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Posts Tagged ‘Michelin-starred’

lobster and hand-rolled linguine at Murano

You’d think that after my recent disappointment with dinner at Locanda Locatelli that I’d swear off high-end Italian restaurants for a while, but it was my friend L’s birthday, and a celebration was in order. We figured we were due for a revisit to Murano, Angela Hartnett’s flagship restaurant in Mayfair, so off we went.

Despite my having only good memories of both a lunch and dinner at Murano, I haven’t been back in over a year.  The place still feels cozy and plush, and happily, while you’re scanning the menu, Murano still serves fresh-from-the-fryer, truffle-perfumed arancini, great breads and silky charcuterie.  It’s nice when the good things haven’t changed.

In the past, I hadn’t noticed a contrast between the tasting menu offerings and those of the a la carte.  This time around, though, the tasting menu read a lot more Italian with its appealing-sounding scapece, bresaola and vitello/veal courses.  Unfortunately, having arrived for a late seating and having already filled up on snacks at the nearby and excellent Connaught Bar, our group chose the a la carte.  Three courses for £65; four courses for £75.

My starter of lobster linguine (pictured at top) was the highlight of dinner, with generous chunks of juicy, sweet lobster served with gorgeously al dente linguine.  There was chili and garlic kick, smoothed out by the sweet tomato sauce.  This beat Locanda Locatelli’s version by a mile.

sweetbreads with cauliflower puree and smoked maple dressing

A friend’s sweetbreads ticked the silky-meaty box, though the piece I tried didn’t taste much of the smoked maple dressing, which I’d been curious about.  L’s carnaroli leek risotto with braised oxtail had great balance between meat and creamy starch until the last overly-sweet notes of vinegar kicked in.

Middlewhite pork belly, braised cheek and chervil root puree

Not to get too possessive, but “my” pork belly was also outstanding, though lacking in identifiably Italian characteristics.  The braised cheek added texture and meatiness to the lusciously fatty pork belly (with skin crisped to perfection).  If I had to choose only one adjective to describe the best parts of our meal, it’d be silky.  So yes, the pork belly was silky silky silky.

monkfish Meuniere, lardons, squid ink, fregola

Jon’s monkfish Meuniere was the only real clunker I remember from the evening.  The ingredients sounded brilliant on the menu, but nothing really blended in actuality.  A crispy lardon here, a perfectly-battered piece of fish there . . . .

pistachio souffle

Pistachio soufflé, served hot and airy.  Picture perfect and tough not to love, though it was a tad too sugary for me.  The warm bittersweet chocolate helped balance out the sugar, though.

Overall, while we had a few misses this time on the a la carte, Murano remains my fave of the high-end Italian restaurants in London, though admittedly it is the most Frenchified of the Italian restaurants.  (The cheese cart is a wonder).  If you stick with the tasting menu, the place will feel more Italian, though.

Murano’s service was attentive and friendly as ever, though entertainingly a couple of servers must not have noticed I was preggars because they kept pushing the wine (“Oh come on, it’s Friday night! You should have another glass!”).  I guess the spacious table miraculously hid away my enormous self and the servers don’t communicate this sort of thing with each other, but I could have done with less pressure as I was already feeling a little guilty about two large glasses I’d enjoyed.

Murano, 20 Queen Street, W1J 5PP; 0207 495 1127; closest Tube station:  Green Park.

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beef tartare, pickled kohlrabi, black truffle sauce

Last Friday, I celebrated my friend L’s birthday in style with dinner at the Greenhouse, Michelin-starred in Mayfair. It wasn’t our first choice, but we’d struck out at the Ledbury and Marcus Wareing, and although I’d never before heard much about the Greenhouse, because of several strong recs in comments left on this blog, we gave it a go.

The restaurant is located off Hay’s Mews, which is a dark alley made none the cheerier by rain, and if it weren’t Mayfair, I’d have been reluctant to venture down it. Happily, once you turn onto the small garden path that leads you to the restaurant (which appears to be the basement floor of a block of flats), things become much more pleasant.

Having chosen the tasting menu (£80), L and I settled down to aperitifs and three amuses: (1) Sweet onion and watercress soup, which tasted only of watercress and so could’ve been sweeter and seasoned more; (2) crabmeat wrapped in jicama and topped with salmon roe, which was wonderfully refreshing and colorful; and (3) foie gas mousse wedged in between two lacy butter crisps dyed with squid ink (surf ‘n’ turf!), which was as fatty and rich as the crabmeat was light and refreshing.

Sometime during these preliminaries, we noticed that two portions of butter had been left on our table, but at no point were we offered bread.  We weren’t hungry so we didn’t say anything, but it seemed a big lapse not to have been offered bread, especially because the butters looked so tempting.

My first course of beef tartare (pictured at top) was a nice surprise – more a delicately-dressed beef carpaccio than the lump of mince I’d expected.  The black truffle sauce added a rich, earthy dimension to the light and zingy slices of beef.

mackerel, apple puree

A second course of mackerel was sliced and plated to look like sardines, which was visually entertaining.  The apple puree and crunchy nuts (?) under the mackerel added lightness and texture to the otherwise-meaty fish.

steamed brill, Thai curry, Kabocha pumpkin, crayfish and basil

From the description on the menu, I was sure this course, a steamed fish, would bore me to tears, but the intensity of the Thai curry balanced perfectly the delicate fillet of brill.  The curry sauce was fragrant but light – not thick or too sweet  despite the strong aroma of ginger and coconut.  This fish course is the best I’ve had in ages. 

pan-fried duck foie gras, rhubarb fondant, Chioggia beetroot

I loved the presentation of the foie gras course, mostly because at a quick glance, it looked like suckling pig.  But the filmy “skin” sitting atop the foie gras was an off-putting texture.  It brought to mind the scummy skin that forms on cheap instant chocolate pudding.  I did, however, like how the sweet beetroot complemented the foie – a nice change from all that quince and fig you usually get on the side.

roast pigeon, pomegranate, turnip puree, almond, giblet and pancetta jus

The pigeon didn’t look like much, but it was wonderfully tender and juicy, helped along by the almond, giblet and pancetta jus, no doubt.

snix: chocolate, salted caramel and peanuts

Dessert was a ‘snix,’ which seemed very American what with the combination of peanuts and chocolate.  The peanutty oatmeal biscuit layer of the dessert ‘sandwich’ was too dry and gritty even with the ice cream.  What it should’ve tasted like are the Do-Si-Do’s sold by the Girl Scouts of America.   Luckily the salted caramel ice cream was genius.

The Greenhouse’s wine list was supremely impressive, offering dozens of bottles even from unexpected places like Lebanon and India.  We loved browsing it, though ultimately we asked our sommelier to recommend a full-bodied white for our meal (and she came up with a good one that tasted almost meaty and fell well within our stated price range).

Overall, I had a wonderful time at the Greenhouse – much better than my dinner last month at two-starred Hibiscus.  Although I hated our table at the Greenhouse (right next to the doors to the kitchen and within view of the till), the pacing of our dinner at the Greenhouse was perfect (a little under four hours).  At Hibiscus, we shoveled down just as many courses in 2.5 hours, which wasn’t particularly relaxing.

