Saturday, October 03, 2009

Top Chef – Topolobampo

Some months ago in that mix of cuisine and media that is now so common, Rick Bayless was anointed Bravo’s Top Chef for the season. Let me confess that the only cooking show that I have watched with any regularity since the one-time bizarre antics of the galloping gourmet (Graham Kerr) was the original Japanese Iron Chef that satisfied my weirdness quotation for the week. But weird or not Chef Bayless of Chicago’s (and the world’s) Topolobampo (and the more accessible Frontera Grill – and the now über-streetfood Xoco) won the honor. Congrats to you Rick. I was informed by our server that the four savory courses were recapitulated Bayless’s life in food. (I never learned the meaning of the fourth course – or the dessert).

To honor this occasion, Bayless recapped his star-turn five-course meal as a special tasting menu ($90/person) from August to mid-October. While I cannot rate the meal flawless, I was pleased to taste cable entertainment at a suitable distance.

As might be expected, given that the meal reveals his life, the first course was the most juvenile. Bayless’s father owned a barbeque restaurant in Oklahoma (is there any other kind?) and in honor of dad, the chef served “Hickory-smoked quail with Hickory House barbeque sauce and Iroquois cornbread croutons.” The dish might have been appealing to an eight-year old, but the sauce could have come from a bottle. It was sweet and tangy, but that comes with the territory. I didn’t find the complexity of Arthur Bryant’s sage-inflected sauce on this plate. Nothing really wrong, but not challenging enough. The spicy watermelon salad and roasted garlic slaw were impressive, but the course was short of memorable for those who did not share the chef’s life.

Topolobampo - September 2009 - Bravo Top Chef Master Finale Tasting Menu: Hickory-smoked guail with Hickory House BBQ sauce. Iroquois cornbread croutons, spicy watermelon salad, roasted garlic slaw and chile threads

The second dish, reflecting Rick’s discovery of Mexican cuisine was better, but still within a normal range: seared Hawaiian ahi tuna in Oaxacan black mole with plantain-filled tamal, grilled nopal salad, roasted knob onions, and three-nut crunch. (Despite the list of ingredients these “sides” were not as visible as they might have been – often true on this menu). Bayless does make a sturdy, dense, rich, flavorful mole, although it is not sturdier, denser, richer, or more flavorful than the moles at other serious – and more traditional - Mexican restaurants such as Mixteco Grill. While I enjoyed the dish, I wished that the plate gave more attention to the creative accompaniments.

Topolobampo - September 2009 - Bravo Top Chef Master Finale Tasting Menu: Seared Hawaiian ahi tuna in Oaxacan black mole, plaintain-filled tamal, grilled nopal salad, roasted knob onions, and three nut crunch

Third – black rice “a la tumbada” with Maine lobster, squid, mussels, grilled octopus, and homemade chorizo in tomato-jalapeño broth with pickled vegetables and prosciutto pearls(!) – was the high-point of the evening. It was an astonishing composition. Again, the chef might have been more generous with the accompaniments, notably the prosciutto tapioca-balls. Still with such rich lobster, there was little need to complain. Here in this food memory the chef becomes a chef, discovering the possibilities of culinary preparation.

Topolobampo - September 2009 - Bravo Top Chef Master Finale Tasting Menu: Black rice "a la tumbada" with Main lobster, tender squid, mussels, grilled octopus in tomato-jalpeno broth with pickled vegetables and prosciutto pearls

Overnight-braised suckling pig pibil with crispy pig’s foot croquette was served with sour orange jellies, habanero-pickled onions and sunchoke pudding. Ditto about the sides. But I found the crispy pig’s foot croquette was mushy: crispy on the outside, but squishy within. I admired the citrus jelly-dice, but judged the dish the least successful of the evening.

Topolobampo - September 2009 - Bravo Top Chef Master Finale Tasting Menu: Suckling pig "pibil" with crispy fig's foot. Sour orange jellies, habanero-pickled onions, sunchoke pudding

Dessert turned out to be less of a sweet than a teasing savory. Bayless created a warm caramelized tart of camote morado (Mexican sweet potato) with a swoosh of garnet yam (sweet potato and yam both?), spiced walnut ice cream, toasted homemade marshmallow fluff, and tangy caramel sauce. As the description suggest here was a last savory. Yet, its distance from a traditional sugary dessert allowed it to provoke thought. Each piece was well-made and thoughtfully combined. It was a dessert that inspired respect, more than honeyed love.

Topolobampo - September 2009 - Bravo Top Chef Master Finale Tasting Menu: Warm caramelized tart of camote mardo (Mexican white sweet potato) with garnet yam swoosh, spiced walnut ice cream, toasted homemade marshmallow fluff, caramel sauce

Despite imperfections this menu is the creation of a creative, speculative – if overly telegenic – cook. Topolobampo, not the most expansive of Chicago-four-star restaurants may be the most expansive, and we are lucky to be the home of Bayless and Oprah both – Olympians both.

