France- Le Cinq- ✪✪✪

 Le Cinq Main Entrance

Le Cinq Main Entrance

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 Le Squer

Christian Le Squer

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."

PARIS, FRANCE

SERVICE: 7.5/10

FOOD: 7.5/10

PRICE PAID: $450PP (INCL. WATER, TAX, TIP- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 6.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 7.0/10

 Le Cinq Lobby

Le Cinq Lobby

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 Dining Room

Le Cinq Dining Room

 Le Cinq Place Setting

Le Cinq Place Setting

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.

 Le Cinq Champagne Aperitif Cart

Le Cinq Champagne Aperitif Cart

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. 

 First Bites: "Bubble" of Orange Campari + Pizza, 8/10

First Bites: "Bubble" of Orange Campari + Pizza, 8/10

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, 8/10

Bread Service, 8/10

Bread service arrived next; obviously I had to go with the baguette, which was rich, warm, and fresh. 9/10. 

 Course 1: Marinated Scallops + Lychee + Sea Urchin

Course 1: Marinated Scallops + Lychee + Sea Urchin

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. 

 Course 2: Prawn + Buckwheat Pancake, 6/10

Course 2: Prawn + Buckwheat Pancake, 6/10

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.

 Course 3: "Gratinated" Onion, 8/10

Course 3: "Gratinated" Onion, 8/10

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. 

 Course 4: Turbot + Watercress + Pear, 9/10

Course 4: Turbot + Watercress + Pear, 9/10

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. 

 Course 5: Australian Beef + Truffle + Mozzarella, 9/10

Course 5: Australian Beef + Truffle + Mozzarella, 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.

 Course 6: Iced Dairy + Baking Powder, 8/10

Course 6: Iced Dairy + Baking Powder, 8/10

 Course 6B: Biscuits, 8/10

Course 6B: Biscuits, 8/10

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. 

 Course 7: Pineapple, 8/10

Course 7: Pineapple, 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. 

 Course 8: Chocolate Ganache, 8/10

Course 8: Chocolate Ganache, 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.

 Last Bites: Croissants and Almonds, 8/10

Last Bites: Croissants and Almonds, 8/10

Next, a set of candied croissants with almonds. Flaky, crunchy, and warm. 8/10. 

 Last Bites: Petit Fours, 9/10

Last Bites: Petit Fours, 9/10

Lastly, a series of wrapped candies and petit fours for the final bites. Chocolatey and rich. 9/10.

 Gift to take home

Gift to take home

And, a charming little gift box full of other snacks to take home. A nice parting gestures. 

Netherlands- De Leest- ✪✪✪

 De Leest Exterior

De Leest Exterior

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. 

 Jacob Jan Boerma, left. Credit: Debic.com

Jacob Jan Boerma, left. Credit: Debic.com

From interviews, it's clear that Jacob views his restaurant as a bit of an "outsider" in the Michelin worldthey 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)

SERVICE: 6.5/10

FOOD: 8.0/10

PRICE PAID: $260PP (INCL. WATER, CHAMPAGNE APERITIF, TAX, TIP)

VALUE/MONEY: 6.5/10

FINAL SCORE: 7.0/10

 De Leest Place Settings

De Leest Place Settings

 De Leest Interior

De Leest Interior

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. 

 First Bites: Watermelon-Tomato + Parmesan Cookie, 8/10

First Bites: Watermelon-Tomato + Parmesan Cookie, 8/10

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. 

 First Bites: Steak Tartare, 8/10

First Bites: Steak Tartare, 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. 

 First Bites: Shrimp Nacho, 7/10 

First Bites: Shrimp Nacho, 7/10 

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.

 First Bites: Eggplant + Sweet Pepper + Parmesan Foam, 7/10

First Bites: Eggplant + Sweet Pepper + Parmesan Foam, 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.

 First Bites: Pumpkin Curry + Kefir, 8/10

First Bites: Pumpkin Curry + Kefir, 8/10

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.

 Butter, 8/10

Butter, 8/10

 Bread, 8/10

Bread, 8/10

The bread is fresh and light, and the butter is rich and heavy so I'm definitely happy. 8/10.

 First Bites: Gillardeau Oyster + Green Curry + Potato, 9/10

First Bites: Gillardeau Oyster + Green Curry + Potato, 9/10

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.

 Course 1: North Sea Crab, 7/10

Course 1: North Sea Crab, 7/10

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.

 Course 2: Langoustine + Tandoori Spice Foam + Curry, 7/10

Course 2: Langoustine + Tandoori Spice Foam + Curry, 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 Francethe 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. 

 Course 3: Codfish + Curry + Cirtrus, 8/10 

Course 3: Codfish + Curry + Cirtrus, 8/10 

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.

 Course 4: Trout + Caviar + Fennel, 7/10

Course 4: Trout + Caviar + Fennel, 7/10

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.

 Course 5: Lobster + Chorizo + Sauerkraut, 9/10

Course 5: Lobster + Chorizo + Sauerkraut, 9/10

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.

 Course 7: Pheasant + Jerusalem Artichoke, 7/10

Course 7: Pheasant + Jerusalem Artichoke, 7/10

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. 

 Course 7: Pheasant + Jerusalem Artichoke + Beetroot, 8/10

Course 7: Pheasant + Jerusalem Artichoke + Beetroot, 8/10

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. 

 Course 8: Cheese

Course 8: Cheese

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. 

 Lievelde

Lievelde

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. 

 Course 10: Sorbet of Sorrel + Apple, 7/10

Course 10: Sorbet of Sorrel + Apple, 7/10

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. 

 Course 11: Blueberries + Basil 8/10

Course 11: Blueberries + Basil 8/10

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.

 Course 12: Mandarin + Coconut, 7/10

Course 12: Mandarin + Coconut, 7/10

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.

 Course 13: Milk + Caramel + Hazelnut + Quince Ice Cream, 7/10

Course 13: Milk + Caramel + Hazelnut + Quince Ice Cream, 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 Bites: Petit Fours, 9/10

Last Bites: Petit Fours, 9/10

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. 

USA- Manresa- ✪✪✪

 David Kinch

David Kinch

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.

 Manresa Exterior

Manresa Exterior

LOS GATOS, CA, USA (SOUTH BAY/SILICON VALLEY)

SERVICE: 6.0/10

FOOD: 7.5/10

PRICE PAID: $326PP (INCL. WATER, TEA, TAX, TIP- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 6.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 7.0/10

 Manresa Patio

Manresa Patio

Behind some hefty greenery and a gorgeous sun-drenched patio sits the main dining room. The overall feel to the place was quite similar to its California 3-star siblings Saison and Benu

 Manresa Dining Room

Manresa Dining Room

 Manresa Place Setting

Manresa Place Setting

 Manresa Table Centerpiece

Manresa Table Centerpiece

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. 

 First Bites 1: "Savory Madeline," + "Savory Pâte de Fruits" + "Savory Granola Bar," 8/10 Overall

First Bites 1: "Savory Madeline," + "Savory Pâte de Fruits" + "Savory Granola Bar," 8/10 Overall

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. 

 First Bites 2: "Savory Beignet," 8/10

First Bites 2: "Savory Beignet," 8/10

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.

 First Bites 3: "Savory Steamed Bun," 8/10

First Bites 3: "Savory Steamed Bun," 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.

 First Bites 4: Egg Custard: 9/10

First Bites 4: Egg Custard: 9/10

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.

 Interlude: Tea Service, 8/10

Interlude: Tea Service, 8/10

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, 7/10

Bread, 7/10

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. 