I think the cooking at Hibiscus is more exciting than what I experienced at the Greenhouse (e.g., I’m still dreaming of that truffle-egg yolk-potato ravioli at Hibiscus), but the cooking at the Greenhouse was consistently well done (particular shout out to the sauces, which were all distinct and well matched to what was on the plate).  At these prices, though, it’s only partly about the food, and I loved taking my time at the Greenhouse.

With aperitifs, a £70 bottle of wine and bottled water, we paid £146  each.

The Greenhouse, 27a Hay’s Mews, W1J 5N; +44 (0)20 7499 3331; closest tube station: Green Park
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Hibiscus egg amuse

Two weeks ago, Jon and I revisited Hibiscus to celebrate my birthday.  (We were last there in December 2007, soon after Hibiscus arrived in London, and I was reminded of how long it had been since our last visit when I read Tamarind & Thyme’s rave review of her lunch there in December 2009.).

I’d had a horrible day at work and was tempted to cancel our 9 pm reservation.  But if you cancel at the last minute, you pay a hefty £75 per person fee, which is understandable, but painful when you’re so exhausted.

So I dragged myself there, and things got off to a bad start when Jon and I were wedged between two tables of men talking dealspeak.  Despite my best effort to tune them out, words like “clawback”  and “leverage” kept intruding, and I started to feel quite sorry for myself.

A delicious amuse of Moroccan-spiced-froth-in-an-eggshell came and went, as did hot puffs of cheese gougeres.  I hardly paid attention, because I couldn’t believe I’d been wedged in Dealmaker Hell.  The hazards of eating at a 2-Michelin-starred resto on a Thursday, perhaps.

So I did something I’ve never done before:  I asked to be moved.  Our servers didn’t ask why – they just moved us.   Our new table was an oasis of calm.  Much better.

scallop with a tart gelee

Jon and I had the tasting menu.  If I had to generalize, I’d say the courses at the start were more creative and “ooh ahhh” than the ones towards the end, but from start to finish, we had a delicious meal.  My initial feeling that I had been coerced by the high cancellation fee into eating an exhaustingly-long meal was quickly replaced by the joy that a well-run restaurant with a creative, talented chef brings.

Our scallop starter with a starchy puree and refreshingly tart gelee had us wondering in awe how anyone (i.e., the chef) can think to combine such startling flavors.  Because it was my birthday, I just sat back and enjoyed the ride, so if you’re looking for precise ingredient descriptions, stop reading now.

poached egg black truffle raviolo

One dish that still stands out, even two weeks later, was a raviolo stuffed with a poached egg, potato puree and studded with black truffle.  First, the technical wizardry . . . how do you get an egg yolk into a raviolo without the whole thing spilling out?  (My photo shows the yolk after I’d poked open my raviolo).  Second, the flavors – potato, egg yolk and black truffle – an understandably-classic combo.  The pungent black truffle’s flavors are absorbed into the yolk and potato puree.  Comforting flavors in an elegant package.  Brilliant.

black bream stuffed with cepes

foie gras

duck breast with black pudding and red cabbage puree

If pressed to identify a weak link, I’d single out the duck course, because the duck breast had a few tough-to-chew bits.  You know, the kind you chew for a while and then end up trying to gracefully spit out because it just won’t go down.  It was an odd problem to have a 2-starred place, which is the only reason I remember it.

apple celeriac chestnut parfait

Pre-dessert, an apple gelee, celeriac and chestnut parfait  was interesting but not anything I’d ever crave.  The chestnut layer was too starchy for the parfait to be refreshing.

parsnip tart with pear sauce and vanilla ice cream with smoked caramel

Desert was tasty and playful and ended our dinner on a high note:  a parsnip tart that looked just like a tarte au citron, but instead was wonderfully sweet and salty.   The smoked caramel-vanilla ice cream was a dreamy accompaniment.

The dinner tasting menu at Hibiscus is £90, so with a modest wine, coffee and service, our tab totaled about £280.  Definitely a special occasion-kind-of-place, and at these prices and after such an inauspicious start, it’s a wonder that Jon and I left the restaurant feeling happy and relaxed.  Thank God we’d moved tables with no fuss.  I was glad we’d revisited, and we’d be glad to go back.

Hibiscus, 29 Maddox Street, W1S 2PA; 0207 629 2999; closest tube station:  Oxford Circus
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Kai (Chinese) Restaurant in Mayfair

Kai (Chinese) Restaurant in Mayfair

Last week, I had dinner with Londonelicious and Gourmet Chick. Our choice of venue was Kai, a Chinese restaurant that was awarded a Michelin star earlier this year, which raised both its profile as well as diners’ expectations. (For a more complete view on our dinner at Kai, you’ll want to read Londonelicious’s post and Gourmet Chick’s post. They both did a much finer job than I did of comparing and contrasting our views. Next time, I’ll know to step aside and let them do the writing)!

In deciding how to describe Kai, I’ve been thinking over whether it’s fair to demand inventiveness from a one-Michelin-starred restaurant. More specifically: was it enough that Kai cooked classic Chinese dishes very well? Am I holding a one-Michelin-starred Chinese restaurant up to a higher standard than I would, say, a one-starred Modern British restaurant? Of course, in bellyaching like this, I’m assuming there’s consistency in the way Michelin rates restaurants, which is an iffy assumption (compare the ho-hum Arbutus to the never-lets-you-down Ledbury, for example).

Fair or not, I’ve decided that while the majority of Kai’s dishes were delicious, very few of them were worth the high price tag.

As one of our starters, we ordered the “nest of Imperial jewels” (£13), which was chicken pan-fried with mustard greens and served in lettuce leaves. Sadly, the chicken was bland and brought bad back memories of “chicken lettuce wraps” at PF Changs, the Cheesecake Factory of Chinese restaurants (where the chicken always came in perfect cubes, bringing to mind an industrial processor rather than a highly-skilled knife wielder).

wasabi prawns (photo courtesy of Gourmet Chick)

wasabi prawns (£21) (photo courtesy of Gourmet Chick)

A favorite of all three of us, the wasabi prawns were a great mix of flavours and textures: crispy, sweet and spicy; crunchy and gooey. The spice from the wasabi was an inventive touch that left me thinking the £21 price tag was worth it. This dish was served at Taste of London, and after trying these prawns there, Londonelicious was understandably hooked on going to Kai (so I guess TofL does bring some business to restaurants).

half portion of crispy duck (£31)

half portion of crispy duck (£31)

In contrast, the half portion of crispy duck, while good, wasn’t £31 good. After all, it’s just duck confit shredded up and served with pancakes. For a Michelin-starred restaurant, Kai could’ve done something interesting with the wraps or the sauce, though in fairness, the crispy duck was listed in the section of the menu labeled “classic starters,” so perhaps we shouldn’t have expected anything more. Londonelicious shared the same view, though she did appreciate the homemade pancakes, and Gourmet Chick rightly noted that the tableside serving ritual was gracefully done.

prawn-stuffed aubergine in a clay pot

prawn-stuffed aubergine in a clay pot (£20)

Still, even with dishes outside of the “classics” section, Kai played it all straight. The prawn-stuffed aubergines and sauteed kai lan (£12) were tasty but no tastier than at, say, the mid-priced, attractive and high-quality Pearl Liang.

scallops and asparagus in XO sauce (£24)

scallops and asparagus in XO sauce (£24)

And the scallops and asparagus in XO sauce was a bit sub-par for using not-especially sweet scallops. Both Londonelicious and Gourmet Chick noted the extreme spiciness of the scallops, but they have must have each accidentally eaten a chili (or somehow I got all the pieces without chili), because I thought this dish was a bit bland.

