Archive for the ‘destination restaurant’ Category

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 ….

 

 

 

River Café, Brooklyn
Michelin stars: 1
Addr: 1 Water St, Brooklyn, NY 11201, United States
URL: http://therivercafe.com
Phone: 1 718-522-5200
Type of cuisine: American cuisine (Essentially Classic French cooking technique using American ingredients)

RCThe River Café (near the Brooklyn Bridge) is an iconic restaurant which is widely known as one of the most romantic restaurants of New York city. I am usually not a fan of 1 star Michelin restaurants serving classic French cuisine in North America because their cooking hardly leaves any souvenir on my mind, but this was a special romantic occasion and River Café was the appropriate restaurant in this instance.

One unique / truely special romantic restaurant with an exceptional riverfront view over Manhattan, and one that chose not to rest on its laurels as even the food is not an afterthought. This is proper 1 star Michelin French/international/American  cooking.

The meal started with an amuse of Citrus and Olive Oil Poached Squid with Saffron Panna Cotta and sweet pepper Gelee. Pretty to espy and an indication that, although using classic French techniques, the creativity of this kitchen brigade is hard to ignore: the variety of colors is thoughtful, a cube of saffron panna cotta  with some poached squid is not a usual combination of food items at most restaurants, and yet they were complementary. My only regret is that I have familiarized  my palate with strong flavors to the extent that I have hard time appreciating the subtle flavors of this amuse. I won’t rate this amuse as I just do not have the required palate  to appreciate it.
RC2Tuna of prime quality served as a tartare with a layer of thin slices of the fish atop. This showcased a great understanding of how to get the most out of raw fish (well judged seasoning allowing the quality of the fish to be at the forefront while lifting up its natural flavor – I did not ask the staff if they did age the tuna a little bit, so I am not too sure if they did, but that was the effect I had in mouth and it dazzled. Miso/valencia orange/ pickled chili vinaigrette brought necessary complexity. 8/10
RC3Jumbo shrimps, poached to ideal doneness (tender while retaining a nice chew) served alongside a faultless citrus Maltaise sauce. Another display of some serious seafood cooking (superb produce, classic flavor combination but mastered really well) 8/10
RC5Steamed (with meyer lemon) salmon with an inspired  oriental broth (a shiitake mushroom broth that was as vibrant as some of its original Japanese renditions) was delicious, the aromas of the broth exciting and above all, balanced. This was served with jasmine rice. 8/10
RC4Poached lobster was another display of superb produce and great mastery of classic French cooking as the seafood tasted great, its poaching well timed, the classic French flavors enticing. If cooking using classic technique done this well is one’s definition of boring cooking, then I’d rather get bored lol. This came with lobster claw, spinach gratin and lobster infused marinara, squid ink cavatelli pasta (tiny quantity, wished I had more as that was  some great pastas that would not be considered as average in a good Italian restaurant ). 9/10
RC6Milk chocolate soufflé (served with toasted marshmallow, hot fudge, Tahitian vanilla bean ice milk) was risen properly but milk chocolate needs to be exciting at smell and in mouth to leave an impression. As with everything at the RC, this chocolate was of top quality, admittedly, but the soufflé was unexciting for my taste. Furthermore, when I see the mention of “milk”, I want to be blown away by some bold fresh milky fragrance….which was not the case with this dessert.  6/10
RC7Blueberry tartlet was  a proper rendition of the tartlet, the fruits of stellar quality, but the pastry lacking a bit of the exciting buttery fragrance that I prefer when enjoying a tartlet. Actually, this was made of caramelized almond which does  normally express very appealing flavor, but that was not put in evidence  6/10
On web sites like Tripadvisor and Yelp, some reviewers considered that the food at RC was average. I beg to differ. I would need to be totally ignorant of classic cooking (the presentation is contemporary but the food is backed by classic French cooking techniques) or to hate it in order to reach similar conclusion.
Pros: One unique / truely special romantic restaurant with an exceptional riverfront view over Manhattan, and one that chose not to rest on its laurels as even the food is not an afterthought.
Cons: A bit more “pep” (milk should be packed with bold lactic fresh flavor, caramelized almond should have the almond and caramel flavors better expressed, etc) is to be expected from the pastry creations I have sampled on that evening.
Overall food rating: 7.5/ 10 (Category: North american/french/international 1 star Michelin). It may sound harsh to score an overall 7.5/10 for the food after the series of really good savory dishes, but this is a 1 star Michelin, therefore the desserts needed to leave an impression too. They were good desserts, not great enough for a 1 star Michelin. That said, this is proper 1 star Michelin  French/international/American  cooking.  Same applies to the restaurant (in the classic restaurant category , obviously). It is pricey,should I repeat, but above all this is a world class romantic destination.

 

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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 Sawada –
Type of restaurant: Sushi shop
Date and time of the meal: 20-11-2014 12:00
Address:  MC Building 3F, 5-9-19 Ginza, Chuo-ku  Phone: 03-3571-4711
Tabelog: 4.28/5
Michelin stars: 2
URL: http://tabelog.com/tokyo/A1301/A130101/13001043/

NO PHOTO RESTRICTION

Picture 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).


Chef Sawada Koji‘ has long established his credentials as one of Tokyo elite Sushi Chefs, his  Sushi shop  is   a top  rated  restaurant  on Tabelog, Japan’s most important online community for local foodies.  Restaurant Magazine’s web site adding, and I’ll quote: ”’those in the know rank Sawada alongside better-known three-starred joints such as Mizutani and Sukiyabashi Jiro”.  I went there to enjoy the place and despite my generally less than enthusiastic report about the food, I could see why Sawada is highly regarded (It is, at this moment,  one of the  toughest restaurant reservations, as hard as Sukiyabaki Jiro Honten as/per  my hotel concierge — the concierge was ultimately not capable to book me a seat at  Jiro, but Sawada was indeed a really tough reservation ) :  it offers a relaxing journey that most of the other  elite Sushi shops failed to  deliver during this trip, the produce was generally of exceptional mention even by the high standards of its competition.  For those reasons, and only for those,  this dinner was my  preferred  ‘sushi experience’ in Tokyo. Had the food impressed me as much,  this would have been life shattering. This meal at Sawada was one of the last meals of  this trip,  therefore easier to compare to the earlier performances at the other sushi places.

FOOD REPORT:  Quick rundown of some of the many items that were offered (I did not take note of each of them, there were too many and I was  more busy enjoying my food rather than stopping all the time to reflect on them):

The highlights of this long meal (there were far more items than at the other Elite sushi shops) have been the sea urchin, which quality was easily the best of this trip (I have long familiarized myself with all sorts of sea urchin sourced from all corners of this globe and shall observe that those from Hokkaido –which Sawada San did serve of this evening — do rank among the most spectacular examples of sea urchin you’ll get to enjoy at a Sushi shop): Bafun sea urchin (less sweet than some of the finest sea urchin of California, but rich in taste, its vivid orange color so easy on the eyes, the taste divine), Murakasi (This sea urchin of mustard yellow color is one of my preferred sea urchin, its sweet taste so fresh in mouth). 10/10

Another highlight was the trio of tuna, in part because Sawada-san thought about the right way to stand out from his direct competitors: the tuna had more concentrated flavor as he has better aged his tuna. A beautiful touch was that   he did slightly grill his fattiest piece of tuna, where most of  the other elite sushiyas of this trip would offer it raw, allowing for the expected spectacular mouthfeel that rarely fails to come from grilled fat. 10/10

Ark shell clam (Akagai ) was  beautifully sourced (Sawada-san had, in general, the best produce of this trip with some items truly exceptional), elegantly  butterflied in typical upscale Sushi shop fashion. It is in the work of items like the Ark shell clam that you can really appreciate the vast difference between the finer vs lesser Sushi shops of Tokyo as the former’s extra efforts (in refining the texture) is admirable. This was almost as skilfully crafted as at the other elite sushiya of this trip,Mizutani,  the only reason I am not rating it with the ultimate score has to do with the fact that the  salinity of the rice stood, for me, as clashing a bit with the clam     8/10

