The Fat Duck (Bray, UK)

The Fat Duck
High Street
Bray, Berkshire SL6 2AQ
Dining date: 5/25/12

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I recently attended an extraordinary four-day wedding in India. On the way back, I wanted to capitalize on the fact that I was halfway around the world and stopover somewhere interesting to explore/eat. Options throughout Asia piqued my interest but my friend Shawn proposed that I visit him to spend a couple of days in London with the main reason being to dine at The Fat Duck. He’d been wanting to go but hadn’t had a chance to yet – I didn’t need much convincing.

Opened in 1995, The Fat Duck has become a world-renowned destination (~30 miles outside London), having been bestowed 3 Michelin stars each year since 2004 and being named the best restaurant in the world in 2005 in one particular survey (it consistently held a spot in the top 5 until dropping to #13 in 2012). The chef, Heston Blumenthal, is known for modernist cooking (and a lot of molecular gastronomy) and a wild sense of imagination when it comes to his cuisine. Needless to say, I was very excited for this one – this would be one of those rare meals where I walked in expecting a meal that I would remember for a lifetime. It wouldn’t disappoint.

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The Fat Duck is tasting menu only, around 14 courses for £180. The first thing that came to our table was this trolley filled with cold champagnes. Dining at the Fat Duck seemed like a festive occasion in itself, so we kicked off the meal with a glass.

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AERATED BEET ROOT Horseradish Cream

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The first dish to hit our table was this amuse bouche. Looking kind of like a macaron (and having a texture similar to one), the shell exhibited a strong beet flavor, while a subtle spiciness crept up in the cream.

NITRO POACHED APERITIFS Vodka and Lime Sour, Gin and Tonic, Campari Soda

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Three choices of cocktail aperitifs came next. Some type of powder was frozen tableside with liquid nitrogen, resulting in a light and airy shell that melted once it hit my mouth. I had the campari soda and, indeed, it did taste pretty darn similar to the real thing.

We decided to start with a lighter white and progress to something bolder later in the meal.

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RED CABBAGE GAZPACHO Pommery Grain Mustard Ice Cream

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The mustard ice cream was the most pronounced flavor in this dish, which was both refreshing and mildly spicy. The red cabbage gazpacho itself was sweet, balancing out the ice cream nicely.

JELLY OF QUAIL, CRAYFISH CREAM Chicken Liver Parfait, Oak Moss and Truffle Toast

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I had seen a picture of this dish ahead of the meal and was very curious how it all worked; it’s easily one of the most memorable presentations I’ve ever seen, resembling something like a foggy forest floor. Dry ice is hidden under the grass, and a dense fog billows out as water is poured over. Food-wise, we started with a film that we placed on our tongue – the film gave off a smoky/woody essence on the palate. The two main edible components were the truffle toast and layered quail jelly, crayfish cream and chicken liver parfait. An odd combination of ingredients, but they worked well together to make some delicious savory bites.

SNAIL PORRIDGE Iberico Bellota Ham, Shaved Fennel

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The porridge itself was tasty with a rich creaminess. Tender chunks of escargot were a nice pairing too, as were the thin slivers of fennel. I didn’t think the jamon iberico was too pronounced though.

For the next dish, we had the option of the foie gras from the tasting menu or a special scallop dish that day. Three out of the four of us decided to stick with the foie gras.

ROAST FOIE GRAS Barberry, Braised Kombu and Crab Biscuit

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The foie gras itself was cooked perfectly, topped with a sweet fruity topping. It was good, but I thought the flavor profiles were a bit “typical,” especially considering our previous dishes.

Our fourth did really enjoy his scallop, though.

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MAD HATTER’S TEA PARTY (c.1850) Mock Turtle Soup, Pocket Watch and Toast Sandwich

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Our next dish brought back the whimsy with its tower of sandwiches and a teapot. We were presented with gold pocket watches (presumably the Mad Hatter’s) which were placed into the teapot. We were instructed to stir gently and marveled at how the watch disintegrated and ended up turning the liquid into a sort of rich bouillon. Crazy. A quail egg and some caviar accompanied the delicious soup, which we ate with toast sandwiches….as in, crispy toast in between slices of bread. So cool, and tasty too.