roasted pork belly at Kai (£19) - my fave main course of the night

roasted pork belly with mint (£19) - my fave main course of the night

In addition to the wasabi prawns, the other star of the night was the pork belly with mint. It was both delicious and not a typical preparation. All three of us loved the crackly skin and the complementary flavors of the julienned apple and mint that accompanied the pork. Londonelicious found the portion a bit paltry, but given how fatty this dish was, I thought it was the right serving size.

almond jelly with fruits

almond jelly with fruits (£8)

Desserts, always the Achilles heel of Chinese restaurants high and low, included an almond jelly, which in Taiwan is served ice-cold at street markets for about a $1 ladle. Kai’s quivering room-temperature version, while visually pretty, wasn’t anything to be excited about. Londonelicious also rightly pointed out that it seemed a bit out of season now that it’s chilly outside.

mango cake (£9)

mango cake (£9)

Mango cake with coconut froth was much loved by both Londonelicious and Gourmet Chick, but I thought it tasted too little of mangoes and too much of a molasses-type sweetener. Just good, but not great.

Kai’s service was friendly and chatty, which I liked, and the women servers looked super stylish in their Shanghai-Tang-looking purple-and-green outfits. The décor was high-end circa 1980s lounge style, and for what it’s worth, there didn’t appear to be any Chinese diners there that night. (No doubt that if Kai had the sexy decor of, say, Hakkasan, it’d be much easier to overlook what Gourmet Chick called Kai’s lack of Wow Factor).

Our tab came to £95 a person, which was higher-than-normal because we started with £20 glasses of champers and ended with dessert wines, and lower-than-normal because we stuck with the less-expensive dishes on the menu and lucked out with a great value wine rec from the sommelier.

Overall, I enjoyed my experience at Kai, but I didn’t think our meal was a good value. I’m much more likely to first revisit, say, Hakkasan, before I go back to Kai, mostly because you can’t beat the Wow Factor at Hakkasan.

Kai, 65 South Audley Street, W1K 2QU; 0207 493 8988; closest tube stations: Green Park, Bond Street.
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San Marzano tomatoes and burrata at Murano restaurant in Mayfair

San Marzano tomatoes and burrata at Murano restaurant in Mayfair

Last December, I tried Murano’s £25 lunch menu, which was outstanding value. I knew I’d be back, but as a testament to how slow I am to put words into action, I didn’t return until just last week. In the meantime, Murano picked up a Michelin star in January this year, and I can see why. Dinner at Murano was delicious and high quality (a bit like eating at the Ledbury, but with more formal service).

Murano offers two menus at dinner: a three-course a la carte menu for £55, and an eight-course tasting menu for £75. Encouraged by the same lovely freebies that I remembered from my £25 lunch – the fragrant white-truffle arancini, the melt-in-your-mouth coppa – Jon and I chose the tasting menu, which, interestingly enough, offers two options for most of the courses.

grilled foie gras with sweet and sour tomatoes

grilled foie gras with sweet and sour tomatoes

Apparently I was lying when I claimed to be foie gras‘d out after a week in the Loire Valley:  the instant I saw grilled foie gras among the tasting menu options, it was a no-brainer. One of these days, I’ll try cooking foie gras at home, but for now, I remain in awe of how one grills it. It’s got to be like grilling butter, no? I mean, how do you keep it from melting on the grill? In any event, Murano’s grilled foie was silky, creamy-meaty, and beautifully complemented by the intensely-sweet tomatoes, which had a caramelized flavor despite not showing any signs of having been caramelized. Quite a mystery but delight of a dish.

swiss chard and Sairass ricotta tortelli

swiss chard and Sairass ricotta tortelli

rocket and pecorino risotto

rocket and pecorino risotto

Generally, I’m rarely interested in pastas or risottos in high-end restaurants, but both dishes at Murano were intense and cheesy in a way that I could never duplicate at home (probably bc I’m not heavy-handed enough with the butter), and I loved them both. (Jon and I each ordered different ones and then did the old switcheroo so we each ended up eating a half portion).

pan-fried seabass with garden peas

pan-fried seabass with garden peas

I didn’t get too excited about the fish course, which was cooked just past raw and just shy of tough. In other words, it was cooked just right. But still, I find fish to be nothing special unless it’s sushi or I’m sitting by a large body of water while eating it.

herb salad with apples and cider vinaigrette

herb salad with apples and cider vinaigrette

Herb salads. Indulge me in a pet peeve rant: I know it’s intended as a palate cleanser, but what was wrong with the good ol’ sorbet? When I eat an herb salad, I feel like I’m eating an ingredient, rather than a meal.

Gressingham duck breast, carrot puree and white asparagus

Gressingham duck breast, carrot puree and white asparagus

roasted Cornish lamb served with neck bolognese and grilled courgettes

roasted Cornish lamb served with neck bolognese and grilled courgettes

Things were back on track with the meat courses. Duck was tender and sliced paper-thin. It really did melt in your mouth. Jon’s lamb was similarly luscious. There are moments when you’re sure you could never be a vegetarian, and this was one of them.

pistachio souffle served with warm chocolate sauce and macaron

pistachio souffle served with warm chocolate sauce and macaron

Feeling quite full after tiers of fun-flavored, jewel-like ice creams were served, I didn’t think we’d make it through dessert. But never underestimate the power of a *perfectly*-baked pistachio souffle. Just digging into the pillowy top was a treat, and I was so impatient to dig in that it was hard to let our server first pour liquid chocolate into it. The interior was yielding and moist without being liquidy. Brilliant. And is there a more perfect flavor marriage than that of pistachio and chocolate? I think not. The macaron was a nice visual accompaniment, but tough and crunchy (and altogether forgettable).

Service at Murano was friendly and attentive. The dining room is small and discreetly luxe. Factor in the tasty, easy-t0-love food, and it’s no surprise Murano earned its first Michelin star so soon after opening. I won’t be surprised to see it earn a second.

Murano Restaurant, 22 Queen Stret, W1J 5PR; 0207 592 1222; closest tube station: Green Park

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strawberry soup a Le Rendez-vous des Pecheurs in Blois, France

strawberry soup at Le Rendez-vous des Pecheurs in Blois, France

I spent weeks scouring French and English-language newspapers and sites, trying to find good recs on where to eat while cycling in the Loire Valley. Most sources were outdated (i.e., more than three years old). Chowhound, SlowTrav, eGullet, Lonely Planet, google blog searches . . . all my usual on-line sources let me down, and our (admittedly few) Parisian friends were not much help when it came to the Loire Valley.

So, on-line food tips being a wash, Jon and I kicked it old school and relied heavily on our Michelin Green and Red Guides, as well as on B&B recs. In the hopes of making some future Loire Valley eater’s life a bit easier, I include below a few blurbs on our six days’ of eating in the Loire. This is the first of two posts, with the other one coming on Monday.

CHARTRES

foie gras 1 at Le Madrigal in Chartres, France

foie gras 1 at Le Madrigal in Chartres, France

Not quite in the Loire Valley, Chartres was the first stop on our trip because, having indulged a few years ago in the guilty pleasure that is Kate Mosse’s Labyrinth, I wanted to see Chartres cathedral. LeFooding.com had an appealing description of Brasserie Le Madrigal, which also happened to be in our hotel, so we gave it a try. (Incidentally, the cathedral was cool, but so were the giant plastic rabbits in the Place des Epars).

