Saturday, January 25, 2014

Pierre Gagnaire, Paris

Pierre Gagnaire 10/7/2011

Chef Pierre Gagnaire was the pioneer of nouveau French cuisine famous for his extraordinarily innovative and progressive food. I decided that I would choose his flagship restaurant “Pierre Gagnaire” for my 1st Michelin 3 star fine dining in Paris. The restaurant is located near by le Arc de Triomphe end of Champs-Élysées.

I had a lunch tasting menu which was smaller than dinner menu because I was under tight schedule to catch the trans-Atlantic flight home. The décor is modern in soft brown graduations with bold art works and beautiful floral arrangements in sync with the style of food served. Wine cellar is surrounded by glass walls situated in the middle of dining room.

It started with Amuse Bouche. I was too overwhelmed with the varieties of Amuse Bouche that I did not take sufficient notes while dining in the restaurant that I had difficulties to recollect all the details. There was a macaron with blackcurrant sandwiched in between white meringue. I barely remembered the foie gras pastry and the watermelon jelly. But, all of them were delicious. Chef Pierre Gagnaire, like Chef Joachim Wissler at Vendome, is a master of Amuse Bouche. I personally love Amuse Bouche and fully agreed with what Chef Jean-George Vongerichten said “The Amuse Bouche is the best way for a great chef to express his big ideas in small bites.”

Pierre Gagnaire’s services were attentive and impeccable. One service managers stood at a corner to monitor each guest’s comfort condition and walked around the whole space every five minutes to make sure each guest was well attended. It served wonderful varieties of house-baked bread. My favorite was seaweed bread, they were unbelievably tasty definitely much better than the one that I later had at Guy Savoy.

1st course – “Nettle’s jelly with chives, cauliflowers’ heads and souffléd bread.” This was the 1st time that I ever tasted nettle. My server tried his best to explain it to me what it tasted like and agreed to offer me a substitute if I did not like the taste. I somehow found out nettle’s green taste was a bit too strong.

2nd course – “Salpicon of tourteau, dog cockles and shredded celeriac in remoulade sauce flavored with curcuma.” Dog cockle, one type of shellfish, is edible and enjoyed in many European countries. The flesh has a reputation for becoming tough if overcooked. It has an apparently sweet and almond-like flavor. In this dish, dog cockle was tender and tasty, with shredded celeriac in remoulade sauce flavored with tumeric. Tumeric is in the curcuma family bearing a curry-like yellow color and has a milder taste and milder yellow tone than curry. This dish was well prepared and it was not traditional French cuisine.

3rd course – “Pig’s ear/haddock/small mackerel.” It was a rare combination of sliced meat and fillets of fish.

4th course - “Bouchot mussels mariniére with leeks.” Marinated mussels served with jullienned leeks. Mussels were fresh, plump and juicy.

5th course – “Bloody-Mary sorbet, velvety soup of ewe’s milk cheese.” This turned out to be my favorite course in this meal. It was a perfection of innovation, the alcohol was not too overwhelming and the cheesy flavor was just enough to enrich the taste.

2nd course substitute – I was offered sautéed fresh walnuts and chanterelle mushrooms from the Loire Valley. Loire Valley has thousands of natural caverns ideal for growing varieties of mushroom. It was a very simple but tasty dish.

6th course – “Octopus stew with Nyons olives, crispy jumbo shrimps wrapped in a veil of chickpeas’ flour.” I did not know where Chef Gagnaire got his shrimps. But, they were biggest that I have ever seen. In addition, they were tender and tasty. Octopus was stewed with other ingredients and tomato sauce, and shrimps were added before serving.

7th course – Aubergine cannelloni with craterellus mushrooms.” This dish was made with sliced eggplants. Each sliced eggplant was sautéed and stuffed with shredded mushrooms. The type of mushroom was different from the substitute course that I just had.

8th course – “Avocado scampi.” This dish was made of avocado and shrimp in tempura, served with black olive puree. This was a delicious fusion dish.

9th course – “Rump and caillette of veal roasted and infused in a broth of braised stuffed tiny artichokes; semi-preserved rates potatoes with meniguette.” The vegetables were cooked to the right texture and harmonious with veal. Nothing in the plate has been spared of any detailed attention.

Palate Cleaner – “Lime & Lemon mouse.” It had pungent citric taste and was very light. The sweet taste of lime and the sour taste of lemon made the fused flavor even more refreshing.

