Friday, October 17, 2008

Spanish Panache - Cinc Sentits – Barcelona

How can so many svelte women be on display in Barcelona? Don’t they know that four star dining abounds. Surely they must because they are to be found at those tables, but there must be a caloric catch somewhere. So much taste, so much elegance, so little time. Among these choices none is better than Cinc Sentits – a brilliant establishment that revels in the five senses (the soundtrack included Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, and Dean Martin - a pack of rats in a clean, cool trap). Of my meals within the boundaries of Barcelona, the finest meal was that splendid lunch at Cinc Sentits, a temple of light near the University of Barcelona. Cinc Sentits is a college of the senses.

Cinc Sentits - Barcelona

I began with one of the most compelling and thrilling starters in recent memory: a shot glass filled with drama and with love: cava, cream, and maple syrup with a little salt as accompaniment: all of the passionate food groups were here: champagne, cream, sugar, and salt in a jewel-like composition. I was dazzled by the light.

Cinc Sentits - Barcelona: Amuse: Shot: Cava, Cream, and Maple Syrup

A second, deeper starter was a tomato ice compote served with a slice of sausage, garlic foam, and small bread cubes: gazpacho deconstructed. The presentation was exquisitely composed and a cool counterpart to the hot streets of a waning Barcelona summer. By forcing the diner to contemplate the construction of gazpacho, it did what majestic modernist cuisine must do: to turn food into theory, while keeping it at the peak of delight.

Cinc Sentits - Barcelona: Tomato Ice Compote with Garlic Foam and Sausage

Then followed a squat square of foie gras: a cube of liver with an elegant and rich pasty layer beneath and a crispy burnt sugar crust above. Like so many such dishes it might have overplayed a desire to transform foie into dessert, but what saved the dish from a sugary mass was the subtle play of textures throughout, as fetching as a rectangular crème brulee.

Cinc Sentits, Barcelona: Foie Gras Square

The seafood plate was a perfect rectangle of tuna in a smoked tomato water with a roasted onion “sofregit” (a tomato-onion-olive oil sauce) and black olive salt (Cinc Sentits is partial salt as a condiment). Perhaps tomato water represents the ultimate downsizing of French saucing, but such lightness makes one feel healthy, forgetting the calories elsewhere (The secret of Spanish beauties). If not as filled with drama as the amuse, it was a subtle, slinky dish.

Cinc Sentits - Barcelona:  Tuna in Smoked Tomato Water

Iberian suckling pig was the last in a trio of rectangular cuisine. Fatter and denser than what had been previously presented, this sous-vide pork – perhaps slightly mushy as served - wallowed in its richness, swathed in a crispy ratafia glaze (a fruit cordial) and sprinkled with (more) salt. The texture was a bit off, but the taste was dense and complex and precisely porcine. To recapitulate the lifeworld of a Spanish sow, apples served as the accompaniment: in cooked slices and as an apple jam with wine and honey.

Cinc Sentits - Barcelona: Iberian Suckling Pig with Two Textures of Apple

Dessert was a plentiful plate of gloriously zesty Maresme strawberries (an area on the coast of Catalonia known for these ruby berries). On top sat a scoop of marscapone sorbet with some fennel and rose water. One can not term this combination “simple;” splendid is more precise. Airy, herbal, flowered, and divine.

Cinc Sentits - Barcelona: Strawberries with Mascarpone and Rose Water

Cinc Sentits is a restaurant for the five senses. By no means the most expensive restaurant within town limits, of my dozen meals this was the pinnacle. Cinc Sentits is Catalan splendor on high heels.

Cinc Sentits
Aribau 58 (Eixample)

Saturday, October 11, 2008

L2.0, Someday *** L2O *** Chicago

The question constantly abuzz is what is the next new thing, and this summer in Chicago fine dining circles, it appeared that San Francisco Chef Laurent Gras’s new seafood restaurant (in the Ambria space), part of the Lettuce Entertain You Group (now 38 restaurants strong, including Everest) might be that place. Chicago, in truth, does not have a four-star restaurant, like Le Bernardin, that specializes in the aquatic. It still doesn’t.

