Tag Archives: 1* Michelin

Ta Vie in Hong Kong (Nov’ 15): “understated Japanese-French”

14 Nov

Rating: 16/20

I chose Ta Vie (“your life”) for a treat after a week at the cudgels. Hong Kong doesn’t lack for dining options, but the unique ones are few. Bo Innovation aside, most of the top end Michelin restaurants are either rehashes of foreign concepts (Tenku Ryugin, L’Atelier Robuchon, Sushi Shikon) or Cantonese. Cantonese doesn’t lend itself well to solo dining, so I decided to go with a place with Ryugin (a restaurant I enjoy) pedigree. Chef Hideaki Sato of Ta Vie was previously head chef of 2* Tenku Ryugin, perched imperiously on the 101st floor of ICC Tower. He left the restaurant earlier this year to set up Ta Vie in May. Between Ryugin and Ta Vie, I decided on Ta Vie because I’m a sucker for the idea that a chef-proprietor puts a more personal touch to his menu.

Japanese-French is an intriguing and distinct brand of French cooking. The flavors are precise and restrained, something that can be “grasped by the tongue”, but never provokes uncomfortable sensations. Every style is defined by absence and presence. , Japanese-French’s absence is the absence of discomfort. You will not find tongue-numbing spiciness, nor will the portions overwhelm the digestion to generate uncomfortable tummy sensations, nor will be there be much bitterness. The overall tenor is “restraint”. What will be present in Japanese-French are intensified flavors – from its Franco-phile heritage the brigade of intense sauces – consommé, reductions etc, from its Japanese heritage a partiality to seafood like abalone and uni; what will also be present is the Japanese focus on pleasing textures (usually pliant/soft/buttery/watery rather than crisp) – think the explosion of cod milt (shirako) or buttery wagyu.

Value for money? At about US$300, Ta Vie is in the top bracket for pricing. I don’t think it is quite worth the money for the amount of fireworks, because Chef Sato’s dishes tend to play it fairly safe. A notable exception was an exciting cold composition of Calpis soda foam with grapes, pears and aloe. Ta Vie is the kind of restaurant that’s torn between two imperatives, destination dining and canteen for the moneyed. A lot of the dishes were elegant (e.g. the turnip salad, the simmered abalone), but far from mindblowing. But that makes it poor value for the destination diner, and I don’t think its well-established as a “regulars’” restaurant. I think it’s caught between two stools and hasn’t found its niche – the dining room was half-full on a Friday night, so maybe the market agrees with me.



Turnip, crab meat, and house made fresh cheese salad, scent of yuzu

  • (3.5/5) A refreshing, if slightly pedestrian start.

“Lung Guang” chicken consommé flavored with “gobou” burdock with chicken wanton

  • (4.5/5) A well prepared chicken consommé, with delicate dumpling. Excellent taste and concentrated flavor



Lobster poached in bell pepper flavored oil served with bell pepper aioli

  • (4/5) Chinese lobster, good dish. Lobster was sinewy and well cooked.


Cod milt “a la meuniere” with crispy wing

  • (3.75/5) Cauliflower paste, shirako pan-fried with tuile. Tasty


Simmered abalone with vegetable salad tossed with wakame seaweed

  • (3.75/5) Abalone from Nagasaki, sudachi. The theme was understatement.

Wagyu “minute” steak with burnt onion and onsen egg, Japanese whisky sauce

  • (4.25/5) Kuroge A4 wagyu, sliced, to maximize the fatty feel of beef. Tasty whisky sauce. A successful wagyu dish is aligned with the restauranteur’s interest, in that less is more. Full-on wagyu steaks lack the flavor and are too fatty to be truly delicious. Slicing wagyu (as here) is a sustained pleasure, the smoothness on the tongue, vs cubing wagyu (as at Brooklyn Fare) which increases the visceral pleasure of a burst of fat.
  • As a main, this was a let-down. I believe a great dish should be more than a slapdash of ingredients (egg, beef, whisky). While it was well-prepared, it was ultimately a bit disappointing that a medley was the best the chef could come up with for a French meal.



Homemade pasta, Hokkaido uni, nori

  • (3.75-4/5) Unusually soft pasta (texture of hor fun) with a nice helping of nori. Pleasant.


Nashi Pear, “Shine” muscat and aloe, Calpis soda foam with fragrance of shiso flower

  • (4.75/5) The revelatory dish of the night. Calpis soda foam, sour, paired perfectly with cubes of pear, perfectly sweet muscat grapes and aloe. It broke the tacit agreement with the diner – “thou shall not use processed ingredients” – to great effect


Chestnut mont-blanc with 2008 aged Pu’er tea ice cream

  • (3.75/5) Nice meringues and sweet chestnut puree. The Pu’er tea ice cream didn’t taste much of Pu’er, probably the cold disguised its flavor. (we need to add more sugar to cold drinks to get the same level of perceived sweetness)


41° (“41 Degrees” / “41 Grados”) | Barcelona | Jun ’14 | “globetrotting”

11 Oct
  • Rating: 17.5/20
  • Address: Avinguda del Paral-lel, 164, 08015 Barcelona
  • Phone:+34 696 592 571
  • Price per pax: ~€200 ($270 at 1 EUR = 1.35 USD)
  • Value: 2.5/5
  • Dining time: 190 minutes
  • Chef: Oliver Peña
  • Style: Cosmopolitan
  • Michelin Stars: 1

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* 41 Degrees has closed, the concept is to be reworked. Therefore the following review of 41 Degrees circa June 2014 will primarily be of historical interest.

We have had many conversations where he discussed upcoming projects and plans for the future but things are fluid as he constantly tweaks and changes his plans. Pakta, his Peruvian- Japanese restaurant, and Tickets and 41° were not enough and then came Bodega 1900 and he closed 41° in August to announce Enigma to open in 2015. [Source: http://chefgeeta.wordpress.com/2014/09/29/albert-adria-fears-dreams/]

Other write-ups:

I liked my dinner at 41 Degrees very much. The food is technically well-executed, the service was impeccable, and it was a truly memorable experience overall to sit in that vaguely cosmic looking cocktail bar (with marvellous lighting for food photos) and be transported around Vietnam, Peru, Japan, Scandinavia, and back to Catalonia, in the course of 41 little bites. Praise due where praise is due. I think the key to understanding 41 Degrees is that the Experience is over and beyond any one dish. The Experience is a globe-trotting affair, that can drop you anywhere in the world with the next dish, from Thailand to France.

Today, I would like to address myself to a question of pure form: how much did I, as a consumer, enjoy the 40 or so dishes (independently of the Experience), in the extreme long-form, the reductio of the tasting-menu? The answer: Quite a bit, but not as much as shorter 5-20 course menus.

Micro-dishes. You dine on small dishes, one or two-bite wonders, at 41 Degrees. With such small dishes, one cannot know whether one likes it or not. The first bite reveals the 2-3 principal ingredients and textures, and if you are lucky enough to have a second, you pick up more nuance. But once it is gone, another comes to take its place. The advantage is clear: one can sample a broad array of the kitchen’s dishes and ability in a single meal.

But with it comes two problems with this style of serving:

(A) The Diner’s Memory. Before reading the menu again, 4 months on, I remembered less than a quarter of the 40 or so courses that were served, and textures and tastes bled into each other. I only remembered feeling ‘genial’ towards most of the food.

(B) 41 Great Dishes?. A second problem is the ability of the kitchen to come up with 41 great dishes. Of the 41 dishes, how many of them are mind-blowing, and how many of them were just good? I would say that almost all the dishes were just good (nothing really blowing me away – the airbaguette coming the closest). The good dishes seemed to be permutations of good ingredients, and good technique, with an unnecessary presentation gimmick. For example, take the 13th dish “Fideos with Enoki”. It had good taste, particularly in having a strongly flavored pork rib broth, spherified. One might praise the chef on capturing the strong taste of pork ribs in the cone. But is that mimesis of the real thing enough? Does it significantly better a pork rib? No, it is just a repermutation of the same idea. I rated it a 4/5, because it was enjoyable – by technical standards it was well executed, as an idea, vaguely interesting but not something that would stick in the memory.

(C) The Food serves the Experience And yet I would say while these two problems (subjective memory, and objective merit) are encouraged by the form of a 40-50 course tasting menu, part of the problem is the specific Experience of 41 Degrees that brings you around the world. Evoking so many different regions (Peru’s ceviches and pisco sours, Scandinavian carrots, French steak frites, Vietnamese banh mi, Chinese Peking duck) generally means that the food serves the experience – a global journey hitting multiple regional memories. The food was not the end in itself, but the entire experience was. To this amateur quizzer,  being able to  recognise after a moment or two – dishes I have encountered on my travels (e.g. ceviche, steak frites, fusion nigiri, Catalan prawns) was a meeting of two forms of pleasure – gustatory and quizzical.

The search for avant garde regional food at 41 Degrees makes me think of the term “Minimum Viable Product”,  very popular in Silicon Valley after the publication of Eric Ries’s book the Lean Startup in 2011 (but now probably on the wane, the flavor of the year being Peter Thiel and “definite optimism”). Many people (mis)understand “Minimum” to mean “throw shit on a wall and see what sticks”, but in the book, “Minimum” is left to the discretion of the market it is addressing. 41 Degrees addresses itself to a foodie crowd aware of its el Bulli heritage, and the “Minimum” standard of food is some well-executed avant-garde stuff. The restaurant itself focuses on a globetrotting Experience, and so in the quest for 41 interesting avant-garde regional dishes, many of the dishes are not mindblowing – but permutations of what exist.

The Experience however is something that I have not felt at any other restaurant, something very unique – a greatest hits compilation of culinary experiences that will appeal to the cosmopolitan foodie who is equally at home in Tokyo or in New York. Despite seeming critical here, I really enjoyed my overall meal there. I had planned on returning when in Barcelona again, but with its shuttering, I will visit some of the other Adria places next time instead.