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“SOUND OF THE SEA”

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The assault on our senses continued as a sea shell was brought to our table. A small iPod was in each shell and we listened to sounds of the sea/beach as the next course came. A selection of fresh sashimi including mackerel, halibut and cured abalone were accompanied by tapioca sand and a seawater foam. I can’t say for sure that the sounds elevated the flavors, but this was another fun dish. The fish was good, as was the strong sea flavor of the foam, and I found the texture of the tapioca sand to be addicting.

Given I had flown in from Mumbai this morning (the 7:30 dinner began at midnight Mumbai time), I needed a bit of a pick-me-up. Three espressos definitely did the trick.

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SALMON POACHED IN A LIQUORICE GEL Asparagus, Vanilla Mayonnaise and Golden Trout Roe

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The poached salmon was cooked rare with a surprisingly subtle liquorice flavor. The salty trout roe and excellent asparagus may have overshadowed the salmon itself.

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POWDERED DUCK (c.1860) Blood Pudding, Umbles and Apache Potato Puree

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Our last savory course involved the restaurant’s namesake ingredient (there had to be some kind of duck served in this meal right?). It was a tasty and succulent piece of duck breast, though the skin was disappointingly a bit limp. I enjoyed the potatoes and blood pudding though, and the duck spring roll was a fun way to present the duck, as well as provide texture.

HOT AND ICED TEA

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An intermezzo of sorts, I was very amused by this one. We were advised to drink this as soon as possible and were awarded with distinct warm and cold liquids. Aside from the playfulness, it was a good cup of tea too.

MACERATED STRAWBERRIES Olive Oil Biscuit, Chamomile, Coriander, Jelly and Ice Cream Cornet

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The first dessert was this creation – an earl grey ice cream cone followed by this macerated strawberry dish. The strawberries were very sweet, balanced by a sort of savory olive oil biscuit. Everything on the plate was edible, including the picnic tablecloth look-a-like.

THE “BFG” Kirsch Ice Cream and the smell of the Black Forest

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We progressed into the richest and final dessert of the evening. The server sprayed the aroma of “Black Forest” into the air just as we began to dig in. I can’t say the aroma consciously did much, but the gateau was a good one, with cherry and alcohol notes working in tandem with the chocolate. Chocolate crumble was crucial too in adding just a bit of crunch.

The cheese course supplement was a relatively reasonable £15 (given it was a generous portion); two in our party decided to partake.

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WHISK(E)Y WINE GUMS

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Next to arrive at the table were these gummies. SO cool! These were gummies of various whiskeys (reminded me of the Haribo happy-cola bottles) from around the world. They packed a punch too, having a strong whiskey flavor…as they should’ve. Maybe I was just pretty full or buzzed, but I had a difficult time distinguishing the nuances between the whiskeys.

“LIKE A KID IN A SWEET SHOP”
AERATED CHOCOLATE Mandarin Jelly
COCONUT BACCY Coconut Infused with an Aroma of Black Cavendish Tobacco
APPLE PIE CARAMEL with an Edible Wrapper
THE QUEEN OF HEARTS she made some tarts..

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Lastly, we were left with a bag of sweets. Of course, these were fun and whimsical too, particularly the pop tart-like Queen of Hearts.

I do not hesitate in saying that this was one of the most (if not the most) unique and imaginative meal I’ve ever had. The creativity, the whimsy and the execution of these plates combined to make something pretty extraordinary. Having said that, when people ask if it’s the best meal I’ve ever eaten I don’t think I can say yes to that. While there were a number of delicious dishes, none of them made me think “this is one of the best things I’ve ever eaten.” Still, I thought the meal spanned a wide variety of ingredients and flavors, all of them working pretty well. This was an excellent all-around meal and easily one of the most memorable I’ve had; it’s surely a destination worth visiting when in London.

Full picture set can be found here.

