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About lxt

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  1. Cathy, Tocqueville deserved them. Thank you for your kind words. Wilf, single-breasted, you say? The sheer radiance of your visage must’ve given me double vision! It is always a joy to see you.
  2. Tana, thank you very much for your warm welcome. Lippy, you’re too kind. My husband, David, will be flattered. Seth, it was very nice meeting you and your wife.
  3. More pictures. Coconut panna cotta with mango I seemed to have enjoyed desserts less this time. Chocolate mini cupcakes Mango mousse in caramel/sesame seeds tuile The truffle in the kitchen The kitchen
  4. Tocqueville is in the process of transformation from a lovely neighborhood restaurant to a more ambitious enterprise. I always enjoyed the economy of design of the old location, which has been preserved and gently transported to the new dining room. The high-ceilinged room continues to convey a comparable play of delicate esthetic contrasts of gray/blue and gently yellow colors. The large wall-mirrors, mimicking windows, establish weightlessness and should serve as perfect reflectors of incoming light dispersed by the small central window at lunchtime. There is no explicit confrontation between the simplified classical style and modern movement (which sometimes turns decor cold, rhetorical and intellectual – Mix comes to mind), and at the same time, warm, modest colors prevent the room’s newly acquired grandeur from becoming overbearing, making it structurally whole from top to bottom, to the last detail within the same elegant theme. I wonder to what extent the new menu at Tocqueville (and there is a new menu) will continue the trend I’ve recently seen and enjoyed toward incorporating contemporary French/Spanish influences. The cuisine, under the collaboration of Marco Moreira and George Mendes (who joined about three[?] years ago as Chef de Cuisine after apprenticing with Passard, Berasategui, Bouley and Gutenbrunner), is taking a more unified and creative path not only in regard to new dishes, but old ones as well: there is more precision, meticulous accuracy, either new groupings of ingredients or regrouping of the old ones around the main theme (as with the sashimi tasting plate, an old favorite that is only gotten better). Tocqueville’s current cuisine is brighter, more sensuously charming, more decorative, and its effects are more complex despite minimalistic tendencies that challenge tradition. I think that there are two important principles in a successful dish: rhythm and contrast. Each ingredient may form rhythms with like elements, and each of these rhythms may enter into relationships with rhythms formed by other elements to create contrasts. In short, the dish is lacking when overemphasis of one or more of ingredients or their unskilled use fails to effect the unity indispensable in a successful dish. Either the chef has nothing to say or he lacks the command of means to convey an idea. George actually creates contrasts through rhythms, bringing flavor to an asparagus velouté, for instance, too mild to stand on its own, through the slightly acidic asparagus dice hiding on the bottom of the cup: the acidic intensity is washed off the asparagus tips, adding to the velouté the necessary balance with the first swirl of a spoon. That is, it is through the play of the same ingredient that the contrast is achieved. There are whimsical sparks throughout the menu, sometimes delayed (as in the crème-fraiche ice cream in the Heirloom tomato appetizer, which upon melting and melding with the tomato juice, adds smooth, balanced leverage), sometimes direct (as in using the acidity and perfume of baked apples in place of vinegar). There is Passard’s slow-cooking combined with Basque tradition in the same dish, as in the slow-cooked hake with a parsley/garlic sauce (a play on the Basque “merluza en salsa verde”). While the dishes described above, which I’ve enjoyed recently at Tocqueville, weren’t served at the opening, there was the same character and variety present in many little amuses at the party. Beet and goat cheese The beet reminded me of the dehydrated beet ribbon amuse at El Bulli. Interestingly, when dehydrated, the beet loses its native flavor characteristics, with delicate sweetness accentuated. Adria uses vinegar powder(?) to oppose the sweet notes; Tocqueville added goat cheese to contrast not only flavors (sweet vs. sour), but textures as well (crispy vs. smooth). It was indeed one of the best small morsels. El Bulli beet ribbon Smoked cod brandade on squid ink chip Very Basque, clever and tasty. The chip was a witty visual imitation of fish skin. Foie gras and bay scallop with mostarda mango The central mango piece tasted better when paired with either the scallop or foie gras separately, but not when all elements were eaten together. This dish echoed the house signature foie gras and scallop. Rabbit tonatto A nice and a worthy pun. Potato blini, smoked salmon, roe, lemon zest I assume that this dish was a variation on Russian “aladushki” (a more precise name for this type of “blini”). Aladushki (or as they are also called, “aladyi”) are generally served warm (Tocqueville’s version was chilled) with a blob of crème fraiche (or sour cream) and caviar on top. The chilled sour cream serves not only as a complement to the potato, but also as a temperature insulator for the caviar, because caviar tends to lose its firm texture shortly after being exposed to heat. This was a nice amuse, but I wonder whether it wouldn’t have been better had the blini been warm. Venison, red cabbage topped with chestnut tuile A classic combination of ingredients with a contemporary spark of paper-thin, crispy and delicate chestnut tuile. This was a great amuse, and the venison was indeed cooked properly. Celeriac and potato beignets with truffle mayo What could’ve easily been heavy turned out to be absolutely delightful. The beignets were exceptionally light, and the truffle mayo wasn’t weighty enough to take this lightness away. Tuna wrapped in prosciutto. I don’t have a picture of this dish, which I found very interesting not only because of its excellence, but also because the combination of raw fish and meat and their interplay has interested me ever since I tried beef carpaccio with Aquitaine caviar at Clos des Sens in Annecy; upon being mixed with the caviar, the meat developed a flavor similar to that of fatty tuna. The concept at Tocqueville was analogous and worked as well: that is, the prosciutto didn’t overpower the raw tuna, but rather created an unexpected unity of flavor. Chicken bouillon with truffles, scallions and a quail egg You just can’t go wrong with that! There is an undeniable interest in the New York restaurant scene in the modernist culinary movement – so much so, in fact, that even Wylie Dufresne’s foie gras with anchovies doesn’t turn diners off . I think Tocqueville is on the right track, probing in this direction through moderate and gentle contemporary touches. I wish Jo-Ann, Marco, George and David (Tocqueville’s wonderful Maitre d’) all the best, and I’m looking forward to returning as soon as the restaurant is open again. P.S. “Here’s Wilfrid,” said the charming Magdalena and briskly turned away, waving to a gentleman standing several feet ahead. Though his image remained rather approximate and unfamiliar, his attire of classic brown, double-breasted checked jacket and scrupulously polished brown shoes, embracing the open-ended symbolism of the “dandy,” was convincing enough for me to proclaim that, though I remembered not the British chap (well, I might have recognized his distinguished beard-free profile, as was assured by the side-by-side seating arrangement at the table at USC at our last meeting several years ago), evidently, it was indeed Wilfrid, the one and only, with his Beloved by his side. Had he persisted a bit longer, not only would Cabrales have brightened his night, but also the lovely SethG family and the wonderful Magdalena and Michael. We pretty much “closed” the restaurant and a jolly time was had by all.