Salt water eel (anago) tasted great, timely simmered, and its  quality I found even better than at Mizutani  (I won’t stop repeating it: the sourcing, here, is, in general, second to none and we are talking about this globe’s finest Sushi shops, so imagine!! ), Sawada’s preparation putting more emphasis on the natural delicate sweetness of the specimen’s flesh, keeping it simple,  whereas most of the other Sushi shops did add a bit of flavor intensity (for eg, at the other Sushi shops, the Salt water eel would  taste more of the tsume sauce that generally accompanies anago sushi, but at Sawada it’s the taste of the eel that stood out). As I prefer my seafood as unaltered as possible, Sawada’s approach suited me fine. However, I found, again, the white vinegar/salt portion of the sushi rice overpowering in a way that its saline intensity distracted from fully appreciating the salt water eel in its full glory. This was certainly – on its own —a great piece of anago, but it is also a piece of nigiri, which means the interaction between the rice and its topping should have been judicious.  7/10

Cuttlefish – Piece after piece, I was floored by the quality of his produce. As if he has suppliers that even the other Sushi Masters of this trip are not aware of. The quality of the cuttlefish was stellar, this time Sawada-San letting the cuttlesfish expressing itself at its best, the texture soft, the flesh retaining a nice chew. One of the best cuttlesfish nigiris of this trip. 8/10 (could have been a 10/10 had the slicing being as impressive as, say, Mizutani...there was also  the vinegar taste of the rice that clashed a bit with the cuttlefish in a way that it made the cuttlefish/rice blending tasting a tad superficial for my taste, but I’ll forgive  that one…it was lovely, highly enjoyable regardless of the downsides ).

Gizzard shad – Talking about exacting sushi pieces, this is another great example of just that. Gizzard shad is a demanding piece as each step of its preparation, from the curing, its slicing, having to cope with its strong natural flavor, everything should be flawless. It’s a fish that can be as rewarding as it can cruelly let you down. The thing about Gizzard shad preparation is that most won’t notice how great it is when it is well done, but one single mistep and you realize how challenging it can be to work with this fish.  As with all the seafood served during this meal, the Gizzard shad at Sawada was of superb  quality, but the effect of its preparation felt unimpressive to me as it tasted just a tad better than any other average Gizzard shad I have sampled in Tokyo, and certainly less spectacular than the one I had at Mizutani (At mizutani, the vinegar  flavor was so fresh and spectacular that it lifted the taste of the fish to palatable triumph, here the Gizzard shad  did not taste  as exciting) + the slicing of such fish should be precise,  but instead, a big part of the edges was almost dented! I am not saying that it is always like that at Sawada, I would not know as it’s my sole visit here, but that was the case during this meal and there’s no excuse for that at such level. 5/10

Hamaguri clam – The consistency springy as it should as/per hamaguri classic sushi prep standards, but the nitsume sauce a tad cloying and less enjoyable than at the other Sushi shops of this trip. The texture not vivid as those I had at the other shops in Tokyo (obviously a consequence of the prep method he used, which is most likely the aging of the clam). Take hamaguri clam, which in its traditional sushi preparation needs to be boiled. Then smoke it a bit, then let it rest at room temp and you’ll get to the exact same feel of my Hamaguri clam. Again, did he smoke it? age it? I did not ask as I do not want to sound / appear impolite to my Sushi Chef. I have heard about the tendency  of an increasing number of Sushi Chefs to age their seafood, and they do age some of their seafood at Sawada too. Alas, for my taste,  seafood’s texture and flavor is generally —-save for some sparse relevant examples  such as tuna/bonito  —, better expressed raw, especially for sushi. A long time ago, they were aging food because they had no choice, nowadays we find the idea attractive because we basically just love trends. Aging beef is a trend, nowadays, but it has its known limits (is meat still  enjoyable upon, let us say, 80 days ++ of aging??For me as well as for many serious Master tasters, it is not)  which, fortunately, most steakhouses are aware of. Aging seafood is sadly a theme that’s applied in a nonsensical fashion at most Sushi shops (around 90% of the aged seafood I tried at Sushiyas, even here in Tokyo,  epitomized the problem of trends:  too much style, little substance. It is one thing to know what seafood to age, it is disrespectful to the hard work of the fishermen  when you age every single seafood they have proudly ‘snatched’ from the floor of the ocean for you to appreciate the mother of all food –the seafood–  in its full natural glory….. ) . 5/10

Abalone was timely steamed to ideal palatable consistency (tender enough, with a nice chew), but Mizutani did better (7/10), bonito tasted great and was timely smoked although its quality was similar to what I had at the other places and honestly, it’s hardly a challenging piece (7/10), quality mackerel but which marination and seasoning failed at lifting its powerful flavor to the heights of palatable enjoyment attained at the other sushiyas (another exacting item where the genius expected at such high level needs to make a difference – Mizutani-san nailed this, alas not Sawada-san who had  not just one chance, but twice, as I had a smoked as well as a raw version of this piece of fish), a 6/10 for the mackerel (I had mackerel tasting as great at lesser Sushi shops in both the marinated as well smoked versions),  salmon roe (better than at the  other places 8/10).

Prawn – properly boiled and avoiding the common error to overcook the prawn –yep, I easily caught couple of   sushiyas  making this mistake in Tokyo—, BUT not as precisely sliced as Mizutani. Regardless, the quality of the prawn was superior at Sawada.  9/10

Omelette’s based cake (Tamago) in its ‘ sponge cake’ version – The elite sushiyas of Tokyo had in common this feature that  the refinement of their   tamagos is   simply unmatched outside of Japan.  But even better, the 2nd tier sushiyas that I  did visit in Tokyo  barely approached the 1st tier when it comes to  perfecting the texture and taste of the tamago. Excellent  texture and consistency of the cake and I can see why, some ppl,  judge some Sushi Chefs  by the tamago (if you go all your way to perfect such an apparently simple cake, then there is nothing more to add about your obsessive sense of perfection, lol –  A 9/10 for that tamago, but I’d give it a 10/10 had I not been a tad more impressed by the delicious tamago of Mizutani an (to set the records straight, Mizutani’s  tasted better  but Sawada’s had finer  texture).

Pros:  Leisurely and incredibly intimate ambience +  the fabulous sourcing of the ingredients (yeah …even by the high standards of the elite Sushi shops of this trip)!

Cons: At this level, I expect the most ‘challenging’ pieces of seafood, those that rely heavily on the best curing preparation/marination/knife skills/seasoning to express themselves authoritatively. That is exactly what Mizutani-san did. That is not what I have experienced at Sawada.  Furthermore, the precision in slicing seafood items like mackerel, gizzard shad,  and cuttlesfish  is a matter of the uttermost importance at this level. 

So,
1)How great the quality of the chosen rice stood against what the other sushi shops of this trip have offered?  – Shari (sushi rice) comprised of a mix of white rice vinegar, as well as the usual salt and sugar. The problem is that the ratio of the salt was misjudged as the white rice vinegar mixed with the salt did, for my taste, impart  an ‘unatural’ kind of saline flavor to some of the seafood toppings, the anago nigiri being a perfect example of just that. This might sound nitpicking and most won’t play attention at such details, but restaurants of  this level, charging  those prices, do exist essentially for their patrons to be able to appreciate such subtleties (or else, just eat your sushi at any random entry level sushi shop).  Another quibble is that the rice was ‘one-dimensional’ in its construction (firm consistency throughout, on my visit), compared to what the other Elite Sushi shops have crafted, in the sense that the other Sushi shops did oftently offer an appealing (to the touch as well as on the palate) elaborate firm exterior/soft interior contrast that I did not experience during this meal at Sawada.  The sourcing  of the rice is uniformly exemplary at those great Sushi shops of Tokyo, Sawada’s is no exception, but I’ll stand by my observation about the seasoning of the rice and lack of complexity in the sushi rice (shari)’s construction.