Cocktails, Fruits, and Flowers

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  • 1 Spring Cocktail (4/5)
    • “Spring elixir” – caramelized pine bus, gin berry  paste, rose marmalade syrup, French white vermouth, Lilet Blanc
    • 41 Degrees started out as a cocktail bar. so it was fitting our meal started out with cocktail.

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  • 2 Lime Leaf and Sage Flower (3.5/5)
    • kaffir lime

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  • 3 Infused Pine Flower (3.25/5)
    • Blood orange gel

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  • 4 Licorice Cocoon and Strawberry Rose (3.75/5)
    • Rose strawberry amaretto

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  • 5 Humming Bird (4/5)
    • Milk /carrot/ orange/ gin/ shiso

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  • 6 Black Sesame Pearl (4/5)

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  • 7 Infused Watermelon
    • Infused beetroot licorice, yuzu flavors. Watermelon sweetness enhanced by beetroot’s, and yuzu gave a nice scent

East Asia

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  • 8 Buhto
    • Another cocktail in guise of a tea ceremony (though I can find no Google references to Buhto)
    • Sake/Sochu/cardamom/lemonquat. Shisha scent underneath those cups

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  • 9 Spicy Corn Tentacles (4.75/5)
    • Rice kimchi quinoa/ no octopus involved. Ingredient mimickry. Highly tasty

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  • 10 Tuna Millefeuille (4.75/5)
    • Nori, sushi rice, avocado, wasabi, tuna, millefeuille effect from puffed rice and crisp nori
    • Precise
    • This East Asian sequence was highly enjoyable. (5/5)

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  • 11 Oyster with Tiger Nut Milk (4.5/5)
    • Lemonquat (hybrid between lemon and kumquat)/ poached tigernut milk/ oyster seagrapes.
    • Lemon scent/pleasant globules of walled salinity/milky background

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  • 12 Aubergine with Caviar (4.5/5)
    • Osetra caviar, eggplant chip, hazelnut cream, spicy sesame olive oil.
    • I especially liked the eggplant chip, thin enough to be crisp. thick enough to have secondary texture.

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  • 13 Fideos with Enoki (4/5)
    • Little cone, spherification pork rib jus/ enoki julienned/ wild garlic flower
    • Good pork rib taste.

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  • 14 Parmesan and Porcini Forest Floor Pistachio and Berries
    • In multiple parts: ravellos -coconut ferrero rochers with parmesan cheese were all right (3.25/5)
    • Berries caramelized with wasabi (palate cleanser – 4/5)
    • Porcini mushroom leaves (3.75/5)
    • Pistachio, honey of pistachio – there was no nut, just a pistachio-shaped sculpted ganache (4.25/5)
    • Red currant with lemon orange powder (3.75/5)

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  • 15 Lily Flower with Romescu (3/5)

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  • 16 “Rubia Gallega” Airbaguette (4.5/5)
    • The only el Bulli era dish that made an appearance (from the 2003 season), bread, with Rubia Gallega cow “ham” – unctuouous and full-bodied, the satisfying taste of great ham
    • The “baguette” was all crust, and enjoined the best of bread with one of the best hams.

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  • 18 Miso Asparagus (3/5)
    • Braised white asparagus, black garlic, white miso + sesame oil
    • The sauce was like drinking the sesame oil used for stir frying bok choy. Intense

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  • 19 White Asparagus Bone (3.5/5)
    • Bone marrow with pork rib jus, boiled w asparagus, suckling pork rib sauce.
    • Neither white asparagus dish was very good.

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  • 20 Chicken and Crayfish (3.75/5)
    • “Surf and turf” fried chicken skin and crayfish, crayfish consomme jelly.
    • Crayfish was of unexciting quality.

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  • 21 Suquet (4.75/5)
    • Any dish graced with Catalonian prawns can simply go on cruise control – because these prawns are simply the best in the world. Here in a shell, there  was a suquet soup, with prawns from Maresme (2/3 of the way between Barcelona and Sant Pau restuarant in Sant Pol de Mar).
    • The prawn was softer than the Palamos prawns at Etxebarri – but was succulently sweet. Bewitching quality.
    • http://www.spain-recipes.com/suquet.html

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  • 22 Nordic Toast
    • Baby carrot, beetroot gel, horseradish, sour cream, (3.5/5)
    • beef carpaccio, vegetables, sour cream, vinegar powder (4/5)
    • Inappropriate comparison: The vinegar, sour cream tasted like a deconstruction of the Big Mac special sauce, and the beef carpaccio lended it a further Big Mac-ish quality.

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  • 23 Nitro Bloody and Agave Amber
    • Bloody Mary Sorbet: tomato, pineapple coffee.(4.25/5)
    • Bloody , mezcal. (chipito and white coffee) (4.75/5)

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  • 24 Prawns “Aguachile” (4/5)
    • Ceviche/chilli, peppercorn. Lemon/lime/chilli, avocado
    • The “tiger’s milk” of ceviche, dominated, strong sour tastes. I don’t really like that sharp kick. My favorite ceviche dishes (see my write-up of Maido in Lima) temper this sharp kick (e.g., by liquid nitrogen)

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  • 25 Nigiri Nikkei (4/5)
    • Smoked red mullet, tapioca, fried corn, dried lemon with stuffed kumquat
    • Woody smokiness

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  • 26 Ceviche Norteño/ Atahualpa 3.0
    • White seabass, yellow aguachile/ crispy yucca chip/sweet potato mash/ choclo corn (4.25/5)
    • Pisco sour, pineapple juice, apple liqueur, purple corn (4.75/5)

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  • 27 Duck Bagel (3.75/5)
    • Brioche Bagel w sesame seeds, peking duck, pickled gennel, cucumber

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  • 28 French Bite (4.25/5)
    • Meat and potatoes, souffle potato with bearnaise inside, iberian pork belly, macerated black trumpets, charcoal oil, sweet wine reduction
    • A ha! What was puzzling before reveals itself as Steak Frites! A clever dish, the reference of a French Bite only made sense when I crunched into the potato souffle, releasing the bearnaise.

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  • 29 Vietnamese Roll of Squid (3.75/5)
    • Pepper, shiso, rice, squid with sauteed garlic chilli/peanut/ugly grapefruit
    • Dip: lime juice, thai chilli, fish soup

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  • 30 Vietnamese Tea (4.25/5)
    • Shitake tea – salty

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  • 31 Banh Mi Cookie
    • Foie

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  • 32 Redcurrant Meringue and Sweet Potato (3.75/5)
    • Mustard cream (reminiscent of the signature beetroot meringue with horseradish cream starter at the Fat Duck ***)
    • Sweet potato cooked in quicklime to give it a skin, mashy inside, Kumquat jelly and chilli oil outside

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  • 33 Thaiquiri/Coconut Mató (4.5/5)
    • Texture of coconut cream
    • Honey: Rum daiquiri, lemongrass, pineapple, honey

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  • 34 Soy-Temaki (4/5)
    • Sweet temako, black quinoa, soy sauce ice cream, lime zest

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  • 35 Mango Dried Peach (4/5)
    • A large amount of liquid mango with an impressively robust skin

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  • 36 Fresisuisse (4.25/5)
    • Yoghurt biscuit, pleasant strawberry flavor

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  • 37 Dragon egg/ Chai Lassi
    • Baby dragon eggs – orange zest/cold/meringue (4.5/5)
    • Lassi- chai mango, curry, almonds, yoghurt powder, curry powder (4.25/5),

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  • 38 Classic Lemon Pie Cup Cake (4.25/5)

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  • 39 Quico Rocher (4.25/5)

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  • 40. 41 Grados Tronch (4/5)
    • Gingerbread brownie/chocolate /matcha green tea soil

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Asador Etxebarri | Axpe | Jun ’14 | “Round Two”

16 Aug
  • Rating: 20/20
  • Address: Calle de San Juán, 1, 24549 Atxondo, Vizcaya, Vizcaya, Spain
  • Phone:+34 946 58 30 42
  • Price per pax: ~€150 ($202 at 1 EUR = 1.35 USD)
  • Value: 5/5
  • Dining time: 195 minutes
  • Chef: Victor Arguinzoniz
  • Style: Wood-Barbecue
  • Michelin Stars: 1

Previous Write-ups:

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SUNDAY came, and the sun trickled through the windows. It was the day – a second rendezvous with the delights of wood-grilled barbecue – 3 whole days after I had been there. A second visit to a tasting-menu restaurant is like reading a second novel by a favorite author – another opportunity to take in a preferred cooking/writing style, while having the particulars changed.

And I had enjoyed my first meal there very much. The smoke was directed by the hands of a master.

The drive there took 45 minutes – this time I did not miss the turn-off at Durango, and as I arrived on the verandah the meal began.

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  • Marrow Squash (4.25/5)
    • Three salty slices of marrow, with a gentle smoke. I remember the stolid integrity of the green slices, still quite firm

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  • Tomato (4.25/5)
    • A sweet oversized tart berry, salted atop the kiss of the grill
    • When cut with a knife, the specimen exploded with juice,
    • and quickly folded under.

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  • Cracker (4/5)
    • Xixa cepas – sliced raw a top a cracker. Similar to the treatment of St George’s mushrooms in my first meal
    • Quite some confidence, to put sliced raw mushrooms on a cracker!

