Archive for the ‘best restaurants in the world’ Category

Les Prés d’Eugénie Michel Guérard,
Type of Cuisine: Classic French (Haute cuisine)
Michelin Stars: 3
Event: Lunch on September 3rd, 2017 12:00
Addr: 334 Rue René Vielle, 40320 Eugénie-les-Bains, France
Phone: +33 5 58 05 06 07
Email: reservation@michelguerard.com
URL: https://lespresdeugenie.com/en/les-tables/michelin-starred-restaurant-michel-guerard/

 

They have the best MOFs working for them (Chef Olivier Brulard, in the case of Les Prés d’Eugénie – Chef  Brulard  spent some time at La Réserve de Beaulieu where he earned 2 michelin stars, after years alongside real culinary illuminaries and legendary Chefs such as Alain Chapel, Jacques Maximin, Gaston Lenotre)  and it shows in the very high level of classic French cooking technique on display.

 

Service: 8 /10 Well trained young staff, unstuffy, professional as you would expect at a restaurant of this reputation.
Overall food rating: 9/10 All in all, this was some excellent  cooking  by existing 3 star classic French Michelin star standards. Of course, Les Prés d’Eugénie is capable of an overall food rating of 10/10. There is NO doubt about that. But I have got to assess this specific meal, during which the Le Zéphyr de truffe ‘‘Surprise Exquise’’ was THE big “test” they had to pass as it requires lots of technique, precision, know-how, a great palate. Regardless, Les Prés d’Eugénie did pass plenty of other BIG tests,  as evidenced by the superlative pommes soufflées/gâteau Mollet du Marquis de Béchamel/amuse-bouches/pastries.
Overall dining experience :  See the section “My thoughts, days later” at the bottom of the current post.

Restaurant Les Prés d’Eugénie, located in a countryside’s spa resort in the  Landes, has 3 Michelin stars since the late 70s, one of the longest-running Michelin-starred restaurants in the world. It is the sole 3 star Michelin restaurant in  southwestern France, a historical gourmet destination where many great  Chefs of France have honed their skills (Gerald Passedat, Alain Ducasse, Michel Troisgros, to name a few).  Outside of France,  Chef Quique Da Costa of world famed 3 star Michelin Quique Da Costa in Denia (Spain) counts Les Prés d’Eugénie’s Mastermind Michel Guérard among the Chefs he drew his  inspiration  from (as he stated in this interview), and Chef Massimiliano Alajmo, the youngest Chef to have been awarded three Michelin stars, of 3 star Michelin Le Calandre in Sarmeola di Rubano, Padua, Italy (which I did visit, my review here) worked at Les Prés d’Eugénie at some point  in his career.

Michel Guérard, now 84 years old,  is one of the iconic Chefs of France, for his many achievements such as promoting Nouvelle cuisine in the 70s, with culinary heavyweights Roger Verge/Paul Bocuse/Alain Chapel/ Pierre Troisgros, which signified a break from Escoffier‘s classicism (the heavy sauces, etc), then, later on, his cuisine minceur.

The ‘Nouvelle cuisine’ (a lighter way of cooking, for i.e, refraining from using heavy sauces/marinades, reducing cooking time to preserve the natural flavors of the ingredients, etc), that we are talking about is, of course, not ‘nouvelle’ (new) anymore, but it is THE movement that led to the type of classic French cuisine that we know today. Way before the concept of ‘Nouvelle Cuisine’ became trendy in the 1970s, one Chef began his own revolution of French cooking: Chef Jean Delaveyne. Chef Delaveyne started to cook a lighter version of French food as early as in the late 50s. What Chef Delaveyne did not have, it is the sense of marketing that Chef Michel Guérard was gifted with. Chef Delaveyne’s revolutionary approach to cooking did inspire Michel Guérard, who, in his turn, did help popularizing the concept of ‘Nouvelle cuisine’.

Chef Guérard had another personal motivation in Nouvelle cuisine: according to him, Pastry Chefs were underestimated in those days, therefore he wanted to prove to the world of cooking that as a Pastry  Chef, he could play an important role in the evolution of cooking.

On the premises, they   have a very pretty old barn converted into a bistrot, La Ferme aux Grives,  that  I also tried (reviewed here). Chef Guérard’s mini-empire of restaurants includes La Bastide and Mère Poule & Cie

On the day of my visit, there were  several tasting menus, the A la carte menu, as well as some “special 40 years of Michelin stars” food items.

I did start the journey at their lounge bar, the Loulou‘s Lounge Bar, where I was served couple of amuse-bouches, which, on this lunch, were composed of:
-Caesar salad served with anchovies from Palamos (Spain), on toasted bread
-Shrimp “beignet” with verbena sauce
-a delicate pastry cone filled with a citrus flower mousse.

The Caesar salad was, as expected, not going to be your standard caesar salad but a creative take on it, delivered in the form of a mini “tartare” made of elements of a caesar salad mixed with first-rate anchovies (The anchovies from Palamos, which were served here, deserve their reputation as one of world’s best), atop a delicious piece of toasted bread. The kind of nibble that sounds simple, but which, once in mouth, do serve as a reminder that it is not …by chance…that some kitchen brigades managed to perform for decades at the highest level of classic French cooking (obviously, their case). 10/10

Shrimp “beignet” featured  shrimp of top quality, not one single sign of oil to be found, the batter delicately light, the fresh maritime flavour of the shrimp fragrant, the beignet was  served with a superlative verbena sauce. 8/10 for the shrimp beignet, 10/10 for that verbena sauce which brought incredible joy in mouth.

Then the pastry cone, filled with a citrus flower mousse of divine flavour, its impressive smooth texture stealing the show as well. 10/10

The amuse-bouches did really … amuse!

3 small breads are offered: olive, lemon and brioche. All, superb. The olives bread being the most popular during my visit. How do I know? Well, I asked.  Ferme Ponclet butter from the Finistere deserves praises, too. Perhaps one of the very best butters of this globe, boldly flavored but balanced,  with a fresh creamy finish that lingers gloriously on the palate.

Le Zéphyr de truffe ‘‘Surprise Exquise’’ / Vichyssoise is composed of an unsweetened  floating island infused with black truffle coulis disposed on a bed of white truffle cream and Vichyssoise, garnished with black truffles and a parmesan crisp. The dish came with a beautiful poetic description, the textural contrast between the slices of black truffle and the snowy white appearance of the floating island /white truffle cream/Vichyssoise so pretty to espy. One can imagine the incredible potential of such creation: imagine a dazzling airy floating island, the stunning fresh flavour of whipped egg whites. Imagine the fragrance of truffles. Imagine the taste sensation of a superlative Vichyssoise. A dish like this one is designed to blow you away. Done, as it should, it will. Alas, the flattering potential of my Zephyr experience was expressed only on paper. The Vichyssoise had way too much milk in it, more milk than vegetables, actually, which made it taste more of a cream of milk than of a proper Vichyssoise. I had better Vichyssoise at casual eateries, and was surprised that this one I was sampling at Les Prés d’Eugénie was underwhelming. The floating island? It paled in comparison to the world class example I had at Bistrot Casse-Noix in Paris: not as airy, not as tasty. Some say that there is just air in a floating island…well, there is more than that in a benchmark floating island, whether it is sweetened or not. There is the precise skills that allow for addictive fresh whipped egg whites flavour (which was missing in action, during this lunch at Les Prés d’Eugénie), there is timing. Vichyssoise, floating island, some important — as well as   exciting —  food items of classic French cuisine… this is where a kitchen of this caliber should  nail it! Even the white truffle cream was not satisfying enough to lift up the overall dish. The black truffle, you ask? Its fragrance was muted! Quoi d’autre? This was “unidimensional ” (essentially tasting of milk, and milk, and milk) flavor-wise, I am afraid. The parmesan crisp, the saving grace, but by then, I could not care anymore. 5/10

L’Oreiller moelleux de mousserons et de morilles au fumet de truffe – A  ravioli (the “oreiller” is for the ravioli- “oreiller” is French for “pillow”) wrapped around a filling of morels and fairly-ring mushrooms, bathed in a sauce made of mushrooms, truffle, with some asparagus atop. The sauce was packed with the enticing earthy aromas of the top quality mushrooms, the pasta cooked carefully to aldente doneness, the filling of morels timely cooked too (not mushy), tasting as delicious as a filling of meat. Even a fan of meat, like me, would opt for mushrooms in place of meat if fillings of mushroom could always taste this great. After the disappointing “Zéphyr de truffe”, the ‘Oreiller moelleux de mousserons’ came to the rescue and made this lunch great again. 8/10