If you ignore the occasional tour group dining in the place, Le Madrigal’s open-air courtyard is a pleasant space for a well-executed romp through bistro basics. Baguettes were crackly; butter was creamy. Great sourcing of those items – as in most of France – and a sign that we wouldn’t be starving as we headed into central France. My slice of foie gras terrine (the first of what was to be many) had a good, meaty flavor, but you could still see where multiple lobes had been fused together and it was served straight from the fridge, so it was a bit too hard at first.

Jon and I stuck with a classic entrecote with Bearnaise and were rewarded for our conservative ordering: the steak was charred on the outside and saignant (medium-rare) on the inside. We should’ve skipped the 6.50-euro cheese course when we learned it would be a brie (after all, we were entering chevre country, so what’s with the brie?), but overall, a good-quality meal at a reasonable price. Starters were 6-7 euros; mains were 17-20 euros. Still, it’s in a hotel, so maybe look around old Chartres if you want more atmosphere.

Brasserie Le Madrigal, Hôtel Le Grand Monarque, 22, r. des Épars, 28000 CHARTRES; +33 2.37.18.15.07

BLOIS

foie gras 2 at Le Rendez-vous des Pecheurs in Blois, France

foie gras 2 at Le Rendez-vous des Pecheurs in Blois, France

Despite having a Michelin star, Le Rendez-vous des Pecheurs was small, quiet, and except for us, filled with native French speakers (which was great). Although there are several good-sounding resto options in Blois, none of them were open on Monday night except Le Rendez-vous des Pecheurs.

Wanting to be able to see the 10:30 pm “son et lumiere” show at Blois castle (if you haven’t experienced a son et lumiere, you should. They’re a cross between fireworks and a grade-school film strip), we chose the 49-euro seasonal menu rather than the 69-euro tasting menu.

The menu was ambitious and the food was good. I was relieved, because I never know if a Michelin-starred place is going to be resting on its laurels or tired, etc. But Rendez-vous des Pecheurs is still gunning (for a second star), I suspect. The menu was heavy on seafood and refreshing sorbets. Solid summer entries.

That said, the generous, silken slab of pan-seared foie gras alone went far to justify the 49-euro price tag. The service was smooth and polite, and the food was interesting but still regional enough that we felt we were in the Loire (as opposed to those Michelin-starred places that could be anywhere in the world). With an excellent Cheverny white for 40 euros, our tab totaled 138 euros. Worth a visit if you’re in Blois. (Note that the other Michelin-starred place in Blois, L’Orangerie du Chateau, looked like bus tour hell with its enormous size and location across the street from Blois chateau. I know you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but still . . . ).

Le Rendez-vous des Pecheurs, 27 rue Foix, 41000 Blois; +33 2.54.74.67.48.

BRACIEUX

foie gras 4 at Le Rendez-vous des Gourmets in Bracieux, France

foie gras 3 at Le Rendez-vous des Gourmets in Bracieux, France

Bracieux is a tiny town, similar to many towns we cycled through in the Loire Valley. There’s a main street and a town square with a hotel de ville and not much else. If you believe in competition bringing out the best in businesses (as I do – tres Americaine, je sais), you’ll expect the worst in Bracieux. For example, our hotel, Hotel du Cygne, was by far the worst place we stayed during our trip. Still, the town is handily located if you’re cycling from Chambord to Cheverny with a stop in between at Villesavin.

Given the town’s small size, we were lucky that Bracieux offered a one-Michelin-starred restaurant, Restaurant le Relais de Bracieux. Alas, Le Relais is closed on Tuesdays, which was the one night we were around. But the chef-owner, Bernard Robin, graciously recommended that we try the Rendez-vous des Gourmets down the street, run by one of his former chefs.

Rendez-vous des Gourmets is a Michelin bib gourmand (good value) and has a back garden, which was relaxing on a warm, July evening. It took 15 minutes, though, before we could flag someone down and ask for menus. And then another 40 minutes for us to place an order. The service was just overwhelmed. Good thing we were on holiday.

As became familiar to us in the Loire, there were four or five prix fixe menus to choose from. Jon and I chose a middle-of-the-road Menu du Gourmet Allege at 29 euros a person, which includes a starter, a main, a cheese, a dessert, and several amuses. A lot of food for 29 euros, no?

After a few forgettable haddock-mayo and goose rillette-based amuses, I attacked Jon’s very large and tasty slice of foie gras terrine. Again, it had come straight ouf of the fridge, so I waited a while until it was more easily spreadable. A mussel-and-cream soup (which appeared on several menus in the Loire), was the best version we had on our trip.

Roasted quail (caille) and hanger steak with shallot sauce (onglet a l’echalotte) were juicy, huge, and delish, especially with buttery, fragrant girolles. The cheese course was unnecessary but irresistible. Nutty, aged chevre, I salute you!

And because we’d cycled 30 km (20 miles) that day, we each polished off a red-berry gratin hot out of the oven. With wine, we paid 83 euros total for a generous quantity of food, as we found was the way in the region. Rendez-vous des Gourmets is a charming restaurant and worth a stop if you’re touring nearby Chambord or Villesavin. But be prepared for a slow, long meal.

Rendez-vous des Gourmets ; 20, rue Roger Brun, 41250 BRACIEUX. +33 2.54.46.03.87.

And that’s it for now. In my next and last post on the Loire, I’ll summarise our eating in Contres, Chaumont-sur-Loire and two nights in Amboise. Bon weekend!

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Maze restaurant interior (lifted from the Grosvenor Marriott site)

Maze restaurant interior (lifted from the Grosvenor Marriott site)

A month ago, Jon and I had dinner at Maze. Because it was Jon’s choice, I didn’t get a say in the matter, or else I’m pretty sure I would’ve nixed the suggestion (though hindsight is 20/20, I know).

First, although Maze has its own entrance off of Grosvenor Square (and wow, the US Embassy in London really *is* as ugly as everyone says it is), it’s also connected to a Marriott Hotel. And I have a major bias against restaurants located in chain hotels, especially mid-range hotels.

Second, upon stepping into the dining room, we couldn’t miss the glass case displaying owner Gordon Ramsay’s cookbooks. Classy.

Third, and most substantively, the service we had at Maze ruined our quiet evening out. “Indifferent” would be the charitable description of our server.

I don’t want or need fawning armies of servers. But at a 1-Michelin star restaurant, I want someone to hand me the menu, not put it on the table and shove it towards me. I want someone who graciously accepts that I don’t want bottled water, instead of making a show of taking away the “fancy” water glasses (presumably reserved for rarefied water that comes out of a glass bottle) and replacing them with other, different (presumably lesser) glasses filled with tap water. Or how about this – a server who aks me if I’m ready to order, instead of sidling up to my table, shifting all weight to one leg (classic teenager-slouch style) and asking me “you OK now?” The only thing missing from the tableau was some gum snapping.

I should’ve just walked out then. It’s a Wednesday night. I’m tired. I just want a quiet dinner with my husband. I don’t need to feel uncool and unwanted. And definitely not at these prices.