  5. lxt

    l'Ambroisie, Paris

    Macrosan and Miss J, thank you for your reports. The gougère was indeed an excellent amuse, which made a quality statement from the start, preparing us for a serious meal. What other choices were on the menu at this time of the year? Orik, we had dinner at L’Ambroisie last May, which I never had a chance to report. My husband and I had slightly different impressions, which I tried to combine and analyze below. ------------------------------------------ Perhaps it is just an old habit of mine to attempt to characterize all establishments through a prism of current and historical stylistic influences, interweaving threads of commonality among the arts, music, and food, or perhaps style is what defines any creation, and it, or rather its presence is not only a hallmark, an imprint of imagination, but a clear representation of a personal expression and philosophy, but I’m not generally settled until I identify a chef’s style. For instance, Passard is the most vivid representative of Minimalism in food, while his former student Barbot (L'Astrance) is primitivist. While Berasategui’s cuisine gives the impression of a French contemporary influence with his overuse of quiet, cautious flavors, Gagnaire’s contemporary style is more vocal and is closer to Glen Brown’s approach (not Kandinsky’s, as Beaugé suggested in Francois Simon’s “Pierre Gagnaire: Reflections on Culinary Artistry” nor is it minimalist as stated in the same book) in how he treats “savage” recipes and ingredients (the beef aspic dish), eliminating the element of “rough brushstrokes” while introducing a gracious refinement of “lines,” and in how both of them use the historical context (e.g. Gagnaire’s classic turbot in buttery cream turned modernistic with a spike of African melegueta pepper). Piege seemed to be struggling to stray away from the Baroque of Ducasse’s style on my visit to Les Ambassadeurs, and Senderens (Lucas Carton), the father of minimalism, aside from an occasional tiredness, maintains some elements of restrained Art Nouveau, just like the décor of the restaurant itself. L’Ambroisie, however, seemed to be the hardest one to “file” not due to its lack of style – to the contrary, there was something very personal and expressive in Pacaud’s cooking – but because it didn’t seem to fall under any of the existing categories of predefined stylistic formulations. His cuisine doesn’t posses that indefinable “animalism” that cannot be resolved intellectually because it is addressed not to our intelligence but to our senses only, nor does it rely on a theme and thirty variations, with set forms and complicated constructions built on key relations and symbolism, nourishing our curiosity more than our senses. Neither conservative (with classical grandeur and heaviness of individual dishes) nor avant-garde (gathering together smaller, interlocking units [dishes] of shorter breath while corresponding more closely to the overall tasting flow), with a good instinct to weave all components of an individual dish into an enjoyable unity, his style seemed to represent a work of “realism” composed by a romantic whose imagination and invention were accompanied by the supervision of an alert critical mind. There are two features characterizing Pacaud’s cuisine: 1) Pacaud is the chef for whom the inner intricacies of ingredients determine the form, gait, and tone of his composition to such a degree that dishes with the identical main ingredient form separate, very unique sub-styles. For instance, in two different versions of the fillet de bar dish, the fish would be cooked and presented in a similar manner (hence his “sea bass style”), while still lending a different output of flavors, reflecting the accompaniments with which the fish was enhanced. Therefore, it becomes apparent why Pacaud can apprehend with infinite responsiveness individual dishes, but he cannot summon the force of multi-course flow: Such an ultra-refined approach of hanging on details of individual ingredients is typical of miniaturists. 2) The second characteristic is that Pacaud’s cuisine, conveying relaxed mood, exemplified by modest presentation (which still carries a residue of the conventional, but with polished simplicity and pictorial effort) is so complete, that the real marvel is that while the most finicky connoisseur has a chance to rejoice in the quality of the ingredients, the untutored still have a chance to absorb freely the highly artistic and subtle elements without being aware of their nature. Pacaud provides consistency, which can never disappoint to the extent some of Gagnaire’s dishes can. However, not always does the excellence of ingredients guarantee the same esthetic virtue to the dish, and considering that the course of the meal generally includes no more than three or four dishes, it is possible that at L’Ambroisie, an overall meal, though steady, may turn modest and somewhat lacking a thrilling element. Mousseline de céleri aux écrevisses, jus de presse à l’huile de noix– six crayfish out of their shells, with firm, yet tender meat, placed side by side, as if building a tunnel over the off-white celery purée, whose buttery taste consumed any celeriac freshness, and surrounded by a thin yet very strong sauce, based on walnut oil and crayfish stock – was a less successful dish, ordered by my husband. The delicately pronounced sweetness of the crayfish was overpowered by the very distinct, almost throat-scratching walnut oil, whose undiluted toasty taste was almost savagery, so that even the neutral-tasting celery purée failed to offset the oil’s strong characteristics, becoming somewhat superfluous. Perhaps diluting the walnut oil with a lighter oil (a common practice) or offsetting it with sherry vinegar (though the vinegar acidity might’ve compromised the purity of the crayfish taste) would’ve helped, but this dish didn’t possess the necessary articulation, using rather incomplete and strong language that threatened to drown the main theme in undulating words. This was the only disappointing dish, which followed the exceptional amuse. Morels were blooming on the menus of nearly every respectable and less so restaurant last May, having pleased us with a variety of concentrated and light flavors from such dishes as a decent chicken with peas and morels at Mon Vieil Ami, an excellent l’oeuf cocotte a la crème légere de morille at Atelier de Joel Robuchon and at Les Ambassadeurs, a very good morel and asparagus appetizer of morel consommé that continued gaining concentration from a cheese-cloth bag filled with dry morels, infusing the liquid with earthy intensity, as the mushrooms gradually re-hydrated. L’Ambroisie was our last meal in Paris, and, after a two-week gastronomic marathon, we desired nothing more elaborate than just to have a decent meal while maintaining quantity control, so that when our Mâitre d' hinted that Monsieur Pacaud would be able to cook for us, but that the dinner would consist of four or five dishes, we had to respectfully decline, restricting our choices to a conventional three-course meal. In other words, a muse of adventure has already left us…until a fantastic amuse of morel consommé with foie gras awakened our senses again. What made this dish special is the skill with which luxury ingredients were applied. Pacaud didn’t simply combine the immaculate morels and foie gras, but manipulated these ingredients in front of the diner, turning them into marionettes at the end of a string, which he pulled with marvelous virtuosity, adding a touch of designated light and perhaps even satirical chansons, as the dish kept altering its appearance and taste, as if mixing different paints on a palette to create a completely unique color. The dish first made its appearance as a dark-brown consommé with a piece of steamed foie gras in the center, allowing us to acquaint our palates with the most intense morel flavor. After a second spoonful, however, the elaborate “coloratura” started unwrapping as the steamed foie gras began melting in the consommé, forming white foam and thickening the liquid with a buttery richness while taming and smoothing the sharp and concentrated angles of morel taste. A final touch of counterpoint sweetness, in the form of fresh (perhaps slightly blanched) peas, whose clean, delicate flavors were stressed by the foie gras richness, enveloped the somewhat forceful mood of the dish in mysterious and muted tones, capturing the unparalleled sensuality of this pale and amusingly decadent world of luxury – a truly spectacular dish. There is one more dish that I’d like to mention. It was almost touching to see a young French couple, modestly dressed, sitting at the right-hand corner of the room, pet each others’ hands and whisper gently, as if their souls have immersed in the happy melodic world of their French song, with its joyous abandon, and their desires, memories and passions fainted into a cheerful intoxication. Their language could’ve been gauche and