The French Laundry (Yountville, CA)

The French Laundry
6640 Washington Street
Yountville, CA 94599
Dining date: 11/27/11 

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Each year, my dad takes my grandmother and aunt out for their birthdays, usually in December. The food has always been good, with past years being at The Dining Room, Cyrus, Murray Circle, Quince and Masa’s. However, it’s never been this good. I scored a 6-person reservation on the Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend, which turned out to be an ideal time for everyone to go. So, my grandmother, dad, mom, aunt, cousin and I took the short drive up to the Napa Valley. This would be the first trip for my cousin.

It’s been a couple of years since I’ve dined here, but everything felt very familiar. The restaurant has been one of my favorites for some time, and has a sort of sentimental value to me since first dining here seven and a half years ago (I still vividly remember parts of that meal). One thing that has definitely changed is the wine list – now via iPad!

Two 9-course tasting menus are offered daily, $270 each (inclusive of service) – the chef’s tasting menu and the tasting of vegetables. There are a number of options within the tasting menu, as well as various supplements, to tailor the meal to one’s desire. We all opted for the chef’s tasting menu, which can be found here.

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GOUGERES

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This was the first amuse bouche, and a constant among my four visits. Light and airy, they displayed a warm gruyere essence.

BLACK TRUFFLE CROQUETTE

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My mother claimed to be lactose intolerant so as to avoid the cheese course (she’s not). The thoughtful kitchen even substituted the gougere for this croquette. She seemed to be quite pleased with it.

SALMON CORNETS

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This was another staple amuse bouche – salmon tartare was complemented by a light creme fraiche and chives, while the cone added a delicate texture.

Bread service has typically been strong, featuring breads baked down the street at Bouchon Bakery. Two butters were available – an unsalted one from Andante Dairy in Petaluma, CA as well as a salted, extremely creamy butter from the Animal Farm in Orwell, Vermont (ha!).

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2007 Schramsberg, Blanc de Blancs “Cuvee French Laundry”

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“OYSTERS AND  PEARLS” “Sabayon” of Pearl Tapioca with Island Creek Oysters and White Sturgeon Caviar

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The classic; it was as good as ever. The creamy sabayon was rich and played well with the salty caviar. Loved the soft, delicate oysters too. So good.

ROYAL OSSETRA CAVIAR Dungeness Crab, Salsify and Garden Blossoms (50.00 supplement)

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My aunt opted for this supplement and enjoyed it.

VELOUTÉ OF ROASTED SUNCHOKES Royal Blenheim Apricot, French Laundry Garden Kale and Marcona Almonds

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MOULARD DUCK “FOIE GRAS AU TORCHON” Pickled Huckleberries, Candied Orange Zest, Belgian Endive and Chocolate Brioche (30.00 supplement)

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Instead of the sunchoke veloute, I opted for the foie gras supplement. I’m glad I did. The foie gras was rich, creamy and went well with the tart huckleberries. The chocolate brioche was wonderful too, served hot and just oozing chocolate. Three finishing salts were served alongside, which I thought was a bit of an overkill (but I liked it!).

SAUTÉED FILLET OF GULF COAST RED SNAPPER Hawaiian Hearts of Palm, Sultana Raisins, Young Ginger, Cilantro and “Sauce Japonaise”

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NANTUCKET BAY SCALLOPS Long of Naples Squash, Oyster Lettuce, Black Truffle and Pomegranate Reduction

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I went for the red snapper in this choice. It was a perfectly cooked, moist and flaky fish with a slight sweetness from the raisins. Japanese accents were a nice touch too. I tried one of the scallops and they were equally well-executed, with a sweetness from the squash and pomegranate reduction.

2009 Hirsch “San Andreas Fault,” Pinot Noir

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SWEET BUTTER-POACHED MAINE LOBSTER TAIL Bone Marrow, Roasted Romaine Lettuce, “Pommes Maxim’s” and Bordelaise Vinaigrette

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An excellent piece of lobster tail. Cooked gently to just a rare/medium-rare temperature, leaving it very spongy – really nice texture. A bone marrow sauce (!) added a hearty depth of flavor, while some potato puree added some creamy potato to each bite. Wonderful.

A special supplement was available given it was white truffle season. I think I recently read somewhere that Keller stated his truffles were $2,600 per pound this season. Not cheap. For $150, these truffles from Alba could be shaved atop a risotto, tagliatelle or gnocchi. My dad went for the risotto.

