L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon (London, UK)

L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon
13-15 West Street
London WC2H 9NE
Dining date: 5/25/12

l'atelier de joel robuchon exterior

I arrived in London pretty early on a Friday morning upon the completion of a red-eye flight from Mumbai. One of my friends was working and another would be arriving later in the morning, so I was on my own for lunch. After thorough research, I chose this place: chef Joel Robuchon’s lone UK restaurant and a 2-star Michelin.

I’ve been to L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon a few times to two locations: Paris and Las Vegas. The former was one of my most memorable meals to date. While part of me wanted to try something new and London-specific, this branch drew me in. Much of it was due to the casual atmosphere and counter seating; since I was dining alone I felt much more comfortable in this environment.

While I was tempted to do the full tasting, the £125 menu translated to $200, way more than I wanted to spend. Plus, I didn’t want to over-eat; 14 courses at The Fat Duck were waiting for me at dinner. A 4-course £40 lunch option sounded like a pretty good deal for London standards, and much more manageable for my stomach. I put my hands in the server to guide me through some of the restaurant’s more popular dishes.

napkin

Seats at the counter provide a full view of the kitchen (awesome!), a staple at all of Robuchon’s Atelier establishments. I could easily see Executive Chef Olivier Limousin slice off a few slivers of jamon iberico for my first course.

kitchen view1

kitchen view2

foie gras cappuccino

foie gras cappucino

The kitchen sent out an amuse bouche to start with. The light custard inside was pretty light with a strong foie gras flavor. A thin layer of a port wine reduction provided sweetness to complement the rich liver flavor.

les asperges blanches warm salad of white asparagus with nuts and ‘iberian’ ham

les asperges blanches warm salad of white asparagus with nuts and 'iberian' ham

This was an interesting myriad of flavors on a plate from the rich fatty ham, sweet caramelized hazelnuts, peppery arugula and a cool mustard seed vinaigrette. Surprisingly sweet and juicy asparagus was at the center of the mix of well-balanced flavors.

l’oeuf soft boiled egg on a “piperade” with parsley oil

l'oeuf soft boiled egg on a

l'oeuf soft boiled egg on a "piperade" with parsley oil

As expected, the poached egg was cooked perfectly, breaking apart and running over the rest of the plate with a gentle poke. To absorb the yolk, the egg was placed atop a sweet piperade of tomatoes, green peppers and onions. I thought the mix of flavors was a good one, while a little bit of parsley oil provided another dimension of flavor.

le cabillaud roasted cod bouillabaisse style; mashed potatoes; carrots and fennel with tumeric

le cabillaud roasted cod bouillabaisse style

robuchon mashed potatoes

fennel, carrots, tumeric

I went with this cod bouillabaisse as my entree, and the kitchen graciously gifted two additional side dishes. The cod itself was moist and flaky, delicious when dipped into the rich saffron and shellfish-flavored sauce. I loved the mashed potatoes, something I’ve often requested at any Joel Robuchon restaurant. They’re just so rich, creamy and decadent…some of the finest mashed potatoes I’ve had. A vegetable side of carrots and fennel with tumeric was another strong side, making this dish feel almost healthy.

le chocolat-tendance creamy manjari chocolate, bitter chocolate sorbet and oreo cookie crumb

le chocolat-tendance creamy manjari chocolate, bitter chocolate sorbet and oreo cookie crumb

Finally, I went with this chocolate dessert. Layers of chocolate were presented in this cup, with the creamy manjari chocolate at the forefront. There were small crunchy chocolate balls dispersed throughout; I enjoyed the textural crunch but found them to be overbearing at times. Overall I initially liked the dessert but quickly found it slightly one-note and tiring.

In all, I had a very good lunch at L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon. I wouldn’t say it reached the highs of the meal I had at the Paris outpost, but that was a completely different meal (given that it was the tasting menu at dinner). Execution was top-notch and the atmosphere fun and convivial, it’s always fun to be able to watch and interact with the kitchen. It was an excellent start to my stay in London…dinner on this evening would be even better.

Saison (San Francisco, CA)

Saison
2124 Folsom St
San Francisco, CA 94110
Dining date: 12/27/11 

saison signage

Saison may have been my most anticipated meal in San Francisco in 2011. Chef Josh Skenes (Chez TJ, Stonehill Tavern) is cooking very modern French-Californian cuisine using locally sourced (including foraged) ingredients centered around a dining room hearth. A lot of restaurants are doing the local and farm-to-table thing nowadays, but Skenes is bringing a deceptively simple, restrained yet very thoughtful, approach to his food.

hearth

Opened in 2009, it was a SF Chronicle best new restaurant in 2010 and exploded onto the national (international?) scene in 2011. This past year, Skenes and Saison achieved a seemingly endless list of accolades, perhaps none more noteworthy than 2 Michelin stars in the latest guide.

