Hugging coastal Spain's attractive shores in orchard-rich Dénia, Quique Dacosta is the full and beautiful expression of its owner's (very) idiosyncratic personality and style.
Extraordinarily formal even by 3-star standards, Martín Berasategui's Barcelona outpost does not achieve the same levels of culinary or service prowess as his flagship restaurant (located in Lasarte, Spain, interestingly) but it comes close.
Though set in a dreamlike, gorgeous interior décor style that mirrors Ducasse's incredible Monaco restaurant, several dishes were serious misses, and like other Parisian 3-stars this place is among the worst-priced experiences out there. Seemingly lost in its own opulence, the restaurant presents a boring and rudely short menu for a comical price. I cannot recommend.
Inside the stunningly opulent Four Seasons George V hotel is its semi-eponymous restaurant, Le Cinq. Helmed by Christian Le Squer, a native of Brittany with a passion for seafood, the restaurant stands out for its extraordinary dining room, the light, creative touches of its courses (especially compared to other Parisian 3-stars), and a very friendly service (most definitely in contrast to other Parisian restaurants, specifically the disaster that is L'Ambroisie).
Christian himself has had a fascinating and extremely Parisian culinary career. At age 14, believing he wanted to be a fisherman, he began work on his uncle's fishing trawler. He realized quickly that he preferred preparing and cooking the fish to actually catching them, and began to study the culinary arts. He went on to train at a professional high school in Vannes before working in Parisian haute cuisine establishments like Le Ritz, Le Divellec, Pavilion Ledoyen, etc. He took up his post at Le Cinq in 2014, earning two stars in the 2015 book and this third star in 2016.
In an interview, Christian makes an interesting analogy for how he views his work: "I like to think of cooking as perfumery. Like a perfumer selecting his notes for a particular scent, we pick our raw materials and transform them into works of culinary arts that boast elegance and refinement. By that analogy, I am a creator of flavors."
PRICE PAID: $450PP (INCL. WATER, TAX, TIP- PRE-CHALLENGE)
FINAL SCORE: 7.0/10
The hotel was fully decked-out in holiday regalia when I attended, complete with enormous mirror-finish polar bear and reindeers, wreaths, and twinkling lights galore.
Le Cinq is found off the main lobby and next to a gorgeous interior courtyard, itself adorned in ice-blue colored lights. By 3-star restaurant standards, the place felt cavernous, yet only holds 65 covers a night. A gorgeous central chandelier provides most of the room's illumination, and the ambiance this place is able to achieve is just about perfect. Though certainly gifted with many stylish restaurants in our own right, I can't think of a single American restaurant that nails "classy" this well.
Service was warm, even amiable, and throughout the evening several helpful people with tremendous English skills provided an incredible experience. This might not seem noteworthy until you consider that this is truly rare at Parisian restaurants in general. French restaurants are geared towards their regulars, and normally do not give a shit about how they treat first-timers or tourists in general. This might seem arrogant and self-harming, and that's because it is.
As a first set of greeting bites, we are offered a "bubble" of orange campari (on the left) and a slice of pizza on the right. The bubble has strong ginger flavors, and we are encouraged to eat the liquidy gel in a single bite. The pizza, complete with mozzarella, mushroom, and truffle, has a very thin crust and thus tastes like a pizza-flavored nacho chip but is delicious nonetheless. 8/10 overall.
Bread service arrived next; obviously I had to go with the baguette, which was rich, warm, and fresh. 9/10.
A strong start as we get into the menu; sea scallops imbued with lychee flavors (those small dollops on the upper-right portion of the plate were made from lychee as well) and served with frosty-cold sea urchin. The earthy sea urchin flavors pair perfectly with the acidity and sweetness in the lychee fruit; the scallops have that neutral taste commonly found when they are extremely fresh. Nice flavor contrasts as well. 9/10.
Next, in a confusing jumble of place names, some Dublin Bay Prawn (also known as Norway Lobster) from Brittany, France. Catch all that?
Anyways, the prawn is buttery, soft, and incredibly fresh. It is greatly enhanced by the addition of a crunchy buckwheat pancake, which adds texture, and less so by a hearty dose of warm aioli. My complaint here is that the dish loses a significant amount of its lightness with the aioli (some might call it just mayonnaise), and it hampers the delicate shellfish pretty significantly. 6/10.
Next, what the menu describes as: "Gratinated Onions, Contemporary Parisian style" is basically a deconstructed French Onion soup; or maybe French Onion Soup à la Mode. Warm, rich, and constructed with beef broth and a variety of cheeses, this is a very creative and delicious take on a staid French tradition. 8/10.
Next, some turbot with watercress (the green elements) and pear. The watercress adds a nice dash of color and zest to the incredibly fresh, flaky fish. The sauce is made with Japanese miso and butter, enhancing the savory richness even further. The deliciously light texture paired with the hearty flavor were memorable, and almost perfect. 9/10.
From a region in Australia called Ranger's Valley, this "Black Market" beef is made from Black Angus cattle but has a similar marbling to that found in A5 wagyu. The filet is grilled, sliced, and covered with truffle, mozzarella, and mushrooms, forming a pretty white shell. The interior colors are gorgeous as well. Rich, soft mouthfeel and a flavor profile that is balanced nicely by the mushrooms. 9/10.
With delicate white leaves that looked and felt like plastic, this "Iced Dairy" dessert comes with three biscuits on the side; vanilla and raspberry cheesecake, pecan nut and caramel pie, and a crispy caramel tart made with mango, passionfruit, and tarragon jellies.
The "plastic" is actually caramel with painted-on silver, and has the strong flavor of yeast. Under the white shell you have an ice cream of yeast and a mousse of yeast. The taste of both are slightly sour, serving as a nice and refreshing but non-sweet dessert. The idea you're left with is the taste of cake dough or cookie batter right before you place it in the oven. Kind of a complex idea to convey with a dessert, but it works. 8/10.
Described as "Crunchy Grapefruit, Preserved and Raw," a crystallized layer of sugar protects a group of delicious, burstingly fresh grapefruits. The caramelized layer breaks easily with the spoon, and the relatively sour grapefruit pairs perfectly with the decadent sugariness. A simple but lovely dessert. 8/10.
And finally, the last menu dessert: chocolate ganache with caramel on the side and whipped cream on the right. A “Peau de lait,” or skin of cooked milk is included in the sauce and it's described as "a chili made of milk." Interestingly, it's the same exact plate as the langoustine/prawn plate with its multi-layered surface. 8/10.
Next, a set of candied croissants with almonds. Flaky, crunchy, and warm. 8/10.
Lastly, a series of wrapped candies and petit fours for the final bites. Chocolatey and rich. 9/10.
And, a charming little gift box full of other snacks to take home. A nice parting gestures.
Heston Blumenthal occupies a quasi-mythic status in the fine dining world, so let's start with that. His Big Idea is to recast fine dining as an experience in storytelling rather than eating, but not in a boring, let-me-tell-you-where-the-chef-found-this-particular-lobster kind of way. More like a multisensory memory walkthrough from childhood, with lots half-serious yet artful emulations of Alice in Wonderland to boot. While charming, be prepared for lots of instruction, long anecdotes, and windy explanations recited like memorized lines as well as service staff might be expected to recite. Some of those lines are charming. Some are teeth-grindingly awkward. Also expect an extremely leisurely pace; we clocked in at over 4.5 hours.