Le demi-homard rôti, légèrement fumé à la cheminée, oignon confit au four – A half lobster (clawed blue lobster from Brittany) roasted in an open fire, some sweet onions (filled with a purée of peach and onions, gratinéed with parmesan cheese) accompanying the crustacean and its saffron butter sauce dressing . The saffron-flavoured butter sauce  is a nice idea, the saffron flavour not overwhelming as you would expect from top flight saffron. But having eaten my share of fully flavoured beautifully-meaty freshly caught spiny lobsters (I know, not of the same family of lobsters as the one of Brittany), during my tender childhood in the Indian Ocean, I wonder if it is fair to expect a fine dining restaurant to do better with its lobster? Can it better the dazzling freshly caught clawed lobster of the Maine (Trying to be fair here, and not being partial to spiny lobsters) or of Brittany, that we can enjoy at a lobster shack? Well, it cannot because fresh lobster is just great …away from any fine dining intervention. I had no choice but to take the lobster as it was part of my tasting menu.  They did put a lot of thoughts in this dish and this was certainly not a bad food item at all, but it was hard for me to fully enjoy such tiny  pieces of lobster flesh (they do not look tiny on that picture, but in real life, they were).  The peach/onion purée with gratinéed parmesan cheese  was as pleasant as you can imagine a purée of sweet onions and peach to be, and it would certainly compliment the sweet flesh of the  lobster but I would need a sizeable piece of lobster  to corroborate that …

Filet de Boeuf sur le bois et sous les feuilles, jus de viande et de raisin, pommes crémeuses à la truffe et pommes soufflées- Filet of beef (blonde d’Aquitaine breed), covered with leaves of plane trees then cooked (the meat cooked rare as /per my request) on wood fire. Those leaves do enhance the barbequey flavor of that meat. Wood fire cooking (which is the cooking method they did use to cook this filet of beef) is my preferred cooking method for red meats as its resulting delicate and enjoyable smoky flavor appeals to me. On the palate and to the smell, the smoky flavor was actually subtle, but as a result of using wood fire and cooking the meat under the leaves, I could appreciate the depth of the flavor of the meat. I was afraid that the addition of grapes would not work with the jus de viande, but the taste of the grapes  was barely noticeable, and fulfilled its mission of adding depth to the jus de viande. Flawless jus de viande, timely simmered, precisely reduced. This was not a dull piece of filet. 7/10

With the filet de boeuf, they served some pommes soufflées cooked to order, executed in a way that exemplary pommes soufflées do look, feel and taste like (spectacularly light, with an exquisite crisp and superlative fresh potato flavour. Bring back the poetic description, Chef! Roll the drums! I love when French classics are mastered this well. 10/10), as well as a very good purée of pommes de terres agria/truffles (8/10).

Le Gâteau Mollet du Marquis de Béchamel et la Glace Fondue à la Rhubarbe – The dessert I wanted to try at Les Prés d’Eugénie was the labor intensive and technically difficult (to compose) soufflé «Roulé-Boulé», but it was not available. I went with my second choice, the Gâteau Mollet du Marquis de Béchamel. This is a hybrid dessert (part soufflé, part crème renversée — the crème renversée barely cooked, essentially made with a hot water bath sweet bechamel) created by Pastry Chef Jérôme Chaucesse (when he used to work at Les Prés d’Eugénie as he does not work there anymore), served with a rhubarb ice cream and a raspberry coulis. The raspberry coulis responding really well to all the components of that cake, especially to the caramel sauce flavor. The soufflé part looks like a “soufflé failure”, but that was intentional. Consequently, you will not eat this cake with “your eyes”, but a palate that has long been familiar with classic French desserts will appreciate that every single component of Le Gâteau Mollet du Marquis de Béchamel was of the extraordinary sort: for sure, it is not rocket science to make a sweetened bechamel, a caramel sauce, a soufflé, etc, but what IS rocket science is to deliver benchmark versions of those, which is what the pastry team at Les Pres d’Eugenie did with their Gateau mollet. There was wit, a very high level of classic French pastry technique and, on the palate, an intensity of flavor to never forget. 10/10

Canelés surprises à l’armagnac/ tartelettes aux fraises (mini strawberry tarts) /madeleines, all freshly baked, as expected from a restaurant of this standing. I have heard about the superb work of the pastry team at Les Prés d’Eugénie, and I can tell you that it lived up to the hype, with exceptional sourcing and skills. A benchmark tartelette aux fraises (10/10), an equally perfected mini madeleine 10/10). The canelés (rum was replaced by armagnac)   were also great (8/10).

Pros: One great Classic French 3 star Michelin.
Cons: The Zephyr de truffe, on this lunch,  so close … yet so far

Bottom line: Chef Guerard, 84 years old, is, naturally, not cooking anymore. But what I like, in France, it is how serious those legends (Guerard, Bocuse) are about their legacy. They have the best MOFs working for them (Chef Olivier Brulard, in the case of Les Prés d’Eugénie – Chef  Brulard  spent some time at La Réserve de Beaulieu where he earned 2 michelin stars, after years alongside real culinary illuminaries and legendary Chefs such as Alain Chapel, Jacques Maximin, Gaston Lenotre)  and it shows in the very high level of classic French cooking technique on display.

My thoughts, days later: A high level dining experience, where you are interacting with friendly people. The ambience is relaxing. Food is great. Not too far, the cattle of blonde d’Aquitaine is grazing on emerald green grass. Stay in this village, Eugenie les Bains, for a day, walk in the countryside, rediscover the civilized manner of saying “hi” with a genuine smile to people you do not know (an aggression in most big cities,lol), smell corn (there are vast fields of corn to feed the cattle of Blonde d’Aquitaine) the way it used to smell and feel before the big industries have decided that chemical elements are necessary for their growth. And If you are a foodie, there are couple of eateries in the village. They have small hotels of far superior quality than most of the so-called budget hotels of our big cities,  and I did spot a farm in the village, with some serious foie gras. A destination, indeed.

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Argo (Thera 847 00, Greece Phone +30 2286 022594  )  seems to have impressed its share of patrons as the place was fully booked on an evening that was very quiet for most of its local competitors. Even the other local top gun, To Ouzeri, looked empty in comparison. But reserve your table weeks in advance…if you want to eat in company of the stunning view of the caldera (not all tables have a caldera view). 

I ordered some of their “recommended” dishes:

Patatina – Argo cooks superb classic Greek food, but their patatina is some sort of “cosmopolitan” invention of their own. In this instance , they reduced fried potato of superb quality into the delicate shape of vermicelli (inspired by the Chinese potato bird nest??)  and topped the whole thing with some scramble eggs. It is not the invention of the decade, but it was well executed 8/10

Fava bean purée had superlative flavour and texture. And this is coming from someone who has fava beans as one of the Main ingredients of his country. Fava beans has a unique taste, though, here in Santorini, because of its volcanic soil. 10/10

White egg plant is one of the main ingredients of Santorini. It was simply baked but revealed some serious sourcing. The cooking was as flawless: seasoning and timing that showcased superb know-how / technique. Excellent 9/10

Giaprakia – Greek stuffed cabbage rolls (ground meat, rice, mint) served with fries and yoghurt sauce. The presentation is elegant, the genuine traditional flavours vibrant. Quality ingredients are used. A benchmark yiaprakia. 10/10

An assortment of fresh seafood (mussels, shrimps) was timely cooked in a delicious tomato sauce. As I explained elsewhere, I tend to perceive Chefs who cook seafood with great care (the case, here) as capable of cooking everything else (vegetables, meats)  with brio, and this entire meal was an example of just that. 8/10

Overall food rating (categ: Mediterranean/ Greek): 9/10

Service: 10/10

Bottom line: Argo could cook some of the best Mediterranean food of any major food city in the world. Even the service, at Argo, was of prime mention (my main waitress, Angelica, would not be out of place in a Michelin star restaurant). Both Argo and the Old tavern of Psaras were the highlights of my foodie adventures in Greece. Next time I will be in Greece, I will happily eat again at those two restaurants and will make a detour by  Thessaloniki, the capital of Greek Macedonia, as well as visiting the Peloponnese as many Greeks I know have raved about the dazzling food in both locations.