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  • Brochette of chanterelle (5/5)
    • Great. Each of the chanterelles – A deep smoky flavor outside, but inside the delicate mild-fresh taste of spring.
    • Made crisp at ends of the cap when grilled, the chanterelles were a shade of orange so aggressive on the eye, it recalled the warning shades of radioactive-orange.
    • At the end, I drank all of the mushroom liquor.
    • Simplicity itself. It got me thinking about the source of my happiness – Do we have to travel all the way to a far place, to put enough aesthetic distance between ourselves and simply-prepared flavorful food, that we can enjoy it anew? I think the answer is “No”. The effort in travel, whether it imparts aesthetic distance between ourselves and simple food, or whether it connotes a sense of personal luxury, is not the main reason. I think of the main reason is still the rare talent/genius of chef-proprietors (particularly minimalists like Passard, and Arguinzoniz) who listen to their environment, and know what it can bring. We travel not to impart aesthetic distance or luxury to simple food in order to enjoy eating it; we travel because there are geniuses who have mastered a thousand little details to make simple food that is enjoyable to eat, and even mysteriously – connotes aesthetic pleasure, and luxury.
    • For I have travelled a long way for simple food many a times (e.g. Empanadas in Argentina, bouillabaisse in Marseille) – but have not had the same visceral reaction of aesthetic pleasure and luxury due to a lack of attention from the chef. Too oily empanadas here, too astringently garlick a bouillabaisse there. So it isn’t just about simple food. It is about the interplay of first-class ingredients and first-class cooking. (both of which the empanadas and bouillabaisse generally lacked)
    • And Passard and Arguinzoniz, among others, are showing that first-class cooking doesn’t have to be very noisy. It can be stripped down, but minimalism seems to have its own rules to create a full-bodied experience – that only a select handful of chefs in the minimalist can execute on extremely well -> the varietals of smoke for Arguinzoniz, the vegetable varietals for Passard.

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  • Oyster and spinach (4/5)
    • A gently smoked oyster, with no grilling
    • Spinach to cut sweetness of oyster

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  • Caviar (5/5)
    • Smoked caviar. Using a custom-made pan with micro-slits. (I think you can find pictures on Google)
    • The yolk had ever-so-slightly set a bit more than normal
    • The caviar was smoked with a strong robust, wood smoke
    • A complete food in its saltiness. Decadent, perfect. Every bite only prompted more hunger, the hunger that the robust wood smoke provokes, someplace deep and primal in the brain. In my brain, there is a switch for the connection between delicious woodsmoke and hunger, and this dish turned it on.

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  • Goose barnacles (4.5/5)
    • “Percebes” – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Goose_barnacle
    • With a coating that looks like nylon stockings but is actually an impenetrable rubbery armor, it took a firm twist to open the percebes and… squirt it all over myself. A amniotic-red fluid drizzled over my jacket.
    • And then you’re confronted with striated bands of what seems a fleshy, squat, finger. “Pop-toe” was the word that came to mind.
    • I popped it in my mouth. Delicious, with the tenderness of lobster, with the crunchiness of Maine lobster.
    • This was the one dish where Victor’s grilling seemed to have made the least impact – there was a subtle grilling taste which made it really good. But the star was indubitably the crunchy barnacle flesh. Probably the lack of telling impact from being grilled came from the barnacle’s hermetic seal within its protective casing – it really took a firm twist to access its flesh
    • The little tentacly bits at the base of the percebes had a mix of crunchy textures.
    • An expensive delicacy, its odd looks have also prompted an odd history:

In the days before it was realised that birds migrate, it was thought that Barnacle Geese, Branta leucopsis, developed from this crustacean, since they were never seen to nest in temperate Europe,[2] hence theEnglish names “goose barnacle”, “barnacle goose” and the scientific name Lepas anserifera (Latin anser = “goose”). The confusion was prompted by the similarities in colour and shape. Because they were often found on driftwood, it was assumed that the barnacles were attached to branches before they fell in the water. The Welsh monk, Giraldus Cambrensis, made this claim in his Topographia Hiberniae.[3] Since barnacle geese were thought to be “neither flesh, nor born of flesh”, they were allowed to be eaten on days when eating meat was forbidden by religion. (Wikipedia)

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  • Lobster (5/5)
    • I’m very grateful that the kitchen managed to source a first-class Galician female lobster that hadn’t laid its eggs yet.
    • A tremendous feast, pulsing with pinkish egg sacs that were like sheets of silken tofu skin.
    • A dark, angry purple of hard eggs, seemed like a rock-wand of eggs.
    • The soft gelatinous texture of lobster tail end, mixed with perfect firmness when you bit into it from the top
    • The most concentrated crustacean flavor that came from the claw
    • A bit of toughness from the middle tail segment
    • the nice and frilly gills of the lobster.
    • And more echoes of the tasty claw in the legs.
    • A salty, smokey liqueur from the lobster was just irresistible
    • A great feast and gift of a course from the kitchen

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  • Baby squid caramelized onion and its ink (4.75/5)
    • The tentacles of the squid so crisp; the give of squid body to the knife; Sweet onions

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  • Mushrooms and egg-plant (4.5/5)
    • Sweet and tender eggplant, nutty

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  • Green beans (4.25/5)
    • Paprika sauce, gentle, the beans a bit bitter than the sweet peas

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  • Grouper and Green peas (4.75/5)
    • An incomparably tender and gelatinous grouper, with the sweet green peas.
    • Crisp skin, with pil-pil sauce.
    • It had the gelatinous cooking of sous-vide, without the insipid uniformity of texture from said cooking method. It was great.

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  • Beef chop (5/5)
    • Piece-de-break-my-resistance
    • This steak was a reprise from the first meal, though I would say that this had slightly more tendons and was a bit more chewy.
    • When your rational mind is telling you that this is the best steak you have ever-eaten, and are ever likely to eat; but your stomach is telling you that you are too full, that is the definition of a moral dilemma. If I did not have a flight to Barcelona in 3.5 hours, I would have happily sat down for an hour to regain my bloody-minded-ness, my Man Vs Food resolve, and finished that steak, soaked in a most vibrantly bloody liqueur.
    • I managed about half, before waving the white flag. “no puedo mas”.
    • 2 months later, I still regret not bagging that steak to go. I hope the family dogs ate well, at least

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  • Reduced milk ice cream with red fruit infusion (5/5)
    • I begged for a reprise of the smoked milk ice cream from the first meal, and got it.
    • It refreshed my appetite; I finished it all.

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  • Flan of cheese (5/5)
    • A silken flan, liberated from a metal cylinder,
    • the softness of the flan went right up against edge of structural integrity for a cylinder, and for a brief moment looked like it just might not hold – but of course it did. The absolute silken-ness, and caramelised sweet cheese tastes, made this my Platonic form of flan.
    • Another masterful dish. Asador Etxebarri formed so many happy culinary memories over the course of two meals there.

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  • Mignardise (4.5/5)
    • Raspberry liqueur inside

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The wizard of the grill.

Asador Etxebarri | Axpe | Jun ’14 | “Round One”

25 Jul
  • Rating: 19.5/20
  • Address: Calle de San Juán, 1, 24549 Atxondo, Vizcaya, Vizcaya, Spain
  • Phone:+34 946 58 30 42
  • Price per pax: ~€150 ($202 at 1 EUR = 1.35 USD)
  • Value: 5/5
  • Dining time: 190 minutes
  • Chef: Victor Arguinzoniz
  • Style: Barbecue
  • Michelin Stars: 1


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THURSDAYBasque country is a wondrous beast. Driving its windy two-lane* roads, one can quickly move from the seaside scapes of Getaria, with its coastal roads filled with recreational walkers and cyclists taking in the sea breeze, to the one lane dirt roads that feed rural farms, not so much sculpted as gently ribboned onto the mountains of Basque country. On these mountain tracks, one hardly meets other cars, let alone other walkers**. Such was the landscape 30 minutes away from Asador Etxebarri, which meant that I was lost.

* (The main highway between Bilbao and Sebastian is mostly a two-lane affair with a speed limit of 120km. But since it only has two lanes, in practice this means either chugging along at 80-90km behind heavy transportation trucks on the right lane, or being tailgated by racing fantasists at 130-140km on the left “overtaking lane”.)

** (Since it generally takes 10-20 minutes to make a complete circuit on one of these Basque mountain roads, I found it easier to just U-turn when in doubt.)

After some fruitless examination of my Google Maps GPS (I had a internet dongle with me), I realised the voice-instructions were generally misleading. Some roads had shifted direction, and more than once I had been prompted to go down the wrong end of a one-way road. I eventually solved the problem by heading to the bigger town of Durango, before keying in directions to Axpe. The key was an easily-missed exit at one of the 400 roundabouts in the area.

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Stepping out of the car, I smelt pleasant woodsmoke in the breeze, and a quaintly bricked building. The front door opened into an empty bar, and then a staircase brought me up to the second floor, where all the diners were.

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There are at least two areas to dine at Etxebarri: the indoor dining room, which is functionally decorated, with a centerpiece of flowers, or the outdoor verandah. I dined indoors Thursday, and on the verandah Sunday – and my favorite spot was definitely the verandah.

Asador Etxebarri occupies a spot very close to many diners’ hearts. It is proclaimed to be the best barbecue restaurant on the planet, staffed by a skeleton kitchen crew that includes Bittor (Victor) Arguinzoniz and perhaps 3-5 other staff in a very small kitchen. Victor Arguinzoniz is a man who has never seen an ingredient he didn’t want to grill.

Initially, Arguinzoniz served iconic Basque asador (grill-house) dishes: chuletas (bone-in rib eyes), whole sea bream, cogote de merluza (hake neck). The flavors were charred and delicious but one-dimensional, and eventually, inspired by the prime ingredients served at the white-tablecloth restaurants he occasionally visited, he wanted more. “What if delicacies like foie gras or spiny lobster met the grill?” he’d fantasize. And so, in the late ’90s, he did the impossible: He grilled angulas, which are so fragile and miniscule no sane chef would ever toss them onto the grate. Actually, Arguinzoniz didn’t try to toss them onto the grate either. Instead, he invented a meshlike stainless steel saucepan and positioned it high above the hot coals. A few years later, he divined a way of grilling fresh anchovies, sandwiching two tender little butterflied fish together, misting them with Txakoli spray and then cooking them for a nanosecond. They arrived at the table barely heated through and improbably succulent, with a touch of wood smoke. Food critics who tasted them went crazy.

