Saturday, December 10, 2016

Jean-Georges

Jean-Georges Vongerichten is a juggernaut of French Cuisine. His flagship and masterpiece, Jean-Georges, has earned both four starts from the New York Times, and the ever-coveted Three Michelin Stars (which the restaurant has managed to grip on to for over a decade). They also have a James Beard award for their incredible wine service. The accolades flow on and on.

These kinds of things tend to make the check at the end of the meal a bit hard to swallow. Restaurants like this are a big financial commitment. A few weeks after I ate at Jean-Georges, billionaire and newly appointed President-Elect Donald Trump and potential Secretary of State Mitt Romney dined in the same room. It must be nice to have a world-class restaurant in your basement.

Jean-Georges is an exceptional dining experience, from the second you walk in, until long after you’ve rejoined the streets of Manhattan. As expensive as it may be, the overall experience of perfection and precision is humbling and motivating. My interest in dining at restaurants like this lies in line with my passion for human excellence. I absolutely love to see what motivated people can achieve when they are provided with the very best on every level. Jean-Georges meets and exceeds all expectations and shows the extraordinary level of human possibility in the culinary world.

Now to seemingly contradict myself. The service, the d├ęcor, the wine, all top notch. But to be totally honest, I was not blown away by the food. When I think over the best dishes of my life, 42 Grams, Blue Hill, Le Bernardin, Eric Fulkerson’s Chef’s Table Experience, Canlis, little plastic stools on busy street corners in Vietnam serving piping hot bowls of Pho, fresh tagine’s whisking quickly from busy kitchens in Morocco, Argentinean steaks… well, a lot of food comes to mind before Jean-Georges. But this is not to say that there isn’t anything of value here. The dishes ARE delicious, subtle and exquisite. The meal began with a Butter Poached Hakurei Turnip with Golden Ostera Caviar and Chives. It was a beautiful and delicious dish. Simple and focused. The Hamachi Sashimi with Sherry Vinaigrette and Toasted Pecans followed and was the best thing on the menu. It was exquisite. The Ten Mushroom Tea with Parmesan, Chili, and Thyme was served with a Vintage 1985 Coteaux De Layon, Moulin Touchais, Loire, from France. It was, without a doubt, the most beautiful and flavorful wine that I have ever experienced. Tasting it was one of the most special and humbling experiences of my life.  Black Sea Bass with Purple Potato Butter and Charred Poblano Peppers, Maine Lobster, Spice Crusted Venison, all of the dishes were beautifully plated and truly very good.


Then they brought the cheese cart. They tricked me into it. I was not going to do it. I had already spent enough money. But then I saw it… and it was impossible to say no. Beautiful, delicious, stinky, creamy, gooey, exquisite cheese. If they would let me, I would go back just for the cheese cart. I wish I had written down the names of what I ordered. I have never had better cheese anywhere ever.


One of the real treats came at the end of the meal. In my reservation, I asked for a quick tour of the kitchen.  I had no expectation of them fulfilling my request. It was not mentioned once during my meal and I figured that it was a hopeless loss. After I paid my tab (and cried a bit to myself), the front of house manager came over and asked if I was still interested in seeing the kitchen. Absolutely. It was a real treat to see the engine room of one of the most respected restaurants in the world. The kitchen was exquisitely clean and ran with insane precision and skill. It was massive and beautiful. The kitchen is busy 24 hours a day preparing for service. There is an entire butcher shop, a pastry kitchen, a refrigerated chocolate kitchen, a prep kitchen, several walk in fridges, a line, and on and on. (I’m pretty sure there isn’t a freezer, but the wine had started to take hold by this point) I was given a thorough tour and it was an incredible experience.


Do I recommend Jean-Georges? Absolutely. It is a special and wonderful experience. If you have the expendable income, it’s worth it. But I just as strongly recommend that you get on an airplane and try to find that same little plastic stool on that same little street corner in Vietnam.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Canlis

I haven’t spent a lot of time on the West Coast. I didn’t know much about Canlis before I started looking into the Seattle restaurant scene. It’s an unfamiliar place to me. I know a lot more about the food in Japan and China than I do about my neighbors across the country.  But once I started looking, I started to realize just how much the Pacific North West has to offer.  The accolades scream pretty loudly in favor of Canlis. All signs point to a highly favorable experience. But does it live up to its reputation? Is it one of the best restaurants in the country? Have they been able to maintain their world-class reputation throughout the years without becoming stale and boring? Is it the most beautiful restaurant, as it likes to claim? Is it worth the obnoxiously expensive check that comes at the end? I figured I might as well find out.
           