445 North Clark Street
Chicago (River North)

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Two Meals – Chez Panisse and The French Laundry – Berkeley and Yountville, California

Although New York often thinks of herself as the origin of all things, such hubris ignores the reality that Gotham’s skill is as arbiter: to pick and choose among the worthy green shoots and then convince herself that they were to be found in New York all along. All the arts know this trick: Manhattan always trumps regional genius in its own imagination.

Nowhere is this more true than in gastroland: Nuevo-Caribbean cuisine from mango Miami, molecular cuisine from Barcelona and Chicago, New Orleans haute-cajun, and the list continues. But perhaps when the final history of cuisine is Kindled no patch of land will deserve more credit for culinary innovations than the Bay Area, the engine of American gastronomic theory and practice.

In a recent trip to San Francisco, I dined at two canonical restaurants: Chez Panisse (for the third time) and the French Laundry (as a FL virgin, but having eaten at Per Se three times). I also had a fine meal at Restaurant Gary Danko, but as Danko is “only” a fine rendition of well-established national trends in modern American cuisine I won’t discuss Chef D’s efforts.

Diners have their own emotional equations. A lover of the Chez Panisse might sniff at the French Laundry and the reverse. I lay my cards on the table. I have long respected Chez Panisse but never loved her (not in 1985, not in 1995, and not in 2009). Yes, I celebrate CP’s importance in birthing restaurants that I love. I recognize CP’s importance as a social movement in changing (for the better, mostly) how Americans think about food production and dining including by White House compost pile, but I have never had a “wow” moment. Leaving CP I have felt, “Gosh, this is flawless; where can I find a really good taco”? In contrast, Per Se and, now, French Laundry are me. I am in love. And if only they would use fewer quotation marks on their menu, saving gallons of imported ink, I would lack quibbles.

Despite the fact that Chez Panisse famously developed from the hippy-dippy movements of the 1960s, Panisse seems less Aquarian than Calvinist. Stripped down, lean, and clean; like dining in a Presbyterian chapel. Throwing out the capital-G gourmet frou-frou is valid to a point: it is about the food. But it is also about the show, about the excess, about the awakenings, about the ability to astonish. In Keller’s haute-farmhouse there is magic afoot.

Chez Panisse changes the menu each night. This is an impressive feat. Applause. But since diners do not eat there every night, they take their chances. Some dishes click loudly; others more softly; and few are discordant. These constantly shifting, micro-seasonal menus mean that chefs cannot perfect dishes over time, and they cannot routinely present their brilliancies. Even a chef like Alice Waters and her cooks aren’t geniuses every evening. Even Einstein needs a break. As a result provenance and produce replace art. So it was on the evening of August 11, 2009. A review from August 12th, much less December 12th could be quite different. Dinners differ by day of the week, just like New York Times crosswords – Monday is simple, Friday and Saturday more extensive. CP can duck criticism because the failed dish may never be seen again. (Playwright Suzi-Lori Parks attempted to write and then have theaters produce a play for each day of the year. Not surprisingly some were clunkers for which audiences laid down their cash).

Chez Panisse - August 2009 - Open Kitchen

On Tuesday August 11th, we began with a chilled tomato and cucumber soup with avocado. It was an August 11th soup. Not exactly gazpacho in that the ingredients were present for our gaze: showing off a garden-fresh ideology. This was as delightful as any a cold vegetable soup that I have tasted. It was plated to remind the diner of just how fortunate they were to be served this kind of produce. Fundamentally it was not so very different from a soup that I might have made if I had such a network of gifted farmers.

Chez Panisse - August 2009 - Chilled tomato and cucumber soup with avocado

The second course was a local petrale sole à la ciboulette (chives). What simple perfection! Sauteed, lightly battered, a mild lemon sauce, sprinked with chives. What is not to like? This is the kind of dish that is Chez Panisse to the core. How hard can it be to cook sole – but flawless? Despite (or because of?) its Puritanism, its lack of show, it was the high point of the night.

Chez Panisse - August 2009 - Local petrale sole a la ciboulette

The next dish, however, revealed CP’s limits. I admit that the main courses on Monday, Thursday, and Friday sounded enticing, but this was Tuesday: Spit-roasted Becker Lane Ranch pork loin with fresh summer shell beans and chanterelle mushrooms. I have never had a poorly made dish on Shattuck Avenue and this was no exception. However, despite the quality of the pork and beans (not deconstructed, but simply shared), it had no depth of flavor (although the onion rings certainly were applause-worthy). It lacked savory memory.

