China- T'ang Court Shanghai- ✪✪✪

 Chef Justin Tan

Chef Justin Tan

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. 

 T'Ang Court Main Entrance

T'Ang Court Main Entrance

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. 

SHANGHAI, CHINA

SERVICE: 6.5/10

FOOD: 7.5/10

PRICE PAID: $140PP (INCL. WATER, TAX, TIP- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 7.5/10

FINAL SCORE: 7.5/10

 Langham Hotel Exterior

Langham Hotel Exterior

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. 

 T'ang Court Dining Room

T'ang Court Dining Room

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. 

 T'ang Court Menu

T'ang Court Menu

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. 

 Course 1: Appetizer with Black Fungus, Green Bean, Winter Cherry, and Roasted Pork, 10/10

Course 1: Appetizer with Black Fungus, Green Bean, Winter Cherry, and Roasted Pork, 10/10

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. 

 Course 2: Double-Boiled Sea Whelk Soup with Chicken & Pork, 8/10

Course 2: Double-Boiled Sea Whelk Soup with Chicken & Pork, 8/10

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. 

 Course 3: Sautéed Prawn & Crab Roe, 7/10 

Course 3: Sautéed Prawn & Crab Roe, 7/10 

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. 

 Course 4: Braised Sea Cucumber with Fish Maw, 7/10

Course 4: Braised Sea Cucumber with Fish Maw, 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.

 Course 5: Braised Vegetables, 7/10 

Course 5: Braised Vegetables, 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. 

 

 Course 6: Chicken Fried Rice, 7/10 

Course 6: Chicken Fried Rice, 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. 

 Course 7: Almond Tofu Pudding & Mango Sauce, 7/10 

Course 7: Almond Tofu Pudding & Mango Sauce, 7/10 

 Swan Biscuits, obviously 

Swan Biscuits, obviously 

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. 

Japan- Kanda- ✪✪✪

Nestled in a beautiful Tokyo neighborhood known as an enclave for wealthy expats, Kanda is a gorgeous 8-counter-seat restaurant serving traditional Japanese fare with a French flourish. Most of that flourish is likely thanks to head chef Hiroyuki Kanda's 5-year stint as a chef in Paris when he moved there at the tender age of 23. 

Opened in 2004, Kanda is located in something that feels a lot like a residential apartment building, because that's exactly what it is. Though finding restaurants using Google Maps in Japan is always a struggle, this one was particularly vexing since the address on the restaurant's website takes you to what is, in fact, either a gas station or a bread factory several blocks away. Seriously couldn't tell which. Give yourself an extra few minutes if you visit. 

 Kanda's Sign

Kanda's Sign

 Kanda Main Entrance

Kanda Main Entrance

 Kanda Interior Hallway

Kanda Interior Hallway

Kanda's interior style is what you get when you cross a Japanese restaurant with an Apple store. A huge amount of blond wood and bold lighting. Lots of plain surfaces with minimal decoration.

 Kanda Chef's Counter

Kanda Chef's Counter

TOKYO, JAPAN

SERVICE: 8.0/10

FOOD: 8.5/10

PRICE PAID: $255 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 7.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 7.5/10

Kanda himself is warm and friendly- he offers an aperitif of champagne immediately upon seating, asks about any preferences or allergies, and inquires where we are from. This might seem like fairly common courtesy, but it's relatively rare for high-end Japanese restaurants. 

 First Bites: Turnip + Yuzu + Vegetable Soup, 9/10

First Bites: Turnip + Yuzu + Vegetable Soup, 9/10

First out of the gate is a lovely, warm turnip-yuzu-vegetable soup. White fish at the base; the texture goes perfectly with the starchy dumpling. The green vegetables have been braised and are extremely crunchy, a nice play off the soft comfort food texture of the dumpling and fish. 9/10.

 Course 1: Lobster + Sea Urchin, 8/10

Course 1: Lobster + Sea Urchin, 8/10

A lovely, small bite of lobster and sea urchin served cold. The sea urchin has that awesome earthy mouthfeel and rich taste. 8/10.

 Course 2: Otoro Tuna, 9/10

Course 2: Otoro Tuna, 9/10

This fatty tuna - "otoro" - was literally as soft as a stick of melted butter, and almost as rich. Cut from the fattiest part of the tuna belly, this fish was exquisitely presented and incredibly delicious. 9/10.

 Full-Salt Soy and Salt

Full-Salt Soy and Salt

In case the fish itself wasn't ungodly savory enough on its own, the restaurant served a pretty healthy helping of full-salt soy and, of course, a plate of just plain salt. Caveat emptor

 Course 3: Monkfish Liver, 10/10

Course 3: Monkfish Liver, 10/10

Next, some monkfish liver- soft and delicate, almost like a pâté. Not at all fishy. Notes of strawberry at the very back. Outstanding. 10/10.

 Course 4: Crab Meat Dumpling Soup, 8/10

Course 4: Crab Meat Dumpling Soup, 8/10

The chef then gave us a clear-broth soup with a large crab meat dumpling in a beautiful, black-lacquered ceramic dish. Great crab texture. The radish was painstakingly cut into a star shape; an extra but welcome touch, the flavors contrast the crab perfectly. 8/10.

 Course 5: Sea Urchin, 8/10

Course 5: Sea Urchin, 8/10

Next, a few short courses of sushi. First, some sea urchin, which was a bit of a surprise since we had just enjoyed some a few courses ago, but a welcome difference with the strong notes of dried seaweed. 8/10.

 Course 6: Prawn + Egg Powder, 8/10

Course 6: Prawn + Egg Powder, 8/10

Next, sushi of prawn with a heavy dose of egg powder on top, which added some fun color. 8/10.

 Course 7: Blowfish + Black Turnip, 9/10

Course 7: Blowfish + Black Turnip, 9/10

And the last of the three sushi bites- blowfish with black turnip and pine nuts. The pine nuts were an awesome idea- they brought out a lot of flavors in the normally-neutral blowfish. 9/10.

