Viewing entries in
Fine Dining

Malabar: Private dinner demo by Chef Schiaffino in Lima, Peru

Comment

Malabar: Private dinner demo by Chef Schiaffino in Lima, Peru

“There are naked ladies in there!” gasped a member of our tour group. We had arrived before the restaurant opened, and she was peeking through a tiny gap in the door at Malabar, the third of four top-rated restaurants on Bold Food’s culinary tour of Lima.

People come to Malabar to eat world-class Peruvian food, but their first impression of the restaurant may be the portrait of two nude swimmers by Colombian artist Heriberto Cogollo at the entrance. It’s just one of a collection of Latin American and Peruvian art throughout the restaurant.

Our group chatted amiably and admired the artwork as we sipped perfectly balanced el capitan cocktails before heading up to Taller Malabar. The Taller, or workshop, is a space over the kitchen that serves as a private demo space where we would have the incredible honor of having Chef Pedro Miguel Schiaffino cook for us. (Some people may remember Chef Schiaffino from Anthony Bourdain’s 2013 visit to Peru on “Parts Unknown.”) Chef Schiaffino hosts his own TV show in Peru called “From the Garden”, and our amazing local guide, Vanessa Vazquez, was quite star struck.

Malabar specializes in using Peruvian ingredients, both from its own farm and sourced directly from local producers. The restaurant also has it own fermentation program. Chef Schiaffino’s second restaurant, Amaz, specializes in Amazonian ingredients and dishes. He is the first chef in Lima to focus on dishes from the Amazon, and the reception has been very positive.

As soon as we were seated at our demo table, Chef Schiaffino began preparing the first dish: peeled hearts of palm with toasted yucca, nuts and nut oils. The chef told us about the ingredients, showed us what palm looked like in its raw form and described how everything was made. This was the third night of the Lima tour, and we had already enjoyed extensive tasting menus at Maido and Central—two of the most critically acclaimed restaurants in South America--so we were happy when the chef told us that he would be preparing light, simple fare.

The second dish, a combination of luscious Peruvian avocado, asparagus and aji negro, was my favorite. Aji negro is fermented yucca juice, which I think of as Peruvian soy sauce. It’s a bit salty and full of rich umami flavors. We can’t get fermented yucca in the U.S. yet, but I’m hoping that will change soon. Peru is the world’s largest exporter of asparagus, and we were lucky enough to eat the first-ever asparagus crop from Malabar’s farm.

The avocado dish was followed by a corn tostada made with a corn crisp and corn sprouts, then by an incredible stewed fish dish with house-made corn beer known as chicha, then by crispy guinea pig with house-made kimchi, and, finally, by local duck with roasted pumpkin and cilantro rice. Dessert was cherimoya sorbet with meringue, toasted red quinoa, and dried oca chips. Oca is a native Andean tuber that is packed with carbohydrates and becomes a bit sweet when dried.

Throughout the dinner, Chef Schiaffino was eager to address our questions, and he even revised the menu to incorporate ingredients in which we showed interest.

Of all of our amazing dinners in Lima, Malabar’s was the one where we learned the most about Peruvian ingredients and preparations. Chef Schiaffino is passionate about his food and about his native cuisine. Having him at our table, showing us his artistry and answering all of our questions, was priceless. I have been to Malabar multiple times now, and the food has been exceptional each time.

It seems fitting that our first impression of the artwork and our last impression of Chef Schiaffino and the food at Malabar were equally as inspiring.

If you want to join us for our next culinary vacation to Peru, we will be returning to Lima in 2018 from Jan 31 to Feb 4, and July 18 to 22.

Comment

Noma: The Nordic Food Revolution

Comment

Noma: The Nordic Food Revolution

If you’ve eaten at a restaurant anywhere in the world in the last 10 years and been offered something foraged, something smoked in hay or moss, or something flavored with hearty greens or pine, it's because of Noma—a two-Michelin-star restaurant in Copenhagen, Denmark.  

If you've eaten at a vegetable-forward restaurant or eaten something that is usually thrown away (like the fish head below), it's because of Noma.

If you've eaten at a restaurant where everything on the menu comes from less than 100 miles away and is likely fermented, it's because of Noma.

If you've been to a restaurant that's been influenced by or is a part of the Nordic movement, it's because of Noma.

Under the direction of chef and owner René Redzepi, Noma has arguably had the biggest impact on the world of food in the last decade.