Desert: It was a galore!

10th course – Varieties of petit four with beautiful presentation.

11th course – Thin wafer with raspberry and fresh cream.

12th course – Poached pear in puff pastry with wine sauce.

13th course – Fig with orange cake and orange sauce.

14th course – Chocolate cake with chocolate ice cream.

Then, there were some chocolate truffles brought to the table. It was close to the departure time for the airport. In addition, my stomach has reached its limit after I consumed all the courses. I had to ask the manager to pack chocolate truffles in a box. Their staff was so observing and attentive that they noticed that I loved their seaweed breads. When I got home, I noticed they have packed 4 seaweed breads in the box.

Toward the end of meal, Chef Gagnaire came out to greet every guest in the dining room. I did not have much conversation, besides the simple phrases, with him because his English proficiency was as good as my French proficiency. However, I did notice he spent time with a few guests appeared to be the frequent diners. I agreed with them. I would like to come back to this restaurant in one of my future trips to Paris.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014


Akelare 5/6/2011

I decided to visit San Sebastian when I found out it has the highest Michelin star per capita in the world. This classy seashore town has been famous for being the summer resort of aristocrats ever since Regent Marie Christine established it and has four well known gourmet restaurants – Akelare, Arzak, Martin Berasategui and Mugaritz. I made reservations at Arzak and Akelare because these two are more conveniently accessible via public transportation.

I arrived at the restaurant a bit early and the manager let me in through the kitchen because the front door was not open as yet. As I passed by the kitchen I noticed the large number of kitchen staff. Later, I found out many were interns since working in this restaurant offers each prospective chef such a great opportunity to broaden his/her horizon and to cultivate, sharpen and refine his/her cooking techniques.

The restaurant is situated close to the mountain top with spectacular ocean views. It offered two types of 8-course tasting menu – Aranori menu and Bekarki menu. The manger allowed me to have a custom-made menu by selecting the items that I desired out of two sets of menu.

It started with Appetizers – “Tomato and Basil Gel, Idiazabal Cheese Moisturizer, Sea Bath Salts: Directly to the Mouth! Mouthwash Cocktail, Sponge: Take the Onion Sponge and Put Tomato Gel on It!” A jar that looked like a cosmetic jar was served with gel in it. The viscosity of this gel was in between soup and bisque. Onion sponge was like a flavored puff. It was a creative dish.

1st course – “Prawns and French Beans Cooked in ‘Orujo’ Flame." Prawns were cooked with Orujo spirit for no more than 2 minutes in front of guest. Once the fire was extinguished, the lid was covered for another minute before they were served onto a plate. In this plate there were beautifully presented greens that appeared pasta-like and had floral and leaves shapes, green cream and dry shrimp powder interspersed with the prawns. Manager recommended to suck the head and to accompany the tail with the greens and green cream. Prawns were fresh, tender with the extra flavor from the powdered shrimp and liqueur. It was an unusual combination both esthetically and gastronomically.

2nd course – “Mollusks in Fisherman’s Net." It was a combination of various shell fish, with open mollusks on charcoal fire and a cream of rice and borage, covered by a net made of rice flour. This dish was served with tasty seafood broth. The fried net was not just visually artistic; it was crispy but not greasy. When I dipped the net into the sauce, I knew I had selected the right dish.

3rd course – “Sautéed Fresh Foie Gras with Salt Flakes and Grain Pepper.” It was a foie gras dish. But, what unusual about the preparation was the little grain pepper served in the plate. It was made of fully mashed truffles and black rice. This mashed product then was shaped into little balls that looked like grain pepper. Of course, they tasted wonderful. But, think of how much work was involved in making them.

4th course – “Xangurro in Essence, its Coral Blini and “Gurullos.” Xangurro was one of my favorite food items in the Basque region. It is their local crab meat cake. Their local crab meat is sweet, without a fishy taste, juicy and delicious. In this dish, the crustacean’s meat was reinforced by its juice and accompanied with the pasta that looked like rice grain (on the left hand side of plate).

5th course – "Turbot with its ‘Kokotxa.” The preparation was made with the entire Turbot, including its cheeks, pil-pil sauce and crispy chip of its own skin. The green and white color items were not pasta, nor were they jellyr. They resembled one oriental item called koniyaku. I wondered how Akalare’s kitchen prepared the crispy fish skin. It probably required certain special equipment.