To review L2O is to calibrate. Chef Gras’s establishment is by no means a failure. They have a superior seafood supplier, the fish is served without fault, and one of the dishes (of four, plus two amuses) is stellar. (Many of those who have raved about L2O indulged in the tasting menu; for our late dinner, we selected the workingman’s four course repast: the Goldman Sachs blue plates special). L2O does not have a poor record, except in competition with Alinea, Trotter, Tru, Avenues, or Everest.

What constitutes four-star dining? Surely decor matters, and I was startled at the casualness of the dining room (it is decorated in tones of cream and brown, reminding me of a suburban corporate lounge. It lacked astonishment). With the exception of a wonderfully complex and evocative sculpture of branches in the entrance (providing Japanese notes, also seen on the menu), the space itself is rather conventional (table settings are impressive). This is satisfactory for a restaurant with modest aspirations, but can this space match Alinea or Everest.

A second feature is the service. At the highest caliber restaurants one blindly places oneself in the hands of consummate professionals: a wine director and skilled server. We trust nothing will go wrong. Of course, things do go wrong – and allowances must be made – but each glitch chips one’s confidence. Our server was quite congenial – friendly, warm, caring – yet, although we were told that we would be able to choose a soufflé that option was not asked when we ordered. Worse, we were not asked about wine service. Where was the sommelier? (This was a weeknight.) But whether present or not, we should not have had to inquire. And wine should not be spilled. Nothing terrible, but L2O has been open long enough for everything to settle into perfection.

And then the food. It is not surprising that L2O is at home with fish, but it is distressing that a restaurant that hopes for national recognition should fumble elsewhere. The fact that many dishes, including the dessert and cheese course is garnished with emerald crystal ice lettuce revealed either a fatal absence of imagination or a terrific deal on these greens. Although some have praised the bread service, I was less taken with the anchovy bread, which served no purpose as an accompaniment to delicate fish or as a match for sweet butter.

Our first amuse was the least engaging starter I have had in some time: had someone eaten this pseudo-molecular creation and pronounced it magnificent? Here was a peanut sponge with wasabi. Granted it was a bit like eating a sponge, but neither the peanut nor the wasabi added much in the way of taste, and the visual appeal was decidedly limited. Do I really want my chef to consider me sponge-worthy?

Better was a second amuse with tuna, tomato, olive foam, and orange gelee. It was a startling combination. The flavors were not perfectly coordinated (olive and orange are not ideal bedfellows), but the tuna was just fine, and it suggested a chef who is testing boundaries.

L2O, Chicago: Tuna Amuse

The four course menu is structured around a raw course, a warm course, and a main course (reminiscent of Le Bernardin), plus a dessert. My raw course was Ishidai (a type of bream, a very mild white fish) with shiso leaf, preserved lemon, trout roe, and heart of palm. The ishidai was wonderful, but it was overwhelmed by the pungency of the shiso and lemon (both wonderful tastes, but would have been better as undertones). Served in four segments, the ingredients had to be unpacked and rearranged to be fully satisfying.

L2O, Chicago: Ishidai, Shiso Leaf, Roe

The second (warm) course was the highlight of this and many meals. A truly memorable dish: a two layered circle of lamb tartar and ebi shrimp with pickled peach and tarragon. This was a combination that could stand up to its accompaniments. It was a supremely wonderful dish – meaty in land and sea - a set of startling contrasts that forced a diner to rethink preconceptions. Sterling.

L2O, Chicago: Lamb Tartar, Ebi Shrimp

The main course was striped bass with shellfish bouillon, saffron, Rhode Island mussels, striped sorrel, and a plank of toasted brioche. The bass was perfectly prepared, the bouillon rich and complex, the mussels, fine. The board of brioche meant that any attempt to conquer this bread led to flying crumbs. It was not the most congenial dish to consume. The ingredients were well composed, but the flavors were not as remarkable as the previous course. It was a more traditional entrée. Does Chef Gras have a distinctive style? These dishes make a theme hard to find.