Chez Panisse - August 2009 - Spit Roasted Becker Lane Ranch Pork Loin with Fresh Summer Shell Beans and Chanterelle Mushrooms

Dessert was Middleton Gardens raspberry ice cream crêpes. They were as advertised if you treat the excellent peaches and blackberries as lagniappe. At Chez Panisse, the ingredients are generous. Think of a raspberry crepe, and then think of a raspberry crepe with perfect fruit. That is Chez Panisse.

Chez Panisse - August 2009 - Middleton Gardens Raspberry Ice Cream Crepes

The idea of Chez Panisse is transformative, but unlike the greatest meals in my life, the food isn’t. Still, we must consider price. Turning to The French Laundry and its fireworks means traversing from a $75 prix fixe without service to one set at $240 (service included). For two icons in these days of economic meltdown, that is not a difference to be ignored. Berkeley profs can afford Chez P.

But forget cost if you can. Eat until the trust fund is no more. While Chez Panisse advertises the idea of local dining, on the following night (August 12th for the record) I tried to discern differences between French Laundry’s menu and that of Per Se. Different spaces but similar vision. While the ingredients – particularly the produce – are likely to be differently sourced and each restaurant has its own chef de cuisine (Timothy Hollingsworth at FL and Jonathan Benno at PS, although the restaurants are in continual video communication), similarities outweigh differences, beginning with Keller’s signature “Oysters and Pearls” – a “Sabayon” of pearl tapioca with Island Creek oysters and white sturgeon caviar. The dish is as definitive as ever: the great post-modern classic. (Amuses were an ethereal Gruyere gougere and a cornet of Scotch salmon, spring onion crème fraiche and a nicely spicy black pepper tuile.)

French Laundry - August 2009 - Yountville, CA

The menu at French Laundry is largely fixed, although diners choose between the Chef’s Tasting Menu and the Tasting of Vegetables (neither vegetarian nor kosher, as FL announces Lobster Bouillon and Ibérico Ham on this menu). Within the nine-course menu, diners can choose from a pair of selections for four courses (and can choose the occasion course from the other menu).

The first post-O&P course was an astonishing salad of compressed melon (a dish selected from the vegetable tasting menu) with Niçoise olives, charred scallions, arugula and verbena “aigre-doux” (sour/sweet). Of all of the skills of Keller’s minions, the composition of the dishes is unique. It is not that Keller produces the most beautiful plates or the most architectural, but his are the plates in which the placement of ingredients reveals exquisite sensitivity towards the inventive power of shape.

French Laundry - August 2009 - Salad of Compressed Melons, Nicoise Olives, Charred Scallions, Arugula and Verebena "Aigre-Doux"

My companion selected a degustation of French Laundry garden potatoes with Australian black truffles, picked pearl onions, celery branch, nasturtium and crème fraiche. While the presentation was deliberately minimalist, one could not fault the Panisse-like quality of ingredients while also recognizing a distinct combination of tastes.

French Laundry - August 2009 - Degustation of French Laundry Garden Potatos: Australian Black Truffles, Picked Pearl Onions, Celery Brance, Nasturtium, and Creme Fraiche

The first fish course was a flavor-confection centered around Chesapeake Bay soft-shell crabs with marinated eggplant, pleasantly bitterly pungent red radishes, navel orange pips, mizuna, and miso vinaigrette. I was entranced by this careful composition. This was another favorite dish in a list of favorites. There is a sculptural intensity that characterizes Chef Keller’s presentations, but also an intensity of flavor: a wisdom that recognized that crab, radish, oranges, and eggplant might make for a perfect Wednesday evening.

French Laundry - August 2009 - Chesapeake Bay Soft Shell Crab, Marinated Eggplant, Red Radishes, Navel Orange, Mizuna, and Miso Vinaigrette

The other fish dish, sautéed fillet of Columbia River sturgeon with “pain de Campagne,” toybox tomatoes, little gem lettuces, Spanish capers, and “bottarga di muggine,” reveled a fillet a little more cooked than perhaps it ought and with a somewhat minimalist background. I found this the least compelling plate of the night. It didn’t sing or zing.

French Laundry - August 2009 - Sauteed Fillet of Columbia River Sturgeon, Pain de Campagne, Toybox Tomatoes, Little Gem Lettuces, Spanish Capers, and Bottarga di Muggine

Maine lobster tail “pochée au beurre doux” with mission figs, Cipollini onions, scallions, and chocolate-coffee sauce was heroic with the unlikely but stirring partnership of buttery lobster and choco-coffee. Consuming this shellfish reminded me of watching Hamlet performed in rap: we know the traditional text and can enjoy how modernity plays tribute to tradition.

