Sunday, October 21, 2007

The French Laundry

Restaurant: The French Laundry
Location: Yountville, CA
Open: Daily 5:30-9:30pm; Friday-Sunday 11:00am-1:00pm
Date of Dinner: October 20, 2007
Cost of Dinner:
$300 per person
Recommendation: A must for every foodie.

In the interest of full disclosure, I did not enjoy my first visit to The French Laundry over 5 years ago. At that time, I did not understand what all the fuss was about or why it had garnered all those accolades, because I did not think any of the dishes we tried were exceptional or memorable.

"Whatever you do, you have to try the coffee and donuts," exclaimed the friend who got us the reservation. So I did, and what a disappointment! "Coffee and Donuts" was one of The French Laundry's signature desserts, wherein pot de creme is served in a coffee cup and comes with powdered cinnamon beignets. I found it cloyingly sweet and really am perplexed as to why everyone praises it to high heaven.

Flash forward five years to 2007 and I am ready to try The French Laundry again. I want to believe that they might have had a bad day when I went. I also can't believe that I'm missing something that everybody else seem to be experiencing to the point that in the most recent poll by Restaurant Magazine, it placed fourth in its list of the 50 best restaurants in the world. It is also the only restaurant in the Bay Area to receive 3 stars from Guide Michelin.

The menu has changed considerably since we went over 5 years ago. It is now a set menu and comprises nine courses. You can either choose the chef's tasting menu or a tasting of vegetables menu. Either menu costs $240, including service. According to the waiter, the dishes in either menu are ordered by progression of tastes, so we cannot, at least they really advise against it, switch dishes between the two menus.

For maximum effect, one of our party of four decided to opt for the vegetable tasting menu while the rest had the tasting menu. This way, we can all try a little bit of most of what French Laundry has to offer.

Dinner starts with two amuses bouches: first are gougères, savory pates au choux made with gruyere cheese with a creme fraiche filling. The second are one of Thomas Keller's signature dishes: cornettes of salmon tartare with creme fraiche.


"Oysters and Pearls" - This is the first of what I call The French Laundry's surrealistic dishes, a tongue-in-cheek take on traditional dishes or other ideas. In this first course, a sabayon of tapioca pearls is served with Beau Soleil oysters and a generous dollop of White Sturgeon caviar. The sabayon is a warm savory custard made by beating egg yolks with a liquid over simmering water until thickened and frothy. The little pearls of white sturgeon caviar gives this dish sophisticated character, while the tapioca pearl and sabayon cream is a good counterpoint to the ocean saltiness of the caviar and oysters. Amazing! This one dish alone removes all bad memories from five years ago.

Salad of Caramelized Belgian Endive - I have never liked Belgian endives. However, having them caramelized and served with relish of Philo Gold apples and young red beets cuites sous vide give the endives a nice taste to them. The endives are nicely crunchy with a nice watercress vinaigrette. It seems food cooked sous vide has been en vogue lately. In fact, in the finale of Top Chef, one of Hung's (the winning chef) signature dishes was duck cuite sous vide. So, sous vide is French for "under vacuum" and is a method for cooking ingredients in air-tight packages, usually vacuum sealed plastic bags, under relatively low temperature for an extended period of time. It has been somewhat controversial when used in the US. Last year, the New York City Department of Health cracked down on restaurants using the technique, concerned about safe food handling, since cooking in low temperature may foster the growth of the botulinum bacteria in the absence of oxygen. In this instance, by cooking the beets sous vide gives the beets a more intense flavor.

Moulard Duck "Foie Gras au Torchon" - Moulard duck is the cross between the Pekin and the Muscovy duck. This hybrid results in a very large duck and is raised primarily for the production of foie gras. To cook foie gras au torchon, the liver is pressed tightly in cheesecloth and then poached. It is then allowed to cool slowly in the poaching liquid. In the first of two courses that carry a supplement on top of the already steep $240 tasting menu, this version served by The French Laundry comes with a very long prologue. It includes a very long explanation by the server.

I've always thought that foie gras au torchon is the same or similar to pate de foie gras, so it was a big surprise to me that this dish carried a supplement. The waiter quickly removed that feeling when he explained the difference: au torchon is pure foie gras while the pate includes pork, salt and spices.

The foie gras was the main part of this dish, but it, by no means, is the only part of the dish. Also on the plate are Gros Michel bananas, Tokyo turnips, Banyuls vinegar gelee, and a smattering of spiced streusel. The foie is spread and eaten with a generous portion of toasted brioche bread and three different kinds of salts: sel gris from Brittany, France; Kuroshio salt from the southern coast of Japan, and Jurassic salt that the server told us is 40 million years old and is harvested from a copper mine in Montana. Now all of a sudden the $30 supplement doesn't seem so steep after all.