Taking grill cuisine to unexpected places required a whole new set of equipment. Since the necessary tools didn’t exist, Arguinzoniz designed them himself. Lining the entire wall of his kitchen are six custom-made, stainless steel grills. The grates move up and down during cooking through an ingenious system of tracks and pulleys controlled by a wheel. This way, the ingredients’ distance from heat can be regulated with perfect precision. The grills are powered by wood coal that Arguinzoniz prepares himself, twice a day, in two 750-degree ovens. Very few ingredients are grilled directly on grates. (Arguinzoniz scrapes the grills every day anyway, to remove the scent of old carbon char and any accumulated drippings.) Rather, he cooks the food in various sievelike baskets and pans he’s created. Can an egg yolk be grilled? Yes, in a little ringed fine sieve with removable sides, which looks like a miniature cake pan. Caviar? In a double-tiered lidded mesh pan, at 122 degrees and just until it starts sweating oil. Arguinzoniz’s most famous invention is a laser-perforated pan for cooking risotto. So fine are the holes that smoke enters while liquid stays in. “Each ingredient demands its own precise timing and heat intensity,” the chef says. He oversees every order that comes out of his kitchen. – Anya von Bremzen, “Victor Arguinzoniz: The Grilling Genius of Spain”, http://www.foodandwine.com/articles/victor-arguinzoniz-the-grilling-genius-of-spain

And more from Jay Rayner:

“But Bittor is a restless soul, and he started experimenting. He decided charcoal was too harsh and so, around the turn of the millennium, moved backwards to the original wood and took the kitchen inside. He began fashioning metal implements with which to cook using smoke, soldering and welding the pieces together himself. The cooking range is a marvellous self-built Heath Robinson affair: six different grills with different width grids, all of which can be raised and lowered on a pulley system. There are pans with open-mesh bases to allow the smoke to reach the ingredients, and covered pots with big funnel-like holes in the middle for steaming open clams and mussels with smoke. This restaurant, Hastie tells me, is not about dishes and creations. “It’s all about the ingredients. Nothing else.” He shows me filtration tanks full of live lobsters and crabs, and turbot still swimming about. There is a basket of slippery eels and another of oysters the size of side plates. Mushrooms and green herbs are brought in by foragers and in the winter there is game shot by local huntsmen. Most of the vegetables come from Bittor’s own smallholding up the hill, which is overseen by his 86-year-old father.” – Jay Rayner, “The best place to eat barbecue“, http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2009/sep/13/best-place-to-eat-barbecue

Having tried his dishes, I am convinced that Victor is the greatest chef of the grill. He never uses charcoal, because he believes it too harsh and bitter. The end results are spectacular. In this first meal, I had his famous chuleta (ribeye), mozzarella, some amazing Palamos prawns, baby octopus, peas, anchovies and a smoked milk ice cream that provoked first a chuckle of admiration for his dedication to the art of the grill, and then a more serious appraisal of its merits: one of the best ice creams I have ever eaten in my life.

How long will Victor Arguinzoniz continue at the helm of the kitchen? One hopes, for a long long time to come. The following meal is the first round of dishes I had at Etxebarri. Heeding the dictum to eat there as often as possible, I would have a second round there three days later.

Like Jay Rayner, I cannot say that I am well-versed in the subtleties of the smokiness of different woods. In the world of grilling, I don’t think anyone can adequately judge Victor’s Arguinzoniz’s food, because simply of how innovative he is, and the kinds of techniques he brings to all kinds of rare delicacies. The Michelin system and the fussy modernist aesthetic they currently favour, is irrelevant to such a restaurant. (It has a single star, but on culinary merit alone would easily surpass most three-stars). Hence most food critics or writers, coming to Etxebarri, treat the cooking with a deserved awe. The vocabulary of smoke is limited compared to Victor’s own intuitions and techniques about grilling, and thus ironically, it is Etxebarri and not modernist cuisine which provoked in me feelings of ineffability. Today, one can dive into Myhrvold’s Modernist Cuisine or watch a conference demonstration video, and find out how 95% of modernist dishes are made. The epicurean experience of a 10 or 20 or 30 course modernist tasting menu can be rationalised into its constituent methods and techniques. But the tastes of the grill at Etxebarri are heady and complex, yet frustratingly elusive in description. The epicurean experience, that feeling of being confronted with something ineffable-new-innovative and consequently just going with the flow, is what some have described as their feelings when they experienced the dishes of el Bulli. For me, the epicurean experience, that feeling of being confronted with the ineffable and innovative, and having without a choice to go with the flow, guided by the genius of the chef (who hits heights one could not even previously perceive), is not today to be found in the modernist restaurants, but in the smoky aromas of Etxebarri.

Notable write-ups:

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  • Butter of goat’s milk with black salt (5/5)
    • A woodsmoked butter. Great. Spread as much on your bread as possible.

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  • Mozzarella of buffalo (5/5)
    • Mostly tasting of buffalo’s milk, there was that vague taste of woodsmoke in the delightfully meaty texture of the mozzarella. A dish to die for. The smoking was so subtle, just tantalisingly out of reach, that a diner wants to fill his/her mouth with its flavor by chewing a bite more, and then a bite more, and then suddenly the mozzarella has disappeared. And with it, the tantalisingly out-of-reach smoky flavors within. A dish that surely fulfilled the stomach via the mozzarella, but the smoking within was transcendental, and trying to taste more than the coquettish hints of it, was a trial of Tantalus. Perfect.

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  • Salted anchovy with toasted bread (5/5)
    • Perfect salting, not too salty, with a richness of taste. The anchovy required no complement (too-salty anchovies sometimes do), but by itself was perfect. It had the completeness of the best jamon.

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  • Chorizo elaborated from acorn-fed pork (4.5/5)
    • mmmmmmm. I could live on this series of snacks.
    • warm, hearty chorizo.

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  • Cracker (3.75/5)
    • With mushrooms from nearby Amboto mountain. (Anboto in Basque). They tasted like light papery slices of mushroom, which was palate-cleansing.

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  • Croquette (4/5)
    • Warm and creamy chicken within, grilled on the pastry.

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  • Prawns from Palamós (5/5)
    • Prawns that made me go weak at the knees. One begins the ritual by biting off the head. Within, a thick green liqueur of prawn head-juices. The correct way to eat it is to get all of it into your mouth, by any means necessary. My method involved raising the prawn heads at 90 degrees to my mouth.
    • Then, one spies bright orange pads at the side of the prawn head. Sweet and marine, like uni.
    • Then, the sweet and tender flesh of the prawn.
    • Now, the prawn has been grilled. It is easy to crunch off its legs, which are crunchy and salty like crisps.
    • And now, to add to all of that, imagine all of this is happening while being confronted with the intoxicating smells of woodsmoke while you are eating it. I could have eaten 20 of these, if they had served me more. A la carte dangles that delightful possibility.
    • These were perfect. Palamós prawns are reputed to be the best prawns in Europe. It is true. Holy moly. If mankind ever invents a method to preserve dishes for posterity, I will nominate this one to represent the “prawn” category.
    • Spain is blessed with the best prawns on the face of this planet. (Maybe besides Japan; and the Obsiblue prawns off Australia).

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  • Sea cucumber and green beans (4/5)
    • Not chewy to the teeth, a slight bitterness in the sea cucumber cut by the taste of beans. A good pairing.

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  • Baby octopus caramelized onions and its ink (5/5)
    • Ooooh. Tender octopus, with mini-bursts of saltiness whenever I popped of its inky-black eyeballs. Really really good.
    • With a compote of caramelized onions. Mmmm, a kiss of smoke, and oh so tender.
    • These are grilled in a strainer bowl (you can see a picture in the Jay Rayner review)

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  • Scrambled eggs of St. George’s mushrooms (3.5/5)
    • Like a soup. I found this hearty, though lacking a bit in taste.
    • St George’s mushrooms are considered a rare delicacy.

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  • Green peas in their juice (5/5)
    • !!!!!!!!
    • peas, in a salty broth of their juices to contrast with the sweetness of the pea. The broth had subtle smoke flavors.
    • Each pea was incredibly juicy and yielding to the teeth, like little pop-grapes, flavored with pea. Incomparably excellent.

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  • Throat of hake with asparagus (4.5/5)
    • Kokotxas pil pil, with white asparagus. The asparagus was falling apart, and asparagus juices mixed with the pil pil sauce. The kokotxas were gelatinous soft.
    • I’m not really a fan of the garlicky pil-pil sauce.
    • The smell of smoke, as intense as any Texas barbecue place.

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  • Beef chop (5/5)
    • The famous Galician ribeye (chuleta) of Victor, cooked over heat intense enough to carbonise bone, within a meaty liqueur of salt, fat, and beef. It is perfect. It is a steak to end all steaks. The redness of the meat, beefy intense, like a piece of heat-crusted meat on the outside revived into beefiness within. The charring from the wood grill and the flakes of salt scattered on its crust, perfect. A marvel.
    • Charred texture, meat liqueur, flakes of salt. What’s there not to <3?
    • Served with lettuce and vinegar, to cut the heaviness of the steak.

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  • and on to desserts…

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  • Reduced milk ice cream with red fruit infusion (5/5)
    • Smoked milk ice cream. How? Buckets of milk in an oven, to absorb the aromas of fire.
    • It was a cognitive double-take, the smoky flavors we usually associate with heat, with the cold temperature of a floral milk ice cream. Perfect. Paired with red fruit infusion, which was a good fruit-ish complement to the ice cream.

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  • Fritters of elderflower (4.75/5)
    • A grilled cheese bun, with a flowery cream filling. Great.

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  • Mignardise (4.75/5)
    • A financier.

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Coffee for the road.

