cancellation can put the restaurant in the red. Thus, the fees for changing plans within 72 hours. – NYT

Since there is clearly no problem with ingredients sourcing, nor the execution of most preparations (he positively gushes about each of the dishes in his review, except the first (turnip custard) and eleventh (baby pigeon)), so I can only imagine that Mr Milor thinks the style lacking. This is where I disagree with him, for Saison to my mind has a very unique style amongst the American fine-dining restaurants: most if not all dishes have been touched by fire, intensifying their flavors. The 11th dish in my meal was grilled asparagus, poached in its juices and then grilled. It imparted the outside of the asparagus with a delightful char flavor that intensified the contrast with the juicy texture and asparagus tastes within. Or the 5th dish, a roasted abalone, that enhanced the meaty texture while ridding it of rubberiness, all the while working magic on its tastes. To my mind Saison is actually one of the few restaurants I have dined in anywhere, where the style is recognisable, and yet completely in service to the tastes of the dish. For example, a dinner the previous night at Atelier Crenn, featured a Duck Consomme to be drunk while eating a dish with Chocolate elements, an overplaying of Chef Dominique Crenn’s modernist whimsy which created a confusing-tasting dish. I detected no such excesses here. The visual presentation is also a delight, with textured glassware and expensive flatware. (the many-holed plate makes a reappearance from Brooklyn Fare).


 CUTTING-EDGE STRATEGIES

I think, in a way, the 3 San Francisco restaurants I dined at (Atelier Crenn, Saison, Benu) represent 3 major strategies of differentiation in the culinary world today. That a lot of consumer money goes into dining experiences, is because there are dining experiences in the plural. The “foodie” trend, where more and more restaurants are seen as destination worthy, has demand factors (networks of information through Twitter, Facebook, RSS etc.), but also majorly depends on supply factors like sufficiently differentiated products (restaurant experiences) to attract money. A dinner at Alinea is completely different from a dinner at Eleven Madison Park, which is completely different from a dinner at l’Arpege, which is completely different from… .  Speaking purely about my dining experiences in the Americas, there seems to be 3 major strategies that are considered cutting-edge.

A. For restaurants like Atelier Crenn; Alinea; atera, it is about the process. The dishes are process-driven, conceived using molecular techniques, and generally served with the aim of subverting the diner’s expectations. The catch-all term is molecular gastronomy. This tends to create particularly root-less restaurants. There is no reason why atera and Alinea, could not switch cities tomorrow without anyone blinking an eye. The process and science of creating these dishes are the intellectual capital of the infinitely mobile chefs. (The truly novel molecular dishes, like floating balloons in Alinea, or a cracked egg dessert at atera, are quite rare.)

B. For restaurants like Benu; Momofuku Ko, and other fusion restaurants like Maido in Peru, it is about introducing new types of tastes. It more commonly manifests as bold flavor combinations and Asian-fusion. In this case, diners expect to be educated with regard to a wider taste bank. The main difference I see between these restaurants and a restaurant like Borago in Chile is that the fusion restaurants are more-or-less rootless, taste without terroir. Nikkei, I believe, is a culinary concept that travels well outside of Peru, and Benu and Ko could also switch cities seamlessly (for many Asian-fusion restaurants I do tend to judge them more harshly, having grown up with these tastes, but I accept that they may be judged more novel and exciting by Western palates)

C. For restaurants like Saison, to a greater extent Manresa, and many of the foraged restaurants like Borago in Chile and Central in Peru, they put equal weight on the ingredients and the process. For the ingredients, it is about terroir, and reflecting a sense of place. Saison has a boat that catches seafood off the California coast specially for the restaurant, and Manresa’s produce reflects the excellence available from Love Apple Farms. Borago forages ingredients from 80km around Santiago. These restaurants rely on the integrity of their local ingredients, but also ally it to their own chosen process and philosophy. (Because great ingredients alone cannot make great dishes, chefs must have license to play with the tastes and textures of great ingredients to transmute them into great dishes). For Saison it is fire, Borago and Central: molecular techniques with plating ingenuity, for Manresa it is judicious use of modernist techniques with attention to complimentary tastes.