CARNAROLI RISOTTO WITH WHITE TRUFFLES (150.00 supplement)

A plate of risotto came out accompanied by a wooden box.

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Inside the box were five incredibly aromatic white truffles of varying size; one was picked up and shaved tableside. What a sight!

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This dish seriously seemed like equal portions rice and truffle. Crazy. Expectantly so, it was a fantastic dish with a perfectly cooked, creamy al dente rice. The white truffle flavor was clear and upfront, elevating the plate to memorable heights.

The rest of us were served an extra dish as well.

WHITE TRUFFLE INFUSED CUSTARD

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This was a very light custard with a subtle white truffle essence. A little bit of black truffle on top added more of the earthy flavor.

SALMON CREEK FARM PORK BELLY “Pain de Campagne,” Red Wine-Braised Cabbage, K&J Orchard Chestnut and Turnip “Mustarda”

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Rich and tender while not being overly fatty, this was a good piece of pork belly. There was a sweetness from the “mustarda” while the braised cabbage added a little body. A good dish, but it wasn’t quite as exciting as the previous few.

2007 Realm Cellars Farella Vineyard, Cabernet Sauvignon

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ELYSIAN FIELDS FARM “SELLE D’AGNEAU” Nantes Carrots, Cippolini Onions, Tardivo Radicchio and Black Walnut Purée

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BROKEN ARROW RANCH VENISON Garnet Yams, Candy Cap Mushrooms, Pecans, Arugula and Bourbon-Maple Jus

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In this choice, I went with the venison. Both the tenderloin and loin cuts were served, and the meat was cooked quite well. Not too gamey at all, it was complemented by some sweet yams and peppery arugula. I tried some of the lamb too, and thought it some of the best I’ve had. Exceedingly tender and succulent, there was a ton of flavor in the meat. I found something in the radicchio to be overly acidic, though.

“NOCTURNES” Medjool Dates, Sicilian Pistachios and Burgundy Truffle “Blini”

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A warm, creamy cheese was served with some blini, while Burgundy truffles were grated on tableside. This added a pretty subtle truffle essence to the grassy, funky cheese. Still, I’m really not a fan of the cheese course, this one included.

FRENCH LAUNDRY GARDEN SALAD

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My mother was served this salad and she loved it, particularly the tiny baby radishes (at center).

PUMPKIN SORBET Granola, Honey-Glazed Cranberries and White Truffle

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This intermezzo was perfect for the season. I liked the pumpkin sorbet, along with the tangy cranberry sauce. The granola added some texture, though I was missing any white truffle flavor.

CARAMELIZED WHITE CHOCOLATE “NAMELAKA” Piedmont Hazelnuts, Toasted Oats and Sour Cherry Sorbet

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“POMMES ANNA” Funnel Cake, “Pruneaux d’Agen,” Rum “Anglaise” and Salted Caramel Ice Cream

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Between these two dessert options, I went for the first. The sweet chocolate was complemented by the sour cherry sorbet and actual pieces of cherries, while some hazelnuts added texture.

COFFEE & DOUGHTNUTS
CHOCOLATE COVERED MACADAMIA NUTS

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I was slightly disappointed to see the doughnuts had become just doughnut holes – they weren’t as moist or impressive as the last time I had them. The coffee semifreddo was still very good though, displaying a rich coffee flavor that went well with the doughnut holes. The chocolate covered macadamia nuts were just as good too, with their addicting crunch and wonderful chocolate-nutty flavors.

MIGNARDISES

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My grandmother wasn’t feeling well, so we took these home. I can’t remember which flavors I tried, but I liked the ones I had.

We also took home a bag of shortbread cookies, dusted with sugar. Delicious too!

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Even after four visits now, The French Laundry continues to be an exciting and delicious meal. The restaurant isn’t quite as avant garde as it used to be, and there aren’t any molecular gastronomy tricks at play; instead, the focus is clearly on excellent ingredients and perfect execution. To that end, The French Laundry excels.  There were a number of standout plates (oysters & pearls, snapper, lobster, risotto, lamb) with few lows, mostly on a relative basis. Service was, as usual, excellent though not without flaws including some miscommunication and imperfect timing on wines. Overall though, this was probably my best meal of 2011 so far. For what it’s worth, five in our party have been to Noma (sadly, everyone but me) and they all preferred this meal.