L2O, Chicago: Striped Bass

Finally there was dessert. Sigh. As the desserts were described, they seemed to have numerous interchangeable parts. One (unordered) choice was Chocolate and Raspberry in fourteen textures. Perhaps it was wonderful, but it seemed pretentious. My selection, with a similar number of parts, was Tomato Strawberry. Nasty. The fact that a recipe for the dish (or something similar) is on the website suggests that someone must have found a black pepper meringue to be inspirational. But is this a marriage for strawberries? Should you wish you can prepare this dessert at home, reach in your cabinet for versawhip, low acyl gellan, soy lecithin, xanthan gum, red food coloring, something called Fizzy, and, oh yes, petite emerald crystal ice lettuce. Bon appetit! Alice Waters, where are you when we need you. In contrast to the locavore crew, I am not ideologically resistant to creations from Dr. Frankenstein’s kitchen, so long as they are toothsome. This dish - a blurred mix of sweet, bitter, and peppery - was a mess. Serve durian and be done with it.

L2O, Chicago: Tomato Strawberry Dessert

My companion ordered the cheese course. No choices and no accompaniments (jams, nuts). But nice cheese.

L2O is not without its moments. The fish is lovely and there are flashes of brilliance, and on other times moments of sheer, unalloyed pleasure (the silky bouillon). I have tried to calibrate my review to capture a restaurant that itself does not always calibrate its dishes. The check certainly indicates that Chef Gras is striving for four-star dining, but the experience itself seems at some distance from those lofty heights. And so we have L2O, waiting, perhaps, for L2.0.

2300 Lincoln Park West (Lincoln Park)

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Sunlight Dancing * Alkimia * Barcelona

What an array of dancing sunbeams is Alkimia, Chef Jordi Vilà’s Michelin One-Star in the Eixample, not so far physically – or conceptually, perhaps – from Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia. Here is a stylish restaurant in which taste and texture are always central. The restaurant would broadly be placed within the canons of the new Spanish cuisine, but without straining the boundaries of the pleasures of taste. Combinations are newly inspired, but serve their own gustatory ends. Not only was the restaurant airy, but the food was as well. Perhaps not spectacular in its limits of adding those extra, luxe touches of cuisine, the lunch (a tasting menu) was unfailingly delightful.

Barcelona, Alkimia, Interior

I began with a simple but memorable shot of tomato water with bread crumbs on top and a slice of fuet covering the glass. These simple ingredients provided a happy start in a restaurant that respects its food.

Barcelona, Alkimia: Amuse, Tomato water with bread crumbs and Catalan sausage (Fuet)

This amuse was followed by a lovely and bright compilation of Zucchini flowers, tomato, quinoa, olive oil, and gorgonzola ice cream. These carefully calibrated tastes were effectively and beautifully combined in a small glass in which each taste worked in tandem.

Barcelona, Alkimia: Zucchini flower, tomato, gorgonzola ice cream with quinoa and olive oil

The most astonishing dish of the afternoon – still on my tongue after several weeks – is a composition (the proper term for so many of Chef Vila’s creations) of watermelon, smoked salmon, blanched almonds, with ajo blanco (white, garlicky gazpacho). Despite the seemingly odd mixture, each bite was a triumph of flavors that matched salty to herbal to sweet.

Barcelona, Alkimia: Smoked slmon, Watermelon, Blanched Almonds with Ajo Blanco

Chicken Cannelloni with almond béchamel and an apple and radish salad was another dish that was stirringly composed. I found it less compelling that the previous plates – less savory perhaps, but I did admire the stylish side salad on the plate.

Barcelona, Alkimia: Chichen Cannalloni with Almond Bechamel, Apple and Radish Salad

Red Mullet (snapper) with tomatoes, peaches, and almonds was confident and, again, beautifully composed. Perhaps it was slightly salty, but the accompaniments were delightful reminders of late summer. Here is a chef deeply and confidently in debt to modern cuisine.

Barcelona, Alkimia: Red Mullet (Snapper) with Tomato, Peaches, and Almonds

Two desserts concluded the lunch: the first was a riff on a traditional Catalan dessert: pastry with lemon sauce, vanilla ice cream and coffee cream. The second, the better of the two, was a fruit compote with melon, lychees, ginger water, plum cake, and lemon ice cream. An outdoor dessert served indoors. This dessert – not heavy a bit – almost floated away.