 Course 8: Miyazaki Beef, 10/10

Course 8: Miyazaki Beef, 10/10

Of the many sub-varieties of Japanese Wagyu beef, Miyazaki is my absolute favorite. They are regarded within the Japanese Black Cattle industry as the best of the best- for example, did you know that champion sumo wrestlers are presented with a Miyazaki cow when they win?

Anyways, the tenderloin is insanely soft and delicious. The taste is practically caramel on the outside, and the strong wasabi-based mustard on the right adds a lot. 10/10. 

 Course 9: Sake Potage + Clam, 8/10

Course 9: Sake Potage + Clam, 8/10

Then, a sake potage with clam; hot and starchy. The dumpling is extremely stretchy, and the clam is fresh and delightful. 8/10.

 Course 10: Pickled Vegetables, 8/10

Course 10: Pickled Vegetables, 8/10

Next, as a cool-down dish to begin relaxing the palate, some salty pickled vegetables. 8/10.

 Course 11: Deep-Fried Prawns, 8/10

Course 11: Deep-Fried Prawns, 8/10

And the very last non-dessert; a cake of deep-fried prawns, more of a final snack than a real course. Salty and fun comfort food. 8/10. 

 Course 12: Apricots, 8/10

Course 12: Apricots, 8/10

Japanese high-end restaurants are renowned for their simple desserts, and Kanda is no exception- a bowlful of sliced apricots. End of story. Fresh and refreshing, but it's just a bowl of apricots. 8/10. 

 Course 13: Strawberry Sorbet, 9/10

Course 13: Strawberry Sorbet, 9/10

Lastly, a solitary scoop of strawberry sorbet. Also fresh, and quite sugary. 9/10. A great end to one of the better meals in Japan. 

Japan- Usuki Fugu Yamadaya- ✪✪✪

Certainly the restaurant I was most intimidated to visit, Yamadaya is the only 3-star restaurant in the world that exclusively focuses on the poisonous pufferfish, a renowned delicacy in Japan where almost 100,000 pounds a year are consumed. Several dozen people per year are poisoned, so overall not as risky as, say, high-speed motorcycling.

In Tokyo, fugu chefs must undergo multi-year apprenticeships and gain a license in preparing the extremely difficult fish- there isn't a ton of meat, and you have to cut carefully to avoid the poison glands/organs/etc. The final exam is: you eat what you prepare. High stakes stuff.

 Usuki Fugu Yamadaya Chef's Counter

Usuki Fugu Yamadaya Chef's Counter

TOKYO, JAPAN

SERVICE: 7.5/10

FOOD: 7.0/10

PRICE PAID: $265 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 7.5/10

FINAL SCORE: 7.5/10

 Usuki Fugu Yamadaya Exterior

Usuki Fugu Yamadaya Exterior

 Usuki Fugu Yamadaya Main Entrance

Usuki Fugu Yamadaya Main Entrance

Google Maps brought me more or less to the right spot; up a hill off a quiet street, and the building immediately drops into a wide, attractive basement terrace. Usuki Fugu Yamadaya is to the left, and as I walk up a full 15 minutes early an immaculately-dressed woman emerges to usher me inside. She asks my name, but I get the feeling she already knew who I was. 

We walked down a short corridor with gorgeous blond wood and conservative decor, jackets removed, and then seated at a small chef's-table style counter with (just like Kichisen) only 5 seats. My dining partner and I are seated all the way to the right from our perspective (Chef's left). He is already hard at work preparing sashimi plates for the two large private rooms towards the back of the restaurant- we can occasionally hear uproarious laughter- and stays focused and friendly throughout the meal. A beautiful menu, in near-perfect English, is presented so we can follow along with our progress. A super nice touch, and remarkably rare during this trip.

 First Bites: A Small Smorgasbord, 8/10

First Bites: A Small Smorgasbord, 8/10

To begin, the chef hands us over the transom a gorgeous ceramic dish with four separate compartments- he goes the extra step of spraying a gentle mist of water before serving. 

From upper left clockwise- Spinach rolled in a thin slice of deep-fried tofu, simmered soybean, and Red Konjac with vinegar bean paste. Firm texture and almost crunchy; delightful.

Next, scallop, carrot with sesame sauce, and dressed dropwort. A bit bland, but a great mixture of textures and flavors- I really liked the carrot's color. Some interesting peanut flavors in the dropwort.

The tuna is pretty to look at, and judging from the color is quite lean- texture is firm and perfect, with a sauce of canola flower and wasabi with nori sauce that doesn't add much. The tuna would have been slightly better on its own. 

Lastly, crab- with wasabi stem, grated radish, and apple vinegar. Has a soft, fruit infused, light flavor, very attractive. 8/10 overall.

 Course 1: Simmered Cabbage Soup, 5/10

Course 1: Simmered Cabbage Soup, 5/10

Next, Simmered cabbage soup with chicken and seven-flavor chili pepper oil- the chicken is a touch dry, which actually kind of ruins it, even though the broth is excellent and rich. 5/10.

 Course 2: Fugu Sashimi, 9/10

Course 2: Fugu Sashimi, 9/10

Next, we get into the main event- fugu sashimi, laid out out in a chrysanthemum shape that in Japanese culture symbolizes death. The flavor is light, almost chicken-like, and the thin translucent cuts have a firm, rubbery-in-a-good-way texture. Adding the green shoots and monkfish liver adds a lot of flavor, along with the ponzu vinegar sauce. 9/10.

 Course 3: Grilled Fugu, 6/10

Course 3: Grilled Fugu, 6/10

So, grilled fugu turns out to be kind of an unremarkable white fish. Firm and flaky but not very flavorful; texture is kind of unremarkable. I'm not sure what I'm supposed to be appreciating at this stage. 6/10. 