Gros Michel bananas, or Big Mike, was supposedly the bananas that were referred to in the song, "Yes, We Have No Bananas." In the first half of the 20th century, it was the type of banana that most Americans and people living in non-tropical areas came to know and love. They are bigger than the bananas we know now and most say are sweeter. However, this species was devastated when a fungus called the Panama disease began infecting Big Mike in the 1920s. By the 60s, most exporters of the fruit were bankrupt and the Gros Michel is practically extinct. I certainly feel special to now have tasted an almost extinct plant and have it paired with foie gras and Jurassic salt. It's so very surreal.

"Tartare" of Nova Scotia Bluefin Tuna - This "tartare" is really more like sashimi, instead of tartare. The traditional tartare is made from chopped meat, usually steak. In this version, the pieces of Bluefin tuna are quite substantial. On an elliptical plate, the tuna are interspersed with raisins, nicoise olives, Marcona almonds, arugula, and cauliflower scented with Spanish saffron. All of these are served on top of coulis made from slow-baked tomatoes. The Nova Scotia Bluefin tuna is the largest member of its species and are usually prized by tuna aficionados. They are exclusively sold for sushi consumption. The tuna here is definitely exceptional, buttery and very fresh.

Sweet Butter-Poached Maine Lobster Tail - Lobster tail has been poached in sweet butter and served stylishly with a fennel bulb, jingle bell peppers, mint and tamarind-glazed eggplant, all stacked neatly. The lobster was amazingly soft and well flavored by the sweet butter without being inundated by the butter if it had been served with the lobster as a dip.

"Pork and Beans" - I remember the very first time I saw pork belly in a menu, the waiter made sure that everyone at the table understands that it is the fattiest cut of pork. At that time, I was the only one at the table of eight to venture out and order the pork belly. As it turned out, my dish was the most flavorful of all the dishes ordered that night. I was hooked. Now, every time I see pork belly in a menu, it is mine! To see it with such a whimsical title, how can I resist? Pork belly, of course, is the underside of the pig and the meat from which bacon is made. For French Laundry's version, Kurobuta pork belly has been braised all day and served over a cassoulet of garden pole beans with whole-grain mustard sauce. In Japan, Kurobuta pork are prized as highly as Kobe or Wagyu beef and comes from an ancient breed known as the Black Berkshire pig. Kurobutas have incredible marbling and the texture is unbelievable. Of course, pork belly has always been the most flavorful part of the pig, so this makes for an even better combination. The pork belly has a wonderful taste. Usually pork bellies are very salty, not so here. Maybe the mustard sauce helps, but the texture is fantastic and the skin is crisp. Great combination.

Herb-Roasted Saddle of Elysian Fields Lamb - Elysian Fields Farm is a small family-owned farm in Schoharie, NY. Their name is to lamb what Niman Ranch is to beef. Their lamb are prized for their taste and texture. The saddle of lamb, or lamb loin, is where the most tender and most expensive cuts of lamb come from. The beautiful cut we received on our plate was nicely marbled and tender as tender can be. It was herb roasted on top of thyme jus and served with mille-feuille of Yukon Gold potatoes, baby artichokes, Nantes carrots, and sweet garlic pudding. Literally meaning a thousand layers, the mille feuille of potatoes was a light airy version of potatoes au gratin.

Grilled "Pave" of Japanese "Wagyu" -

"Gabietou" -

Persian Lime Sorbet -

"S'Mores" -

"Charlotte aux Poires et aux Dates" -


Perigord Truffle "Veloute" -

Salad of Matsutake Mushrooms -

Tahitian Vanilla Glazed Salsify -

Hand-Rolled Potato "Gnocchi" -

Belgian Endive "Cuite Sous Vide" -

Betteraves Parfumees a la Feuille de Peche" -

"Mestre Queijeiro Cabra" -

Huckleberry Sorbet -

"Pave de Chocolat Blanc au The Vert" -

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Manresa Restaurant

Restaurant: Manresa
Location: Los Gatos, CA
Open: Tue-Sat from 5:30pm, Sun from 5pm
Date of Dinner: September 29, 2007
Cost of Dinner:
$25 per person, for the tip. Actual dinner would have cost about $250 per person
Recommendation: Even at $250 per person, dinner was worth every penny. One of the best restaurants in the Bay Area.

How do you rate a restaurant that seats you one hour late from your reservation? Even worse, one where you have to drive one hour each way to get to? Dinner at Manresa was supposed to be special as it was for a special birthday dinner, in fact, it was for two special birthdays: one of which was for a friend who just turned 75.