Barcelona, Alkimia: Catalan Pastry with Lemo Souce and Vanilla Ice Cream

Barcelona, Alkimia: Melon, Lychees, Ginger Water, with Lemon Ice Cream

And like the dessert, I floated. In most cities, this meal would have catapulted the restaurant into the local heavens. The fact that this was Barcelona! means that Alkimia is part of the culinary chorus.

Industria 79 (Eixample)

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Second Best --- Xaviar’s at Piermont

The truth of the high-end restaurant biz is that it is not so hard to create a good quality restaurant. A clever chef, able decorator, and well-trained servers should do the trick. Creating a remarkable restaurant that soars and that captures the imagination of diners is another matter. I recently shared a fine meal at Peter X. Kelly’s Xaviar’s, the well-regarded restaurant in Piermont (on the west side of the Hudson across the Tappen Zee Bridge on the Palisades).

Xaviar’s is considered by some to be the second best restaurant in north suburban New York (Piermont is in Rockland county right across the Hudson River from Westchester County), following Blue Hill at Stone Barns. This is not exactly being the second best restaurant in Bakersfield or Toledo. I had eaten at Stone Barns shortly previously, and then at Xaviar’s, and the comparison is not fair. Xaviar’s would surely be the best restaurant in Bakersfield or Toledo. It was good – two stars (of four) good, but not poetic. This need to adjudicate quality is at the heart of the critic’s task. Few restaurants stink (certainly Xaviar’s doesn’t) and even fewer are transcendent.

The word that comes to mind in describing Xaviar’s is pleasant – in truth, not a bad word: a pleasant evening out is to be hoped. The room is not luxe, but comfortable (one can easily judge from the restrooms). The staff is friendly and competent, even if one doesn’t have the feeling of being in the hands of professionals, and the menu is engaging.

If one doesn’t select the chef’s tasting menu (we didn’t), one chooses from a four course menu for Seventy Dollars. At restaurants of this class, one begins with an amuse: grilled mackerel on a kimchee crepe with a miso sauce. Bravo. I was impressed that chef de cuisine Kathleen Egan engaged with kimchee. Although this (mild) heat was not characteristic of the evening, it was an amuse that woke up one’s mouth.

Xavier's at Piermont: Amuse: Mackerel on Kimchee Crepe

The first course, Seared Maine Diver Scallops with Braised Fennel and Hibiscus Glaze, was a nice starter. Perhaps the glaze was slightly sweet and the scallops were good but not astonishing. Still, the fennel added a surprising and pleasing spicy note. Fundamentally it was a straight-forward dish (i.e., had I the inspiration I could have prepared it), but it was a happy start.

Xavier's at Piermont: Scallops with Fennel and Hibiscus Glaze

This was followed by the seafood course for which I selected Spaghetti Chittarra with Jumbo Lump Crabmeat, Green Onions, and Toasted Bread Crumbs. While the crabmeat was generous and sweet, I found the dish somewhat bland. Too quiet for a restaurant with aspirations. It was less subtle than muted. My companion’s Macadamia Nut Crusted Ahi Tuna with a Cucumber/Seaweed Salad was well-cooked with a lovely tart salad. Not an elaborate dish, but a very satisfying one.

Xavier's at Piermont: Spaghetti Chttarra with Jumbo Lump Crabmeat

Third course was a brined and oven roasted Hudson Valley Chicken with mushroom wild rice and organic baby carrots. The sauce was an overly thick Madeira/morel sauce. The chicken was nicely moist, although I wished that the skin that was served had been crisp. The wild rice was not distinctive, and the carrots, although fine, could not compete with those of Blue Hill’s farm.

Xavier's at Piermont: Chicken, Wild Rice, Carrots

For dessert, I chose the Hot Cherry Souffle with Cherry Sauce and Lemon Sorbet. This was an excellent close. Presented as a soufflé should be, each bite was infused with cherry essence. With the exception of the amuse, it was the highpoint of the meal. The sorbet was a pleasing accompaniment.