6th course – “Charcoal Grilled Lamb with the Wine Lees.” Lean big lamb loin was served with wine extract and wasabi thread (at the upper left corner of the plate). The wasabi thread was thinner than the Chinese transparent noodles. However, it melts in your mouth and its flavor was so pungent that you have the individual taste of wasabi and lamb, and still have the fusion flavor of both. I was amazed with the wasabi thread’s appearance, presentation and it potent taste. This course was a real masterpiece.

7th course – “Chesse.” This cheese plate was one of a kind. I haven’t had any cheese plate more elaborate than this one and I haven’t had any more elaborate than this one ever since that day either. Chef Pedro Subijana’s creativity was everywhere in this plate. There were 6 items in the plate, starting from the left to the right:
1) Grapevine, curded sheep milk and walnut;
2) Powdered fresh cream with chive and grapes;
3) Quark cheese with nutmeg and pink pepper aroma, must of tapioca and tomato;
4) Idiazabal semi-matured with quince jelly and wine dust;
5) Torta of Casar’s grape with soaked raisins in Pedro Ximenez;
6) Brandy syrup with Gorgonzola cheese ice cream.

Chef wanted you to recognize each and every of the different flavors that the milk has, as well as the transformations that the grape and milk undergo from the origin up until the maturity.

8th course – “Citrus Shell and Chocolate Shaving.” A little shell was filled with citric cream, it was refreshing. In addition, there was cocoa ice cream and chocolate cigars served on a bed of shredded chocolate cotton candy. Citric cream complemented the sweet chocolate taste.

This dining experience is a unique one to me. I have been exposed to so many exquisite ways of food preparation visually, technically and gastronomically. I truly love this place and hope I will have another opportunity to revisit.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Frantzen & Lindeberg, Stockholm

Frantzen & Lindeberg – May 8, 2012, 17-course, 1900 sek

This was the last dinner in Stockholm in this trip. We were so eager to have an authentic fine dining and enjoyable meal after the previous night’s disappointing experience at F12.

Frantzen & Lindeberg is located in Gamla Stan (Old Town) on our way to F12. When we arrived at the location, an old man standing in front of the restaurant’s address asked us whether we were the party of three from NYC and took as to a place two doors away. We were seated in a room with three tables only. We later found out the section where we were dining was a later addition by the chefs Frantzen and Lindeberg after they felt the needs of expansion.

As soon as we were seated, we noticed there was a container with an unbaked bread loaf sitting inside. We were told this bread won’t be served until we finished all the appetizers. We started with amuse bush, then, appetizer, entries and deserts.

We had two Amuse Bouche served together, 1st one was “Vichyssoise with summer truffles” and 2nd one was “Carrot Macaron with Foie Gras.”  The 1st one was puff pastries with vichyssoise cream sandwiched in between layers and slices of truffle on top. Its appearance was as elaborate as its taste. The 2nd one was carrot flavored macaron with luscious foie gras cream sandwiched in between, another creative and harmonious work. This was the 1st time that I had a macaron as a savory.

Then, we started appetizers. 1st course - “Cottage Cheese of Goat Milk from Vihelmdals Dairy Cucumbers from Gotland & Olive Oil (Ivar Gunther).” Goat Cheese was a mild-taste type and cucumbers were fresh and crispy.
2nd course - “Oyster, Frozen Rhubard, Cream & Juniper.” Oyster was the Nordic type fresh and tasty, and frozen rhubard and juniper both added to the flavor.
3rd course - “12 days old Halibut “sashimi & Duck Egg & Crab." Sashimi was made out of baby halibut along with duck egg and lump crab meat. This dish was mildly spiced. It mainly used crumbled duck egg and crab to complement sashimi. Before the next course was served, our server made a performance for us. He used a special torch to brown and flavor the veal to be used in the 5th course. This char-coaled piece of veal then brought to the kitchen for further flavoring and preparation.
4th course - “Bonemarrow with Caviar & Smoked Parsley." Roasted bone marrow topped with caviar was served with pureed smoked parsley. Smoked parsley puree was a typical Nordic style preparation.
5th course - “Coal Flamed Veal Tartar, Tallow from 11 years old Milk Cow (Stina), Smoked Eel, Bleak Row (Persson Brothers)." Tallow is beef fat used in preparing for veal. The special premium brand name was indicated to show the restaurant only used the best quality ingredients. Bleak Row is the eggs from the whitefish bleak/vendace in golden orange color and has a mild and elegant flavor. It is a Swedish delicacy. Along with smoked eel, veal tartar 80% raw yielded a sophisticated taste. Up to this point, we have had all the appetizers. As promised, we were served with the freshly baked warm bread. In addition, our server started making manually churned butter. He joked that his right arm was stronger and bigger than his left arm because of this daily work out. The hand-made butter was really tasty.