            You pull up to the valet and you can tell that a lot of pride goes into this restaurant. Not an obnoxious, pretentious kind of pride, but the pride of deep passion, of love for ones craft. The restaurant is beautiful. It’s the kind of place you would build yourself if you won that Powerball that you’ve been chasing. This stone and wooded sculpture of a restaurant has massive windows that overlook Seattle. I likely got lucky to visit on a clear day, which seem to be few and far between in the dreary rain soaked town. Outside is great, until you get inside. Stark wooden beams and stone pillars adorn the elegant dining room. It’s somehow incredibly comfortable for how formal it is. We’re greeted immediately and taken to our table. We’re dressed for the occasion. You’re supposed to be. They keep it classy because, once in a while, it feels good to look your best. And it always makes your cocktail taste that much better.

Nine courses of absolute divinity come our way. (Of course we did the drink pairings. Why would you not do the pairings?). We start with an Oyster with Apple and Seawater. Seawater?? Interesting thing to put on the menu, of course it has seawater. No matter, it’s likely the best oyster I’ve ever had in my life. It came with a Narutotai, Ginjo Nama Genshu, “Red Snapper” Sake from Tokushima, Japan. Yum Yum Yum.


Amberjack with Shiso and Radish, Barley Porridge with Geoduck and Sea Buckthorn, Apples with Foie Gras and Buckwheat, Halibut with Artichoke and Vadouvan, lamb with eggplant, fava, and sheep’s yogurt, it goes on and on with hit after hit. All of the drink pairings seem essential to each dish; it’s hard to imagine the meal without them. The Barley Porridge is immensely interesting. The desert, Chocolate with fig, tobacco, and walnut, is just about as good as a dessert could ever get.



Canlis has set the bar for Seattle. People call it legendary. It’s where couples go for their 50th wedding anniversary. You wouldn’t be surprised to see some billionaire Microsoft exec or the CEO of Starbucks at the next table over. It’s about as classy, dreamy, and romantic of an evening as you can get anywhere in the world. Every detail shines with that passion, that love for life and craft. Does Canlis add up? Is it worth it? You better believe it.

Monday, September 19, 2016

42 Grams

42 grams is an intimate masterpiece. The room is more of a culinary art gallery than a restaurant. Chef Jake Bickelhaupt and dining room manager Alexa Welsh (husband and wife) have created something far beyond special, and it’s obvious when you consider that they skipped one Michelin star and debuted with two, all within their first year on Chicago’s thriving and incredibly competitive restaurant scene. Chef Jake came up in some of the best restaurants in Chicago. He spent time at Charlie Trotter’s and worked at Grant Achatz’s juggernaut Alinea. But where lots of restaurants sit in the shadows of places like these, 42 grams has made leaps and bounds at defining itself as a unique and exciting entity.

I’m greeted warmly and shown to my seat as soon as I walk in the door. There will be eight patrons for this service, a full restaurant. The seats all line up against a counter top, which separates the diners from the kitchen. Every dish is prepared and plated right in front of the dining area.  There are only four total employees. It seems absurd to churn out world-class dishes with so little help. But deliver they do, over and over again, exceedingly well.

The courses come out in well-timed pageantry. Watching the plates grow in tedious preparation by someone of this caliber is a treat all its own. I can’t help but wonder how I can get myself standing there on the other side of the counter next to the Chef.







The eleven course seasonal menu is heavily influenced by Asian flavors and techniques while remaining true American fare. It’s luxurious and superb. Dishes like A5 Miyazaki Wagyu with bone marrow, beef tendon, umeboshi, and baby bok choy fall in line with things like Hamachi with tom kha, dulse, and cucumber. The Lamb Neck with eggplant, strawberry, onion, and black miso tastes like a gift from the gods.



So what keeps 42 grams from joining the ranks of Alinea and Grace with Michelin’s highly sought-after third star? Has it just not been around long enough to prove itself as a founded contender? The lack of a beverage program probably doesn’t help, and the location is in a less desirable part of town. Maybe it’s just too comfortable and casual. Just not quite stuffy enough. It doesn’t really matter at all. All I can think about is when I’m coming back for a new menu.



Most of the complaints I read about the restaurant were surrounding Alexa’s well planned monologues about the history of the restaurant, the food, and the music. “She kept interrupting our conversations,” read one sad review. I think somewhere along the way, you must have missed the point of dining at a place like this.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Los Fuegos by Francis Mallmann

Los Fuegos by Francis Mallmann

Argentina will always hold a strong grip on my heart. It was my first country outside of North America in what seems like forever ago. I’ve been a lot of places since 2008, more than I ever could have imagined, but Argentinean cuisine has enchanted me ever since my first beautiful slab of beef in Buenos Aires.

If there can be such a thing, Francis Mallmann is a poet chef.  Or, more likely, a maestro restaurateur. A conductor of a beautiful dining experience. His techniques stray afar from the table of modern cuisine, but not to fear, he sets his own table with grace.  His menu begins strikingly with a full page dedicated to a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche: “You must be ready to burn yourself in your own flame; how could you rise anew if you have not first become ashes?”

When I’m seated promptly at opening, I’m the only person on the patio overlooking the waves of the Atlantic. The restaurant is absolutely beautiful. Mallmann seems to be among the last true romantics in the world. Yet hopelessness is nowhere to be found. The design is elegant and sophisticated, yet it retains true Gaucho ambiance. The kitchen is open to the far end of the patio and is a sophisticated, well-oiled machine of delectability and flame.

My chilled almond soup with watermelon, olive oil, and sherry vinegar is a subtle tease of the coming delights. It pairs well with my sherry bourbon cocktail. Refined nuances fill my olfactory perception.



The roasted beet salad arrives with globs of goat cheese, hints of garlic, beet chips, and beet leaves. The colors are stunning and the taste matches in intensity. These may very well be the best beets that I’ve had.

If the salad was good, the Octopus ‘a la Plancha’ with roasted potatoes, garlic aioli, smoked paprika oil, tomato confit, and chervil is exquisite. I firmly believe that people with an aversion to octopus simply haven’t had it prepared like this. It was creamy and delightful. If anything, the portion was much too large for a tasting menu. Against my better judgment, I ate every bite.

And along comes the rib eye with chimichurri accompanied by burnt domino potatoes, and arugula, avocado, and red onion salad. I thought I was starting to get full. Suppress those urges to run, there’s no turning back now. It smells like fire and heart with a side of love. The name, Los Fuegos, is entirely appropriate. The steak is perfect in every way. It’s beautiful, maybe even a masterpiece.

I can barely move, I’m tapped out. I’m done. No more. I’ve obviously forgotten, dessert. Three of them to be specific. Dulche de Leche pancake, chocolate nemesis cake, and fresh fruit salad with grapefruit and campari. They were all good, but the pancake belongs in a class of its own. I’m usually not a dessert person, but places like this always change my mind.


With as enchanted as I am, I’m surprised I don’t wake up from my food coma on a flight to Buenos Aires with the grand scheme of hiking through Patagonia in attempt to find Mallmann’s remote island and beg him to take me in, rest my weary feet, and learn the ways of the ultimate grill master. Maybe if I can get a hold of him and learn some Spanish, I’ll do just that.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Chef's Table at the Bald Headed Bistro

Chef’s Table at the Bald Headed Bistro


There is no doubt in my mind that this is the best dining experience happening in the state of Tennessee short of Thanksgiving day at my Grandmother’s house. If there is something better, please let me know.

We walked in and were quickly whisked to our own private table in the kitchen. I’ve decided to be a gentleman and leave my phone in the car, but I’m already missing my camera. The table is elegant and intimate. We’re greeted by Executive Chef Eric Fulkerson, General Manager Aaron Reed, and a wonderful server whose name unfortunately has slipped my mind. I expect the Chef and the General Manager to slip off to their other duties after an introduction, replaced by a Sous Chef and possibly another server.

What I certainly did not expect was for the GM of a busy and increasingly successful restaurant to stay for our entire service and act as our personal sommelier for the evening, explaining the history and flavors of every drink on the menu. I did not expect the executive chef to cook every dish in front of us and explain every item on the plate with budding and beautiful passion. I did not expect these two men to spend hours focused on only my table.

Watching Chef Fulkerson cook is a joy all its own. He quickly jumps in and out of intense focus as he prepares and plates his carefully planned menu. He is in an intense flow state and it shows with every bite. His love for the craft is a pleasure to be around. We start with a caramelized scallop on a bed of fennel and served with a Chandon NV California Brut. Scallops in Tennessee? This is one of the best I’ve ever had. I no longer accept excuses for bad seafood in landlocked states.

The courses progress through a myriad of amazing flavors and palettes. Each dish is paired expertly with a wine, champagne, or beer. Think Smoked Oysters on Squid Ink and Roasted Beet Ravioli with a 2014 Joel Gott Sauvignon Blanc from Napa Valley. Or a charcuterie platter of Duck Prosciutto and Lardo with Blackberry Fig Jam, Toasted Beer Bread, and Whipped Pork Butter. There are many more surprises that I’ll let you explore on your own.

The Bald Headed Bistro has stumbled onto something amazing, and it just keeps on growing and getting better. A chef’s table is just a small part of both the potential of this restaurant, and all of the amazing things it already has going for it. They are cooking beautiful southern influenced local dishes on a New York City level of service and culinary artistry. I have no reservations in saying that this is the best meal I’ve had since my trip to Le Bernardin last year. And my wallet didn’t cry nearly as much. This is a prime example of why I think Michelin should abandon their strict geographical methods and start recognizing regional restaurants.


Complaints? I had nothing at first, the night was excellent. Looking back, I would like to see a coffee pairing with the dessert. That’s about all I’ve got.