 Course 4: Deep-Fried Fugu, 8/10

Course 4: Deep-Fried Fugu, 8/10

Next, deep fried fugu- tastes just like fried chicken and a fish/chips flavor combo, which is certainly delicious. It's interesting that we're exploring every possible preparation of one particular fish, but I'm getting over the flavor profile by this point. 8/10. 

 Course 5: The Hotpot

Course 5: The Hotpot

 Course 5: Hotpot Fish

Course 5: Hotpot Fish

Next, out trots an enormous hot pot onto the chef's portion of the table- painstakingly assembled with long chopsticks right before us. 

 Course 5: Hotpot Vegetables

Course 5: Hotpot Vegetables

 Course 5: Hotpot Sauce

Course 5: Hotpot Sauce

 Course 5: Fugu Hot Pot, 8/10

Course 5: Fugu Hot Pot, 8/10

 Course 5: Wrapped-up Veggies

Course 5: Wrapped-up Veggies

Beautifully presented, this dish is another high point that (once again, for those of us who are not fugu enthusiasts) is yet another angle on a by-now familiar idea. 8/10. Check out the extraordinarily detailed presentation work that went into each component of this dish- hand-tied vegetable...! 

 Course 6: Fugu Rice Porridge, 9/10

Course 6: Fugu Rice Porridge, 9/10

 Condensed Fugu! 

Condensed Fugu! 

With Japanese pickles and congealed rice broth, this fugu rice porridge had flavors much like an egg drop soup. On the side, we got several cubes of condensed Fugu essence with the pickles and veggies. Intensely savory flavors! 9/10.

 Course 7: Warabimochi dessert, 6/10

Course 7: Warabimochi dessert, 6/10

Dessert... Truly wasn't my speed. Warabimochi, a floury and almost sandy-textured dish, was unattractive to my coarse Western palate. Very slightly sweet, like the responsible, low-sugar cereal your mom used to force you to default to, and exceptionally dry. 6/10.

 Last Sip: Green Tea, 8/10

Last Sip: Green Tea, 8/10

At last, the never-empty cup of green tea. As good as all the rest, which is to say quite good. 8/10. 

Japan- Fujiya 1935- ✪✪✪

A vaguely Spanish-inspired restaurant in Osaka, Tetsuya Fujiwara's restaurant is outstanding for its interior decor and the creativity of its dishes.

Tetsuya Fujiwara comes from a long line of high-end chefs (he's fourth-generation, actually) and was classically trained in French cuisine and pastry in Japan. He got a stage at a Spanish restaurant called L'Esguard, which is run by a chef who is a neurosurgeon by day, chef by night. No, really

 Fujiya 1935 Main Entrance

Fujiya 1935 Main Entrance

OSAKA, JAPAN

SERVICE: 6.0/10

FOOD: 8.5/10

PRICE PAID: $138 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 8.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 7.5/10

  Fujiya Waiting Room

Fujiya Waiting Room

Fujiya 1935's strong suit, almost certainly, is their interior decor. With a very refined, high-end hotel lobby look- blond, multi-hued wood sanded down to the smoothness of plastic, tiny understated candles, dramatic lighting- you get the feeling that the food might be an afterthought. An enormous log hulks in the corner for no apparent reason. 

This restaurant could belong equally in Osaka, Tokyo, Singapore, San Francisco, London... I'll leave it to you whether that's a good thing or not, but I was impressed. 

  Place Setting

Place Setting

  Serving Plate

Serving Plate

Some of the softest, most relaxing wood surfaces, easiest-to-hold cups, and beautifully measured space I've ever encountered- seriously high marks.

  First Bites: "Air-Bubble Bread," 9/10

First Bites: "Air-Bubble Bread," 9/10

 Inside the Air Bubble

Inside the Air Bubble

First out, an impressively-presented dish of black soybean bread served inside a hot stone, with cream cheese to the side. The bread is light and airy (it was baked in a manner than encourages the formation of air bubbles, we are told), which juxtaposes well against the heavy cream cheese. Four sweet black bean "seeds" are at the "root" of the bread, which is an interesting message. 9/10.

  Course 1: Yellowtail + Turnip, 8/10

Course 1: Yellowtail + Turnip, 8/10

Check out the mother-of-pearl dish this next course was served upon- a gorgeous way to emphasize the somewhat muted colors of the kan-buri fish (yellowtail), traditional Kyoto vegetables, and turnip. There's also a base of sea salt, in case the just-from-the-ocean idea wasn't hitting you yet. 

The fish is soft and supple; warm mashed potato flavors are hearty and delicious. The turnip has the crunchy texture of an apple but almost no flavor. Interesting. 8/10.

  Course 2: Fugu Roe + Burdock + Black Truffle, 9/10

Course 2: Fugu Roe + Burdock + Black Truffle, 9/10

Another clever dish- fugu roe with black truffle. Amazingly crunchy, and the truffle flavors really stand out. 9/10.

  Rosemary Bread: 8/10

Rosemary Bread: 8/10

  Butter + Lard: 8/10

Butter + Lard: 8/10

Beautiful spherical loaves of rosemary bread with a side box-full of butter and lard. Yes, lard; white with shaved green onions, and the texture of Crisco- it's way over-the-top decadent and delicious on the super-hot bread. Rosemary flavors punch through nicely. The sesame cream with soy milk (on the right) is delicious. I would describe this setup as delicious but just a goddam touch on the rich side. 8/10.

  Course 3: Sea Urchin + Squid Ink Sauce + Linguine, 8/10

Course 3: Sea Urchin + Squid Ink Sauce + Linguine, 8/10

Linguine with Uni (Sea Urchin), squid ink sauce, and salted egg. The uni itself almost tastes like rich egg yolk, and the squid ink turns the pasta black as the dish is consumed, which is a super cool effect. 8/10.