While I happily would have paid full price to dine here, I stumbled upon a LivingSocial deal at the end of October for the full tasting menu & wine pairing for $189 (valued at $246 then, $306 now). I’m typically averse to these Groupon-like deals given annoying restrictions or abbreviated menus, but this deal was for exactly the same menu with the only stated stipulation being that it had to be Tuesday-Thursday. So, I went for it and purchased two.

Unbeknownst to me until the day of (it was my fault for not mentioning the deal when making the reservation), only two tables are able to redeem the voucher per night (Tue-Thu). Given there is a 72-hour cancellation policy of $198pp, I was stuck. I understand it’s the restaurant’s prerogative on how the vouchers are redeemed, but I would’ve appreciated more disclosure on this (there was nothing on the LivingSocial website, the restaurant’s website, or even any mention when the restaurant called to confirm). I don’t know how many vouchers were sold, but allowing two tables per night for three days a week doesn’t sound like easy redemption. Given I don’t live in San Francisco, redemption of the voucher was not reasonably possible and I likely would not have purchased it in the first place. In the end, I was able to plead my case and have the paid value of my vouchers ($189 each) applied to the cost of the dinner, essentially making it a net-zero deal. Still, the damage was done.

Currently the menu lists 8 “courses,” but that’s more of a guideline – the actual number of courses tends to be in the low-teens. That menu is $198 (making this the most expensive restaurant in the city), but there’s also an option to dine on an extended menu at the chef’s counter for $498pp (all-inclusive). However, each seat in the main dining room includes a view of the open kitchen – a nice touch.

saison open kitchen

We started with a trio of egg dishes.

eggs
Domaine Carneros Brut 2007

eggs1

A hearth-roasted chicken gelee was topped with sea urchin, a delicious combination. A subtle but present woody, smoky flavor clearly came through too. Cool, refreshing and a perfect dish to get the appetite going. Quite nice.

eggs2

eggs2b

Next was this shooter of trout roe in tandem with a fried quail egg, mermaid’s hair seaweed, dehydrated shrimp and cornichons. Again, a smoky sea flavor came through in the roe shooter, while the bite provided additional depth of egg/sea flavor, with some texture from the dehydrated shrimp and dried seaweed.

eggs3

Lastly, we had a (large) bite of egg, both well-cooked and soft-cooked, accompanied by smoked creme fraiche, flowers, and greens. Subtle flavors, but a nice play on textures.

Next was the first “off-menu” course.

grilled oyster, cucumber, lemon verbena

oyster

Light and refreshing, it was a good oyster. The lemon verbena added a slight lemon flavor without the tartness or acid.

cru
Donnhoff Riesling, Nahe, Germany 2010 

cru

The first in a duo of dishes featuring bluefin tuna. The meat was pulled apart by an oyster shell, giving it an almost stringy feel to it. Japanese flavor profiles of soy and a rice vinegar added a lot of savory depth to the dish, while some of the tuna fat was roasted in the embers of the hearth, lending more richness. The rice cracker added some fun texture to the bites. A delicious dish.

cru2

The next dish had a lot of components: artichoke, tomato, capers, seaweed vinegar and fried bluefin head. I thought the bluefin got lost in the mix, and also found the dish to be heavy-handed with the salt.

At the conclusion of the course, we received the first bread – kalamata olive bread baked fresh in the hearth (and served piping hot!). Loved that there was fresh bread…it was pretty tasty. Served with a creamy house-churned butter with gray salt.

olive bread

butter

brassicas brassicas, grains, quail egg
Sandhi Chardonnay, Santa Barbara 2010

brassicas

I thought this was another outstanding dish – a play on different textures, greens and grains. I liked the balance of various hearth-tinged vegetables and grains, while a warm dashi broth and quail egg brought everything together.

crustacean lobster tail, meyer lemon creme, compressed aromatics, prawn roe salt
Marisa Cuomo Ravello, Campania, Italy 2009

crustacean

prawn salt

A small piece of lobster floated in a delicious, herbal broth. Some meyer lemon creme added citrus flavor, as well as a little more body to the soup. Deep, savory flavors. The prawn roe salt was fun too.

liver foie gras toffee, milk foam, pomelo
Reutberger Dunkel, Germany

liver

This was an interesting dish, a mad scientist’s experiment creating a creamy foie gras with a clear toffee flavor. Was it sweet? Savory? How about both – and it really worked well.