There are exceptions to this trichotomy: Eleven Madison Park, I think, is mainly about the theatricality, a non-food related reason. And certainly there must be other more subtle strategies, but at a broad stroke this is what I’ve seen.


THE FIRE

Really, truly exceptional ingredients are just step one. If you’re willing to pay the price, a lot of people can have access to that. The handling, the part afterwards, is very important. How do you care for something afterwards, to make sure that it’s in its most perfect state after you get it? You can get the best [ingredient] in the world, but if you don’t truly care for it, then it really doesn’t matter, if it goes bad because of handling. When we cook the food, we want to honor the fundamental and inherent flavor of those ingredients, so our food is a little more subtle, and more based on the natural expression and fundamental flavors of whatever it may be. That’s why we have our fire—the use of fire is the most genuine way to cook, in terms of flavor; the most genuine flavor you can get, or the most natural flavor you can get. And how to deepen those things. How do you really deepen or distill the furthest point in an ingredient’s flavor without adding so much to it?

Was it challenging to get permitting to have live fire in the restaurant? It was expensive?

What kind of hoops did you have to jump through? It’s always an issue, but we have such a talented kitchen designer that it wasn’t much of an issue for us in terms of those things. Tim Harrison was phenomenal. He’s someone that I’ll probably remodel the restaurant with 100 times throughout the course of the next 30 years.

Source

Ingredients minimally cooked, or cooked in a perfunctory way, is nihilism. Nihilism because it reflects the belief that there is nothing more a chef can add besides the testimony of the ingredients. This is perhaps the source of the old East Coast joke about Californian cooks being good shoppers. How does Saison transform the ingredients?

Fire. A variety of fires, from high-intensity Japanese white charcoal to oak charcoal is used, and the element of fire is used to enhance individual elements in many dishes. The chaotic, high-intensity fire is one thing missing from most restaurants in the United States. My understanding is that fire-regulations have long prevented the primordial fire from penetrating urban areas, leaving it to barbecues in the South to harness it. (In a trip to the famous Salt Lick in Texas last year, we could smell the woodburning from a generous distance away as soon as we stepped out of the car). Even excepting fire-regulations for the flame, it is expensive, and space-intensive, to provide ventilation systems for the smoke. Saison, funded by Twitter billionaire Jack Dorsey and others from VC firm Benchmark Capital, is clearly well-funded. In a humongous space (called Saison 3.0 as it opened last year), a ventilation unit the size of a studio apartment hovered over the entire open kitchen space, preventing smoke and heat from reaching the dining room even though there were no partitions. A marvel of technology. Certainly Saison has many dishes involving the fire that will be hard to replicate in kitchens without the ventilation technology (at least in metropolitan areas).

In comparison to my visit earlier this month to Brooklyn Fare (which I rate as the best restaurant in New York), I noticed that there were no significant fire-based dishes. I may be wrong, but I did not notice any grills in the main kitchen area, only induction burners. I suspect the reason behind the lack of fire-based dishes was that the space is probably too small to accommodate both a ventilation unit to handle the smoke and an air-conditioning unit to handle the heat.

I think back to my visit last year to Singapore’s Burnt Ends: 850 degrees celsius, which created some rustic and delicious dishes, and cooked most of the dishes in a closed heating unit. There is definitely a demand for fire, witness the acclaim that Asador Etxebarri (which I hope to visit in June) has gotten from the shill-list San Pellegrino, and Burnt Ends has been a great (and packed) success in Singapore over the last year. I think the charcoal fire will become increasingly important in American cooking in the coming years.


FINAL THOUGHTS

From my own limited experience dining around the United States, I can confirm that Saison is performing well above what passes for 3-Michelin-star cooking in this country. To my mind, this is the best restaurant I’ve tried in the United States. There are no perfect restaurants. But there are restaurants which take perfectionism more seriously than most.

Rating: 20/20

Memory: Caviar, Abalone, Sea Urchin Toast, Trout, Black Cod, Parker House Rolls, Duck Liver Toffee, Rhubarb Jasmine Sorrel


2014-04-24 20.38.34 2014-04-24 20.38.48 2014-04-24 20.38.581. tea, herbs from our garden and their flora
Meyer lemon and douglas fir tea, with herbs in garden left to steep in the tea. A good palate opener, reminiscent of a Chinese or Japanese meal to me, where the first opener is the choice of tea.

2014-04-24 20.46.16 2014-04-24 20.47.27 2014-04-24 20.47.372. white sturgeon caviar, sturgeon belly cured & smoked on kelp, gelèe of the grilled bones (4.75/5)
White sturgeon caviar from California. This is on par with some of the best caviar I’ve tried anywhere, and I actually prefer the mouthfeel of this slightly firmer white sturgeon caviar to Osetra caviar, which I find “pops” its salinity in the mouth with less pressure.
The pleasure of caviar is when the roe “pop”s its saline yolky liquid in your mouth. I’ve always enjoyed caviar on the slightly firmer side. This to me was decadence.
The belly provided the fat; the gelee provided a umami meatiness to the dish, really highlighting the sturgeon’s caviar at its best.

2014-04-24 20.54.50 2014-04-24 20.54.59 2014-04-24 20.55.06 2014-04-24 20.55.123. wild thistle, bouillon (4.5/5)
artichoke and Hokkaido scallop puree. Anchovy mayo at the bottom anchors a hollowed out artichoke, filled with scallop mousse made from Hokkaido scallops, and grilled in the fire together. Topped with an oxalis (AKA wood sorrel) flower

2014-04-24 20.57.19

Number Three: Rum, Pandan, Fresh Lime, Young Coconut Syrup

2014-04-24 20.59.57 2014-04-24 21.00.034a. (cru 1) coal kissed cherry blossom sea bream (5/5)
wrapped around monkfish liver. Fantastic piece of fish, firm yet tender, perfect.

2014-04-24 21.01.02

4b. (cru 2) golden eye snapper warmed under some coals, bone vinegar (4.5/5)
with nori wasabi on top

2014-04-24 21.02.28 2014-04-24 21.02.414c. (cru 3) pickled horse mackerel on toast (4.5/5)
with last spring’s pickled ramps. A firm texture, as with most horse mackerel, the toast heated over coals
The series of crudites were of uniformly high quality, basically as successful as I can imagine this type of crudite-series dish being.

2014-04-24 21.06.15 2014-04-24 21.06.205. abalone, roasted over the embers, sauce of the liver & capers (5/5)
incredible dish. an 8-10 year old monterrey bay abalone had the firm meatiness, but none of the rubberiness that can sometimes be unpleasant. Perfectly roasted with the taste of fire. It was topped with fresh nori (mamanori), and what really elevated it was the sauce made from its liver and capers. The sourness of capers was also reminiscent of a really good horseradish paste, a very bold flavor, that had complexity from added meatiness of abalone liver. Astounding sauce pairing.

2014-04-24 21.10.44

6. sea urchin toast, river vegetable (5/5)
Fort Bragg sea urchin, about the size of my index finger, was the largest sea urchin I had ever seen. It was sweet and pure, I would say sweeter than even the Santa Barbara type. (I am actually fairly agnostic between Santa Barbara and Hokkaido uni – I would say the sweetness of SB uni is equally good as the more marine flavor of the Hokkaido variety).
the toast was long thin piece, toasted in yeast butter. fantastic.

2014-04-24 21.13.19 2014-04-24 21.13.307. battle creek trout, smoked in the wood oven, sauce of the bones (4.5/5)
a melt in your mouth smoked trout was cured for 2 months under salt, and with an almondwood (sic?) pickled daikon.

2014-04-24 21.18.54 2014-04-24 21.22.28

8. white asparagus royale (4/5)
A solidified Royale sauce (liver, truffle, Madeira port) was mixed with an egg + kuzu custard
white asparagus and smoked pine-nut (blanched, smoked, dehydrated)

2014-04-24 21.28.00 2014-04-24 21.28.179. black cod, poached in sea water, rangpur lime and yogurt (4.75/5)
a falling apart black cod (Half Moon Bay, CA), in two sauces. The first is coconut oil. The second is coconut milk + yoghurt + ginger + kaffir lime + galangal
plaintain chip on top
This was a great tribute to southeast Asian cooking (especially Thai green curry) The fish was expertly poached.
This dish made the Ulterior Epicure’s top of 2013 list as well. Great dish.

2014-04-24 21.29.5310. [bread] parker house rolls (5/5)
Fluffy, hot, glazed in butter, and sprinkled with salt. The best parker house rolls I’ve ever had.

2014-04-24 21.42.43 2014-04-24 21.42.5511. asparagus, cooked in their juices and then grilled (4.5/5)
The first asparagus of the season came in early February from Brentwood, CA. These were poached in their own juices. The grilling imparted the outside of the asparagus with a delightful char flavor that intensified the contrast with the juicy texture and asparagus tastes within.
egg yolk in circles of chive

2014-04-24 21.52.43 2014-04-24 21.53.1712. celeriac, poached in smoked water, some herbs from the garden (3.75/5)
Hot sauce, sesame sauce, with a roasted chip of celeriac and roasted slices of celeriac underneath. The sweetness of underlying sauce (like sugar and hot sauce) was a bit one-dimensional for me.

2014-04-24 21.59.28 2014-04-24 21.59.4413. toffee, milk, bread & beer (5/5)
California instituted a foie gras ban some time ago, which makes it hard to get around it. Here “savory duck liver toffee” approximated that magical ingredient. It was topped with white chocolate, with a yeasty topping of milk, bread & bear. Surprisingly refreshing before the final main, it was also a prelude to dessert. Sui generis.

2014-04-24 22.11.20 2014-04-24 22.11.48 2014-04-24 22.14.4914. wood pigeon, sunchoke & sunflower seed butter, coffee beans (4.5/5)
dry aged pigeon for 30 days, its breast grilled, and with an intense funky dark jus. a quenelle of sunchoke+coffee+sunflower puree
morels with stuffed with boudin white sausage made from breast + gizzard + foie + chicken, with pigeon.
at 10 o’clock, pear and pear butter
pigeon cutting almost like a medium-hard cheese (cleanly and softly)

2014-04-24 22.25.29 2014-04-24 22.25.37 2014-04-24 22.26.4415. rhubarb, jasmine, sorrel (4.75/5)
Kumquat, shiso, two Bavarois (rhubarb at the bottom [pink], and jasmine on top [yellow]) with chamomile tastes.
A sorrel granite made with liquid nitrogen
At the very base, a white chocolate feuilletine
Very good.

2014-04-24 22.32.16 2014-04-24 22.32.28 2014-04-24 22.32.3516. black walnut, soufflé and ice cream (4.5/5)
A good pairing of black walnut soufflé with maple flavors. Nuttiness with sweetness, Hot souffle cut by cold ice cream.

2014-04-24 22.41.01 2014-04-24 22.41.07

Buckwheat tea to end the meal

2014-04-24 22.41.2817. Tartlets, meyer-lemon poppyseed and chocolate spearmint (4.5/5)

2014-04-24 22.41.34

18. Liquid Peanut Truffle (4.25/5)

2014-04-24 22.46.15

19. Canele de Bordeaux, held under the coals, with a splash of orange blossom essence (4.75/5)

2014-04-24 23.03.25

Earl Grey brioche to take home.


2014-04-24 22.56.17 2014-04-24 22.56.28 2014-04-24 22.56.35 2014-04-24 22.57.32 2014-04-24 23.14.43