I ate at Noma in February 2014 with my friend Jen, who is incredibly knowledgeable about the restaurant world. At the time, Jen was only was acquaintance. A mutual friend told Jen that I was the kind of crazy, obsessive foodie who would trek halfway around the world with her to spend the weekend in Copenhagen to eat at Noma. After a jam-packed food itinerary that included meals at Geranium, Relæ, Radio, a castle, and a bunch of smørrebrød, we were great friends. Poorer friends, but great friends. 

While the farm-to-table philosophy seems very Bay Area, it’s Noma that started the hyper local food trend. Chef Redzepi actually employs the extreme constraints of using only Danish, and sometimes Nordic, ingredients to push the creativity of the restaurant. He has a specific theory that extreme constraints drive creativity. In the 2013 recipe and journal collection René Redzepi: A Work in Progress, he spends a year keeping a journal focused on the restaurant, pushing himself and his staff to be more creative and trying to stay sane and centered through the pressures of being the #1 restaurant in the world for four years in a row. It's a fascinating window into obsessive creativity, and I came away from both this journal and my meal at Noma thinking that this level of perfection and creativity requires a certain level of madness. In the right profession (a chef, a sculptor, an architect, etc.) and a sufficiently high level of notoriety, madness is also known as genius.

Was Noma my favorite meal ever? No. Athough it's certainly in the top 10 (and it’s a great top 10 list). The main reason may be that it was winter in Denmark. The only non-Nordic items used at Noma are chocolate,wine and coffee, and they are used sparingly. That means that most of what’s served in February are hearty greens, root vegetables, preserved items, fish and game. For such a vegetable-forward restaurant, that means that the palate of the meal is tarter and more bitter than I prefer. Nonetheless, I was blown away by the meal .

My favorite courses were the fish head, caramelized milk and monk fish liver, urchin toast, and caramelized bread. The fish head was served on the stick that is used to grill it, with no other utensils. It is covered in an incredibly savory seaweed-based wet rub, and Jen and I used our hands to eat it. I ate the eyeball, too. I was glad I did because tasted great—like a rush of the best savory broth. But cultural norms die hard, and I almost gagged. The caramelized milk and monkfish liver was brilliant. Dairy is plentiful in Denmark, and Noma finds many different uses for milk. In this case, milk is slowly caramelized until is becomes a solid, and it is used as a cracker base for the dish. Monkfish liver is like the foie gras of the sea, so the dish was rich, savory and meaty. The urchin was served on a small piece of charred bread, and it was covered by a duck "skin." A rich duck broth is cooked until a thick skin of protein forms on the surface, which is then removed and dried. It tastes like the best parts of duck, but unimaginably concentrated. I would never have thought to combine urchin and duck, but it was brilliant. 

The wines were natural, often orange—and funkier than I had ever tasted before. The juice pairing was a collection of vegetable and fruit juices, often fermented and always refreshing. At least 80% of the menu was either something I had never eaten before, or never prepared in that way before. 

Noma is currently closed, with the intention of opening again sometime this year. Their new space will be a farm within the city, allowing them more space to grow their own ingredients and enough space to house their extensive research and development activities. Noma has done a series of pop-ups in Japan, Australia and Mexico, and all of them have received rave reviews. It's hard to imagine that they can continue to grow and push the boundaries of creativity, but I have no doubt that they will. If I have the chance to go again, I certainly will. Hopefully in August this time.

 

Comment

Single Thread: Soon to be a Michelin 3 star restaurant

2 Comments

Single Thread: Soon to be a Michelin 3 star restaurant

IMG_6997.jpg

SingleThread, an inn, farm and restaurant in Healdsburg, California, opened at the very end of 2016. I visited the restaurant four months after opening, and I have never had a more perfectly curated restaurant experience. I was in Napa for the Culinary Institute of America's annual World of Flavor conference (very likely the best food conference each year), and was lucky enough to secure a reservation. 

When I walked in, I was greeted by name and was invited to take a look into the kitchen before heading up to the roof for a drink. Chef Kyle Connaughton came over to the window to say hi and asked me how the conference was going. I asked him how he knew I was at the conference and he said, 'We know things." We both laughed and chatted about the conference. A lot of restaurants claim to do their homework on their guests, but SingleThread really does.