Xavier's at Piermont: Cherry Souffle

Xaviar’s at Piermont is a worthy restaurant. Whether it is second-best in the suburbs north of New York City I cannot say, but it would be in that mid-range of nice Manhattan restaurants. Sadly on this lovely Friday night in September, the restaurant was startlingly underbooked. We were not alone, but the number of filled tables could be counted on one hand. Perhaps Xaviar’s day has passed or perhaps good is simply not good enough in the burg of Piermont.

506 Piermont Avenue
Piermont, New York

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Catalan Cookery
Part One: Jamonisimo, Abac, El Celler de Can Roca

Any account of restaurant life in Barcelona and its environs must begin with El Bulli. So I confess that during my six days in Catalonia I did not eat at El Bulli. Perhaps it is just as well because El Bulli has become at least as much of a shrine as a restaurant. (I cannot comment on the shape of Chef Adraia’s cuisine or the validity of the religion for which he is the godhead). However, attempting to acquire a reservation eleven months prior to the date of our visit proved unsuccessful and no amount of waiting, pleading, or networking gained a table. This stands in contrast to the platonic El Celler de Can Roca (a Michelin three star restaurant), which still had open tables during the lunch that I dined in Girona. Could El Bulli be eleven months more fantastic than Can Roca? I can’t judge, but must speculate that at least some of those months may be attributable to our celebrity culture.

Still, my week in Barcelona was not without glories: Jamonisimo (*), Abac (***), El Celler de Can Roca (****), Cinc Sentits (****), Comerç 24 (**), Botafumeiro (*), Alkimia (****), and Drolma (**). There were some disappointments (Comerç 24 most dramatically), but there was not a bad meal. How many cities might one say that of? Paris? New Orleans once upon a time? New York, if one is careful?

Arriving in Barcelona in late morning, I set my sights on what I imagined would be a light lunch: a smidgen of Spanish ham: Iberian jamon. Near my hotel was a modernist and elegent jamoniserie (my term), Jamonisimo. Primarily a purveyor of dry cured ham, Jamonisimo has a few tables in back where they serve their wares. Perhaps it was due to our uncertain communication, but when I ordered Iberian ham in three textures (the parts of the leg from which they derived was shared for my edification), the plate was larger than I imagined (and could have easily satisfied several ravenous beach volleyball squads). But what an introduction to Catalonia! With dinner served at 9:00, pigging out at lunch was not a tragedy. The slices and chunks had subtly different tastes, density, and moisture, and the experience was distinctively different from an American country ham: richer and less salty. As I chomped, I couldn’t avoid thinking of Bill Buford’s Dante-quoting butcher, wondering whether such a butcher stood behind Jamonisimo.

Dinner brought me to Abac where an al fresco dinner was filled with pleasure, even if I could not claim that the meal was transcendent. Still outdoor dining in a splendid little garden on a warm late summer Catalan night provided hours to be treasured, and a worthy comparison for other dinners. I remember particularly one of the opening snacks: crispy veal, tasting for all the world like a meaty potato crisp.

Equally appealing was an appetizer that consisted of a lovely textured soup, part foam, part mousse, part liquid. An emerald vichyssoise, combined with scallions, leeks, and asparagus. This was a libation that coolly contrasted with the still summer evening. Perfectly made, perfectly enjoyable. However much work went into its construction, its elegant simplicity was a diner’s joy.

Abac: Green Vichyssoise

I also enjoyed the sashimi quality tuna, raw on the inside, with a cherry gelee and sangria sauce. The tang of the fruit complimented the fish well. While not a unique presentation or set of flavors, it was successful. Similar was the pigeon with cardamom and onion, served with a well-composed salad. The cardamom might have been pushed up a notch, as the flavor was muted, but the game was luscious.

Abac: Tuna and Cherries with Sangria

Abac: Pigeon and salad

Of the desserts, I particularly enjoyed the sculptural passion fruit with cream sauce and spun sugar. As is typical for Abac the flavor combinations are not astonishing, but the dishes reveal real sophistication for the mid-range of diners. I was not stunned, but it was a fine way to share a first evening in B-lona.