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My trusty Mercedes steed, by my side through all of Pais Vasco.

Double review of Atelier Crenn (San Francisco, April ’14) and Hedone (London, May ’14)

8 Jun
  • Atelier Crenn rating: 17/20
  • Hedone rating: 16/20


I visited the Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona recently for the first time, and happened to look upon the Josep M Subirachs’ Passion Edificio, and was especially struck by the sculpture of Christ hanging by the wrists. The difference is that this Christ was hanging only by his hands from a cross horizontally suspended from the front of the church, instead of being vertically planted into the ground. Subirach’s atypical sculpture emphasised one element of the grotesque brutality of crucifixion – the downward pressure of gravity on hands – out of a few other choices, the flayed skin from the condemned’s back, the nails being driven through the hands to create the stigmata (usually the emphasis).

This highly personal idiosyncracy, is what I consider the touchstone of modernism in the arts. To me, Modernism is an individualist ethos, not a style. I much prefer this highly stylised sort of sculpture over the strict requirements of Renaissance photorealism began to be relaxed for the painters, with the perfection of perspectival rules, most of which leaves me cold. It seems to me that much of the painter’s energy was engaged in portraiture as ur-photography for the nobility, so that art from those centuries tend to be either functional portraits that were intended as ur-photos, or second-rate allegorical scenes.

Modernism could thus be equivalent to the maxim of “letting a thousand flowers bloom”. And in the splintering, we find very few schools with many people working within a strictly defined aesthetic, as the photorealistic Renaissance school. The radical cubist portraiture of Picasso (Ambrose Vollard, man with guitar) may be allied with the cubist landscapes of Braque, but one generally finds not that many major cubist styles that Picasso had not done (he was legendarily prolific with 50,000+ paintings; and in the 30s, he painted luminously round portraits of his mistress, and in his 50s he created a much more fluid subject-cubism with surrealist backdrops, I recall a picture of a convoluted sea monster on a beach, which name temporarily escapes me). Why is Gaudi’s interpretation of Christ hanging from the “ceiling” by the wrists successful? What makes it successful (and surprising) is a long history of Christ crucifixion depictions, such that the viewer always has that reference point of a vertical cross. And that reference point is a pillar of strength in modernist interpretations, because it gives another data point to dazzle the diner (see, the Atera cracked-egg dessert, or the Alinea balloon).

And so too is modernism in food, if the increasing amount of personalisation outside of the French-haute cuisine style can be analogised with the increasingly personalised styles at the dawn of modernism in the early 20th century. When Ferran Adria calls his style of food “techno-emotional”, it is not the direct style of food that other chefs imitate (who explicitly calls his/her food “techno-emotional”?) but the ethos of changing the menu every year to something completely different, committed to providing the diner with new dishes and new sensations no matter what the cost. In this sense el Bulli seems similar to the practice of the unclassifiable Picasso (who was more than a cubist, producing some first-rate Blue-period pictures). This seems the real legacy of modernism in food, an ethic of constant and personal exploration.


On top of the substratum of the chef’s ethic (of ceaseless exploration of new flavor possibilities, of organic, of loca-vore, which is the internalised ethic of almost all of the top chefs in the US) is style. Here Chef Dominique Crenn, to extend the analogy of early modernist art, seems to be a cross between a surrealist and a abstract painter. This is not a merely visual analogy, this style extends to the flavor combinations she produces as well. Atelier Crenn may well be the most imaginative restaurant I had the chance to visit in the US this year (more than Alinea, or Atera; who else could think of an all-encompassing dessert from the life of bees, or create a vegetable pin-cushion using a vinegar meringue, or a Dali-esque composition involving Birth?), but there is something missing about the harmony of the tastes sometimes. Atelier Crenn is still a work in progress, and of the 5 fine-dining meals I had in the Bay Area in April, it was perhaps the weakest. But it is also one of two meals (with Manresa) that satisfied the intellectual and artistic senses the most. There is no doubt that Chef Crenn is a true artist, my hope for my next visit is that the pleasures of tongue will match the pleasure she conjures for the eyes.

In my first fine-dining visit to California (Atelier Crenn, Saison, Benu, Manresa, Meadowood), I found that the old stereotype about Californian cooking, where ingredient-simplicity rules (under the influence of Alice Waters from Chez Panisse), is simply not valid. Chefs there are taking great risks with modifying the ingredients. If Atelier Crenn is abstract surrealism, then one can analogise Californian-naturalism a la Waters, with Renaissance realism in art history. Modernism’s personal expression makes it prone to going out of fashion, as adhesion to an artist’s personal aesthetics can easily change, but it generates greater loyalty than a widely-accepted dogma as Californian naturalism, or Renaissance realism. That is the evangelist-mass-adopter distinction found in Silicon Valley business thinking. But like Renaissance realism is a second-rate artistic school for me, pure naturalism when it comes to ingredients, seeking to transform them as minimally as possible, seems a second-rate cooking philosophy. Pure naturalism cannot produce truly great dishes. While I have never found a formula for the great dishes I have liked, I don’t remember ever thinking a very simply cooked dish was truly great – there are usually just too many jagged edges in the ingredient pairings, that must be smoothed down by the chef to ensure a harmonious interlocking taste profile. It is necessary for a chef to have the leeway to transform the ingredients.


Mikael Jonsson of Hedone is a man who has surely has opinions on Californian cuisine. Formerly co-writing the influential  Gastroville blog with Vedar Milor (now writing as Gastromondiale), he opened Hedone in London in 2011, and seems to have taken down the restaurant reviews he formerly wrote on Gastroville. Hedone is a restaurant that specialises in ingredients sourcing. Indeed, ingredients seem to have been the focus of the Gastroville and Gastromondiale blogs. The restaurant is pegged by Mr Andy Hayler (a hugely influential critic and blogger who has been to every 3* restaurant in the world), as serving food between the 2*-3* level. When I visited in late May, the impeccably sourced ingredients, were half-the-time minimally transformed. This created an association in my mind between Hedone and my trip to California. Here, in London, of all places, I had found a restaurant that seemed in tune with the stereotypical Californian naturalist philosophy, minimally transforming ingredients a la Waters.

That half of the Hedone menu (Dorset seabass, Scottish hand-dived scallop, asparagus, pork, lamb) reminded me heavily of that ingredients-first philosophy. While I enjoyed that half of the menu, I also found there to be limits on how nice a pure-ingredient dish could be. Perhaps the best of those was the Scottish hand-dived scallop, which had a crunchiness that was really superb. So it was all the more disappointing when the oyster, and lamb (the last main) were comparatively devoid of taste. When Hedone’s ingredient dishes work, they are very good though not great dishes. I remember the texture of the scallops, but not as well the mint, lime, cucumber flavors that came with it. So too the sea bass, where the bass was good but the accompaniments more forgettable. But sometimes the cult of the ingredient-dish can puzzle with its intimations of the Eleusinian mysteries – the bland lamb (very good, I’m sure) and nice pork (pleasant) not really showcasing any added delta in performance from superior ingredients.

One commonality of both my Atelier Crenn and Hedone meals was that the last mains (guinea fowl, AC; lamb, Hedone) were disappointing, which lowers the score of both restaurants. The last main is the crescendo, which all courses build up to. More care must be paid by both restaurants to the last main.

The more modernist touches on display at Hedone were pleasant but paid less attention to the texture of the dish than I would like (I liked the taste of a cuttlefish confit, but had to basically saw my way through a thin slice of cuttlefish; a Parmesan ravioli was a bit rough). Where Hedone really shines are the desserts – a chocolate fondant and Gariguette strawberries are truly memorable creations.

Hedone reminds me of Saison, though much less polished. What I think separates the two is that there a consistent cooking philosophy across the plate at Saison: transformation by fire. I did not as much perceive the individual style of Mikael Jonsson in his cooking, beyond the testimony of his ingredients themselves. I do genuinely wonder if Hedone will develop a signature style as Mr Jonsson matures as a chef, given his own ideological commitments to clarity of ingredient tastes set out in his Gastroville blog.

Which provokes the amusing thought-experiment. What if the two restaurants switched places? It almost seems as if Hedone and Mikael Jonsson are spiritual successors to the ingredient-first philosophies of Alice Waters and Chez Panisse. That we should eat the very best local ingredients in fine-dining, is now a global ethos that has transcended France and Alice Waters’ California. And Atelier Crenn being particularly modernist-process-driven, is a restaurant that could really exist anywhere in the world today.

ATELIER CRENN (San Francisco, April 2014)

  • Address: 3127 Fillmore St, San Francisco, CA 94123, United States
  • Rating: 17/20
  • Value for money: 2/5
  • Price I paid (after tax and tip, ex. drink): $260 ($195 base menu price)
  • Chef: Dominique Crenn (ex. Luce (SF))
  • Michelin Stars: 2

*Note: Menu and dish descriptions are a poem written by Dominique Crenn herself.

EDIT: Here is a video of most of the dishes, being prepared by the kitchen.

2014-04-23 23.55.48 2014-04-24 00.11.581. Spring has come with its cool breeze (4.25/5)

    • Kir Breton, creme de cassis jelly within
    • Cider suspension with the creme de cassis jelly, within a cocoa butter shell.
    • Fruity, dominating liqueur. Very enjoyable.

2014-04-24 00.13.22 2014-04-24 00.14.23 2014-04-24 00.17.20 2014-04-24 00.17.312. Mellow serenades of colors licorice and orange (4.25/5)

    • Uni custard, with caviar from Sacramento Delta. Smoked potato gelee, licorice consomme. Interesting.