The second bread out of the oven was this milk bread, also served hot. Definitely less flavorful than the olive bread, it was really light and kind of airy.

milk bread

wood pigeon thirty-eight day aged squab, persimmon, tangerine, pomegranate, huckleberry, chili, olives
Selvapiana Chianti Classico, Italy 2009

38 day aged squab

I was highly anticipating this piece of dry-aged squab; for sure something unique for me. Very chewy, sort of stringy but definitely full of the characteristic squab flavor. Pretty interesting. I’m not sure I preferred it to fresh squab, but I’m glad I tried it. Some fresh winter fruits added sweetness to counter the rich meat, while some chili and olives added extra heat and salty tones, respectively.

Next up was the cheese course.

sheep’s milk cheese, almond croquant, brioche, honeycomb

cheese

The cheese was warm, mild and creamy, filling the brioche…basically like a cheese puff. I liked the use of honey with both the honeycomb and honey-glazed brioche.

preserved lemon 1:27 preserved lemon, chrysanthemum
Domaine d’Orfeuilles Vouvray, Loire, France 2009

preserved lemon

The lemon in this dish was preserved for 11 months; clean flavors and quite refreshingly sweet, I especially appreciated the balance of the chrysanthemum foam.

nawlins chicory ice cream, dehydrated milk foam, new orleans style coffee, beignet
Badia di Morrona Vin Santo 2006

nawlins2

nawlins

beignets

I liked the coffee and chicory flavors at play in this dessert, as well as the texture particularly from the crispy dehydrated milk foam. The deep, bitter coffee flavor was countered by the sweetness in the dessert, while a beignet was a nice touch to complete the dish.

roasted green tea & popcorn ice cream

popcorn ice cream

Reminiscent of Urasawa, here a cup of roasted green tea. Apparently, Skenes likes to end his meals on this tea too. Also, we were served a simple scoop of ice cream. As advertised, it truly tasted like popcorn. Fun!

Lastly, a couple of sweets to end the meal.

blood orange petit four

blood orange

Saison was an excellent meal and one of my strongest of 2011. The food was both creative and interesting and, most importantly, was quite delicious. Skenes is working with, for the most part, familiar flavors and ingredients but creating unique and sometimes unexpected combinations. It’s pretty easy for me to say I preferred the food here to other SF 2-stars Benu and Coi and it impressed me enough that I’d be interested in returning for the chef’s counter.

It’s just unfortunate that the LivingSocial deal detracted so much from the overall experience (just the opposite of its intention); I regret buying it. It kind of spoiled an otherwise great dining experience.

saison exterior

Urasawa (Beverly Hills, CA)

Urasawa
218 N Rodeo Dr
Beverly Hills, CA 90210
Dining date: 6/18/11

Urasawa was the perfect meal to cap off an already-memorable food week, starting with Taste of the Nation, and including a dinner with Thomas Keller at Bouchon. I love this restaurant, and it’s always my response to people who ask what my favorite restaurant in LA is.

sign

I’d been planning a return trip ever since my last visit in September. Even though the price has since climbed to $375 (spurned by the strength of the yen) and worries of radiation persist, it doesn’t look like there’s been a significant slowdown in business. Hiro assured us a couple of times that the Japanese fish he uses comes from the southern part of the country, only. Some varieties come from other places in the world, notably the tuna from Spain.

I can’t say I’ve tried a lot of sushi outside of California, but from what I have had, Urasawa clearly stands above the rest.

We started with a bottle of NV Veuve Clicquot Brut.

veuve

Temaki – seaweed, half cooked shrimp, shiso leaf, plum sauce

temaki

The shrimp was left still raw, leaving a soft spongy texture. The plum sauce lended both sweet and tart flavors.

Seared toro, monkfish liver, caviar, yuzu dressing

toro monkfish liver

Urasawa always has some rendition of this dish. Some of the best things of the sea are combined with terrific results. The richness of the liver and toro are complemented by the cool, acidic yuzu and salty caviar.