Abac: Passion Fruit Dessert

In contrast, platonic is the word for my visit to El Celler de Can Roca, a sleek and airy restaurant on the outskirts of Girona set in a peaceful modernist garden setting. One of the effects of having El Bulli down the road is that there is no need to compete in startling excess. Can Roca offers poetry to E.B.’s cracked science. But through it all the effects of a cuisine agape are evident. El Celler de Can Roca reveals a distinctive style, a style that owes much to sous vide techniques, capturing a density and purity of taste. However, sous vide does not scream at a diner. Not told that one’s meat was cooked sous vide, the marks of the process are hard to pinpoint, other than that the dish seems remarkable tender and flavorful, exquisite in taste and texture, but without blaring headlines.

El Celler de Can Roca

El Celler de Can Roca

At a restaurant of the quality of Can Roca, anything less than the tasting menu would be a sin: and I rarely sin at table. My tasting notes are, rather redundantly, filled with the word “amazing.” Chef Joan Roca is in confident control (along with his brothers, Josep, the Sommelier, and Jordi, the Pastisser).

Still the less dramatic “snacks” make the rest of the meal look astonishing in comparison. Weakest was baby carrots with orange, stick and sweet, but not clever. Better was a nicely prepared lavender crisp and the lovely bitter cherries with campari and anchovies.

But it was the second opening course that persuaded. This was among the most experimental presentations of the luncheon. Actually it consisted of a trio of courses: ‘Sferificacion’ of Cockles with Guava Juice and Campari (Sferificacion is an El Bulli-derived technique of controlling the gelification of a liquid to provide desired shapes), a skin of cucumber soup with popcorn made of garlic soup, and a luxuriant and very Spanish pigeon bombon with Bristol Cream sherry. The last, appearing to be a cross between a truffle and a mallomar, is an exquisite game pie in a single bite. It heralds autumn. The cucumber soup is perfect in its edgy elegance, rich with herbal flavor. I loved the cockles, particularly because of the bitter and cocky campari-reprise. Although there didn’t seem to be a strong connection among these three starters, eating them in sequence was delight.

El Celler de Can Roca: Sferificacion of cockels with guava juice and campari, skin of cucumber soup with popcorn made of garlic soup, pigeon bombon with Bristol Cream

Oysters with with Agusti Torello cava, apple compote, ginger, pineapple, lemon confit, and spices was modernist salt-spray fruit salad, coordinated to emphasize the briny taste of the mollusk. Here was complex deliciousness that was both clean and oceanic.

El Celler de Can Roca: Oysters and and Fruit Salad

Melon with cured ham was a trompe l’oeil triumph: an extrusion of melon with fine Iberian ham. Conceptually this was cute, but the heart of the plate was the superb cured ham. One could almost taste the acorns on which the pig once feasted. No lipstick on this porker, but it was still a pig.

El Celler de Can Roca: Melon with Cured Ham

This was followed by a magnificently imagined taste festival. Not experimental, it represented modern cuisine’s desire to explore the boundaries of taste: Cherry soup with shrimp and a scoop of ginger ice cream mixed tart and rich, warm and cold, with every element skillfully prepared. This was an astonishing dish. From now on I will serve my shrimp cocktail with jam.

El Celler de Can Roca: Cherry Soup with Shrimp and Ginger Ice Cream

Green olive parmentier with foamy tuna sauce was another experiment in taste: an egg-like lump, playing on the imaginings of olive and potato: a tuna salad from the far future. Perhaps the taste did not compare with the cherry soup, but it combined tastes and textures with élan.

El Celler de Can Roca: Green Olive Parmentier

The following pair of dishes – amontillado-steamed king prawn and smoked summer-truffle soufflé – depended on splendid ingredients, impeccably cooked. Neither had sharp strokes of contrasting tastes, but their subtleties were delicious. The truffle soufflé was so sensuous that it deserved to be eaten in bed.

El Celler de Can Roca: Amontillado-steamed King Prawn

El Celler de Can Roca: White Summer Truffle

Sole with sea fennel and charcoal-grilled leeks bowed to classic cuisine (sous-vide classic, of course). Many modern chefs seem at sea with sauce, but not Chef Roca. Silken, foamy sauce with fish cooked by God’s hand, its elegance can not go unremarked. This plate reminds us why so many diners loved – and love – classic cuisine, even as lightened with low cooking and roux-free saucing.