  Course 4: Spanish Pork + Asian Broccoli, 8/10

Course 4: Spanish Pork + Asian Broccoli, 8/10

A server gingerly adds sauce a spoonful at a time (check out the video) to this main dish of pork from Basque country with Asian broccoli and leek sauce from Kyoto. Hearty, big, extremely satisfying. Had to cut off excessive pork fat though. 8/10.

  Course 5: Lily Root Ice Cream + Apple, 8/10

Course 5: Lily Root Ice Cream + Apple, 8/10

The first dessert- a somewhat crumpled-looking baked apple, lily roots, pine nuts, and gelato. A mixture of soft, crunchy, and creamy textures that really helps bring together the apple flavors- like a deconstructed apple pie. 8/10.

  Course 6: Espresso, 8/10

Course 6: Espresso, 8/10

The espresso is rich and delicious, but nothing terribly different from, say, a really good Peet's Coffee product. 8/10.

  Course 7: Snowman Dessert, 10/10

Course 7: Snowman Dessert, 10/10

 Tokushima, Japan

Tokushima, Japan

All I can say about this last dessert is that it automatically gets 10 points for creativity, almost regardless of how it tastes. A panorama of a snowbank with an actual snowman is made of strawberries from Tokushima, Japan, an area known for producing amazingly fresh fruit. There was a huge amount of meringue and even more sugar; I can safely say that this dish brought joy. 10/10. 

Japan- Mizai- ✪✪✪

Set in a corner of the elegant Maruyama Park near Kyoto's historic Gion (geisha) district, Mizai is as fine an example of Kappo Kaiseki, or Kaiseki "in the kitchen," as it were. Diners sit directly across from chefs as they prepare dishes, enhancing the immediate freshness of the preparation, and allowing conversation and questions to flow naturally between the two groups. If you speak Japanese, that is. 

 Mizai Exterior

Mizai Exterior

KYOTO, JAPAN

SERVICE: 7.5/10

FOOD: 8.5/10

PRICE PAID: $380 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 6.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 7.5/10

 Mizai Chef's Counter

Mizai Chef's Counter

Two big notes on decorum when it comes to your own visit: show up early, and bring cash.

My reservation was for 6PM; I arrived at 5:55PM and was definitely the very last person to be seated. In Kappo Kaiseki, everyone is served at the exact same time, and coordination is critical, so I learned the easy way not to be late. 

The room is taken up by a grand wooden bar with ten seats on the long end (I sat near the middle of the long side) and four on the short end- a total of 14 high chairs.

As I sat down, I was literally immediately served some green tea as a starter, and the chef greeted me. A short, serious man with an excellent mustache and precisely-rolled cuffs in his shirt. 

The space is just gorgeous- small wax candles burn on the countertop and off to my right is a view of a mossy, stone wall-garden. Small monkeys (for 2016- year of the monkey) adorn the set top to my left. The feeling is calm, quiet, peaceful, reflective. More temple than restaurant. 

 First Bites: Soup + Vegetables + Rice 9/10

First Bites: Soup + Vegetables + Rice 9/10

First, they bring out the big black tray that will serve as my meal carrier/personal space-definer up until dessert. On the first platter is a small cup of soup, a tiny portion of perfectly-cooked rice, and an amuse-bouche of pickled vegetables, fish, and seaweed. The soup was milky and sweet, the rice was delicious, though I must admit that I'm not enough of a connoisseur to appreciate the rice at the level everyone else seemed to. The vegetable/fish combo had a silky, soft mouthfeel and was a lovely and colorful contrast to the two monotonal dishes that accompanied it. A tasty start, 9/10.

A note on service: the course was accompanied by a long, impassioned speech entirely in Japanese that probably lasted 10-12 minutes, during which the origins of the rice, the combination of ingredients, and the cooking techniques were discussed. At least, I'm fairly certain that's what was being discussed based on the impassioned "oohs," and "aahs" emanating from my impressed co-diners, along with many other emphatic expressions of understanding that I could not, in good faith, emulate, because I don't speak a word. At the end, one of the sous-chefs walked over to my place while everyone else stared at me intently, pointed, and said, "Rice. Soup. Vegetable and Fish." A long stare, as if to ask if I needed that epic description recapped. Mic drop.

I said, "Thanks, I think you nailed it." And luckily, everyone else at the restaurant (who all spoke fantastic English) was polite enough to laugh. 

 Course 1: Bucket 'o'Sashimi, 10/10

Course 1: Bucket 'o'Sashimi, 10/10

The next course, sashimi, was about 25 full minutes in the making. Each type of fish was brought out from the kitchen and assembled by hand by the chef himself using only chopsticks. First the otoro, then the maguro, then the yellowtail, then squid, then sea bream, and then finally the vegetables (some extremely crunchy leaves meant to refresh the palate that were eaten last), the hand-ground wasabi and the two small soy sauce cubes were carefully and painstakingly placed on a bed of ice. It was real masterwork, and I had no problem with how long it took, given how clearly this dish was meant to be an opening high point. Every piece of fish was transcendently fresh and delicious- the otoro had the texture of cream cheese it was so soft and fatty. The squid was firm but extremely yielding- a unique texture unlike any I have ever experienced before. The yellowtail was fresh and had a sharper, more fragrant taste. The sea bream ("Tai" in Japanese), also called the King of Fish, was flavorful and delightful. 

One last note- the blue ceramic placed in front of me before the sashimi bowl came out is more than 100 years old, and a great deal of time and attention was spent by diners and restaurant staff alike describing and admiring the ceramics that were a part of the meal. 10/10.

 Course 2: Dumpling + Turnip Soup, 9/10

Course 2: Dumpling + Turnip Soup, 9/10

Next, a small, flavorful soup with a tiny Japanese turnip with long, bright green leaves served on top of a very stretchy dumpling and a clear broth. 9/10.