Yuba, sea urchin, wasabi, bonito, soy sauce

yuba uni

This was a completely new dish for me. Delicate, with a nice blend of flavors – earthy soy and sesame, as well as bonito and sea urchin from the sea.

plating

Sashimi – toro, red snapper, spanish mackerel, red cabbage, nori

sashimi1

sashimi2

As usual, sashimi comes on carefully crafted ice sculptures, complete with pink or blue flowers (differentiated for male or female diners). This was the first dish where the quality of fish was at the forefront. Really nice examples of each, with the toro being my favorite.

Chawanmushi – italian summer truffles, russian caviar, bonito, gingko nut, shiitake mushroom

chawanmushi

Earth and sea flavors were showcased here, with the truffle and caviar flavors the most prominent. I really liked the silky smooth egg custard too.

I was sitting directly below the A/C so I was freezing during the first few dishes. Unlike the water, hot green tea is “free,” so I went to town on this.

green tea

Tempura squid

tempura squid

tempura sauce

Here was Urasawa’s version of fried calamari, in a way. The tempura batter was expectantly light, and the tender piece of squid was delicious.

Hoba yaki – scallop, prawn, abalone, hoba yaki leaf, egg yolk and miso-based sauce

seafood2

<seafood1

I’m always fearful of food that continues to cook in front of you, as I often find the pieces I eat last have been overcooked. Somehow, that wasn’t a problem here – the seafood was perfectly cooked. However, I found the delicate fish to be somewhat overwhelmed by the mildly sweet, rich sauce.

Shabu shabu – foie gras, king eel, red snapper

shabu1

shabu2

The foie gras was extraordinary. Really…more so than in previous visits for some reason. Urasawa also demonstrated that the king eel is actually eaten bone-in, but that he cuts the bone so thinly you can’t tell. Good for calcium, he says. Afterwards, we sipped on the soup we created.

A green plate and a dish of ginger signaled the start of sushi service, made and eaten one at a time.

ginger

The wine transitioned to a Beringer 2008 Private Reserve Chardonnay. Really liked the upfront oak flavors of this wine, with a sort of vanilla-like finish.

beringer

Toro

toro

We started with a heavy hitter – Urasawa’s toro is the best Ive ever had. Rich and fatty (the color says it all), it was silky smooth and melted in my mouth.

Seared toro

seared toro

This was similar to the previous, though from the collar portion. Again, really tender with a subtle smoky flavor.

Spanish mackerel

spanish mackerel

A little bit of resistance in this mackerel, but still tender and flavorful.

Red snapper

red snapper

I thought this red snapper had a brighter, cleaner flavor. Again, teeth not required.

Bluefin tuna

bluefin

Mmm bluefin tuna.

Skipjack tuna

skipjack

A little bit of chew here, and mild in flavor.

Squid

squid

Similar to the tempura version, there was a delicate chew here, and the fish was brightened by some yuzu citrus.

Shiitake mushroom

shitake

I liked the shitake on this visit better than previous ones. Deep, earthy flavor and good change of pace.

Uni

uni

So good. So soft, with a clean sea flavor. Interestingly, Urasawa used Hokkaido uni for kaiseki dishes, and Santa Barbara uni for sushi preparation.

Chu-toro

chutoro

Back to more tuna with some medium-fatty toro. Silky, soft and delicious.

Giant clam

giant clam

Chewy but not overly so, and not fishy at all.

Shrimp

shrimp

There were probably over a dozen of these small shrimp that make up one piece of nigiri. Soft, sweet, and delicious.

Gizzard shad

gizzard shad

Tender, with a mildly fishy, oily flavor.

Toro, scallion, pickled radish

toro roll

I wish I had a hand roll of this. The delicious toro was heightened by some fresh scallion and crunchy radish.

Abalone

abalone

Chewy and sweet.

Sweet shrimp shrimp brain soy sauce

sweet shrimp1

sweet shrimp2

One of my favorite pieces, prepared fresh from the tank. A delightful mouthfeel with these shrimp, chewy and springy and very sweet.

Chopped spanish mackerel, ginger, scallion, miso, shiso, ginger

mackerel

A lot of complementary flavors and really tasty.

Sea eel

sea eel

So tender, with a nice rich, sweet sauce.

Sponge Cake

cake

Like a very moist cake, this is a nice transition out of the savory sushi and into dessert.

Grapefruit jelly, goji berry, blueberry, blackberry, strawberry, raspberry, papaya

<fruit jelly

Light, refreshing, and tart. I would have liked something here to be a little bit sweeter, though.