I thought it worth noting that my grandmother started to feel very sick soon after the pork belly course (and for a couple days afterward). I’m not sure if it was related to any of the food or alcohol, but it will probably prove just as memorable as the rest of the meal.

Joel Robuchon (Las Vegas, NV)

Joël Robuchon
MGM Grand
3799 Las Vegas Blvd South
Las Vegas, NV 89109
Dining date: 3/28/11

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When people ask me what my favorite restaurants are, this one always comes up. I have been here twice before, and they are two of the most memorable meals I have ever had. I’m not alone; the restaurant gets the top rating in almost every culinary publication (3-star Michelin, Forbes 5-star, AAA Five Diamond, 19/20 on Gayot). It even garnered a rare 4-star review from LA Times critic S. Irene Virbila.

The restaurant is unabashedly extravagant, excessive really, starting with a complimentary limousine to the restaurant.

A number of a la carte options are available, as well as a 16-course tasting menu. The restaurant doesn’t necessitate the same menu for everyone, which I thought was really nice. As a result, my mom had a 4-course of her choosing, while my dad and I had the 16-course.

The first thing that came around was this amazing bread cart. Seriously, I’ve seen bakeries with less selection than this.

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The picture isn’t even a full representation – there were more breads on lower shelves of the cart. I didn’t count, but I think there had to be around 20 varieties.

Given that I had 16 courses coming, I had to control myself a little here.

Milk bread (top) and Bacon epi

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Olive oil bread (left) and Gruyere roll

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These were all excellent – I especially liked the bacon bread because of the extra bacon-y flavor. But I also enjoyed the subtlety of the milk and olive oil bread.

Le Citron lemon and basil gelee, anise fennel cream

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There was a bright citrus flavor here from the lemon, balanced nicely by the fennel cream. Just a little bit of basil flavor was a nice touch too – a good start.

Le Cerise cherry gazpacho with sheep ricotta and pistachios

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The gazpacho was slightly tart, but again balanced well with the creamy sheep’s milk ricotta. This was a rather unique meld of flavors, and I liked the crunchy pistachios as well.

Le Caviar green asparagus with lemon balm, delicate seafood gelee topped with smooth cauliflower cream, maki of thin couscous

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This next dish was a trio of Osetra caviar dishes. First was quite simply asparagus with caviar. Perhaps not the most dynamic pairing, but the vegetal quality of the asparagus was an interesting pairing with the salty caviar.

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This was one of Robuchon’s signature dishes of a seafood gelee, cauliflower cream and caviar. Really good. The custard was warm and so soft, with a subtle but present seafood flavor. The cauliflower cream was a nice touch too, especially with the salty caviar.

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Lastly, a play on a sushi roll – looks like something Urasawa would serve. I really enjoyed the crunchy daikon and couscous in the roll, while the caviar really heightened the flavors.

La Noix de Saint Jacques seared scallop, heart of palm in coriander scented coconut milk

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So pretty. The scallop was cooked perfectly, and I enjoyed the broth with flavors from the coriander and creamy coconut milk.

Les Petits Pois light green pea veloute with peppermint on sweet onion cloud

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The ham made the difference for me in this soup. The pea-peppermint  flavor was well-balanced, while the richness of the ham really added some extra depth of flavor. Very good.

Les Crustacés lobster in sake broth with broccoli and nori, baby octopus in saffron rice, truffled langoustine ravioli

This was probably my favorite dish of the night. There were actually three parts – the lobster, baby octopus and the langoustine.

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First, the lobster was cooked well, with a tasty sake broth with a strong sea essence.

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Secondly, this baby octopus on top of saffron rice was very much like paella, though a very well-executed one. The rice was a nice al dente with a vibrant saffron flavor; the octopus was cooked perfectly too, leaving it quite tender.

