Sunday, November 19, 2017

Maneki



It’s like a step into another world as we cross the front door barrier. It’s unassuming on the outside. I didn’t know anything about the restaurant as we arrived for my surprise birthday dinner. Come to find out, I wasn’t only crossing worlds, but centuries as well. Maneki is one of the oldest Japanese restaurants in the country. It has been open for a staggering 113 years. Thinking of the history that the restaurant has braved stops me in my tracks as I sit down to reflect. How can a restaurant survive for over a century? This place saw Pearl Harbor, World War I, and World War II and still strives on diligently.


The cuisine is exquisite. This is pure Japan through and through. It’s the most legitimate representation of Japanese cuisine and culture that I’ve seen since I last visited the country in 2010.  The answer to its resilience is obvious as our meal slowly begins to arrive. Care, love, and passion have propelled Maneki ever forward and upward.


The drizzly Seattle evening is long forgotten as our perfectly warmed sake arrives with two glasses.  True Japanese cuisine has always spoken to me in a delightfully personal way. It reminds me of the importance of focus and dedication. A common misconception seems to exist with Japanese food. Though it may be simple, it is certainly not easy. It’s not merely cutting up fish and throwing it on some rice. Too many “Japanese restaurants” in the United States offer truly subpar and even embarrassing California rolls flooded with overcooked rice and over seasoned teriyaki dishes at astronomical prices. Maneki is far removed from this disparaging knockoff of one of the worlds most refined cuisines. Maneki is the exact opposite. It’s about as close to perfection as I feel comfortable getting.

The Gyoza arrives brilliantly fried to a perfect golden brown. The sushi is delightful. The Uni is perhaps as good as it gets. And the Beef Shabu-Shabu is a true delight. The deep flavors of an intensive cooking process push their way to the forefront of your palate. And the Fried Green Tea Ice Cream? It’s hard not to call it the best part of the meal. The flashy knife twirling, shrimp tossing cooks of commercialized teppanyaki spots are long forgotten here. Elegance is at the forefront. Japanese design is exemplified in Maneki’s exquisite flavors.



There isn’t much else to say. This historical restaurant has kept a simple and important mission for over a hundred years. Maneki is the real deal. The James Beard foundation recognized them as an American Classic in 2010 and I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s still there long after we’re all gone. Don’t forget to make a reservation.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Gaggan

Gaggan   
As a guy from a medium-sized city in the heart of the American South, it’s hard to imagine that I would have ever heard of Chef Gaggan Aanad without the mass attention of Netflix and their culinary extravaganza documentary series Chef’s Table. It’s one of the latest evolutions in the explosive movement of redefining chefs as modern rock stars. (Rock-N-Roll is dead after all, and needs replacement). The trend started with chefs like Julia Child and Jeremiah Tower laying groundwork to expand the culinary world into more than a blue collar, base level job. Anthony Bourdain and Eric Ripert have perpetuated and, now a few generations in, Gaggan Anand is a force of epic magnitude. And boy, I love the show, but David Gelb doesn’t even begin to paint justice to the soul of the Gaggan empire.


I was skeptical at first. Not necessarily of the food, but of the ability to pull off the culmination of a New York City level dining experience deep in the often beautiful and sometimes shrouded hustle and bustle of Bangkok. The last time I was in this city I barely escaped being hit in the head with a beer bottle at a riot. That bottle flew past my face and broke through a window at a concert venue as others went to burn the surrounding beer garden to a crisp. I was skeptical of its recent accolade as 7th best restaurant in the world (it now continually grips number one in Asia.) It’s nice to know that I can be pleasantly and profoundly surprised.


The thought of a tasting menu can be daunting and overwhelming. Tastings have often left me feeling like I’ll never be able to walk again. But true balance exists here. It met my scale of a perfect tasting; I could have had a single slice of pizza afterward. No stuffy French dining room in sight. This is more of a passion project than a restaurant. It’s like a rock opera (one of the good ones) in culinary form. The menu isn’t a show-off escapade. Its adoration served hand over hand. I have never seen the soul of a chef shine across so strongly with every single bite. Gaggan waxes poetic step-by-step. Pieces of his soul land in front of you; these are not merely dishes on a plate. Many restaurants achieve a perfect execution of their dishes.  But at Gaggan, a new level exists that is beyond simple definition. This goes far past mere adherence to tried and true technique. You can only pass a sauce through a sieve so many times before it needs something new and inspired.


It’s honesty, bare and true, in a dishonest world. And they manage to execute all of it gracefully and without pretension. Gaggan has mocked the very idea of fine dining while simultaneously creating a newer, more relevant version for himself and those lucky enough to sit at his counter.

The menu arrives as a list of 25 emojis printed on vellum. No words, just the increasingly common language of social-media animations. A watermelon slice, an explosion, a tongue, a shrimp. It goes on and on. A bit too hipster? Maybe seemingly at first. The reason is obvious at the end of dinner. Is it important to know what something is to enjoy it? By this point, you’ve been asked if you have dietary restrictions or allergies. No doubt, that part is (sometimes) important. You’ve had your say, now it’s time to put your fate in the hands of a masterful team. Your preconceived emotions may limit your enjoyment if you know what you’re eating. Eat it and squirm later. It will still have been just as delicious.  How many people would say no to a Goat Brain Pastry and never would have known how similar to heaven it tastes?

 

The most important thing here? It was fun! Really fun. I laughed out loud, broke the ice with those around me, and had a great time. When you’re literally licking your plate clean with sophisticates from all around the world while rocking out to KISS, you’re bound to enjoy yourself. These things don’t belong in fine dining… but yes. Now they do. And there will be no apology from this kitchen.

I was pleased to learn that wine pairings are now a part of the dining experience. It’s an evolution that I find to be utterly important to a beautiful dining experience. The pairings, and the well-detailed explanations behind them, are bold and unexpected, yet oddly perfect. Massive steps from the norm have created a next level world of surprise. They say over and over that there are no new ideas. But I’ve always thought that every new idea opens a thousand new doors. Gaggan proves it with unpredictable whim and curiosity.


Anand studied under Ferran Adria. Arguably the best chef not just in the world, but in the entire history of the world, and well, it seems like Gaggan retained something from that. But did he need it? Maybe it sparked passion and maybe it sped up skill. Maybe it gave him a foot forward with name recognition, but I don’t think for a second that he didn’t have it in him the whole time.

Gaggan reminds me of other places that I know about and have visited. It’s a rock star mecca like David Chang’s Momofuku Ko. It has flashes of gastro molecular Alinea style fare. It has the perfection of Jake Bikelhaupt’s former masterpiece 42 Grams (RIP). It presents the bold, passion oriented wine pairings of Seattle’s Canlis. It is at once all of these things and none of them. Gaggan claims that it’s Indian food elevated. I have a hard time calling it that or anything else. What’s the genre? It’s Gaggan. It’s mastery of an art form. It’s a museum re-imagined. It’s the Rolling Stones all over again. It’s the lack of understanding we have of Hunter S. Thompson, but our unconditional love despite.

Michelin came a bit before I did. I expect two stars. Gaggan doesn’t care. Neither do I. After seeing what I saw at dinner the other night, it could only help the success of his culinary school and other future endeavors. And it’s obvious that his head is in the right place. I don’t see any way that the stars will get on top of him. He and his dedicated team are the stars. Open your eyes and view the beauty that already exists around you. As goes the concept that I’ll steal from Anthony Bourdain; why do you need a tire company to tell you that your food is good?

I realize now that walking into Gaggan with my own comparatively uneducated skepticism makes me the unmerited pretentious one. I’m the Kanye West here. Gaggan is the Jimi Hendricks. At one point during service the lights flickered briefly and the Sommelier joked about not having paid the power bill in several months. But I’m not so sure that he was joking. I don’t think the restaurant would miss a beat if the power turned off mid-service. It might even make the experience better. The time Gaggan lost power and turned it up to 11 despite.



It’s just as important to note the excellence of the culinary and service team. As with almost any restaurant, it is not a one-chef show. The people behind him have built an empire. Gaggan Anand is their fearless leader. But the team, together, exist as legs of iron and fire. Sometime in the next few years, Gaggan will close shop in Bangkok and the applauded chef will move to Japan and start totally fresh on phase two. I’m thinking about moving there too. 

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Per Se

What to write about such a restaurant as Per Se? After a devastating blow from one of the most influential food critics in the world, is there any redemption for Thomas Keller’s East Coast powerhouse? He is currently the only chef in the United States to hold two separate three Michelin starred establishments. Per Se, after being bumped down from four starts to two by the New York Times somehow, to the surprise of many, held on to that coveted third Michelin star. And all of a sudden I’m thinking a lot more about politics than I am about what makes an exceptional fine dining establishment. Let’s see.
Is it bad, or is it good? Not as easy of a question to answer as I had thought. Things are missing. Mistakes were made. Some of what Mr. Wells wrote is absolutely true. It is, without a doubt, too expensive. The idea of multiple “supplements” on top of an already exorbitantly priced meal is excessive and a bit insulting. $125.00 extra for the Hand-Cut Tagliatelle dish? Sure you shower on the truffles for an excessively long time.  It’s the principal that bothers me. For one of the most expensive base prices in the country, you can’t at least throw in the Foie Gras dish? The local pubs down the street in Tennessee are serving beautiful plates of the fattened liver these days. While still a coveted ingredient, it’s hardly a rarity anymore. I expect a tad bit more to be “included” with my meal. I can drive three minutes from my house and spend seven dollars on beautiful, succulent pulled pork smoked for 12 hours, slathered on a baked potato, covered with fantastic condiments. It’s delicious and full of rich, beautiful flavor. But here, at Per Se, I have to pay yet another 30 dollars for this dish? Please, at least tell me why.
But that view though. Incredible. Per Se sits atop the Time Warner Center on Columbus Circle, overlooking Central Park. It’s the most expensive zip code in the state. What does rent cost at Per Se? Are they making a killing? Barely getting by? There is no doubt that operational costs are through the roof. Sushi extraordinaire Masa, the most expensive restaurant in the country, is right next-door and doesn’t offer the view. But at the end of the day, it’s just a city. And isn’t the Thomas Keller food empire supposed to be more about finding and sourcing the best ingredients possible? Why then is the view what people remember when they leave?
The dining room is elegant and beguiling. The view does take my breath as I’m shown to my pre-set table for one. No one comes to remove the second person’s cover plates because they weren’t there in the first place. Those kinds of things don’t happen in a restaurant of this caliber. Minimal disruption is critical, the wait staff slip through the dining room like a well-rehearsed musical. They are well versed, good at their jobs, “professionals” for lack of a better word.  But the wrong spoon comes. And I remember that I kind of like the mistakes. How we deal with them is more important than the act of making one. I want some humanity (and therefore humility) in my dining experience. Sending me a caviar spoon for a soup course is an obvious error. It’s tiny, but it happens and is fixed with poise and an unnecessary apology isn’t wasted.
A complimentary glass of champagne precedes my “Don Lockwood” (Bowmore 12 year, Bulleit Bourbon 10, and Maple Syrup). These refined cocktails represent the intense focus of the dining and beverage program. This is not just another whiskey mixed drink. Time has been spent here. This cocktail has gone around to the Chef’s and the Sommeliers and the wait staff. It’s been critiqued, survived the cut and it shows just how much attention can be paid to something seemingly insignificant at many establishments. The flavors progress vividly through each sip as the monstrous block of ice slowly melts.
I’m excited to try the famous Salmon Cornet, a dish that has made its way from the West coast as a welcoming amuse-bouche. It’s quite a bit more flavorful than I expected. It’s actually really damn good. A petit salmon tartar sits atop a chive crème fraiche “ice cream cone.” It explodes with flavor. My meal progresses through a savory display of elegantly plated delights. It seems to never stop, dish after dish. A stunning Hen Egg Custard with (complimentary) Black Winter Truffles is one the greatest on the menu. The Steelhead Trout Confit with Huile D’ Olive is one of the greatest bites of my life. The “Bread and Butter” course is simple yet exquisite. The rabbit is delicious, but for some reason, the Elysian Fields Farm Lamb is boring and basic. It’s bland and flavorless and has no place on this otherwise delicious menu. I’ve had better lamb from street-side food carts at 3 in the morning. How does it survive and stay as a proud offer? 
The 15 or so courses are way too much food. The dessert offering is excessive and borderline sickening. A plethora of sweets litter the table. Cheesecake, sweet tea ice cream (fabulous), almond praline mousse, dounut with dessert coffee, candies, chocolates, it goes on and on and on. Something really needs to leave the menu. If I’m paying this much for a meal, you better believe I’m eating every last thing on the table. I spent the rest of the day in bed, hardly able to move. It’s all too good, but balanced? Not at all, not in these later steps.
The kitchen is the cleanest I’ve ever seen. I would happily eat off of the floor. A live stream to the French Laundry kitchen is, well, really cool to see.  I’m hoping he’s there to wave at me, but no such luck. The wine cellar is so impressive and well kept, I almost asked for a job. Despite what I’ve heard about Per Se’s reputation, everyone seems humble, welcoming, and happy to work in such a beautiful place. There is some ironing to do here. Things are out of place. The bathroom needed cleaning. Some communication issues need to be worked on. But overall, I can’t help but disagree on some of his points. This is still one of the great dining experiences in the United States. It makes me look even more forward to my trip to Yountville to visit the flagship of Chef Keller’s dining empire. It isn’t where it needs to be: it is too expensive, it is too much food. But it’s also charming, humble, and endearing.


But I remain conflicted. I very much view Thomas Keller as the quintessential embodiment of “Farm to Table.” Everything about him screams intense focus on sourcing the finest ingredients possible. As I leave, I’m given a whole book devoted to the purveyors and farmers that make such a meal possible. Yet nothing about this restaurant says anything about farming and sourcing. The French Laundry sits at the foothills of the beautiful Napa valley. They have a beautifully impressive garden; nature seems to overflow the exquisite setting. And Per Se…well, is in a mall. It’s in a shopping mall in the middle of one of the busiest street corners in the country. And while effort is very obvious, it makes me wonder if the entire concept is flawed from the very beginning or not. This restaurant feels so incredibly out of place. It screams to be sitting in the middle of some farm a few hours away from here, a destination restaurant. It’s the same way I felt about Blue Hill in Manhattan. It doesn’t belong. It’s mission is too good to be stuck where it is. So why is it here? Is the chase of accolade from a tire company more important than holding true to deep-rooted values? Or does Per Se show that we can have something amazing anywhere we go? Unfortunately, I’m left conflicted and without an answer.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Momofuku Ko

            Momofuku Ko. For anyone interested in serious food, the name commands an immediate sense of interest and respect. David Chang has grown the Momofuku name into a small culinary empire. But Ko is the hard hitter, it’s his masterpiece. I walk in the door for my 9:30 reservation and I’m relieved. The place is comfortable. I’m not in the mood for a snooty, stuffy French dining room tonight. The place is elegant and simple. The focus here is on the food. The lack of a dress code is a breath of fresh air. It may be this lack of pretention, possibly mistaken for laziness, that keeps Momofuku Ko away from three Michelin stars. It certainly isn’t the food. Nor is it any lack of a fantastic beverage program, sporting over a hundred pages in its menu.  It turns out to be one of the most daring and delicious meals of my life. And as I love, I’m seated right at the counter, watching intently every move the chefs make, wondering what it’s like to be standing on the other side of the counter.

          
             The menu starts with some tasty small bites and progresses through a perfectly balanced ballet of culinary delights. The beverage pairings were off the cuff and obscure, but they all worked harmoniously with the food. The Mezcal and tomato cocktail paired with the chilled razor clam, pineapple and basil soup sticks around as my favorite course of the evening. And that’s a hard feat competing with the 13 or so other courses that all held their weight.


Aged grilled duck breast, two month aged seared rib eye, sea urchin with fermented chickpea and hozon; the big punches keep coming and coming. One dish comes out, a fried skate with vin jaune sauce, prepared right in front of you. It’s sad at first; they remove all the fantastic, beautifully fried skin. I almost asked for a piece. But they tricked me here. It comes back later wrapped in a mint sauce as a katsu roll, and it’s better than I ever thought it would be.  Each dish comes paired with a fantastic wine, cocktail or sake that completes the experience and brings everything full circle.


And possibly most importantly, even though Chang isn’t in the kitchen, it’s blatantly obvious that his influence abounds. He no longer needs to be there. He has built a well-oiled machine. Nobody looks miserable. Every chef looks like they love their job and have a strong passion for what they do. You can see it in their energy as they explain the dishes and as they talk about their work. Momofuku Ko is an evening to be remembered. I had high expectations and this excellent restaurant surpassed them all.