Looking back, I can see why service was sloppy at Maze. Jon and I were seated at a table surrounded by multiple groups of what appeared to be work colleagues (perhaps traveling together and staying at the Marriott hotel). If I were there having drinks and nibbles with coworkers, I’d probably care a lot less about servers pushing menus towards me and talking to me in casual-teen-lingo when taking my order

For the sake of argument, let’s assume I was in such a bad mood that it was inevitable I’d be annoyed with the service. Well, the food didn’t exactly improve things. I’m usually pretty tolerant of high prices and so-so service as long as the food delivers.

But at Maze, the high prices for small portions of occasionally-gimmicky food left me seriously (*very* seriously) wondering how this place has a Michelin star. Our experience at Maze was nowhere near the meals we’ve had at, for example, the Ledbury or Hibiscus (where, by the way, the servers are helpful and gracious without being overly-formal).

assiette of sandwiches at Maze Restaurant

assiette of sandwiches at Maze Restaurant (photo courtesy of Ribose Reflections)

Maze’s chef, James Atherton, gets a lot of press for his “assiette of sandwiches,” for example, and the BLT in the martini glass would be charming if food-in-a-martini glass didn’t seem so distinctly trendy (circa 1990s), and if I thought drinking lettuce soup with bacon bits was worth £9. To be fair, there was a sliver of buttery ham-and-cheese sandwich (the croque monsieur), too.

lamb chop at Maze Restaurant

lamb chop at Maze Restaurant (photo courtesy of Ribose Reflections)

Above, you’ll find a photo of the lamb chop dish we ordered (photos courtesy of this blogger) to illustrate the plate sizes at Maze. It’s no exaggeration to say you’re supposed to order at least four plates per person to make a meal at Maze, so while the menu prices (£9-13 a plate) don’t look high, your bill tallies up quickly if you’re at Maze for anything other than a quick snack.

The food wasn’t awful, but it wasn’t memorable. When you factor in our disgruntled server (whose pouting would be more at home at a McDonald’s than at a Gordon Ramsay resto in Mayfair), you’re left wondering why anyone goes to Maze. I’d go back for drinks with coworkers if they were staying at the attached Marriott, or maybe I’d go again if I had to get my passport renewed at the nearby US Embassy. But outside of those two unlikely scenarios, no thanks.

Maze Restaurant, 10-13 Grosvenor Square, W1K 6JP, 0207 107 0000; closest tube station: Bond Street
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passionfruit souffle with blueberry ice cream at the Ledbury restaurant

passionfruit souffle with blueberry ice cream at the Ledbury restaurant

Today is Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, and I’m fasting. No beverages or food for 24 hours. But at sundown today, it’s back to my piggish ways.

What better way to spend my last food-and-drink-free hours than to write about delicious delicious food? I *must* be delirious.

Jon and I returned to the Ledbury last weekend. We had such an all-around great meal there in August that it took restraint to wait even this long (six weeks) to revisit.

Perhaps inevitably, this time, I was slightly disappointed. To be fair to the Ledbury, high expectations are deadly. And I still think the Ledbury is a great restaurant. But the prices have gone up (the tasting menu is now £70 per person, not £60), and the ingredients used were noticeably budget-conscious. I assume the higher menu prices and seemingly-less-luxe ingredients can be blamed only on rising food costs, but I had hoped that restaurants would do only one or the other. Not both.

The service – such a high point last time – was still swift and accommodating: the sommelier remembered me from our last visit, and one of our servers allowed us to substitute the passionfruit souffle for the chocolate pave course on the tasting menu.

slice of foie gras terrine with mango

slice of foie gras terrine with mango

As for the food, it was all still tasty, but compared to our last tasting menu experience, it seemed skimpy and less creative. Rolls, for example. Something you can take for granted at any moderate-to-nice restaurant. Last time, we got an endless supply of them, and I had to force myself to stop eating all the bacony-cheese ones (they’re like gougeres, but better because there’s bacon). This time, we each got one roll at the start of the meal, and then another towards the end after we asked for more (and even then, our servers said they’d have to ask the kitchen to send more up).

As for the tasting menu, the slice of foie gras terrine was creamy and rich, and the diced mango and cabernet sauce added tang and sweetness, but I’d hoped for a thick slice of roast foie gras like what I remembered from our visit in August. Cold terrine just isn’t the same when you want hot, rich essence of meaty fatness.

roast cod with truffle

roast cod with truffle

Our cod is a better example of the skimpiness. Last time, we dined on moist, luscious, delicate-flavored turbot. This time, we got roast cod. It was likely as good as cod gets – firm but silky – but it’s hard for me to get excited about it. Where’s the special-occasion factor in cod?

partridge served with corn "three ways"

partridge served with corn

Our partridge with corn served three ways also seemed boring. The “corn on the cob” was crisp and sweet, but you know, it’s corn on the cob. And the corn pancake under the partridge was just tough. I guess it was there to soak up the chicken-tasting partridge juices. I admit I’m biased against partridge because I think it really does taste like chicken. And I’m a good enough home cook that chicken isn’t something I want to pay someone else to make for me. I’ll pick a lamb or suckling pig course any day above a partridge one.

Before I sound too “down” on eating at the Ledbury, I should point out the superstar passionfruit souffle. That souffle was so perfect that even if everything at the Ledbury sucked (which it most certainly does not), I’d still go back. The passionfruit (and lemon zest?) added a tanginess that matched the lightness of the souffle’s texture. As souffles are wont to be, it was hot, airy and so fresh that I thought if I didn’t eat it right away, the souffle might float away and disappear. The blueberry ice cream served tableside was an excellent contrasting accompaniment. Every bite of this dessert was sweet and sour, floral and fruity, hot and cold. I haven’t got a sweet tooth, but thanks to the Ledbury, I’ve learned I have a passionfruit souffle tooth.

Overall, I had a good meal this time ’round at the Ledbury. Prices were higher and value-for-money was proportionally lower than last time, but it’s still my favorite high-end restaurant in London. In these uncertain times, though, next time I’ll try the a la carte menu and cut back on the wines. Maybe I’ll go just for passionfruit souffle.

The Ledbury, 127 Ledbury Road, W11 2AQ, 0207 792 9090; Closest tubes: Notting Hill Gate, Westbourne Park, Ladbroke Grove. £70 tasting menu; £40 wine pairings.
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Salad of spring vegetables with wild shoots, warm quail egg and truffle at the Ledbury

Salad of spring vegetables with wild shoots, warm quail egg and truffle

A friend was telling me about his recent dinner at Thomas Keller’s Per Se restaurant, and our conversation reminded me that my dinner there in June 2004 remains the best restaurant meal of my life. Everything came together that night – my dining companions, the food, the wine, the mood in the resto, and the warm, friendly, confident service.

It’s been ages since I’ve encountered service at expensive restos that’s that super-attentive, knowledgeable and still welcoming. The few Michelin-starred places I’ve tried since moving to Europe have come with service that, while attentive and discreet, subscribes to a distant, chilly, almost master-servant school of thought. I suppose it might be very American to want service that cracks the formality a bit and creates the illusion that servers are happy to have you as their guest.

Well, last night, Jon and I ate at the Ledbury in Notting Hill, and we *loved* the service. Everyone at the front of the house was professional and warm – very human. The food, while very very good, tasted even better explained by servers who understood what they were serving and who seemed happy and proud to help you, the diner, enjoy what you were eating. Tap water was no problem; a sub for a course on the tasting menu, also no problem. Everything was no problem. I loved that.