 Course 3: Wagyu, 10/10

Course 3: Wagyu, 10/10

One of my favorite courses of all time- a plate of fresh, perfectly cooked Wagyu beef, together with lightly grilled onions and green vegetables. Soft, luxurious, decadent, insanely good. 10/10.

 Course 4: Seaweed + Vegetable Soup, 7/10

Course 4: Seaweed + Vegetable Soup, 7/10

Next, a clear broth with seaweed and hard vegetables (sorry for the insanely bad photo). The bamboo shoots were hard and almost crunchy, the Japanese Pepper (or shishito) adds a cirtrus-y note. 7/10.

 Course 5: Sea Urchin, 8/10

Course 5: Sea Urchin, 8/10

Next, umi (sea urchin) karasumi, eel, and vegetables served in an orange husk, which are January's fruit of the season. I've already covered the fact that karasumi (dried, condensed fish eggs) are one of my least favorite things on the planet, but the eel and sea urchin are excellent- sea urchin tastes like earthy cream cheese at its best (a completely positive description by the way!) And this dish nails it. 8/10. 

 Course 6: The Smorgasbord, 7/10

Course 6: The Smorgasbord, 7/10

Check out this super fun little teepee of pine-needles that adorn what can only be called a small smorgasbord plate. A huge diversity of flavors and colors; I was instructed to eat the deep-fried vegetables on very bottom first and work my way clockwise through the tiger shrimp and onwards. Inside the cut lime were many small, pale anchovies staring back at me. 7/10.

 Course 7: Vegetable Soup, 8/10

Course 7: Vegetable Soup, 8/10

Another soup, this one with daikon carrot, tofu, and fish paste. The colors weren't as bright and vibrant as they were at Kitcho, but a refreshingly simple and hearty dish nonetheless. 8/10.

 Course 8: Crab + Sashimi, 8/10

Course 8: Crab + Sashimi, 8/10

Another small fish plate, with crab in the center. The crab sauce was bright and fruity, and the sashimi almost outdid the earlier main fish plate's freshness. 8/10.

 Course 9: Pickled Vegetables, 9/10

Course 9: Pickled Vegetables, 9/10

Pickled vegetables, which were totally remarkable for the huge variety of flavors they were able to achieve. Sweet, sour, and everything in between. 9/10.

 Course 10: Puffed Rice Soup, 8/10

Course 10: Puffed Rice Soup, 8/10

Once again, I manage to take a horrifyingly awful picture, so apologies. Not much to say about this soup other than it tastes distinctly, once again, like Honey Smacks with puffed rice. 8/10.

 Couse 11: Sticky Bun, 8/10

Couse 11: Sticky Bun, 8/10

A semi-sweet pastry with enormous leaf. The pastry has a very sticky consistency that makes the experience a bit like eating a delicious sponge. 8/10.

 Course 12: Matcha, 8/10

Course 12: Matcha, 8/10

Matcha tea, once again grindingly handmade by the chef himself. A total work of art- he individually selected each cup. portioned out the matcha, added it to the cup, mixed it together with the matcha stirrer, and handed it to his assistant after uttering a small prayer before and after each completion. The server would then, with a very precise and practiced motion, turn the bowl to the front facing the guest, place the bowl in front of the guest with two hands, and give a deep, profound bow. I did my best to accept the gesture in kind, and I think I was given a C+. 

 Course 11: Citrus + Strawberry, 8/10

Course 11: Citrus + Strawberry, 8/10

Lastly, two courses of dessert were served- the first was orange custard inside a carved-out orange peel with red and white strawberry- totally delicious, sweet, and for such a small and reasonably-sized portion felt almost decadent in the context of the meal. 8/10.

 Course 12: Sliced Fruit, 10/10

Course 12: Sliced Fruit, 10/10

The very last, a beautifully colorful plate of precisely-chopped fruits topped wth gold leaf. This was one of the most beautiful and intensely colored desserts I have ever experienced. 10/10.

One final note- after service was completely over, every member of the kitchen staff emerged from the back, was given a beer by the chef himself, bowed, and we all clapped. An awesome, fun conclusion to the meal.

And, about that cash thing I mentioned earlier- each guest, separately, is ushered to what can only be called a small cash door where payment is requested. They don't take credit cards, so for goodness sake make sure you use the ATM beforehand. 

Hong Kong- L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon- ✪✪✪

With its distinctive brightly-colored ingredient displays, shiny reflective surfaces, bright red furniture, and seasonally-appropriate panoramas inside the chef's counter, Robuchon's 3-Star restaurant in Hong Kong delivered a quality (if predictable, and somewhat overly traditional) French meal. The dining room wraps around the kitchen in a nice, transparent setup that makes you feel like an observer (but definitely not a participant). Fascinatingly, throughout the entire meal, the head chef barks at his staff in French, and they reply. 

 Joel Robuchon Interior

Joel Robuchon Interior

HONG KONG, CHINA

SERVICE: 7.5/10

FOOD: 7.0/10

PRICE PAID: $98 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 8.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 7.5/10

 The Mall Interior- decked out for the holidays

The Mall Interior- decked out for the holidays

 Main Elevator Entrance

Main Elevator Entrance

Set inside The Landmark, likely the nicest mall in Hong Kong (a good clue is that Otto E Mezzo, another 3-Star, is right across the hall), L'Atelier is up a set of escalators that sit idly until we trip their proximity sensor and they smoothly start up, bringing us up the short flight. A very nice team of three people greets us and takes us to our seats at the counter.

 An Enormous Cornucopia of Bread, 8/10

An Enormous Cornucopia of Bread, 8/10

 A Hockey Puck of Butter, 8/10

A Hockey Puck of Butter, 8/10

As many of you know, I tend to obsess over bread, so I got pretty fired up about this bread basket. Every conceivable variety of European breads, accompanied by some damn fine butter. 8/10. 

