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Persimmon | Bristol, RI | Apr ’14 | “playful Rhode Island fare”

9 Apr
  • Address: 31 State St, Bristol, RI 02809
  • Phone: (401) 254-7474
  • Price (after tax + tip, excl. drinks): ~$125
  • Courses: (18 main/19 total) 14 savory / 1 cheese / 3 desserts / 1 mignardises
  • Price/Main Course: $6.50
  • Rating: 15.5/20
  • Value: 4/5
  • Dining Time: 150 minutes
  • Time/Course (total): 8 minutes
  • Chef: Champ Speidel
  • Style: New American

 

2014-04-05 19.37.12

Reflecting on a recent meal at Persimmon, I think that Persimmon is among the top two restaurants in Rhode Island I have tried after 4 years living here; along with birch in Providence. Chef Champe Speidel and Lisa Speidel are the managers of this restaurant, Chef Speidel used to be the sous chef at Gracie’s when it was a 38-seat restaurant in Federal Hill in Providence (source – http://ediblerhody.com/files/pages/articles/winter2007/pdfs/inTheKitchen.pdf). When Gracie’s decided to move downtown (where it now is opposite the Trinity rep, and next door to birch), Chef Speidel decided to move out to Bristol to open Persimmon in 2005. I in fact ate there just 2 days shy of the 9th anniversary of the restaurant this year, in 2014. The restaurant is a labour of love:

A couple of years after graduation, Champe was hired as sous chef at Gracie’s. Shortly after he started, the head chef left. “I knew I could handle it but, basically, I got the job because I was there,” he laughs. In those days, Gracie’s was a 38-seat restaurant located on Federal Hill in Providence. “They mostly did a weekend business, so we had a lot of freedom to take out time and do things the way you’re supposed to do them. We experimented with a lot of different cooking methods and prepped all week to handle the weekends. It was a tremendous learning experience.

“We took the menu they had and added my spin. We got some great accolades.” He stayed for three years. When the owners decided to move the restaurant downtown, to more than double the size, Champe knew it was time for him to find his own place.

That’s when he and Lisa started shopping for a restaurant. It only took a couple of months to find the spot, called the Hotpoint at the time. It took about six months of negotiation to close the deal. The size of the kitchen, which is substantially larger than the dining room, sold him on the place. “We put a 200-page business plan together and solicited help from just about anyone willing to talk to us. We did all the things they teach you in school. The minute we got the keys, April 7, 2005, I proposed to Lisa. Three weeks later we opened.”

Since then Champe has been, “doing the food that we really believe in,” making folks on theother side of the kitchen doors at Persimmon very happy. “The main thing we really want is for people to trust that, when they come here, they will get a well-prepared meal and service that will take care of any needs. Trust is a big part of the restaurant experience.” – Edible Rhody

What Chef Speidel’s cooking deserves to be commended for is his playfulness. It is not a common feature in RI dining to feature experimental presentations, taste combinations, besides the aforementioned birch (presentation and taste) and some Asian fusion (taste) at north. My thoughts (and praise) on birch’s dishes can be read on this blog; north has some interesting dishes but they are generally hit and miss, and their highs (4.5-5) are much rarer than their low to middling fare – of the highs, ham biscuits, and roasted cabbage have left a lasting impression. Other stalwarts like Gracie’s generally play it cookie-cutter safe with no surprises, or in the case of La Laiterie, alternate between the safe and the bizarre, like steak with rice browned with soy sauce. New Rivers does enjoyable bistro fare and great fluke, and has been experimenting with some Asian fusion dishes recently, but is still rather conventional (it is after all self-characterised as a bistro). My two picks for interesting and innovative dishes here in RI, would thus be Persimmon and birch.

Among the plays on RI tropes I had that night: clam cake with chowder, mussel with edible shell, Quonset oyster with herb butter powder,and a drop of absinthe. Even if these dishes were not fully successful, it was just a delight and surprise to be confronted with such thoughtful cooking. If only there were more chefs in RI willing to take these risks!

Boldness in flavor is a double-edged sword. A weakness throughout the meal was the erratic salting. The balance of salt was off on the beef tartare, and the chicharrones course. North Star Farm lamb had the rub all on the skin, and none of the flavor in the meat.