blustery, for all I knew, but French, with its suave curves, can be deceiving to the untrained ear, and I simply observed the scene until the motion at the next table was interrupted when sea bass with butter sauce and caviar arrived at their table. The fish, its black skin attached, was glowing and the caviar seemed of good quality from the distance, so that the growing temptation to try this dish forced me to inquire of our Mâitre d’ whether Escalopines de bar à l'émincé d'artichaut, beurre léger au caviar,” would add harmony to my order. His concern was that the buttery sauce on sea bass would echo the sauce in the frog legs appetizer, Royale d’oignons doux, cominee de cuisses de grenouilles (frog legs with sweet onions, butter and watercress sauce) I had already ordered, …and suggested that should my heart still desire sea bass, he’d arrange for a different, off-menu version, which would bring the necessary diversity and balance to my meal. Three small filets of line-caught sea bass in the center of the plate – hiding sweet and buttery carrot purée under their bodies, surrounded by a thinly carved crisp, fresh and almost sweet fennel and fish-fume based sauce, sparked with saffron – was a truly fantastic dish. It is hard in general not to fall in love with this aristocratic and refined fish, whose tender meat seems to be pampered by nature as if only the best of two worlds – hermaphroditic, the fish produces eggs, claiming its female origin, until later in life its ovaries dry up and it switches hormones to produce sperm – can deliver this extraordinary softness and piquant, delicate taste, but when it is a line-caught specimen, delivered the same day and handled with extreme care, sea bass becomes a real treat. The extraordinary preparation of the sea bass at L’Ambroisie secured its fluffy texture – characteristic of extremely fresh fish, the flesh of which generally becomes slightly firmer the day after the catch, which is not always a negative, since its taste still remains superb, providing the fish was stored properly (another advantageous quality of sea bass compared to other no-less-glorious species like turbot, for instance, whose taste and texture deteriorate rapidly with time) -- and the skin tightly embraced the flesh so that every cell of its pattern was glittering in the artificial light almost decoratively, while the moist, tender and cushiony meat added a sensual legato to the tableau. There is probably no other restaurant of this magnitude that provokes so many disparate opinions on service. From the perspective of some diners, the service at L’Ambroisie is not unacquainted with perplexities; others extend their praise for the restaurant’s professionalism. One could say that L’Ambroisie epitomizes everything that is right or wrong with the French, depending on his individual perspective. Classicism and tradition assume a certain level of formality, which, while possibly viewed by some as buffoonish, cold, and impersonal, would be revered by others as courteous, professional and proper. To some extent, L’Ambroisie doesn’t adjust its culture to the needs of its customers as much as it attempts to adjust customers to the formal mores of the restaurant, which can create a conflict of different opinions. The Mâitre d’ would not be shy to insist on your changing your order to fit his own perception of your perfect meal, which could be construed by some as intrusiveness, while others would view it as professionalism and a welcomed enthusiasm. While the Mâitre d’s insistence on your practicing French at the restaurant could be viewed as nationalistic, others may perceive it as his tolerance and patience and appreciate the opportunity to rehearse their language skills. (Even having acknowledged my inability to communicate in French, our Mâitre d’ continued to insist that I try, as if testing the truthfulness of my admission. I laughed and suggested that I would rather take pleasure in his practicing his Russian with me, after which he conceded that unless I spoke Japanese, our only common means of communication had to be…oh well, English.) L’Ambroisie allows one to experience time in its immobile state, having preserved that which has almost gone – a level of distant respect expressed in courteous but directive care with an element of theatricality obtained through rigorous training. For those whose temperament prevents them from being open-minded in accepting someone else’s authority over them, or those resenting taking their part in a “play” of predefined roles as set by the still life of the restaurant, going to L’Ambroisie may not provide an ideal experience. If one manages to become an integral part of the L’Ambroisie culture, however, then the reward may be significant.
  6. Merlin, Thank you very much. Arzak indeed deserved a special effort.
  7. The Divine Mrs F., I hope you'll enjoy it.
  8. Apparently a current version of Invision software or our package allows only certain number of pictures to be displayed in one post. Below are the rest of the pictures, which I wasn’t able to fit in the previous post. Foie Gras Pegeon Lamb (agar agar sheet) Lamb presentation before the jus was poured Lamb “Ugly omelet” dessert “Grilled Fruit” dessert
  9. ARZAK Opening the window, I nearly drowned in the majesty of the serene and monotonous night sea, merged with the outline of the dark, hollow sky, so enchanting in its conciseness and simplicity until it broke in impatient outbursts, as the waves approached the shore, turning swelling and muscular, while striking careless strokes on the “silk,” leaving behind a sparse adornment of white, angry foam, only to retreat in shame, as if calmed by the power of the statue of Christ atop the Monte Urgull hill, encircled by the softness of the artificial light, and almost floating in suspension above the cauldron of the mist of the night. All the troubles of the previous day – a small, transitional hotel in Madrid, at which we stayed for one night before leaving for San Sebastian; a curious triangular elevator for “two persons,” which with luggage left little space for one, and which my consort perceptively called a “marriage-counseling booth”; to add insult to injury, a deluxe room, consisting of one room with a double bed (in case the elevator therapy worked) and the other with two separate beds (in case it didn’t), with walls interrupted by tall windows that admitted floods of sunlight, making the room steam from the exterior heat, and revealed close-up views of the not notably tranquil outside surroundings – seemed trivial in the face of magnificent today. Rain was promised for the next day, and a shy ray of breeze sneaked through the open window, playing with my hair and rushing to the back of the room to tickle my husband’s face, distracting him from his pleasant dreams. I shut the window, crawled into a comfortable chair and pulled out Elena Arzak’s résumé, kindly given to us by Elena along with other materials at the end of our dinner, moving my finger slowly from sentence to sentence, trying to grasp the meaning of each word. Graduated from Swiss hostelry school; staged at Ducasse, Troisgros, Gagnaire etc.; worked at La Gavroche (London)… – the dry and official format of the résumé let the static of the past take over, as if transforming her human essence into the motionless piece of stationery and obscuring the passion and spirit Elena released into the room of the more than 100 year-old house. Not quite bruised by time, the house embodied the spirit of those who found shelter there – the fleeting references to the past retaining treasures of former days, the solidarity of memory and history. Take away the posh and somewhat incongruous burgundy chairs and carpet, epitomizing aristocratic refinement, and the “golds and scarlets” of the wall hangings of Meléndez-like nature morte, and a sense of rustic simplicity and uncompromised, homey comfort will be unshelled in its pure charm, once again giving life to pastoral tradition. “I’m sorry you won’t be able to meet my father today. He’s in Bilbao,” said Elena after a short introduction before I managed to fully switch my attention from the menu. A fragile silhouette of a young woman, with dark hair tied tightly back, and wide-open, dark-brown eyes exuding an illimitable energy stood at our table with a straightforward and disarming smile. We then proceeded to build a tasting around several dishes I had on my list prepared long in advance, leaving it to Elena to flesh out the dinner with her own inspirations. A set of small amuses, a potpourri with delicious alarums and excursions, arrived simultaneously, opening our four-hour journey: tomato and strawberry soup (caldito de tomate y fresa), adorned with chives, its gazpacho taste awakened by the scent of strawberries, the flavor of which was not aggressive enough to reveal itself or offset the acidic nature of the thick tomato liquid, but sufficient to lend an exquisite touch of elegant perfume to this time-honored dish, traditionally