The cooking at Le Coucou (Addr: 138 Lafayette St, New York; Phone +1 212-271-4252) has been making headlines around New York  since the  opening of the restaurant in June 2016, with rave reviews  from New York’s major sources of information on their local restaurants: Time Out New York, New York Times, Zagat, Forbes, The Infatuation, Grubstreet, Village Voice and the Wall Street Journal. The Chef , Daniel Rose from Chicago, was an apprentice at Bruneau, when the restaurant was bestowed with 3 Michelin stars (Bruneau  has a sole Michelin star nowadays)  and trained under the supervision of 3 star Michelin Chef   Yannick Alleno (Yannick now owns a duo of 3 star Michelin restaurants in France,  Alléno Paris au Pavillon Ledoyen as well as Le 1947 in Courchevel) . Daniel, who  also owns successful restaurants Spring and Chez la vieille in Paris, is offering Classic French cooking at Le Coucou.

This  is, right now, a destination restaurant in New York serving some of the very best French fares outside of France. And it happens to have an interior that is very easy on the eyes.

 

I wanted to visit Le Coucou since a  long time, but it is a very popular restaurant and snatching a seat for dinner, here,  can be a bit tricky (they start taking reservations at midnight, 28 days prior to the day you want to book). For pictures of the interior, click here.  Everything else that you need to know about the restaurant is concisely described in this Zagat’s post, therefore I will focus on the food I was sampling.

Here are the food items we did order:

Oysters from Washington DC /seaweed butter – fresh maritime flavor. This, although pleasant, its sourcing great, its execution without reproach…was not going to help me understanding the hype about Le Coucou. 6/10

Endives/ham – Endives salad, with dried Iberico ham, served with a grapefruit vinaigrette. A superlative vinaigrette with fresh acidity and vibrant flavor of the sort that many restaurants have long forgotten about. That vinaigrette, as well as the rest of the condiments will be showered with praises, deservedly so, but the overall salad, although enjoyable, was not going to leave any lasting impression. Upon finishing this dish, all I had in mind, is the picture of Le coucou, that small unimpressive bird…though, do not get me wrong: the endives and oysters were made by a competent kitchen brigade, I am not denying that. But in light of the hype, I was expecting more. 6/10

I chose the veal tongue / golden ossetra caviar / creme fraiche – a thick slab of veal tongue, firm in consistency, with, of course, some room for proper chew. This is how a certain generation of French used to prefer their veal tongue. A feeling of a bistrot of la ´France rurale’. I appreciate that Daniel brought such memories back. 8/10 for the quality veal tongue, 10/10 for the dazzling (and pertinent, to this dish) homemade creme fraiche (it is rare for a creme fraiche at a top French table, in North America, ​to be packed with such exciting lactic freshness).

My girlfriend did opt for the Lobster salad, lettuce – on the side a dazzling lobster sauce mixed with egg yolk. 10/10 for that sauce. Perfectly well grilled small piece of tasty quality lobster. 7/10 for the lobster. Hard to tell when you look at the picture above, but there was a big lettuce, next to a tiny piece of lobster ..and that did not sit well with me (quite a weird sight, I found). May as well call it “lettuce salad” …. “avec un soupcon de queue de homard” ….

Lamb rack, egg plants, tomatoes stuffed with “choulder and chard” – faultless cooking with requested medium-rare doneness achieved successfully, quality lamb from Colorado, first-rate lamb jus sauce (mixed with red wine). 8/10 for the lamb, 10/10 for that exciting lamb jus. Clearly, this saucier is crazy … ;)

Prime filet of beef/bone marrow jus/oxtail potatoes – served with a dazzling sauce bordelaise (10/10), the filet mignon of superb quality (8/10),

Braised oxtail / potatoes boasting superlative textures and flavor. This would NOT be out of place at  a serious classic French 3 star Michelin table (10/10).

Cheeses (Aretheusa Blue, O’bannon Goat, Overjarige gouda, Hooligan, Red Hawk) of good quality, from several parts of the US as well as abroad, all served with a first rate sauce of plum/ porto. When sauces are done this well, all I can say is that “you are a first-rate french restaurant”!

Wine service and selection is of prime mention, here.

For desserts, we had:

Riz au lait (rice pudding) — My idea of the perfect riz au lait is the one that Bistrot Le Casse -Noix did serve me, years ago, in Paris. When it comes to the rice pudding, I do not like too many extra ingredients. At le Coucou, Le riz au lait comes with extra ingredients: chartreuse, pistachio. This rice pudding was still enjoyable with one flavor profile that some French of a certain generation will remember, only it is revisited and was well made (6/10)

Roasted pineapple is a simple dessert, consequently there is no shortage of decent roasted pineapples at good restaurants. What’s rare, though, are roasted pineapples that stand out. For some reason, the equation roasted pineapple=quality pineapple+dazzling flavors is an equation that is not taken as seriously as it should by many kitchen brigades. Mind you, who is going to blame a Chef, in the west, for not losing a sleep over some tropical fruits? Le Coucou is one rare restaurant, in the west, that does not underestimate that aspect, as the pineapple that they did use seemed to have been carefully hand picked at its optimal stage of ripeness. The roasted pineapple was served  with a yellow chartreuse sorbet and a touch of olive oil. This roasted pineapple was packed with memorable fruity aromas, a benchmark of its kind (10/10)

We also had a technically flawless  chiboust (impossibly light and delicate), with well judged meringue to pastry cream ratio. 9/10

As well as a coconut financier  with exciting fresh coconut flavor. The coconuts are from the Caribbean and are grated for their  financier. The sourcing of the coconut was not an afterthought, the technique of high level (9/10).  The talented Pastry Chef Daniel Skurnick, who worked previously for some of this globe’s best restaurants (The River Café, Jean-Georges)  is their current Pastry Chef.

Pros: First-rate updated French sauces. A meal as well as an overall dining experience with many highlights!
Cons: For my pineapple juice, may I suggest that you use that same outstanding pineapple you did use to make the ananas roti? Also:  c’mon folks…..that lobster / lettuce menu item…I mean…c’mon, that is more “coucou” the unimpressive bird than a “crowned eagle” …Lol.

The hospitality standards are up there with what the grand tables of this planet have to offer, minus the heavy decorum that can be found in some houses. The restaurant has a tiny but prettily decorated bar at the entrance. On the wall of that bar (you cannot sit there, btw), a painting that will remind you of Provence. It is the kind of bars you see in movies. The rest of the decor is lavishly styled, with chandeliers, candles on every table, large glass windows, vaulted ceiling, a modern open kitchen.

Overall food rating: 9/10 (Categ: Fine dining, Top tier French restaurant outside of France, Top tier restaurant in New York) –  Hey, mon Coucou, I have no clue if your sauces are always as dazzling as on the evening of my visit, but with sauces of this caliber… , I am flying, too!!!

Bottom line: I made it difficult for Le Coucou. I went there on a Monday, generally a quiet evening, when the best cooks of a kitchen brigade tend to stay at home. I decided not to take their most popular dishes (pike quenelles, tout le lapin, bourride). I brought my girlfriend, a hard-to-please diner. And the star Chef, Daniel Rose was not present. When the meal started, I was certain that I was going to corner the bird and accuse it of not living up to its hype. The oysters and anchovies were fine, but given the hype, they did not deliver the emotions we came for, therefore I was determined to “pluck the feathers” of the bird. But Le coucou fought back, and the bird went on cruising at exceptional altitudes. By the time the beef filet and carre d’agneau arrived at our table, the bird was out of reach, really high in the skies. Then the desserts were served, and I received a note, falling from the sky “coucou, I am not… I am actually a crowned eagle, ca te va? ” Crowned eagle, you are, buddy! Can’t agree more. Ca me va! Hype is always too much, oftently impossible to live up to, but Le Coucou deserves its reputation. It is, right now, a destination restaurant serving some of the very best French fares outside of France. And it happens to have an interior that is very easy on the eyes. I loved Le Coucou!

What I think weeks later: Daniel Rose is a TRUE / REAL Chef. You know you are dealing with a REAL Chef when his absence is not felt at all. That is because GREAT Chefs will never leave a kitchen in the hands of poorly trained cooks. I have no clue where Daniel was, on that evening, but if he happened to be at a bar, in the carribbean, sipping a pina colada while I was dining at his restaurant..I swear, I would take a plane, right away, fly to his hideaway and thank him…which, if you have read this blog, is not my normal reaction in such circumstance. Lol. But that is the thing: Daniel is a GREAT Chef! Michelin, please continue to stay away…Le Coucou is a bird that is great, the way it is right now, free from the ridiculous rules that have killed so many talents. Please, please …  DON’T EVEN THINK ABOUT IT, dear Michelin! Go elsewhere. Lol  UPDATE: In NOVEMBER 2018,  Michelin did award a star to le Coucou, which I hope is not going to be the beginning of the end for this restaurant ….