As you approach his building, you confront a prominent bronze plaque emblazoned on the outside. This is Heston Blumenthal's coat of arms, so to speak, representing the senses—lavender for smell, a lyre for hearing, apple for taste, a hand for touch, etc. Quite tellingly, the motto at the bottom reads, "Question Everything."
Returning from their successful stage in Melbourne, Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck immediately regained its 3-star status in the 2017 Michelin guidebook. Since not much of the equation that has made them so famous hass changed, it's unsurprising that they should be immediately welcomed back. I would group The Fat Duck alongside Bo Innovation in Hong Kong and Alinea in Chicago as, without question, the three most creative and showmanship-oriented 3-star restaurants in the entire world. Years ago, Heston publicly disavowed the term "molecular gastronomy" in favor of his preferred nomenclature, "modernism." However described, after spending an evening at his restaurant he in inarguably taking fine dining in a new and much more engaging direction.
PRICE PAID: $410PP (INCL. WATER, TAX, TIP- PRE-CHALLENGE)
FINAL SCORE: 8.0/10
The interior decoration of this building was really something to behold... "Whimsical" doesn't even come close. Each room has a light cannon sitting the table above that modifies the color of illumination based on what course is being served. As we first enter, you can see in the photos above that everything is quite red, representing sunset on the day before our journey. More to come on that in a sec.
A map is brought over to our table and unfolded with great drama. We are told at enormous, ponderous length that this map is a map of our journey to come. Broken up into chapters like a book, and with teeny-tiny course descriptions underneath for those actually interested in what they would be eating. A great deal of care and craftsmanship went into creating this map, and I daresay it looks incredible. "As you look at this map, can you imagine how your journey will unfold?" We are asked, somewhat open-endedly. Heston's staff needs to work on how much they talk down to patrons who are clearly meant to be absolutely and completely fucking aghast at how amazing this is. It's pretty great, don't get me wrong. But it's not quite as amazing as they think I should feel.
Next, up rolls a charming liquid-nitrogen aperitifs cart. The options for frozen-solid drinks included:
- Paloma with tequila
- Vodka sour with lime
- Campari soda
- Piña colada
I went with the Piña colada. Sorry for the red light effect, it was shining pretty strongly at this point. 8/10.
This next morsel, designed to accompany the aperitif as a two-part dish titled titled "A Change-of-air," was a macaron of beetroot with spicy horseradish cream. Super light, spicy, and airy. The freeze-dried beet texture is particularly excellent. Crispy and delightful pairing of flavors. 8/10.
Another charming yet lengthy story opens this course. This time, the server regales us with the stresses of traveling all the way to Cornwall: kids in the backseat whining, car trouble, missed directions, etc. The first drink one's parents would want after such an experience, we are told, is a G&T. This dish is basically a deconstructed version, with lots of hot and cold, green wheatgrassy flavored broth, and a touch of gin ice cream in the middle brings everything together perfectly. 9/10.
Moving on to "chapter 2" of the menu, "breakfast"—some tea which is hot and cold at the same time. It's really a mid-blowing effect, but despite appearing to have a homogenous constitution, this beverage is quite viscous and feels like two opposing flavors at once. 8/10.
The next course was, hands down, one of the most interesting and fully-executed ideas I have ever come across in fine dining. Six shrink-wrapped mini-cereals fashioned in the fake-brands of Heston Blumenthal's imaginary journey, each complete with cover art, nutritional information, and actual cereal.
Included in each box were precision-cut puzzle pieces that could be fashioned into a coin-holder. Referring back to a survey I answered before attending the meal, the restaurant had decorated one of the pieces with the likenesses of my two dogs. Totally charming. 10/10 just for the creativity alone.
The milk curd and cereal were excellent; like those last sugary bites at the end of the bowl that you remember from when you were a kid. 10/10.
The next dish—"Sound of the Sea"—is precipitated by a seashell with headphones. Pumping out the ear buds is a relaxation-CD style sound of ocean waves, brought to you by the iPod shuffle seen on the right.
The meal itself is served on a "plate" with a drop shadow of sand. On top of the glass surface are Yellowtail, mackerel, vegetable stock foam, octopus, and coriander seed. 10/10, zingy-fresh and a delightfully constructed dish.
Next, a "rocket" and "twister" ice cream bars; I suspect those brands mean more to UK residents than to this American. The rocket is Waldorf salad. On the right is salmon smoked jasmine tea, horseradish avocado mousse. Avocado and smoked salmon is strongly flavored. Maybe too strongly flavored; it overpowers the delicateness of the Waldorf rocket pop. 7/10.
As a follow-up, we are brought small cones of crab ice cream with passion fruit and a chocolate stick. The incredibly rich crab pairs perfectly with the sweet, tropical passion fruit tones. 9/10.
The trick of this next dish is the "Melting crab" served with caviar. As the broth is poured over, the "skin" of the crab melts away, just as the skittish sea creatures one might try to capture disappear beneath the waves. Caviar and tiny pieces of Cornish crab remain, along with golden trout roe. The underlying sauce is made from white chocolate and seaweed, giving it a Very Very Rich profile. 8/10, if only because it's too ungodly rich.
An enormous biodome-like container arrived next on our table, along with a very long story about hiking through the forest. We are asked to reminisce about the smell of the forest just after rain.
The server poured liquid in, and immediately strong after-rain smells/smoke poured out of forest diorama.
The biodome is removed, and the dish itself looks like a forest floor, even down to the little grubs. Beets. Earthy, rich, granules of dirt. Made with fig leaf, meadowsweet, melilot, oakmoss, and of course black truffle. 8/10.
We then got to a rather confusing part of the meal titled "... We Discovered the Mock Turtle Picnic." First, we were presented with a small and somewhat depressing brochure on the story of Mock Turtles, that is the faux-turtle protein made of veal.
This next course got a little complicated, so please excuse the panoply of pictures. First, we were brought clear glass pots of "Tea," which had a hot veal consommé. Then, a small jewelry case with gold clocks, and each with tiny paper anchors like a tea bag would have.
The clock melts, revealing tiny cubes of ham. the gold portions break apart, further enriching the soup.
... The resulting mixture, stirred together and served hot, was rich, warm, beautiful. 9/10.
... The mock turtle tea was followed up with a simple, incredibly tasty toast sandwich. The amazing part about the sandwich was the hard-toasted bread layer in the middle; it was dense and crispy, contrasting beautifully with the soft layers around it. I truly loved this course. 10/10.
At this point in the meal, we took a break from the action for a kitchen visit. Chefs from all over the world were busy plating some of the delicacies we had just enjoyed; I even witnessed a member of staff sound-check every single conch shell with ocean wave recording before it left the kitchen. An impressive dedication to quality.
When we returned to our seats, we were presented with another menu as though we had arrived at a new, utterly separate restaurant, complete with new art, style, and typography (Heston employs a font expert to develop these experience-within-the-experience touches, so as to best evoke memories of childhood). Along with the new menu, we are brought bread and butter and told, once again a bit too theatrically, "Welcome to the restaurant."
The "appetizer course" is brought out first; a beautifully-plated scallop dish with black truffle and King Oyster mushrooms. The interplay of colors is beautiful, but this dish is way, way too salty. 6/10.
And now on to the "true" main course, titled "Alows of Beef." A thick, salty slab of Wagyu beef is accompanied by some hearty slices of grilled onions, lettuce, and mushrooms.
To the side, some crispy red radicchio salad. 8/10.
This next dish is flavored like the famous "Botrytis," or Noble rot, often found in fine white wines. This is accomplished through some sugary preserved fruit jellies as well as fizzy pop rocks that explode upon contact with your mouth. A neat dish; the full emulation of the noble rot flavor is impressive. 8/10.