2014-04-24 00.17.383. Under the midnight glow I can taste the sweetness of the sea (4/5)

    • Kusshi oyster poached with black garlic, seaweed

2014-04-24 00.22.51Crackers

    • bitter tasting, almost like cordyceps

2014-04-24 00.27.01 2014-04-24 00.27.124. Where the broad ocean leans against the Spanish land (5/5)

    • This was the most memorable dish of the night. Squid like a noodle. Ham (Californian Berkshire ham hock, belying the description which foreshadowed Iberico) and truffle (Perigord, from Tasmania, Australia) consomme,
    • Lardo, aioli. potato chip.
    • Complex broth. Salty squid noodles. A complex bite, where the ham and truffles did most of the heavy lifting, with good squid texture approximating noodles. A surrealist ramen.

2014-04-24 00.34.47 2014-04-24 00.35.055. A gentle smell, oceanic, of yummy feeling (4.5/5)

2014-04-24 00.43.276.As the shell was found, its natural beauty made no noise (4/5)

    • Abalone, sundried tomato jelly, crispy yuba, yuzu foam, yuzu leaves
    • Quite good. Did not rise above the yuzu-and-seafood theme. (see also, Brooklyn Fare)

2014-04-24 00.49.31 2014-04-24 00.49.36 2014-04-24 00.49.547. The half moon, silky and smooth (4/5)

    • Chef Crenn’s take on French onion soup. Broth of roasted charred onion. Dumpling comte + black truffle, shiso, lemon balm. Apple vinegar jelly.
    • Quite sour.

2014-04-24 00.57.178. I refreshed as I gazed at your smooth green coat (4.5/5, functional dish)

    • Shiso + green pea sorbet, pickled green strawberry. Rice wine vinegar ice.
    • Very refreshing and successful palate cleanser. I especially liked the shiso and green strawberry, but I did not have a strong impression from the rice wine vinegar rice (would have given 5/5 if I had)

2014-04-24 01.01.379. Elegantly sitting on branches (4.75/5)

    • Carrot jerky from branches (a bit of a trope, see my meal at Borago, and Ruth Reichl’s report of her 2014 meal at Alinea LINK).
    • Carrot had a really intense candy flavor, salted, and with the right dash of cayenne pepper. A delight.

2014-04-24 01.05.4510. Nature rejoice, chasing childhood memories (4.25/5)

    • Pumpkin, sunflower, flaxseed, cooked in different ways. Smoked buckwheat, Liquid nitrogen white balls of smoked sturgeon pearls. Dashi. Yuzu, fermented chilli, steelhead trout roe. bottarga of sturgeon roe
    • Surely the most complex dish of the night. I could not really draw out a “childhood memory” from this dish, but it was good. I was not sure what the smoked sturgeon pearls added to the dish though.

2014-04-24 01.12.2311. Feeling of black sand under my toes, I dreamed of (4.75/5)

    • Grade A1 wagyu cured. Apple puree, onion gelee. Soil of rye + squid ink. Horseradish puree. Onion gelee.
    • Another successful dish. While at first glance one might decry the use of A1 wagyu in this dish (as opposed to a higher grade), this gave it a firm, striated consistency, and it is difficulty to see how it would have worked with oilier grades of wagyu. Hammy.

2014-04-24 01.16.15 2014-04-24 01.20.51 2014-04-24 01.21.02Housemade brioche (5/5)

    • A+, buttery and flakey.

2014-04-24 01.22.5112. .These creatures, who move with a slow, vague wavering of claws (3.75/5)

    • Lobster bisque, phytoplankton dumpling, bone marrow, sea grapes, pickled onions, dashi gelee covering the lobster bisque, gelee of lobster brain.
    • A statement is being made about bottom feeders (Dan Barber, in his newest book the Third Plate, highlights the chef Angel Leon of Aponiente, who cooked phytoplankton bread to highlight the lower phytotrophic levels of the marine food chain). I appreciate the cooking with phytoplankton, but the taste of Main lobster bisque was too one-dimensional (cream, mostly) and that overwhelmed the complexity of this dish

2014-04-24 01.35.1615.Walking deep in the woods, as the earth might have something to spare (3.75/5)

    • Pine-scented meringue, pumpernickel, basil, hen of the woods, shaved hazelnut
    • The pine, hazelnut and hen of woods (AKA maitake) (lightly roasted) gave an earthy smell to the dish. However the taste was too one dimensional (salt predominating) and it was also very dry.

2014-04-24 01.42.08 2014-04-24 01.44.0216.Birth which gives its morning mystery (4.25/5)

    • Duck consomme, meant to be drunk with a chocolate branch, duck and corn eggs, nested corn silk. wild rice, pear, apple, vanilla puree.
    • “Birth” – another conceptual dish which leaves me with no doubt that Chef Crenn is an artist’s chef. One might draw the comparison to a surrealist Dali painting of Birth – the surreal imagery of a nest on a highly fluid and stylised branch; and the taste of chocolate and duck consomme, which is a surreal pairing, reinforces this impression. It was impressive to look at, and good in conception. However it is not purely delicious, rather contrasting in flavor.

2014-04-24 01.51.2817.Where birds sing and are causing ripples in the nearby water (3.25/5)

    • Guinea fowl, pintade, with nori seaweed butter, and lemon, preserved cabbage.
    • Tough texture.

2014-04-24 01.56.58 2014-04-24 01.57.0318.Dotting the fragrant flora (4/5)

    • Vinegar meringue (Spanish banyoules vinegar)
    • Fresh salad.
    • A very unique and creative presentation

2014-04-24 02.00.30 2014-04-24 02.02.06 2014-04-24 02.02.2019.Spring has come and is full of sweet surprises::: (this line of the poem refers to the following entire sequence of desserts)

A stick of sugarcane with -lemongrass, in the vial: chia seed; shiso; finger lime; guava juice. (4.25/5)

    • refreshing

2014-04-24 02.06.29 2014-04-24 02.06.43Essence of the Bay Area (4.25/5)

    • Eucalyptus-menthold popsicle
    • Eucalyptus is an invasive species throughout the Bay Area
    • The revaluation of ingredient values is on.

2014-04-24 02.12.16 2014-04-24 02.12.36 2014-04-24 02.12.46Honeycomb (4.5/5)

    • Chamomile-honey cake; Beeswax sorbet; white choc cremeux; pistachio/pear; honey meringue. Wax mold using bubble wrap. Caramel of beeswax and bees pollen.
    • Full marks for imagination, a tour-de-force of the bee, but the use of pollen in the beeswax sorbet did irritate my palate a bit.

2014-04-24 02.20.12 2014-04-24 02.20.24 2014-04-24 02.20.36

2014-04-24 02.24.24

2014-04-24 02.23.182014-04-24 02.24.35 2014-04-24 02.25.41 2014-04-24 02.28.27

 Mignardises (5/5)

    • Passionfruit Marshmallow “kiss”.
    • Ginger.
    • Nougat of  mango + brazil nut + macadamia
    • Citrus macaron
    • Toffee + cocoa nibs
    • Quinoa + milk chocolate + sesame
    • Roasted macadamia + dark chocolate ganache + star anise
    • Coffee bonbon.

 HEDONE (London, May 2014)

  • Address: 301-303 Chiswick High Rd, London W4 4HH, United Kingdom
  • Rating: 16/20
  • Value for money: 2/5
  • Price I paid (after tax and tip, and two drinks): 120 pounds, or $210 (1 GBP = 1.6805 USD)
  • Chef: Mikael Jonsson (ex-writer at Gastroville)
  • Michelin Stars: 1

2014-05-30 22.26.52

2014-05-30 22.26.47


2014-05-30 18.37.04 2014-05-30 18.49.25


2014-05-30 18.56.07 2014-05-30 18.56.171. Beetroot cream, smoked eel (4.25/5)

    • pleasant combination

2014-05-30 18.57.372.Rye crisp with cheese (3.75/5)

    • a musty cheese

2014-05-30 19.02.393.Buckwheat crisp, bone marrow, sturgeon caviar (4.25/5)

2014-05-30 19.08.51 2014-05-30 19.09.034. Poached oyster (Dorset), granny smith apple jelly, elderflowers, pickled shallot (3.25/5)

    • poached very well, though largely tasteless.

2014-05-30 19.14.26 2014-05-30 19.14.315.Umami flan, bread consomme, bread croutons (4/5)

    • umami from katsuobushi, fish stock, and white egg. not bad

2014-05-30 19.17.12 2014-05-30 19.17.30 2014-05-30 19.17.46 2014-05-30 19.18.07 2014-05-30 19.20.416.Baguettes (5/5)

    • I was looking forward to trying this bread, learnt from French master baker Alex Croquet. It did not disappoint. With a marvellously irregular crust and complex toasty flavors, I was very impressed with the bread.

2014-05-30 19.26.267.Scottish hand dived scallop, mint, lime, cucumber (4.5/5)

    • strong integrity of scallop texture, crunchy, in a way I’ve never had before. World-class scallops
    • Well accompanied with mint, lime, cucumber flavors. This was a hallmark let-ingredients-speak-for-themselves dish.

2014-05-30 19.42.028.English green asparagus, pistachio, avocado, wild garlic (4/5)

    • Asparagus veolute, garlic leaves, pistachio puree, raw avocado, nasturtium
    • Sweet and juicy asparagus spears.

2014-05-30 19.54.22 2014-05-30 19.54.27 2014-05-30 19.54.389.Pan fried sea bass (Dorset), fennel chips, black olive sauce (4.25/5)

    • Really nice pan-fried sea bass, though the accompaniments (black olive esp.) were a bit puzzling.

2014-05-30 20.19.29 2014-05-30 20.23.08 2014-05-30 20.23.1610.Cuttlefish (4.25/5)

    • Smoked, pan-fried cuttlefish leg, Mandarin Sicilian tomatoes, sheet of thin cuttlefish with ink
    • Not bad in taste, though the sheet of thin cuttlefish was nigh un-cuttable with my knife. I spent maybe 10 seconds sawing through that piece.