The next stop in the flawlessly curated evening was the roof top patio. I was greeted with a drink of purple sweet potato bush and oroblanco. It was tart and refreshing. It was a perfectly clear, blue, and warm Sonoma county day. After a few minutes, one of the servers brought over some snacks nestled amongst a plate of foliage. The four bites prepared me for the visual perfection, immensely fresh vegetables, and creativity of the meal to come. It was clear that the SingleThread farm was providing gorgeous produce for the restaurant.

IMG_7113.jpg

I was escorted into a stunning dining room where many of the tables faced the kitchen. The far wall of the kitchen is shelf after shelf of Japanese donabe cooking vessels, simple yet elegant. The table was already set with a bounty of foliage and hidden bites. My favorite items in this first barrage of delightful bites were malted potato with caramelized onions and turbot, creamy egg with caviar and spinach purée, and tuna loin cured with seaweed and flavored with with house-aged ponzu, and scallop crudo with shiso vinaigrette. 

Every one of the ten courses that came out after the initial offering were surprising in different ways. The trout cooked in a donabe was one of my favorites. It was served over a vinaigrette made with shio koji and topped with trout roe. Koji is the fungus used to make soy sauce, miso and sake, and shio koji is a salted liquid that is used as a marinade and sauce which contains enzymes that help break down proteins which releases free glutamate, the main source of umami. The trout itself was cooked flawlessly. It had the perfect doneness of fish cooked sous vide, but with a firm texture and a very slight smoky flavor. It was perfect, and nothing I've ever seen before. It was paired with a yellow tumeric and grenadine cocktail with smoked sea salt, which was a superb pairing. Another of my favorite dishes was foie gras with turnips, spinach and tomato tea made from dehydrated tomatoes from their farm. I have never had foie gras with turnips before, but I do hope to again.

I was driving back to St. Helena after dinner, so I opted for the non-alcoholic pairing. Non-alcoholic pairings are definitely a test of how seriously a restaurant takes its bar program. At Noma, their juice pairing was fascinating, full of non-alcoholic fermented vegetable and fruit juices. At Coi, the tea pairing was a first of its kind and I learned a lot that night. SingleThread was by far the best non-alcoholic pairing I've ever had. It is head and shoulders above any other in my experience. Every drink was unique, superbly paired, something I had never come across before, delicious, and in the most beautiful glassware from Japan. The glass maker is Kimura in Japan. 

As you can see, I was inordinately impressed by SingleThread. Some people may find the heavily Japanese inflected food a bit light or subtle, and I do think there is room to continue to improve the food. But let me be clear, that would mean taking a few things from very good to great, or great to amazing, as everything was at least very good. Considering that the restaurant has only been open for four months, they have achieved the nearly impossible. I predict that they will have 3 Michelin stars when the San Francisco Bay Area guide comes out in October. In all of my travels and all of my restaurant visits, I have never had such a perfectly choreographed evening. 

2 Comments

Portland: A Bold Food Guide

Comment

Portland: A Bold Food Guide

Portland, Oregon is one of the best food cities in the US. It has one of the highest numbers of restaurants per capita, and all that competition adds up to delicious food. I have been traveling there once or twice per year for many years now, and I am never disappointed.

In addition to the great restaurants, Portland has a unique food cart scene. Don't call them "food trucks," or they will know you are from out of town. Food carts are stationary trailers that are situated in pods of two to 25 all over town, including the suburbs. There are more than 600 of them. Eater keeps a list of "Must-Have Food Cart Dishes" and very successful carts can go on to become restaurants, or, in some cases, create a multi-cart empire.

With all of this great food to choose from, it's hard to know where to start. Here is my list, in order of preference. Note that everything on this list is worth a visit, even the ones at the bottom of the list because this is my best of Portland list. 

Comment

Gaggan: #1 Restaurant in Asia

Comment

Gaggan: #1 Restaurant in Asia

I had spent the previous 24 hours in bed, and I was not sure I was going to make it to dinner. About 4pm the previous day I got very cold, in Thailand. By American standards, it’s really hot in Bangkok all of the time. ALL OF THE TIME.  But that night I wore a long sleeved shirt and a jacket to dinner and I didn’t take it off all night. I had been really excited about my three nights in Bangkok because I had reservations at Issaya Siamese ClubNahm, and Gaggan, the #21, #5 and #1 ranked restaurants in Asia, respectively, according to Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants. 