Lastly, as a "digestif" to this mini-menu, we are brought a framed map of Scotland with some candied Whisky gels, titled "Whisky gums." The gels themselves taste exactly like the whiskies originating from that part of the country. The Islay Scotch, for example, reveals the word "Laphroaig" upon removal, and sure enough has the distinctively peaty, sea-salty flavors of Laphroaig.
This next course was, not kidding, presented on a floating pillow... Suspended with a jet of air, it appeared to sit in space as if by magic.
Imbued with baby powder, the spoons we are handed have fur handles to enhance the sensory experience of comfortable sleep. The ice cream is made from tonka, milk, meringue, crystallized white chocolate, and pistachio. 9/10.
"A visit to the sweet shop," likely the high point of Blumenthal's showmanship, is the final course. Designed and built custom for the restaurant at a cost of around £150,000 you insert the coin that you received during the cereal course into the side of the machine and all sorts of acrobatics ensue. It's impossible to describe articulately, so check out the video:
The output is a placed in a custom-printed sweet shop bag, which you get to take home with you full of delicious petit fours. A creative and beautifully presented final gift. 9/10.
With its boxy, modern frame and gorgeous windows, De Leest cuts an impressive shape out of the corner of this sleepy village north of Appeldoorn in the Low Countries. Open since 2002 and helmed by a husband-wife team (Jacob Jan Boerma in the kitchen, and Kim Veldman running the wine program), De Leest won its first Michelin star in 2003, its second in 2006, and its third in 2013, which it has held since.
From interviews, it's clear that Jacob views his restaurant as a bit of an "outsider" in the Michelin world—they use all-sustainably-harvested product and target zero food waste, buying from local sources wherever possible. This leads to lots of vegetable-driven dishes, and Jacob's attempt is to strike balance with each dish without making it too rich. I found him to be mostly successful.
VAASSEN, NETHERLANDS (~1 HR FROM AMSTERDAM)
PRICE PAID: $260PP (INCL. WATER, CHAMPAGNE APERITIF, TAX, TIP)
FINAL SCORE: 7.0/10
The interior is neat, bright, well-lit, spacious, and modern. The servers' stands are perhaps a bit too pronounced; they occupy much of the landscape in the center of the restaurant which breaks up the long visual lines but the makes the room feel crowded.
Some delightful first bites arrived within moments of taking our seats; a parmesan cookie on a small ceramic pedestal (left) and some watermelon-tomato gel upon what looked like an egg-crate plate (left.) While not dry, the somewhat brittle cookie was savory and salty, contrasting nicely with the juicy watermelon and tomato combination. A nice mix of flavors and textures. 8/10.
Next, two small coppery spoons nestled on a bed of rocks arrived carrying some mini-steak tartare bites, along with a tiny sandwich of soufflé. The smallish grains of couscous underneath provided a nice textural contrast to the super-soft tartare and sandwich. A lot going on here, but an extremely pleasant bite. 8/10.
Next, a "Taco" with tartare of shrimp and small green shoot garnishment. Really more of a nacho in my opinion, but we'll go with taco. Fantastic flavors, and surprisingly rich; also surprisingly not-spicy for the heavy dose of red pepper it appears to have had. The shrimp is fresh but not exactly exploding with flavor; it's been in the fridge perhaps a day too long. 7/10.
Next, some eggplants, pan fried, with a foam of Parmesan and some puffed sweet peppers. We appear to be getting into the sultry end of the appetizers, because this dish is shockingly heavy. Eggplant is never my favorite vegetable, but the textures here are a high point. 7/10.
Next, some pumpkin curry with kaffir limes, also known as combava. Sweet and complex, I really like the combination of curry and lime; it gives the dish a Thai flavor profile. 8/10.
The bread is fresh and light, and the butter is rich and heavy so I'm definitely happy. 8/10.
In what must surely be the last appetizer course, some Gillardeau oysters with a green curry-saffron potato purée. Unbelievably smooth; the curry flavors go with the oysters perfectly. The shellfish themselves feel like they were just pulled from the ocean; neutral and fresh. It's not often you see curry tried twice in a series of appetizers, but this group makes it work. 9/10.
The first menu course came next, plated linearly: some North Sea crab, green herbs, and a frozen pastille of Buddha's Hand. The crab has been marinated wth green apple to balance the acidity, and some "sweet and sour" red beetroot adds color and depth to the dish. There's a lot going on here, and the large number of diverse and contrasting flavors feels like a traffic jam. Rising to the top are the delightful crab and green herb reduction. 7/10.
Good lord, more curry? Some roasted langoustine marinated with tandoori spice foam overtop, served with young carrots and curry. Underneath, a purée of smoked vegetables. The curry itself is based on vadouvan, an in-vogue curry powder that was actually invented in France—the base is garlic, shallots, and onions, with fenugreek (and, obviously, curry leaves). Toasted and blended carefully, it yields a subtle and almost sweet note to the curry, as opposed to the explosion of heavily perfumed cumin flavors in the previous dishes. It's delicious, but this is a lot of curry all in a row. 7/10.
Next, some codfish, parsnip, butternut squash, and - mother of God - yet more curry. All in a vinaigrette of curry. Once again, I'll admit that this light yet flavorful dish really brought out the best of the codfish's oily flavors by correctly balancing the acid of the citrus and the spice of the curry powder. It's a beautiful dish. But my palate is getting burned out on curry here. 8/10.
Next up, some trout, fennel, fermented vadouvan foam (I give up. Every dish will have curry. It's fine.) And lastly, caviar. The trout has some delightful beurre noisette flavors underneath. Unreal that such a lean fish can be presented in a way that makes it feel so rich. 7/10.
Lobster with celeriac, vinegar, potato, shiitake mushrooms, chorizo, and sauerkraut. Very strong celery/mustard flavors; this winds up feeling like a Germanic dish in contrast to the South Asian feel to the rest of the menu. The caviar pops with freshness and the lobster is as good as if we were sitting on the dayboat that brought it up. 9/10.
Next, an artful dish of duck liver, hibiscus flower, and papaya. The colors are the all-star of this dish, as is the moon-surface plating. Some light flavors of jasmine flower and sherry; the papaya and foie gras flavors contrast nicely. 7/10.
And finally, on to the last main dish: Pheasant. Delightful flavors of chicory, gravy, Jerusalem artichoke, and red beetroot. A hint of truffle in the gravy really moves the dish forward a few paces from its already pretty awesome presentation. 8/10.
Check out this plate's color—the deep green really emphasizes the pale yellow hues of the cheeses; a subtle refinement. The restaurant features regionally-produced cheeses, and here were the standouts:
At bottom right is a very uniquely-made type of blue cheese called Grevenbroecker. The cheesemaker, Peter Goonen, is an award-winning family farmer based in the Limburg region who has won many awards for his work. By not artificially inoculating the cheese with the microbes that will form the penicillium and instead letting the curds naturally clump and form their blue veins, the taste ends up richer and more natural. The farm for generations prior made only butter, and the soft texture and butteriness of this cheese recalls that history.
Another honorable mention- the cheese at the bottom of the plate at 6'o'clock is called "Svallow," like the bird. Made from cow's milk in an agricultural community in the Southern Netherlands called Lievelde, the cheese is a Dutch version of Camembert. Earthy, creamy, and with an extremely delicious taste of hay and fresh grass. The cheesemaker, Hermiene Makkink, says she makes cheese because of her love and respect for cows and nature.