 First Bites: Soup + Foie Gras, 8/10

First Bites: Soup + Foie Gras, 8/10

The amuse-bouche came out next- a small soup with Parmesan foam and a base of foie gras. Heavy but flavorful. The small, deep-fried ball of bread was extremely tasty. 8/10 overall.

 Course 1: Chilled Corn Soup, 8/10

Course 1: Chilled Corn Soup, 8/10

Next, a very pretty presentation of chilled corn soup- Japanese sweet corn for extra sweetness, smoked duck breast for saltiness, chili powder for spice, and popcorn for crunchy texture. Textures and flavors all pulled together extremely well, and the dish was served quite cold. My only complaint was that this was a huge quantity of soup, but I guess that can't be too bad of a thing. 8/10.

 Course 2: "Le Homard" soup, 7/10

Course 2: "Le Homard" soup, 7/10

Le Homard soup with a clear, somewhat spicy broth, with strong flavors of ginger and celery. The dumplings are prepared in "Tsukune" style; basically a meatball typically skewered and grilled over charcoal in yakitori restaurants, and typically made with chicken. The dumplings have a "squeaky" texture that feels like they're full of hundred of tiny air bubbles; a very cool effect. The lobster itself is okay- chewy and not terribly flavorful. The flowers off to the left are kind of neat but give the impression that someone was just sort of trimming the hedges and had a pretty stalk left over that they decided to toss next to the soup for no particular reason. I'm trying to say that it looked nice in the same way that any brightly colored thing would have looked nice, and didn't make a ton of sense. 7/10.

 Course 3: "Le Riz" - Risotto + Saffron, 8/10

Course 3: "Le Riz" - Risotto + Saffron, 8/10

Flagrantly saffron-ed, this risotto was danced up with a pretty excellent collection of seaweed, lettuce, and pimiento peppers (the ones that flavor pimento cheese). Rich, big mouthfeel from all the cauliflower and broccoli pieces, which are on the underdone side, which actually further enhances texture. Very fun. 8/10.

 Course 4: Challans Duck, 6/10

Course 4: Challans Duck, 6/10

The main dish- a Challans duck (known for its tenderness- they grow up along the canals near Vendée in France on a diet of snails and tadpoles, so they're usually pretty tasty). Overall, surprisingly undercooked- I nearly sent it back for another go on the grill. 6/10. A disappointing main dish.

 Course 5: Le Chocolat, 7/10

Course 5: Le Chocolat, 7/10

A lovely brick of crispy chocolate with ice cream, nuts, carefully-cut leaf-shaped crisps, and, hey, why not, a small folded bit of silver paper. 7/10.

 Last Bites- Petit Fours, Pâte de Fruits, 8/10

Last Bites- Petit Fours, Pâte de Fruits, 8/10

Lovely, extremely fresh Petit Fours/Macarons/Pâte de Fruits. Bright raspberry flavors from the Pâte de Fruits. 8/10.

 Coffee

Coffee

 Cream + Caramel 

Cream + Caramel 

I don't usually partake, but they offered complimentary coffee on the way out, which was completely lovely. All in all, a pretty amazing meal for less than $100!

France- La Maison Lameloise- ✪✪✪

Seated in the heart of Burgundy wine country, La Maison Lameloise has been 3-star rated since 1979, and has been run by the Lameloise family for three generations (Pierre, Jean, and then Jacques). Éric Pras took over the kitchen in 2008, and has maintained the hotel/restaurant's 3-star status ever since.

 La Maison Lameloise Exterior

La Maison Lameloise Exterior

CHAGNY, FRANCE (BURGUNDY WINE COUNTRY)

SERVICE: 7.5/10

FOOD: 8.0/10

PRICE PAID: $255PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 8.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 7.5/10

Éric Pras is something of a French culinary badass. His career has put him working alongside Bernard Loiseau, Pierre Gagnaire, Antoine Westermann, and many other A-level players. At 36, he took over Lameloise, and has put his own unique stamp on the place- his personal motto, translated somewhat awkwardly, is: "nothing is more difficult than simplicity." 

 First Bites: Snail + Foie Gras + Tomatoes, 8/10

First Bites: Snail + Foie Gras + Tomatoes, 8/10

A strong amuse to start, with several small, entertaining little dishes. 

Clockwise from the top right, tomatoes with a thin crusting of snail is adventuresome and a cool take on a classic dish- and served warm. 

The foie gras is simply great. No other way to say it. 

The circular canapés are all right, a light potato-y dish. 

The second set of spoons is a jumble of fruity and mashed starch textures- it's just okay.

Micro sandwiches with preserved meat are totally delicious. 8/10 overall.

 Course 1: Melon Soup, 9/10

Course 1: Melon Soup, 9/10

What an awesome idea- melon with melon water and goat's cheese in the center. Dashes of olive oil and spices make this thing really sing together. Clever, creative, and the chèvre is quite strong and pairs nicely with the melon. 9/10.

 Course 2: Lobster Ravioli, 10/10.

Course 2: Lobster Ravioli, 10/10.

 Lobster Tempura Claw

Lobster Tempura Claw

I loved this dish. Ravioli with lobster and tempura claw. The claw is piping hot, eaten first on a separate dish, and totally delicious. The strawberries are frozen-cold, which is a fun contrast. Strawberry-tomato sauce ties it together. 10/10.

 Course 3: Turbot + Rhubarb + Pasta, 7/10

Course 3: Turbot + Rhubarb + Pasta, 7/10

Turbot with rhubarb in small pastas. Fish stands out but the small mushrooms and spinach don't match it. Neutral, buttery taste accentuated by the buttery-ass sauce. 7/10.

 Course 4: Rouget + Foie Gras + Haricot, 6/10

Course 4: Rouget + Foie Gras + Haricot, 6/10

Foie gras with coquilettes and haricot. Small hard squares of rouget are good. Foie is unremarkable and heavy. 6/10.