(2)How harmonious or spectacularly bold the work of the seasoning of the rice is achieved while remaining complementary of its topping? See previous point #1
(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?
Sawada-san can is certainly talented, or else he would not be considered as one of the best in Tokyo, and there are certainly plenty of other sushi shops in Tokyo that are doing worse . That said, Sawada-san is also considered as a world class  elite Sushi Master. Consequently, I’ll compare my appreciation of  his craft to those standards. And at such, solely on the back of this meal, I did not find his slicing skills to be as consistently precise/impressive as his peers, and I was left with the same impression about  his work of the textures (which were at times glorious, indeed,  but not always). On the bright side, he was consistent in maintaining  a perfect control of  the temperature of his food: during my meal there, he essentially went by the book, which means almost uniformly using body temp for the rice, room temp for the seafood topping. As for the taste, the overall was not as delicious as, say, the consistently mouth watering meal I just had at Mizutani but rest assured that everything tasted good (just not as consistently  delicious  as what came from the kitchen of some of his direct competitors, the mackerel –in particular—should have been the perfect opportunity to storm my palate, as the others did, but it was a non -happening during my visit).
(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)? Even by the already exemplary standards of those elite sushi Shops of Tokyo, some of his produce was exceptional.  Some of the other top sushi Masters of Tokyo can envy him for his beautiful produce. But for me, during this meal, he generally failed at extracting the most out of  his  exceptional produce in a way that his direct competition has managed to do,  during this trip.

””The sourcing is world class, but in the end, my meal at Sawada did not manage to leave an impression in the way that Mizutani did. To the contrary of many people, I do not mind Genius cooking (which is what sushi performance of this level, price tag and world class reputation, is supposed to be – Genius, in this case,  meaning an overall craftmanship that’s way above the standards that already exist and NOT some surreal /out-of-context vision of what food can’t be) to follow the course of hits and misses, but it has  to, ultimately, awe  me with an ‘impression of the spectacular’ that is capable to wipe all the misses and dominate the hits. That is what Mizutani-san did. Alas, Sawada-San did not walk in his steps (I was obviously not floored by Sawada’s seasoning + work of the texture of the rice as well as some of his sushis). At least the finer  sushis  managed  to convey how ingenious, often witty, the Master can be in his prime. I just wished he would express it more  consistently. Still, regardless of some of my severe observations, I fully enjoyed my time here and the journey remains one to never forget as the charisma of the Chef, coupled with a sense of place  and exceptional sourcing do  suffice in explaining why Sawada is oftently regarded as one of world’s finest Sushi shops”’. Obviously, and hopefully, my high  rating of  8/10 (see the section ‘overall food performance’) is a testament to my latest assertion.

SAWADA3

Overall food performance: 8/10  (Category: top tier Sushi shop in Tokyo, World class sushiya)  in comparison to the other Sushi meals of this trip to Tokyo (for eg,  I prefered my meal at Sawada to those I had at Daisan Harumi/Sushi Oono/Sushi Sho/Sushi Iwa, but the meal at Mizutani had the edge). The essential is already written above (the section in red), so I’ll just add that  you SHOULD NOT start comparing my score of Sushi Sawada to — to take an example —  the scores of my Sushi meals outside of Tokyo –  we are in a completely different set of expectations and circumstances.

What do I think a week  later: In Tokyo, the ‘sushi shop spectrum’ regulates itself….the best produce are for a handful of elite shops like Sawada,Mizutani, Jiro,Saito. The second tier shops and the rest will  have to fight hard to get good seafood, rice, etc. The huge advantage of Sawada is that a journey under this roof  does  boot with spectacular produce. That, alone, explains why many have been impressed by Sawada.

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.

Event: Lunch at restaurant Le Louis XV, Monte Carlo
When: Saturday September 21 2013, 12:15
Michelin stars: 3
Type of cuisine:  Haute Classic  Provençale (with North Italian touches)
Addr: Hôtel de Paris, Place du Casino, MC 98000 Principauté de Monaco
Phone: +377 98 06 88 64
Url: http://www.alain-ducasse.com/en/restaurant/le-louis-xv-alain-ducasse

ImageI am a bit busy with other things, so sorry for keeping this brief. In a nutshell: I went back to two old personal favourites that I have not visited for many years, 3 star Michelin L’Arpège in Paris ( reviewed here) as well as 3 Star Michelin Le Louis XV in Monte Carlo (current review).

Perhaps the most beautiful old-world interior, for a fine dining restaurant. Certainly a pastry team, a service,  cheeses and bakers of world class mention. But the Louis XV needs to be more assertive with their savoury recipes. Alain Ducasse’s praises of their beautiful produce, eating healthy and natural  is not enough: the savoury dishes lacked  “joy” and whatever the philosophy…if your savoury dishes are  not “festive” in mouth, then what you preach is meaningless to your diners. Alain, I know that    “extracting the most out of the least” is what you hope your Chefs would achieve and that  …  can be  great,  indeed,  as widely demonstrated by the superb “minimalist” savoury dishes in nearby Italy,  but that  was a “distant wish”   during this  visit  at  Le Louis XV (your savoury dishes were not bad, not great neither and certainly not as exciting as what many of your peers are pulling off right now …) –   

 

I was with my wife, so the report will  benefit from  the better pictures (than those of my humble pocket camera) of her more sophisticated camera as well as her additional views. Please find below the usual ‘Pros’, ‘Cons’, Overall ‘food’ and ‘service’ scores.  A month after my meals, I always add  a ‘What I think a month later’ section  that you’ll see completely at the bottom of each of my reviews, so that you’ll get a feel of how my perception of my meal has evolved in time.

ImageThe meal started with their long time offering of crudités (carrots, celery, radish, etc),  typical of  the region as it could remind a bit  of nearby  Nice’s raw vegetables served with an accompaniment of sauce (Nice’s bagna caùda). A fun idea, I have to give that to them, since it showcases the vegetables of the region, but this kind of serving  really shines if the vegetables are going beyond the ordinary: those were as good as any celery or carrot or radish I was sampling all along my stay on the French Riviera.  But the dip  (made of olives and egg, emulsified with oil like a mayonnaise) was a benchmark of its kind, with glamourous texture and a depth of  taste as rich  and as exciting in mouth as it gets. I do not know if that was wowness..I just know that you won’t easily find dips of this level.  It’s for creations of this kind that I go to restaurants.

ImageThey are known for their lovely bread offerings, of which I picked a pain baguette (Yep, I am a huge fan of Pains Baguettes, and do expect them to be at their best on the  grand  tables of France  and this one was no exception  as they have baked an excellent one by the finest artisan Boulanger standards that I am used to, in France 9/10), and tomato bread (7/10 too salty to be enjoyable and the tomato flavor was not as stunning I would have liked).

ImageVelouté rafraichi de courgette trompette, homard bleu court-bouillonné, caillé de brebis – A cold velouté of courgette trompette  (courgette trompette is a type of squash), adorned with a piece of boiled lobster and sheep’s curd. Delicious idea as I have   sampled many exciting versions of this kind of velouté mixed with sheep’s curd, but this dish, although well done as expected at this level of dining, had flavors too discrete  (the velouté, the sheep’s curd, and even the lobster) to make any great impression, for me. The velouté itself would benefit from a richer taste, the sheep’s curd from more expressive milky flavor. Both my wife and I thought that it was designed to not shock ( for eg, the lobster had no aggressive marine robustness so that it harmoniously complements the mild tasting velouté and  sheep’s curd) with strong flavors so that it  reaches out to the most. We respect the harmoniously calibrated flavors but had no fun.  I am not asking for the moon, and do remain very realistic, trust me, …couple of days before, in nearby Nice, a simple bistrot like Bistrot D’Antoine blew me away with food as simple as this.    6/10

ImageCookpot de petit épautre, girolles et jeunes légumes – Cookpot of tiny spelt, girolle mushrooms,  vegetables (radish, artichoke, carrots). It was cooked in a stock of carrots and parsley, some barley added to the mix. Nice sweet/salty sensation, but dishes cooked this traditional way do usually deliver lingering aromas that I failed to enjoy with this serving. For example, parsley and carrots express themselves beautifully using pot cooking techniques, but on this dish  they ended being discrete to my palate.  Again, another classic dish executed properly (there won’t be any technical fault to be noticed here), but a dish like this should be an opportunity for its ingredients to express their deep natural aromas.  6/10

ImageLoup de la méditérannée (seabass) en filet piqué d’Olives, garniture et bouillon d’un minestrone, basilic pilé au mortier – Tasty fish, cooked properly (seasoned carefully, absolutely no reproach about the doneness, temperature) , fleshy as it should and served with carrots, celery,  white beans. 7/10