A nice selection of goat's milk cheeses from the Loire region and a few other cow's and sheep's milk cheeses round out the batch. 9/10 overall, a great diversity of flavors and all from interesting, top-quality producers.
Moving on to the desserts, a sorbet of sorrel and dried apple. The overwhelming flavor of the dish is that of wheatgrass; a nice palate cleanser. The apple adds crunch to the texture. 7/10.
The second dessert is a creative pairing of blueberries with basil, along with what tastes like rose petals. The blueberries appear in several forms—a sauce on the right, cooked berries sitting atop the basil cream, and freeze-dried on the left. A deliberate diversification of textures that works really well. 8/10.
A tropical mix of mandarin oranges, coconut, grenadine, and jasmine flower juice arrived next. Beautifully shaped circles of fruit and sugar pastries adorned this gorgeous ceramic plate. I loved the geometric juxtapositions and carefully handcrafted architecture of this dish, the three-dimensionality of it. The taste, though, was a little plain compared to the exhaustive construction. 7/10.
As we get close to the end of the desserts, some lovely lemon-imbued milk and yogurt pucks with caramel and hazelnut. Quince ice cream. A little dairy-heavy but a satisfying dessert nonetheless. 7/10.
Last but certainly not least, a collection of stone-shaped plates are carried over one-by-one in many trips by the service staff. Exquisitely made and showing off the precision of the pastry chef, the desserts themselves (some macarons, marzipans, and marshmallows) wind up emulating the style of the plates themselves. Bright, crispy, sugary flavors throughout (especially in the Pâte de fruits at center, which are blackberry). A stylish finish to the meal. 9/10.
A big part of why I love this project is that every now and then, I'm lucky enough to have an experience that goes beyond a fantastic meal or an incredible afternoon or a perfect evening. Sometimes, when the stars align, I wind up with a truly transformative, once-in-a-lifetime impression that leaves me thinking about the place I've visited for days, or even weeks. Thomas Buehner's La Vie is such a place.
Having spent time working under Harold Wolfahrt at Schwarzwaldstube in the Black Forest as well as Kevin Fehling at The Table, Thomas struck out on his own in 2006. He ventured to Osnabrück, which is gorgeous but by Thomas' admission a touch out of the way. "Like gardening in the desert," was his characterization, and I found the incredible performance of his restaurant all the more impressive for its distance from any major city.
I found Thomas' style very unique—complex, with lots of considered groupings of flavors and textures, intense preparation and knifework, artistic presentation, and an atmosphere of comfort and playfulness that I find sorely lacking in the Michelin 3-star world. This restaurant is truly one of the, if not the, best 3-star I have been to. Period.
PRICE PAID: $440PP (INCL. WATER, TAX, AND INCREDIBLE WINE)
FINAL SCORE: 10/10
Off a tiny street in classically beautiful Osnabrück, Germany, is the unassuming entrance to La Vie. Osnabrück itself is worth a day's visit—though it was largely destroyed during World War 2, it has been exquisitely restored to its medieval architectural roots and hosts a pretty exceptional Christmas Market in December.
The interior space at La Vie is comfortable, and strikes a great balance between formal and welcoming. The palette is neutral with high points of color that draw the eye; the blood-red centerpieces that subtly match the painting behind, for example. The linens were crisp and beautifully set; there was an effortless stylishness to the place that drew me in. The well-spaced-out dining room for around 30 people contrasts strongly with the submarine-like density of the kitchen, which we visited later in the meal.
... two half-coins of "goose liver cake" served alongside. The goose liver is very rich and delicate; presented on an interesting platform; it looks and feels like tea crackers made of foie gras. Soft and exquisite. A fantastic start. 9/10.
Salted French butter, Spanish olive oil, and some extraordinarily hearty German bread with a thick-crusted rind arrive. I'm a huge fan of bread, and this is a pretty excellent pan-European presentation. 9/10.
Another appetizer appears in the divot of a small plate; goat's cheese appetizer with milk bread cloth covering overtop. Strong, farm-like flavors go perfectly with the crunchy flake of milk bread. A lovely starter. 9/10.
This is probably the right juncture to mention what can only be described as the most amazingly-priced wine list for exotic, fine wines in (likely) the entire world. I am absolutely not kidding. Let me humor you with specifics:
- Chateau Latour 1992; average winesearcher.com average price: $449. La Vie price: €225.
- Domaine de la Romanee-Conti La Tache 1991; winesearcher.com: $3,426. La Vie: €1,750.
- Chateau Lafite Rothschild 1986; winesearcher.com: $1,315. La Vie: €640. And on, and on.
Especially if you take into account that, as of the time of this writing, the Euro is approaching parity with the dollar, you'll hopefully agree that classic/ancient wines like these can't be had for comparable prices in any wine store in the world, to say nothing of a restaurant where markups are typically 100%. I would return to this restaurant just for the wine list, ignoring for a moment the fantastic food and service.
Next, some king crab with salsify sliced perfectly to look like fish skin. The warm broth has dollops of chive oil, which gives it an herbal and almost spicy note. Salsify is an excellent choice to accompany—from the dandelion family, salsify has a vaguely oyster-like taste that supports the seafood flavors in the dish. 9/10, beautiful presentation and colors with lots of intense knifework. Service had their chance to participate as well, with one of many beautiful pourovers. I created a video montage of their best such dishes on the right.
Mackerel, pickled and flambéed, is served with "snow" of kefir and a corn beer from Peru called Chicha poured-over tableside. The mackerel is still warm from its recent flame-bath, and the snow and beer (which has a delicious chipotle flavor from the spices the kitchen adds in) are quite cold, yielding a fun temperature differential. Bits of blackened roasted corn are placed throughout for texture, as well as to enhance the South American feel to this dish. The mackerel has a very soft texture and the fresh, oily flavor typical of the fish. 10/10.
What I'm really enjoying about Buehner's style at this moment is that, though complex, each part of the dish has a role to play, and nothing feels extraneous. Mackerel, with its strong flavors, is never an easy fish to pair with, but it's handled beautifully in this dish.
Next, a delightfully bright dish of Red Gamba (a type of prawn), served with sunflower seeds and lots of assorted roots, fruits, and flowers. The prawn is smoky, mesquite-flavored almost. It's super fresh, and the rice on bottom gives this dish a hearty feel. The fruits are crisp, bright, and beautiful. Though the flavors aren't what you expect on first glance, there's nothing I would change about this dish. 10/10.
Next, series of dishes titled "A Touch of Autumn."
First, a gorgeous, fresh salad with radish, lettuce, white strawberry, citrus, and fig, all beautifully though perhaps excessively sliced. Each ingredient is impossibly fresh for December in Germany, which makes the ensemble all the more impressive. 9/10.
This next dish, presented under a layer of mint leaves and flowers, was strongly driven by the white garlic and mushroom components; very strongly scented. Equally strong (almost felt like Vicks Vapo on the nose, in a good way) were the mint leaves themselves, which gave the dish an interesting balance. On bottom was an excellent, hearty broth; almost like a beef or red wine reduction. Another fascinating combination of flavors and textures. 9/10.
Next, some Imperial Caviar (AKA "Golden Osetra"), the rarest type of caviar sourced only from albino or white sturgeon, and prized for its golden tint and earthy, nutty, champagne-like flavors. To the side, a lovely thick ragout of sweet potato and chestnut mixed with squid fond that pairs nearly perfectly with the eggs. A truly, almost excessively, luxurious dish. 9/10.