served at the end of the meal, but a pleasing start to clear the palate while perking up our taste buds; marinated sardine with melon (sardine marinada con melόn), sardine, marinated in salt and vinegar, raised on a wooden sword above a long, rectangular body of juicy melon, which was varnished with moisture and dusted with full-flavored and assertive smoked paprika, adding a piquant tone to the sweet, salty and slightly acidic monochrome medium of the dish; pineapple with roasted piquillo pepper (piña con pimiento de piquillo), which blinded the eyes with a bright contrast of cheerful polychromy of brilliant yellow and bloody red, glittering against weary-green parsley, the sweetness of the pineapple consuming the red pepper flavor somewhat too forcefully; pitaya [dragon fruit in the cactus family]”basket,” filled with sautéed and finely diced seasonal hongo mushrooms, cuttlefish, and onion(?) (pitahaya con sepia y hongos) , stunning grayish and paper-thin petals of fruit – the edge rimmed purple (echoed by the natural sweetness of beetroot-and-red-pepper sauce thinly splashed on the plate), slightly dried, to keep the shape of the basket, and cut into such thin layers that the abundant black seeds (resembling sesame seeds), the fruit’s natural freckles, seemed artificially glued onto the “petals” – whose delicate pale sweetness tamed the more forceful sautéed mushrooms, smoothing the flavor intensity and adding a new, sleek perspective to the otherwise simple dish; and plantain with fish mousse (plátano macho con arraitxikis), a dry “leaf” of plantain embracing a pencil-like metal post in a swirling line of a sinuous brushstroke, with the small mounds of pale fish mousse dropped on each vertical surface of the leaf, more starchy than sweet and a buffer to the smoky and salty taste of the slightly coarse mousse made not with cream but olive oil – a dish so simple yet so utterly ingenious. These lovable and light-hearted minuets, assortments of chivalrous pantomimes were smitten by the earring of vegetable heart with mango – lettuce heart, mango and foie gras mousse (clips de cogollos con mango) appetizer, as if turning the modest thistle eater into a pleasure seeking debauchée, its deceivingly fragile look revealing a frivolity of flavors with the whole of imagination. A fresh and pristine, rose-shaped burnt-orange flower, composed of paper-thin slices of roasted mango, glistening in the artificial light and hiding smooth foie gras mousse in its crater, as if to keep bumblebees and butterflies away, and the rose’s “stem,” made of lettuce heart in the shape of an earring, moistened by tomato olive oil and showered with the dew of chives, were posed artfully on the white, ribbed plate. Bite on the stem and watch the moderate bitterness of the lettuce, accentuated by the strong olive oil, which slightly scratched the back of the throat as if guarded by spiky thorns, melt naturally into the gentle sweetness of the mango petals and luscious velvet of the foie filling, the combination always startling and pleasing. (Gagnaire’s chestnut cookie with foie gras and mango mousse comes to mind.) Egg flower and truffle oil in goose fat, txistorra sausage with dates (flor de huevo y tartufo en grasa de oca y txistorra de dátiles). An egg, txistorra and toast – a breakfast meal, so monotonous, so unassuming, so devoid of fine art often used as a cultural buffer against the commonness of the outside world. How could this simple dish, this bucolic still life be taken by the scruff of its neck, pushed and pulled about to be resurrected through the inner vision of the artist – creating not what he sees before him, but what exist in the remote corners of his own mind – into the voluptuous and sensual masterpiece housed in haute palaces? “It’s easier to show than explain,” said Elena holding in her hands a small, plastic-wrap ball, filled with the contents of a raw duck-egg (reminding me of the water-bombs I used to make as a child) and decoratively tied with multiple vertical lengths of twine tightly enough to sink into the flesh of the ball, creating pumpkin-like ribs. The result, after poaching, was a lovable and light-hearted beauty of a compact and plump egg (indeed reminiscent of a cloud-white pumpkin flower bud) with downy, frail, yet gently firm egg-white walls, barely containing inside its yolk, which burst from within when the walls were disturbed, releasing a viscous and intensely yellow liquid. The profusion of bright flavors was not centered on the egg itself, elegantly infused with homemade white truffle oil and goose fat (placed in the plastic sac along with the egg during the cooking process). Rather, the taste of diced mushrooms topping the egg, creamy mousse of paprika-spiked txistorra and sweet date, and salty breadcrumbs provided the flavor balance. This was a truly magnificent signature dish, full of pastoral conceits not as a parody of the ordinary, but with the most delicate feeling for the graces of tradition, yet freed of rustic constraints. “Thus, with child to speak, and helpless in my throes, biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite: Fool! Said my muse to me, look in thy heart, and write.” (Philip Sidney, Sr.) Inspiration and the ability to reproduce the emotional and pictorial of the inner and outer worlds in one single lighting stroke – not simply illustrate, nor merely experiment, but create spontaneously and harmoniously, allowing the mind to transform what was once seen into the still life of one’s imagination – have been the mark of genuine talent. Einstein’s inspiration in defining the theory of relativity came from his vision of a man falling off the roof. Elena and Juan Mari’s inspiration comes from the street, their everyday lives. Beer foam finds its reincarnation in the signature grilled-fruit dessert; graffiti, drawn by Peruvian kids on the streets of San Sebastian, becomes the inspiration for yet another poached-egg signature dish, “graffiti de huevo elíptico”(graffiti on elliptically shaped egg), as if Elena can’t resist poking a little gentle fun, the egg cooked long and slowly, enclosed, similarly to the egg flower, in a plastic-wrap sac filled also with squid ink and parsley water, which imprint the “graffiti” on the egg. The illusion of motion within, of translucent green and saturated black swirling on the surface of a smoothly polished elliptical egg, fooled us into mistaking it for a raw squid, just as well-drawn graffiti would render the street alive with a parallel world of imagination. The minimalism of the presentation, depicting the egg (as squid) seated against the plain background of black squid ink, reminiscent of the traditional stuffed baby squid in its own ink (chipirones en su tinta), with its only accompaniment a fried breadstick and a splash of greenish rice and parsley powder, enabled us to focus on the composition, which made it all the more poignant as the dish had to “die” in a minute. I pointed out to my consort that the description of this dish given to us upon its presentation, “egg with squid ink sauce, egg yolk and fried breadstick with red pepper” specified the yolk as a separate item. Whether this description was purposeful or not, the yolk added such a profound intensity to the dish as it joined the flavors of the sea and salt of the ink sauce and the sweetness and earthy red-pepper taste of the chewy breadstick that it indeed deserved special mention. Both a linguistic and visual pun, this dish was clever and delightful, though if pressed to choose, my preference would be the “egg flower” dish. Bonito. The season for bonito was almost at the end, though not just yet (generally lasting from July to September) so that every place we visited in the area from homey and rustic dives to Michelin-starred restaurants had it on the menu. A twist on what seemed to be yet another local specialty appeared as the kind of carefully contrived break from the spell of the traditional ideal that often supplies a victory for modern art. As if the functioning structure of the original were remembered only remotely, the dish’s recreation involved a delicate “mistreatment” or rather additions – shapes of black rings, made sauce from tuna scales(?), a lonely, thick ring of caramelized onion, sparklingly red Sichuan peppercorns and thin, almost transparent pepinillo (fresh gherkin) sauce – that sprang out of one another according to a visual necessity so consistent that they took on an unexpected naturalness of their own, taking the imagination to the beach, the rocks and the seashells. The tuna was gently smoked for two minutes (adding a very light, almost symbolic aftertaste) and sautéed quickly only to set the firmer rim outside the raw meat (maintaining a modestly warm temperature), which was then painted with the black, thick sauce, creating the impression of intact skin. It was not the fish, however, that made the dish sparkle. The thin, slightly viscous gherkin sauce sought to establish the pastoral mood of the gentle