ImagePoitrine de Pigeonneau des Alpes de haute Provence, foie gras de canard, pommes de terre nouvelles sur la braise, jus gouteux aux abats – The squab successfully rosy, but its taste not as deep  and as exciting as the one I had couple of days before  at L’Arpège. It came with a nicely plump piece of seared foie gras, precisely seared with good grill  marks, but I found it lacking of the full liver flavor of some of its exciting versions. Again, no reproach for the cooking and the quality of the ingredients is great, but such classic dish can and should excite in mouth, which was not the case for me.  6/10

ImageThen the generous cart of top quality cheese – France’s finest tables have that big pressure of having to offer cheeses of world class standard, and Louis XV’s cheese cart is an examplary one. All cheeses sampled showcased respective textures, tastes and body that were  in their prime state. France’s highly regarded cheese-maturer Bernard Antony had his widely praised aged comté available and it is admirable to see how the folks at le Louis XV did justice to his famous cheese with remarkable storage technique and care,   all features that sound simple in theory but that seem to fail in the hands of even very ambitious tables. The piece of comté, I was sampling, evolving onto  expected toasty hazelnut aromas, subtle grassy and toffee notes progressively complementing the rich and complex intensity of the  flavours. This was, in regard to what is expected at its age (3 yrs) , a superb  sample of the comté.  We’ve also enjoyed some superb Fourme d’ ambert, Camembert Jort lait cru as well as  some nearby goat cheeses (which names I forgot since this  was my first time trying them), all cheeses of benchmark mention.

Many years after being blown away by their classic desserts of Baba au Rhum and  Le Louis XV au croustillant de pralin , I did not bother perusing the dessert menu and ordered the two items. My wife (her first time at le Louis XV) does not like Baba au Rhum and she went with a soufflé of apricot.

ImageBaba au Rhum –  Le Louis XV’s version of the Baba au rhum has always been, with regards to the finest ones I had in France (being French, those found in France have naturally   been those I  am the most familiar with, and I won’t hide the fact that I prefer them to any of their other European versions), one personal favourite. It remains as great as the first one I had  here, in 1990, with flawless yeast raised dough, delicate spongy texture, the golden color superbly achieved. In typical Louis XV style, the presentation is an elegant piece of theater with several choices of top quality rhum to chose from, the cake offered in a golden dome . There is no expectations to have over a baba au rhum, a baba au rhum  is a baba au rhum, not an exploration of the moon, but this one remains a benchmark of its kind. 10/10

ImageLouis XV au croustillant de pralin–  A hazelnut biscuit wrapped in  a ganache of dark chocolate. Alain Ducasse’s famous refined take (sort of ) on a chocolate crispy brunch bar. The ganache  having  smooth glamourous texture showcasing great precision from the pastry team, and  the hazelnut mousse airy texture as enticing as I remember it from last time (they do not have the same Pastry Chef as on my last visit, here).  An  8/10 this time.

ImageSoufflé d’Abricot –  Properly risen soufflé, but the sourness should have been better controlled (that was way too strong for the soufflé to be enjoyable ). 7/10 as/per my wife, a score that I share ….. but come to think about it, I’d not be surprised to learn that that bold  sourness is perhaps appreciated by many people. We both are just not  fans of big  sour flavor in soufflés.

ImageChocolate, petits fours  –  This is to be taken with a grain of salt since there’s definitely no matter of serious displeasure here, but I found the chocolate offering, although of   good quality as you might expect from such place, to still not reach the heights it could have in the hands of an exceptional artisan chocolatier, to take an  example. I gather this is  real nitpicking, that it is a restaurant, not a chocolatier,  and it would be stupid to put down the overall appreciation of my meal on the pretext of such observation, but there are couple of 3 star Michelin destinations – even in the US for example, let alone throughout Europe – that are offering a better variety of chocolate closer to what I am referring to.  7/10 for the chocolate (in view of  what I am expecting at this level of dining), but in total fairness, there’s really few 3 stars offering the type of outstanding chocolate  of the level of an exceptional artisan chocolatier. The mignardises left me with almost similar  impression:  good execution and tasting fine of course, but not of the level of, say, the outstanding petits fours I once had at Pacaud’s L’Ambroisie (where concentration of flavor, stunning taste and glamourous definition of textures rivaled each other). It is all in the details, I know, and that is why top dining destinations like Le Louis XV do exist: for the  opportunity to go deep into the details of a stellar dining experience. 8/10 for the petits fours (again, in comparison to what I am used to at this standard of dining).

PROS : One of world’s most richly decorated dining rooms, sublime service, the lovely  experience of being there.  The Baba. The benchmark cheeses.

CONS :  I miss a more personal and authoritative cooking imprint  like I  have sometimes enjoyed from Chefs like Bernard Pacaud, Maximin or Roellinger,  and  at numerous  humble eateries all along the Mediterranean coast, or even here, years ago,  under Cerutti.

Overall food performance: 7/10    Good and properly executed cuisine for this  genre (Classic French/Med), the Ducasse philosophy applied as far as keeping the fares simple and respectful of the ingredients, but this is my favourite type of cooking, so I know well what I need to expect from it, which is deeper expression of the flavors (exactly as many restaurants manage to do with classic cooking of this sort on the Italian riviera or  as Chef Cerrutti  actually did when I was here many years ago)  and that is where I was a bit less impressed. And No, it’s not a case where ‘’my palate may have evolved since that time, so perhaps my expectations are not realistic anymore’’’  (such theory would make no sense: I have just re-visited L’Arpège  after almost the same amount of years of no-show and was still blown away by the fabulous taste of some of their creations).  All in all, my general impression of the  savouries matches an overall score  of  6/10, which is good enough, though not great,  but I found that the pastry team did quite a remarkable job (I was very impressed with the Baba au rhum being as stellar as  over a decade ago, perfected and so delicious, and despite the way-too-sour soufflé and my severe observations on the mignardises, this pastry team has the solid and reliable skills expected at this level) to deserve an extra point for their performance, which justifies the overall  food performance score of 7/10.  That said, it’s hard to reach a wide conscensus with what I am looking for in this type of cuisine, so I can understand why the focus is on flavors that can be acceptable to  the most.

Service: 10/10  They know with whom they can be a bit more formal or casual, while always offering the highest standards of hospitality and being professional. They litterally read in your mind, Lol. A great example of this is when my wife (really not a fan of this kind of grand luxury setting)  revealed to me that upon entering the restaurant she was afraid to feel out of place, but that the behaviour of the staff gave the impression that she was at home, only the decor was far more elegant and she was pampered like a queen, Lol. Everything, in the end, looked normal to her, which says a lot about the genuine effort of this team to adapt to its guests  in a customized manner. I am sure if I’d gracefully ask them to stop holding the chair for me when I return to my table  (I come from an intellectual background that prohibits  admiration for that sort of royal treatment…but of course, I was there dining, having fun, so I was not going to stop them from doing what they are supposed to do ), they’d oblige. Such  is the impression I got: the customer first and foremost  as  they seem to be genuinely opened to whatever may satisfy.

Décor:  Belle époque grandeur, Christofle gold flatware, marble, chandeliers, trolley of bread, trolley of cheese, trolley of herbal teas. I love old world interior designs and architectures, so seating there and admiring this opulent décor was naturally a feast for my eyes.

CLOUIS XV, MONTE CARLO - SEPTEMBER 21ST 2013 - YOUR HUMBLE HOSTonclusion: I may not have been floored by the overall food performance on this specific lunch (remember, nothing was wrong with the food, it is just that I tend to be partial to strong /bold/eventful  flavors like those found in the dip of the crudités or while enjoying my baba au rhum ) , but Le Louis XV is a  dining experience of superlative attributes (stunning decor, world class service, cheeses of the highest standards , choices of wines that will please the most demanding wine lovers and I can go on and on with the qualities).