An interesting take on this rich poultry dish. The chef describes the preparation as "Étouffée," a cajun/Creole style usually involving shellfish served over rice, this pigeon tastes like an otherwordly-amazing combo of chicken and bacon together, so it's basically perfect. Not too salty, perfectly cooked, temperature is presented just right. 10/10.
A delightful bonus course; we are invited back to the kitchen for a passion fruit and Woodford Reserve cocktail. The chef introduces himself and proudly points out the extreme diversity of his large (15-ish people) staff, hailing from Asia, Europe, North America, etc; folks from all over the world who have come all the way to Osnabrück to learn. After seeing the amazing quality of what they're able to produce, I can't argue.
For the final savory course: a plate of absurdly well-marbled, masterfully-cooked Wagyu, Topinambur (also known as Jerusalem artichoke, or Earth's Apple), and an herb the menu describes as "sour portulak" (we would call it purslane). Further demonstrating his mastery of complex flavor pairings, the Jerusalem Artichoke is the perfect contrast to the beef, enhancing and enriching the flavor of the main without making it excessively buttery or rich. The coin-shaped portion of egg at the center of the dish enhances richness even further but takes it a bit far for my taste. 10/10.
The cheese course arrived next; some Phébus cheese from the Pyrenees mountains served with pine nut ice cream. Strong cheese flavors go perfectly with the savory pine nut ice cream and puffed barley that gives it a Honey Smacks-like flavor. 9/10.
The first dessert on the sweet side: pumpkin with yuzu and yogurt ice cream. The citrus elements of the yuzu blends with the gourd-y pumpkin flavors in perfect harmony. Yet another in what is a long list of creative, inventive pairings that don't necessarily sound great on paper, but are absolutely stunning in execution. Lots of careful knifework, as you can see—the pumpkin almost looks like it has been scrolled from its source. 9/10.
Next, check out the stunning colors in this gorgeous follow-on dessert of beetroot with, in the words of the menu, "a little bit of coconut." Spiced cookies and parsnip round the plate out a bit and serve as platform to display more gorgeous, colorful prep work. I feel like a broken record saying this, but beet and coconut don't seem like natural compatriots... except this dish proved to me that they totally are. The sweet earthiness of the coconut paired perfectly with the earthy-earthiness (yup, I meant to say that) of the beetroot. 10/10.
Lastly, a long series of final bites, each more artful than the last to conclude a meal as close to perfect as I could imagine. My favorite small chocolate bites (the ones with the faces) have five different Indian spices; the "Legos." are super bright and fruity white chocolate.
If you ever have he the chance to go here, don't hesitate. Just go.
Sven Elverfeld's Aqua resides inside the gorgeous Wolfsburg, Germany Ritz-Carlton hotel, itself in the shadow of an enormous Volkswagen factory. Surrounded by a beautifully choreographed waterscape, the restaurant feels like the centerpiece of a city-sized post-industrial artwork.
Aqua opened in 2000, scored its first Michelin star in 2002, its second in 2006, and its third in 2009, joining the now 10 (as of the 2017 book) other German 3-Michelin-starred restaurants. Of note, Aqua scored 19 points out of 20 with Gault Millau, the second-highest score possible. Also interesting: this is the only 3 Michelin star in the Ritz-Carlton chain.
Sven began his career as a pastry chef/chef de partie in various German restaurants like Humperdinck (now closed), Dieter Müller, and the Castle Johannisburg. It's worth mentioning that most other three-star chefs did not spend time on both the "sweet" and "savory" (i.e. pastry and hot/cold lines) of a kitchen as they trained up.
Sven started with Ritz-Carlton in 1998 right after achieving his state certification in gastronomy from the prestigious Hotel Management School in Heidelberg, Germany's largest and oldest service school. Sven joined the Ritz in Dubai, and then moved to Aqua to take over shortly thereafter. From his various interviews, it is clear that Sven enjoys simplicity, innovation, and the blending of French and German styles into something uniquely his.
PRICE PAID: $244PP (INCL. WATER, TAX, TIP- PRE-CHALLENGE)
FINAL SCORE: 8.0/10
With perfect, idyllic views of the water below, Aqua looks and feels like an oversized dining room in a modern country club (meant in the nicest way possible). The tables are spaced out far in excess of what comfortable movement requires; my guess would be that they increase or decrease table settings for a given evening so as not to appear like they have empty tables. On the night we attended, the space felt about 75% booked, which gave it a nice, open, airy feel.
The restaurant describes this opening snack as caramelized Kalamata olives (six o'clock and nine o'clock on the plate) with white sugar leaf on top. At 12 and 3 o'clock, green olives with capers and smoked almond. The capers really drive the flavor; salty but milder overall than the super-saccharine'd black olives. The savory and the sweet go together fantastically, and the dish is a very nice opening statement about the meal itself. Having spent time training on both the sweet and savory side of the kitchen, Sven Elverfeld is giving a hint of what we'll see in the meal to come; bringing together the best of both worlds. 8/10.
Bread, with butter dishes charmingly released at once by the service in a nicely choreographed movement. Wish I took a video, but didn't, so imagine synchronized swimmers dropping off dairy. Salted brioche, soft and warm, small French breads. Totally delightful. 8/10.
Jimmy, the very nice restaurant manager, introduces himself with a handshake and asks about our menu choice. He's gregarious and kind, and that's basically the last we see of Jimmy, which is fine.
Along with the menu we are served some micro sliders with mountain cheese. The sliders have strong thousand island and onion flavors; imagine a really nice, expensive Big Mac and you've more or less got it. Deeper and more savory, less sweet and subtle than subtle previous course in every way, and I enjoy the contrast. 9/10.
Next, a fascinating take on Vitello Tonnato—an Italian dish of veal, capers, anchovies, parsley, and lemon. Their version is served tartare in a pretty half-sphere with some greens. The base also has some oil of arugula, which tastes like a really amazing melted salad. 8/10.
A delicious morsel of French Gillardeau oyster, served with artichoke and argan oil to give some depth. The plate itself looks a bit like mother-of-pearl; a nice design decision that goes nicely with the dish's theme. Super fresh, crunchy texture of freeze-dried vegetables pairs well, but there's a lot going on in a single bite here. 8/10.
Next, a "Stulle" sandwich— textures are dominated by the crunchy, thin bread and crispy shrimp from Büsum harbor; softer beef and crab round things out. Great combo of somewhat dissonant flavored proteins; the sauces on the side add a bit more richness for those inclined (not me; perfect without). 9/10.
This next dish is titled "Bouchot" mussels and rabbit leg. "Bouchot" is French for "shellfish bed," and refers to an aquaculture technique of growing mussels on ropes underwater near the seashore for easy harvesting and higher quality. The rich, meaty mussels pair perfectly with the saffron curry powder for a completely innovative East-West pairing. Rabbit leg within provides another land-sea contrast similar to the previous course. I loved the creativity and flavors of this dish. 10/10.
Next, Veal tongue "Berlin" (not sure where the "Berlin" title comes in; Berlin-style beef tongue usually includes capers, which this doesn't.) The super-cold veal on the left goes great with the foam poured overtop in the rightmost photo; overall a salty palate. The Cipolla Onion in the upper right stands out. A little rich for my blood, especially because of the goose liver slices. 6/10.
Next, a delightful Pigeon breast raised by the farm of Jean-Claude Miéral, a farmer known for his premium-branded French poultry. Elverfeld pair the super-soft bird (very creatively carved, by the way) with a small bed of couscous (upper left in the shape of a corn ear) that adds crunch. Lots of dashes of super-rich sauces fill in space around the plate. There's a lot going on here, and I really enjoy the artistic plating, but it feels a lot easier to look at than to eat. The sauces (if you choose to use them) add way, way too much richness to the delicate pigeon, and it's basically a texture overkill since the bird itself is already very tender and paired nicely with the couscous. The plate itself reminds me of rocks in a river, which is an interesting visual statement. 7/10.