The general flow of the menu went from seafood is the first half of the menu (and where most of the memorable dishes) to meats, and then to a standard assortment of desserts (sorbet, panna cotta, chocolate cake). But there was a wild unpredictability throughout the 14 main courses. In the midst of a succession of seafood courses, suddenly beef tartare was served. In the midst of the heavier courses of foie+pork+game, a beautiful plate of vegetables (evoking the famous Bras gargouillou) was served, followed by the chef’s take on Asian-fusion, with bold use of fish and peanut sauce, as well as kabayaki sauce (more often used for unagi). The desserts which followed, were conventional, a slight disappointment given the chef’s flight of fancy earlier in the meal.

Service was fantastic. Lisa Speidel runs a great FOH, my dining companion and I felt very comfortable throughout the night.

Overall, a restaurant I was very excited to dine in. One of two best I’ve tried in RI. I believe that by remedying some minor flaws in the dishes served, this restaurant would reach a 1-star Michelin standard.

Rating: 15.5/20

Memory: Mussel with edible shell, foie gras gateau.

2014-04-05 19.32.00


2014-04-05 19.39.041. Deviled quail egg, caviar (3.5/5)

Egg yolk seasoned with soy sauce and/or worcestershire sauce?
Slight gripe: I felt the strong taste of the deviled egg detracted a little from the taste of the caviar.

2014-04-05 19.41.31

Cocktail: Maginot Line

2014-04-05 19.47.122. Marinated Massachusetts sea scallop, scallop chip (3.75/5)

A third component was scallop mayo underneath. Interesting in conception. The idea was to showcase two textures of scallop.
My dining companion G and I agreed that the oiliness of the scallop mayo hid the freshness of the scallop. The mayo could have been reduced in volume.

2014-04-05 19.51.17 2014-04-05 19.51.293. Beef tartare, cured egg yolk (3.25/5)

Additional ingredients: capers
The tartare was oversalted, though not unbearably so.

2014-04-05 19.58.36

4. Raw Quonset oyster, ‘herb butter’ (4/5)

A very interesting Quonset point oyster, with herb butter powder, and a drop of absinthe.
I enjoyed the fruitiness and lack of salinity in the Quonset point (a rarity given the high salt levels of East Coast oysters generally). The herb butter powder was an interesting textural contrast (akin to edible soil), the absinthe added a herbaceous note. An intriguing and avant-garde combination.

2014-04-05 20.02.47

5. Chowder, clam ‘cake’ (4/5)

Rhode island chowder foam broth with a clam cake seasoned with fennel. A playful reinterpretation of clam chowder and clam cakes, both traditional RI edibles.

2014-04-05 20.08.17

6. Mussel, edible shell (4.5/5)

Butter poached mussel, with an edible shell, made from pasta dough with squid ink, and shellfish-broth foam.
Inspired in conception, this had echoes of atera’s famous “razor clam with edible baguette shell” from their 2012 season.
It would have been 5/5 for conception, if not for that the “mussel shell” had thin innermost layer that had an undercooked texture.

2014-04-05 20.12.567. Black olive financier (4.5/5)

Fruity and buttery, a delight.

2014-04-05 20.22.13 2014-04-05 20.22.218. Potato agnolotti (4.75/5)

Mascarpone cheese and yukon potato in the agnolotti (little purses), with yukon and celeriac
With a fragrant onion jus. The scent of the onion was very strong.

2014-04-05 20.29.21 2014-04-05 20.29.32

9. Foie gras gateau (4.75/5)

Applecake, pickled apples, foie terrine, elderflower gel.
An inspired combination. This was probably my favorite dish of the night. The complexity of the pickled apples, with the fragrance of elderflower gel was an inspired pairing for a foie terrine. However, I feel the dish could have improved if the foie didn’t have a slightly mushy texture – which detracted again from a perfect score for this dish.

2014-04-05 20.38.17 2014-04-05 20.38.27

10. Pork jowl confit, pickled daikon (3.75/5)

A pork skin crackling with dehydrated pork jowl and  kabayaki sauce (which usually goes with uni). Okay, a bit oversalted.

2014-04-05 20.46.30

11. Raw, pickled vegetables, herbs (4.25/5)

A take on the famous Bras gargouillou, transplanted to RI.
Each component was well prepared, and with great freshness and different tastes in the vegetables. My favorite of an assorted plate was probably the sweet beet.
Unlike the gargouillou which has ham in the poaching water, this I think was purely vegetarian.

2014-04-05 20.55.37 2014-04-05 20.55.5512. Chicken wing, peanut sauce, shishito pepper (3.75/5)

fish sauce and peanut sauce on the deboned chicken wing
An experimental Asian dish, which was bold on flavor, esp. with fish sauce.