French Laundry - August 2009 - Maine Lobster Tail "Pochee au Beurre Doux" with Mission Figs, Cipollini Onions, Scallions and Chocolate Coffee Sauce

We had two choices for the first meat course: Salmon Creek Farms Pork Belly with Savoy spinach, chick (or chic!) peas, spicy paprika, and Meyer lemon condiment worked hard to please. My photo does not do the dish justice, but this was the night’s least photogenic plate. Still, the richly tart lemon made for a very nice counterpoint to the fatty, deep pork. A very satisfying dish, even if short of astonishing.

French Laundry - August 2009 - Salmon Creek Farms Pork Belly, Savoy Spinach, Chick Peas, Spicy Paprika, and Meyer Lemon Condiment

The second option was preferable: a gemlike combination of “épaule (shoulder) de lapin farcie aux ris de veau with Jacobsen’s Farm Pears, hazelnuts, watercress and summer truffles. A brief editorial: Why provenance the pears? Does knowing that they were reared by some farmer in the dell’s orchard improve my pleasure? True, all pears, even American ones, are not created equal, but wouldn’t the variety of pear be more important than their human parent. End of rant. And back to this treasured dish with its wonderful August truffle and oh-so-sweetbreads. With its novel utensil this was the dish most reminiscent of Alinea, but wherever FL’s inspiration, it was inspired.

French Laundry - August 2009 - Epaule de Lapin Farcie aux Ris de Veau, Jacobsen's Farm Pears, Hazelnuts, Watercress and Summer Truffles

The menu’s centerpiece was Snake River Farms “Calotte de Boeuf (an often ignored cut of beef surrounding the ribeye) Grillée” with globe artichokes, Nantes carrots, garlic “croquante,” parsley shoots and sauce barigoule, a sauce traditionally napping artichokes, a nod to classical cuisine. This was not an exotic adventure, but a dish with enormous integrity. Not as simple in presentation as dishes at Chez Panisse, it evinced equal respect for produce. Minimalist, each bit was revealing. Of all the courses in this evening of pleasures the honest grilled beef demonstrated the long and warm shadow of Alice Waters. Without her brave fight, the French Laundry could never be.

French Laundry - August 2009 - Snake River Frams "Calotte de Boeuf Grille" with Globe Aritchokes, Nates Carrots, Carlic "Croquante," Parsley Shoots, and Sauce Barigoule

Our cheese course was “Tomme du Berger” (a soft, nutty, “fragrant” cheese) with hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, sweet peppers, haricots verts, and arugula. It was an ideal follow-up to the beef. This was another quiet, intense course that bowed to the integrity of the ingredients. One does not need a plate of cheeses to conclude: cheese matters.

French Laundry - August 2009 - Tomme du Berger cheese, Hen of the Woods Mushrooms, Haricots Verde and Arugula

Honeydew melon sorbet with compressed red and yellow sorbet and basil “nuage” (a “cloud” or light foam) reprised the early melon dish. It was a very pleasant palate cleanser.

French Laundry - August 2009 - Honey Dew Melon Sorbet, Compressed Watermelon, and Basil "Nuage"

For dessert my companion ordered the “Ballon de Chocolate Fumé” with smoked black tea, vanilla ice cream and tonka bean caramel. He was presented with a chocolatty bocce ball. My small taste suggested a Cadillac of sundaes.

French Laundry - August 2009 -  Ballon de Chocolat Fume with Smoked Black Tea, Glace a la Vanille, and Tonka Bean Caramel

I decided upon lemon verbena “vacherin” (a meringue base) with Tellicherry pepper panna cotta, lemon verbena sherbet, and chilled Silverado Trail strawberry consommé. This composition was another favorite with clever shapes, vivid colors, surprising textures, and sensuous tastes. This sweet revealed a complexity that announced that whatever the debt of Chef Keller to Chef Waters, his cuisine is more challenging and remarkable in its visionary potential. Keller’s vacherin was a splendid closing to edge me into the cool, still, verdant, small-town Yountville night.

French Laundry - August 2009 - Lemon Verbena "Vacherin" with Tellicherry Pepper Panna Cotta, Lemon Verbena Sherbert and Chilled Silverado Trail Strawberry Consumme

Service at both restaurants was warm in a way that only Californians have perfected.

Eating at Chez Panisse and French Laundry back-to-back is a one-two punch that might only be matched by consecutive meals at L’Arpege and El Bulli – but these Californians sit just across the bay. Cali rulz.

Chez Panisse
1517 Shattuck Avenue
Berkeley, CA

The French Laundry
6640 Washington Street
Yountville, CA

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Breather - Greens - San Francisco

After a hectic culinary week in San Francisco, it was time for a last lunch. So many choices, so little time. Before heading off to a four-hour flight in a sardine tin, I needed some mellowing out. And in the Bay Area, Greens marries bliss with upstanding cuisine. One realizes the possibilities of a robust and creative vegetarian cuisine while relaxing at the edge of the Bay. Greens captures the ethical soul of near-fine dining. This is no veggie-shack, but green cuisine.