Added in Oct 2013 – What I think a month later:  Hard to not like le Louis XV, it’s packed with so much charms, so many qualities and it’s an incredibly beautiful restaurant.  And yes, the experience of being there remains second to none!  And hey, it’s the Mediterranean coast, the sun, the amazing views.  It’s also one of the rare places in the world where you can feel the genuine interest of the staff to always improve and please their guests, and they take criticisms really well. They take nothing for granted, which is an extraordinary feature and one that can’t be said of plenty of  restaurants around the globe. Now this: when that velouté arrived at our  table,  my wife  had this to say ‘ah, a velouté, you can’t go wrong with that, this dish will be very flavorful, there is no doubt about this”, to which I added ‘we can’t go wrong with the rest of this  meal neither…look, some sheep’s curd,  vegetable cookpot…obvious signs of deep joyous flavors…’, then we started eating and were both really surprised that the flavors were this discrete. Both my wife and I are not the kind of persons who will look down on what the most do take for granted, so we both do believe that greatness can be achieved with even the simplest food items, we both are opened to the idea that a simple velouté can be stellar even if it’s tough to make a bad one, therefore  this is not a case where the diner attended a meal with the  wrong expectations.  To the contrary,  we are sold to / and are very familiar with classic cooking of this sort and we are not the kind to attend a classical meal with  visions of modern cooking in mind. It’s not even as if we could not  figure out perfect scores for this type of classic cooking neither: I have just (couple of days prior to this meal at le Louis XV) rated  plenty of classic French bistrot  dishes with 10/10 scores, such as the lobster bisque at Bistrot D’Antoine (Nice), the Riz au lait  at Le Casse Noix (Paris), let alone the instances when I’ve never hesitated to score a simple crème brulée with a 10/10 (if it ranks among the finest I ever had, why not? Being simple and classic does not mean that a dish is condemned to be average!). What’s more classic French than those dishes?? And I am French, grew up and spent half of my life in France, so lobster bisque, riz au lait, crème caramel have been for me what a hamburger is to an American. It’s not even the fact that I can’t figure a way to assign a perfect score to classic dishes or meals at the highest  levels of Michelin star standards since I had many meals from Chefs like Jacques Maximin, Olivier Roellinger, Christian Constant, Gerard Besson that I scored with a 10.  Most, if not all of them, not behind the stoves anymore but  within the past recent two years, I still have not lost my ability to keep scoring highly anything that stands out and that is classic haute French or Italian (since the cooking at Le Louis XV is inspired by both type of cuisines):  a  score of  10/10 for a classic meal at Pacaud’s L’Ambroisie, some few 10/10 dishes at  Il Luogo di Aimo e Nadia in Milan (classic), a classic Ravioli di Faraona – Guinea fowl ravioli at Dal Pescatore in Canneto sull’Oglio, and actually, right here at le Louis XV, a classic dessert like the Baba au rhum. I took the time to write all of that as a reminder that this is an instance where the kitchen was booting with an advantage: they had the diners on their side. Later on, someone who knows Le Louis XV told me that he is certain that the less expensive menus would have fared better.  Perhaps, since it is true that sometimes you have  kitchen brigades  that seem stronger on some of their menus, but again, sheep’s curd, cookpot cooking, those are known notions of flavor enhancement.  So impart  more  zing in those savouries (like when Frank Cerutti was in that kitchen; nowadays he is still around in his role of supervising Alain Ducasse’s restaurants in Monaco, while Dominique Lory is the current Chef at le Louis XV) and I’ll be a happy camper, because on the food department, there are highlights that few restaurants around the globe do this well (for eg, that Baba au rhum. If you ever think that it is not rocket science to find a Baba done this well, then  think twice! — For many ppl, the best of the Classic desserts of Alain Ducasse is the croustillant de pralin. To me, it’s the Baba).

Restaurant L’Arpège
Type of Cuisine: French (Alain Passard’s own interpreted classic French cuisine)
Michelin Stars: 3
Event: Lunch on Tuesday September 17th 2013, 12:30
Addr:  84 Rue de Varenne  75007 Paris, France
Phone: 01 47 05 09 06
URL:  http://www.alain-passard.com

 

This meal at L’Arpège could be perceived as a crash or a triumph depending on who you are as a diner. A crash if you think of a restaurant as that robot that’s supposed to read in your mind and feed you with the exact bites you want, which I think would be a naïve approach to dining. A triumph if you understand that a meal needs to be judged on the back of the heights it can reach, not in terms of this is good, that is less good and that is a bit better. Then, there’s also this important observation to make: there’s a reason some restaurants deserve their rank as a 3 star Michelin   (needless to stress that   this is a strong 3 star when it ‘’touches the sky’’’ as it did on that meal. Thinking otherwise would reveal a deep lack in the understanding of what  cooking should  really be about). And that reason is the same that makes a Porsche, a Lamborghini or a Ferrari all well praised cars: the details! You can love or hate them, but it does not matter, as  at the end of the day …they are effortlessly capable of heights, here and there,  that  their peers can only  dream of !

Before getting to the point, just a quick overview of some of the latest main changes in France’s restaurant scene:  as most know, Yannick Alléno has left Le Meurice (this was not a surprise since it was no secret that Chef Alléno was  looking for some new challenge).  It will be interesting to see if  Le Meurice will keep its 3 stars when next year’s Michelin stars will be published (though, according to Gilles Pudlowski, Le Meurice will benefit from Alain Ducasse’s association — click here for that article) . Not that I will miss Yannick Alléno (I am not a big fan of Chef Yannick Alléno), but he at least has proven to be capable of  pulling off   proper French haute 3 star Michelin standards . The legendary Marc Veyrat, a chef that I never had the chance to get to know, made a comeback (See Gilles Pudlowski’s article on the return of Chef Veyrat).

In an article of  Le Figaro about the 2013 Michelin stars of France, the article can be found here, my attention went to a comment from Cath98.  She writes about the elitism of most of those Michelin star Chefs, which is actually not the reason I mention her comment here (people  always think that what others do wrong is  elitism/bad/etc,  then when they  get to replace the wrong ones,  they inevitably end up doing the same thing… but done differently..lol…one elite is always replaced by another..elite,…if you have hard time getting this, think of Fidel Castro –he was reproaching Battista to stick to power..humm….. ). What I found interesting though is her comment about the militant-less attitude of most of those big Chefs.  She is absolutely right: how on earth, do you rise to such heights and have just the average BS speech about terroir/local produce  to content yourself with? I am all for the terroir, have fought for it since my tender age, but we all got this one  by now! In the UK, a chef like  Gordon Ramsay fights for wise fishing (ref: his actions against abusive shark consumption).  So, Michelin star Chefs, especially in France:  ” au violon,  il est temps de jouer  d’autres airs …svp“”!

One last note in the “off-record’ section of this post:  I need to drop a few lines  on one of the best interviews a Chef ever offered:  it is one that Chef Guy Savoy had with Agents d’entretien. You can find that interview here. Guy Savoy has always been a first rate human being, the Mahatma Ghandi of the stoves, a monument of positive vibes  and that review will inspire many, not only those interested in food.