Our friends, Jill and Emmet, had been singing the Ledbury’s praises for months, so I’m embarrassed it took us so long to get over there.

The Ledbury has a Michelin star, so no surprise that our tasting menu (£60 per person without wine pairings; £98 per person with – and the wine pairings were great, by the way) was studded with three or four amuses bouches. They were all simple but tasty and generally came in custard form.

My favorite bits of our eight-course meal were the foie gras (god, I love that molten center – it’s like marbled meat melting in your mouth), the luscious turbot, the intense vegetable flavors and soft-boiled quail egg in the “salad” starter (see photo at top), and the salsify-and-ham beignet served with our suckling pig.

For those of you curious for details about the type of food served at the Ledbury, below are my eh quality photos (taken on a phone camera because I lost my point-and-shoot a few weeks ago):

Grilled mackerel with mackerel tartare in cucumber gelee at the Ledbury

Grilled mackerel with mackerel tartare in cucumber gelee

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Crayfish in tomato broth at Varoulko restaurant, Athens

There are three restaurants in Athens with a Michelin star, and based on my reading, only one of them, Varoulko, sounded like it served Greek food – or at least non-French food. So that’s where Jon and I headed one night.

Three things we learned from eating at Varoulko:

1. Greeks eat late. Not Spanish late, but late such that nobody shows up at a restaurant until 10 pm, at earliest, so don’t be the losers (us) who show up at 9:30 pm wondering why the restaurant is totally empty.

2. Tip is included in menu prices (though you should add a little extra if you’re happy with service). Don’t be the clueless, seemingly-deep-pocketed tourists (us) and assume you’re still supposed to add a 15-20% tip.

3. At Varoulko, there’s no physical menu, but it turns out you’re still ordering a la carte. Basically, you’re at a restaurant where everything offered verbally by your waiter is the special of the day, and you won’t know how much anything costs unless you ask. Having never encountered this system before at a restaurant (and we’ve eaten our share of meals out), Jon and I assumed that in the absence of any menu, we were working on a prix fixe tasting menu basis. So when our waiter described a soup and four other courses, Jon and I imagined small, tasting menu-sized portions. (more…)

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Hibiscus Restaurant interior, Mayfair, London

I had a delicious and fun lunch at Hibiscus Restaurant last week, and it stands out among the blur of meals I’ve had lately. If you follow any bit of London dining news, you’ll know that Hibiscus earned two Michelin stars in its Ludlow, Shropshire location before shutting down and moving to London a few months ago. Time Out gave the new London location a rave review, but the Telegraph wasn’t keen on it. (And obviously diners the world over were waiting for me to weigh in on this debate).

Things I liked about Hibiscus even before eating there: (1) it’s owned and run by a husband-wife team (because isn’t it nice that a luxe restaurant isn’t part of a celebrity-chef empire?); (2) it’s located super-close to the Oxford Circus tube station (because when I bust out the fancy shoes for a fancy meal, I appreciate not having a long walk from mass transit); and (3) it’s not resting on laurels (the move from Shropshire being something like trying to swim with the big fishes).

The restaurant’s decor is all warm woods and sleek slate. Bobo chic. The service was friendly, attentive and unobtrusive, and I appreciated that Claire Bosi, co-owner and wife of the chef, was gracious when I had to ask a million questions to understand how the menus worked: £25 for a two-course lunch; £35 for a three-course; £55 for a fancier three-course a la carte; and £65 for the tasting menu. Surprisingly, there was no requirement for the entire table to get the tasting menu, so my party of four was able to mix it up. I went for the tasting menu (surprise, surprise).

Because I didn’t take any notes during my lunch, my descriptions below are my best guess about what the ingredients were.

Truffle Ice Cream and Cauliflower veloute, Hibiscus Restaurant, London

I think my first dish (photo above) was a mushroom ice cream on an island of something beetrooty, all in a sea of nutty cauliflower veloute. Cold-and-warm, crunchy-and-creamy, earthy-and-sweet. Very intellectual. I cook just ambitiously enough to appreciate how tough this thing was to pull off, but it’s not something I’d crave.

Crab-Avocado with honey and sesame oil, Hibiscus restaurant, London

The crab-avocado filling with honey and sesame oil was one of my favorites. Juicy and sweet, the crab mixed well with the creamy avocado, and the hint of sesame and sweetness from the honey sauce added kick. Refreshing.

foie gras ice cream with brioche emulsion, Hibiscus restaurant, London

Another ice cream, this time of foie gras, served in a “brioche emulsion” and sprinkled with trendy pomegranate seeds (how sad is it that fruits can now be trendy?). The foie gras ice cream was pretty good, actually. It’s certainly fatty enough to be in an ice cream, and I enjoyed how extra-smooth it tasted in that form. As the foie melted into the brioche emulsion, it became a nice, meaty soup, and the juicy pomegranate seeds added crunch as well as colorful prettiness.

slow-cooked salmon, Hibiscus restaurant, London

I’m usually non-plussed to see salmon on a menu, mostly because I think it’s best served simple, and I can cook simple at home. But the slow-cooked salmon at Hibiscus was luscious. Too silken to have been seared, and too flavorful to have been poached, I was super impressed. Sous-vide (aka plastic bag cooking) at work, perhaps?

roast partridge, Hibiscus restaurant, London

The roasted partridge was tender and juicy, and I loved whatever the green mash was. I particularly liked the partridge because only the breast fillet was served. (Because partridge has so many small bones, there’s no way I could have made my way through a whole partridge with dignity intact).

Kaffir lime pie, Hibiscus restaurant, London

Ending the meal with a kaffir lime pie and mango salsa was nice, because again, the kaffir lime filling had been chilled (maybe it was another ice cream?), so it acted as a palate cleanser.

There were a few amuses served during the meal, and the chef came out afterwards to greet every table, which was nice of him to do. I enjoyed the wine as well as my company, so it was as close to a perfect meal as it gets, I think. I’m looking forward to going back.
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Arbutus Restaurant exterior

I know winter has arrived in London when the rain stops being daily and sporadic and starts being daily and never-ending. Last Friday night, we had one such winter rain, which of course wreaked havoc on all forms of transportation. Knowing we were running late, Jon and I called ahead to Arbutus to let them know, and the restaurant told us not to worry.

So imagine our surprise when we entered the warm glow and buzzy atmosphere of the restaurant and learned they’d given our table away! When we explained that we’d called to say we were late and were told it was OK, the maitre d’ accusingly asked whom we’d spoken to, at which point, his female colleague quietly piped in that she had, in fact, taken our call.

Happily, after that rocky start, things improved dramatically. We cooled our heels at the bar for 20 minutes, and that was fine because the best thing about Arbutus is how it makes almost every wine available by the carafe. It wasn’t exactly a hardship to start our evening with a carafe of a fragrant, refreshing 2004 Frederic Mochel pinot gris. I mean, it was so good that I actually remembered the name and vintage – all fruit and lightness without being sugary.

The restaurant’s decor has gotten a lot of flak in otherwise-glowing reviews, but I don’t see why. I thought the amber lighting was flattering, warm and welcoming, and I kind of liked the textured modern art on the walls.

Overall, Arbutus’s strengths are its high-quality food and excellent wine list by the carafe. The service is eh (e.g., our server described various cheeses in the cheese course by their colors and had no idea which ones were goat’s cheese vs cow’s cheese), but the prices are super reasonable for the quality of food.