2014-04-05 21.07.18

13. Squab, egg, emmer, jus (3.75/5)

How could the squab breast be so perfectly cooked – crisp flat skin with rare meat –  (4.75/5), yet the leg almost raw? (2/5) The center of the leg bone was simply raw meat. I was very pleased with one, and unhappy about the other. Both could have benefitted from having slightly more seasoning on the well-roasted skin.
Praise for the fragrant trumpet mushroom sauce.

2014-04-05 21.21.03

14. North Star Farm lamb (3.25/5)

Decent. This was a sous-vide lamb dish. I am starting to not be a fan of sous-vide cooking, I find it gives meat the uniform texture of styrofoam, which is not appetising.
The very tasty seasoning on the fat of the lamb did not penetrate into the meat. Meat was relatively flavorless.

2014-04-05 21.29.3515. Bayley Hazen blue, Greensboro, VT (3.5/5)

2014-04-05 21.29.57

Served with Cinnamon Raisin Bread

2014-04-05 21.38.46

16. Sorbet (3.5/5)

Coconut lime sorbet, with calamansi-lime curd.
I enjoyed the coconut+lime sorbet pairing, but calamansi curd was too sweet and one-dimensional; it might have been improved by dispersing the curd relative to the sorbet.
It also might have been interesting to me as a diner, to try different citrus curd pairings, like the lighter finger-lime from Australia.

2014-04-05 21.41.18

17. Panna Cotta (3.25/5)

Vanilla panna cotta with passionfruit gelee.
By now the desserts were all very conventional

2014-04-05 21.53.54 2014-04-05 21.54.15

18. Chocolate Cremeux (3.5/5)

2014-04-05 22.03.21

19. Mignardises

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Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare | Brooklyn, NY | Apr ’14 | “theatre”

5 Apr
  • Address: 200 Schermerhorn St, Brooklyn, NY 11201
  • Telephone: (718) 243-0050
  • Price (after tax + tip, excl. drinks): $329
  • Courses: (16 main/17 total): 12 savory, 1 cheese, 3 dessert, 1 mignardise (20 courses advertised includes 1 bread [not counted here], and for the 3 mignardise items to be counted as 3 courses)
  • Price/Main Course: $20.50
  • Rating: 19/20
  • Value: 2.5/5
  • Dining Time: 150 minutes
  • Time/Course (total): 9.5 minutes
  • Chef: César Ramirez
  • Style: sui generis
  • Michelin Stars: 3

2014-04-04 23.48.20

The Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare is definitely the single-hardest reservation to make in NYC. It is possibly the hardest reservation to make in the United States. 6 weeks out at 1030am on a Monday, the phones are off the hook, and by the time you get through, the seats are all gone. But we were lucky enough to score a 4-top on a Friday night at the ungodly hour of 955pm, the latest I have ever started a tasting dinner, which required me to imbibe caffeine at 8pm (I’m a morning person).

The food at BKFARE is the highest standard I have encountered in New York. Per Se has dishes which are adequate but not many truly memorable ones, a 1 or 2-star Michelin elsewhere. Eleven Madison Park’s food is also of the 1-star Michelin standard, though the theatrics and entire experience perhaps push it to a high 2-star Michelin. Le Bernardin is solidly 1-star Michelin. Jean-Georges is also of 1-star Michelin standard. I have not tried Daniel, or Masa, so I cannot comment on their food. The New York Michelin guide is known to be lax in standards. But in awarding BKFARE the highest rating, they have not erred. I consider BKFARE to be the only true 3-star Michelin restaurant in NYC I have tried so far. (the only other plausible contender for true 3-star status is Masa).


Why does BKFARE have 3 Michelin stars, and why does Momofuku Ko have 2? The two restaurants share key similarities. Both are chef’s counters, seating a limited number of diners. Both, to forestall the possibility of slow-poke photographers tripping up the rhythm of the meal, have banned photography altogether (a policy I strongly disagree with). BKFARE goes further to outlaw note-taking at all. Both are also seafood-focused restaurants.

My friend Y and I speculated on a few reasons: (A) the leather chairs at BKFARE were definitely more comfortable than the stools at Ko, (B) BKFARE had some nice silverware and they displayed a dizzying array of custom flatware (though I suspect they have the same flatware supplier as Grace in Chicago), but really the crucial bit is (C) while Ko sources very good ingredients in the relatively-inexpensive category (bronzino, mackerel, scallop, black trumpets), BKFARE sources very good ingredients in the top-end category of traditional luxury ingredients (quality black truffle in April, morels, osetra caviar, koshihikari rice, Miyazaki beef). (D) The technique at BKFARE may also be a tad more precise: I was wowed by the last dessert, a sugar globe that was fragile and thin, yet completely clear – a hallmark of technical excellence; as well as the minimalism of many of the best BKFARE courses. (at its best, such as Ko’s mushroom consomme, Ko can create such minimalist compositions. But quite a few of their main dishes can be overdetermined, and an ingredient or two can be safely omitted.)