Greens - San Francisco - August 2009

Greens - San Francisco - August 2009

Having had a warm bath of calories the past week, I chose two cool and light plates. Both were generous – and humane – first courses. Grilled nectarines with fromage blanc, watercress, and Snyders sage honey was as tempting as any fruit salad that I have been served in, well, close to ever. It was summer sweet while the crunchy watercress added a slight peppery intrigue. Perhaps it could have been dessert given the honeyed depth, but for a small meal it was a fine starter.

Greens - San Francisco - Grilled Nectarines with Fromage Blanc, Watercress and Snyders Sage Honey

The second plate was ricotta corn cakes with jalapenos, scallions, cheddar and smoked cheese, served with crème fraise, fire roasted tomato and pumpkin seed cilantro salsa. The ingredient list on the menu makes the dish sound more pretentious than it was in person, but those allergic to pumpkin seeds and smoked cheese have been duly warned. These griddle cakes were a fine success, reminding us that (pace Michael Pollan) corn is not necessarily a four-letter word. These cobby-blinis were complex without being precious. Had I the stomach I could have eaten a baker’s dozen.

Greens - San Francisco - August 2009 - Ricotta Corn Cakes with Jalapenos, Scallions, Cheddar and Smoked Cheese, Served with Creme Fraiche, Tomato and Pumpkin Seed Cilantro Salsa

And so from the bustling calm of Fort Mason, I left with memories to consume on the (thankfully) foodless flight home.

Fort Mason, Building A
San Francisco

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Zaharakos and the Politics of Ice Cream

It being August, our fancies turn to ice cream. Driving through Indiana, I was delighted to learn that Zaharakos - the classic ice cream parlor (or parlour) in Columbus, Indiana was once again open for business after four years shuttered with new owners. Zaharakos was opened in 1900 by Greek immigrants. The turn of the century was the golden age of ice cream parlor throughout America - palaces of delight and danger - many of them opened by southern Europeans (especially Greeks and Italians), and the public was both attracted to this otherness and fearful of the danger. Ice cream made its greatest impact in the Midwest at the time of the St. Louis Exposition in 1904. Rumors were spread that the unscrupulous owners would put narcotics into the ice cream of pretty young women dining alone and then sell them into "white slavery" (in contrast to that other form of slavery!). In fact, ice cream parlors were somewhat less reputable than tattoo parlors are today. For an excellent account of the dangers of ice cream, see a recent article (very readable) by Bill Ellis in the Journal of American Folklore:

Bill Ellis. "Whispers in an Ice Cream Parlor: Culinary Tourism, Contemporary Legends, and the Urban Interzone." Journal of American Folklore 122.483 (Winter 2009): 53-74.

Zaharakos - Columbus, Indiana

Even today ice cream is somewhat dangerous as Illinois governor Patrick Quinn has signed a law that bars sex offenders from driving ice cream trucks. This could limit the employment options for some politicians, but presumably not our governor. Perhaps the next stage is to prevent these miscreants from working in ice cream parlors.

Zaharakos is open again (about five minutes from I-65 in the architecturally-splendid Columbus, Indiana. The woodwork and the fountain and the organ has remained,

Zaharakos - Columbus, Indiana

Zaharakos - Columbus, Indiana

although the space is somewhat too large for the number of tables, giving a slightly empty look (ice cream parlors should be bustling). Still simply having Zaharakos open for business again is terrific. Service was energetic, if not polished (on the evening I was present, there didn't seem to be any adults running the place: not necessarily a bad thing). I ordered the Gom Cheese Brr-Grr (Brr-grr, get it?): a Maid-Rite sort of sloppy-joe/cheeseburger on white bread (although not exactly thick white bread as the menu proclaims).

Zaharakos - Columbus, Indiana - Gom Cheese Brr-Grr: Cheeseburger/Sloppy Joe

The Ice Cream soda was a worthy blend of ice cream (butter pecan, in my case) and cinnamon syrup, although not a super-premium ice cream.

Zaharakos - Columbus, Indiana - Cinnamon Ice Cream Soda

By dining alone in an ice cream parlor one misses something (or if one were a women in 1909 perhaps gets something as well); still just knowing that Zaharakos is back in business, even without a frisson of danger, is comforting.

Zaharakos Ice Cream Parlor and Museum
329 Washington Street
Columbus, IN 47201

Monday, July 27, 2009

Midsummer House – Cambridge, United Kingdom

After being prepared to admit, sadly, that there are no excellent restaurants in Cambridge, a week before my departure I had one of the outstanding meals of the year. Of course, the happy success was not a total surprise as the Midsummer House (set in a lovely garden near the banks of the River Cam) had received two Michelin stars. However, two Michelin stars have often been just enough to break one’s heart. But not this evening. Under chef Daniel Clifford the meal was nearly flawless, failing only a few minor tests.