Braised pig’s head, Arbutus

Jon’s starter of braised pig’s head with potato puree and caramelized onions is Arbutus’s most written-about dish. Probably because it sounds a lot more exotic than it is (photo above). In fact, the slice of pig’s head tastes largely like any other lusciously-fatty, braised pork dish, except that it has a rich, creamy meatiness that reminded me of eating liver. Plus, it was kind of stinky. I can see its appeal, but I wouldn’t order it again. There are so many other parts of the pig I prefer! (more…)

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Dining Room of Il Canto Restaurant in Siena, Italy

You don’t need to travel to Italy very often to know that there’s a lot of deliciousness to be had there. The trick, though, is that like any other country, Italy has its share of really mediocre restaurants, and as a non-Italian speaker, I’m always challenged to find the restos that hit all the sweet spots for food, decor and service. Icing on the cake is that the other diners in the restaurant aren’t foreign tourists, like me (ahh, the selfish “I’m a tourist who doesn’t want to be with other tourists” paradox).

Carrying out my usual eating-on-vacation due diligence, I consulted friends who’d eaten in Tuscany in the past year, googled recent blog posts, scanned the New York Times, and waded through Chowhound boards and Slow Travel opinions. The latter two resources are great for up-to-the-minute tips, but the obvious downside is that I have a hard time deciding whose opinion to trust.

After all that info-gathering, the “fancy” meal I most anticipated was dinner at Il Canto in Siena. The September 2007 issue of Food and Wine magazine annointed Il Canto’s chef, Paolo Lopriore, one of the “top 5 chefs in Italy.” While rankings like these are suspect and never exclusive, I did some cross-checking on Chowhound and Slow Travel, and all voices agreed that the food at Il Canto would be classic, but with a twist (i.e., weird but not too weird).

Il Canto is part of a pretty Relais & Chateaux property, Hotel Certosa di Maggiano. We had quite an adventure finding it, because it’s on the outskirts of Siena, reached only after driving through winding, high-walled roads. Thank goodness we had cell phones and that the hotel staff were friendly and great at giving directions on the fly.

The upside of Il Canto’s location is that I felt like we were in the countryside, and it was easy to enjoy the romance of the hotel’s open-air courtyard.

The dining room is chandelier-big-flowers-thick-carpet formal, but it’s saved from a high-intimidation factor by the oddly frumpy flowery plates displayed on the sideboard and the crocheted doilies on the chargers. I think Il Canto is what your grandma’s house would like if grandma lived in a medieval Tuscan cloister renovated for modern style circa 1800.

I started the evening festivities with my by-now-familiar dance with the waiters to try to get tap water. No can do. Bottled water only. Sheesh.

Grissini came out, and they were crispy and olive oil-y, but served in cellophane. Between the cellophane and the doilies, I couldn’t tell what tone the restaurant was trying to strike.

Our group decided against the 100-euro tasting menu (170 euro with wine pairings) because there were too many things on it that sounded unappealing and too many tasty-sounding items on the a la carte menu only.

Mussels at Il Canto

A la carte, my mussels appetizer was so-so, looking like single-celled organisms (pre-historic times being one of those really gourmet eras, I hear) and tasting like oysters. I’m a fan of ye olde briney oysters, but then why not offer oysters instead of dressed-up mussels? (more…)

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Yauatcha exterior, 15 Broadwick Street

Our friend Tom Perrotta has been staying with us for the past week. Tom is a journalist who covers tennis for the New York Sun, and he’s here to write witty and smart articles about Wimbledon for said newspaper.

Because Tom’s working day and night, it’s rare that Jon and I can take Tom out for fun and games in London, but yesterday, we were able to round up a group of what can only be called Tom’s peeps (his brother-in-law, Eric, and his friends from NY, Dave and Sharon) for dinner at Yauatcha followed by drinks at a great late-night pub, the Angelic.

Yauatcha is what you’d get if Hakkasan served only dim sum, which isn’t surprising given that both restaurants are owned by Alan Yau. Both have high-style, underground interiors designed by Christian Liagre, and both serve very fresh food made from quality ingredients. I love hole-in-the-wall dim sum, but it’s nice to know that the pork in the shu mai is really pork, instead of a mysterious composite meat. The restaurant is packed and the food is still good, despite its having been open for three years now.

Yauatcha feels a little factory-like with its strict cancellation fee calculated at £20 per person and an enforced 90-minute limit on how long you have your table. But given the quality of the dim sum and the sexiness of the decor and crowd, it’s hard to resist eating there more than once. We waited outside for a while for our table despite having made a reservation, but standing next to Kiefer Sutherland and his friends made the wait outside kind of a plus. (For me to spot a celebrity, he/she would have to introduce himself and show me ID, so good thing Tom and his friends were more alert than I am).

Once inside, the noise level was high, but not deafening, and the food ranged from good (e.g., chive dumplings) to creative and fantastic (scallop shu mai). The seafood-based and tofu-based dishes were my favorites. Scallops and prawns were always sweet and firm, and even the shanghai soup dumplings had a hint of crab to them, the way I used to order them at Joe’s Shanghai in NY.

Almond prawn deserves special mention because I loved how it was fried in a ribbon-like shell of what must have been a flat pasta, so that was a super-attractive and delicious dish

Service was friendly enough, though the servers looked so harried that we almost felt bad about trying to get someone’s attention to, say, order more wine. It’s amazing the restaurant can actually get people in and out in 90 minutes given the appearance of frenzied chaos in the dining room. Generally, restaurants in London staff very leanly when compared to restaurants back in the US, and while I understand that restaurants would like to keep costs low, I think having a better ratio of staff to customers would improve everyone’s lives.

In any event, our party of six ordered 13 dim sum plates and two main course plates. Even including three bottles of a light, floral gewurztraminer, our tab totaled £38 a person. It’s expensive for dim sum, but good value for the food and decor.

Because last night was the end of an era, after dinner, our friends joined many other pub patrons in a last smoke before midnight. Then, at 11:30 pm, when most pubs close, we left the madness of SoHo for the late-night comforts of the Angelic, back in our own neighborhood. It’s really too bad that even with a late-night license, pubs close at 1:30, but we continued the party back at our place, so it was a good time anyway.

Yauatcha, 15-17 Broadwick Street, W1F 0DL; 0207 494 8888; closest tube station: Piccadilly Circus

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Le Pre Catelan garden dining room

Le Pre Catelan, Paris

I know I’ve mentioned in several posts now that there are imminent updates galore, but I’d like to take a moment to excuse my spotty posting record by saying that in the past four weeks, Jon and I have travelled to the French Riviera, Paris, DC and Lisbon. I don’t expect a lot of sympathy, but all this travel has tired me out. It’s also meant that I haven’t written as regularly as I like to, so to catch up a bit – when I last wrote, it was about my memorable dinner at Mirazur.

Keisuke Matsushima (22, rue de France, Nice) and Le Pre Catelan (Bois de Boulogne, Paris) were no slouches, either, but our meal at the former, while delicious, lacked the ambition on display at Mirazur, and the pace at the latter left me feeling as if I’d just done a lot of hard work. At 140 euros a person for the Menu Printemps tasting menu at Le Pre Catelan, I expected a little more joy and leisure.