though strongly pronounced vegetable taste; the black sauce, painted on the plate and fish, thickened with the flesh of poached vegetables, relayed the same motif; the onion, so shy on the plate, added such an intense sweetness that it balanced the power of the ocean brine of the fish; and last, but not least, the Sichuan peppercorns, scattered across the “canvas” in a careless order, adding a most important veneer of not so much spice, as a tingly, flowery perfume that brightened the whole dish, relieving it from potential blandness. El chipirón como estrella (squid shaped like a star). The two squid, standing in regal demeanor on theatrical “octopus legs,” carved into their lower bodies, as though awakened from a timeless slumber by the sound of a horn (the cry of battle summoning them to war), releasing their foamy weapon of the black and angry cloud, ready to attack, but wait…vibrant tremoli of random color-dots of black ink, pink raspberry and green parsley sauces and a lonely “olive branch” of sage(?), as if symbolizing global peace, lifted the curtain of deceit of the cleverly staged performance, turning the angry squid into lovable baby buffoons and their weapon into adorable, fuzzy bonnets. It was a most entertaining and light-hearted presentation, much richer and more emotionally colored than simply mechanically arranged. Lightly sautéed, the squid – tender and springy, rubbed with browned garlic, spiked by the briny character of the inky foam – would not register in memory, other than for their perfect preparation, if not for the passages of genuine polyphony where one least expected them: finely diced, slightly crunchy onions under the squid, poached with apples, and acquiring their sweetness and acidity, lightening up their garlicky host; and delightful and colorful sauces, particularly the raspberry, which, despite its small amount, tamed the garlic’s aggressiveness and brought the squid’s essential taste to the front. Humorous, playful, with the melodic splendor of perfectly balanced taste, this dish was unique in its charm. Foie gras with pear , tender and buttery, a white foam of almond sauce quietly bubbling beneath, slices of crunchy pear gently poached in cherry, turmeric(?) and saffron (tickling the nostrils with its delicate perfume), caramel sauce, a leaf of mint – no screaming flavors, no agitated exuberance, just silent balance – was a good, solid dish. There was an expression of uncertainty on Elena’s face when I asked for foie gras to be included in our meal, as if she weren’t sure it wouldn’t interrupt the natural flow of the tasting. Indeed, the dish arrived along with the mains in a size sufficient to satisfy curiosity (though not experience its full glory), but not large enough to suppress enthusiasm for the following courses. Elena built the tasting skillfully around our choices to stir little movements gently, from piano to moderato to forte. The foie gras, however, brought a slight pause, reminiscent of the Baroque masterpiece dwelling inside the walls of the 13th century gothic Toledo Cathedral (added in the 19th century to let the sunlight brighten the Mass) somewhat discordant, yet tremendously beautiful. Considering the rare occasion we find ourselves in the area, I had no regrets in having this additional very good dish. Nevertheless, Elena’s instinct and a sense of balance in building the meal should not pass unnoted. As my consort engaged in refreshing his mouth with a vanilla stick, pineapple, and a piece of fresh laurel, preparing his palate for his next dish, ”pichón en sobre para chupar” – roasted tender and juicy pigeon (lacking distinct gaminess despite its being cooked rare, which generally stimulates wild flavors in game) and boiled potato (shaped as two rectangular sticks, whose blandness was cleverly offset by the mild, slightly smoky taste of burnt leek, covering the sides of the potato in a black, thin layer), a quiet, melancholy dish – I watched how a very thin and dense net (resembling a cheese cloth washed in starch and then dried up, turning stiff), imprisoning the Pyrenees lamb in a gauzy cylindrical tower, slowly melted under the stream of hot lamb jus poured on top, creating the impression of a receding illusion and turning into a thick, dark-brown sauce while revealing the body of a lamb chop at the bottom. This was my “cordero con café cortado.” “There are different kinds of gelatin,” explained Elena, placing a plate with several pieces of the coffee sheet on our table for demonstration. Agar agar (one of Adria’s favorite ingredients) is a gelling agent derived from seaweed, contrary to the animal origin of gelatin, though providing the same effect with the difference of being insoluble in cold water and requiring boiling water for melting. “It was an accident,” continued Elena while trying to explain how this tiny-holed version of the net-like sheet came to life. Just like a mistake in measurements in Matisse’s “La Danse” resulted in a new technique used by Matisse in his works with cut paper at the end of his life, someone in Elena’s kitchen mixed up the routine, and the coffee sheet was steamed instead of being baked. Coffee, water, a pinch of sugar and agar-agar powder are utilized in creating the sheet, which after being steamed and dried, has little taste until transformed once again into the thick sauce, whose unobtrusive bitterness serves as a spice to the meat, and its thickness provides body to the jus. Aside from all the theater and behind-the-scenes technique, this dish was excellent – a variation between the old-fashioned and a greater freedom. Arzak’s style was oriented toward building tastes with a clear reference to pure, non-camouflaged ingredients that is often missing in the deliberately processed food of modern gastronomy. From the start, its manner was very literal, yet not boring, concise, yet playful, as well as charming, inventive and logical in the progression of the successive phases of the sensual (as in the amuses), “domestic” (as in the eggs), the exotic (as in the bonito), the humorous and sincere (as in the squid), the sensuous (as in the foie gras) and even monumental (as in the lamb). The architectural design of each dish, though visually placing its main elements in the spotlight, revealed a strong dependency of the main ingredients (generally somewhat flavor-restrained on their own) on their brilliantly chosen accompaniments, which, when combined, created an indispensable unity, finishing the dish not on the plate, but in your mouth. We were astounded by the balance and harmony so remarkably consistent with each dish. The desserts, however, though still playful and whimsical, came off as slightly too direct and assertive, which I found less felicitous. Among the hamburguesa de chocolate (chocolate “hamburger”), tortilla fea de chocolate con lechuga (“ugly” chocolate omelet with lettuce), pan de naranja con espinacas (orange cake with spinach), tarta de manzana con tapenade de aceitunas (apple tart with olive tapenade) and frutas pomposas (pompous fruit), the tortilla fea de chocolate con lechuga and frutas pomposas signature desserts deserve a special mention. “No matter what I did to this dessert, I couldn’t make it look prettier and still have it taste the same. Someone in the kitchen suggested I leave it alone, since the taste comes first, and rather call it an ‘ugly omelet,’” said Elena, pointing to the plate, containing an irregularly shaped dark-brown large packet – not so ‘ugly’ as plain indeed – embellished by a green lettuce sauce sprinkled with hibiscus petals and accompanied by a spicy chocolate sauce that was a tribute to a Mexican mole. The omelet, disguised under a thick layer of cocoa powder, was dense enough to produce the effect of an eggy crepe, holding inside dark-chocolate mousse, whose cloying sweetness was unexpectedly offset by the exotic acidity of passion fruit and further balanced by the essential, thin and fresh vegetable sauce. It wasn’t just theater when carbonated liquid was poured into the thin cylinder standing in the center of the plate alongside the neatly chopped grilled kiwi, strawberry, apricot and a single bluebbery. The milky bubbles, moving up the tube, exuberantly overflowed it with a joyful fountain running down its transparent, glass walls, transforming into a brightly pink raspberry soup. What escaped was left on the plate, while the rest was taken away along with the container, making this dessert not only amusing, but also clever and well calculated. The first encounter of the taste buds with the strawberry soup bombarded them with exotic spice, somewhat reminiscent of a curry blend, the first strong impression of which, however, faded with each subsequent spoonful as the mouth got accustomed to the spice, distinguishing more pronounced notes of cayenne, galangal, oregano and thyme among the twelve spices utilized in this sauce. Somewhere in the middle of our desserts, Elena came to say goodbye and apologize for leaving early. “You may not