2014-05-30 20.46.19 2014-05-30 20.47.4711.Liquid Parmesan ravioli, onion consomme, mild horseradish, smoked guanciale (4.25/5)

    • Light horseradish foam. I enjoyed the Roscoff onion consomme, with sweet flavors, but the ravioli was a bit rough in texture. The onion and parmesan were the two dominant tastes
    • it was less accomplished than a smooth quail egg Ravioli I had at Schwa (Chicago) in March.

2014-05-30 20.58.1812.Suckling pork rack, garden pea, morels, red pepper (4/5)

    • very good crisp skin, garden pea was in two forms, pureed and regular. morels with smoked paprika and lime juice.

2014-05-30 21.12.3713.Rack of Bourbonnais lamb, Petit Violet artichoke, rosemary and rocket infusion (2.75/5)

    • A disappointing let down at the crescendo. A cut of lamb whose tendon-ous texture I would not have minded one bit if it had profound flavor, was mostly flavorless and bland except on the outside.

2014-05-30 21.36.51 2014-05-30 21.36.56 2014-05-30 21.37.1014.Gariguette strawberries, hibiscus, coconut (4.5/5)

    • Hedone has first class desserts. Here two discs of Hibiscus gelatin with coconut sorbet and dried strawberry meringue. The Gariguettes were sweet enough to not die of comparative tartness in a contrasting mouthful with the sweet meringue and coconut sorbet.

2014-05-30 21.53.11 2014-05-30 21.53.1815. Warm chocolate, powdered raspberry, passion fruit jelly, Madagascar vanilla ice cream (4.5/5)

    • Warm chocolate fondant below a chocolate disc with raspberry powder, and vanilla ice cream on top. Classic and enjoyable.

2014-05-30 22.11.05 2014-05-30 22.11.4416.Mignardises

    • Black sesame macaron, green tea bon bon

2014-05-30 22.22.49

Schwa | Chicago | Feb ’14 | “magic”

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

Rating: 18.5/20

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

2014-02-27 23.05.47

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

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

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

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

2014-02-27 23.29.28

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

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

2014-02-27 23.39.59 2014-02-27 23.40.16

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

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

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

2014-02-27 23.59.072014-02-27 23.59.00

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

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

2014-02-28 00.28.52

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

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

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

8. Thanksgiving Dinner (4.5/5)

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

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

2014-02-28 01.16.42

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

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

2014-02-28 01.30.08

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

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

2014-02-28 01.38.49 2014-02-28 01.44.44

11. Root Beer Float (5/5)

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

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

2014-02-28 01.55.59

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

B. Carbonating fruits with dry ice MC vol2 p472

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

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

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

Rating: 17/20 (dinner)

2013-11-10 11.51.342013-11-10 11.07.59

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

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

2013-11-10 11.08.06

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

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

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

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

Other Notable Write-ups:

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


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


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

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

Photo taken by Eatingwithziggy.com

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

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

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

Photo Credit: SeriousEats

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

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



2013-11-10 11.08.46

OMELET (4.5/5)

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

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

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

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Condiments for Scones


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

Blackbird (revisited) | Chicago | May ’13 | “dessert at one of Chicago’s great restaurants”

25 Dec
  • Address: 619 West Randolph Street, Chicago, IL, 60661
  • Telephone: 312 715 0708
  • Hours: Lunch, Weekdays 1130am-2pm; Dinner, Daily 5-10pm; F, Sat 5-11pm
  • Price (after tax + tip, excl. drinks): $30
  • Courses: (3 main) 1 starter / 1 main / 1 dessert
  • Price/Main Course: $10
  • Rating: 17/20
  • Value: 5/5
  • Average Dining Time: 70 minutes
  • Time/Course (total): 23 minutes
  • Chef: David Posey (ex. Alinea)
  • In own words: “a very minimalist plate, which is three or four components.  We try to execute [these components] as best we can. […]  The longer I cook here the more I find that my dishes are simple — a vegetable, a meat, a condiment and a sauce.” [1]
  • Style: Minimalist New American
  • Notable: $22 prix-fixe (pre tax and tip) is one of the best deals in Chicago


Rating: 16/20

Blackbird is one of my favorite restaurants in Chicago, and an institution in the city, where it has been around for 16 years. It doesn’t look one bit its age; the interior kitchen is clean, uncluttered – modernist in design. Having been there a couple of times in the summer of 2012 (Chef Dave Posey and owner Paul Kahan have created one of the best value prix fixe menus in the city, for $22, demonstrating that great food doesn’t need to be expensive. It was my go-to fine-dining fix in the Loop), on the prix fixe menu I was most impressed by their desserts. Pastry Chef Dana Cree’s desserts are understated, but elegant. I still remember the beads of condensation that accompanied the “Blueberry Buttermilk Affogato with Blackberries and Cinnamon Basil“, a cool-relaxed dessert eaten in an austere dining room – which aesthetically brought to mind Roy Lichtenstein’s Mirror Portrait. (I had visited the (Art Institute of Chicago) ARTIC’s Lichtenstein retrospective a few days before in 2012).


Roy Lichtenstein, Self Portrait, 1978

The minimalist “cool” aesthetic at Blackbird isn’t all my own imagination:

What are you proudest of here on the menu?
The thing I’m proudest of is something that I don’t think you can find in Chicago and that’s a very minimalist plate, which is three or four components.  We try to execute [these components] as best we can. At lunch right now we have a duck leg confit that comes with roasted broccoli, a raisin puree and potato granola. Four components to a dish — a Michelin one-star dish — is kind of hard for you to find in Chicago if it’s not like a pasta dish at Spiaggia or something. I think that’s what I’m most proud of. And the longer I cook here the more I find that my dishes are simple — a vegetable, a meat, a condiment and a sauce. – Dave Posey

Another favorite dessert, that I had on a later visit in 2012, was a wonderful peanut brittle based dessert. I thus came prepared for the full Blackbird dessert experience, to savor the talent of the pastry crew at the restaurant.

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Plated using the “drowned-arrangement” soup technique

Inspired by a dish at Jacques Maximin’s restaurant Chantecler, Ferran Adrià began in 1985 to serve soups in an unusual style. A shallow soup plate was set with food in a manner that suggested it was a complete dish.Then, just before the diner would tuck in. the waiter would pour in a soup or broth, drowning the food on the plate, ruining its careful composition and arrangement. What appeared to be a dish in its own right was turned into a garnish for the soup. The surprising twist was an early experiment in challenging the assumptions of the diner. – Modernist Cuisine, Vol 1 p. 52 

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Prix Fixe courses, all great elegant food. Their duck confit is ever-reliable. Blackbird’s prix fixe fish main wasn’t that great on the previous times I was there, and I skipped the fish option for the duck.

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Roasted Peanut Ice Cream (4.5/5)

Carrot-barley sponge, honey mousse, pickled carrot, opal basil

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Roasted Rhubarb (4.25/5)

Cardamom Danish, Whipped Delice, Green Almond, Anise Hyssop

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Goat Cheese Cake (4.75/5)

Cajeta Ice Cream, Burnt Grapefruit, Avocado

Delicious. Cajeta is a Mexican thickened syrup made of cows milk, belying the positive Mexican influence that Rick Bayless has brought into the city. Wonderfully complemented by burnt grapefruit and avocado. A decadent thick cheesecake with the funkiness of goat.

Asagi | Tokyo | Jun ’13 | “Michelin-starred tempura”

25 Dec

Address: Asagi Building 1F, 6-4-13, Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo, 104-0061


One more from the vaults. As I’m writing this in December 2013, the big news of the Michelin-starred tempura world is that 3-star 7chome Kyoboshi has been downgraded to 2-stars for the 2014 Guide. 

After two great meals at RyuGin and Tapas Molecular Bar, I decided to try a good tempura place. I had first walked into Asagi the day before, but the counter was completely full with businessmen during the lunch service, and Asagi-san told me to come back the next day. Asagi, his name-sake restaurant, is located in a narrow alley behind Ginza that I would have had a hard time finding without Google Maps. Asagi-san has been frying tempura for more than 40-years, and evidently the restaurant has flourished, because Asagi-san owns the entire building in which his restaurant is located. The small counter seats 8, and Asagi-san’s amiable wife serves as waitress.

When I arrived on Thursday, in stark contrast to the day before, I was the only diner there for lunch service. Throughout the meal, Asagi-san prepared all the ingredients in front of me, and he explained that since I was visiting in summer, it was a uniquely difficult time for tempura. Summer’s high humidity makes it difficult for the batter to stick, therefore he changes the batter composition with each season. When my spoken Japanglish failed, I used Google translate on my phone to translate my queries. For a very reasonable price (around 8,000 yen), I could pick the mind of the tempura master for the duration of my entire meal.

While it was a very high quality tempura meal, I learnt gradually through the meal that tempura as a category of food leaves me cold. I did not react to the food viscerally, nor did the virtuosity of frying Asagi-san demonstrated translate into something that I would crave and remember long in the memory. I’m not entirely sure I could differentiate properly between the high-end tempura of Asagi-san, and some of the cookie-cutter tempura I’ve enjoyed in Singapore and the States. Asagi-san’s was notably not greasy, but the rest of the differences were so subtle I might be imagining them.

Notable write-ups:

Rating: 15/20

Memory: Tendon with Rice, a simple cold Dessert


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The narrow Ginza alleyway in which Asagi is found

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Asagi’s nondescript entrance

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Lunch service

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Asagi-san prepares the batter. (tempura starts with a cold batter)

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… and the oil

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Prawn (4/5)

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Ika (Squid) (3.75/5)

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Whitefish (4/5)

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Prawn heads (5/5)

The previous dishes had lacked a savory element, the prawn heads here tasted like the South-east Asian anchovies, ikan bilis.

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Ayu (4.5/5)

The slightly-bitter melon taste of the ayu head was again evident. I first had ayu at RyuGin a couple of days ago.

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Beans (3.5/5)

To stick the two beans together, Asagi-san used a toothpick, and laconically swirled them around in his tempura vat of oil for about 20-30 seconds.