I was at a quandary because the choice was between Manresa down in Los Gatos or Cyrus up in Healdsburg. Because of a problem I had with Cyrus when I made a reservation there in August (they cancelled my reservation when I needed to reduce the party from 6 to 4), I decided that Manresa would be a good choice primarily because of James Syhabout, its chef de cuisine who studied under Ferran Adria at El Bulli as well as at Fat Duck in Bray, England.

Reservation was at 9pm on a Saturday night, quite late for dinner, but good enough for us, even if we had to drive an hour to get there. We arrived at Manresa on time: 9pm on the dot. We were told that we will be seated as soon as our table is ready. So we made small talk with the other two parties who are also waiting for their tables to be available. At 9:15pm, the maitre d' apologized for the delay and offered us (the three dinner parties waiting) champagne. Fair enough. Then a friend chided that we would really be happy if they gave us a trip to Paris with the champagne.

As the two other parties were seated, we are still waiting for our table. By 9:40pm, I complain about the ridiculousness of having to wait 40 minutes when we had a reservation. The maitre d' reasoned that they did not expect the party at our table to have ordered the tasting menu which took longer. It still is unforgivable that our wait is longer than half an hour, whether or not other people ordered the tasting menu.

We were finally seated at five minutes to ten. At this time, we are all starving and practically drunk, thanks to the champagne that they offered us on an empty stomach. Upon being seated, the maitre d' announced that the entire dinner for our party of four is on the house. Wow! And they are offering us the same tasting menu that got us the late seating in the first place. Not only that, we will also get the wine pairing to go with each course. Double wow! Now that is how you turn a bad thing into good. This was a double birthday celebration and it was turning into a disaster, until the very moment we were seated. Now all that is behind us, and we can just concentrate on the food.

Strawberry Gazpacho with Spanish Almonds - The first of our three amuses bouches was a great start to what will end up to be an amazing dinner experience. A shooter of strawberry puree topped with almonds: nice, sweet, and refreshing.

Fall Croquettes with Foie Gras and Pistachios - A second amuse bouche was a revelation, golden nuggets of creamy foie gras and pistachios and the flavor just erupts as you pop them in your mouth. Now how can they possibly top this? And they haven't even gotten to the first course yet!

Arpege Egg - The waiter calls the last amuse bouche "Arpege" egg. Arpege is a commercial perfume for women created by Lanvin in 1927. At the time, its slogan was "Promise her anything, but give her Arpege." And you can pretty much apply this slogan for this particular dish. While I did not think they can possibly top the croquettes, they put the Arpege egg in front of me. The Arpege is a slow cooked egg in the shell with maple syrup, sherry vinegar, and chives. It was simple in description, yet complex in execution. The waiter instructed us to dig deep into the shell and mix all the flavors together. The taste is sweet, creamy, and vinegary all at the same time.

Amberjack with Meyer Lemon Zest, Breakfast Radish and Seaweed - The first course was sushi. Thinly sliced amberjack served carpaccio style with a nice hint of meyer lemon zest. A small mound of breakfast radish and seaweed slivers complete the dish. I have never tried amberjack before and found the white fish lean and quite tasty. What surprised me was how a friend who has a disdain for raw fish not only tried this dish but actually cleared the plate. That, to me, is the ultimate test of how good this course really was. A glass of 2004 Greenhough Sauvignon Blanc was also served. At first I thought that the wine was a little green and tasted of raw apples. However, it went very well with the salty goodness of the sushi.

Handchurned Salted Butter - I don't know if this can be considered a course onto itself, but it was special nonetheless and needed special mention. It was so special that a separate wine was served with this butter. A glass of Jongieux Vin de Savoie fits the bill. Vin de Savoie is usually referred to as skiing wines because these wines are most prevalent near the French Alps. It was certainly a treat to try such an obscure wine and a really good one at that. The Vin de Savoie encompasses both the salted butter and the following prawn dish. But let me get back to the butter. The butter was personally handchurned by the chef with cream from Watsonville. The result was butter so creamy you can pretty much just eat it all by itself and wait for the arteries to clog. Interestingly enough (and this is not a dig or a criticism), it reminds me of Queensland canned butter that my mother always brings back with her when she goes to the Philippines. And trust me, Queensland butter is THAT good! Don't just take my word for it, take his.

Monterey Bay Spot Prawns a la Plancha with Exotic Spices and Wilted Spinach - The prawn was split lengthwise and is grilled on a metal plate (la Plancha) and served with exotic spices, which I guess will remain exotic as I never asked specifically what those spices were. Nevertheless, the dish was spot on!