Paris remains one of world’s REAL finest gourmand destinations, indeed – With the incredible exciting gourmand destinations like San Sebastian, Barcelona, San Francisco,  Madrid, Rome, Tokyo, London, Hong Kong,  stunning non upscale food that can be found in Ecuador, Taiwan, Malaysia,  I was starting to fear that my dear Paris just could not handle a candle anymore to its world gourmand competitors.  But the 4 recent visits here is re-assuring:  for sure, if you do no search at all and simply push open the door of whatever eatery you find on your way, you will inevitably be disappointed. Do not forget: this is one of the most visited cities of the globe, so fake cooks abound to grab their  share of the cake.  On the other hand, Paris finest eateries  easily justify  the position of Paris as still a REAL world gourmet destination, and I’ll name a few that have absolutely seduced me recently, on my 2,3 recent visits to Paris:  La Table D’Aki (Chef Aki was the fish cook at 3 star Michelin L’Ambroisie for the past 20 years. He now has his own fish-centric bistrot where the technique remains 3 stars for anyone seriously familiar with the matter, the setting is of the bistrot type and I find the price reasonable given both the quality of the produce and skills . This, for me, along with Bistrot La Marine in Cagnes sur Mer,  is currently the idea of what I have of a #1  seafood French classic bistrot anywhere around the globe), Officina Schenatti (one of the finest Italian bistrots outside of Italy. No surprise here: Chef Ivan Schenatti has been, for a long time, the mastermind behind Emporio Armani’s haute dining. He now has has his own little bistrot with bona fide skills oozing where it should: in the plates. To continue with  the theme of the great Chefs who are enoughly humble and respect their  customers (they are the few remaining GREAT ones who are found where they are expected: in their kitchen  instead of showing off  huge ego by delegating their incapacity to work seriously to name bearers),  I’ll drop a word on the very popular  L’Ami Jean: there is nothing like this anyhwhere else around the globe. YES, it is full of tourists, barely no locals. But who cares?? It is the food, ….! Rfaol! I love Chef Stéphane Jégo rustic food, because when his rustic rich French basque-inspire food is in its prime (not always, based on my experiences there) , it is divinely delicious. That is all that counts for me. The hordes of tourists have obviously got it. And locals do not flock here because it is a bit too $$$ for most French.  I am no exception: it is $$  for  me too, but I’d rather wait and spare a bit of money, eat a great rustic bistrot  meal here, once in a long while,  rather than attending  several  laughable attempts at what a bistrot might be.   L’Ami Jean has its drawbacks and they need to be repeated to anyone that does not know this: it is cramped, it is noisy, it is not the best place for a romantic meal. But I love it!   Another keepers: Restaurant Kei as well as Le Sergent recruteur .   I should not hijack this article on L’Arpège to those findings, but to be brief, other findings that make of Paris one of world’s very best:  Sola (A 1 star Michelin that would be 2 or 3 anywhere else; needless to add more. But what a gem of world class Japanese/French cooking and there is more to this place), the Pithivier of Eric Briffard at Le Cinq (Le Cinq is a real 3 star Michelin that has officially just 2 stars) , the Lièvre à la royale of Pierre Gagnaire/Senderens  (remember:  the best of French classic food being rich by nature, it shines in its full glory during game season).  Nah, you won’t find anything close to those anywhere else.  Last but not least, one of world’s current most talent Chefs, David Toutain, seem to be interested by a return on the food scene.

ARPEGE, PARIS (1)Back to my homeland (France) re-visiting L’Arpège (4th visit only in 15 years),  as well as another 3 star Michelin place that was reviewed later, le Louis XV.

The importance of the ‘gesture’ (IOTG) in cooking has long been pioneered by Chef Alain Passard (no need to introduce Chef Passard, which second grand passions are music and arts/  just google his name and you’ll have plenty of infos on one of France’s most celebrated Chef, whose restaurant L’Arpège – named after the musical technique called arpeggio — has kept its 3 Michelin stars since 1996). What passes as pure BS for plenty of lesser cooks, oftently because they just can’t bother understanding its deep meaning,  is actually one of the most important concepts in cooking: like it or not, the eye, the touch, the feel, the smell  set apart the better Chefs from the lesser ones. Many will tell you that they know all of that, alas few do really have the right eye/feel/smell and touch (which obviously explains why most restaurants have average cooks) and it’s easy, given that you are interested in such details (which I hope you do if you decided to take a chance on such pricey meals) , to perceive a developed sense of those matters:  the end result will always end up as inspired (or not)  as the care and deep ability of its creator to feel/touch/smell her/his produce. Fan or not of Alain Passard, there’s one thing you can’t reproach him:  he is one of the few who genuinely walked the walk when it comes to the subject of the ‘importance of the gesture’ (The IOTG).

 

 

Chef Passard,  with whom my interractions have always been limited to a simply ‘hello Chef’ when he tours the dining room, is a Chef that I have read a lot about.  But if I was a journalist,  I would have some interesting material to cover with him. His genuine passion for vegetables is not just another refrain recited by yet another Chef.  But it’s his views on the IOTG that has always caught my attention.  Of course,  parts of his views on the IOTG can be better understood by himself only:   as an example, the way he moves his hands, the importance of the notion of distance in his movements, those are elements no one else than  himself can really apply. But the IOTG is behind everything you want to do properly: take a tennis player for example. The way he/she moves his/her legs, the way he/she moves her/his arms, therefore the gesture,  plays a significant role in his/her attitude, therefore his/her  game.  Same logic applies to food: the way you cut your meat, carefully or nervously, the way you pick that carrot, carefully or carelessly, the way you cook your food, patiently or hastily, will of course always affect the end result. There is a reason,  in spite of nowadays need for speed, that I still insist on spending time with long hours of carefully slow cooking.

The IOTG goes beyond the ability of  feeling/smelling and having a great eye (essential for a real Chef) for your produce. You need, of course, to also understand the interaction between nature and the produce, you need to deeply understand how one specific ingredient reacts to an array of cooking techniques and temperatures. You need to understand the steps of the evolution of each single vegetable and fruit. You need to do the samething with meats, poultry, fish, etc. You need, and that is essential, to have memory of the flavors that were created before you. Or else, what are you really carrying on? What are you really improving upon? What can you be proud of if there’s nothing you can  refer to ? All things that everyone seems to take for granted, but how many have REALLY proven to be capable of mastering those. How many  cooks have bothered spending their time understanding and mastering the tastes of yesterday? How many really know, master and can reproduce the various traditional versions of a  Lièvre à la Royale?  How many are actually..real CHEFS, present for real in their kitchen? REAL great Chefs are  rare nowadays and we obviously see why.

The reason of the  previous paragraphs is to explain why I keep going back to L’Arpège. Alain Passard is there in his restaurant, away from the syndrome of the fake cooks parading on TV. And he did and still do something simply amazing (again, my admiration for Chef passard has nothing to do with my appreciation of my meals here. I had great as well as less impressive meals here, as anyone can have great and less impressive ones at their favourite restaurants) : applying himself to transmit the real taste of yesterday to his brigade, then building  — on that memory of taste – the creations of today. And they are doing it in an unusual way, their own way. Passard calling it his ‘cuisine légumière’ (they focus more on their work of the veggies than the average restaurants, with the veggies oftently the star, veggies that come directly from his own farms, the poultry or the seafood their equal, in contrast of the big majority of tables where the veggie is usually an afterthought, its presence serving as an accoutrement . Others have called it peasant food (for its mostly bold presentations and pure unfussy flavors) . Call it the way you want, but it is a ‘cuisine  d’auteur’ in which the brigade tries its best to interpret Alain Passard’s soulful vision of classic French cuisine. My admiration for Chef Passard has of course nothing to do with the appreciation of his food (Passard or not, if I value a food item as great or bad, I’ll point it out regardless of who cooked it), it has more to do with the fact that he is among those very few Chefs who are excelling at bridging the past with the present. They have that incredible ability to communicate the ‘uncommunicable”: memory of taste. Last summer, in Milan, I stumble upon another great Chef of this standing: Chef Aimo Moroni. I was impressed to see how Chef Moroni managed to embark his younger Chefs in a genuine mastery of the flavors of ‘yestergenerations’. Which inevitably allows a cuisine that transcends time.  There are less and less of them, those real great Chefs, and they are the last chance for the next generation of cooks to become REAL great Chefs.

THE MEAL

Before the usual vegetable tartlets, the kitchen served a feuilleté of vegetables. A feuilleté with superb airy texture and sublime buttery taste. Carrots,thyme and peppers were the star veggies of that feuilleté.

ARPEGE, PARIS - SUSHI LEGUMIER

Then sushi legumier (sushi of beet ). If you are going to make sushi crumbles  easily like this, better do something else.