have noticed, but I am expecting a baby: four months already.” We didn’t notice, and how could we when Elena, so petite and fragile, seemed to have enough energy to be at a hundred places at the same time, managing to give each diner enough attention with the generosity and kindness one can expect only from a close friend or family, while running things in the kitchen on her own that day! With a tremendous feeling of appreciation, my husband apologized for taking so much of her time and having so many questions. (Knowing his chivalrous tendencies, I would imagine him making sure that Elena wouldn’t have to stand when near our table.) “Don’t worry. You’re like my father, but he’s worse,” she smiled. The relentless journey toward modernity remains in some respects addictive for artists in many areas of human activity, including chefs, sometimes leading to such outbursts of personal expression that it finally ends with a receding frontier in territory that was colonized almost before it was actually explored. Many artists drown in a shower of suggestions, but the few, who try to work and rework the suggestions to a conclusion, are outpaced in the marketplace by those who move from innovation to innovation and whose works don’t seem to reflect more perfection than was implicit in their first experiment, tossing off an enormous number of half-developed ideas in place of several real artworks that might have been. Subsequently, with each mediocre experience, the thought crosses your mind that perhaps if some less-able chefs had been released from the imperatives of originality, gastronomy would be better for it. Under no condition does Arzak fall under the category of those fickle travelers who bounce from corner to corner in their attempt to fit the “current trend.” Perhaps someone dining at Arzak for years may feel nostalgia toward the times when its cuisine was more in accord with the restaurant’s rustic décor, but it hasn’t lost its “personality,” and its development represents nothing but a steady, undeviating, long evolution of contrasted flavors, precisely articulated structures and decisive details, as a result of a highly developed aesthetic intuition while standing sturdily on the raw ground of tradition, letting each dish convey a unique rhythmic movement of a beautifully harmonious ballad. Elena managed to break “the traditional box by sliding out from beneath the roof and extending into the landscape” (Philip Johnson) rather than breaking the foundation of the old “house” completely to rebuild the new cuisine. Brava! Our most sincere gratitude to Elena, who on top of the magnificent meal made us feel at home, and our genuine wishes of happiness and joy in her future motherhood. Our thanks to Ms. Ainhoa and Ms. Garmendia for their wonderful guidance through our dinner as well.
  10. This thread will document my recent trip to San Sebastian (retracing Robert Brown’s steps as he described in eG article, San Sebastian Dining: Akelare to Zuberoa) and Madrid. Since I realized that I may not have the opportunity to register my experience at every deserving restaurant in the same detail as I managed for Arzak (see my next post), I decided to “cheat” and reuse a personal letter (with some additional thoughts at the end) I put together for a friend, to provide a general perspective. My intention is, however, to describe in subsequent posts as many places as the time will permit. Perhaps the most interesting observation is that the five restaurants we visited in San Sebastian (Arzak, Berasategui, Akelare, Mugaritz and Zuberoa), located in relative proximity to each other, with chefs sharing the same traditional roots and utilizing predominately the same ingredients, offered such disparate cuisines, differing one from another if not by genre (mostly a contemporary angle, with Zuberoa on the more conservative end), then by style and philosophy. Arzak, however, we placed on a pedestal above its rivals. It is not that the technique utilized in Arzak was more advanced than in Mugaritz or Beratesegui, for instance. It is that Elena managed to dethrone haute cuisine, bringing it down to the rustic level of tradition, rather than simply apply regional ingredients in a modern fashion to produce a more generic, homogenized taste, characteristic of the contemporary haute fare. Each dish, inspired by local fare, took on a more refined taste, with economy of expression and most precise rhythmic movement, catching its mood so that after a single try it was hard to imagine the principal ingredient without the accompaniment. Considering Juan Mari and Adria’s close relationship, I was wondering whether “Adria syndrome” affected Elena in a negative way, as was reported by some old-timers, but all dishes were spectacular, and some interesting approaches, like the utilization of the agar agar sea vegetable instead of an animal gelling agent, melded into the composition naturally. The only part of our dining experience where I noticed a slight dissonance was in desserts, which I found less strong then the main courses. Aduritz, while having absorbed the best from his San Sebastian elders and Adria, managed to develop his own unique signature. With a very distinct style, less persistent in the pursuit of tradition than Arzak and supercharged with the modernism and symbolism of herbal infusions, Mugaritz was a highlight of our trip, and I might’ve placed it at the top of the hierarchy if not for the occasional disconnect between some infusions and their accompanying main ingredients. In fact, the process with which Aduritz creates his dishes starts with the infusion or the sauce first, and only then does the chef choose the main ingredient to “accompany” the accompaniment. When it works, it is simply exceptional; when the marriage is less successful, it brings to mind Johann Reichardt and his complaints about certain vocalists and their interpretation of his songs. Reichardt used to point out that most singers would first play the notes, as if they constituted an independent melodic composition, and only then added the words, instead of forcing melodies to spring naturally from repeated reading of the poem. The various stresses in a dish should be so perfectly blended, one with another, that the “melody” should ring true and lie easily on the voice. I found Arzak’s cuisine more forceful and mature in this regard, but Mugaritz charmed us with Aduritz's inventiveness, excellent flavor balance and gracious presentation. It was the second best meal of our trip. Berasategui will be slightly more difficult to place, probably because my husband left the restaurant underwhelmed, contrary to my impression, but I placed it third. The décor (apparently, they repainted the walls(?)) and the service have improved since Robert Brown’s visit, though his criticism of the tableware still stands, and the room was packed, mostly with Spaniards. As insurance against disappointment, I requested the addition of the dish Robert praised the most (creamy rice with octopus, which indeed proved to be excellent) to the tasting menu and, to our utmost surprise, a newly printed version of the menu with the inclusion of the risotto was brought to our table in a minute or two, with the first amuse arriving shortly after. In comparison, Berasategui was indeed the only restaurant approximating in ambiance the three-star dining experience we had in Paris. The cuisine alone, however, characterized in several words, was either calm and restrained at its best or boring and monotonous at its worst, though always technically proficient. Berasategui’s style reminded me at times slightly of Gagnaire’s, and the contemporary French influence in his dishes seemed to be so apparent that I took the liberty of asking Berasategui whether he considered the backbone of his cuisine to be French. A flash of pain and horror ran across his face as if from the news that thousands of Frenchmen had just attacked the City Walls of Hondarribia and, as if squeezing every word out of himself, while energetically gesticulating and shrugging his shoulders up and down (I am only slightly exaggerating), he replied “No. Besides, we all know that French cuisine is on the verge of its death!” I quietly retreated from pursuing this question. Overall, I enjoyed our meal, but wouldn’t recommend Berasategui as a destination restaurant if pressed for time over Zuberoa or even Akelare, considering that you can get a similar but stronger meal in France. At Zuberoa, we made the mistake of building a tasting from the carte instead of ordering the chef’s menu. The regular menu was very heavy on foie gras and truffles, and our attempt to construct the tasting wasn’t successful in that I couldn’t get a broad perspective on Arbelaitz’s cuisine, despite the advantage of having the opportunity to compare dishes with similar ingredients. There were several misses, and not all ingredients were of the finest quality, but his classic or classic-French style and decorative manner, with an