I must be honest and say that I possess a deep character weakness for awesome cheese carts. Of the many incredible choices, I selected:
- Vacherin Mont d'Or, a seasonal soft cheese produced in Switzerland,
- Maroilles, a cheese developed in the 10th century in Northern France by a monk,
- Trou du Cru, an orange-rinded, alcohol-washed Burgundy cheese, and finally my favorite:
- Epoisses, a strongly-scented washed-rind cheese, also from Burgundy.
Another creative dessert, this one with some interesting cross-branding: Ruinart champagne made into sorbet; a touch bitter, and served in a the punt of one of its own bottles. Slightly raspberry, but mostly it tastes like champagne, which is awesome. 9/10.
Next, a crunchy, seasonal plate of "Quince & Grain;" lots of crunchy, freeze-dried components with a very soft, peach-like quince. There's a lot going on here: spruce sprouts, ginger, and lots of fruit beyond the quince itself. Sweet but restrained. 8/10.
Next, elderberry, peanut, and champagne, to harken back to two dishes ago. I love the creative stacking inside the glassware. 8/10.
Next, a very autumnal dessert; a Muscat pumpkin with cranberries, yogurt, and pumpkin oil at the base. The pumpkin flavors carry through really, really strongly; in fact, this dish tastes almost 100% like pumpkin. Not a bad thing; like a deconstructed slice of pumpkin pie. 8/10.
And, penultimately, a beetroot dessert made with half-cherries and Bolivian chocolate. The cherries and chocolate go together particularly well, and I especially admire the visual pairing of beets with cherries. Everything is pulled from the same corner of the color palette, with vastly different flavors. 10/10, a brilliant dish.
And, finally, the dessert cart is rolled near. Pralines of coconut, coffee, blueberry, and some tropical fruit bites finishes out the meal. Just awesome, a great capstone to a great meal. 9/10.
Led by Justin Tan, a Guangdong native who started cooking professionally at the young age of 16, T'ang Court is an impressive application of Cantonese-style fine dining in a beautiful Shanghai neighborhood appropriately called Xintiandi (literally, "Heaven on Earth.")
Chef Tan was trained personally by the head chef of T'ang Court Hong Kong, Kwong Wai Keung, and in Chef Tan's own words he desires to explore "creativity through simplicity." The simplicity theme shone through pretty strongly; many of the dishes he served would not seem out-of-place at a family Chinese restaurant anywhere in the US. Lots of incredible flavors set in a gorgeous, high-ceilinged dining room.
Earlier this year when I saw that the Michelin Guide planned a new Shanghai book in 2016, I got really excited. Known for its vibrant food scene and such all-stars as Paul Pairet's Ultraviolet, I was anticipating a pretty exciting slate of 3-stars. We got only one: T'ang Court at the Langham Hotel. Interestingly, another T'ang Court restaurant also at a Langham Hotel in Hong Kong also has three Michelin stars. How totally unsuspicious.
PRICE PAID: $140PP (INCL. WATER, TAX, TIP- PRE-CHALLENGE)
FINAL SCORE: 7.5/10
Like many luxury hotels in mainland China, walking into the lobby of the Langham is asking to be olfactorily (is that a word?) assaulted by a massive cloud of perfume that they douse the space with to differentiate it from the hazy, permanently welding-chemical scented air that looms over Shanghai. Totally gorgeous from the outside and the inside; this is an outstanding hotel.
We went up an elevator into a smallish, curved space enveloped by some massive draperies, which abut all the tables on the outside of the room. Those drapes would later prove entangling during water service; our waiter got wrapped in it and took a solid 15 seconds to struggle free. Not a well-conceived floor plan, but a pretty and airy room, with seating for about 20. Lots of private rooms hovered in the background with space for perhaps 90 more.
Service had a few small missteps as we arrived. After sitting for about 15 minutes, we were asked "Oh, you want to see the set menu?" Another 10-15 minutes after that until glasses of water arrived. The waiter got pretty tangled, as I already mentioned. He slammed the water into glasses in big, heaping splashes, maybe because he was flustered that the drapes incapacitated him momentarily. Kind of a strange start.
This first dish was an immediate home run.
Counterclockwise from the right: "black fungus," crispy green bean, yellow fruit (winter cherry), and a stack of fried suckling pig skin, cucumber, and BBQ pork.
The black fungus (mushroom is a perhaps more accurate word) is like really tasty rubber. Super pliant and soft texture, and a deep flavor.
The green bean has a hoisin-like sauce that goes great with the crunchy texture. A touch salty but still incredible.
The main appetizer is really a gem. The pork skin is supple, crunchy, and not overly salty. The middle layers of cracker and bean curd add texture. An under layer of bread is soft but dense. The sauce brings it all together. One of the best individual bites of this whole project. 10/10.
Next, some sea whelk (a mollusk) soup with chicken and pork. The broth is served magma hot, and the dish itself is scalding. The pork is in cubes and just melts apart as you bite down. Subtle layers of fat on the chicken adds umami and delicateness/softness. The sea whelk has firm texture, with lots of great oceanic flavors. Tastes the way a day catch boat smells. Last bite is the saltiest and best. 8/10.
Next up, a rich, oily dish of crabmeat dumpling (charmingly labelled a mille-feuille) on the right with local prawn on the left; crab eggs on top. Green veggies feel like a play on snow peas. The prawns are excellent, the sauce is decadently oily, and my only complaint is the bite size—they are too large to wolf down all at once and make an awkwardly oily splash when you try to bite them in two. Knife and fork don't work well either. 7/10.
Woah. So that's a sea cucumber. Braised and served with fish maw, the spiky-looking cucumber is almost as soft as jelly. It has a neutral, jellyfish-like flavor (that is, it mostly just tastes like unflavored gelatin), and not really my thing. The fish dumpling is hot, delightfully flavorful. 7/10.
Even the menu seems like it doesn't want to say much about this next course of braised seasonal veggies. Basically, some cooked greens that taste just like collard greens. Quite plain. 7/10.
On to the last main course—chicken fried rice. Made with Chinese rice wine, this dish is oily, plain, and delicious. I have to emphasize that while extremely tasting and shaped into an attractive sphere, this chicken fried rice is in no way different to me than chicken fried rice at a halfway-decent Chinese restaurant almost anywhere in the States. Maybe that speaks to the robustness of the dish, but I have to say that I was a little surprised that this was the final main course. Perhaps some dimension of precision existed here that I was unable to appreciate.
Lots of pine nuts, which end up dominating in texture and taste. 7/10.
Dessert is some lovely almond/vanilla-flavored tofu with mango, and hovering in the background is a confusingly swan-shaped pastry, made of egg yolk. Very sweet and soft textures throughout, an understated and tasty dessert. 7/10.
Occupying an unassuming corner of leafy Los Gatos, California, is the most recently-minted 3-star in the United States; David Kinch's Manresa. Known for his farm-to-table dishes that showcase the great natural abundance of Northern California (he wrote a book that describes his process), David Kinch is an up-and-coming American culinary star.