ARPEGE, PARIS - OEUF EN COQUE

The serving of amuse bouches continued: Coquetier  liqueur d’érable  (a tiny egg shell filled with a creamy  mix of Xérès vinegar, egg yolk, maple liquor)   sounds way more interesting than what it tasted since  It was dominated  by a  vinegary taste that  overpowered  the best component of  that amuse, the egg yolk. Fresh egg yolk of stunning quality does not need the distraction of superfluous strong vinegar taste. Maple liquor..why not? but the kitchen took no advantage of that component neither, the liquor adding nothing  discernible here. My wife commented that ‘any Oeuf en coque that is this tiny …boots with a visual disadvantage…a sizeable egg opens the appetite ‘. Indeed, it was a tiny egg

ARPEGE, PARIS - VEGETABLE TARTLETS

Seems like the amuse-bouches had no intent to amuse on this lunch: the celebrated vegetable tartlets (filling of mousses of various seasonal vegetables) looking big on photos, but disappointingly minuscule in reality (I appreciate delicate creations…but not to the point of not being able to discern anything) , so tiny (about the size of our Canadian penny, no more than 20mm in diameter) that it was hard to properly enjoy their taste and make an opinion about them.  Even upon deploying tremendous efforts to focus on whatever discernible flavor that was  left, they tasted nothing special as far  as I am concerned. The level of those  amuse-bouches we were sampling on this lunch was weak ( 4/10 for the amuse-bouches)

ARPEGE, PARIS - TOMATES, HUILE DE SUREAU

Then carpaccio of tomato/ huile de sureau.  Finally a dish showcasing  Passard’s cooking philosophy, the one that appealed to me for its  ability to extract the most out of the least. This dish did just that: stellar tomato taste with exciting seasoning (huile de sureau).  9/10

ARPEGE, PARIS - GAZPACHO

Gazpacho de tomate, creme glacée moutarde is an example of creativity (rework of the gazpacho) paired with amazing deliciousness. Not many great kitchens can extract this much excitement from a gazpacho. The mustard ice cream adding incredible depth of flavour, but what amazed me with this dish is that many can copy it, but I doubt that the perfected textures and work of the taste can be reproduced even by the most skilled brigades.  For what it is (a creative gazpacho), this dish is of benchmark material. 10/10

ARPEGE, PARIS - RAVIOLES POTAGERES

Then, their legendary fines ravioles potageres. I read about comparisons with Chinese wonton soups, but  If you cook  both versions (Passard’s recipe is easy to find online) you will quickly realize that they have nothing in common apart the fact that they are boiled pastas. The ultra refined al dente pasta (another thing that you’ll realize when trying to replicate  this recipe is the amount of patience and long practice that is needed, even by professional cooks, to get to this level of precise refinement of both the stock and the texture of the pasta ) is a work of world class precision, and again that is what I call fabulous creativity (not many kitchen brigades would think about proposing ravioles the way they are doing it). The pastas were stuffed with seasonal vegetables, the one with beets tasting really of beets…but the others we were trying could have been whatever vegetable we would want them to be and it would not matter because they had no distinct taste. Furthermore, the taste of the broth (parfum de Melisse, on this instance) was one of such aggressive minerality (like a tisane high on mineral aromas, which means not a pleasant tisane) that I found this dish hard to enjoy. 5/10 (Still, keep in mind that this broth and the content of the ravioles varies a lot depending on the seasons, so there are chances you’ll stumble upon far more enjoyable ones).

ARPEGE, PARIS - AIGUILLETTE DE HOMARD

Aiguillette de homard bleu nuit acidulé au miel nouveau, transparence de navet globe au romarin –  For my taste, most boiled lobsters (this one was boiled), as great as they might be,  can’t hold a candle to the finest grilled ones (for palatable impact) and sweetness (the lobster was slightly honey-flavored) to seafood dish is just another road block on my way to enjoy the marine freshness of the lobster. It was cooked right, as evidenced by the tender flesh of the lobster, but exciting this was not  6/10

ARPEGE, PARIS - SOLE

Sole poached in vin jaune was delicious and its cooking without reproach, the accompanying pieces of octopus not startling, but properly tenderized. 7/10 for the fish (it came with nicely smoked potatoes, chives and cabbage)

ARPEGE, PARIS - CORN RISOTTO

Corn risotto/parsley emulsion is the kind of dish that many ambitious tables will take for granted because it looks simple  and sounds easy to create, but the reality might tell a different story: the stunning corn flavor was enhanced by a balanced and addictive creamy-ness that you can’t just provoke by adding cream to corn. I love this kind of dish since it  lures  into believing that you can replicate it. Yes, anyone can re-create this recipe, but few will be able to replicate the exact depth of eventful flavors of this dish.  Inspired!  10/10

ARPEGE, PARIS - Robe des champs Arlequin a l'huile d'argan

Robe des champs Arlequin à l’huile d’argan, merguez légumière, aubergine d’autrefois, courgette ronde de Nice, carotte white satin is a creatively constructed dish of  semolina, vegetables (beets, tomatoes,carrots), vegetable sausage….  but I was disappointed by a dry vegetable sausage that was oddly sweet and salty in a non appetizing way. The bitterness of the rest of that dish was the other major problem. Not a pleasant dish at all, for me and my wife was even more critical of that dish . 0/10

ARPEGE, PARIS - AGNEAU

Things then took the direction of the finer dishes of this meal: my wife’s T-bone d’agneau de Lozère aux feuilles de figuier, aubergine à la flamme (roasted T-bone of lamb — the image on the left or above, depending on your web browser’s display settings) would be a crowd pleaser at a world class steakhouse (fabulous taste) and my piece of pigeon/cardamom was a benchmark beautifully rosy (ideal doneness) bird with exciting taste. 8/10 for the lamb, 10/10 for the pigeon, but scores will never be high enough to convey the real great pleasure that my wife and I were having with both the lamb and pigeon. Exciting. Also, ppl talk a lot about the beautiful  dishes at l’Arpege, and we were eyeing at an example of just that: the way my wife’s dish was constructed was of unusual  supreme visual appeal  (hard to tell  when looking at that pic, but definitely easy on the eyes in reality).

ARPEGE, PARIS - PIGEON

The pigeon came with white beans that had such an amazing  mid eastern flavour profile.

ARPEGE, PARIS - VELOUTÉ

Red pepper velouté was another benchmark offering of its kind, with superb creamy texture, joyous mouthfeel, the feast went on with the exciting combination of an addictive speck cream. A lesson in the art of taking a familiar dish and turn it into something profoundly inspiring. 10/10

ARPEGE, PARIS - CHEESE

To end the meal, a well kept aged Comte from Maitre affineur Bernard Anthony and a superb piece of moelleux du revard.

ARPEGE, PARIS - MILLE FEUILLE

Then their millefeuille (blackberry ,thyme) which is indeed light and an enjoyable alternative to its classic version (7/10), and a rework of the classic ile flottante that showcased a creative mind but which, for me, suffered from strong coffee flavour (6/10). My wife observed that the classic ile flottante fared better. I personally do not mind this creative take, but it was just difficult to cope with the strong coffee taste.

ARPEGE, PARIS - MIGNARDISES

A plate of mignardises comprised of vegetable-flavoured macarons (not as bad as I had anticipated), the nougat truely delicious, the apple tart shaped like a rose having nice buttery pastry with joyous apple flavour (8/10)

Prosthe young and dynamic sommeliere from the Czech republic.  Her wine suggestions by the glass were  so inspired (2)The superlative delicious pigeon/lamb/corn risotto, benchmark creative takes on the gazpacho/red pepper velouté. All items that many will pretend to be able to easily deliver, but few will really reach  out to the depth and deliciousness of those. Usually, when there are lesser impressive items in a meal, my overall impression is affected, but not in this case. Here my overall impression had just the finest dishes in mind (3)the very approachable and genuine Maitre D’ Helene Cousin. 

Consthe Arlequin robe des champs, lobster, ravioles potageres, vegetable tartlets (though, for the sake of accuracy, it is important to remind  that they do offer different versions of those, so you may be luckier than I was). Also, the gentleman who served most of our meal needs to explain the dishes a bit more, exactly like what Maitre D’ Helène Cousin did when she served the red pepper velouté

MEURSAULT LES TESSONS CLOS DE MON PLAISIRThe wine service:  A section that I add to my reviews when I am very  impressed by the wine service at a restaurant. The behaviour of the sommeliere from the Czech republic  was admirable in all possible aspects: being able to listen, share, never contradicting while making her point whenever necessary, etc. But all of that was done way better than  what passes as the norm for great hospitality standards (Helene Cousin also excels at that, but in the different role of the Maitre D’).  Right upon perusing the wine menu I knew I’d pick the  2008 Meursault  ”Tessons, Clos de Mon Plaisir”  from the domaine Roulot. She had other choices in mind for me as she pointed to amazing little gems that were less expensive and indeed of great quality. But I went with what I had in mind for the most part of this meal, and she never interfered. A first great classy act from her part. This Meursault is a type of  Bourgogne blanc wine that I highly  enjoy for its  balanced acidity/minerality, enticing  nose of ripe fruits, great level of  intensity/complexity. It will continue to age well, there’s no doubt about that, but it’s already a top flight flacon). Me chosing that Meursault was also a trap:  was my sommelière going to be passive and not flag wine/dish pairings that made no sense (it is surprising how many sommelier/e/s even at highly regarded restaurants do fall into that trap)? NO she never fell into that trap! She is a very present/focused/competent  sommelière as she  tactfully intervened whenever necessary.  The way she did that and the suggestions she had is about the difference between a great sommelière (which she is) Vs a standard  sommelier-e. For me, a great wine pairing has nothing to do with showing off pricey wines. It should be about  finding, even among the more affordable ones, the wines that turn into true gems because their pairing to a specific dish is flawless.  It’s exactly what she did.  A world class sommeliere.