 Course 1: Clam + Geoduck Gelée, 8/10

Course 1: Clam + Geoduck Gelée, 8/10

On to the main dishesclam gelée with peeled tomato and sliced cornichon on the right; super fresh. The gelée brings everything together; just a tiny hint of brine throughout.

The Clam pieces are fresh from from Coos Bay, Oregon, and the rippled pieces were geoduck trunk from Washington. 8/10. 

 Course 2: Garden Salad, 9/10

Course 2: Garden Salad, 9/10

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.

 Course 3: "Courgette Stir-Fry," 6/10

Course 3: "Courgette Stir-Fry," 6/10

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.

 Course 4: Abalone + Tapioca + Radish

Course 4: Abalone + Tapioca + Radish

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. 

 Course 5: Striped Sea Bass + Barigoule Sauce, 8/10

Course 5: Striped Sea Bass + Barigoule Sauce, 8/10

 Strawberry Gazpacho

Strawberry Gazpacho

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.

 Course 6: Poularde + Morels + Anchovy, 9/10

Course 6: Poularde + Morels + Anchovy, 9/10

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.

 Course 7: Lamb, 9/10

Course 7: Lamb, 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.

Course 8: Cherries + Green Tea Matcha + Lime, 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). 

 Course 9: Strawberry + Pistachio + Toasted Milk

Course 9: Strawberry + Pistachio + Toasted Milk

Next, a completely charming dessert of strawberry, pistachio, and toasted milk.

 Course 10: "Strawberry-Chocolate" Petit Fours, 8/10

Course 10: "Strawberry-Chocolate" Petit Fours, 8/10

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. 

 Last Bites: Madeline + Pate de Fruits, 8/10

Last Bites: Madeline + Pate de Fruits, 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.

 Very Last Bites: Macarons, 8/10

Very Last Bites: Macarons, 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. 

 Breakfast for Tomorrow, 8/10

Breakfast for Tomorrow, 8/10

Lastly, "breakfast for tomorrow"—some lovely handmade coconut granola. Copy of the menu. Well wishes. 8/10. 

 Walking Out

Walking Out

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.

Italy- Piazza Duomo- ✪✪✪

 Enrico Crippa

Enrico Crippa

Located in Alba, Italy, famous for its white truffles, Piazza Duomo builds a menu each day that reflects the offering of their on-site biodynamic garden. Depending on which micro-season they're in, the chef (Enrico Crippa) must improvise. In his own words, "<The menu> is a daily task that I can't delegate to anyone and every day I am forced to learn and adapt." Choosing this strategy means that they can only seat a few dozen people each week, and I must say that the experience felt pretty exclusive and special. My overall thoughts are that this improvisational technique yielded a handful of truly outstanding moments—two of three of the dishes on this menu might be some of my favorites of all time—but it also produced some real duds. 

 Piazza Duomo Main Entrance

Piazza Duomo Main Entrance

ALBA, ITALY

SERVICE: 7.0/10

FOOD: 7.0/10

PRICE PAID: $252 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 7.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 7.0/10

Situated in Northwestern Italy, in a sub-regional called the Langhe (a UNESCO world heritage region since 2014,) the restaurant is in the middle of one of the richest food cultures in Europe. Along with the aforementioned white truffles of Alba, Barolo and Barbaresco wines can also trace their roots to this part of the world. From having spent an afternoon driving through it after lunch, I can tell you that the region is easily worth a few days' (or weeks' ) trip. Steep hillsides, vineyards, tiny fortressed villages... It's heaven on Earth. 

 Piazza Duomo Lobby

Piazza Duomo Lobby

Piazza Duomo's interior is up a flight of stairs from their brightly-painted streetside entrance, and a wandering collection of anterooms crowd the upper floor. This lobby is one of them. 

 Piazza Duomo Dining Room

Piazza Duomo Dining Room

 Piazza Duomo Views

Piazza Duomo Views

We are led to the main dining room, which is a slightly less-offensive hue of pink than the exterior, and looks like someone's 8-year-olds had a field day with the wall paint. A bizarre criss-crossing abstract leaf pattern makes the point: "this place is a little odd." Nailed it. Outside, the gorgeous chalky colors of Alba shine through in the early Summer sun. 

 First Bites: Chips of Chickpea + Buckwheat, 7/10

First Bites: Chips of Chickpea + Buckwheat, 7/10

We are first brought two different chips made out of chickpea and buckwheat. The buckwheat version tastes exactly like Frosted Flakes without sugar. The chickpea chip has a rich, Middle-Eastern flavor to it. 7/10. 

 First Bites: Shiso + Green Apple Sorbet, 9/10

First Bites: Shiso + Green Apple Sorbet, 9/10

A nice palate-cleansing dish of shiso and green apple sorbet. The minty, cilantro-y flavors of shiso go perfectly with the apple, and the frozen temperature is a nice way to begin a set of vegetables. 9/10.

Piazza Duomo (12 of 41).jpg
Piazza Duomo (13 of 41).jpg

Next up, a series of small appetizer bites. From left to right, a rich bok choy leaf straight from the garden dipped in a lovely pâté of mushrooms and seeds (8/10). Next, mushroom paper with milkweed, as soft as actual paper (9/10). A pillow of corn with sesame seeds, which tastes just like cheesy bread (9/10). Lastly, on the right, a beautiful presentation of deep-fried spaghetti sticks with carbonara and eggplant. Strongly-flavored mint leaves are attached to the stick with some pretty edible flowers, also straight from the garden (9/10.) 9/10 overall. 

 First Bites: Almond Marzipan, 9/10

First Bites: Almond Marzipan, 9/10

Almond marzipan, with extremely strong tree nut flavor and a very sticky, gummy texture that I found agreeable. Allergics beware. 9/10.

 First Bites: "Olives" of Langoustine + Veal Tartare, 7/10

First Bites: "Olives" of Langoustine + Veal Tartare, 7/10

Langoustine and veal tartare made to look like olives. They actually taste very olive-y. 7/10.

 First Bites: Peanut Cracker, 8/10

First Bites: Peanut Cracker, 8/10

Peanut cracker, which tastes just like a light peanut butter. 8/10.

 First Bites: Swiss Chard "Sponge," 8/10

First Bites: Swiss Chard "Sponge," 8/10

"Swiss chard sponge", with some tuna and mayo in the middle, an absolutely classic flavor combo. We are advised to eat with our fingers, and the soft sponge yields immediately to the lightest pressure. Beautiful, original, and fun. 8/10. 

 First Bites: Foie Gras + Ginger Foam, 6/10

First Bites: Foie Gras + Ginger Foam, 6/10

Next, foie gras cream with ginger foam, which we are advised to eat from the bottom up. Something is really bitter in the foam, unfortunately, and the very light and creamy foie gras doesn't quite make up for it. 6/10.

 First Bites: Endive Salad + Dill + Cod, 8/10

First Bites: Endive Salad + Dill + Cod, 8/10

Endive salad with dill and cod. The cod is super light. Pretty delicious. 8/10.

 Course 1: Goose Taco, 5/10

Course 1: Goose Taco, 5/10

The first main course was a precariously-plated, thin-shelled goose taco. Inside is an oversized portion of protein, chicken-mayo, Parmesan-Reggiano, and many varieties of leaves. There are strong mint flavors, but the overwhelming quantity and huge diversity of greens gives it a flavor of Too Much Garden. The taco shell also immediately disintegrates upon first bite, making it a real battle to eat. 5/10. 