El Celler de Can Roca: Sole with Sea Fennel and Leeks

Kid belly fillet with goat’s milk parmentier consisted of a rectangle of goat belly (today’s “in” body part) with perfectly crispy skin. This presentation was far more modern that the sole with just enough potato pudding and goat sauce to provide for an interactive experience. Another sumptuous dish.

El Celler de Can Roca: Kid Belly fillet with Goat's Milk Parmentier

Goose liver terrine with apricot compote is Chef Roca’s tribute to the foie gras wars. Foie, but not gras, it had a gaminess that foie gras can never equal, evoking the wild in ways that depend on the pungency of goose liver. This was a powerful plate. As foie gras is meat jam, Chef Roca’s foie is a treat from the hunt.

El Celler de Can Roca: Goose Terrine with Apricot Compote

Dinner concluded with a pair of desserts. First was a decorative dish labeled “A fragrance adapted: Extreme by Bulgari (Bergamot cream, lime sorbet, tonka bean, vanilla and patchouli).” The idea seemed precious, but the dish was a decorator’s dream. Not my favorite of the afternoon, it was a pretty mix of textures, tastes, and aromas. Not knowing Extreme fragrance, I cannot tell whether it matches, but I surely would prefer Extreme on warm skin than cold glass.

El Celler de Can Roca: Exteme by Bulgari dessert

Cherries with vanilla and amaretto, draped with a clear sugar wrap, completed the cherry trilogy. I love cherries, and found this ending to be filled with smiles.

El Celler de Can Roca: Cherries with vanilla and amaretto

Were it not for its colleague down the road, El Celler de Can Roca would be goal of any gourmet’s pilgrimage. Bravo.


Provença 85 (Eixample)

Avenue del Tibidabo 1-7 (Tibidabo)

El Celler de Can Roca
Can Sunyer 48
Girona, Spain

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Hot Quito Nights - Zazu

Anyone who has spent time in the sweaty kitchens of haute cuisine haunts knows that Ecuadorians are South America’s gift to North American diners. So many kitchens workers in New York, Chicago, and elsewhere hail from this small land, the size of Nevada, but without the sand and glitz. In a recent visit to Ecuador I searched out Ecuadorian haute cuisine. I can report that I discovered such an establishment, an astonishing one, although a restaurant whose innovative chef, Alexander Lau, hails from Peru, Ecuador’s prickly neighbor to the south.

Zazu, Quito, Ecuador

Zazu, Quito, Ecuador

After a misguided first night culinary adventure in Quito, I came upon Zazu, and not willing to leave my good fortune to the vagaries of Ecuadorian cuisine, I returned the next night, the first time as a grazer that I have eaten back-to-back meals in any restaurant. (This post recounts the first meal: photos from the following night are on my account).

Ecuador decided some time back not only to peg its currency to the U.S. dollar, but actually to use American currency. Americans need not change money. This decision no doubt seemed wise in the age of a strong dollar, but today Ecuador is a value for American tourists, no more so than at Zazu, where a full seven-to-nine course tasting menu costs an astonishing $35.00. Most of the wines poured (Chilean, Argentinean, Spanish, and an untasted Ecuadorian wine) are priced at about $30.00.

We were particularly fortunate in selecting Zazu on a lazy, summer Monday night. For much of the evening the stylish, contemporary restaurant was nearly empty, and we received considerable attention from the waitstaff and the chef, including an invitation to explore the kitchen. The tasting menu consisted of nine courses, each stylish and most spicy. I don’t believe that I have ever had a tasting menu flavored with so much heat. (The tasting menu the following night – a busier, peppier evening - had some wonderful dishes - including a sea bass in coconut sauce, langoustine in piquant sauce, and shrimp in a honey-chili sauce - but was less thematically coordinated, and as an evening repast slightly less satisfying).

Dinner began with a simple amuse, Pangora (Pacific) stone crab set on a small round of avocado with bits of lettuce and tomato on a quiet Zen-like platter. Unlike much of the rest of the meal, the taste was cool and sweet without a hint of spice. The dish was impressively restrained and the ingredients were sublime, but the taste revealed little of what was in store.