abundant utilization of luxury ingredients, including butter (so uncharacteristic of the region), produced a cuisine – sometimes subtle and refined (poached egg with pigeon paste and celery and truffle sauce), sometimes rich and rustic (a traditional dish of braised lamb and mashed potatoes, which could be typical of the French bistro meal as well) – of almost an exquisitely mannerist sensibility. He seemed to be the only chef who gently discarded Adria, indicating that his own roots lay along a more classical path oriented toward taste first with technique secondary. The good service and solid food of a two-star establishment was our conclusion, but no spark of Arzak, no thrill of Mugaritz, and no technical glow of Berasategui were present. Akelare’s cuisine – we ordered the dégustation menu – was slightly more aggressive and direct, with an occasional overuse of sweetness, which led to a flavor imbalance in dishes otherwise interesting conceptually (oysters and grapes three ways), kitchen mistakes (overcooking), and unsuccessful experiments with dishes atypical of the region (stringy, tough and chewy roasted fresh bacon, prepared according to our waiter in a non-traditional way, a better version of which could be found at Gramercy Tavern). Though some of the savory courses were below expectation, the restaurant’s location and décor, the service, some interesting modernistic ideas, an occasional good, solid dish (veal with mustard), excellent desserts and Subijana’s charm made our lunch very enjoyable. There was a group of diners seated behind us who were apparently known to the house and for whom Subijana took the order and delivered dishes himself. Curiosity took hold of me at some point and I inconspicuously turned around to peek at what dishes were served to the special guests. I was quite surprised to see a large portion of chipirones en su tinta (squid in their own ink), the most fundamental, traditional dish one can easily find in a good, rustic, local fish restaurant, like Hermandad or Loreduna in Hondarribia, sitting in front of the satisfied guest. Indeed, our best dish of the evening was the rustic veal, and I wondered whether despite Subijana’s active involvement in the 'nueva cocina' movement, the dishes to order to experience his cuisine at its best should be old, traditional Basque classics. If I were to evaluate desserts only, Akelare would’ve been placed first with Mugaritz and Berasategui close behind. Considering that desserts are generally (and sadly) not accorded the same respect as other parts of the meal, their description often finding either no or little place in people’s reviews (I am not an exception) – perhaps somewhat understandably, since at the end of the meal, your senses are fatigued, your attention is distracted, and your ability to judge critically the dish could be diminished by the length and the overall abundance of the meal – when desserts suddenly awake your interest at the time you can hardly imagine forcing down another piece of food, special points are awarded to the chef or pastry chef. Desserts and petit fours at Akelare, though not subtle and light (qualities more characteristic of desserts at Berasategui or Mugaritz), but rather full-bodied and slightly more sugary than I would generally favor, were very well conceived, imaginative, and executed excellently. In fact, observing desserts at other tables, I was so intrigued that I was about to order more desserts from the carte, when my consort gently indicated that he’d refuse to indulge my subsequent complaints of excessive weight-gain, but I was, of course, free to do as I wished. The “right to complain” won, but I feel cheated even to this moment. Our least favorite meal was at La Broche in Madrid: a poorly orchestrated flow of dishes in miniscule portions. In fact, each dish in isolation was interesting, though not exciting, and the portions were appropriate for their flavor combinations; however, there was a sense of lack of substance and artificial symbolism, as if the dishes were not created spontaneously but through laborious and tedious experimentation with deliberately disparate ingredients, which resulted in pretty and perhaps interesting, but soulless food. The décor was somewhat claustrophobic, reminiscent of either a sterile laboratory or a white path to heaven, with the provision of small bites of exotic buffet food for the souls before their Judgment day, with an occasional reminder of worldly matters in the form of art work suspended from the ceiling, depicting what looked like the post-war horrors of hanging body parts. My husband looked utterly bored, until he had the opportunity to observe my fruitless dialogs with the profoundly incompetent server, who would refuse even to provide us with the Spanish terms for an ingredient, responding simply, “It is a secret,” and running away from our table as fast as he could. The petit fours were simply described as “It is very complicated.” Arola didn’t make rounds of the half-empty dining room, unlike the other chefs, though he came out of the kitchen as we were leaving, apparently to take a look at the couple who “tortured” his service staff on their way out. I had no interest in initiating a conversation. There are many discussions of Spanish starred restaurants on eGullet, reflecting the service in a somewhat negative light compared to France, for instance. Indeed, globalization promotes unification among countries and affects our expectations to be fulfilled uniformly, in a model spreadsheet of behavioral conduct that applies to different areas of human activity, and perhaps especially so to service. Considering that restaurants in Europe are evaluated by the same Michelin, theoretically the standards applied to “setting the scores” should be identical in every country, thus enforcing our expectations of high-end service to be that of the same rank everywhere. However, perhaps due to some traditional constraints, it may not be easily achievable, and sometimes I wonder whether unification won’t kill the charm so closely identified with local customs, even if the service is inferior or rather different from what fits our criteria of perfection. In general, I noticed a tendency affecting the service, closely related to market demand. Indeed, local diners, being a majority in all the restaurants, seemed more interested in the overall experience, free of interruption, including that from the service staff, whose role, therefore (restricted to the short presentations upon the dishes’ arrival), was that of a shadow, and whose main function was to disappear as quickly as possible. More often than not the servers had superficial and rather general knowledge of the dishes, with any additional questions requiring a special trip to the kitchen, which seemed to terrify them (as it didn’t seem customary to interrupt the chef during the busy dinnertime), resulting in their attempt either to avoid the situation completely by running away (our La Broche experience) or suggesting that questions be saved until the chef was able to address them directly. Almost all chefs made rounds of the dining room and were more than happy to engage in conversation, showing appreciation for your interest in their art. Perhaps you won’t be able to get answers while you are actually eating a dish, but in my case, I considered this to be somewhat advantageous, as it allowed me to reach my own conclusions (rightly or wrongly) before being influenced by actual knowledge, having my own post-revelations ever so slightly more satisfying. Times change, and sometimes no matter how rigidly some societies attempt to preserve their own ways of life, people rebel and change the rules, so that when I read Gault-Millau’s “Dining in France,” published in 1986, warning women not to wear pants or pantsuits to a three-star restaurant, I chuckle, remembering plenty of women-pants during my recent trip to Paris. As much as I enjoy being walked to the ladies room as at Lucas Carton, or watching the silent march of gaunt servers at L’Ambrosie and its never-changing protocol of silent “announcement” of the dishes, with one of the servers, holding a large, heavy metal tray, swinging on his tippy toes to the sides under the tray’s weight while desperately trying to restore his balance, I can also see that this type of service nearly, and perhaps sadly, is becoming obsolete. Whether it is economic hardship that forces French chefs to cut costs and find new compromises in establishing a more casual service, or a new market demand that favors a less formal approach, the service at starred places like L’Arpege, Gagnaire, L’Astrance, Les Ambassadeurs (more ceremonial) though very good, was relatively informal, which makes me wonder whether in time it would not be Spain that will adjust restaurant service and dining to a more formal standard, but rather France that will continue amending its traditions down to jeans, short sleeves and casual, homey and perhaps even less competent service.