The evening began with a tiny, but surprisingly robust gazpacho tasting, made memorable because of a wave of pureed celery that set off the acidity of the tomato base. It was delightful, and would have made a worthy bowl on a summer evening. This was followed with a simple and creative anchovy tempura – just enough fat and salt to make every health care vanish. It was unfortunate that these starters were pared with the only real failure of the evening: two cheese (brie?) gougeres that were overfilled and lacking interest.

Still working through the amuses, I was presented with a crystal ball filled with pink grapefruit cream and champagne foam. While foam is properly being edged off the gastronomic stage – having had its fifteen minutes of culinary fame – foamy champagne was a novel and witty retort. It was a memorable palate cleanser before my palete needed to be cleansed.

This was followed by still another amuse: a sweetpea veloute served with tiger shrimp. If not as creative as the remainder of the meal, it was silky smooth and the essence of an English spring.

Midsummer House, Cambridge, UK - Sweetpea Veloute with (unseen) tiger shrimp

Finally we reached the meal itself, which without being experimental, captured the best and brightest of modern European cuisine. The ingredients, of which there were many, blended in inspired and startling ways, and, in fact, I was profoundly grateful that I avoided the tasting menu so that I could enjoy these plates in full.

As my appetizer, I selected maple-caramelized sweetbreads with turnip, pistachio, ox tongue (!), and maple jelly. Although such as dish had danger of being an early, cloying dessert, the sweetness was mellow and added a complexity and richness to the subtlety of the rest of the ingredients, rather than overpowering them.

Midsummer House, Cambridge, UK - maple-caramelized sweetbreads with turnip, pistachio, ox tongue (!), and maple jelly

For a main course, I selected braised turbot with peanuts and pistachios (this turned out to be an all-pistachio dinner), sea scallops, cos lettuce, asparagus in a crackly pastry, and vanilla. While I would have preferred my fish to be more translucent, such is rarely how fish is served in the British Isles, and the fish was in no way overdone (even if such cooking involves dancing on a tightrope). The remainder of the plate was splendid, and complemented the mild white fish to excellent effect. Chef Clifford is particularly to be commended in his attention to texture.

Midsummer House, Cambridge, UK - braised turbot with peanuts and pistachios (this turned out to be an all-pistachio dinner), sea scallops, cos lettuce, asparagus in a crackly pastry

I passed on an extra dessert – a tiramisu – too much caffeine: but it was a beautiful display.

Finally a triumphant close: warm braised cherries with pistachio (again!) ice cream with a cream filled pistachio “cannelloni” shell and underneath chartreuse tagliatelle. Perhaps the meal was dominated by nutty tastes, but they were remarkably sophisticated with the herbal echoes of chartreuse as a counterpoint.

Midsummer House, Cambridge, UK - warm braised cherries with pistachio ice cream with cream filled pistachio “cannelloni” shell and (underneath) chartreuse tagliatelle

The Midsummer House deserves attention and not only in the long evenings of June. The location and size of the restaurant militates against a third Michelin star (it is not really in position to be a “destination” restaurant), but I have no hesitation in preferring it over two London standards The Square or Marcus Wareing at the Berkeley, and, if not as creative as Gordon Ramsay or The Fat Duck, capable of equaling them in pleasure and bettering them in cost.

The Midsummer House
Midsummer Common
Cambridge, United Kingdom
+44 (0)1223 369299
Madison's (Old Edwards Inn) - Highlands, North Carolina

About five years ago, the Old Edwards Inn in Highlands was renovated, transformed into a four-star (or five-star or however many stars mean really, really fancy and) inn, resort and spa. In the course of this transformation from an old-timey inn on Main Street, they opened a fine dining restaurant, Madison's. In its first iteration it attempted (somewhat bizarrely, and without much grace) to borrow from molecular cuisine and also incorporate a set of rather bizarre flavor combinations. Different is not always better. Back then the restaurant was rather too taken with itself, and my first meal was not a success - quite the contrary with a check that suggested that the owners felt that the food was more sparkling that it was.

However, over the past two years, I have had several improved meals at Madison's, culminating with an excellent dinner last night. The chef de cuisine (at the restaurant for two years now and now in charge of the menu) is Chris Huerta, who worked with Guenter Seeger in Atlanta (at Seeger's, which, until it closed in 2006, was Atlanta's premier restaurant - Seeger is attempting to open a New York restaurant) and who was a stage at Per Se. Huerta is a serious young cook with a serious blog ("Chipped China"). My friends and I were very pleased with the style and assuredness our meal. In strictly culinary terms Madison's is - by some distance - the most accomplished restaurant in the area (go to On the Verandah for the view and good food). Madison's has a quite pretty space and in contrast to some area restaurants is light and airy and is relatively quiet. They also have an ideology of "Farm to Table Dining," which they are expanding - mostly vegetables and pork at this point.