 Course 2: "Eggs + Egg Salad," 5/10

Course 2: "Eggs + Egg Salad," 5/10

Another enormous quantity, this one titled "Eggs + Egg Salad." Caviar, egg whites, egg yolks, sour cream, seaweed, and a codfish broth on top. A lot of the leaves are partially wilted in some melted butter. This dish is absurdly large and very salty; it's also just six large piles of pretty much the exact same thing. For maybe the second time in this whole experience I could only get through about a third of it and gave up. 5/10.

 Course 3: "Prawns + Cherries," 9/10

Course 3: "Prawns + Cherries," 9/10

 Post-broth

Post-broth

This next dish, titled "Prawns & Cherries," was full of beautiful color. The gazpacho was constructed with tomato, orange, cherry, and red prawn. When taken all together it actually works really well. Lots of great flavors, and some serious depth comes from the flowers and mint. 9/10.

 Course 4: "Raw Colors," 6/10

Course 4: "Raw Colors," 6/10

Called "Raw Colors," this dish was another strikingly-plated collection of brightly-hued ingredients. Red mullet with lots of powders, basically, with some that taste like vegetables and some like sea urchin. Each of those powders seems to be primarily made of salt, yielding yet another very briny dish, which is kind of overpowering. 6/10.

 Course 5: "Cod, Green Sauce," 10/10

Course 5: "Cod, Green Sauce," 10/10

Sultanas and capers add some neutral colors to what is otherwise an extremely green dish. The cod buried within is absolutely perfect—actually the best cod I've ever had, fresh and cracklingly resh, and the vegetables are prepared perfectly. A completely different set of flavors than the previous dish. 10/10.

 Course 6: "Squid + Peas," 9/10

Course 6: "Squid + Peas," 9/10

Though I'm not sure the photo will quite do it justice, this next dish was possibly the most artful, most gorgeous plated presentation I have come across in my entire adventure, period. Titled "Squid & Peas," a collection of brightly colored vegetables is paired with a mashed potato ragout and creatively-streaked squid ink. Great flavors and a mix of different textures. 9/10.

 Course 7: "Foie Gras + Leaves," 7/10

Course 7: "Foie Gras + Leaves," 7/10

Made with white wine vinegar and corn powder, this straighforwardly-titled "foie gras and leaves" is, indeed, some foie gras under a leaf. There is a lot of crunchiness in the texture from the corn powder, which contrasts the foie in an interesting way. 7/10. 

 Course 8: "Cacio + Whisky," 10/10

Course 8: "Cacio + Whisky," 10/10

In yet another example of how my experience here was kind of all over the map, this was one of the most insanely delicious bites of pasta I have ever enjoyed outside of my favorite at La Pergola. Parmesan sauce, paired with an Islay Scotch whisky! The server brings the whisky over in a small spray bottle, and delicately applies a few puffs to the dish right after service. 

Known for their heavy, peaty, smoky flavor, this particular Scotch pairs absolutely perfectly with the light cheese sauce and the pasta, which is itself dead simple and a touch al dente. 10/10.

 Course 9: Pigeon + Cardoncelli Mushrooms + Carrots, 9/10

Course 9: Pigeon + Cardoncelli Mushrooms + Carrots, 9/10

Cardoncelli mushroom with asparagus, carrots, and pigeon. The pigeon is fresh, well-cooked, evenly spiced, and not overly rich (a rare event). Fantastic. 9/10.

 Course 10: "Banana + Curry," 9/10

Course 10: "Banana + Curry," 9/10

If you had asked me before this meal whether the flavors of curry and banana go together well, I probably would have said, "hell no." But, I would have been completely wrong, because this curry, banana, chamomile reduction, and peanut butter rectangle crisp ensemble represents yet another stunningly original and functional flavor pairing that can only be called inspired. 9/10. 

 Course 11: Lychee Sorbet, 9/10&nbsp;

Course 11: Lychee Sorbet, 9/10 

As we approach the end of the meal, some lychee sorbet as a palate cleanser. The flavors really worked well; sweet, simple. 9/10. 

 Course 11: "Strawberry Tart," 9/10

Course 11: "Strawberry Tart," 9/10

Buried under a layer of strawberry meringue, yet more strawberries. Sugary, over-the-top, near-perfect dessert. 9/10. 

 Course 12: Petit Fours, Small Bites, 9/10

Course 12: Petit Fours, Small Bites, 9/10

Strawberries and cherries, milk and grappa, and a variety of other small dessert bites. The milk and grappa has a bold, alcoholic flavor. Actually, it's totally fantastic. 9/10.

 Course 13: Chocolate Truffles, 8/10

Course 13: Chocolate Truffles, 8/10

Lastly, a geometrically-laid-out group of chocolate truffles, decadent and fresh. A lovely finish to an excellent, if uneven, meal. 8/10. 

Italy- La Pergola- ✪✪✪

Situated on the highest floor of the gorgeous hilltop Waldorf Astoria hotel called Roma Cavalieri, La Pergola has been run by Heinz Beck since 1994. Heinz has a series of successful restaurants throughout Europe, but one could safely call his 3-star Roman restaurant the headquarters. Hilarious to me that Rome's only 3-star is run by a German. 

 Heinz Beck

Heinz Beck

Mentored by the famous Heinz Winkler (whose outstanding achievement was to become the youngest 3-star chef in the world, and now runs his own 2-star restaurant in Aschau), Beck is unique among his cadre of elite chefs in a few ways. First, he spends time thinking about the scientific and medical implications of his fare—he claims to have spent five years researching how food interacts with human physiology and metabolism. Another uniqueness: he openly shares recipes, mentors young chefs, and generally tries to build his profile by friendly means. 

 La Pergola Main Entrance

La Pergola Main Entrance

ROME, ITALY

SERVICE: 7.0/10

FOOD: 7.0/10

PRICE PAID: $268 PP (INCLUDING CHAMPAGNE- LIST PRICE IS ~$55)

VALUE/MONEY: 6.5/10

FINAL SCORE: 7.0/10

 La Pergola Place Setting

La Pergola Place Setting

I am greeted at the host stand and immediately seated in the gorgeous, extremely classy dining room. Candles, silver, flowers, and stemware abound. The feeling I get is similar to Bareiss- polished, formal, country-clubbish. 

 La Pergola Dining Room

La Pergola Dining Room

The waiters at La Pergola wear vests and bow ties but no jackets. Some have the apron thing, and some don't. Only the head of service and maitre'd have jackets, so there's some kind of odd rank thing going on with the outfits. It looks a little disorganized that everyone has their own sartorial strategy. 

 The Water Menu. Not Kidding.

The Water Menu. Not Kidding.

 Last Page- up to €340/Bottle

Last Page- up to €340/Bottle

I decline the offer of an aperitif and am handed... A water menu? It’s organized by region and quantity of total dissolved solids, and each offering is accompanied by a lively description. Most bottles are €8-12, but a handful of exceptionally brazen choices can be had for €340. It is a really special person who feels comfortable shelling out most of a €500 note for a bottle of fucking water, and unfortunately for the benefit of my audience I am not that kind of person. 

 First Bites: Sardines + Sponge Bread, 8/10

First Bites: Sardines + Sponge Bread, 8/10

First up, a small series of light bites. We begin with some deliciously fresh sardines on sponge bread. The bread is surprisingly firm and the fish has a strong taste—it's almost buttery it is so smooth. Black olive powder rounds it out nicely. 8/10. 

 First Bites: Cheese Reduction + Veal, 8/10

First Bites: Cheese Reduction + Veal, 8/10

Next, some completely awesome cheese reduction "cupcakes" with veal. Rich, thick, spongy. It follows the flavors of the previous dish nicely. 8/10.