Sesame ice cream, black truffle, red bean, gold flake

ice cream truffle

Holy crap. Wow. I’d never seen this before, and it was amazing. The rich, creamy nuttiness of the ice cream really paired well with the earthy black truffles, with just a little bit of sweetness from the red bean. It kind of reminded me of the chocolate sauce that hardens into a shell when it touches ice cream. Except way better.

A bowl of bitter matcha green tea was a perfect pairing.

matcha1

matcha2

Hojicha

tea

Finally, a roasted green tea to finish off the meal.

This meal at Urasawa was another fantastic one. Is it worth the money? I think so, at least once in a while. The food is simple and traditional, letting the high quality of the ingredients speak for themselves. Urasawa’s serious dedication to the craft and affable, humorous personality creates a memorable experience in itself. I’m already planning a return visit, hopefully in January for hairy crab season.

group photo

Spago (Beverly Hills, CA)

Spago Beverly Hills
176 N Canon Dr
Beverly Hills, CA 90210
Dining date: 2/25/11

exterior

Spago has one of the richest histories in LA dining, having been Wolfgang Puck’s flagship restaurant for decades. It used to be one of my favorite restaurants when I first moved to LA; there was something about the upscale Asian-inspired dishes that captured my attention. However, when the first Michelin Guide in LA came out and awarded Spago two stars, I was perplexed. I enjoyed the food, sure, but the cuisine wasn’t as refined and innovative as other two-star restaurants I’d been to.

Enter the tasting menu. I’ve always ordered a la carte in previous visits – when I heard the tasting menu was a very different meal altogether, I knew I had to visit again. Kevin of kevinEats was also looking to make a return trip, so I joined him, Christina of food, je t’aime, Sam of Bites for Me, Diana and Jackie to come try out the tasting menu. In true kevinEats fashion, Kevin requested an extended tasting and the restaurant obliged; what resulted was a 23-course meal with 15 wines to match. Goodness.

We started with seven (yes, seven!) amuse bouche.

Spicy Tuna Tartare in Sesame-Miso Cone

spicy tuna tartare cone

I think you always get this amuse at Spago, one of their signature. It’s a good one, with tender chunks of tuna balanced well with a little sweetness and texture from the sesame miso cone.

Smoked Salmon with lemon-herb blini, salmon eggs

salmon blini

One of Spago’s famous dishes is a smoked salmon pizza. Here we have the house-smoked salmon on top of a blini; unfortunately, I didn’t get too much of the smoked salmon flavor, as I thought it was overwhelmed by the tart crème fraiche and salty salmon eggs.

Hamachi Ceviche

hamachi ceviche

I wouldn’t say there was anything too special about this course, but it was done well. A little bit of citrus and herbal notes complemented the fish.

Toad in a Hole with black truffle

toad in a hole

A very light brioche was filled with a quail egg, and then topped with black truffle. Sounds amazing….and it was! Runny egg yolks work so well with truffles, and this was no exception.

Oyster Gratin with caviar

oyster caviar

The saltiness of the caviar worked well here in cutting through the richness of gratin; the bite as a whole was pretty tasty with the oyster.

Pastrami-Cured Duck Liver Mousse with rye crisp and apple puree

pastrami duck liver

I liked the tandem of the sweet apple and rich duck liver. The rye crisp added just a little bit of texture, as well as a more interesting presentation.

Bacon Confit en Croute with black truffle

bacon en croute

I really liked the smoky, meaty bacon within the flaky dough; however, I found it overwhelmed any black truffle flavor whatsoever.

Pear-Rhubarb Sorbet with jasmine tea

rhubarb sorbet

This was a palate cleanser to signal a transition from the amuses to more traditional courses. The sorbet was interesting – very creamy and sort of floral…I didn’t really care for it actually. The jasmine tea was pretty solid though, as well as the small chunks of crisp, sweet Asian pear floating within.

Crispy Phyllo-Wrapped Santa Barbara Spot Prawns with black bean vinaigrette & Asian slaw
Chablis, Domaine Francois Raveneau, France 2008

spot prawn

This was a standout dish for me. I love fried shrimp so I really liked the light, crispy phyllo dough around the prawn. There was a cucumber flower on the plate (never had this before); when eaten, it tasted just like a cucumber, adding some cool and refreshing crispness.

Sauteed Veal Sweetbreads with onion-mushroom “pastille,” maitake mushrooms, confit bacon, orange-kohlrabi puree
Chignin-Bergeron, Domaine Jean Vullien, France 2009

sweetbreads

I liked this dish as well. The sweetbreads were perfectly cooked with a crispy exterior. A rich pan sauce added depth of flavor, while the “pastille” was a fun way to add some sweetness and earthiness.