Service/Ambience:  Professional.  The younger waiters and waitresses looking very serious, though their youth and energy makes the whole effect not heavy (as in way too serious).  Maitre D’ Helene Cousin truely embodying the concept of L’Arpège — which is the theme  of  a ‘maison de cuisine’, a house imagined by   Alain Passard where he receives his guests in a cosy environment (which explains why you do not have the huge space between the tables / grand luxury, etc…of most of the grand restaurants of Paris) — with cordial and yet professional demeanour. I like this approach of being genuine/approachable (The sommelière from the Czech Republic also followed  this approach faithfully) since it reminds us that, after all, the most important is that the customer is there to have fun.  The only suggestion I would have is  that the gentleman who served most of our meal needs to be a tad more chatty in his description of his dishes. All in all, they are French, I am French, so communication was naturally flawless.

Decor:  The interior decor is oftently described as understated.  But this place is all about details, so the idea, as Chef Passard has  widely explained to numerous medias, is to  replicate the ambience of a house. Thus, no grand formal luxury,  but the apparent understated warmth of the art-deco inspired  home that Passard has imagined for his guests: pear tree wood panels (designed by Jean-Christophe Plantrou) sparsely adorned with  few of his paintings,  some glass etching works, some retro style chrome-armed chairs, ebene de macassar material (this material is elementary in classifying L’Arpège interior deco as Art deco). Passard replacing the usual flowers on the tables, by vegetables.

 

 

Overall food rating (by the highest Classic French 3 star Michelin standards): 8/10**  I was immensely impressed with  the best dishes of this meal which were so inspired  and had such high impact (on my palate) that the lesser items were long forgiven (though, not forgotten…which is the sole reason I am not giving a 10/10 to this meal. Trust me, I am tempted to give that 10, Lol.. but have opted to remain rational)! There are always restaurant meals which finest dishes are  impressive, but this one was  something else.  The heights of this meal, for their  benchmark joyous flavors and superb creativity, will rarely be paralleled. As with any restaurant meal that impresses, I do not know if  L’Arpège can do this all the time. All I know is that the best dishes of this meal I just had, are …. true benchmarks, by any top dining standards and will be remembered as long as my memory serves me right. It is rare that an 8/10 meal delivers dishes far superior to a 10/10 meal (for eg, a flawless high level meal but with no particular heights) and this was one of those rare cases. Soul satisfaction    ***Two months after this meal, I raised the score of my lunch at L’Arpège to a 10/10. It might sound  controversial to assign a perfect score to a meal where many items triggered indifference from my part (the amuse bouches, the ravioles potagères, just to name a few), but at the end of the round, and with hindsight, I was left with a much more important reflection:  even among world’s very best, few Chefs have the  exceptional palate found behind the finest dishes of that meal (referring to the incredible heights of deliciousness of the better dishes that they’ve cooked. And where many would reproduce those simple looking food presentations only to end up with  items of ordinary effect (which happens a lot because many kitchen brigades/cooks simply can’t make the difference between EASY vs SIMPLE), L’Arpège offers plenty of inspired touches to admire  for those with an eye for details.  If such heights would have been the norm I’d play it rough (referring to the lesser dishes), but is is not. It is not the norm. It is NOT! What I like the most with L’Arpège is that they have opted to be different (from the conventional fla fla of luxury dining), NOT  for the sake of just being different because it’s trendy, BUT because they truly are.

ARPEGE, PARISConclusion: I prefer a table that does not rests on its laurels like this one, rather than places where everything is uniformly done well but without soul/inspiration.  The better dishes of this meal were true moments of  divine ‘gourmand’ enjoyment. I’ll also  add this: for me, being creative is doing things the way few are thinking about doing them. The way they have thought their ravioles  (that level of finesse in creating those ravioles  and the thought they did put in working its taste – the fact that I did not like it substracts nothing from the true creativity of that dish — ) has nothing to do with what most ambitious kitchen brigades  would think about doing with a bowl/some pasta/some vegetable and water in their hands. The gazpacho, the corn risotto, the red pepper etc..same thing: easy sounding creations  that tons of kitchen brigades can do, BUT rarely with this level of utter refinement, attention to details, and superlative work of the taste.

For something safe all the way, which is not my thang, this meal (I judge meals, not restaurants) was obviously not perfect. But if for you, the higher highs can potentially …potentially, I wrote…rise to benchmark  levels (the case of  this lunch), then this would be a standard bearing one. My wife argued that despite the benchmark lamb/pigeon and the fact that she highly regards this place as one of world’s finest (especially for its refreshing and successful different approach of French/Cosmopolitan cooking), an 8 over 10 will be an accurate score for  the overall food performance of this lunch.  I think that when your higher highs are far better than restaurants of your rank (which was the case on this lunch), then you deserve a 10/10….but way too many items left me wanting for more on this lunch (lobster, ravioles potageres, arlequin Robe des Champs), which in the end leaves me with the 8/10 as a fair overall score (update November 2013: a score that  has NOT stood the test of time – SEE my addendum, written in red, to the overall score section ) . More importantly, L’Arpège  continues to rank among  the stronger  3 star Michelin destinations around the globe, one of my few favourite.

Added in October 2013 – What I think a month later :   I purposely add this section to all my reviews because there’s of course different stages of the appreciation of a meal.  There is the  ‘right-off the bat’ stage  which is obviously the freshest impressions you have, then of course what you think about it later on. Some people think that you should always wait before  unveiling your thoughts about a meal, which to me is akin to  manipulating reality. It’s one thing to think for a while before making an important decision, but if  talking about the appreciation  of your meal does  require some second thoughts, then I am afraid you are just sharing a portion of the reality. What you’ve read before was my fresh impressions. What you’ll read next is where I stand a month  later: that meal at L’Arpège could be perceived as  a crash or a triumph depending on who you are as a diner. A crash if you think of a restaurant as that robot who’s supposed to  read in your mind and  feed you with the exact bites you want, which I think would be a naïve approach to dining. A triumph if you understand that a meal needs to be judged on the back of the heights it can reach, not in terms of this is good, that is less good and that is a bit better. Then, there’s also this important observation to make: there’s a reason some restaurants deserve their  3 star Michelin rank (needless to stress that for me, this is a strong 3 star when it ‘’touches the sky’’’ as it did on that meal). And that reason is the same that makes  a Porsche, a Lamborghini or a Ferrari  all well praised cars: the details!  If for you a Porsche is simply an assemblage or metal, nothing more, then do not bother with it! You are losing your time. Same thing for this meal at L’Arpège: if for you  that Arlequin of legumes is just a take on the couscous, or those ravioles are just interpretations of wonton soups, please do yourself a favor:  stick to the numerous canteens you won’t fail to find on your way.  Leave those to people who can appreciate the details / thoughts that were invested in those dishes. I do not mean to sound  rude by saying so, just pragmatic as you’d want to constructively tell to anyone who can’t properly appreciate a great song in its full nuances to simply stay away from it. Despite how easy as it sounds (upon reading many reports about their cooking), what I was sampling  takes, in facts,  a lot of training, efforts and skills (it’s one thing you not like a dish, it is another thing to trim it down to what it is not) . When this brigade at L’Arpège performs like  it did on this meal (referring to the finest dishes of this meal, obviously), the analogy I’ll consider is one related to sports, the 100 metres race: this brigade powered through the finish line when many of its peers are still at the starting blocks.