 First Bites: "Pasta Brick," 9/10

First Bites: "Pasta Brick," 9/10

What the kitchen labels a "Pasta brick" tastes like pure carbs. Creamy, fresh, and excellent. 9/10. 

 Bread

Bread

 Butter

Butter

 The Salt Tray

The Salt Tray

The bread tray rolls up next, and I'm offered a choice of baguette, "naturalist bread," focaccia, and a few others. In what turns out to be a rich and buttery choice, I pick the baguette and focaccia. Some excellent fresh butter accompanies. 8/10. 

In a nice bit of show, the bread and butter are accompanied by a large selection of salts from Hawaii, France, Nepal, and elsewhere. It kind of reminds me of the salt-stars at Thomas Keller's Per Se and French Laundry.

 First Bites: "Pecorino Puff" + Mussels, 8/10

First Bites: "Pecorino Puff" + Mussels, 8/10

The last of the introductory appetizers—mussels with a pecorino "puff." Creamy and cheesy, like a Mac and cheese with mussels. 8/10. 

 Course 1: Duck Foie Gras Powder, 8/10

Course 1: Duck Foie Gras Powder, 8/10

The first main dish is a gorgeously presented foie gras powder with duck and a red fruit mix on bottom. Maybe a quick presentation note: the powder is shockingly easy to breathe in, which doesn't feel great, but melts easily. There is more foie hidden at the bottom of the dish, and the strawberries play the foie off perfectly! A great early-summer dish. 9/10.

 Course 2: "Hole 18 Par 4," 8/10

Course 2: "Hole 18 Par 4," 8/10

Kind of a cool story here. So Heinz (who does not play sports) was visiting some of his new restaurants in Portugal a few weeks prior and was taken aback by the gorgeous, symmetric, well-kept lines of the golf course nearby. He decided to create a dish with lobster, fennel, and parsley layers that would mimc the perfection he observed. An indulgent idea, perhaps.

The "ball" is scampi with crispy amaranth, and the main portion of the dish in green is lobster with dill. The dish is roughly room temperature when it arrives, and the lobster is fresh but doesn't leap off the plate exactly. The green powder dries everything out considerably, and it makes it feel a little like you're working your way through a shitload of salty bread crumbs. 7/10, with a huge boost built in there for creativity and presentation. 

 Course 3: Marinated Red Shrimp + Cavaiar, 8/10

Course 3: Marinated Red Shrimp + Cavaiar, 8/10

Next, some red prawns marinated with raspberry, caviar, and potato. The prawn itself is decadent and fresh, and the chopped vegetables (mostly carrots) add crunch. Marinating in raspberry is a great idea, and reflects the red fruit ideas from earlier. 8/10. 

 Course 4: "Fagottelli La Pergola," 10/10

Course 4: "Fagottelli La Pergola," 10/10

Probably the best individual piece of pasta I have encountered on my whole adventure. Full stop. It's basically rigatoni with a liquid center of bacon and cheese, with a boost of richness from some whipping cream and guanciale (basically super-fine bacon) in the sauce. The chef actually shares the recipe and discusses how to prepare it yourself in a video (it's on my shortlist of weekend activities). A warm explosion of richness and zucchini; this is the absolute pinnacle of delicious comfort food. 10/10.

 Course 5: Composition of John Dory, Squid + Prawns + Citrus Fruit Steam, 6/10

Course 5: Composition of John Dory, Squid + Prawns + Citrus Fruit Steam, 6/10

It's safe to say that any dish that showed up that pasta had a hard act to follow, and this seafood medley did not even come close. A collection of red prawn, scampi, lobster, and bok choy presented in a lawsuit-hot glass dome. The fish sticks unattractively to the metal grill, and the flavors and textures all feel washed out in this hyper-hot cooking pot, yielding a dish that is pretty plain. A few lemony notes but that feels like an assist from a marinade. 6/10. 

 Course 6: Cod + Kidney Beans + Iced Parsley Snow, 7/10

Course 6: Cod + Kidney Beans + Iced Parsley Snow, 7/10

La Pergola (28 of 49).jpg

Next, some cod with kidney beans and "frozen parsley snow" added last. The cod itself flakes off in big crispy chunks (see right) and is incredibly fresh; everything is perfectly cooked. The kidney bean sauce tastes a lot like an aioli or mayonnaise, and doesn't add much beyond making the fish richer, so I'd argue it would have been better off without. 7/10. 

 Course 7: Lamb + Artichokes, 6/10

Course 7: Lamb + Artichokes, 6/10

For the main course, lamb served with artichokes in a rich, rich sauce. The flavors and textures of this lamb were disappointing—not to say it wasn't fresh or well-prepared, but everything did not harmonize well together. The artichoke flavor was very strong and overwhelmed the normally grassy, farm-y lamb flavors. 6/10. 

 Course 8: Cheese Cart, 9/10

Course 8: Cheese Cart, 9/10

La Pergola (31 of 49).jpg

La Pergola's cheese cart, which embodied the spirit of a delicate rolling grandfather clock, focused heavily on Italian cheeses. When in Rome, as they say, so I chose a selection of five different cheeses- two creamy cow's milk from Abruzo, a lesser-known region on the Adriatic coast. This was accompanied by a delightful, light cheese from Piedmont, as well as the classic product of Valle D'Aosta, Fontina. Cheese courses can do a lot to showcase a country or a region's terroir, and this is a great example. 9/10. 

 New Candle Centerpiece

New Candle Centerpiece

 New Napkin + Plate

New Napkin + Plate

As we head into the final dessert courses, a new candle-lit centerpiece, napkin, and plate are brought over. Few restaurants do this even in the 3-star category, and it's a really nice touch. 

 Course 9: "The Sun," 7/10

Course 9: "The Sun," 7/10

I have to be honest, there's some really bizarre psychology at play here. Near the conclusion of the meal, diners are invited to consume "the Sun," which is served on a special backlit plate that reminds me a little of the lightning plates at Schauenstein. Think about that for a second- the chef gives you a miniature version of the star responsible for all life on this planet. For dessert.

As far as flavors go, it's basically a sugary fruit paste with some chocolate powder spread across't. Super original, but it felt a touch creepy and egotistical. 7/10. 

A collection of small dessert bites and petit-fours; raspberry-on-a-stick, rose macarons, etc. 8/10. 

 Course 10: Pomegranate Sphere, 8/10

Course 10: Pomegranate Sphere, 8/10

What, in a burst of verbosiveness, the menu describes as an "iced sphere of pomegranate on gianduia cream and cannelloni filled with salty pine-seed Chantlly" came next. You get to crack open the pomegranate sphere in a rather satisfying way, and the chocolatey, savory flavors play well together. 8/10. 

 Last Bites: Dessert Box

Last Bites: Dessert Box

And, very very lastly, a lovely silver box of desserts with different items (mostly chocolate items) hidden in each shelf. I am completely and overwhelmingly stuffed at this point so I skip a few, but it's a charming last gesture. 9/10. 

 Parting Rooftop Views

Parting Rooftop Views

As I wrap up the meal, I'm invited to take a walk on the gorgeous rooftop patio and admire the views of the Eternal City. It's surprisingly flat and forested, and lovely. I recommend a solid half-hour with a good demi-sec or cigar up here. 