 

 

 

Sushi Azabu, New York
Michelin stars: 1
Addr: 1428 Greenwich St, New York, NY 10013, USA
URL: http://www.sushi-azabu.com/
Phone: +1 212-274-0428
Type of cuisine: Japanese (mainly a sushiya serving traditional Edo-Mae sushi)

In a city with many  great Japanese sushi Chefs, there is a sushiya for all kind of diners (the one who likes luxury, the one who does not, etc). My ideal sushiya has a great sushi Master at the helm, of course, and a decor that is intimate. A service that is great. A genuine feel of  Japan.  In New York, as far as top sushiya goes, Sushi Azabu is that ‘ONE’ for me. 

01 In NYC, you have Masa, which according to their local sushi experts,  is on top of the roof of their top tier sushiyas. Then, you have their other elite sushiyas , such as Nakazawa,  Yasuda, Azabu, 15 East. I tried Yasuda (I was missing the superb knife skills as well as the superior  work of the textures that I better enjoyed at other sushiyas in Nyc) and 15 East (I find Azabu better, in comparison, but 15 East had couple of noteworthy food items)  in 2015. Never tried Nakazawa, Masa and Jewel Bako. It is NYC, so keep in mind  that the price tag (therefore the cost performance, especially in comparison to what you can get in Japan at equal cost) will oftently be the issue.

I tried Azabu on Saturday Febr 4th 2017.
I picked the larger omakase and they fed my girlfriend on shrimp tempura and wagyu beef steak
The 1st course comprising of a piece of amberjack and salmon:
02Marinated Amberjack was seasoned exquisitely. As expected, from a kitchen of this quality, the marinating technique is flawless, its timing well judged. It came with a delicious piece of mushroom. (9/10)
03Smoked salmon boasted vibrant texture, the quality fish expressing plenty of complex joyous flavors 9/10
05Then an array of seafood items composed of octopus  (8/10 superb chew and texture), A first-rate piece of perfectly tenderized  abalone  which kept its maritime flavor at the forefront (9/10), amberjack and fluke and shrimp of impeccable quality. The wasabi is freshly grated wasabi root imported from Japan. This was a first-rate collection of sushis, even by the standard of a mid level sushiya in Tokyo.
06My current girlfriend  ordered some shrimp tempura which she had nothing to complain about.  I can see how extraordinarily lighter such  batter could be in the hands of a specialist of the tempura, but Azabu is a sushiya, not a specialist of the tempura, and the batter was still very well executed, the tempura light and tasting delicious,  (8/10).

07She also had her wagyu  beef steak, which was fine but both her and myself do regard wagyu as a (generally) vastly overrated meat. The finest Wagyu I had in Japan have  not changed my opinion about that, as already debated here.

08My tasting menu continued with some utterly fresh uni from Hokkaido  –the firmer bafun uni on the left, the creamier murasaki on the right — as tiny as I remember them from the last time I had them in Japan. As explained elsewhere on this blog, I prefer some of the sea urchin from the mediterranea and California. But Hokkaido’s uni are among world’s best, for sure, with, this time, the murasaki standing out for its sweeter flavor. Sometimes, it is the bafun uni that can be the sweetest of the two 8/10
09Then a tasting of  lean, medium fatty and  torched fatty tuna. The quality, high, as expected. This, too, would not be out of place at a serious mid level sushiya in Tokyo. 8/10
10King crab miso – the flavor and aroma of this particular miso preparation lifting up the flavor of the grilled crab remarkably well. Eventful 8/10
11Then the “Chef’s choice of nigiris” featuring flawless sea urchin/tuna/scallop/salmon/salmon roe/squid/wagyu beef. The fish sliced with precision (even world class Sawada was caught with one or two pieces that were imprecisely sliced ..and that happened at other highly regarded sushiyas of NYC, too), the rice served at body temperature (my preference), the proper pressure applied to the relevant rice/topping combination, the rice not overseasoned, i.e., not too vinegary.  The sushi rice, which subtle  sweet and umami flavor notes went so well with the toppings,  is  from Tsuyahime from Yamagata prefecture. Again, even for a mid level sushiya  in Tokyo, this would be excellent. 9/10
12As part of the previous Chef’s selection of  nigiris, there was also a piece of tamago that I did regard as a benchmark of its kind. I liked it so much that I ordered 3 of them. As I wrote elsewhere on this blog, even some of the  best mid level sushiyas of Tokyo did not always deliver tamago that have impressed me, although the tamago will always be a matter of personal taste given the different types of tamago you will find at sushiyas. Either the umami flavor is  more present, or it is balanced with the sweet taste of the tamago,  or its focus is on the eggy flavor, etc.  I am fonder of the sweet kind of tamago. Azabu’s tamago is of the sweet kind, executed with great finesse, the fresh eggy aroma exciting on the palate, sweet like the one I had at sushi mizutani, as technically well crafted, but bigger in size and which I much preferred  (eventhough Mizutani’s featured a more complex set of nuanced flavors and  eggs of surreal quality) 10/10
13A miso that is a first-rate version of its kind, the taste enriched by the subtle nuances of the remarkable kind of miso they are using. (10/10)
14We ended the meal with some flawlessly textured home made green tea ice cream (for me) and an equally excellent Mochi and Vanilla / chocolate ice cream for her (9/10). I ordered the Mochi for my girlfriend to introduce her to the importance of textures in food for the Japanese.  There was a strawberry that came with her dessert, but I forgot to ask if it also came from Japan. The last time I was in Japan, I did try some of their most celebrated (consequently expensive) strawberries and left unimpressed. They tasted as good as any strawberry anywhere else on planet earth (which is exactly how this one at Azabu tasted like, too).
Pros: Azabu deserves to be considered among NYC’s top tier sushiyas. It is also a proper 1 star Michelin sushiya outside of Japan. Its does not have the tsukiji market in its vincinity but they import their fish from Japan. The knife as well as overall cooking skills  is strong for this  category of  sushiya (comparable to a respectable mid level sushiya if this would be in  Tokyo), the tiny space so cozy, the service genuinely hospitable.
Cons: N/A
15 Overall food rating (categ: top tier sushiya in NYC) 8/10 – Top shelf sushiya in its category.  Just remember that there are two seatings per night (we had our table available till  08:30 pm, therefore i presume that the first seating  is from 05:30pm till 08:30 pm) and that its sushis are of the classic sort  (no experimental sushi here).
What do I think days later: One of the foodie friends who has recommended Azabu told me to expect excellent sushi but not unparralleled one. Azabu was exxellent, indeed,  as they fed me, up to now, with some of the best sushis that I ever had in NYC. As ever, restaurants do sometimes change some items on their menus, as I noticed, in old online reviews, that they once had a tamago similar to a creme brulee at Azabu. I doubt that such tamago would have the same impact as this tamago that deserved my praises, but I can only talk about the food they served me, of which I admired the precise slicing of the fish and assured technique in virtually everything (marinating, smoking, coaxing delicious flavors, etc). Based on what I came to expect from a 1 star Michelin sushiya outside of Japan, Azabu did impress by not sticking to a safe/correct performance as it is so common at the big majority of eateries in North America. This was clearly the work of skilled Chefs with their personal imprint rather than some dudes replicating whatever someone else has asked them to simply replicate properly. Sushi Azabu also knows how to make the experience of a diner enjoyable, as, to take an example, there is no need for all parties of the same table to partake in a tasting menu. I can have my tasting menu while my girlfriend enjoys whatever she wants to eat. And here, there was not one single rotten apple that happened to find his way in the service with the sole intent of ruining your appreciation of the dining experience and the superb work of the rest of his team  as it was the  case during my last visit at another 1 star Michelin, Torishin. Was my foodie friend right when he mentioned that Azabu was not unparralled? If you find a 1 star Michelin that is unparralled, then it is a 3 star Michelin. Lol.  Unparralled is what you should expect at a 3 star Michelin, not 1, and yet a fraction of the 3 stars are unparralled. I loved sushi Azabu.

Pierre Gagnaire, Paris

Posted: November 11, 2015 in 3 star michelin, Best meals, best restaurants in the world, destination restaurant, favorite restaurant, french restaurant, Michelin star, michelin star restaurant, paris, potential of benchmark food, stellar service, The World's Best Restaurants, top restaurant of the world, world class food, world class restaurant
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PG01Event : Lunch at Pierre Gagnaire, Paris
When: Wednesday  November 11th 2015, 12:00
Michelin stars: 3
Addr: 6,rue Balzac, 75008 Paris
URL: http://www.pierre-gagnaire.com/
Phone:  +33 1 58 36 12 50
Type of cuisine: French (classically  French at its core, mostly contemporary in its presentation, at times cosmopolitan  in its work of the flavors, using many  exotical ingredients , though, as it is generally  the case with most 3 star Michelin restaurants in Paris, the kitchen at PG puts the finest produce  from France in the forefront of their cooking).

 

What you need to know is that PG kitchen brigade’s is one of world class quality. There were certainly many exceptional dishes as you’ll see in the account below. Indeed, a top tier French 3 star Michelin anywhere across the globe.

Rating: Exceptional (10), Excellent (9), Very good (8), Good (7)
Overall food rating: 9.5/10 Creative French cooking of the highest level.  Perhaps the cooking of ex Chefs like Jacques Maximin/Olivier Roellinger, or (more recently) Bernard Pacaud / Alain Passard do fit a bit more with what I’d feel comfortable to rate with a 10/10 at this level of French cuisine as I think that Roellinger, Maximin, Pacaud or Passard would have delivered far more exciting versions of the brunoise of vegetables as well as the cucumber soup —– , and although the “ghocchi” and “Cèpes confits, noix, blette paquet” were excellent at what the kitchen was trying to convey (see their respective reviews below), my gut feeling is that the aforementioned Chefs would have replaced them by food items of assertive flavors pertaining to traditional French cuisine – especially Pacaud and Maximin – which, for my taste, is the only way that this meal at PG could have been bettered  .
Regardless,  that is just a personal impression. What you need to know is that PG kitchen brigade’s is one of world class quality. There were certainly many exceptional dishes as you’ll see in the account below.

Service: 10/10
Overall Dining experience: 9/10 Excellent

I am seizing the opportunity of a short trip to  Paris to eat at a 3 star Michelin table that I haven’t tried for over a decade, Pierre Gagnaire.

 

There is a considerable number of  food items served at Pierre Gagnaire. For example, my   starter (untitled  AUTOMNE) will come in   a series of  starters. The same applies to the   main course and  dessert.

I did opt for the A La Carte menu).

PG02The meal started  with two series  of   nibbles (calamari of superb quality marinated in soya, a brunoise of vegetables in a cold soup of cucumber, the brunoise as well as the cold soup were Ok…but I was disappointed that a kitchen brigade of this quality could not deliver a better version of that amuse bouche –  , some cuttlefish ink’s gelée  of spectacular maritime fragrance and a texture designed by the Greek goddess of beauty, Aphrodite, because it was so  pretty to espy,  a superlative lemon paste, an excellent bisque of crab, and many more items – all of great standard at the exception of the brunoise of vegetables in a cold soup of cucumber).  The lemon paste, in particular, had a dazzling taste  which exciting mouthfeel   is hard to imagine even at this dining level.  All in all, 8/10 for the nibbles. Serious  stuff.

My starter was:

AUTOMNE
IMG_3174Cocotte d’aromatiques dans laquelle on fume quelques instants un gros gnocchi au Laguiole – velouté Vert d’automne, graines et pousses de moutarde – Gnocchi on a bed of vegetables. the gnocchi  having the texture of tofu…but in this case, that is not a bad thing at all. Rather a beautiful touch of creativity. I suspect that it is with items like this that some may perceive such meal as uneven (made of ups and downs) since this is certainly not an item designed to wow, but then that would be a complete misunderstanding of what should be expected here: this is a perfectly well conceived  twist on a  piece of gnocchi served with some steamed  vegetables underneath and it was not of the boring kind (both the vegetables and the special sort of gnocchi had vibrant textures and tasted of what they should).  8/10
PG - NOIX DE RIS DE VEAUNoix de ris de veau laquée d’un suc de carotte à l’argouse, pulpe de reine-claude au tamarin – Caramelized sweetbreads that were a  world away from their  tired looking versions, the meaty consistency successful (just the right moist consistency, not mushy) , the overall taken to an even higher level of amazement due to the addition of the tamarind. A dish that could turn into a flop  in the hands of many  kitchen brigades (from the perspective of someone who has cooked with exotical ingredients while understanding the fundamentals of French cuisine, this  is actually a combination that is logical  , but it is also very easy to misjudge the proper quantity of tamarind needed to make such combination exciting)  even at this level, but here it was a demonstration of what a benchmark example of  tamarind mixed with  sweetbreads can look, smell  and taste like. An excellent way of updating a French classic dish. 10/10
PG-Terrine d’anguille au pavot bleu, céleris branches.Terrine d’anguille au pavot bleu, céleri. Gelée de pain de seigle – Quality eel was succesfully paired with celery and a jelly of rye bread. One  of those items which intent is not to dazzle. The intent behind this dish is  to combine  ingredients that most people would not think successful  as a whole  (eel, celeri, rye bread). I have no problem with this   philosophy but in the hands of the majority of cooks it is either a recipe for disaster or an annoying assembly of  ingredients.  Here, you taste that dish and realize that what you just had is a set of matching elements that simply work  really well against all odds.

Infusion de navet daïkon au vin jaune du Jura, écrevisses pattes rougesInfusion de navet daïkon au vin jaune du Jura, écrevisses pattes rouges, oxalis et feuilles de capucine – Crawfish(boiled), daikon radish, white wine, oxalis, nasturtium leaves.  Dazzling contrast  of flavors (sweet/sour/salty) that is technically hard to get this right even at this level. 10/10

PG2 - cèpes confits, noix, blette paquetCèpes confits, noix, blette paquet – I have oftently read that PG takes risks that do sometimes not pay off. This is one of those dishes that could easily be perceived as unsuccessful. Well, as mentioned elsewhere, I do not agree with the suggestion that PG’s cooking is sometimes off. It may not be to one’s taste, but it is certainly not what I would categorize as occasionally faulty. Take this dish: its effect is basically similar to what you’ll get with a juxtaposition of a layer of custard, mushrooms and nuts. All of great quality, for sure, but potentially boring too…??  Now, what about this being a take on the Japanese  Chawanmushi? Not that boring anymore,hein? lol. There are different versions of the Chawanmushi and this one was extremely subtle flavor-wise (some people may even find it bland, but is is not bland…just full of  very  subtle umami flavors) – a take on a perfectly legit  example of the the Chawanmushi.

The main course I chose was AGNEAU (the lamb):

PG- LambCarré d’agneau de l’Aveyron frotté d’origan – the lamb from Aveyron is known for its quality, and this Carré d’agneau did justice to its reputation. Excellent on all fronts: taste, texture, seasoning. A flawless Carré d’agneau. 9/10

Papillons Noirs, datte medjoul, kinjisoPapillons Noirs, datte medjoul, kinjiso – pasta made of black pudding was shaped as butterflies and was served with a mixture similar to chilli paste but without the distracting piquancy. Date palm was added to the dish. This, for my taste,  was sensational (complex middle eastern flavors,  the date palm  blending excitingly well with the  aforementioned chilli paste-alike mixture). It takes a Chef with an incredible palate to create  dishes of this sort.   10/10

Selle en crépine, carpaccio de betterave rouge, betterave blanche au Roquefort.Selle en crépine, carpaccio de betterave rouge, betterave blanche au Roquefort. – The exceptional  lamb from Aveyron made a second appearance. It was paired with a carpaccio of  superlative beets. 10/10

crumble Vert, ails roses sablés, chorizo, cébetteCrumble vert, ails roses sablés, chorizo, cébette – sauteed cabbage, garlic, chorizo was a classic dish but not of  the tired sort,- extremely flavorful. Another exciting dish. 9/10

Soufflé à la vanille de Tahiti, crème glacée Soufflé à la vanille de Tahiti, crème glacée – Finished my meal with a benchmark vanilla soufflé which depth of flavor can only come from eggs and milk of exceptional quality. 10/10

BISCUIT SOUFFLE - CRUS DE CHOCOLATI was less impressed with the Soufflé of chocolate –  , which although generously portioned  and tasting of top quality chocolate was not as exciting as other Soufflé of chocolate I had at lesser restaurants. 7/10

The mignardises at Pierre Gagnaire were also of great standard.

PROS:  They master the fundamentals of French cooking  in a way that few can pretend to, even by the finest 3 star Michelin French cooking standards. Exciting flavors when they cook or reinterpret French classics (Soufflé à la vanille, Crumble Vert/ails roses sablés/chorizo/cébette, Selle en crépine/carpaccio de betterave rouge/betterave blanche au Roquefort). Then, at times, it is possible that you’ll travel to places where  the flavors are   subtle  (the case of Japan, during this meal), but that does not mean the cooking is off. The journey around the globe took me to the Middle East, too and it was a stopover not to forget (Papillons Noirs, datte medjoul, kinjiso).

CONS: The brunoise of vegetables / soup of cucumber was ordinary –the quality of the  produce was great, for sure, but a brunoise of vegetables should dazzle at this level, a cold soup of cucumber too — and that surprised me given the overall fabulous journey.

PG03Bottom line: The kitchen here is helmed by Chef Michel Nave, a 2004 MOF. As most MOFs from the 1990s/2000s, Chef Nave cooking is deeply rooted in Classic French cuisine (meaning the flavors are generally intense/rich, the meal marked by the expected consommé/veloutés/mousseline/meringue/marmelade), with, of course, its own twists (twists that obviously make their French food look and feel contemporary) . Here at PG, the creativity they are talking about covers non conventional ingredient combination (by French cooking standards, although, in France, nowadays, this  is is not as unusual as it used to be ), executed with a very high level of technique, top notch ingredients and an exceptional sense of  combining unlikely textures/flavors/ingredients  (many kitchen brigades do try to  blend  unlikely textures/flavors…but they are generally just basically assembling ingredients with little interraction between each other).

What I think days later: A true world class food destination with superb French gourmet food  to match. As with plenty of high end French restaurants, nowadays, PG also explores non French flavors, so ensure you are familiar and do appreciate such flavors too.

Sushi Mizutani
Type of restaurant: Sushi shop
Date and time of the meal: 21-11-2014 11:30
Address: 8-7-7 Ginza | Juno Building 9F, Chuo, Tokyo Prefecture Phone:03-3573-5258
Tabelog: 4.37/5
Michelin stars: 3
Tabelog link: http://tabelog.com/tokyo/A1301/A130103/13016524/

UPDATEDUPDATE:  THIS RESTAURANT IS  CLOSED SINCE  October 29, 2016

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NO PHOTO RESTRICTIONPicture taking is forbidden to normal diners as/per the house, therefore  no pictures were taken. No note-taking neither as I did not know whether that would offend the house’s staff, so I made a mental note of my appreciation of some of the sushi pieces which assessment was determinant in my overall rating of this meal.

***Here are the elements that my overall rating will take into account: (1)How great the quality of the chosen rice stood against what the other sushi shops of this trip have offered  (2)How harmonious or spectacularly bold the work of the seasoning of the rice is achieved while remaining complementary of its topping (3)How delicious and how perfected (temperature/precision of the knife skills/work of the textures) were the sushis compared to the other sushis of this trip (4)How far the sourcing was pushed and how far it revealed a profound understanding of the subtleties of the produce (it is one thing to have top ingredients, it is a different story to pick that precise ingredient from that specific region which on a given point in time will allow your craft to express itself at its best).

Mizutani-san has worked several years at the stronghold of the legendary Jiro Ono (Sukiyabaki Jiro in Ginza), then parted ways and opened his own sushiya which was awarded 3 Michelin stars several years ago. He was among  the very first sushi masters, along with Jiro, to have earned 3 Michelin stars. For those who are ‘allergic’ to Michelin star rating, rest assured that even the local foodie scene holds Mizutani-san in high esteem as his shop has a high score of 4.37/5 on Tokyo’s major  local food restaurant rating web site Tabelog: http://tabelog.com/tokyo/A1301/A130103/13016524/  . Some of this globe’s most experienced diners argue that Mizutani is even better than Jiro but I wouldn’t know as  my hotel concierge could not secure a reservation for me at the legendary Jiro, but Mizutani seemed to fit with what I was looking for:  elaborately crafted classic  sushi pieces by an  experienced Sushi Master of Tokyo.

FOOD REPORT:  As it was the case at Sawada, I did not take notes, fearing that the no photo restriction could also imply that the house would shower me again with other restrictions regarding, this time, perhaps, note-taking. I do not go to restaurants in order to fight with rules, so I took no notes of each single item but I’ll try to remember some of the key elements of this meal, the elements that weight  in my overall score for the food performance .

Sea urchin – The sea urchin,  of top quality as expected , bettered only by the exceptional sea urchin served at Sawada.  Sawada handled their sea urchin exceptionally well to the extent that you’d think the sea urchin was snatched from the floor of the ocean and served immediately. Mizutani’s did not have an intense  oceanic flavor but they were clearly of very  high quality, though of the tiny kind (two types were served: bafun and murasaki sea urchin). 8/10

The common trio of tuna (lean, medium fat, fatty)  ranging among the finest of this trip in Tokyo, their quality  simply startling. If you ever  think that good sushi tuna is just good sushi tuna, well ..NO!  I am not saying this  is a case of Wowness (though, I find  the raves about the Otoro not exaggerated at all;p )…I am not implying that this is  unparalleled— I am just insisting on the fact that the quality of the fish is really really high. Just try most of the medium and low level Sushi shops of Tokyo and you’ll better understand what I mean.  9/10

Steamed abalone showcased some world class seafood steaming technique as the texture of the flesh retained  the nice natural chew of the abalone’s flesh while allowing enough tenderness for palatability, but in a way that’s technically hard to achieve consistently well because timing and exceptional  know-how are as crucial as ever to get to this  sort of toothsome. A benchmark steamed abalone.  10/10

Prawn (8/10) and needlefish  (9/10) nigiris were  tastier than the  versions enjoyed at the other  sushiyas,but prawn killed right in front of your eyes (done at some of the other sushiyas, but not here) always add a “special” dimension that this prawn —although admittedly of the highest quality and execution — was missing .  As for the needlefish, Mizutani-san did sweeten it, on this instance (I have no clue if he always do that), which is usually not a feature I favor with seafood, but this was needlefish of superb quality. Mackerel (10/10) was  superior to  those I had at the other Sushi shops of this roundup, better prepared, better — though not boldly  –seasoned, better handled, better cured (the timing of the curing  simply perfect) than anywhere else.

Gizzard shad  (10/10) is, of course, the common affair of the Sushi Chefs,  a bit like crème brulée for a Pastry Chef, so that is exactly where I want to see the better Sushi Masters to distance themselves from the rest and on this meal, they did just that:  salting and soaking it in vinegar is what all sushi cooks do, but the proper timing and proper know-how are grounds that are  not that easy to cover.   Mizutani covered those grounds, his Gizzard shad tasting  better and fresher than his direct competitors of this trip, and those folks are unarguably  the best sushiyas of the globe , so imagine! And yet, there was still room for a little bit more excitement (nothing that would make me change my mind about its 10/10 score, though) : bolder vinegary flavoring of that Gizzard shad  would have been the ultimate blast, lol.

Squid was of stellar quality, with perfect chew , its looks glamourous (spectacular transluscence), with dazzling chewy texture. Some ppl judge a Sushi shop by the quality of the  tamago. But for me, it  is items like squid, mackerel, gizzard shad that count the most. A benchmark squid. 10/10.  Salt  water eel nigiri is one of those sushi pieces you rarely see offered in its prime, outside of Japan and here in Tokyo, there are clearly many rivers to cross between the salt water eel of the Mid-level  Vs top tier Sushi as the quality of the anago at Sushi Mizutani was only slightly bettered by Sawada and yet, this was a benchmark piece of anago, its tsume sauce as delicious and  carefully prepared as it gets. 10/10

Repeat sushis were the chutoro and otoro nigiris, which were as great as the earlier ones.

The fabled tamago (folded omelette cake), which at first glance looked less pretty than, say, the one I had at Sawada, but tasted far more DELICIOUS! 10/10 for the tamago.

PROS: 1.The most challenging (to handle and  prepare) seafood items were better executed here than anywhere else…that is all I needed to know  2.It is amazing to see a sushiya place demonstrating utmost care in selecting even  the non seafood items like eggs (the secret of his superior  tamago).

CONS: (1) The sea urchin, although of top quality, paled a bit in comparison to Sawada‘s “ocean breeze” sea urchin.(2)At this level, not one single nigiri should crumble under the slightless pressure of my sushi sticks….well, it happened twice, which again is not a major problem….just not what should be experienced at such high sushi mastery. Because, YES…as you would have guessed by now, the craftmanship is of the highest level  (3) Also, this is..as you might expect, dauntingly expensive…so ensure you do really care– this much  — about the quality of your Sushi. I do and did not regret —and even found this to be a bargain compared to another Sushi shop, a mid level one, that did charge me as much for lesser quality sushi —  but you’ll have to keep that in mind.

So,
(1)How great the quality of the chosen rice stood against what the other sushi shops of this trip have offered? At first glance, Mizutani could be accused of playing it safe as the rice seasoning is not strongly vinegared, and if you are not into details, you’ll be tricked into believing that it’s just your common good “nothing special’ sushi rice. It’s certainly not a common /nothing special sort of sushi rice as the work of the texture was generally of a high level of ‘engineering’ (the inside, impossibly soft, the outside is SEMI-soft). I wished I could tell you that we were  ages ahead of the laughable crumbly pieces of sushi that sadly abound at sushiyas outside of Japan …but life always ensures to contradict you, lol: the rice of two nigiris crumbled, to my surprise, under barely no pressure from my sushi sticks. Regardless, this is a work of rice of very high level.

(2)How harmonious or spectacularly bold the work of the seasoning of the rice is achieved while remaining complementary of its topping?
No  strong flavors here, but a focus on anything that most palates would interprete as deliciously rich, for eg the eggs of his tamago is richer in flavor than the eggs of the tamago that’s offered at the other elite sushiyas. His fattier piece of tuna belly had more marbling than the fattiest ones at the other elite sushiyas, the rice tastes a bit rich, not strong, etc. In general, his style allows  an impression of harmony between the rice and the topping.

(3)How delicious and how perfected (temperature/precision of the knife skills/work of the textures) were the sushis compared to the other sushis of this trip? Not as  ultimately  spectacular  in shapes and colors as I’d imagine exceptional sushi to be (Sawada was –overall —  a less convincing meal for me, compared to Mizutani’s, but Sawada‘s sea urchin + trio of tuna were visually far more spectacular than at Mizutani , but certainly close-to perfect. That said, Mizutani has certainly  delivered the most delicious  sushis of this trip. As for the control of temperature, most of the sushis were served following the classic notion of controlling sushi temperature (for eg, rice at body temp, most of the seafood at room temp), and as it seems more and more common with his peers in Tokyo, he would sometimes leave a piece that’s thick in consistency, therefore one that takes a bit longer to reach the temp he deems proper,  resting to hit room temperature (A Sushi Master  does this in frontof his patrons s because he wants  you to  you see how concerned about proper temperature he is  — just adding this because some online reports on this matter have misinterpreted that part, suggesting that it is not normal. This is Normal as some pieces take more time to reach ideal room temp and when it’s not done before your eyes, then they did it in the kitchen ).
(4)How far the sourcing was pushed and how far it revealed a profound understanding of the subtleties of the produce (it is one thing to have top ingredients, it is a different story to pick that precise ingredient from that specific region which on a given point in time will allow your craft to express itself at its best)?
He is the most experienced Sushi Master that I have visited on this trip  and that showed: he knows his produce like few can pretend as he is who digged deeper in the potential of his ingredients, extracting as much as he could from them. He did that and it worked thanks to his  exceptional  skills and long familiarity with the fruits of his soil.

Before my meal at Mizutani, I have heard it all:  better than  Jiro (which,to me, is like comparing a private club to a normal restaurant catering  to a normal public as places like Jiro is…like to hear this  or not…nowadays effectively a private club available only to some happy few)  according to many well-travelled connoisseurs, but also the total opposite (for eg, the suggestion that the work of the rice is  better at  plenty of the lesser Sushi shops in Tokyo  —well,  you may as well suggest that  conveyor belt sushis are better while you’re at it, lol , — or  that the standard of the food seemed to have slipped, etc). Regardless of those contradictory suggestions, I can only trade  in  facts  I know:   the “trickiest” seafood  (gizzard shad, mackerel,squid), those that do require the toughest efforts and sharpest skills, happened to be challenging  in the hands of all the other  Sushi Chefs of Tokyo whose food I have sampled during this trip (some aging their seafood to the point that is not enjoyable/palatable  anymore, so more style than substance,others were so inconsistent or playing it safe….). That is where Mizutani san stood out. The work of the rice is important, and I wished I did not have those two pieces of nigiris crumbling under barely no  pressure, but the more important is that the generally mastered softness of the texture of his rice as well its subtle flavor allowed for a better interraction between the neta and the shari.   For sure, do not expect  miracle,  this is not walking on water,  this is not landing on the moon, this is not saving lives, this is sushi  (generally) perfectly  well crafted  at the highest level possible, so ensure you  sync your expectations to what can realistically be crafted.  It is expensive,indeed, but it all comes down  to one very simple  choice to make: you either feed on tons of average sushis (that you could actually replicate at home with patience, time and practice)  or eat less of those and save for sushis this great. Keep in mind that this is classic sushi , so not for you if you are looking for fanciness.

Overall  food rating9/10  (Category: top tier Sushi shop in Tokyo, World class sushiya) in comparison to my meals, during this trip, at  the other   Tokyo sushiyas. The sea urchin, although of top quality,  left me feeling somehow indifferent (in light of what I am expecting at this level), BUT the most important for me (which explains the well deserved overall food score of 9/10) is that Mizutani-San managed to outperform his peers in many  aspects (deep understanding of the rice/seafood harmony, textures of (generally) benchmark refinement by world class sushi standards ).  Deserving (in general) of  its great reputation, I thought.

01What do I think a week later: To the contrary of what is widely suggested online, the majority of Sushi shops in Tokyo (from the mid level Sushi to the lower end) are generally NOT that superior to a good Sushi shop in Canada or the US. They do have a wider variety of seafood but nothing much. The top tier (which is no more than acouple of Sushi shops) Sushi shops are those that truely standout with a quality of ingredients you’ll have hard time finding outside of Japan. As for the work of  the rice, it is true that there is more thought/care that is invested in it, but much of the praises pertain to urban legend: everytime I hear that a Chef integrated X amount of grain of rice in his sushis…I do discretely take one of his nigiris, run to the gents room and discretely count the grains. It is never even close to the amount of grains advertised. Furthermore, although well done, the work of the rice is not as spectacular as it could be. That said, Mizutani san’s craft is hardly matched outside of Japan.

PS: Few weeks after this meal, Mizutani was demoted from 3 to 2 Michelin stars. I will keep the mention to the 3 stars as the current meal took place when Mizutani  was bestowed with  them.

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Restaurant: Ishikawa
Address: 〒162-0825 東京都新宿区 神楽坂5−37 高村ビル1F
Date and time of the meal: 18/11/2014 17:30
Type of cuisine: Kaiseki
Phone:03-5225-0173
Tabelog: 4.33/5
Michelin stars: 3
URL: http://www.kagurazaka-ishikawa.co.jp/

Ishikawa (1)Kagurazaka Ishikawa is a well known kaiseki house in the area of Shinjuku (Shinjuku is vast, though, so keep in mind that if you stay close to the Shinjuku JR station,  Ishikawa is really NOT in the vincinity….;p). They have been operating for 11 years now. Chef Ishikawa explained that he comes from a part of Japan where the rice is of exceptional quality (yagata?? I am not familiar with Japanese names but it sounded like that), so he plays particular attention to the handling and preparation of  the rice (at a place like Ishikawa, you realize that rice is an ingredient that we, in the West,should  take seriously as great rice is not … just rice, indeed). The service here is world class (couple of waitresses and some few chefs) and the decor tasteful.    I tried to discretely take the pics of my food, discretely I insist  as  Japanese do not like that sort of distraction, especially in such intimate settings (in some of the restaurants that I will visit later on, photo taking is banned— at Ishikawa they are so nice that they won’t tell you anything,  but play close attention at the behavior of the other patrons and you’ll get what I mean ) , so as I usually do, out of respect to the privacy of other diners, I refrained from taking pictures of the room when it was full of patrons.

Ishikawa (2)Kaiseki is my favourite type of Japanese meal for its strong focus on all sorts of seasonal produce. It is also the kind of meal that I do approach with a lot of anxiety (positive / constructive anxiety that is),  because I remember that I, too, come from a country with food of deep and extreme nuances/subtleties/complexity , therefore condemned to be oftenly  mis-interpreted / mis-judged because as diners, we  mostly have no time with how things are supposed to be,  rather interested to expect things to be what we want them to be . I remember, couple of years ago, inviting a long time food journalist/cook/experienced foodie to eat a dish of cassava leaves cooked in coconut milk. A dish of the kind that I like a lot since its description is ordinary, its execution pertains to a totally different registry. In facts, you need to find the proper cassava leaves, cook it for at least 6-7 hrs with the right amount of quality coconut milk (popular in some African cuisines ) and its final taste will depend on your palate and ability to keep enhancing the flavor with as little as coconut milk, water, garlic, onions, salt , your leaves and deep understanding of how fire can impart sublime taste to your food. I ensured that a long time experienced cook, a granny actually, cooked it, because I wanted that friend to start with a version of that dish cooked  by “hands and a palate ” of considerable  experience. That friend/foodie/cook’s verdict on that day was straightfoward: it’s bad, it is just leaves that he  would have boiled, nothing more and that all the attention to details and long time cooking was pure Bullshit. The granny was upset and accused that dude of ignorance.  Both reactions were expected, but  I simply asked my friend to try, as much as he could, to remember that supposedly ‘disgusting taste of simple boiled leaves’ but …since he loves food…. to keep his mind open and give a chance to that dish, wherever he finds it. But more importantly, to do it himself and try replicating that exact memory of taste. 10 years later, this is the dish that my friend admires the most, cooks the most, etc. Of course, this sounds like a fairy tale   — I know, i know …. we are ALL mostly pessimistic by nature,  and tend to be  bored with  nice stories lol — but there’s a reason I brought the “fairy tale” here:  Kaiseki suffers from the same faith…its complexity, its depth, its purpose  is not always  evident, especially for non Japanese palates/tastes.  Even for someone like me who has cooked seriously for almost two decades, and have  studied and practiced a lot with the nuances of Japanese fares for the past 3 years (it was  important for me to spend some time learning/understanding/practicising with one type of cuisine before starting to assess it) , I had to go out of my way in understanding one important element:  the work of the texture and exceptional focus on the details  is for the Japanese leading Chefs far more important than how it is valued elsewhere.

The food report:

Blanched blowfish tossed with Japanese herbs, grated white  radish sauce.  Basically a julienne of  veggies with morsels of blowfish. Tasty, but not a testament to high level kaiseki cooking  ( ordinary for a restaurant of this reputation) as it lacked a sign or two of restaurant quality brilliance (anyone could pull out this sort of ordinary flavors , in an effortlessly way ) . 6/10

Ishikawa (3)

Deep fried shitake mushroom with minced Japanese duck,sliced duck breast, dried shitake mushroom: the quality of both the duck and the mushroom was impressive, but there was more. There was technique (the cooking of both the duck and the mushroom superbly achieved in letting the deep meaty flavor of the duck expressing itself, the mushroom timely roasted so that its earthy flavor is left unaltered while the mushroom is cooked enough and nicely seasoned to spectacular mouthfeel ) and an inspired touch (it is easy to extract decent flavors out of  duck and mushroom, but harder to  get duck and mushroom complementing each other this well. Exciting 10/10

Ishikawa (4)

White miso soup with savory rice cake. The quality of the ingredients continues to be, as I’d expect from a restaurant of this reputation, of the highest order. Such comment also applies to the technical execution of the food: as mastered as it gets ,meaning the balance of flavors is spot on, seasoning judicious (never too salty, never bland). The beauty of great kaiseki cooking is to extract the most out of the least, and that is what they’ve accomplished successfully: deep ,  balanced, delicious  and complex flavors out of a simple rice cake and miso soup. Miso soup is one of those things that escapes attention when done well but which failure you will quickly notice, so it is easy to take such great work of this soup for granted . Excellent Miso soup like this one I was sampling is a rare treat,even in Tokyo, as I came to realise. 9/10

Ishikawa (5)

Sea bream sashimi . I am not too sure what one should expect from seabream. There’s no exceptional seabream flesh, there are just great and bad ones. This was of the great sort. The quality of the seaweed high. As great as ..great fresh seabream flesh tastes.

Ishikawa (6)

Seared Ise Lobster with vinegared soya sauce – quality lobster, one piece served raw (sashimi), the other seared. The quality of an ingredient is always half the battle/ the quality of this lobster was high. There was  a true fresh taste of the sea when eating the raw lobster, which was a reminder that no ordinary lobster was served. Then you had the charcoal grilled piece, which did not fail to remind that quality seafood cooked using a flavor-enhancing cooking method like charcoal grilling does ultimately water the mouth. Delicious as one would expect,the soya sauce is,of course, of the non ordinary sort  8/10

Ishikawa (7)

Charcoal grilled horsehead snapper flavored with salted bonito innards sauce is a technique that I will steal from them as I love charcoal-grilling fish at home (using a hibachi charcoal bbq grill) but I was looking for new ways to enhance the natural flavor of charcoal grilled seafood. Bonito innards sauce is exactly what I was looking for: a distracted palate would think that you’ll get the same palatable impact using just salt .Well,no…there is indeed an impression of  ‘that is easy to replicate’ when flavoring fish with salted  bonito innards sauce, but the level of the  complexity of the resulting flavor is not that easy to emulate. This sauce matched beautifully with the snapper.  Whether it is street food or fine dining, I do not have  unrealistic expectations when it comes  to charcoal grill seafood. I just expect an exceptional understanding of what makes a simple piece of fish ..tasting great! Which is what they did. Superb  9/10

Gluten bread with walnut and dried sea cucumber . The sea cucumber oceanic flavor, striking (in a very very good way). I am usually accused of being very conservative about drying / and or dry-aging seafood, but that is because I find that seafood drying   and/or drying aging is oftently misunderstood (you really need to know which seafood is truely enhanced by such process ). This sea cucumber was timely dried, the exciting mouthfeel and aromas are a testament to its high  quality and this is an instance where drying seafood  adds — rather than substracting — to the pleasure of eating food.  8/10

Ishikawa (8)

Fresh water eel was flawless in all aspects: top quality eel, the tsume sauce highly enjoyable both in texture and taste, the mashed taro packed with vibrant fresh earthy flavors. As it is the case with all the other offerings, the ingredients are complementary BUT in an inspired/thoughtful/witty  way (only the 1st offering tasted and felt like an ordinary assemblage of food items). Flawless. 9/10

Ishikawa (9)

Hot pot of snow crab, tofu and seasonal vegetable. That the ingredients would remain of very high quality was not a surprise anymore,  so it’s in the work of the broth that I had high expectations. They were met: the broth had depth/complexity, its taste exciting.  A world class hot pot, with a benchmark tofu (I am a huge fan of tofu as it is one of those little things that is easy to overlook but that can marvel when executed masterfully ….the tofu,here, impossibly soft, its taste not bold at all and yet so revealing in subtleties) . 10/10

Ishikawa (10)

Steamed rice, seabream paste and pickled vegetables. I won’t rate this dish as my opinion is sadly..biaised.Biaised because the seabream paste was reminescent of our canned tuna in the western world, therefore I am unable to appreciate that seabream paste as I wished … because I can’t genuinely get excited about flavors and texture of this sort. Needless to stress that there is no fault here (it’s one perfect legit version of a  seabream paste), just a clash with a personal perception. What I will do,though,is NOT to overlook the star of this dish, the rice. Again, the Chef seemed to have mentioned Yagata (???) — correct me if I am wrong — as the place of origin of his rice. This, to put it boldly, was spectacular rice with superlative flavor and texture. That he steamed his rice like a master at his craft is not the sole reason behind that incredible bowl of rice  (10/10 for that benchmark rice). At some point, they transformed the dish into their take of the ochazuke dish (combination of green tea/steamed rice) which, on this instance, combined the spectacular rice, a perfect broth, nori, the seabream paste and sesame seeds. The overall was tasty.

Ishikawa (11)

Sweet red beans,Yuzu citrus ager and cream cheese with toasted wafer featured quality red beans which sweetness is not overwhelming but judicious, the yuzu citrus ager flawless in texture and adding necessary acidic balance, the cream cheese is a far better version of the standard cream cheese as its soft consistency coupled with superb lactic mouthfeel did stole the show . It is easy to overlook simple ingredients like those (red beans, cream cheese) as  they are oftently taken for granted, therefore we tend to be uninvolved when we use them. This dessert was a reminder that doing so (underestimating such humble/common   ingredients) is a mistake as cream cheese/red beans/yuzu citrus ager  done this well and tasting this good can be exciting.   8/10

Overall food rating: 8/10 (Category: top tier Kaiseki in  Tokyo)  Kaiseki cuisine (in this case, Chef Ishikawa’s take on it) is very simple in appearance, thefore it can sometimes  gives the wrong impression  that it is hard to get excited about,  but  its  subtleties can  reveal a lot more than what its first impressions may suggest. Ishikawa was about that, and much more: great service , a sense of place, ingredients of the highest quality and more importantly …. a great sense of taste. Ishikawa has an understanding of flavor combination that floats my boat (always that little inspired touch that imparts either surprise or joy in mouth,for eg the rice cake of the miso soup –not the classic texture of rice cake, rather a texture close to marshmallow and it happened to be more effective than the other sorts of rice cakes in its intent to surprise/please. Or a zest of orange skin that tentalized and added a thoughtful kick to the snow crab’s broth ). I loved Ishikawa.

What I think weeks later: That rice, that rice …I do not know if their rice is always that stellar, but the one I was having was like no other rice.