Zazu, Quito, Ecuador Stone Crab on Avocado with Tomatoes and Lettuce

The second dish was inspiration: raw sole with a parmesan sauce: a cheesy sushi with chili peppers. I admit that the vision of the dish may not be what one expects on a restaurant plate, at least when one is able to keep one’s food down. But this is a dish that can be eaten up, down or sideways. Raw fish, cheese sauce, and chili: this dish is doomed to failure, except for the fact that it is so glorious in its surprises; so lasting in its memories. I fell in love with Chef Lau. At its best his cuisine has the power to reimagine cuisine. Never have I witnessed a top chef pack so much heat. Not weeping heat, but a mix of classic and hot.

Zazu, Quito, Ecuador: Raw Sole in Parmesan Sauce with Chilies

Third we were treated to sashimi tuna, with sesame oil, sesame seeds, and more chilies. Pure fish, pure heat, pure fun.

Zazu, Quito, Ecuador: Sashimi Tuna with Chilies in Sesame Oil

Fourth course was a perfectly tender Calamari, stuffed with shrimp, drizzled with a Ponzu sauce and more hot peppers. While such a string of chilied dishes might seem redundant, they never did. Each had its own flavor profile and its own set of culinary references.

Zazu, Quito, Ecuador: Calamari with Spicy Ponzu Sauce

The fifth plate was a seafood composition: shrimp, grouper, octopus, and calamari with tree tomatoes (a common Ecuadorian vegetable), garlic, and some more peppers. While the grouper was slightly overcooked for my taste, the dish followed the piscatorial theme of the dinner. The dish was well-designed and enjoyable – and exotic with the fruity tomatoes - if not quite so imaginative as several preceding dishes.

Zazu, Quito, Ecuador: Fish Composition: Grouper, Shrimp, Octopus, Calamari

Sixth course was prawn tempura served with a spicy mango salad. This dish, elegant, composed, spicy, represented the heart of Chef Lau’s cuisine. He draws upon Asian and Latin ingredients and flavors but with a classic sensibility. While the dish was not as dramatic as his sole sashimi with parmesan sauce, it was astonishing in its creative simplicity.

Zazu, Quito, Ecuador: Prawn Tempura with Mango Salad

Our seventh course was aged beef tenderloin with green peppercorns served with a dill and caraway sauce and green salad. On this plate the pungency did not come from heat but from the other side of the pepper world. The beef was nicely undercooked and enriched by the depth of the source.

Zazu, Quito, Ecuador: Beef Tenderloin with Green Peppercorns, Salsa and Dill/Caraway Sauce

The finally entrée course was an ossobuco, served on risotto with asparagus tempura. As with the opening course, an enveloping mildness characterized this plate. While ossobuco can be heavy in the wrong hands, this small plate was surprisingly airy and well-portioned.

Zazu, Quito, Ecuador: Osso Buco with Asparagus, Risotto

A lovely, light taxol (passion fruit) sorbet followed with a small fan of spun sugar as garnish.

Zazu, Quito, Ecuador: Taxol (Passion fruit) Sorbet with Spun Sugar

Desserts, while successful, are less stunning (and were also slightly disappointing our second night when I was presented with a sampler of desserts, none of which was a knock-out). I enjoyed a vanilla panna cotta, served with a salad of raspberries, strawberries, and mint. I wished for a more tropical or peppery ending or one with greater surprise, but the dessert was sweet and light. My wife received a chocolate panna cotta with berries, served on a cinnamon crumble. Nice indeed, but without revealing the pastry chef’s magic art.

Zazu, Quito, Ecuador: Vanilla Panna Cotta, Berry salad

Zazu, Quito, Ecuador: Chocolate Panna Cotta, Cinnamon Crumble

Not each dish is equally stunning, but dinner at Zazu was a revelation: a wise, generous and zippy Latin cuisine with Asian and European influences. Chef Lau is an important chef in Ecuador and in the global culinary world. With a wave of tourists soon descending on Quito for the 150th anniversary of The Origin of Species, hopefully Chef Lau and Zazu will receive their due. This most fit restaurant deserves to survive and prosper.

Mariano Aguilera 331 y La Pradera
Quito, Ecuador