France- Les Prés d'Eugénie- ✪✪✪

Situated in what could only be described as the French version of a one-horse town called Eugenie-les-Bains (famous for its hot baths) is the extremely outsized Prés d'Eugénie, Michel Guérard’s flagship restaurant. With an on-site spa and cooking school along with 3-star restaurant, this facility is a destination resort about a thirty minutes’ drive from Bordeaux wine country in Southwest France. It is also enormously huge, and looms over the tiny town it occupies like a blimp docked in a field. Michel inherited this property from his wife's family in the early 70's, and after a dynamic career in Normandy and Paris in the late 50's-60's where he came up as a pastry chef working along the likes of Bocuse, he moved here to make a huge success of this place. Michel pioneered a French cooking style called "Cuisine Minceur;" a lighter yet authentic style of French cooking that relied more on ingredient freshness and flavors than on buttercream enhancement. Michel's restaurant won its third star in 1977 and has kept it ever since.

Holding a 3-star ranking for 39 full years might, it turns out, lead to some small amount of ego- he is quoted on his own website saying, “I cook the way the bird sings- free, clear, light, cheerful, ethereal, calm, silky, smooth… I play with the joy of flavors the way Mozart used to play with notes- impertinently, inquisitively, and poetically.” Holy shit Michel, don’t feign modesty- tell us how you really see yourself. 

Unfortunately, after my evening there with friends, I would stop well short of a comparison to Mozart. Maybe John Williams. 

 Les Prés d'Eugénie Exterior

Les Prés d'Eugénie Exterior

EUGENIE-LES-BAINS, FRANCE

SERVICE: 6.5/10

FOOD: 8.5/10

PRICE PAID: $245 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 5.5/10

FINAL SCORE: 7.0/10

 Les Prés d'Eugénie Grounds

Les Prés d'Eugénie Grounds

The property itself and associated grounds are extremely well-kept and impressive to roam around. Lots of intense gardening, complete with running brooks and everything-in-straight-lines architecture. 

 Les Prés d'Eugénie Gardens

Les Prés d'Eugénie Gardens

 Les Prés d'Eugénie Chandelier-Thing

Les Prés d'Eugénie Chandelier-Thing

With 15 minutes to kill, there are a ton of cool spaces to lounge around and enjoy. This chandelier-lit outdoor area is just one of many spots for a stylish repose. 

 Les Prés d'Eugénie Lobby

Les Prés d'Eugénie Lobby

Entering the building itself, things immediately got extremely French and completely absurd tout de suite. 

 Loulou's Lounge

Loulou's Lounge

After a somewhat halting, bizarre host-stand greeting, we walk into Loulou’s Lounge Bar, an oddly-named wing of the hotel that features an insane collection of fine-china crockery, elephant tusks, furs on couches, 18th-century portraiture, old desks, bizarre Chinese cupboards full of Armanac, pianos, fireplaces, and so much more. The goal appeared to be “whimsical,” and after achieving their goal they decided to way, way past it into batshit nuts territory. 

 Loulous' lounge

Loulous' lounge

 What in the absolute fuck

What in the absolute fuck

In what is surely one of my favorite elements of French restaurants that also have sweet lounges, we are given copies of the menu to peruse, a glass of champagne, and 20 minutes to cool our heels and read before a member of the staff comes out to talk us through the document. 

 First Bites: Frog's Leg + Olive Bread + Vegetables, 8/10

First Bites: Frog's Leg + Olive Bread + Vegetables, 8/10

While still waiting comfortably on the enormous Chesterfield couches, we are brought a few bites to enjoy- from top to bottom, a tempura-fried frog’s leg in a cup shaped like a goosefoot, a swirl of olive bread, and a delightfully fresh bite of vegetables. The frog’s leg is particularly good- the flavor is best approximated as a really, really high-end chicken nugget, but richer. The olive bread is simple but flaky and buttery. The vegetable bite is super refreshing. A lovely self-contained pre-tasting experience. 8/10.

 Place Setting

Place Setting

After enjoying a few bites, we are led to our table in the main dining hall. Images of birds, horses, and other animals abound. Check out the Audubon-Style place setting. Our seat itself has lovely views of the gardens, which in late Spring are approaching full tulip bloom. Fantastic.

 Les Prés d'Eugénie Dining Room

Les Prés d'Eugénie Dining Room

A quick mention of service here- English skills were okay but not great, and virtually no special effort was made to enhance our evening, full stop. While we didn't have much call to interact with our wait staff, their default mode seemed to be somewhere just short of rolling their eyes at us. 

 Bread, 8/10

Bread, 8/10

A few simple servings of white bread were on offer. Nothing stunning but acceptably delightful. 8/10.

 Butter, 10/10

Butter, 10/10

Nobody knows how to crush a good salted butter like the French, and this was no exception. One of the tastiest cubes of dairy I have ever run across. 10/10.

 Course 1: "Zephyr of Truffle," 7/10

Course 1: "Zephyr of Truffle," 7/10

After a few days of 15+ course Spanish restaurants with small bites, it was a little jarring to jump right into the first course with no further ado in the form of this “Zephyr of Truffle,” shaped like a cloud. Resting on a vichyssoise broth thick with flavors of leek, onions, and potatoes, this dish really knocks “heavy” straight out of the park and right off the bat (two baseball analogies in one, you are welcome). For a place this classically French I should have been ready for something as big as this, but I damn well was not. 7/10.

 Course 2: Mushroom + Asparagus Soup, 7/10

Course 2: Mushroom + Asparagus Soup, 7/10

At the waiter’s gentle pressuring, I had chosen the next course to be a mushroom and asparagus soup that was apparently a specialty of the house. Now, in describing this course, I’d like you to imagine a bowlful of piping hot cream of mushroom broth. Put that in a Vitamix. Add five entire sticks of Kerrygold butter. Blend. Add two more sticks. Blend again. You’ve got a basic idea of just how unspeakably, murderously rich this soup was. Gotta say, a little intense for moi, but I can see the charm. Big, chewy morel mushrooms and crispy asparagus abound. I finish this course extremely concerned if I’ll be able to carry on, because it’s just that heavy and buttercream’y. I'm feeling like I must somehow be missing the lightness of style that Michel is famous for. 7/10.

 Course 3: Lobster, 9/10

Course 3: Lobster, 9/10

Next, an entire half-lobster cut longitudinally, smoked and served with a baked onion with a delicious creamy sauce inside. The lobster is extremely well-cooked; not squishy or overly firm, and extremely fresh. 9/10. 

 Not For Eating: Hand Cleanser

Not For Eating: Hand Cleanser

After the lobster, we are brought a charming warm dish of lemon and flower petal water, which we are invited to cleanse our hands with in case we decided to get paleolithic on the lobster (I hadn’t, but it was a nice touch). 

 Palate Cleanser: Elderflower, 7/10

Palate Cleanser: Elderflower, 7/10

In what felt like far too soon into the meal to offer such a thing, we got a large palate-cleanser of elderflower granita, which ended up being a generous double-handful size that felt like an Icee rather than a small intermezzo. 7/10.

 Main Course: Beef

Main Course: Beef

In a nice gesture of showmanship, a waiter brought over the nearly-completed main course of wood-cooked beef on a copper plate, and we are invited to breathe in the heavy smoke. Kind of cool.

 Course 4: Beef, 10/10

Course 4: Beef, 10/10

 "Hollow Fries," 9/10

"Hollow Fries," 9/10

Minutes later, the beef itself was brought out- you can see that “Medium Rare” means something quite different in France! Warm but obviously barely-touched by the heat of the wood fire, hats off to Michel for selecting an extremely high-quality cut of beef- incredible, soft texture paired with an almost fruity richness, this is easily one of the best cuts of meat I have ever had in my life. Paired up with a grape sauce that adds some sweetness to balance it out perfectly. To the side, some “hollow fries,” that have the shape of a whole potato but contain nothing but air on the inside. This is truly a work of art. 10/10. 