Some overall comments about my experience—after doing so many in Europe, it feels weird going back to an American one again. I had forgotten that along with dining at a high-minded US 3-star will come lots of long, self-congratulatory stories about the ingredients, the prep, the plating, what the chef was thinking about/trying to accomplish/showcase about the terroir or the farm or the process... Literally almost two paragraphs per dish of exposition—always welcome, and never boring, but it was jarring to recall how much this practice A) lengthens the meal, B) heightens the already high sense of overconsumption about the experience. A recent attempted decapitation of Manresa by the New York Times highlights some of the anxiety I felt in the room.
Speaking of service, this place doesn't have the equation quite right yet. Less than two savory courses into my meal, I had gone through the pretty delicious bread that they're famous for (they have a separate retail outlet next door, Manresa Bread, that offers take-home versions). The server came by, scooped the bread plates without uttering a word, and was on her way. I tried gently calling after her to request more, but just like a kid hauling ass to the school bus who pretends not to hear a teacher assigning homework, she was outta there. A bizarre move, especially for a place that seems pretty crazy about their bread.
LOS GATOS, CA, USA (SOUTH BAY/SILICON VALLEY)
PRICE PAID: $326PP (INCL. WATER, TEA, TAX, TIP- PRE-CHALLENGE)
FINAL SCORE: 7.0/10
The place settings were somewhat minimalist, understated. A smooth, polished, well-decorated piece of wood served as a beginning- and end-of-meal centerpiece/serving platform.
In a sign of things to come, a "savory" set of amuse-bouches starts the meal. Red pepper pâte de fruits, a black olive Madeline, and a savory granola bar on the left.
The madeline isn't warm but rather room temperature, and tastes like fresh olives. Could have been served warmer, but it just as likely is my own fault for pausing to take photos. 8/10.
The red pepper pâte de fruits is surprisingly sweet—the texture and flavor is similar to sugary pizza sauce. 8/10. An inspiringly cool dish.
The "savory granola bar" is a cool idea that quite literally falls apart in practice. Composed of many tasty seeds, it instantly flakes all across the dining area upon first bite. Once again, user error may be to blame, but this was a very delicate bite. 7/10.
The next amuse, titled "Savory Beignet," was served upon a bed of pebbles. With a crème fraîche center, slice of red pearl onion, and osetra-grade caviar topping, this was a decadent little starter. Kent, the server (who was awesome), recommended that one consume it all in one bite. The warm, super saline topping of caviar dominates the flavor profile, and the tempura coating of crème fraîche is surprisingly thick. Like a really awesome, warm mozzarella stick. 8/10.
Next, a "savory steamed bun" with dehydrated shellfish on the inside, a small sweet-and-sour sauce dollop on top. In a nod to traditional preparation techniques, a sweet egg glaze with broccolini is the final accoutrement. Crustacean flavors dominate this pretty interesting take on a Chinese tradition. 8/10.
An egg custard of "soft farm egg," Meyer lemon honey, and coriander. I'm advised by Kent to dig all the way to bottom of the egg shell, which has been expertly cut, but not with the machine-like precision of French Laundry or Per Se. Kent described their cutting process—the egg is sliced while in a holding device, they remove the yolk and put it off the the side. add the fleur de sel and chive, and put the yolk back in lightly cooked. 9/10.
I'm feeling a touch under the weather, so I ask for a chamomile tea service that shows up in this lovely set. 8/10.
Bread service showed up next, and Manresa has a Whole Big Thing that they like to talk about with their breads... As I mentioned earlier, they have a neighboring store that exclusively sells their baked grains, and they mention repeatedly throughout the night their supposed virtuosity with the product.
First, the choices I was offered—sea salt brioche, multigrain, and einkorn (likely for it's fun, foreign-sounding name). I picked all three, natch... As part of a package deal, I also got some whipped butter with sea salt.
The brioche is ... Actually a touch dry. The salt on the bread gangs up with the salt in the butter, which gives it a strange and likely unintended texture. The multigrain is smooth and very soft, wth a fantastic mouthfeel. Almost like a slice of cake! The einkorn has a very plain flavor and a rougher mouthfeel; almost like a cornbread. Nothing special. 7/10 overall.
A gorgeous, colorful, well-plated garden salad with a "garden velouté" on bottom, made from all the roots and leaves ground up together. A combination of fried and fresh greens on top. The deep-fried wisps are crispy, and the potatoes aren't cooked much, which boosts the texture contrasts. 9/10.
This next dish, titled "Courgette Stir Fry," breaks apart with ease. Wonderful, rich, oily fried-veggie flavors. The textures are remarkably similar between the veggies and the protein, which isn't helped by the fact that said protein is squid. Basil flavors help smooth things a little, but this dish burns the mouth with salt. 6/10.
Next, the small tapioca pearls here are hot and full of flavor. Each "quadrant" is a different flavor; upper right (abalone) and lower right are a bit dry. Tamago on the upper left is totally excellent. To make the tapioca pearls, the kitchen used a small dollop with dehydrated in Bonito stock. Bonito flakes form the basis of the savory stocks used in Japanese cooking- think miso soup. Similar flavors here. 8/10.
And now onto the fifth main course: striped sea bass in a barigoule sauce with strawberry gazpacho on the right to accompany. Bright fruity flavors leap out of the fish dish, the strawberry gazpacho plays along cool and lovingly. 8/10.
And now, the main-main. Poularde (a fancy word for chicken) with morel mushrooms, plated with a small rivulet of anchovy and white wine sauce, which pairs up perfectly. Quite heavy on the pepper. Another small note; the dish itself was liquid-magma hot, like literally unsafe. Still a totally incredible dish. 9/10.
Next, a kingly dish of super well-prepared, savory lamb from Don Watson's farm in Napa, California. The beautiful, jewel-like fruit on the left is nectarine, whose bright sugary notes pair well with the dry, earthy tones in the lamb. Lots of knifework-heavy prep on this dish; small cubes in the back of espelette (a special kind of pepper) and eggplant. 9/10.
As we exit the savories and head into dessert, a small layer cake of cherry, green tea matcha, and lime. The cherries and green tea matcha go together perfectly, and the cherries used in this construction are perfectly, burstingly fresh and ripe. 9/10. It's also super rewarding to break apart (see left).
Next, a completely charming dessert of strawberry, pistachio, and toasted milk.
A few delicious chocolates—the one on the left had heavy peanut butter flavors. The one on the right; strong notes of ginger. 8/10.
As we conclude, a nice rapprochement with the opening course—a sweet chocolate Madeline and strawberry pâte de fruits (in contrast to their earlier, savory versions). 8/10.
Almost very lastly, some macarons. Cookies and cream in front, crunchy and delicious. Menthol on the upper right is cool and creamy. Upper left is strawberry, which tastes exactly like several layers of variously-dehydrated strawberry jam. 8/10.
Lastly, "breakfast for tomorrow"—some lovely handmade coconut granola. Copy of the menu. Well wishes. 8/10.
I'll try to offer a few original thoughts on this experience, inspired mostly by the NYT article up top but also my own observations. Most of the patrons were, true to Northern California form, wandering in "as they were," which in many cases meant an XXL t-shirt (I'm not kidding) and cargo shorts. It was definitely a little odd to sit down for a meal that, for half the room, was a once-in-a-lifetime moonshot, and for the other half was a casual weekday meal they had probably decided on as they drove to the place. More thoughts to come on this topic. Thanks for reading.
Putting this review together was a struggle, because there is absolutely no way I could fairly capture the stunning beauty of La Vague D'Or's surroundings at the all-encompassingly gorgeous Residences de la Pinede in St. Tropez, France. Offered aperitifs as we arrived poolside, I have to admit that I could have stayed in that exact spot for days. I haven't been to a more gorgeous spot in my life.