Roast Breast of Squab with Homemade Boudin Noir - A boudin noir, or black pudding, is a sausage made by cooking animal blood with a filler until it is thick enough to congeal when cooled. Most often, boudins noir are made with pig or cattle blood. While they never specified which type of blood this particular boudin noir is made from, pairing the squab with boudin noir makes for a very bold statement. It certainly would've been even bolder if squab blood is used for the boudin. Unfortunately, I never asked so this will always remain a question. I found this combination very intriguing and satisfying. The squab was served pink and very tender. The nice vinegar flavor of the boudin noir was definitely complementary to the squab. A glass of 2004 Genium Priorat is served to go with the course, a very nice Spanish wine.

Steak Bavette with Assorted Alliums - Alliums are all plants within the onion genus. They include plants such as onions, garlic, chives, leeks, and shallots. The French word, bavette, which means thin steak (or literally "bib"), is also known as flap steak but is often applied to other flank steaks. This type of meat is usually more fibrous or chewy than the traditional New York steak or filet mignon, but they also tend to be more flavorful. The latter description is very apt in this case, made even more flavorful with the addition of the leeks, onions, garlic, and shallots. Served medium rare, the meat was tender and is paired nicely with a glass of 2003 Ahlgren Cabernet Sauvignon.

Pineau des Charentes
- Pineau des Charentes, or simply Pineau, is an alcoholic aperitif made from blending grape must and Cognac brandy. While popular in the Charente region of France, it is lesser known in other regions of France and practically unknown outside that country. So, it made our dinner all the more special to be treated to a fabulous glass of Pineau.

Caramelized Figs and Caramelized Brioche with Fennel Ice Cream - A buttery cube of brioche was served lightly toasted, and topped with the sauce from the caramelized figs and a quenelle of fennel ice cream. The ice cream has only a slight flavor of fennel, just a very small tinge of licorice. It accompanies the brioche and figs very nicely without overpowering them.

Chocolate Trifle with Tobacco Ice Cream and Raspberries Soaked in Armagnac - Alternating layers of chocolate sponge cake, chocolate cream, and raspberries soaked in armagnac are served in a single serving trifle bowl. This is further topped with tobacco ice cream. Obviously, the most interesting part of this dish is the ice cream. Who would ever have thought of making ice cream from tobacco? Frankly, tobacco ice cream tasted like a very weak pot brownie. Well, that's what it tasted like combined with the chocolate trifle.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

R Music Bistro Bar/Bon Chon Chicken

Restaurant: R Music Bistro Bar/Bon Chon Chicken
Location: New York, NY
Open: Mon-Wed 5pm-2am, Thu 5pm-3am, Fri-Sat 5pm-5am
Date of Dinner: September 2, 2007
Cost of Dinner:
$20 per person
Recommendation: Would Definitely Try Again, and other Korean Fried Chicken places I can find.

On the second floor of an unmarked and nondescript building on 5th Avenue between 31st and 32nd streets in the middle of New York's Koreatown is one of my favorite culinary finds.

At the R Music Bistro Bar, a clientele of mostly young Koreans gorge on perhaps the best chicken wings you will ever. Diners are seated on low chairs and low tables as they listen to American and Korean pop music. While this is a music bar, you do not come here for the tunes. You come for the fried chicken. Apparently, KFC has taken NYC by storm. Not Kentucky but Korean Fried Chicken. And the Bon Chon Chicken they serve at the R are the best I've ever had. Now I can't wait to try the other KFC's in New York, and there are two others, Unidentified Flying Chicken in Queens and Bon Bon Chicken in downtown Manhattan.

The fried chicken they serve at the R Music Bistro Bar is out of this world. If this sounds so overly dramatic, trust me when I say that it is no exaggeration. Now I'm not sure whether this is a music bar first, then a restaurant second, or vice versa. It looks as though there are Bon Chon franchises all over New York City.

They only serve two parts of the chicken: the drumstick and the wings. So if you only eat white meat, you are s**t out of luck. You can also order the drumsticks and the wings either as hot and spicy or as soy garlic.

We opted for the large special platter of hot and spicy drumsticks and wings. And to go with the platter, we also got seafood Korean pancakes and some very spicy rice noodles with pork.

The pancakes and the rice noodles came first, because here at the R, the Bon Chon chicken is made to order. The chicken pieces, apparently, are fried twice. They are fried for 10 minutes, removed from the oil, shaken vigorously for 2 minutes, then fried again for another 10 minutes. The result is chicken that is crunchy crispy on the outside without being burnt and nice and juicy on the inside. The star here is not the meat, however, but the skin. Personally, I wish that we should've just gotten all wings where there would be more chicken skin. The nice sweet, spicy, and crunchiness of the chicken is amazing.