Fromage de Tete with truffled red wine sauce & truffle salad
Riesling Spatlese “Eitelsbacher Karthauserhofberg,” Karthauserhof, Germany 2003

fromage de tete

I don’t think I’ve ever had head cheese before, so I had no idea what fromage de tete was at first. The “cheese” was very tender and rich, though the truffles were overwhelmed (again). The paired Riesling, with its mild sweetness, was a fantastic accompaniment.

Seafood-stuffed Sepia with fried calamari
Blanc de Morgex et de la Salle, Ermes Pavese, Italy 2009

sepia

The sepia (cuttlefish) was stuffed with Dungeness crab, which I thought was an awesome idea. The sepia was very tender, and the fried calamari was executed well, providing some crunchy texture as well.

Rye-Crusted Loup de Mer with littleneck clams & lemon butter meuniere
Firmint “Csontos Vineyard,” Bott, Hungary 2009

loup de mer

The fish was extremely moist – perfect. However, the rye added a wheat flavor which I didn’t totally like with it. Still, the fish was very good. The littleneck clams were tasty, though not really cohesive with the dish overall.

Hand-rolled Garganelli with Maine lobster & spring rapini
Pinot Grigio “Alisos Vineyard,” Central Coast 2008

garganelli

The garganelli was a nice al dente, but wasn’t quite as chewy as some of the garganelli I’ve had elsewhere (ie Drago Centro). However, a solid dish with the tender lobster in a tomato sauce.

Handmade Agnolotti with celery root & French black truffles
Lazio Bianco “Coenobium,” Monastero Suore Cistercensi, Italy 2007

agnolotti

The pasta here was wonderful. The celery root added some savory sweetness, while the butter sauce and truffles added some richness and the bulk of the flavor. Very nice.

Duo of Rabbit: Bacon-wrapped Loin and Rack of Rabbit
Lanzarote “Maceracion Carbonica,” Bermejo, Islas Canarias 2008

rabbit loin

We progressed into some richer, meat courses here. Look at the rabbit ribs! I found it a little uncomfortable to eat since I imagined this small bunny rabbit. I didn’t regret eating the meat, though, which was delicious. The loin was wrapped in bacon, which added a little bit more moisture and flavor to the dish. I thought the jus really brought everything together.

Sonoma Lamb Loin with fennel puree and brussels sprouts and black olives
Saint Emilion Grand Cru, Chateau de Candale, France 2006

lamb

Nothing too imaginative here, but this was a solid dish. I like my meats, so I enjoyed this lamb, especially with the fennel puree. It wasn’t as tender as I expected, though.

Slow Braised Short Ribs with Baked Bone Marrow
Cabernet Blend, Rothwell Hyde, St. Helena 2006

short rib marrow

Love the idea of the bone marrow! The short rib was really tender, meaty and rich (though..when isn’t it?). The bone was filled with chunks of marrow and maitake mushrooms, adding even more richness to this dish. A cabernet blend was the ideal wine pairing for this.

Selection of Artisanal Cheeses
Madeira Sercial, Rare Wine Company

cheese

I’m never a huge cheese fan. Given we had 18 courses already and had 4 desserts coming up, I opted to just try a small piece of each. Still not a huge cheese person.

Lemon Souffle and blackberry sorbet
Moscato D’Asti “Bricco Quaglia,” La Spinetta, Piedmont 2010

lemon souffle

Pastry chef Sherry Yard came out to present the first dessert. The soufflé was warm, light and airy and contrasted well with the refreshing fruits and blackberry sorbet.

Kaiserschmarrn
Cuvee Beerenauslese, Kracher, Austria 2006

kaiserschmarrn

This Austrian favorite is one of Yard’s signature desserts. This was very much like a strawberry and pancakes brunch. I liked the dough quite a bit – it was very light with a subtle sweetness from the powdered sugar. The strawberries were okay, though I feel like I’ve had these flavors together dozens of times.

Dobos Torte
Dow’s 20-Year Tawny Porto

dobos torte

This is a rendition of a Hungarian cake, with layers of chocolate and a little caramel. The cake was pretty light, which I liked.

Chocolate Pot Pie

chocolate pot pie

Lastly (finally!), we had this “chocolate pot pie.” I think the top crust was a chocolate puff pastry, which we cracked to find more chocolate, crunchy cocoa-puff-like balls, as well as raspberry sorbet. This was probably the most interesting of all of the desserts.