We had some palate cleanser “Satio Tempestas – Bread and the 6th course.

As promised, we were served with the freshly baked warm bread. In addition, our server started making manually churned butter. He joked that his right arm was stronger and bigger than his left arm because of this daily work out. The freshly hand-made butter was really tasty. When we finished our first loaf of bread, our server brought over more bread and bone marrow flavored butter which was really one of a kind. My daughter can’t stop eating until there was the last piece left; she then signaled the serve to take the bread basket away.

6th course - “Yellow Onion, Goat’s Milk, Almond & Liqourice.” This course was served in four medium size cups. Each cup was partially filled up with an individual item. They were part of palate cleanser.

At this time, our server brought out a basket full of fresh vegetable so that we knew what we would be getting our salad soon.

7th course - “Diver Scallops, Truffle Pure & Bouillons.”  The scallops were served in two different styles, one is half broiled and the other is raw. The half broiled one was served on an open shell with a little bit of Italian cheese sprinkled on top. It reminded me of the grilled oysters in New Orleans. The other style was like tartar. Both were fresh and outstanding.

Then, we had an extra course not listed on the menu. It happened to be my favorite item during this trip. It was the raw lobster, flanked by two pieces of half-cooked potatoes, in cream sauce. Chef informed me the lobster used in this dish has to be from a specific oceanic region in Northern Ireland. Only lobsters from this region are considered good enough to serve raw. I was totally satisfied with this dish. I guessed I would have to come back this restaurant if I ever desire to have more.

Then, we had another round of palate cleanser “Janssons Temptation.

8th course - “Whole Turbot Baked for 4 hrs. White Asparagus Baked for 3 hrs with Pine, Lemongrass & Mint.” Slow-cooked fish always tasted tender. I wished that the restaurant had served more than one piece of white asparagus in my plate.

9th course - we had “Frozen Lemon Verbena” as palate cleanser before the meat dishes were served. It was so refreshing.

10th course - “13-Weeks Old Spring Dorper Lamb from Klasbo Farm (Ina Eriksson).” It was the baby lamb that you did not need a knife.

11th course - “Goatmilk Ice Cream with Grass Pure, Malt, Olive Oil & Hay ash.” Everything was edible and smooth.

12th course “Beer, Yeast & Yolk from the 1st Egg the Hen Warps.”

13th course - “Buttermilk & Roses, Hibiscus, Flowers & Jasmine Tea." This was a very visually presentable dish with beautiful floral items.

14th course - “Macarons.” We were served a few varieties of macarons.

After dinner, we were given the opportunity to visit the kitchen accompanied by one of the co-owners/chefs Frantzen. Its kitchen is definitely not large with about 8 hard working staff.

Chef Frantzen met Chef Lindeberg while they were both working together. Two decided at some point of their career they would like to open their own restaurant. When the little space used to be occupied by a restaurant name Mistral was available in the Gamla Stan, they thought it was perfect because they were not sure their restaurant would be a success or not. Later, they gradually acquired more space at the location two doors away and the location across the street mainly for the large group when business started growing.

Out of all the restaurants we have visited during this trip. We have voted that Frantzen & Lindeberg being the best and Matsalen being the 2nd. F&L is more creative than Matsalen. Unfortunately, the worst one is F12. We were actually disappointed on Noma. Noma does offer multiplicity of presentations with the themes of being natural, spare and environmental. But, it is novelty not fine dining. However, it did arouse the world’s interest to the Nordic cuisine which has its unique methods of preserving, pickling, being natural and being environmental. There is a Michelin 2 star restaurant Marea in NYC. It, like F&L, serves extensive varieties of seafood. Even though both are rated with Michelin two star, F&L is more refined and more creative.

We have spoken with quite a few chefs along this trip; many have expressed their opinion on Noma. In a way they are grateful for Noma’s pioneer on the Nordic cuisine becoming the worldly focus point. However, they also consider Noma’s status is overly hyped.