I was about to dredge the chicken over the sauce that came with the rice noodles and my friend, Eric, stopped me dead in my tracks. "Don't waste good fried chicken by messing it up like that!"

No truer words were ever spoken!

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Thai Temple

Restaurant: Not a Restaurant, but a Thai Temple, Wat Mongkolranataram
Location: Berkeley, CA
Open: Sun 9am-1pm
Date of Lunch: August 26, 2007
Cost of Dinner: $20, or a maximum of $7 per plate
Recommendation: Would Definitely Try Again, but be less gluttonous

Why haven't I heard about the Thai Temple before? Or better yet, why haven't I heard about the Sunday brunch at the Wat Mongkolranataram before? On Russell Avenue in Berkeley, a short walk from the Berkeley Ashby BART station, is a Thai Buddhist temple, the Wat Mongkolratanaram, that serves a Thai brunch every Sunday. But there is nothing that resembles breakfast at all in the menu. This is strictly good, home-made, hard-to-find-anywhere-else-outside-of-Thailand, Thai food.

The place works on a token system. First, you buy silver tokens at $1 each from the cashier. These are then used to purchased the food that is strictly self-serve. There is a line for the soup, a line for desserts, a line for vegetarian dishes, a line for meat dishes, and a slow extra-long line for khanom krok.

One of the first thoughts that came to mind was: I wonder if Anthony Bourdain has been here.

I know now that the next time I eat here again, I wouldn't be so excited that I would order everything I see in front of me, which is what I did. We practically had to roll ourselves out of there. So what did we order?
  • 3 orders of Pad Thai
  • 1 order of Panang Beef
  • 1 order of Yellow Curry Chicken
  • 5 orders of Spicy Chicken Drumsticks
  • 1 order of Fried Chicken
  • 2 orders of Pork with Egg and Tofu
  • 4 orders of Beef Noodle Soup
  • 8 orders of Khanom Krok
  • 4 orders of Mangoes with Sticky Rice and Coconut Custard
  • 1 order of Khanom Chun
  • 1 order of Med Khanun
  • 1 order of Thua Pap
  • 1 order of Foi Thong
But please understand that all of the above were shared by 8 people, so it really wasn't too gluttonous. And we took home a lot of the desserts.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Les Cols

Restaurant: Les Cols
Location: Olot, Spain
Chef: Fina Puigdevall
Open: Dinner, Wed-Sat 8:30-10:30pm; Lunch, Tue-Sat 1-3:30pm
Date of Lunch: July 16, 2007
Cost of Dinner: $135
Recommendation: Would Definitely Try Again, and stay in one of the Pavilions.

The day after our marathon dinner at El Bulli, we headed to the small town of Olot in the mountainous area of northern Spain known as la Garrotxa. Olot, with a population of about 30,000, is the center of this area of around 40 dormant volcanoes. We had planned to drive out to the municipality of Andorra located up in the Pyrenees. On our way, I booked us a lunch reservation at the one Michelin-starred "Les Cols." I first heard about this place when I saw an episode of Andrew Zimmern's Bizarre Foods on the Travel Channel (see above). This restaurant and guesthouse is run by Fina Puigdevall, who was born in the same farmhouse that now houses the restaurant.

Ms. Puigdevall hired the local architectural firm of RCR Architects to transform the ground floor of this 13-century house into an amazing restaurant and add a pavilion of 5 guestrooms above the volcanic sand that cover part of the estate.

After our lunch, the hostess gave us a tour of the pavilion. It was unfortunate that all the rooms are occupied, because we were not able to see what they look like. However, a description of the rooms is enough for us to want to stay there the next time we are in the area.

Each of the 5 pavilion guestrooms are the epitome of architectural design. Guests use numeric codes to enter the glass door panels which lead onto the patio of volcanic rock. The guestrooms themselves have glass walls (opaque, so you can't see next door), glass floors, so you can see the volcanic rock underneath, and glass ceilings, so you can see the stars when you lie in bed. You can also black them out in case the starlight becomes too bright.

But we're here to talk about the restaurant, not the guestrooms.

Our reservation for lunch was at 1pm. I figured that an hour and a half for lunch would suffice before we head towards Andorra, a clear 2 1/2 hours away. When we finally saw our set menu, we all looked at each other and knew that we will never make it to Andorra. There are 17 courses in the lunch menu, and they are not at all tapas style. These are definitely heartier portions. The menu below are exactly how it is written. It is funny because the way it is written is very evocative of the menu at Manka's Inverness Lodge, the fantastic restaurant we went to for my birthday last year. Unfortunately, Manka's burned to the ground last Christmas.