 Course 5: Lamb + Zucchini, 9/10

Course 5: Lamb + Zucchini, 9/10

Lamb with zucchini, and a cracker with yet more zucchini. Deep, smoky flavor, super complex. 9/10.

 Course 6: Cheese, 9/10

Course 6: Cheese, 9/10

 The Cheese

The Cheese

You'd expect a cheese course from a 3-star restaurant in Burgundy to be pretty outstanding. This was pretty outstanding. 9/10.

 

 Course 7: Desserts, 8/10

Course 7: Desserts, 8/10

Lemon ice, small petit fours... Apricot is lovely and bright, chocolate guy tastes just like a s'more. Raspberry tartelette has a nice spice on it. 8/10

 Crêpes Suzette- 9/10

Crêpes Suzette- 9/10

 Prepping the Crêpe Suzette tableside

Prepping the Crêpe Suzette tableside

This next course was super cool- Crêpes Suzette with sorbet and small petit fours prepared tableside. Grand Marnier flavor comes through loud and clear- thanks to the actual bottle of Grand Marnier that is liberally used to flavor the crêpe. Orange flavors play off nicely. 9/10 and great presentation. Sorbet had a marshmallow- shaped ice cream underneath.

 Sorbet

Sorbet

Passion fruit hard/soft candy is awesome. 9/10

 Final bites- 9/10

Final bites- 9/10

Overall, a pretty excellent meal that lives up to its name. 

Belgium- De Karmeliet

UPDATE: De Karmeliet, sadly, is now closed after the owners decided it was time to scale back.

De Karmeliet (the Carmelite) has held three Michelin stars since 1996, longer than either of its Belgian competitors Hof Van Cleve (2005) and Hertog Jan (2011). Set in historic downtown Bruges, De Karmeliet lacks some of the gorgeous views of either its three-star compatriots, but sports a grand and gorgeous facade and dining rooms in high European style. 

 De Karmeliet Exterior

De Karmeliet Exterior

BRUGES, BELGIUM

SERVICE: 7.0/10

FOOD: 8.0/10

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

VALUE/MONEY: 7.5/10

FINAL SCORE: 7.5/10

  Geert van Hecke

Geert van Hecke

Geert van Hecke established the original De Karmeliet in Bruges with his wife Mireille in 1983, and they've been refining their style ever since. They won their first star in 1985, their second in '89, and finally the third in 1996. Geert himself has had some pretty world-class training at places like La Villa Loraine in Brussels (3-star at the time), and was taught by Alain Chapel alongside other current big-wigs like Alain Ducasse and Michel Roux. 

 De Karmeliet's Anteroom

De Karmeliet's Anteroom

 De Karmeliet's Main Dining Room

De Karmeliet's Main Dining Room

The interior spaces are open and airy, and have big, strong lighting statements in warm tones. The modern chandelier is a nice offset to the drawing-room style of the rest of the interior. In the main dining room, gorgeous original oil paintings adorn the walls, and tables are politely set apart. Interestingly, only a handful were occupied on a Saturday lunch, and the place was empty when I arrived at 12:30PM.

 First BItes: Local Potatoes + Paprika, 9/10

First BItes: Local Potatoes + Paprika, 9/10

An awesome basket of chips, made from local starches with shaved gouda cheese, to kick things off. A delicious salty welcome snack. 9/10.

 Course 1A: Almond + Black Olive Cake + Scottish Salmon + Zucchini, 9/10

Course 1A: Almond + Black Olive Cake + Scottish Salmon + Zucchini, 9/10

 Course 1B: Curry Sauce + Fried Seafood Bites, 9/10

Course 1B: Curry Sauce + Fried Seafood Bites, 9/10

The first course was a lovely medley of small bites- going from left to right, spiced almonds, then a cake of black olives with tapenade of anchovy and cherry tomatoes. Perfect texture playoff between the crunchy almonds and the cake. 9/10.

Next, a curry-based dippin' sauce with fried balls of seafood- mussels, vegetables, you name it. A really interesting dish, not terribly healthy, but delicious all the same. 9/10- this was the high point of the meal for me. 

 Course 1C: Chip + Shrimp, 7/10

Course 1C: Chip + Shrimp, 7/10

 Inside 1C

Inside 1C

Meanwhile in the third bowl, a delicious crunchy chip that reveals a collection of tiny shrimps and greens. The shrimps are just okay in texture and flavor; they're well-cooked but they've been in the fridge a day too long. 7/10.

 The Bread

The Bread

 The Butter

The Butter

Anybody who follows my travels knows that I'm a huge sucker for good bread and butter. This place did not set any world records for me. 

 Course 2: Scallops + Black Truffle Sauce, 7/10

Course 2: Scallops + Black Truffle Sauce, 7/10

The next course was at least beautifully presented- roasted French scallops with a black truffle vinaigrette. The truffle is from the famous French market in Richerenches, I am told. In the middle is a remoulade of celeriac (a vegetable that looks a bit like an alien), and mousse of chestnut with almonds, speaking to the previous course. 7/10- well cooked and just fine, but Nothing Terribly Special.

 Course 3: Langoustine + Goose Liver + Eggplant, 8/10

Course 3: Langoustine + Goose Liver + Eggplant, 8/10

Langoustines with mushroom, goose liver, and eggplant chunks. The pairing with liver is too rich, but the eggplant is perfect. 8/10

 Course 4: Pheasant + Cabbage + Red Apple, 8/10

Course 4: Pheasant + Cabbage + Red Apple, 8/10

 4B: Sauce made from the pheasant bones

4B: Sauce made from the pheasant bones

The last main course was baked pheasant inside green cabbage with roasted red apple in the middle. Mushrooms, cream of butternut, carmelized red apple flavors, and Brussel sprouts. Cream of celeriac as well, to pair up with the ideas from two courses ago. 