I had been to Nahm before and had been blown away by the citrus, chilis and funky flavors that meld into beautiful harmonies. Most people don’t think of Thai food as fine dining, but David Thompson can easily change that opinion. Unfortunately, that night the food didn’t sparkle like it did the first time. I could barely eat more than a few bites of each dish, not because the food wasn’t wonderful, but because I felt so full. When I returned to my hotel after dinner, I realized I was sick, and likely had been since the afternoon. I got in bed and stayed there. And throughout that night and day, I worried. Not about being sick and alone in a foreign land, not about all the things I’d eaten on my culinary walking tour that day, and not about anything except whether or not I was going to make it to Gaggan. The time ticked by and I alternated between sleeping and worrying. By 3pm I could sit up and watch TV. By 4pm I was starting to get bored by sleeping, lying down and watching movies. That is always a good sign for me and usually means I’m getting better, so I decided to risk it. I showered and headed downstairs, and was extremely relieved to feel really hot as soon as I exited the hotel lobby. Maybe I was going to make it to Gaggan after all.

The restaurant is down a short alley off the main street. As per usual in Southeast Asia, never judge a destination by the griminess of the path to get there. You never know what you will find, and in this case it’s a bright, welcoming fusion of a colonial building with an ultra modern glass entryway. This is the perfect setting for the melding of traditional and modern food inside. Gaggan is a modern Indian restaurant started by Chef Gaggan Anand in 2010. Chef Gaggan had been frustrated with the status of Indian food in the world, and he set out to change that by cooking fine dining, modernist Indian food. He has succeeded dramatically, winning the top spot on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list for the last two years in a row. 

When I sat down, I found the menu on the table and it was written in emojis, 21 of them. The titles of the dishes are not given until the end of the meal. Until the last savory dish of crab curry, the dishes are one or two bites of beauty and intensity. Surprisingly, this is a great way to eat after 24 hours in bed suffering from what was likely food poisoning. One bite at a time over the course of many hours is the perfect way to recover! And if you are lucky enough to be in Bangkok and have a reservation at the best restaurant in Asia, it’s also the most delicious way to recover. 

I loved the creativity of the entire menu. My two favorite dishes were the yogurt explosion and the chutoro sushi. Spherification has almost become a cliche in creativity driven modernist kitchens, but not at Gaggan. The key is that it tastes amazing. It is tart and sweet, with subtle flavors of cumin. If yogurt was always this good, we would all live to 100. The chutoro sushi was another great example of over-the-top flavor combined with originality and creativity. Good fatty tuna sushi is a gift from the food gods, but every sushi restaurant in the world carries it. No one else has Gaggan's version though. The rice in the sushi is a crisp, dry foam that dissolved on my tongue. My guess is that it is a dehydrated tight foam made from pureed rice. Chef Gaggan has more than proved that Indian food can be luxurious, creative and modern. If you are in Bangkok, I hope you get the chance to experience it.

Comment

Maido in Lima, Peru: The best of Nikkei, the fusion of Peruvian and Japanese food

Comment

Maido in Lima, Peru: The best of Nikkei, the fusion of Peruvian and Japanese food

Recommended: Strongly        

Type of Food: High end, Technique driven, Creative, Modernist, Local Ingredients

Maido is ranked 13 on the World's 50 Best Restaurants list and is ranked 5 on Latin America's 50 Best Restaurants list.  Maido was my favorite meal in Lima.  At it's heart, Peruvian food is a fusion cuisine based on all of the immigrants who have added their flavors to the indigenous culture including Japanese, Chinese, Italian, African and Spanish.  Nikkei is Japanese-Peruvian food.  When I first heard about Nikkei, I was skeptical.  When I tasted it, I was an immediate convert.  The great umami centered Japanese cuisine combined with Peruvian ingredients with it's acid and incredible fruit and vegetable diversity makes for one of the most flavorful and exciting cuisines in the world.  No doubt.  The vibe at Maido is relaxed, and it is large enough that there are a small number of walk ins available.  However, reservations are a must if you want the Amazon Nikkei Experience, which is their tasting menu.  I have heard that if you are not able to get a reservation for the Nikkei Experience, they may be able to provide a smaller tasting menu experience.  Mitsuharu Tsumura is the chef and owner of Maido.  He is a native of Lima and trained in Japan before opening Maido.  If you are in Lima, make sure to get a reservation at Maido for the Nikkei Experience.  