 Course 5: Cheese, 9/10

Course 5: Cheese, 9/10

Next, the cheese cart is roughly hewn from its resting place towards our table. For some reason, even though it has wheels, two gentlemen carry the whole enchilada through the air for service. Seems like an easy problem you could fix with some new casters. 

With a rich collection of cow’s, sheep’s, and blue cheeses, I chose an Epoisse (personal fave,) some pont l’eveque, and a sheep's cheese. Since they’re just buying them and presenting them nicely I don’t give restaurants a ton of credit for their cheese selection, but this was pretty excellent. 9/10.

 Course 6: Mignardises, 8/10

Course 6: Mignardises, 8/10

Finally, a handful of small snacks for dessert (passionfruit with the silver, pineapple with the gold), some pâte de fruits, and bob’s your uncle, as they say. We're done, in a meal that went by way too fast. 8/10.

 Last Bites: Dried Fruits, 7/10

Last Bites: Dried Fruits, 7/10

Along with the bill came this small collection of dried and either well-sugared or chocolate-covered fruit. 7/10.

 Exiting the Resort

Exiting the Resort

If I were to visit this restaurant again, I would recommend getting the smallest of their menus called the Terroir Sublime. At only 130 Euros, it’s a much more reasonably-priced menu for what you get. The extra 105 euros that a colleague and I paid for the "Enchanted Palace" menu only buys you some slightly different choices that are absolutely not more delicious, and as an additional kicker the 130 euro menu actually comes with wine made by the proprietors.

Japan- Kichisen- ✪✪✪

Near Kyoto's main river in a peaceful part of Kyoto is Kichisen, a gorgeous chef's counter kaiseki restaurant that's about as traditional as they get. True to kaiseki-chef tradition, the proprietor is not only trained in several styles of cuisine, but also: calligraphy, flower arrangement, tea ceremonies, and poetry. The belief is that "Renaissance-Man" style training helps the chef get more in touch with the creative. Here's a pretty awesome photo of him about to slice the living hell out of some fish. I want that hat. 

Quite famously, Yoshimi Tanigawa beat Chef Morimoto on the Iron Chef TV show. 

 Kichisen Main Entrance

Kichisen Main Entrance

KYOTO, JAPAN

SERVICE: 7.5/10

FOOD: 7.5/10

PRICE PAID: $350 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 6.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 7.0/10

 Kichisen Chef's Counter

Kichisen Chef's Counter

Somewhat obsequiously, awards and honors adorn most available surfaces. While most chefs with three Michelin stars display that accomplishment somewhere, few were as front-and-center about it as Kichisen. 

 Orchid Arrangement

Orchid Arrangement

 Exterior Views

Exterior Views

The counter itself is a small, intimate bar with four other patrons. Nice natural views just to my right. Blond wood everything. Echoes of laughter from the private rooms elsewhere in the building.

 First Sip: Plum Tea, 8/10

First Sip: Plum Tea, 8/10

Plum tea with olives. You're not supposed to eat those; rookie move; crunch. 8/10, and close call but no missing teeth. 

 Course 1: Appetizers Spread, 7/10

Course 1: Appetizers Spread, 7/10

First up, a small set of appetizers presented in gorgeous, hand-made ceramic dishes. Mushroom, broccoli, karasumi (compressed fish roe, salty as hell and not to my tastes per usual), dried fish, and black beans. The beans are good but actually a bit wilted... 7/10.

Quick close-up of the fish and veggies- a delightful little Japanese pepper leaf on top. Check out the incredibly precise knife-work on this veggie- it's been delicately cross-cut and dabbed with the perfect amount of sauce. A theme of extremely subtle work like this plays out throughout the meal. Another reviewer from TimeOut said it best: "whether you notice it or not, the food will be right down to the tiniest detail..."

 Course 2: Soup + Yuzu, 7/10

Course 2: Soup + Yuzu, 7/10

This starchy soup is sweetened considerably with yuzu (the yellow at the center). But, texture is thick and feels almost slimy. 7/10. 

 Course 3: Fish Soup, 8/10

Course 3: Fish Soup, 8/10

Next, I am brought a tea pot resting precariously on a bed of pine needles. This fish soup has really awesome, delicate lemon flavors in the broth. And man, they don't kid around on quantity- there's around 5-6 cupfuls... One of the downsides of dining out at places like this solo- many of these dishes are designed for two people. In the pot, spongy starch dumplings and light white fish. 8/10.

 Course 4: Sashimi, 7/10

Course 4: Sashimi, 7/10

 Course 4: Otoro

Course 4: Otoro

Next, a pretty awesome ceramic breadbasket of sashimi- sea bream, squid, and Japanese lobster. The lobster had the consistency of grapefruit and very fresh flavor. Unusual for otoro (fatty tuna) at Japanese three-star restaurants, this one wasn't that good- the texture was stringy, thought it was obviously fresh. Just a bad cut. 7/10.

 Course 5: Rice + Chestnuts + Starch, 8/10

Course 5: Rice + Chestnuts + Starch, 8/10

A nice filling dish of "rice, chestnuts, and a starch similar to potato." Great description, and I can't argue with it. Black beans, flavorful and easy. 8/10.

 Course 6: Crab Legs, 9/10

Course 6: Crab Legs, 9/10

Next up, legs like crab sticks stuck into ice in a ceramic tumbler. Especially fun to eat. 9/10

 Course 7: Another Smorgasbord, 7/10

Course 7: Another Smorgasbord, 7/10

I'll describe each of these little dishes in turn: overall, 7/10.

 Course 7A: Sea Cucumber + Poached Egg, 6/10

Course 7A: Sea Cucumber + Poached Egg, 6/10

If you like watery textures, this sea cucumber with poached egg is about as runny as it gets. The egg flavors weren't too strong, and sea cucumber is a delicate flavor to start with, so this wasn't my fave. 6/10. 

 Course 7B: Bamboo Shoots + Beef Sauce, 8/10

Course 7B: Bamboo Shoots + Beef Sauce, 8/10

A lovely dish of bamboo shoots with a rich beef sauce. The richness of the beef brings out the bamboo's flavors, and accentuates the crunchy texture nicely. 8/10.

 Course 7C: Fried Taro, 7/10

Course 7C: Fried Taro, 7/10

Some fried taro with a generous helping of shaved Japanese herbs. 7/10.

 Course 7D: Karasumi +&nbsp;Kumquat +&nbsp;Tiger Prawn 8/10

Course 7D: Karasumi + Kumquat + Tiger Prawn 8/10

Karasumi roe, still not my favorite, with kumquat, tiger prawn, and why the hell not- a leaf of gold. Besides the karasumi, I'd give this little dish a 8/10. Let's go with that.

 Course 7D: Pickled fish, 8/10

Course 7D: Pickled fish, 8/10

Pickled fish with Japanese pepper- served at room temp, alongside a pretty awesome-looking pine sprig. 8/10.

 Course 8: Kobe Beef + Pineapple, 10/10

Course 8: Kobe Beef + Pineapple, 10/10

This was one of my favorite beef courses of all time- cooked on a lawsuit-hot stone through a pineapple slice, this chunk of Kobe beef was delightfully rich and dense. 10/10. 

 Course 9: Rice + Prawns, 8/10

Course 9: Rice + Prawns, 8/10

As we get to the close of the meal, the infinitely-refillable dish is some hearty rice and prawns, small and tasty. 8/10. 

 Course 10: Deep-Fried Dessert, 5/10

Course 10: Deep-Fried Dessert, 5/10

Layered with sugar, this was absolutely too fatty and greasy to eat. I got halfway through and decided it wasn't worth the heart attack. 5/10. 