I began with Huerta's Apple and Bacon Hushpuppies (ah! bacon!), which were the best hushpuppies I have ever eaten. Granted claiming that one found the world's best hushpuppies may be akin to picking low-hanging fruit, but they were delicious. A friend had a very creamy (and nicely composed) vidalia onion soup and another companion had a salad of Chilled Local Carolina Shrimp Salad, Florida Citrus, Winter Greens, and Vanilla Citrus Double Cream. Let us ignore the "local" shrimp as we are several hundred miles from the sea in the western Carolina mountains, but the Vanilla Citrus Double Cream was a very becoming complement to the fresh shrimp.

For entree I chose the compelling (although not visually remarkable - unless one likes a symphony of gray and brown) Braised Duck Leg, Celery Root Ravioli, and Stewed Hand Harvested Mushrooms with Natural Jus. It was a luscious combination with perfectly moist duck leg and properly cooked ravioli with its intriguing celery root stuffing. If not quite worth a photo, it was the most polished entree I have had in these mountains since the grand Frog and Owl closed fifteen years ago.

Dessert was an assured smooth vanilla-bean panna cotta with butterscotch sauce and crumbled espresso biscotti and a cornet of vanilla bean (I think) ice cream. Another appealing and modern presentation with a mix of flavors that were delightful, if not quite startling.

Madison's also has an extensive wine list and well-selected wines by the glass.

But for one who spends a month in the mountains each summer, Madison's poses a problem. Should every dinner out be a dinner at Madison's. Is everything else just slumming?

Old Edwards Inn
Fourth and Main Street
Highland, North Carolina
866-526-8008 or 828-526-8008

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Grump - Selene – Santorini, Greece

When it comes to restaurants, I can be a bit of a grump. My standard is perfection, and even I can’t meet that standard! Recently my wife and I took a cruise through the azure waters of the Aegean Sea. Now cruiseship food – even if bountiful, colorful, and well-provisioned - can not salve a culinary grump. But every so often we escaped the ship. One of these moments permitted us to explore the beautiful, white-washed island of Santorini, an island formed from the rim of a volcano, which the deity exploded for His own amusement (Santorini sits in a caldera – the collapse of land after a volcanic eruption), the most remarkable spot in the Cyclades. When one comes across a crescent sliver of land so exquisite my thoughts turn to, well, food. (My thoughts also turn to food when viewing a toxic dump or a beautiful woman.)

Still, Santorini is more than brownfields or lithesome legs, it is scenic. Were this insufficient, Santorini is also the home to one of the most astonishing restaurants in all of Greece, and, Michelin not to the contrary, in all the EU. Selene, perched on a cliff in Fira, the main town (in fairness most of Fira is perched on a cliff), opened in 1986 under the guidance of owner George Haziyannakis, who wished to show off the creative nature of Greek cuisine. He succeeded.

Selene - Santorini - View

Yes, the view is perfection, but it cannot quite compete with the food. One looks down at one’s plate while the clouds and skiffs pass outside. We began with a pair of soups, cold tomato and warm rockfish and langoustine. The cool tomato was perfection in this warm June lunchtime, although had this been our only course I would have noted Selene as a most pleasant boite. The seafood soup was pure cream and sea: impeccably rich and sweet, with ingredients that revealed that locavores have a point.

Selene - Santorini - Cold Tomato Soup

Selene - Santorini - Rock Fishes and Langoustine Soup

These soups were followed by an appetizer of local bivalves with lemon foam – molecular cuisine in the isles! – paired with potent seafood tartlets. Here was a chef who was aware of both the standards of modern cuisine and the robust cookery of the Aegean. Again the local clams were salty-fresh and the buttery tarts composed of the finest catch of the wine, dark sea.

Selene - Santorini - Seafood Tart, Oysters with Foam

But truly it was the main course that was spectacular: that afternoon I fell in love with all things Santorini. As is clear from the photo the ravioli is not the enclosed, Italianate pocket pasta, but rolls of perfectly cooked strips with – again! – blessedly fresh seafood with plump mussels and delightful squid, so perfectly prepared that the word rubbery was banished, and authoritatively and sharply seasoned crayfish and shrimp.

Selene - Santorini - Ravioli with Seafood (Shrimp, Crayfish, Squid, Mussels)

As magnificent as the ravioli was, it was surpassed (just barely!) by the risotto: rice in a fava bean sauce with a juicy roasted rabbit with an evocative rosemary jus: symphonic notes of Greek cuisine, but so expertly prepared that it would have been perfection if prepared by Escoffier. A month later I still dream of this brilliancy.