Cava Raventos i Blanc, Home-made sausage from Olot
- When we arrive, they ushered us towards the back of the farmhouse overlooking the gardens. This is where we begin our journey. Sitting on gorgeous golden chairs, they brought out glasses of cava, breads, and home-made sausages. We enjoy our first course in the fresh air overlooking a very serene and peaceful garden.

The Land, the Water, the Cereal:
buckwheat crust, the essentiality of primary food - After the first course, we are whisked towards the front of the restaurant to our table overlooking the chickens that freely roam outside. The waiter then brought over a cart filled with about 12 or so bottles of different kinds of olive oils and multiple types of breads from Els Hostalets d'en Bas. We really shouldn't get too filled up with these breads because we know that there are still 15 courses more to come. However, the different breads were so hard to resist. And combined with the selection of different kinds of olive oils did not make it easy. There are light extra virgin olive oils, spicy ones, sweet ones, heavy and thick ones. Oh, boy!

Inspired in Summer Landscape:
green beans juice, iced tomato, cucumber, mint, almonds - This dish, which the menu touts as inspired by the summer landscape is truly truth in advertising. The combination of the green bean juice, the cucumber, mint, almonds, and the tomato granita is fantastic and is refreshing on this humid day.

With the Scent of This Aromatic Mushroom:
chanterelle salad, pine nuts, dandelion, tortell d'Olot - A tortell d'Olot is a local savory pudding. I really don't know what it is made of, only that it is very creamy and rich. The mushroom salad, dandelion leaves and pine nuts are served on top of the tortell and a nice covering of extra virgin olive oil. The earthiness of the chanterelles, the bitterness of the dandelion leaves, and the creaminess of the tortell go beautifully together.

To Eat With Fingers:
cornbread sandwich, cereals bread from Els Hostalets d'en Bas, crumbs, olives - Els Hostalets d'en Bas is a farming community in the Garrotxa. All the cereals and flour used for the breads served at Les Cols were harvested at Els Hostalets d'en Bas. This crumbly sandwich made from cornbread can be eaten with about 2-3 bites.

A Yesteryear Stew, Without Meat, and With a New Texture:
potato stew, eucalyptus oil, fried garlic - The stew here looks to be deconstructed. The cubes of potatoes are creamy and very gelatinous. Fried garlic are placed on top of the cubes and a rich hunter sauce is served with it. Very interesting and very good!

A Dish From the Region, Cooked in the Traditional Way:
Santa Pau beans, flat pod beans harvested in 2006 - Fesol, or Santa Pau beans, are highly regarded in Spain. These white beans (haricots) are harvested in the town of Santa Pau and grows only on volcanic soil. Like fine wines, these beans have been awarded their own denominación de origen. At El Bulli, these beans were served to us in liquid form encased in pork fat. Here at Les Cols, they are at their original form: hearty and very filling.

A Hostel Dish:
rice with squids, cock's comb, peppers, chicory - This was the specialty of the house and frankly, the dish that I have pushed to eat at Les Cols for. Just to see what cock's comb taste like. This is really a fairly simple paella dish made with squid and squid ink. What made it exotic is the addition of cock's comb and chicory. So what does cock's comb taste like? I would liken the texture to that of very tender chicken feet. It is very gelatinous and has taken the taste of the squid.

A Salted Fish Always Present in the Mountain Cuisine:
cod, lettuce, tomato, cucumber, oil, salt - At a not-quite-pleasant cod dish we had earlier in the week at Sauc in Barcelona, I have become very leery of cod. In the previous version, it was very, very salted and not at all palatable. I was expecting this version to be similar. It was not! It was salted, but not salty. It mixes nice as well with the cool tomato broth, the lettuce and the diced cucumber that accompanies it.

A Warm and Seasoned Meat for Summertime:
seasoned port ribs, herbs, melon, yoghurt - If the sauce was more plentiful and flavorful, this dish would probably have worked. The ribs were certainly well-cooked, it just wasn't as flavorful as I would've liked.

With the Contrast of Jams Made Here:
Catalan cheeses, right to the point - Some of the Catalan cheeses we chose from the cheese cart were very pungent and strong. The taste truly lingers in your mouth. One blue cheese I tried was really quite good, but another was too strong for our taste. We were all unanimous in our love, however, for the jams that came with the cheese: apricot and orange peel marmalade, apple and aubergine jam, and watermelon and tomato jam.