 Course 11: NO idea, 8/10

Course 11: NO idea, 8/10

I have no idea what this thing was, but it was totally delicious. 8/10. 

 Course 12: Strawberries + Cream, 8/10

Course 12: Strawberries + Cream, 8/10

Some strawberries dipped in a light cream. 8/10. Simple, and really fresh berries.

 Course 13: Matcha Green Tea

Course 13: Matcha Green Tea

Delightful Matcha green tea, this time presented over the counter with no ceremony at all, unlike at Mizai, where it was a whole thing. Just a handoff. Tastes exactly like wheatgrass. 7/10. 

 Last Sip: Roasted Oat Tea, 8/10

Last Sip: Roasted Oat Tea, 8/10

And, finally, some roasted oat tea with the flavors of Cheerios more or less exactly. 8/10.

France- Le Pre Catelan- ✪✪✪

 Le Pre Catelan Exterior

Le Pre Catelan Exterior

PARIS, FRANCE

SERVICE: 8.0/10

FOOD: 6.5/10

PRICE PAID: $316 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 7.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 7.0/10

 Frédéric Anton

Frédéric Anton

Nestled in a very pretty corner of the very sad, prostitute-laden Bois de Boulogne sits the castle-like Pre Catelan. 

Frédéric Anton has run the place since 1997; prior to that, he was a head chef in the Robuchon empire. Le Pre Catelan has held two stars since 2000 and got their third in 2007, putting them on the youngish end of the spectrum for French restaurants that hold three stars. 

With an exterior I can only call "Lordly," and "Indifferent to its Surroundings," the restaurant hulks silently in the extremely drab woods to the West of Paris known primarily for its criminal activity. As the Uber vehicle took me down the driveway, a hooker with broken heels and hole-filled stockings stood at the end and stared listlessly ahead. I have never been to a more surreal and dislikable space, but was willing to be open-minded about the meal. 


 Can you guess where this butter was served?

Can you guess where this butter was served?

Uh oh, it looks like someone has discovered the joys of branding their butter. I haven't seen a move quite this hokey yet, but I suppose there's a first time for everything. I'd love to have been in the staff meeting where someone floated this idea:

"Guests will see the butter, and they'll be like, 'Holy shit, I'm at the Pre Catelan right now.' And we'll be all, 'Your mind is blown right now, right brah?" And then, profit."

 First Bites: Vegetable Soup, 6/10

First Bites: Vegetable Soup, 6/10

First out of the gates- a surprisingly bland-looking vegetable soup. It was light and fairly refreshing, but not much of a start. The culinary equivalent of a limp-spaghetti handshake. 6/10.

 1st Course: Crab Soup + Caviar, &nbsp;9/10

1st Course: Crab Soup + Caviar,  9/10

 French Caviar

French Caviar

Laced with some pretty attractive curry tones, this crab soup was a much stronger opening statement. What can only be described as an enormous quantity of caviar flanked the dish, and offset the creaminess with a zingy salinity that was more than welcome. Unlike most caviar, this comes from France; an interesting statement about the precedence of things French. 9/10.

 2nd Course: Lobster Ravioli, 9/10

2nd Course: Lobster Ravioli, 9/10

Served with a foie gras cream and a pretty ludicrous number of gold flakes, this lobster ravioli was as decadent as it was pretty. 9/10.

 3rd Course: &nbsp;Cod + Algae, 10/10

3rd Course:  Cod + Algae, 10/10

A really impressive and colorful presentation of cod with algae. Came with a side of some of the best mashed potatoes I've ever had. The fish almost pops open. This was a really outstanding seafood dish. 10/10.

 4th Course: Veal + Sweetbreads, 5/10

4th Course: Veal + Sweetbreads, 5/10

 Course 4A: Onion Rings

Course 4A: Onion Rings

If you've ever dined in Cajun Country, most Louisiana restaurants worth their salt will offer some kind of plate called a "heart attack special." This was Le Pre Catelan's Heart Attack special. I literally could not believe how much of this course was fried in heavy oil, and most of it is some heavy-duty stuff to begin with. Veal, sweetbreads, fried onions... While fairly tasty, I have to be honest: I didn't want to finish. 5/10.

 5th Course: Cheese, 9/10

5th Course: Cheese, 9/10

Some pretty excellent cheeses came next- to the left is a "Pays Basque," which is neutral but pleasant, exhibiting some decent Gouda flavors. To the right- a cheese called "La Langue"- has a rose flavor to it. It is made from cows milk from Champagne and Burgundy, and has a wonderful spectrum of flavor. 9/10.

 6th Course: Balsalmic Cream, 8/10

6th Course: Balsalmic Cream, 8/10

This white fluffy guy has surprisingly strong balsamic flavors, with what is essentially ice cream on the inside. Charming. 8/10.

 7th Course: Petit Fours, 8/10

7th Course: Petit Fours, 8/10

Finally, three small desserts on a plate. The one all the way on the left is super nutty; the second has strong coconut flavors, and the third is awesome and extremely strawberry-y. I notice that Anton can't help but spread a bit more gold leaf on the last one. 8/10.

Le Pre Catalan (15 of 15).jpg

An uneven meal, with some pretty fantastic wins (the cod) and some pretty memorable overreaches (the veal). 

France- L'Assiette Champenoise- ✪✪✪

TINQUEUX (REIMS), FRANCE

SERVICE: 6.0/10

FOOD: 7.5/10

PRICE PAID: $233 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 7.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 7.0/10

In a beautiful, hilly neighborhood near Reims called Tinqueux you can find this gorgeous Champagne Country hotel/restaurant . I joined them for dinner and a night's stay courtesy of my hotels.com tactics, and selected their middle-of-the-road menu called "Savor." 

Hate to be a jerk, but service here was average at very best. Not only were the people working there totally disinterested in explaining anything in English (I know, a very American expectation) they were hard-pressed to say anything at all in French, either. In addition, even though this was a relatively small number of courses, we managed to hit close to five hours. Mostly by being ignored for forty minutes at a stretch. Absurdly long.

 1st Course: Tomato &amp; Spinach Croquettes, 7/10

1st Course: Tomato & Spinach Croquettes, 7/10

First out were two filling courses of vegetable pie- tomato and spinach- that were an interestingly heavy introduction to the menu. 7/10.

 2nd Course: Veggie Ensemble, 7/10

2nd Course: Veggie Ensemble, 7/10

A pretty grouping of vegetables in a light broth emerged next. I liked the panache of the carved carrot inserted on top- pretty to look at, but rather bland to eat. 7/10.

 3rd Course: Tomatos &amp; Vegetables, 10/10

3rd Course: Tomatos & Vegetables, 10/10

This course was, without a doubt, the rockstar of the evening. I couldn't believe how much fine knifework went into this extensive, summery vegetable presentation. Insanely creative and crispy-fresh to boot. 10/10.

 4th Course: Ginger in Vegetable broth, 8/10

4th Course: Ginger in Vegetable broth, 8/10

Another gorgeous dish served with the perfect plating: ginger and a light vegetable broth to round out the salad courses. 8/10.

 5th Course: Brittany Mullet with Scales, 8/10

5th Course: Brittany Mullet with Scales, 8/10

A fascinatingly spiny Brittany Mullet was served next- cauliflower and broccoli served as an interesting textural contrast to the fresh fish. 8/10.

 6th Course: Hen &amp; Potato, 8/10

6th Course: Hen & Potato, 8/10

A very traditional, simple presentation of hen and potato. The standalone leaf is a pretty but merely decorative addition. 8/10.