ST. TROPEZ, FRANCE
PRICE PAID: $301 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)
FINAL SCORE: 8.5/10
Run by one of the youngest chefs to achieve 3-star status Arnaud Donckele, La Vague D'Or attempts to capture the flavors of Provence in their style and presentation. This place perfectly nails the combination of Provençal ingredients in a Mediterranean setting.
We got the chance to meet Arnaud after the service; he speaks zero English, but was extremely friendly. The kitchen has a strangely long, narrow main corridor with the Pass and the Expo stationed at the very end of that corridor, the hot lines and cold cold lines next to each other on the far side. Lots of squeezing past each other and near-collisions, which seems odd. They didn't seem to let it get in the way of putting on an incredible service.
As we continued relaxing on the ungodly-beautiful pool terrace, a handful of small snacks made their way to the table. First, some olive stuffed with ham presented on the end of a stick. These olives practically burst with flavor, and the saltiness of the two main ingredients play well together. 8/10.
Next, a large and complex arrangement of tree, wire mesh, plastic box, and food were brought over to our table. I was anxious to hear the story behind this beautiful, if somewhat complex, presentation, but was told that it was just chosen because it looks nice. Throughout dinner, unfortunate serving staff could be seen hefting these enormous contraptions to diners' tables. An 8-top table required almost the entire staff to come together for the service. These things must weigh 50 or 60 pounds apiece. Hm.
Some foie gras with pine nut crust, also on the end of a stick. I'm getting an "offering from Nature" vibe here. Crunchy and rich, it tastes like someone made foie gras into a Twix bar. 8/10.
Next, presented on a square-ishly shaped flat spoon, some grapes from Provence with the seeds removed and replaced with almonds. The almonds were super crunchy and fresh, and they tasted almost perfect against the fresh grape. It worked for the same reasons that peanut butter and jelly work together. 9/10.
The next amuse-bouche was charmingly titled: "Company Bread;" the dark portions towards the bottom are a thin grilled-on slice of lard. Some really strong ham flavors that harkens back to the olive presentation. 9/10.
"Aubergine tempura" is crispy and crunchy, and it honestly tasted a lot like it looks... Fried eggplant. It feels a little like something you'd find at the Minnesota State Fair. Greasy and tasty. 7/10.
Calamari octopus, served with an octopus broth and tomato cracker. The cracker itself, laden with octopus, had tons and tons of flavor. The broth had a lemongrassy/Thai feel to it, which once again paired nicely. Lots of simple, enjoyable one-to-one flavor interplays at work so far. 8/10.
The last of the patio snacks—an oyster with a thick layer of Béarnaise sauce mixed with yuzu. The yuzu gives it a citrus flair, but the Béarnaise is super, turbo, offensively rich. 6/10.
Interestingly, it is only at this point that we are now handed menus to select our meals. I have to say that I'm not murderously stuffed but I am definitely feeling more full than I'd like to in order to begin a meal. I opt for the smaller of the two menus, titled "Timeless," 5 courses, at €270; the other set-price menu is called "An Epicurean Adventure," at €340 with cheese course and €315 without. They also offer a wine pairing for my menu at €120, and one for the Epicurean Adventure for €145. I was driving so chose against wine; my dining partner went for the full-boat menu with pairing (a bold move).
We get seated in a corner with gorgeous views of the patio, pool, and sunset. I cannot emphasize enough: this is The Most Beautiful Hotel Ever.
The dining room itself is a touch plain; lots of exposed wood and gentle curves, a bit of artwork and mirrors but otherwise not a ton of adornment.
Lovely hand-folded French country bread. Always a welcome start in my book. 8/10.
First up, a lovely dish of Amberjack, Spider Crab, and a sorbet made from tomalley, the green part of the lobster's insides (not something I had previously known one could/should eat). The rich-flavored sorbet really brings out the best of the vegetables, and as you can see the plating is pretty awesome. I love the geometry of this dish. 8/10.
The server describes this next dish colloquially as "Langoustine two ways;" the sauce is made from a Japanese citrus called Hassaku (about halfway between an orange and a grapefruit) together with olive oil infused with grilled prawn heads. Lots of great, crispy crunch from the asparagus and a touch of aloe vera.
On the right, a small bowl of grapefruit (only subtly different from the Hassaku) with langoustine prepared in a slightly different way. It's hard to detect what this second dish is trying to say, but it's interesting to get two similar angles on the same dish. 8/10.
As a small interlude dish; a smoked egg cracker with a tiny layer of beef. Pleasant. 8/10.
This complex dish of sea bass is served on a bed of vegetables and seafood; Roma tomatoes, clams, and zucchini grown by Yann Menard, who is apparently a very famous farmer in Southern France, and itself smoked in some oregano grown in the gorgeous Alpilles sub-region of Provence. There's a shitload going on here, but somehow it all works together. This is an insanely fresh, summery, professionally-planned seafood dish. 8/10.
As a total bonus because my dining partner had a longer menu, the restaurant generously gave me a course of Zitone pasta with the subtitle, "a tribute to a chef who taught me so much." The pasta is filled with black truffle and foie gras, and includes some delicious artichoke with strong basil flavors. It is served on what can only be called a stump with squirrel-hole in it. 9/10.
Served along with a touch of absinthe, this thyme flower palate cleanser has fennel flavors in the sorbet. 8/10.
A fascinating cooking technique that the kitchen was proud enough of to bring by our table as it was in-process: this "Chicken Supreme" is cooked in a cow's bladder. Unfortunately, this doesn't quite lock in the moisture like one might hope; the chicken is slightly dry. The green consommé, which the kitchen brews like a tea, brings things mostly back in balance. On the side, a chicken wing and an "oyster of chicken" with an actual tea, strong and slightly herbal. 7/10 overall.
Another bonus course (they were incredibly generous and friendly in general) this time a completely delicious riff on Tomme D'Arles cheese. An ancient cheese recently re-cultivated in the Southwestern Alpes d'Haute Provence region, it is put on top of a delicious pile of pickled pears, with some môle honey and a glaze of Boutellian olive oil (a French variety of olive). On the side, some chopped pear and sorbet, which are both totally excellent. 8/10.
And now, finally to the desserts. This next course actually had several components. First, some chocolate made like a crème brûlée served with frozen raspberries and a side glass of bergamot/raspberry juice.
Next, some warm chocolate cake, melty and excellent, served alongside...
...Some super-sugary, delicious raspberry sorbet. This is an overwhelmingly huge dessert, by the way. 9/10 overall.
Some pretty amazing petit fours were served next. From top to bottom, a tarte tropezienne, also known as the Tart of St. Tropez, made of brioche and with strong flavors of orange blossom.
Next, a pistachio cake with an explosion of colorful fruit, and some absurd gold leaf. Lastly, kumquat filled with kumquat ice cream, also with absurd gold leaf. 8/10 overall.
As a small last interlude that continues the citrus theme, some chocolates with a deep orange flavor. 8/10.
Tarte Tatin with Apple and rhubarb ice cream. Rich, almost exactly like a French version of an apple pie. Dessert is feeling excessive at this point. 8/10.
A Combava, similar to a makrut lime, is part of the mix in the last dessert. They generously bring one out from the freezer with white gloves to show it off. It has a strong, oily, citrus smell.
Very lastly, a gorgeous stracciatella. Big chunks of chocolate throughout. Vanilla bean flavors punch through and dominate the dish, which is completely fine with me. 8/10
A few parting views of the gorgeous hotel as we depart. I'll return here someday.