With Fresh Fruits:
grilled apricot, herbs juice, rosemary ice cream, biscuit - The first of our two desserts was a very light cobbler-like concoction made with grilled apricots, crumbled biscuits, and a sweet honey-like sauce and topped with a nice rosemary ice cream.

With a Product Typical from Olot:
tortell with anisette, iced chamomile - The next dessert is a tart flavored with anisette, an anise-based liqueur. It is topped with granita made from chamomile tea. I love chamomile tea, so this was a nice surprise to see it served cold.

To Share:
chocolate bar, an evocation to the restaurant space - The next three came together as a finale to our wonderful lunch. First is a 300g dark chocolate bar designed to look like the wall of the restaurant. At this point, it was too rich and there really aren't much left in our stomach for more. We only took a little piece of the bar and took the rest of it for later consumption.

Sweet Bread Service:
cake from Els Hostalets d'en Bas, cooked in a wood oven - We also get some very nice sweet breads that taste suspiciously like bizcocho.

With the Typical Liquor from la Garrotxa:
ratafia ice lolly - According to the waiter, ratafia is a liqueur that they typically drink in the Garrotxa. In addition to the the ice lollypops, they also served us the liqueur itself. It tastes like licorice and you really need to develop a taste for it because it is definitely an acquired taste.

To say the least, we never made it to Andorra. After lunch, we just headed back to Barcelona. Lunch took four hours! We left Olot, but the memories will definitely live on.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Canteen Restaurant

Restaurant: Canteen
Location: San Francisco CA
Chef: Dennis Leary
Open: Daily, Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner
Date of Dinner: August 14, 2007
Cost of Dinner: $60
Recommendation: I'll Definitely Try Multiple Times

Tuesdays are the best time to try out Canteen Restaurant, the postage-sized restaurant at the ground floor of the Commodore Hotel. It is on this day that chef/owner Dennis Leary, formerly of Rubicon, is at his most creative...and with limited resources.

Apparently on Tuesdays, Mr. Leary gives the rest of his staff the night off save for one waitperson and maybe a dishwasher. Because of this limitation, he has to create dishes that can be created by one person. So, there is only one set menu on Tuesday, but what a menu! It is almost as if you have been invited to dinner at a famous chef's house and HE is cooking. Well, other than the fact that you have to pay for dinner.

For $38, you get 3 courses all prepared by Mr. Leary himself. You almost wish that would be some lapse in the service, because he can't possibly be preparing all the dishes himself and not stumble.

He solves any lapses by carefully crafting dishes that would be easily prepared and served as a first, second, and third course.

We got to Canteen at 6pm and it was not full at all, about eleven diners total including the two of us. Even though the restaurant was not full, the waitress kindly asked Dennis Leary if it was okay to seat us, mindful of the fact that they are undermanned. He approves. We sit down at a booth made for two. We look through the books on the wall: "The Wizard of Oz," "Spectacles," "Two Scripts by Antonioni," and a book on "The Ahwahnee Hotel." Amazing!

After some prodding from Deo, I relented and ordered a glass of sparkling wine. It was a wise choice, because it came about the same time as the amuse bouche: honeydew melon and goat's milk gouda with gastrique. What a perfect combination!

The first course was cold tomato soup with raw tuna and herbs. I had a similar dish at MK Restaurant in Chicago the week before, but somehow that dish did not sit well with me. This dish, however, was divine. The sweet acidity of the tomato soup enhanced the flavor of the raw tuna. Good move in serving a cold dish as an appetizer. This means less cooking, it just needs to be exceptional...and it was!

The main course is a navarin of lamb with eggplant, chanterelles, and ronde de nice squash. A navarin is lamb stew made with lamb shoulder and vegetables. So that's how he's doing it! A cold appetizer and a stew for the main course equals less fuss in the kitchen. And frankly, if I did not know that there were only 2 people working in the restaurant, I would have thought that the entire meal was handled by easily a staff of 6 or more. The stew was fantastic with a nice wholesome broth.

Dessert was a plum-almond upside down cake with raspberry sauce and almond cream. Clearly, this was the one dish that was cooked on the spot. While most upside down cake would be moist, they have a tendency to be soggy. This was not the case here. The cake retained it's moist and smooth texture and the raspberry sauce was a nice counterpoint.