  11. lxt


    Thank you for posting, which is quite timely for us, as we are leaving for San Sebastian and Madrid tomorrow. Is reservation required to Arce and, if yes, how long in advance?
  12. “Neo-Gothic or Neo-Baroque,” was my first impression as we entered the compact lobby of Lucas Carton, until curly heads of cheeky cherubs, emerging from the wood-carved leaves supporting elaborate wall lamps in the main room, caught my eye with their distinctive Art Nouveau motifs of the vitreous interior incarcerated in an elaborate scenography of wood. Somehow the “sweet” vulgarity of Art Nouveau, expressed in a perennial preference for forms with sinuous floral ornamentation, and which more often than not represented equally lugubrious examples of petrified Classicism with heavy Symbolist overtones, was smoothed by the restrained equilibrium of good taste, lacking the overblown rhetoric of the Grand Palais. I will not elaborate further on the décor of Lucas Carton and its smooth transposition of a court-mannered theme into the stout bourgeois if not decadent character, reviving the age of the sipping of absinthe, the smoking of cigars, of silk gowns and the coming of the Ballet Russe, but rather concentrate on the matters of another eternal – the art of gastronomy. Is personal expression of the inner world, influenced by the spirit of the current age – “personality” and “style,” those periodic, transitory characteristics – enough to bypass the boundaries of constantly changing times? Do we not appreciate the culinary achievements of chefs of a certain historical period for their influence on the future development of the culinary art, though we prefer to examine these chefs’ dishes on paper not on our plates? How many dishes survived through the frenzy of different times constantly changing in fashion, tastes, forms, rules, demands and conventions? “Simplicity is an exact medium between too little and too much.” (Sir Joshua Reynolds). Indeed, the minimalism of the “Duck Foie Gras in Savoy Cabbage,” its congruent baldness and visual modesty, featuring two large, perfectly round foie gras “packets,” with small mounds of coarse salt and pepper on the side, which only slightly disturbed the geometric unity of these voluminous “burgers,” residing in their priestly solemnity and wrapped in a swathe of wrinkled drapes of the soothing and buttery-moist cabbage leaves, represented a thread of harmony and figurative order. No gallant elaborateness, no artful pomposity, primitively naïve, this dish, differing strikingly from other more intricate entrées, promised no special worth until the first bite awoke the tremor of elation, and for a moment heaven knelt to earth. Thirty five years ago, Senderens applied cabbage -- known for its ability to absorb fat without losing its own textural consistency -- to foie gras, creating a unique dish, which still pleases the minds and stomachs of connoisseurs. To prevent foie gras from rendering its fat, the concentration of which is considered to be central to grading the flavor and richness of the final product on the plate, not only did Senderens steam the foie gras (the best method to preserve fat), but, not to lose a drop of precious juices, he also wrapped it in cabbage leaves preliminary boiled in slightly salty water for about thirty seconds to soften the leaves’ texture and unlock their pores for fat absorption. The magnificent, bulbous foie gras from Landes (in the south west of France, a place famous for its foie gras and ortolans), freed of veins and refrigerated for 24 hours in a cheesecloth wrap, is then draped in cabbage leaves and steamed for twelve minutes. The dish, the leafy exterior of which looks essentially integral, sealing us off from what we are given to behold, when tasted, disintegrates this illusion into self-consciously expressive evidence of the finest foie gras, with a texture neither overly firm nor overly soft, lavishly rich, creamy and pale, free of any bruises or blemishes, augmented by the soft texture of the wrinkled leaf and its concentrated taste from the absorbed foie-gras essence. When the perspective of time renders style and personality irrelevant, and we can view a work purely as an expression of eternal artistry, as an Egyptian carving speaks to us today more subtly than it did to its chronological contemporaries who judged it with the hampering knowledge of the period, we can identify those who believed in their own impulse to find a suitable form for their creations – whether or not disengaged from the traditions and preconceptions of their own time, using the outer form (i.e. style) for their inner spirit as a springboard to further expression –admiring their works, appreciated by generations across borders and times, the success of which amounted to special exemptions from the verdict of history. I’d like to hear not just a recount of signature dishes of famous or less-so chefs, but your experiences and thoughts on dishes, perhaps as old as you are, which still provoke the fervor of pleasure and are as contemporary now as they were 10, 20, 30 or more years ago.
  13. Your baroque interpretation of your travel annoyances just became a “reason to be cheerful” for me.
  14. lxt

    Pierre Gagnaire

    Orik, thank you very much. The book is hardly a conventional cook book, containing no recipes but rather capturing reflections on Gagnaire’s philosophy with 170 pictures of the dishes and their poetic prefaces. It is written by Gagnaire with captions by François Simon of Figaro and essays by Bénédict Beaugé. Interestingly, I always considered food photography as nothing more than the image of truth, the reference of knowledge with limited possibilities until I read this book. The photographs by Jean-Louis Bloch-Lainé are simply breathtaking, emotional, living, surreal and transcendent; their powerful splendor forces you to take a completely different perspective on food photography as a true art form. I can now fully understand why Gagnaire doesn’t allow taking pictures in his restaurants. Beaugé compares Gagnaire to Kandinsky in this book, but I disagree. Gagnaire’s cuisine at its best brings associations with Glenn Brown to my mind. Brown’s technique, the bravura of his brushwork of vigorous strokes, shown as thick and decisive lines at first glance, resolving into smooth, careful lines on gleaming surfaces prepared with all the care and precision of an old master – a kind of savage pictorial drama, achieved with the finest possible brush, leaving a surface so puzzlingly free of thick impasto – is very much like Gagnaire’s treatment of some “savage” recipes and ingredients, beef aspic for instance. An improvisational approach to well-established concepts – where one would expect roughness and granularity, all is refined, no sharp and extravagant gestures, no jagged or blunt strokes, but rather a breathtaking accumulation of swirling lines beautifully applied – is another commonality between two artists. Finally, classicism is the backbone of these two artists’ creations. Brown based his works on copies of Van Dyck, Rembrandt, Fragonard, and Baselitz. However, the impasto of the original has been altogether suppressed and replaced by Brown’s characteristic style, his constantly mobile brush, just as a touch of melegueta pepper in turbot with cream sauce made this classic dish so uniquely Gagnaire’s. Unfortunately, Gagnaire cuisine at its worst brings to mind Brown’s less fortunate works, in my opinion (see “Alas Dies Laughing”). Minimalism to Gagnaire means that each element of the dish must justify its presence, or it’ll be omitted, which is not the whole of Minimalism as one would perceive it in relation to the School. Even if each Gagnaire dish does contain the minimal possible number of ingredients, it doesn’t retain the singular purity of Passard’s onion, for instance, which is all about that onion; the elements in Gagnaire’s dishes blend into new flavors upon their interaction like the tomato and watercress or sauerkraut and seaweed I had at Sketch. Moreover, the complex groupings and sequences in which Gagnaire presents these dishes together hardly fit minimalist criteria, so I am with you on that.
  15. ''Age does not protect you from love. But love, to some extent, protects you from age.'' -Jeanne Moreau
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