This meal was the strongest I’ve had here, and I quickly understood the Michelin stars…well, at least one of them. With 23 courses presented, I expected some to be very good and some to perhaps be duds. I wouldn’t call any of the dishes bad, though I found the desserts a little disappointing. My favorite courses were the toad in a hole, spot prawn, sepia, agnolotti and rabbit. Consider my opinion of Spago changed; while I’ve enjoyed my a la carte experience each time, the tasting menu presents a more refined meal worthy of Michelin recognition. Next time, though, I don’t think I need to try as many courses!

SONY DSC

Photo courtesy of kevinEats.

Providence – 6/17/10

Providence
5955 Melrose Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90038

While I had been to Providence only a month earlier, the restaurant’s anniversary promotion brought me and some friends in. During the month of June, the restaurant is offering their 5-course menu for $65 to celebrate their anniversary.

Unfortunately, the menu was hardly different from my last trip. The tasting menu is to be shared among the table, and we were a little pressed for time, so I stuck with the 5-course with one supplement (spot prawns).  The following was the meal, with some of the courses from the vegetarian tasting menu:

amuse bouche – gin and tonic, margarita, cured tasmanian sea trout

This amuse has been a Providence staple for some time. The “cocktails” are always a fun bite, and the cured sea trout, while kind of an odd pairing with the two “cocktails,” is fresh tasting and a good starter for the meal to come.

japanese kanpachi crispy rice crackers, coriander, soy crème fraîche

The kanpachi is a denser fish, and a bit chewy. The rice crackers added a nice crispness, and I thought the coriander really brightens up the flavors.

The vegetarian course was hearts of palm wrapped in asparagus with rice crackers and topped with a tomato.

bobby’s block island scallop japanese eggplant, ramps, reduction of vadouvan and sauternes

This was one of my favorite courses in my last outing, and I was happy to see it again. The scallop is perfectly seared, and fairly rare in the interior. The mild curry sauce, and subtle crunch from the bell peppers and eggplant, really separate this dish from other scallop dishes.

The vegetarian course was a carrot soup/grilled cheese combination. A curry foam and creme fraiche is added to the carrot soup.

salt roasted santa barbara spot prawns live spot prawns roasted in salt, served with spanish olive oil and lemon

We ordered this course a la carte to supplement the 5-course. A pan full of salt comes to the table, and the prawns are carved tableside. Three prawns are carved for each person, and topped with lemon and olive oil. Very simple.

The presentation is pretty impressive for this course. While not overcooked, the shrimp was a little more cooked than I would have liked it (I would call this a medium, compared to a preferred medium rare). I had this dish two trips ago, and it was more closely a medium rare on that trip. However, these were very fresh prawns – clean flavors and a nice sweetness made this dish.

wild halibut smoked paprika, squash, basil bread crumbs

This piece of fish was cooked really nicely.  The halibut was very flavorful, and the basil breadcrumbs were unique and really went well with this dish.

The vegetarian course was a poachaed egg over polenta, topped with black summer truffles, a tomato-bell pepper compote, and a frisee salad.

marcho farms veal tenderloin sweet peas, bacon, almond, and morel mushrooms

This is an exceptional veal dish – extremely tender, and somewhat mild in flavor considering it’s from the tenderloin. The peas, bacon and almonds complement and bring out the flavors of this dish. However, my top piece appeared to be cooked a bit more than the bottom piece. Each of the other diners had a really nice pink in the center, while this was brownish. I’m not really sure why this was, but it was rather irritating, though I don’t think it affected the flavor or tenderness much.

Comparatively, this is what the veal looked like on the previous visit.

yuzu curd, meringue raspberry sorbet, jasmine

The yuzu curd was fairly tart, and the raspberry sorbet added additional tartness. Though, there is a nice crunch from cookie crumbles. However, I find I’m more of a sweets type of dessert person.

Finally, the mignardises.

We were served white chocolate macarons, salted caramel and a chocolate pepper marshmallow. These were all good, and I really enjoyed the macaron. The marshmallow was interesting, with a very subtle peppery kick.

In all, another fairly solid meal, though not quite as good as last month’s. Part of that is probably attributable to having a very similar menu. Service was a little less polished this time around, as bread only came around once (we had to ask a second time) and water and drinks weren’t filled up as quickly as anticipated. Having said that, Providence remains one of my favorite restaurants in the city. I’ve become very critical because I’ve had some really great meals here.