Selene - Santorini - Fava Risotto with Roasted Rabbit and Rosemary Sauce

To close the afternoon, we were served a sturdy baklava with a startling Niotiko cheese ice cream. Not a showy dessert, but with the view appearing again, the dessert served its purpose.

Selene - Santorini - Dessert - Baklava with Niotiko Cheese Ice Cream

Never have I been so pleasured by the combination of taste and scene. With God as designer and with Selene’s own divine kitchen staff, any grumpiness must quickly be voted off the island.

Fira, Santorini

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Moto 2009

Last Tuesday I returned to Moto, Chicago’s premier molecular restaurant (at least if one places Alinea in its own transcendent category), and I was surprised at the changes. The restaurant looks much the same, but the cuisine feels different. The changes at moto may mirror those decisions made by many successful artistic rebels. After their moment of publicized rebellion – after they have thrown down the gauntlet and after the media has chronicled that gauntlet – the rebel needs to ask, “what now?” These heroes come to realize that there is a lot to be learned from the standards of the world from which they have rebelled. Perhaps symbolically when we were given our kitchen tour we did not need to wear protective googles – there was no laser in evidence.

Strikingly, the dish from the ten-course dinner (with a few extra courses) that I remember most clearly and most fondly is (almost) a dish that could easily have been served at any restaurant committed to contemporary cuisine. The kitchen presented a pan-seared Texas quail with modulated hot (pequin) pepper and celery three ways. Granted the dish arrived with an edible paper that was reminiscent of buffalo wings – the dish was ostensibly a deconstruction of buffalo wings – but what struck me was how sweet and luscious and even traditional the quail was. My tablemates agreed. The “Chicago steak dinner” was likewise a lovely, modernist dish with a beautifully cooked bit of prime rib eye. Yes, it was a deconstruction of the composition of such a dinner, but not a destruction of it. Perhaps the least effective was the faux “breakfast” – a coconut and passion fruit egg (white and yolk) served with crab cake tater tots and blood orange ketchen. The crab was extremely tasty, but the egg (a borrowing, if I recall correctly, from WD-50) was more curious than enjoyable, given a texture that was perhaps too reminiscent of plastic.

As with this “egg” dish, some of the Moto oddities – the powders and a little nitro and a Cuban sandwich shaped as a cigar with ash, but for the most part the tastes were strong. There were no dipping dots to be seen. Moto’s problem has been that the concept has on occasion overwhelmed the taste. The edible menu (as the amuse) is a case in point. No one would demand to eat this cracker were it not for the jest on which it is based (eating the menu).

Pastry Chef Ben Roche’s desserts were, as usual, most enjoyable, but not so different in spirit from what one might be served as Jean-Georges, Per Se, or, in Chicago, at Blackbird. They were compositions of flavor points, following modern canons, rather than provocations. And they were all the better for that.

Moto 2009 reveals a greater attention to flavor, while sometimes the presentation seems to be minimalist (such as the BBQ beans and slaw. The roadkill (described on the menu as “roadkill of fowl”), a now canonical dish at moto (a result of the visit I organized when the restaurant had first opened) is based on duck (not raccoon) and is much more elaborately plated. However, while the dish is tasty, it has lost some of its authenticity as a just-in-time creation.

So moto is changing, as it should be. Chef Homero Cantu seems to be considering what he needs to do, rather than what he can do. After all, if it is only the ideas that matter, what would justify return visits? Moto remains vital and exciting, clever and tasty: but now a restaurant that doesn’t need to strain so hard to be worthy of its diners’ love.

Moto's edible menu (Grand Tasting Menu version)
Moto - February 2009 - Edible menu (Grand Tasting Menu - we selected ten course menu)
Passion fruit and coconut egg with crab tater tots and blood orange ketchup
Moto - February 2009 - Passion Fruit with Crab
Saffron Scallop with Lemon oil power, Orange and Shiso syrup
Moto - February 2009 - Saffron with Orange
Deconstructed French onion soup: Gruyere and onion cracker
Moto - February 2009 - Gruyere & Onions
House made pequin (chili) quail with trio of celery
Moto - February 2009 - House-made Pequin Quail
Smoked beef brisket, frozen cole slaw, and BBQ beans
Moto - February 2009 - BBQ Beans & Slaw
Roadkill of fowl: duck, red and yellow beets, crunchy red rice
Moto - February 2009 _ Braised Duck - Roadkill
Chicago Steak Dinner
Moto - February 2009 - Chicago Steak Dinner
Pina Colada forms for dessert
Moto - February 2009 _ Pina Colada Forms
Pumpkin pie forms for dessert
Moto - February 2009 - Pumpkin Pie

945 West Fulton Market Street (West Loop)