Dinner ended at 7:15pm. It was quick, tasty, and the service was great considering the waitress was also answering phones and taking reservations. I want to go back on a regular day and try out the menu when there would be choices in courses. I also want to go back another Tuesday just to see what he would concoct next time.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

MK Restaurant

Restaurant: MK Restaurant
Location: Chicago, IL
Chef: Erick Simmons
Open: Sun-Thu: 5:30pm - 10:00pm, Fri-Sat: 5:30pm - 11:00pm
Date of Dinner: August 10, 2007
Cost of Dinner: $100
Recommendation: Once is Enough, Although This Was My Second Time (Relatively Speaking)

I was in Chicago on a business trip and there is only one restaurant I wanted to try my one night there: Alinea. But because of poor planning on my part, I was not able to procure a reservation there. So, Bill who was helping me with a reservation in Chicago through American Express Concierge recommended MK Restaurant. Since the only restaurant I really wanted to go isn't available, I acquiesced and threw caution to the wind and agreed.

The MK in the name of the restaurant are the initials of chef/owner Michael Kornick. The kitchen at MK is now manned by Erick Simmons, as Michael Kornick has other restaurants in the Chicago area as well as Las Vegas.

I got a feeling of deja vu as I approached MK Restaurant. I have been here before. As I enter the room, it all came back to me. I was here 4 years ago the last time I was in Chicago, also for a business trip. I don't remember that time, because frankly it (meaning, the meal) really wasn't memorable. Uh-oh!

And then matters got worse when they sat me at a table upstairs at a table facing a blank wall. And being by myself didn't help much since I have to stare onto a blank wall. So now I wait...and wait...and wait, for a waitperson to attend to my table. It was about 10 minutes by the time the waitress came to my table, because the hostess forgot to tell someone that I was there, never mind the fact that I had a reservation. Uh-oh!

At least, she was apologetic when she finally noticed me. And after that, she was also very attentive. Good move!

I get the menu and was caught by sticker shock. Wow! The prices are astronomical for what I think is a very casual restaurant. Yes, there are tablecloths on the table, but the ambiance really is more a feeling of a neighborhood restaurant. None of the main courses is lower than $25 and go all the way up to a $46 steak. Boulevard Restaurant, which I think is head and shoulders above MK, doesn't even have that high a price tag in its menu.

The waitress then says that the summer tasting menu is something that the chef is trying out and has only been on the menu for about 3 weeks. At least, that tasting menu is priced better than the a la carte menu at $79 for 5 courses, or $89 with a cheese course. It was a no-brainer as to which I will get: the 5-course summer tasting menu.

Amuse Bouche 1 (grilled peach topped with goat cheese and shaved fennel) - Apparently, there are 2 amuses bouches that come with dinner. Because it was not included in the degustation menu, I then had the feeling that the 2 amuses bouches were given to all diners at MK. This first amuse bouche was just summer personified with a nice grilled peach half and topped with goat cheese and shaved fennel. Quite tasty!

Amuse Bouche 2 (Oyster with mango vinaigrette) - The second amuse bouche is a raw oyster on the half shell with diced mango and mango vinaigrette. So far so good! I'm starting to forget that I'm staring at a blank wall.

Tuna (raw yellowfin tuna, watermelon, basil seed, ginger, and watermelon broth) - While it was the tuna that is in big print on the menu, it was what messed up this dish. I guess that some sort of watermelon soup is a fad currently in restaurants. Truthfully, the watermelon broth is really good combined with ginger and basil seeds. But the tuna adds absolutely nothing to this dish. The broth pretty much removes the taste of the tuna and so what you get is just the feeling of flavorless cubes of fish in your mouth.

Salmon (olive oil poached atlantic salmon, eggplant puree, braised tomatoes, kalamata olives, capers) - This was my favorite dish. Atlantic salmon was poached in extra virgin olive oil. This results in a very tender and buttery salmon served with eggplant, tomatoes, olives, capers. Very, very good!

Quail (texas bobwhite quail grilled over hardwood charcoal, creamed sweet corn, hon shimeji mushroms, scallions, smoked bacon) - I don't know what a Texas Bobwhite quail is and a quick google search soon made me feel guilty about eating this. I just hope that it's not true and the quail really isn't endangered. The course is yummy though, so I guess endangered species are really good! (I kid! I kid!)

Veal (roasted veal tenderloin, israeli couscous, zucchini, mint, squash blossom, red wine sauce) - Squash blossoms and roasted veal in the same dish? All I can say is, "Wow!" The veal tenderloin was roasted to a perfect medium rare and placed on top of big pearls of israeli couscous.

Brown Sugar (warm brown sugar cake, honeyed peaches, honey ice cream, almond streusel) - I found dessert a bit cloying, actually. Brown sugar, honey, streusel. All that sweetness together just was overkill, I thought.

So what's the verdict? Well, it certainly was better than the last time I was there.