 7th Course: Chocolates, Served in Silver-Chocolate Dish, 8/10

7th Course: Chocolates, Served in Silver-Chocolate Dish, 8/10

I think it's pretty cool that the restaurant bothered to have cocoa bean-shaped serving dishes made custom for serving their first chocolate dessert. The chocolates themselves were delicious but a bit too creamy. 8/10.

 8th Course: Tons of small baked goods, 7/10

8th Course: Tons of small baked goods, 7/10

This next dessert could only be described as a shitload of sweet baked goods. Eating one was a delicious treat; eating seven was work. 7/10.

 9th Course: Chocolate Tarte, 9/10

9th Course: Chocolate Tarte, 9/10

I like how the shape of the curl of chocolate on the tart recalled the first vegetable course. A creative, pretty finish to some pretty stellar food. 9/10.

Japan- Mizutani- ✪✪

TOKYO, JAPAN

SERVICE: 7.5/10

FOOD: 8.0/10

PRICE PAID: $160 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 6.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 7.0/10

Hachiro Mizutani is in his mid-60s, and by the looks of things seems to be entering his prime years. Finding his restaurant was no small feat (I had to ask an incredibly nice woman who worked in a store across the street, who vaguely pointed me at his building) and I'll issue the warning to anyone following in my footsteps- please use the elevator. The steps, especially slicked with rain, are essentially a tourist death trap, and I almost broke my neck in Ginza. 

You enter a tiny alcove space (not visible in the photo above, because in order to take this photo you have to occupy the entire space yourself) that is clean, neat, and ordered. The dining room occupies an impressive amount of the total overall space- you can catch glimpses of the stainless steel support equipment in the background (to the left and out of frame in the above), along with a sense of several invisible beings working hard behind the curtain.

Chef Mizutani himself and an understudy who appeared roughly 15 years old occupy the main sushi preparation area. As I sat and began my 35-minute lunch next to a few locals and tourists, a ballet of movements and orders began taking shape. The 15-year-old (we'll call him the sous chef, because I never caught his name) would begin washing the shrimp, and minutes later progress the shrimp into his boss' hands for final assembly. Wide-eyed and clearly excited about his job, the sous chef was extremely helpful with the English translations. "Needlefish," "Fatty tuna," etc. 

The meal was extremely traditional- roughly 15 courses of extremely fresh fish- anchovy, red clam, saba, and tuna with the signature hand-rolled rice, hand-dabbed wasabi, and minimalist plating.

What really struck me about the experience was the great deal of solemnity in the space. Mizutani would utter a word, just above a whisper- "wasabi," or, "drinks," and the appropriate team would give a hearty, "hai!" and fulfill the order. It wasn't quite militaristic- no one seemed marshaled or yoked- but combined with the musicless quiet of the 9th floor location, it was more a feeling of watching a master librarian at work. 

Mizutani seemed a very traditional man- at one point, he asked the two teenage girls sitting across from me to put their iPhones down and start paying attention to their experience- and was fully engrossed in his work. He would uncover and bring to his cutting board a massive rectangular slice of tuna as big as a nightstick, carefully cut a generous diagonal slice, and then leave it off to the side for the sous chef to return. Not particularly exceptional as an individual act, but he repeated almost precisely the same gesture every time he built that dish. 

You probably noticed I wasn't allowed to take photos- and to be quite honest, this definitely was not the best fish I had in Tokyo. While fresh and clearly bought from the Tsu-jiki market very recently, it lacked the powerful depth of flavors and colors I had seen elsewhere. This was certainly a good restaurant experience to chalk up, but I won't be back.

Japan- Hyotei- ✪✪✪

 Hyotei Exterior

Hyotei Exterior

KYOTO, JAPAN

SERVICE: 6.0/10

FOOD: 8.0/10

PRICE PAID: $45 PP (LUNCH)

VALUE/MONEY: 7.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 7.0/10

Hyotei (2 of 15).jpg

Though décor does not figure prominently into my rating schema, I would have to give Hyotei extremely high marks for their unbelievable space. From the outside on a rainy day, Hyotei's 14th-Generation owner/chef Eiichi Takahashi (yes, totally not kidding, 14th-generation) has taken care to present an unassuming portal. But, on the inside, a universe of colors and a delicate balance of indoor and outdoor space transports you to another time and place. The experience is beyond surreal upon entering the small door and walking through garden pathways to the restaurant. Which, by the way, was almost totally empty when I visited. The pinks and the greens popped so brightly, and the small stream flowed so perfectly and serenely through the mossy riverbed that even after taking ten minutes to absorb the space I could hardly believe it was real.

 Hyotei Interior

Hyotei Interior

No one in the restaurant spoke a single word of English. Not even, "Hello," so I was stuck with, "Hi, I'm Andrew," until we squared away that I did, in fact, have a reservation and wasn't just lost. 

 The lunch Bento Box

The lunch Bento Box

 Bento Box Interior

Bento Box Interior

Lunch was presented in a traditional black-lacquered Bento box, together with fiddlehead ferns in a potato-based sauce. Several traditionally-dressed ladies participated in the presentation of the box, and very carefully explained each dish. They explained the ingredients, the origins, and the sources of each portion of the meal, along with talking through the Chef's strategy and his attempt to remain loyal to the spirit of this long-established restaurant. At least, I think they did, because once again I speak only the most crucial Japanese phrases and they made it clear that no effort would be made to accommodate an English-speaker, God bless 'em.

 Course 1: Fish Paste + Vegetables, 7/10

Course 1: Fish Paste + Vegetables, 7/10

Starting with the dish on the lower-left, a pretty excellent balance of fish paste with a delicately carved starch and spring peas. This one pushed my comfort zone a little, in that I was completely unsure what any of these items were (except for the fish paste). 7/10.

 Course 2: Whole FIsh + Grape Leaves

Course 2: Whole FIsh + Grape Leaves

 Course 2: Inside the Grape Leaf

Course 2: Inside the Grape Leaf

The next dish (situated in the lower right on the main photo) included some more challenges to my Western palate. Dried, preserved fish in their entirety (eyes and all), along with some vinegar-dipped rice in a grape leaf. The grape leaf imbues a sweet and earthy flavor into the rice, and the fish were crunchy and actually pretty good. 

 Course 3: Egg + Fish, 10/10

Course 3: Egg + Fish, 10/10

This next dish- a hot, cooked flank of incredibly cooked fish and the brightest-yellow eggs I have ever eaten. The richness of the eggs paired up with the lean fish in an incredibly fashion that blew my expectations away. I was really impressed with this dish. 10/10.

 Course 4: Thinly-Sliced Fish + Fresh Vegetables, 9/10

Course 4: Thinly-Sliced Fish + Fresh Vegetables, 9/10

This dish in the upper right- thinly-sliced fish with a generous helping of incredibly fresh vegetables and a dash of soy sauce- rivaled some of the sushi I had had in Tokyo. 9/10.

 Course 5: Fiddlehead Fern Soup, 9/10

Course 5: Fiddlehead Fern Soup, 9/10

After I wrapped up the Bento box, I was served a tremendous hot soup of fiddlehead ferns that were literally-just-picked fresh, an egg ball, and a rectangle of something totally delicious. Once again, wish I could figure the rectangle out. 9/10.

 Course 6: Mushroom + Rice, 8/10

Course 6: Mushroom + Rice, 8/10

This incredibly fun dish- mushrooms and rice- was deceivingly plain but a pleasing finish to the meal. 8/10.

 Final Round:&nbsp;Green Tea, 8/10

Final Round: Green Tea, 8/10

Finally, a ceramic cup of some of the richest Green tea I have ever experienced. 8/10.