Melisse – 4/22/10

Melisse
1104 Wilshire Blvd
Santa Monica, CA 90401

I’ve been meaning to try Melisse for a long while now. I’ve heard a lot of mixed reviews from friends over the years, and that’s probably part of what’s been holding me back (that, and not having anyone interested in going). However, the restaurant continues to receive very positive reviews all-around. With my friend down to go, it was time to finally try it.

Last year, Melisse celebrated its 10th anniversary. To celebrate, they offered a 10-course “signature dishes” menu in July 2009. Luckily and oddly, they are still offering that menu (click for larger size). What better way to try the restaurant than with 10 of their signature courses?

Amuse #1 – red grape two ways: goat cheese with pistachio and reconstituted grape with cheese and oil

These were both interesting starters. I liked the goat cheese and pistachio better, with a nice texture (crunch from pistachio) and sweetness from the grape.

Amuse #2 – Hokkaido scallop with radish and scallions


Hmm didn’t like this dish. The scallop was sliced very thin, and topped with the scallions, radish and salted. It tasted…soapy for some reason. And kinda fishy. Just not good.

Egg Caviar – lemon creme fraiche, American Ossetra caviar

This was a great dish. The egg was poached slowly, so there was a warm gooey center inside, which really went well with the caviar. Warm and comfortable.

Duo of Hamachi & Tuna – celery, meyer lemon, black truffles

The duo resembles a piece of sushi, which was a nice touch, and chopped tuna taking the place of rice. The celery adds a nice fresh crunch, and the lemon went well with the fish. I couldn’t taste the hamachi and tuna individually in each bite, however. The black truffle flavor was rather mild. Overall, I enjoyed this dish.

White and Purple Asparagus – white asparagus veloute, crispy purple asparagus roulade, truffle mousse

This was a really nice soup. There was a good asparagus flavor, and it really went well with the truffle mousse mixed in. Brilliant.

Seared Foie Gras – carrot cake, pineapple compote, vanilla-balsamic reduction

The foie gras was seared perfectly, with a nice crust and soft, tender interior. The carrot cake did not add much to the dish, and fell apart reather easily. I liked the pineapple compote and orange rind, as the sweetness and acidity cut through the fattiness of the liver.

Lobster Bolognese – fresh cappelini, truffle froth

This was my favorite dish of the night. Fresh pasta, wrapped in a lobster bolognese, and topped with a truffle foam. Delicious. The pasta may have been a TEENY bit overcooked (I prefer it a bit more al dente) but the flavors were spectacular, memorable.

John Dory Filet – chinese broccoli, kohlrabi, pinebut-cornichon jus

John Dory has a firm flesh, which was nice with the crunchy broccoli and kohlrabi. The fish was cooked pretty well, but just was not too memorable.

Cote de Boeuf – potato and braised short rib galette, fava beans, porcini mushrooms, herb jus

Like the fish, this dish wasn’t too memorable either. The rib-eye was very tender and had a decent flavor. The galette, with layers of potato and short rib, wasn’t as successful as expected. It was a little dry, perhaps overcooked. The same was true with the piece of short rib.

Le Fromage Truffee – black truffle, poached pears, balsamic gelee

I don’t really like the cheese course and tend to avoid it whenever possible. However, I had it here. The cheese was very mild, and I did not get a truffle flavor from it. It came with a warm toasted brioche.

Chocolate and Caramel Fondant  – hazelnut crumble, chocolate sorbet

This was a pretty good dish. The chocolate sorbet was nice and rich, and the fondant (with layers of rich mousse) was excellent. I enjoyed the hazelnut crumble as well, as it added some great texture to the dessert.

Strawberries and Creme – strawberries, creme fraiche, brown sugar

An interesting rendition of ‘strawberries and creme’ here, with creme fraiche instead..and sugar to sweeten. The strawberries were ripe and sweet, and the combination worked.

Mignardises – assorted cookies

These were just okay. The chocolate peanut butter cookies were actually pretty good with a nice crispiness, but the caneles weren’t anything special.

Melisse lived up to its expectations in my opinion. Outside of the scallop amuse, the execution and imagination were present in each course. While some of the dishes weren’t really memorable, I attribute a lot of it to personal taste. On the other hand, the Egg Caviar, White and Purple Asparagus, Lobster Bolognese, and Chocolate and Caramel Fondant were clear hits. Definitely a very solid showing – I think Melisse is one of the top five restaurants in Los Angeles.