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Lastly, one of Robuchon’s signatures – langoustine ravioli, here topped with black truffle. Perhaps the best bites of the night, the ravioli was stuffed with chunks of langoustine, which was really tender, sweet and full of flavor. The black truffle added another dimension, with a more subtle earthiness; a haute surf-and-turf if you will. Excellent.

Le Black Cod black cod in daikon bouillon with yuzu

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Compared to the previous courses, this wasn’t quite as exciting. The black cod was prepared beautifully, served with tender daikon and some nice citrus from the yuzu. Well-executed, but I felt I’d had these flavors on the same plate before.

Le Chou crispy fried cabbage with vegetable medley

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The cabbage was really nicely crisped and kind of sweet. The carrots, artichokes and morels were all very good, though I’m not sure the composed dish was greater than the sum of its parts.

Le Volaille farm chicken supreme with foie gras, fricassee of young leeks

6194513300 ede076394f Joel Robuchon (Las Vegas, NV)

There were two parts here – foie gras stuffed chicken and a grilled yakitori-style chicken. I thought the stuffed chicken was a bit dense and not the most flavorful, but the foie gras was very good; meltingly rich and flavorful. The chicken prepared yakitori-style was delicious – tender, moist and just a little smoky.

We requested a side of Robuchon’s famous mashed potatoes (pommes puree) as well – really rich and creamy, these were excellent. Lots of fat, for sure.

6193995647 4acd356d98 Joel Robuchon (Las Vegas, NV)

Les Pousses de Soja risotto of soybeans sprouts, lime zest and chives

6194513376 7f61fe05b6 Joel Robuchon (Las Vegas, NV)

This was an interesting dish – soybean sprouts were prepared in a sort of faux risotto. Instead of rice, the sprouts gave a little bit of a more ‘fresh’ flavor and were still kind of starchy. I’m not sure how they got the richness of a risotto as well, but this was a very successful “low-carb” variation of the dish.

L’Amande light almond panna cotta, tahitian vanilla pineapple

6193995829 2b463759c9 Joel Robuchon (Las Vegas, NV)

This was the first dessert course. The panna cotta was delicious; light and smooth with a good almond flavor. I found the hazelnuts to be a little overpowering though because the almond flavor was so subtle.

Before the next course, a cart of fresh herbs came by. Spearmint, lemongrass and thyme were available for a customized herbal tea. I’d never seen anything like this before, and was super excited to try my thyme-spearmint concoction!

6193996041 c417bbeb2b Joel Robuchon (Las Vegas, NV)

La Framboise fresh raspberries and ginger infused sorbet, crunchy honey tuile

6193995967 40c4f32262 Joel Robuchon (Las Vegas, NV)

The flavors here were reminiscent of strawberry shortcake, only with raspberries. It wasn’t too sweet, which was good, and I thought the subtle ginger flavor in the sorbet nicely balanced the raspberries.

Le Moka – Le Thé escortés de mignardises

6194513664 240a974420 Joel Robuchon (Las Vegas, NV)

Lastly, the mignardises cart came by. The selection was (predictably) rather extensive. I only tried a few here as stomach room was limited.

6194513824 492b7b4e4b Joel Robuchon (Las Vegas, NV)

6194513742 e0966ca3e6 Joel Robuchon (Las Vegas, NV)

Pistachio nougat and chocolate opera cake are centered in each picture; each sweet I tried was pretty good and a nice ending to the meal. I just wonder where they all go once service ends for the night.

Lastly, a bag with the menu, a brochure of the restaurant and a pistachio-pomegranate bread was given to the females…in this case, we got one.

6193996393 f6a98b0481 Joel Robuchon (Las Vegas, NV)

6193996329 bf4e9f635d Joel Robuchon (Las Vegas, NV)

This was an excellent meal. Thinking back though, there weren’t any dishes that were truly amazing, except for maybe the langoustine ravioli and the trio of caviar. For the cost (the tasting menu was $385), I might have expected just a little more. I had very high expectations and it didn’t disappoint, but it didn’t ‘wow’ either. Still, it was definitely a memorable meal – the sheer opulence almost guarantees that. However, I don’t find myself in such a hurry to go back as I do with Urasawa or The French Laundry.