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Virtuosity comes from sticking two discrete objects together

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Eggplant (3.5/5)

Young and green

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Sweet potato (4/5)

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Underside of sweet potato

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Asparagus (3.5/5)

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In preparation for the anago, I had a sour-salty prawn paste, and salt.

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Anago (4.5/5)

Very good, with prawn paste and salt. Anago became my favorite seafood in Tokyo, having had a revelatory sweet-sauce on it at Sushi Bun at Tsukiji.

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Tendon with Rice (5/5)

One of perhaps two dishes which stuck with me in the memory. This tendon was fried as a single agglomerate, which takes a lot of skill on the chef’s part. Drizzled with a sweet-savory sauce, this was absolutely addictive. I could have had three to five bowls of this without question.

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Dessert (5/5)

A most perfect and composed ending to a fried meal. A delicious single scoop of matcha ice cream, with red beans, brown sugar, and jelly.

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The remains of the day

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Me and Asagi-san


Aska | Brooklyn, NY | Dec ’13 | “Nordic stateside”

12 Dec
  • Address: 90 Wythe Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11249
  • Phone: (718) 388-2969
  • Price (after tax + tip, excl. drinks): $140
  • Courses: (10 main/17 total) 4 amuse / 1 bread / 7 savory / 1 snack / 3 dessert / 1 mignardises
  • Price/Main Course: $14
  • Rating: 16/20
  • Value: 4/5
  • Dining Time: 195 minutes
  • Time/Course (total): 11.5 minutes
  • Chef: Fredrik Berselius
  • Style: New Nordic
  • Michelin Stars: 1
  • Notable: Aska 1.0 has closed. At the time of writing (14th March 2014) it will be looking for a bigger space.
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I had never tried New Nordic Food before I set foot in Aska.

The style of cooking is most closely associated with FoodCamp’s host chef, René Redzepi of Noma in Copenhagen. It is sometimes called “new Nordic,” although he and some other chefs from the region prefer the broader label “authentic cuisine.” It is earthy and refined, ancient and modern, both playful and deeply serious. Instead of the new (techniques, stabilizers, ingredients), it emphasizes the old (drying, smoking, pickling, curing, smoking) with a larger goal of returning balance to the earth itself.

Using rutabagas and whey; pine and juniper; and shells, hay, and twigs as its kitchen tools, it seeks to turn the culinary dial back toward the natural world. “The huge wave of technical cooking has passed,” said Rosio Sanchez, a pastry chef at Noma, who grew up in Chicago and has worked in some of America’s most technologically advanced kitchens, like Alinea and WD-50. “I came here because I wanted to get more into the product.”


The movement can be traced to 2004, when a dozen prominent chefs from around the region signed a Kitchen Manifesto agreeing to rededicate themselves to “purity, freshness, simplicity and ethics” in cooking.

– NYTimes

New Nordic is the rage, and it has come stateside. Aska is located in a grungy industrial sector of Williamsburg, part of Kinfolk Studios, which is a bike shop, a daytime cafe, a late night bar complete with DJs, and a creative agency. Previously, it functioned as a pop-up called Frej.
Mr. Berselius, who last year ran a kind of beta version of Aska called Frej in this same space, knows the latest kitchen technology from his time at Corton and Seäsonal. At Aska, he mostly confines himself to older methods. He cooks cream for hours until it is as thick as toothpaste and the color of butterscotch, then stirs in sour milk. It tastes like dulce de leche without the sugar and makes a dizzyingly rich sauce for pork belly or a tender strip of short rib. – Pete Wells
I was excited to try something fundamentally new. Cutting-edge food is a vocabulary unto itself, and Aska would teach me a few words, to follow a new tune.
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The vibe of the place was young, with dried foliage bringing a memento mori of winter outside, indoors. Hunched yuppies bent over their candlelit tables. No one was wearing a suit, which meant that people here were dining for pleasure.
The plating was be austere. A parade of snacks was be solemnly highlighted on wood of similar grain and color to my table. Most of the mains were one or two bites, tops. The food was more meditative than purely delicious, though the sunchoke dish and pigs’ blood croquette were very delicious. Some dishes whispered “education”, such as vinegar marinated skate-wing, my first main, and oatmeal in a sweet onion broth. The line between education and pretension is fine. Take the oatmeal dish, for example. I could have made a similar sweet onion broth with oatmeal myself – the key there was the imagination of the chef, pairing the two ingredients together in a not immediately delicious way, as if to say that “these are the pairings of New Nordic food, take it or leave it”. Does one acquire a taste for such things? With many novel dishes, I found some favorites (a milk sorbet with spruce sauce) and some that left me cold – which is natural.
Aska seems to be a paradox if we think of New Nordic Food as a involving Nordic ingredients only. What are Rhode Island squid and oyster doing on the menu? But New Nordic Food isn’t just about these things:

To focus only on the ingredients of that region, chefs say, is missing the point.Ryan Miller, the chef at Momofuku Ssam Bar in the East Village, who worked in the Nordic region last year, explained. “It’s not like I learned about some new Danish cheese and came back and put it on my menu,” he said. “I learned to respect organization and education and making food in the most natural way possible.”The movement can be traced to 2004, when a dozen prominent chefs from around the region signed a Kitchen Manifesto agreeing to rededicate themselves to “purity, freshness, simplicity and ethics” in cooking. – NYTimes.

(Claus Meyer of noma also has a ten-point manifesto for New Nordic food.)

The question to me, is what really separates Aska from Blue Hill at Stone Barns, say? Blue Hill is pure, fresh, simple, and highly ethical in creating its food. No, the difference really seems to be:

  1. Austere Plating (A. as much wood as possible, the deader the better. B. make sure the food takes up less than 20% of the plate)
  2. Vinegar
  3. Anything to do with Pines, because winter.
  4. Survivalist Whole Ingredient Philosophy – take the squid’s ink and make a sauce, use burnt leaves for a consomme. (“Get your piping hot tripe!“)

That Nordic austereness is what really comes through with the food at Aska. I’ve been thinking that how food is plated is a major part of a restaurant’s philosophy. Chinese restaurants pile on the food, to simulate plenty and banquet feasts. Japanese sushi is served simply and without ornament at a sushi bar, to highlight the single-minded focus on fish. French restaurants ornament their plate to simulate sophistication. And Nordic food seems to be plated austerely to simulate Immanuel Kant.

A first impression, anyway. 

Rating: 16/20 (BTW, service was great)
Memory: Brown Butter Flatbread, Sunchoke 5 ways, Pigs Blood Croquette, Milk sorbet with spruce sauce.
Book: Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s I am Zlatan.
Weekend Tasting Menu
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Scallop Chip
“Unmistakably seafood, like a prawn cracker. Delicious”
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Crispy Kale, Chamomile Emulsion
“Nice fatty middle, kale chip sandwich”
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Dehydrated Roast Beet with Beet Vinegar
Everything with the hand. A sweet delicious candy; I think dehydrated beets are the best expression of beets. One of my favorite dishes from birch in Providence is this dehydrated-rehydrated beet dish.
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Molasses Shortbread & Smoked Cheese.
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Brown Butter Flatbread
Fennel Loaf
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Salted Whipped Butter
Snacks Verdict: I loved the flatbread (5/5) easily, and the sweet beet especially.
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vinegar, skate
A jolting start to the meal. Skate wing was cooked in dill pickle vinegar, and covered with cauliflower puree and crumble. The skate has a sweet taste, and unfolded like preserved sweet noodles. Not a taste memory I was very familiar with.
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hedgehog mushroom
The 2nd dish turned out brilliant. This is the best sunchoke dish I have yet tasted. It may be dubbed “sunchoke 5 ways”.
  1. Strips of roasted sunchoke skin
  2. Discs of fermented sunchoke
  3. Rehydrated sunchoke chunks
  4. Fermented sunchoke jus, calrified and cooked with elderflower and butter
  5. Sunchoke puree.

Coaxing a bewildering amount of different flavours and textures from one ingredient. Bravo, absolute mastery of the sunchoke. The only barbarians on the plate were the little hedgehog mushrooms.

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elderberry, herbs
The capers actually turned out to be capered (vinegared?) underripe elderberries. The squid was Rhode Island squid, the upper half cut (not fried), and lower tentacles fried. Sauce made of butter emulsified with squid stock and squid ink. Very good buttered/fried calamari.
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“Burnt leaf consomme. With charred cabbage. ugh.”
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quail egg, cream
Pickled herring, soft boiled quails egg, sour cream. Alien to my tastes
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Verdant taste of shaved fennel and broccoli, with Pt Judith RI Oyster. Blue mussel stock with broccoli oil. Oyster surprisingly sweet, without any trace of salt
Like tasting a fruit at the bottom of a clean river bed.
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Pig’s Blood Croquette
A sweet, chocolatey flavour. atera also brought out the chocolatey flavours of pigs blood. It’s a thing. A sprinkling of sea salt.
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onion, rapeseed
Pickled pearl onions cupping rape seed oil, set upon steel cut oats cooked with sweet onion soup.
Oatmeal for dinner is a first. Assertive sweetness.
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100 day beef. A basement level of funk. Bound by a sticky funky beef jus.
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Very creative. Baked potato, with sorbet of potato skin. Brown butter caramel.
A tribute to traditional baked potato, transported to the dessert section.
Pity the potato skin sorbet didn’t remain standing on the potato!
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A “hot” apple broth was lukewarm, and had a spicy eggnog taste. A clean tasting, but weak and puzzling dish.
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blueberry, spruce
Favorite dessert. A menthol broth from spruce sauce. With a milk sorbet and blueberry compote, garnished with fresh yarrow.
Tasted like wintertime. A delicate herbal broth
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Last Bite: Chocolate Arrack Cookie
“Arrack = a Swedish liquor”
Good write-ups: