Friday, June 29, 2007

Oud Sluis - Sluis, The Netherlands

Having friends in high places can challenge restaurant criticism. I recently was invited to spend three minutes asking a question at a Ph.D. oral in Utrecht for which my transportation, hotel, and most meals were paid, plus an honorarium that paid me several Euros for each second of talk. Me and Ms. Hilton, what scammers. With this kind of largess, I decided to blow my pay packet on dinner at Oud Sluis, one of a Dutch trio of Michelin three star restaurants, and the establishment that under the leadership of chef Sergio Herman is making the greatest impact on global dining. I planned my trip carefully, wishing on the one hand to indulge and on the other to be a just and tough-minded critic. But a friend with tasty connection with Chef Herman arranged a special dinner, a plot that I only discovered on my arrival. My evening was an extension and intensification of what other diners might experience.

Oud Sluis is a treasure, much in the culinary style of Per Se/French Laundry, a restaurant that is much aware of the latest trends in molecular cuisine, but, unlike The Fat Duck or Alinea or El Bulli, does not fetishize the odd and abnormal, but uses those techniques along with more classical preparations. Herman is a chef who wishes to explore the savory but without permitting strong flavors to brutalize subtle flavors. He embraces the complex and the whimsical in ways that often succeed gloriously. If there is a caution, it is that Chef Herman is still in process of developing a uniquely personal style and a singular astonishing signature dish, although the entire menu and several presentation reveal considerable culinary facility. After three weeks I can still recall vividly some of Herman's creations, always an important sign. Chef Herman is young and some of the thematic linkages of the meal may have been lost in the generous blizzard of courses I was gifted. But my meal was superior to recent meals at Le Bernardin and Alain Ducasse in New York and the equal of those at Gordon Ramsay and Joel Robuchon.

Perhaps it was due to my connections that service was impeccable, although as best I could tell those diners sitting near me were happily and efficiently chowing down. The restaurant, comfortable, modern, and spare, with an emphasis on light woods and black trim, was attractive in itself, although not so architecturally fluent that one would visit for the decor.

The adventure began with a startling starter. Since these dishes were "off the menu," my descriptions may be less adequate than acceptable on a website of record. The first offering was buckwheat spaghetti with mackerel, marinated in lime and pepper, served beneath an orb of wasabi-sake ice. This aperitif glass was platonic, wakening one's taste buds while revealing the chef's philosophy: a willingness to play with strong tastes (mackerel, lime, wasabi, buckwheat), while moderating them in practice. Despite what might have been a set of clashing tastes and textures, the melding was pure joy.

Oud Sluis June 2007 Lime Sake Wasabi Ice, Buckwheat Spaghetti

My second opener was a simple cup of aioli with thin crostini. The crostinis of fragile sourdough crust were extravagantly crackly. The garlicky aioli was mixed as an airy cloud. As with the mackerel, this dish played with the strong taste of garlic, but lightened its texture and flavor.

Oud Sluis June 2007 Aioli and Sourdough Bread

Just over the Dutch border, Chef Herman next teased national expectations, producing a Brussel Waffle. This small pleasure was marinated herring tucked inside a mini-waffle, decorated with dots of curry and avocado cream. The theme of the meal becomes ever clearer: herring and curry, but moderated with cream and wheat. Smooth and rough. This four-bite starter was quite lovely, each bite, both those curried and those floral and nutty green.

Oud Sluis June 2007 Brussel Waffle with Marinated Herring Filling, Curry and Avocado Cream

The fourth offering was a Tiffany gem: a gustatory bon bon infused with a puree of Granny Smith apple and a liquid foie gras. The presentation literally bursted with aqueous flavor. This jewel was among the most impressive construction that I have eaten, a surprise that was beautiful to espy, startling to consume, and evocative in memory: rich liver and tart apple, held together by some enlightened gelatin that did not feel or taste like tired and rubbery aspic.

Oud Sluis June 2007 Granny Smith/Foie Gras Bon Bon

This was followed by a double tribute to Chefs Keller and Adria: nitrogenated emulsion of "oyster caviar." It lacked the lushness of Keller's "Oysters and Pearls," but the flinty pearls were more mature than, say, "Caesar Salad Dipping Dots." If one must have such frozen treats, oyster pearls made a lively and amusing choice.

Oud Sluis June 2007 Nitrogenated Oyster Caviar

Next I was presented with a salad tasting: 1) marinated salmon, champagne, dill and asparagus, 2) a salad of potatoes and shallots, 3) A marinated cucumber salad of lobster and radicchio on cracker, and 4) ratatouille with a espuma of escoviche (a Jamaican snapper). Although I found the potato salad less compelling, the other three were excellent. This is a chef who uses foam carefully, adding an edge of fish to his vegetables. The marinated salmon was a lovely take on lox in a modern style. Of the quartet it was the lobster that captured through its luxury - a postage stamp salad that could be sent anywhere.

Oud Sluis June 2007 Quartet of appetizers

Finally the menu, as printed, began. First, Tomato Structures with Marinated Gamba, Basil, Sorbet of Cabernet-Sauvignon Vinegar and Olive Oil Powder. I love fresh tomatoes, but I adored the single cherry tomato that was infused with oil and vinegar: the single best tomato on earth. The remaining four structures, although otherwise notable, didn't stand a chance. They were bystanders.

Oud Sluis June 2007 Tomato Structures

The next dish was my star of the evening, a tartare of langoustine with an emulsion of olive oil and yuzu, with caviar, seafood jelly, and cream of sea vegetables. This rather complex dish (and like Tom Keller, Sergio Herman is partial to complexity - except the above-mentioned cherry tomato) was a brave medley of tastes and textures. The fruity, herbal, salty, and buttery notes were symphonic. Even though complex, the dish had an astonishing lightness of being. Herman's strong tastes did not overpower.

Oud Sluis June 2007 Tartare of Langoustine with Olive Oil and Yuzu Emulsion

This was quickly followed with a foamy turbot: turbot with verbena and "barigoul (artichoke farci) foam" with pan-fried langoustine and tempura of verbena. This was another complex langoustine dish that tamed the savory to good effect. Perhaps the turbot is not as joyous a fish as some, but this was an astonishing and beautiful plate that successful melded fish and crustacean.

Oud Sluis June 2007 Turbot with Verbena and Barigoul Foam

In short order we moved from langoustines to lobster: "Bomba rice" paella with Zealand lobster, chorizo and slowly cooked squid with a sauce of crustaceans and cremolata of peas. Another ravishing and complex dish. Yet, this was the dish that I found disappointing. In comparing this deconstruction to a more traditional paella, my strong preference was for the latter. This was a stripped-down, constricted paella. When deconstructing tradition - "paella" - a chef needs to insure that the quotation marks add value. One can hardly complain about perfectly prepared lobster, but the dish felt cramped and theoretical; it lacked integrity as a tribute.

Oud Sluis June 2007 Bomba Rice Paella with Zealand Lobster, Chroizo, Squid, Suace of Crustacians and Cremolata

The palate cleanser was cucumber three-way: jellied, foamy, and marinated, served as a cocktail. Cucumber when prepared right is God's treat of summer: the refreshment of Eden. This break was glorious.

Oud Sluis June 2007 Cucumber Cocktail

The single meat course was lamb "Sisteron" with courgette (zucchini) flowers, lamb sauce, Parmesan jelly and "poudre d'or." Granted the gold powder was a conceit of a culture with too much disposable income, but the lamb was ideally cooked - juicy and moist, fully lamby - but with a startlingly crispy crust that must have taken some thoughtful effort to achieve. The strip of cheese preserves was good fun. If not the most compelling dish of the night, it was a straight-forward center-piece with memorable twists and turns.

Oud Sluis June 2007 Lamb Sisteron with Courgette Floweers, Parmesan Jelly

This brings a diner to a trio of dessert courses with their own variants: structures of chocolate and caramel with ice cream from salted peanuts; almond biscuit with strawberries and ice cream of elderberry flower; and preparations of raspberry and coconut. At some restaurants desserts are an afterthought, but desserts at Oud Sluis contain the same attempt to tame the savory, and they largely work. I particularly admired the chocolate cream with passion fruit. The fruit was ripe and robust and the elderberry sorbet was well made. Viewing the photographs reveals a pastry chef who works in the same register as the chef: tart complexity, shaped and channeled by an insistence on subtlety.

Oud Sluis June 2007 Structures of Chocolate and Caramel
Oud Sluis June 2007 Almond Biscuit with Strawberries and Elderberry Flower Ice Cream
Oud Sluis June 2007 Raspberry and Coconut Preparations

Oud Sluis deserves the praise it has received. And with a young chef who is still developing his own culinary style, it is likely to improve, although no fourth Michelin star will be in the offing. Oud Sluis may lack the explosive flash and gunpowder of the Fat Duck or Alinea, but it reveals a culinary mind. Today every ambitious young chef is a student of Thomas Keller, but some students are more attentive than others. If Sergio Herman is not a teacher's pet, he is a diner's pet.

At high-end restaurants no meal is truly typical, but thanks to an expansive chef my meal was less typical than some, thanks to the soft kindnesses of my network. Yet, the vision and care of Oud Sluis is sure to be evident for every diner, even those not so well connected as this diner-in-full.

Restaurant Oud Sluis
Beestenmarkt 2
(0031) 0117 46 12 69

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

The Fat Duck

The Fat Duck, surely one of the galaxy’s most famous dining destinations, tucked away in the London exurb of Bray, is in fact two of the world’s most creative restaurants. The problem is that they do not always fit together harmoniously. One is to be applauded for its culinary brilliance; the other for its cleverness. One is Per Se, the other April Fools. One produces astonishing food; the other forces astonished diners to question what food really is. Is food anything that a chef dares to place on the plate? One is modern cuisine, the other hyper-modern games and molecular buzz.

The Fat Duck appears a rural inn from its pubby name to its exposed beams and white walls. The only signal that this is other than small-town Britain is a few abstractions on the walls in yellow and chartreuse. As is so common, service in the temple of modern cuisine is attentive and gracious; service at the house of games is demanding and controlling. At the first the diner is king; at the later, he is a pawn. And throughout the meal The Fat Duck sells itself from the small placard on the table that encourages the purchase of Chef Heston Blumenthal’s cookbooks to the several odd objects emblazoned with the name and visual markings of the establishment. Blumenthal has not moved as far as some in turning himself into a brand, not yet opening branches in Dubai and Las Vegas, but perhaps the time is not so far off. The current chef, overseeing the cuisine at The Fat Duck is Ashley Palmer-Watts, who deserves much credit for the day.

One’s tasting menu begins with play. A server appears with a smoking kettle of nitrogenated ice in which she places a white sphere: a immediate freeze by one of MacBeth’s witches. This is the opening palate cleanser of Nitro-Green Tea and Lime Mousse. I am informed that it is to be eaten whole; and when I chose to consider the dish in two bites, I am chided for my effrontery. So much for clichés about the client’s authority. The ball itself is tartly citrus with a smidge of vodka. As advertised, it is a clarifying moment.

The Fat Duck: Nitro-Green Tea and Lime Mousse
The Fat Duck: Nitro-Green Team and Lime Mousse

The second amuse brings a plate with two small squares of jelly: one orange and one beet red. The server orders me to eat the orange first. I follow instructions despite a growing desire to rebel by combining half of each. What’s up? The orange gel tastes of beet; the red square tastes of orange, just like those experiments in home economics in which green food coloring is added to cherry ice and red to mint. As it always has been, this is a cute idea for a class in food science to demonstrate the power of expectations, but the idea triumphs over the senses.

The Fat Duck: Beet and Orange Gels

This experiment was followed by a lovely, little thing: a fresh oyster with passion fruit jelly and a sprig of lavender. Although the lavender didn’t add much to this particular dish, the combination of fruit and bay was delightful. This is the first of the dishes that demonstrates that the kitchen can cook – although if one is discussing raw oysters, “cook” is not precisely apt.

The Fat Duck: Oyster, Passion Fruit Jelly, Lavender

The next small treat was “soup,” although soup that one needed a magnifying glass to spot, Red Cabbage Gazpacho, served with a micro-scoop of Pommery Grain Mustard Ice Cream. The soup was luscious, luminous, and light, all that one expects of a chilled soup. I only wish I had a bowl and not a tumbler. The flavor of cabbage was distinctive, but not overwhelming, and the royal purple contrasted smoothly with the tan custard.

The Fat Duck: Pmmery Grain Mustard Ice Cream, Red Cabbage Gazpacho

The following intersecting courses were described as an “Homage to Alain Chapel.” How the late chef might feel about such an honor will never be known. I was informed that I must first lay a small film infused with oak flavor on my tongue, waking me for the touches to come, adding a whispered note of terror, if not terroir. However, this Sleeping Beauty trick was neither deadly nor delightful. Set on my table was a bonny package of oak moss that was flirtatious enough, but even when a liquid infusion caused it to smoke vigorously, it was more a proposition than than a passion. Here was molecular cuisine at its most jejune. A jest of the dark woods at table. This complaint does not neglect the insistent flavors of the dishes served as sides. The oak moss and truffle toast was carefully plotted and an evocative of the fungal bed. Compact, tightly bound, and explosive with aroma. Better still was one of the finest preparations of the day, an inspiring parfait with layers of quail jelly, langoustine cream, and foie gras mousse. Each satin sheet was urgently composed and together was an amorous moment. This parfait was as much a climax as an appetizer could be.

The Fat Duck - Container for Edible Oak Film
The Fat Duck: Steaming Oak Moss
The Fat Duck - Truffle Toast
The Fat Duck - Jelly of Quail, Langoustine Cream, Parfait of Foie Gras
The Fat Duck - Homage to Alain Chapel - Oak Theme

And now the meal became serious and profound – for awhile. The first of the larger course was Chef Blumenthal’s signature Snail Porridge, served with Joselito ham and shaved fennel, described by the organizationally immodest server as “our famous snail porridge.” The snails might speak for themselves, but whether famous, infamous, or anonymous, this was a breakfast of champions – fusing two of the meal’s motifs: breakfast in the woods. The green porridge, the translucent fennel, the rosy ham, and the dark snails made beautiful harmony. Flavors that seemed far distant became as one. This porridge wakens the limp and restless.

The Fat Duck - Snail Porridge, Joselito Hame, Shaved Fennell

Following the porridge was is tribute to Foie Gras, what each fat duck will be without: Roast Foie Gras with Almond Fluid Gel, Cherry Sauce and Chamomile Jelly. Here was foie gras marzipan with bursting cherry notes. The fruit was cherry cubed, so intense was its flavor. Not only was the dish symphonic in taste, it was fluid and expressionist in presentation. A magnificent treat.

The Fat Duck - Roast Foie Gras, Almond Fluid Gel and Chamomile

And then “The Sound of the Sea.” Here was molecular cuisine as wack. The server brought out a large conch shell with earphones which I was ordered to wear. Inside the shell – why? – was a small iPod – why? Putting on the earphones, one heard the sound of waves – why? And I sat for perhaps five minutes experiencing a cross between vexation and bondage, feeling little of the wispy shore breeze in this snug little cottage by inland Bray. Let me be blunt: it was dumb. The chef’s desire for discipline outweighed any hint of pampering.

The Fat Duck - Sound of the Sea

As I began to lose hope, fearing that I would be dunce for the afternoon, perhaps feeling a touch nauseated, the food arrived. If the dish was not among the finest creations of the tasting menu, it was far more evocative than the attempt at Radio Free Bulli. The chef sculpted a shore scene with tapioca sand, sea foam, fried baby eels, razor clams, cockles, and a quartet of Japanese seaweed species. It was a curiosity, too clever by half for greatness, but a thoughtful attempt to build on an unusual mix of textures.

The Fat Duck - Sound of the Sea

Finally arrived the crux of the meal: an indelible dishes, a creation of gustatory renown: Salmon Poached with Liquorice, Asparagus, Pink Grapefruit, Vanilla Mayonnaise, and Olive Oil. The salmon, moist and succulent, was enveloped by a dark, mysterious, potent, slightly bitter film. Served on a plate by its lonesome it would have been splendid, but the companion tastes, each paired in a bite were gravely symphonic. Modern cuisine does not get better than this, and inspires me to forgive – sort of – the fooling before and after. I was tempted to ask for Hester’s technique, but then realized that my evening fumblings might tarnish my memories of what Chef Blumenthal unfolded.

The Fat Duck - Salmon Poached with Liquorice

The meat course was perhaps the most “traditional” of the afternoon: best end of lamb with onion and thyme fluid gel with a potato fondant. The best end of lamb included tongue, neck, and sweetbreads, leaving this lamb silenced – along with part of the lamb’s rack. This was a fine, sturdy dish – and a rich and thoughtful one, unafraid of the dense flavor of the thyme gel. If it was an anti-climax – and in some measure it was – this evaluation was a function of what came before.

The Fat Duck - Best End of Lamb

The liquid palate cleanser was labeled “Hot and Iced Tea.” Two distinctly textured liquids – one rather warm and gummy, the other cool and fresh within the same cup. The trick was that the cup appeared to contain a single liquid, while actually constituting a science experiment. Like teaching a dog to waltz, it was more impressive in theory than in practice.

The Fat Duck - Hot and Iced Tea

This was followed by a small dish, “Mrs. Marshall’s Margaret Cornet,” named after a frozen dessert pioneer: apple ice cream with orange and ginger granita. This small cone with its smooth flavors and elaborated decoration was a nostalgic reference to the days when visiting the ice cream parlor was an occasion, not merely an errand.

The Fat Duck - Mrs. Marshall's Margaret Cornet

I could have skipped the “Pine Sherbet Fountain” – sugar powder with a pine aroma. First, oak, now pine, soon poison ivy. I scooped the power with a vanilla bean that added some taste, but didn’t persuade me that this was other than a tease of the late afternoon heat.

The Fat Duck - Pine Sherbet Fountain

The main dessert – Mango and Douglas Fir Puree with a Bavarois (Bavarian cream) of lychee and mango with an intense blackcurrant sorbet – was precisely presented, a stunning picture. As a serious presentation, the dessert was welcome, although I felt that the flavors did not merge as well as some earlier courses. It was a plate in which the sum of the parts was more impressive than the combined taste.

The Fat Duck - Mongo and Douglas Fir Puree

After this effort of the pastry kitchen, we returned to ideas, forgetting gustatory triumphs. First, I was served a Carrot and Orange Tuile – a high-end lollypop - with a beetroot jelly square, a reference to the earlier surprise but with the color matching the taste.

The Fat Duck - Carrot and Orange Tuile, Beetroot Jelly

As the meal ended – perhaps most appropriate for those evening repasts that concluded in the wee hours – I received a box of parsnip cereal – Fat Duck brand - served with parsnip milk. Perhaps one can’t squeeze blood from a turnip, but apparently Chef Blumenthal can tease breast milk from a parsnip. Cereality indeed.

The Fat Duck - Parsnip Cereal Package
The Fat Duck - Parsnip Cereal

I concluded with the second course of a molecular morning repast, another Blumenthal signature: Nitro-Scrambled Egg and Bacon Ice Cream with Pain Perdu and Tea Jelly. Like the opening nitro-Green Team and Lime Mousse, this was a tableside presentation. The kitchen wizards infused an egg in its shelf with bits of bacon, When cracked into a pan, mixed with liquid nitrogen – kazaam! – ice cream resulted. Cuteness trebled, cooled and warmed through magic. Better living through chemistry, although I prefer better living though stovework. It was an impressive end, although not the most impressive in flavor. The conjurer’s trick seemed designed to wheedle a standing ovation. The breakfast was somewhat in-between brilliant and curious, in-between funny delightful and funny odd.

The Fat Duck - Nitro-Scrambled Egg and Bacon Ice Cream

With the weak American dollar a tasting menu at The Fat Duck is an investment in reverie, and has some rough patches. Yet, it is not an experience that I would have missed. Perhaps The Fat Duck is two restaurants in one – one molecular, one inspired – but both reveal how magical a meal can be. This is a cuisine agape. I left with my heart aflutter and my mouth agape.

The Fat Duck
High Street
Bray Berkshire
+44 01628 580333


Saturday, June 02, 2007

Gordon Ramsay on Royal Hospital Road

When I was studying restaurant kitchens in the Twin Cities in preparation for my book, Kitchens: The Culture of Restaurant Work, I talked with a prominent local chef who explained to me, with some empirical justification, that he believed that his restaurant was the finest establishment between Chicago and the West Coast. I asked whether he could ever compete with those establishments situated in global cities. He doubted it, and I asked why. He answered in two words, “the touches.” By this he pointed to an economic reality of haute cuisine. In second-tier cities, such as Minneapolis-St. Paul there were simply not sufficient diners who would willingly pay for the extra staff to create meals that in their attention to detail that would reveal the chef’s commitment to elaboration, to nuance, to decoration, and to luxe.

Gordon Ramsay has no such trouble. (His troubles are reputed to be otherwise, including those of class cultures, as detailed by sociologist Pierre Bourdieu in his accounts of how one’s class background affects one’s interactional style. This forgets that until recently cooking was a job for the lads.) But touches Ramsay has in spades. Ramsay can gather as much staff as he can stuff into his kitchen, both because of the elasticity of his prices and because of the willingness of ambitious culinary tots to stage (star-jzay – or intern) with him, hoping that glorious gustatory dust may rub off. At a recent lunch the touches were much in evidence. And on the floor an army of staff paced, watching for the wayward crumb. This was a salutary surveillance, but surveillance none-the-less.

Gordon Ramsay, one of the most proficient, and often inspired, chefs, suggests that perfection while surely admirable, can have the feel of being frozen in amber, perhaps not always the best advertisement for a cuisine whose cutting edge is hyper-modern. This problem is all-too-common when outstanding chefs leave the stove behind and become overlords. This doesn’t discount the real contributions of the chef de cuisine, but major changes at such workshops require the approval of the masters, a culinary bureaucracy that limits spontaneity. Still, it is hard to have a bad meal at Ramsay’s or even a mediocre one.

One change from my previous visit was the color scheme: the deep, rich plum walls were gone, replaced by creams and silvers and blacks. With the plum went something of the adventure of space, replaced by a more serious, more carefully modulated environment. I preferred the plum.

As amuse I was served a tiger prawn cocktail with Osetra caviar, gazpacho, croutons, mashed avocado, tomato, and cucumber. This starter was a high-end shrimp cocktail that would have been somewhat pedestrian, if tasty, had it not been for the cucumber. This modest bit of salad added the dish a cool, summery lushness – a subtle, slightly sweet, slightly herbal moistness that created an unexpected and welcome taste.

Gordon Ramsay - Tiger Prawn Cocktail

The appetizer revealed just how far the influence of Fergus Henderson of St. John has traveled: from Smithfield Market to the heart of Chelsea. Slow-braised pied de cochon (pig’s trotter) pressed then pan-fried with ham knuckle – and an “egg benedict” with quial’s egg and hollandaise sauce – decorated stripes of Hollandaise and Balsamic sauce – was a creation that very elegant indeed, a work of art, but also a workingman’s craft: haute slaughterhouse. This was the highlight of the meal, and one of the grandest dishes of my British tour: Fergus Henderson waltzing in tux and tails.

Gordon Ramsay Pied de Cochon with "Eggs Benedict"

As a main course I selected chargrilled monkfish tail wrapped in duck confit with courgette (zucchini) and duck gizzard (Fergus again), served over petite squares of red and yellow peppers, tiny Japanese mushrooms, and red wine jus. It was an elegant presentation, perhaps a little heavy, but hardly a combination about which one could quibble. The tastes blended well, but in total were less startling than the remarkable appetizer.

Gordon Ramsay - Chargrilled Monkfish Tail with Duck Gizzard and Courgette

As a palate cleanser, I was served a raspberry compote with lemongrass crème – a bistro dissert with its admirable crackly coating. The lemongrass was unfortunately overwhelmed by the raspberry – I would have used pear instead. But I daydreamed of Heston Blumenthal testing us with durian crème, a combination that I lust to try with equally intrepid dining companions.

The main dessert was pineapple ravioli with berries, filled with passion fruit, and served with a dense mint sorbet (the later seemingly an alien from some other course). While tasty, the ravioli packaging didn’t quite hold up and the filling squirted about, creating a sweet that was a challenge to eat.

Gordon Ramsay - Pineapple Ravioli with Berries

Finally strawberry ice cream balls wrapped in white chocolate: perhaps somewhat icy, but intense in flavor.

Some chefs create their own distinctive style, whereas others, equally creative, are synthesizers, and it is in the latter camp that both of the meals that I have had at Ramsay’s fall. His staff is proficient and smooth and unfailing. Yet synthesizing produces meals that are only outstanding, not life-changing. Yet, some afternoons outstanding is quite enough.

Gordon Ramsay
68 Royal Hospital Road
London (Chelsea)
+44 (0)20-7352-4441