Comment

Central in Lima, Peru: The best restaurant in a great food city

Comment

Central in Lima, Peru: The best restaurant in a great food city

Recommended: Strongly        

Type of Food: High end, Technique driven, Creative, Modernist, Local Ingredients

Central is currently ranked #4 on the World's 50 Best Restaurant's List and #1 on the Latin America's 50 Best Restaurant's List.  They are known for venturing into the wilds of Peru to find native ingredients to highlight in the restaurant.  Peru is one of the world's most ecologically diverse countries containing peaks in the Andes that are over 20,000 feet high, jungles along the Amazon river, and a coastal desert where most of the population lives.  There are 4,000 varieties of potatoes, hundreds of varieties of chili peppers, and jungle fruit I had never seen before.  Central's mission is to highlight the amazing diversity and uniqueness of Peru's flora and fauna and they do it incredibly well.  The cost of the large 18 course tasting menu is 398 Peruvian Nuevos Soles which is about $120.  This is a lot of money in Peru, but much less than most world class restaurants cost.  Central succeeds in presenting a very refined version of incredible Peruvian cuisine.  

Comment

42 grams: Michelin 2 star dinner party

Comment

42 grams: Michelin 2 star dinner party

Recommended: Strongly

Categories: High end dining, Creative, Technique driven, Modernist

Lately there are a few high end restaurants playing with the theme of a dinner party.  Lazy Bear in San Francisco is one of my favorites, and El Ideas in Chicago is also very successful with the model.  42 grams goes in a more intimate direction than either of the other two restaurants and seats only 8 people at a time.  The entire staff consists of two chefs, a dishwasher and one person running front of the house.  Jake Bickelhaupt is the chef and co-owner with his wife Alexa Welsh who is the entire front of the house.  Chef Bickelhaupt worked at Alinea, Schwa, and Charlie Trotter's, so he has a great resume.  Like Schwa and El Ideas in Chicago, 42 grams is BYOB.  They offer still or sparkling water only.  This is not a place that focuses on the traditional aspects of fine dining.  It is comfortable and modern inside, but the neighborhood is not a great one and there is no lounge area inside, so do not come early.  But don't be late either because everyone is served at the same time, like at a dinner party.  Clearly, the focus is on the food and creating a relaxed and friendly environment where people interact with each other.   42 grams is completely successful at this.  The food is amazing and I had a great time with the people next to me.  We shared our wine and chatted the whole night.  Most of the time we were talking about how good the food was.  

Comment

Grace: One of the best meals of 2016

Comment

Grace: One of the best meals of 2016

 

Recommended: Stongly

Categories: High end, Technique driven, Creative, Modernist

This is one of the best meals of the year so far.  Grace was extremely impressive.  The food was beautiful and unique.  There were classic European flavors like prosciutto and truffle served only a few dishes after tuna carpaccio with caviar, coconut, cashews and fennel, and then a few dishes later the beef had Southeast Asian influences from lemongrass and finger lime.  While some of these Southeast Asian flavors can be quite assertive (which is why I love them!), Chef Duffy manages to make them a bit more subtle so that they can fit in with the flow of the tasting menu.  The most beautiful dish of the night was the two layered cucumber and king crab dish that was sweet and savory in perfect balance.  The lightly sweet sugar crust on top played off the sweet king crab and cucumber below.  The raw tuna dish came in a close second for the most beautiful dish of the night.  The flavors here are brilliant and unexpected with the caviar and fennel pairing well with the Caribbean flavors of coconut, lime and cashew.  The raw squash dish was tossed with a warm som tum dressing and crispy, yet not overpowering, garlic might have been my favorite of the night.  This squash dish was from the flora menu, proving that the vegetable menu might be even better than the fauna menu.  

The service was very good and the wine pairings worked well.  One particular wine, Bukettraube from Cederberg in South Africa, was especially nice, and I had never heard of it before.  The table next to me had the same surprised reaction.  Bukettraube is a German varietal that is a cross of Silvaner and Schiava Grossa.  It reminded me of other German whites in that it was very aromatic and complex.  I will look for it again.  

Grace has some of the most beautiful dishes I have seen this year.  The restaurant opened in just 2012 and has already earned three Michelin stars.  After eating there, I am not at all surprised.  I am a huge Grant Achatz fan and would suggest Alinea, Next and especially the Aviary to anyone living in or visiting Chicago.  However, right now, if you have to choose one three star restaurant, I would choose Grace over Alinea.  If you don't have to choose, even better!

Comment