Keisuke Matushima is a small, sleek restaurant located on a busy pedestrian street in Nice, not far from the Place Massena. At night, the dark wood, minimalist décor feels glam. Even before we’d arrived at the restaurant, I was impressed by the service. I’d played phone tag a few times with the reservations desk, and I had my doubts about leaving voicemail, but the restaurant repeatedly followed up with me until we’d confirmed our 9 pm reservation on a Saturday.

We ordered the “regular” prix fixe menu (70 euros per person), rather than the chef’s tasting menu, because we’d already loaded up on socca earlier in the evening. Still, I figured the regular menu would mean just fewer courses than what was on the chef’s tasting menu.

I enjoyed my meal there. The service was attentive and friendly, and I liked that the servers spoke to me in French, mostly because I consider myself a decent French speaker. The restaurant has at most 20 tables, so it’s a cozy, buzzing place to have dinner. Jon and I were introduced to the joys of Ruinart champagne, and our food, while not super exciting, was beautifully prepared. Take, for example, our fish course: wild salmon filet, seared so that the center was still cool, served with mushrooms, mizuna and a mussel broth. Delicious, but not exactly “wow, how did they do that.” Same with a memorably good custard with strawberry coulis served for dessert.

We were a little overzealous on the wine, so our tab for two totalled 240 euros, but at 70 euros a person for the food, Keisuke Matsushima is definitely worth a visit while in Nice. For a similar price, though, I was wowed by Mirazur. Menton is kind of a schlepp, but I think it’s worth spending the 40 minutes to get there from Nice.

As for Le Pre Catelan, Jon and I had lunch there while in Paris for a weekend. For our fellow metro-lovers, I’ll point out that Place Dauphine is the closest metro stop, but that doesn’t mean the metro is anywhere close to the restaurant. Le Pre Catelan is located in the heart of the Bois de Boulogne, so it’s a 30-minute walk from the metro station to the restaurant. For about 6 euros, you can flag a taxi from the Place Dauphine to the restaurant, and after our huge lunch (there is no other kind at a 3-star, I suppose), we enjoyed the walk through the park back to the metro.

Frederic Anton is the chef at Le Pre Catelan. I didn’t choose the restaurant based on any knowledge of the chef, though. Rather, the restaurant was promoted this year from 2 to 3 Michelin stars, and I’m a sucker for a dining room on the rise. (I like strivers more than I like incumbents).

The dining room was only half full when we arrived at 1:30 for lunch. The main dining room is all high-ceilinged, belle époque sumptuousness: tall mirrors, carved friezes, and tasteful pale green color scheme. Elaborate without being garish and suffocating. We ended up in the terrace room (see photo at top of post) with a view of the garden, which was nice because the day was bright and sunny. Our table was close to the server station, which is an experience similar to sitting in front of the lifeguard chair when you’re at the beach – you feel a little too watched over.

In addition to the a la carte option, there were three prix fixe choices at Le Pre Catelan – a lunch menu for 70 euros, a Menu Printemps (“spring menu”) for 140 euros, and a super-star tasting menu for 190 euros. Being the middle-ground folks that we are, Jon and I chose the Menu Printemps, which turned out to be a crazy choice for lunch.

First, the portion sizes were big for a tasting menu, so believe it or not (and I think this is the first time in the history of dining that an American has complained that portion size at a French restaurant was too big), I thought the tasting menu was too much food.

And second, the pace of our meal was way too fast (e.g., three large courses and an amuse or two were served in less than an hour). I felt like a contestant in a food eating contest. When the cheese cart rolled out around the 1.5-hour mark, we had to ask the servers to give us a little more time to rest. As creative and well-prepared as the food was, our lunch started to feel like hard work (yes, this is probably where you tell me I have lost all contact with reality).

I think the restaurant was in a rush to get us, the last of lunch crowd, out of the restaurant, which I can sort of understand, but then don’t make these elaborate tasting menus available at lunch.

stuffed l’etrille crab, Le Pre Catelan

L'Etrille et le tourteau (crab) at Le Pre Catelan, Paris

So, on to the food: Amuse: Spring pea soup with a nutty, creamy foam. Ahh, of course. Peas and foam. The pretty pea green soup is poured onto your plate of foam at the table. It’s light and heavy at the same time.

Langoustine nems at Le Pre Catelan

langoustine trio at Le Pre Catelan, Paris

L’Etrille et le Tourteau: Pretty much three dishes in one. The L’Etrille (currycomb) crab meat is seasoned and then stuffed back into the shell, covered in a savoury gelee with salty, creamy Aquitaine caviar, and voila – a dish that feels like a summer picnic by the sea. The crab soup with a fennel foam was tasty and decadent because of the spoonful of cream and caviar I stirred in, but the roasted tourteau was not very good despite my best efforts to appreciate it. The tourteau was mixed with orange zest and wrapped in seawood so that it looked like maki before you slice it up into pieces. Despite dipping pieces of my roll into the accompanying orange sauce, it still tasted flavourless and a little dry. Still, two of three is pretty good.

sweetbreads at Le Pre Catelan

sweetbreads (ris de veau)

La Langoustine: This course was another three-fer. There was langoustine wrapped in a ravioli skin and served in a seafood broth foam. The langoustine was sweet and the foam was rich, which made for the ultimate won ton soup, I suppose. The nems de langoustine (i.e., langoustine spring rolls) were good, but I didn’t think it was especially creative as much as it was especially well-prepared. The langoustines made it luxurious, but at the end of the day, the nems were nems. The one part of the nem that I still can’t figure out is the romaine lettuce “jus” that accompanied the nems in an espresso cup. I tried using it as a dip, and then I tried sipping the romaine, neither of which resulted in much beyond a slight vegetal aroma.

Le Ris de Veau: Sweetbreads. Rich and creamy and served in yet another generous portion – two “disks” of sweet breads. One of the sweetbreads was covered in earthy, juicy morels, and the other one had been prepared with a soubise au parmesan (covered in a cheesy sauce, basically). This course defeated me. I couldn’t take another bite, and if you’ve ever seen me eat, you know I’m not easily overwhelmed by large servings of food.

Cheese cart at Le Pre Catelan

cheese cart at Le Pre Catelan

 

Les Fromages Fermiers: Farm cheese. The cheese cart was out of control. As I mentioned above, this is where we needed a break, so in response to our request, we got a 10-minute respite from the onslaught of food. Like a good endurance-sport athlete, I reached deep inside to make room for a few of the tempting goat cheeses – aged, fresh, ashed. And I also couldn’t resist the molten-looking Saint Marcellin cheese. They were all good, but the chevre deserves special mention for its refreshing citrus notes.

Le Cafe Expresso dessert and petits four, Le Pre Catelan

espresso dessert at Le Pre Catelan

Le Café “Expresso” dessert: This course was both pretty and delicious. Inside a sugar candy cylinder-shaped shell, there are layers of sabayon, chocolate ganache, ice crème, and crushed almonds. It’s the best coffee-and-chocolate-flavored sundae of your life in a neat tower.

I had no space for the coffee or petits fours that were offered. It was about 4 pm when we left, which means we’d somehow managed to eat a 4-hour meal in just under 2.5 hours there. I think we set a record for greatest number of calories consumed per hour.

At 340 euros for two, I was disappointed that I left lunch feeling rushed and uncomfortably stuffed. Perhaps we should have gone for dinner, but we’d made our reservations too last-minute for a Friday-night seating. In any case, I’d go back to L’Astrance before I’d return to Le Pre Catelan.

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