I believe the Michelin guide rewards use of traditional luxury ingredients. But it is hard to see right now where those ingredients would fit into Ko’s bold flavors and Asian-influenced cooking (and price point).


Originality. What is the level of Chef Ramirez’s originality? It is hard for me to tell. The best dishes I enjoyed were simply the finest ingredient exemplars of their type (a Koshihikari rice risotto with truffle; Miyazaki Wagyu presented simply with grated daikon). To compare with a meal I had last month, Chef Curtis Duffy of Grace paired Miyazaki Wagyu with a Vietnamese rice cracker and tom yum broth. Chef Duffy’s Southeast Asian vision came through, but here at BKFARE luxury ingredients were just worked perfectly. But I believe the Akamutsu with puffed rice and black vinegar sauce gave me an glimpse into a chef with Japanese elegance and refinement, a strong believer of minimalism and absolutely fanatical about ingredients. I reserve judgements on the uniqueness of Chef Ramirez’s style, and I will have to return to Brooklyn Fare to make a more final judgement.

Flow. The flow of the meal was: [light fish 1-4] + [luxury blockbusters 5-7] + [heavier seafood + risotto 8-10] + [game + meat 11-12] + [cheese 13] + [sorbets 14-15] + [showcase dessert 16]. I thought it was a well thought-out meal-plan, though variation of courses 11+12 might have improved the meal (both were red meat, squab and beef), and there was a bit of a flag in quality from courses 7-9.

Slight Gripes. One slight gripe I had is that service was perfunctory. Questions were answered curtly, but this is probably due to the logistical strain of keeping all courses (the left side of 9 diners ahead by 30 minutes, so the two sets of diners staggered into two batches) going like clockwork. Another slight gripe is that I counted only 16 main courses, 4 short of the advertised 20. The only way BKFARE hit 20 courses is if I count the solitary bread (no butter) as a course, and the three mignardises served together at the end as 3 separate courses instead of just 1. My friend also remarked that there were quite a few repeated ingredients: yuzu was used at least 3 times, citrus more generally at least 5 times, black truffle (I personally have no complaints) was used 3 times. For me though, the repeated use of yuzu and truffle was not a complaint, since I appreciated the chef’s attempt to follow seasonality, though the citrus got a bit repetitive towards the end.

Overall, a very fine restaurant indeed. To my mind, BKFARE and atera are the two most exciting restaurants in the city at the moment.

Rating: 19/20

Memory: Akamutsu, Hokkaido Uni with Truffle, Koshihikari Risotto with Truffle, Miyazaki Wagyu, the clarity and thinness of the Sugar Globe


Thoughts on dishes:

  1. Ishidai (Striped Beakfish): one bite, clean flavor, muscular but not chewy, not fat despite being winter. Yuzu, small whiffs of orange crispy ginger on top. (4.25/5)
    • A clean palate opener. No big taste.
  2. Akamutsu (Red Bluefish): black vinegar savory sauce, crusted with puffed rice (5/5)
    • Perfect and sublime. I liked this because of the perfect cooking of the fatty bluefish with affixed puffed rice to its skin (It did not drop off when I lifted it).
    • The Asian influenced black vinegary savory sauce complemented the fish superbly well. Perfectly calibrated tastes, from which no ingredient could be subtracted. Highest praise.
    • http://www.trueworldfoods.com/products/tsukiji/all/akamutsu/
  3. Oyster: Island Creek oyster with celeriac (4/5)
  4. Kinmedai (Splendid Alfonsino): Overcooked, flaky (3/5) (yuzu?)
  5. Hokkaido Uni with Black Truffle on English muffin style flatbread (5/5):
    • Decadent and rich. The sweetness of Hokkaido uni was complemented by potent smell of truffles. Both were covered in a dark glaze, similar to anago(salt-eel) glaze. On top of an English flatbread muffin. I enjoyed it because it combines these two very assertive and rare “luxury” ingredients, and the whole effect was more than the sum of its parts. Highest praise.
    • Early April is right at the very end of the black truffle season, and the powerful smell of Chef Ramirez’s truffles surprised me in their potency, a testament to his sourcing abilities. Truffles were used in 3 dishes, and all had exceptional potent aromas
  6. Osetra Caviar with cauliflower cream, yuzu: (4.25/5)
    • A generous helping of osetra caviar set in cauliflower cream, with a circular biscuit.
    • The marriage of tastes was pleasant, though I did not feel a true synergy between them.
  7. Snow crab, chawanmushi, foie gras (3.75/5)
    • Chives and onion green chawanmushi paste at the bottom of a deep bowl, snow crab broken down to bits, A seared piece of foie gras (about 1.25x the size of the first phalange of an adult thumb) floated in a dashi. Black truffle made a welcome reappearance as black bits, adding its scent to the dashi.
  8. Lobster, celery root, blood orange: (4.75/5)
    • Perfectly cooked lobster, with only mild “graining” of very sweet lobster flesh. A piece of celery root, a white radish, and a piece of blood orange by the side (which could have been subtracted) Navel oranges were used for a yellow sauce covering about 90% of the plate, with vanilla seeds visible in a second clear sauce, and fennel foam.
    • The radish and blood orange could have been subtracted: the radish added nothing to the dish, the blood orange added too much one-dimensional citrus notes. The lobster paired well with the orange sauce, and the fennel probably served as the aromatic (I could not ID the scent by myself, thinking it was lavender at first, and had to ask my server). This reminded me of the lobster dish at Schwa, where “lavender+earl grey” was the aromatic on top of the lobster+orange base.
  9. Turbot with Peas (3.5/5)
    • Turbot from Holland.
  10. Koshihikari Rice with black truffle (5/5)
    • A risotto, in the shade of beige/pink with truffled bits around. Topped with a slice of black truffle.
    • At this point, this was the third truffle dish.
    • The rice was top class, having a firm texture and slightly sweet taste. Risotto was prepared perfectly, with the strong smell of black truffles coming through again. Top marks.
    • http://commongrains.com/japanese-rice/
  11. Squab (roasted) with Stuffed Morel (4.5/5)
    • Squab was served rare, with varying degrees of doneness. The very middle of the squab had no graining, while the outside was a very-reddish-slightly-pink shade with graining. I enjoyed the squab, it was well roasted with no chewiness and the stuffed morel was pungent.
    • Morels are the first sign of spring. It was truly a privilege to have eaten a meal in the short window between winter and spring when both morels and truffles were available.
  12. Miyazaki Wagyu with Grated Daikon (5/5)
    • Miyazaki wagyu is considered the best wagyu of Japan, over the Kobe region.
    • I did not ascertain the grading, but the seared beef just oozed fat like a sponge over the tongue, reminding me of otoro).
    • It was simply salted and served with vinegar-ed grated daikon. Simplicity itself, but a tremendous ingredients driven dish. Top marks.
  13. Buffalo cheese (partita) from Petaluma CA with hot tangerine jam (3.25/5)
  14. Shiso sorbet [functional dish, 3.75-4/5]
    • A green, strong herbaceous palate-cleansing scoop of shiso sorbet, about the size of a melonball scoop. Served in a plate with lots of holes at the outer 2/3 edge.
  15. Soba-tea (roasted buckwheat tea) ice cream, Caramel, Seaweed (3.5/5)
    • Not bad. Crispy seaweed and caramel on top, plated to look abit like the end of a honey-dipper.
  16. Spiced Chocolate Foam, Yuzu Marmalade, Sugar Globe (5/5)
    • A dark chocolate/yuzu cake base; a yuzu(?) sorbet in the center, with spiced chocolate foam around, and covered with a sugar globe.
    • The tastes were harmonious, creating a pleasantly spiced dessert on its own
    • However, what makes it truly spectacular is the sugar globe. Never have I seen such a perfectly clear (usually sugar glass is frosted and unclear) sugar glass with such thin-ness. It yielded easily to my spoon. (even the one made by an ex-Roca patissier at Restaurant Andre in Singapore was hard, and had the danger of cutting one’s lip). The technique required to make such a perfect sugar globe made for an amazing visual effect. Clearness and thin-ness, top class.
    • The globe was actually made of isomalt.
  17. Mignardises: Miso Cookie, Chocolate with Pistachio filling, Mango Tartlet

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?

2014-03-01 17.04.33

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:

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.

____________

2014-02-22 20.18.24 2014-02-22 20.20.562014-02-22 20.37.02

Chef Alex Crabb

____________

8-course menu

2014-02-22 20.41.42

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

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:

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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.

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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

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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

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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.

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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

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

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

XOCO in Chicago is ever-green

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

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

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

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

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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

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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.

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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.

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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

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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)

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Sorry for the blurriness!

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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”.

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