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)