On the side, fin de champagne sauce. Beneath the surface, the bones from the legs of the pheasant with goose liver. Delicious. 8/10.

 Course 5A: Apple + Caramel, 8/10

Course 5A: Apple + Caramel, 8/10

A shaved apple, presented with light caramel sauce, a handful of delicately-placed greens, and candied fruits. Delightful and refreshing, 8/10. 

 Course 5B: Chocolate + Orange, 8/10

Course 5B: Chocolate + Orange, 8/10

Chocolate from Guatemala, zest of orange, ice cream of orange, vanilla of Tahiti. A handful of tasty, small desserts followed.

 Course 5C: Marshmellows, 7/10

Course 5C: Marshmellows, 7/10

 Course 5D: Chocolate Orange Peel, 7/10

Course 5D: Chocolate Orange Peel, 7/10

 Course 5E: Hot Chocolate, 8/10

Course 5E: Hot Chocolate, 8/10

Passion fruit-flavored mushrooms, a chocolate-dusted orange peel, and cups of hot chocolate. 7/10 overall. 

 Final Bites: Petit Fours, 8/10

Final Bites: Petit Fours, 8/10

A few final bites on the way out- nothing 0utstanding, but a pleasant finish to the meal. 8/10.

Germany- Überfahrt- ✪✪✪

 Überfahrt Exterior

Überfahrt Exterior

ROTTACH-EGERN, GERMANY (ALPS NEAR THE AUSTRIAN BORDER)

SERVICE: 8.5/10

FOOD: 7.0/10

PRICE PAID: $282 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 7.5/10

FINAL SCORE: 7.5/10

 Christian Jürgens

Christian Jürgens

Sitting right next to the near-Caribbean-colored waters of the Tegernsee (a large mountain lake in the German alpine foothills), Christian Jürgens has crafted a beautifully-executed menu that tries to share the riches of his adopted Bavarian home and show off the richness of the Tegernsee region. 

 Just outside the restaurant- the Tegernsee

Just outside the restaurant- the Tegernsee

The hotel actually has three different restaurants, and from casual observation I could conclude that Überfahrt has the lion's share of marketing talent, interior decoration skill, and general thought put into it. The interior is entirely referential to nature- every drink stand, bread tray, or other mobile object seems to be fashioned from some sort of log. I get that Jürgens is putting together a panorama of the beautifully forested natural setting, but he really hits you over the head with it. 

 First course: Cheese + "Moss," 8/10

First course: Cheese + "Moss," 8/10

The rock sitting underneath this fern-y cheese dish was served cold and slick with condensation. On top, you can see the "trees" and the watercress "moss." Have you gotten that this is a nature panorama yet? Like I said, a bit over the top. 

Texture was not bad and the dish is exceptionally creamy (as to be expected). Though the wet rock makes for an odd experience, the cheese is excellent and goes perfectly with the accompanying bread crisps, which tasted precisely like Wheat Thins. 8/10. 

 2nd Course: Quail Egg, 7/10

2nd Course: Quail Egg, 7/10

On an elevated pylon of a dish, quail egg, milk bread, and house made butter came next. The butter is highly aromatic; you can smell it across the table. Looming in the center of the plate is an enormous truffle, wet and fresh on top of the egg. Super rich sauce. A nice start but nothing too crazy. 8/10. The house-made butter is heavenly good.

 3rd Course: Caviar, 8/10

3rd Course: Caviar, 8/10

 Cod-on-a-Stick

Cod-on-a-Stick

Another cool serving platform- this one almost like a mini-champage bucket. The caviar is served very cold with olive oil, a nice tomato and bell pepper salsa underneath gives vegetable flavors but not much spice. Serving in the caviar dish was a nice touch. Cod on a stick came on the side- it was tasty but tough to eat without spilling fish particles. 8/10.

 4th Course: Artichoke + Egg, 9/10

4th Course: Artichoke + Egg, 9/10

Next came artichoke with egg and herbs. An almost pastalike texture with bold flavors. The artichoke itself is fresh and perfect. An adventuresome dish with simple ingredients. 9/10.

 5th Course: "Spring Roll" with Langoustine, 8/10

5th Course: "Spring Roll" with Langoustine, 8/10

This deconstructed spring roll dish came with deep fried langoustine. Basically, just imagine chicken McNugget langoustines. 8/10. 

 6th Course: "Firebird," Pigeon + Salsify + Green Pepper Sauce, 9/10

6th Course: "Firebird," Pigeon + Salsify + Green Pepper Sauce, 9/10

Delicious chanterelle mushrooms, pleasingly adhered to the top of the bird. The pigeon is softly cooked, giving it an absolutely supreme tenderness. Beautifully spiced, goes great with salsify. A near-perfect main course. 9/10

 7th Course: Cheese, 8/10

7th Course: Cheese, 8/10

A creative, pretty half-moon presentation of sheep and goat cheese. Super thin goat cheese with apricots underneath. Uncomfortably hard bits. Hearty for a cheese dish. Great mix of textures. A Shitload of cheese. 8/10

 8th Course: Zuppa Romana, 9/10

8th Course: Zuppa Romana, 9/10

The next dessert was fantastic- Zuppa Romana made of mascarpone- was both creamy and cakey on the inside. Some super cold bits gave it a fun contrasting experience, with lots of fun crunchy textures. 9/10. 

 9th Course: Winter Garden Patisseries, 7/10

9th Course: Winter Garden Patisseries, 7/10

 Black Forest Cake

Black Forest Cake

A charming little cabinet with a selection of pick-your-own cake. I chose a small flower pot of Black Forest cherry cake. Good but not great. 7/10.

 Bill + Chef's Hat

Bill + Chef's Hat

I thought that this was adorable. You get a little tiny chef's hat, served on a teeny-tiny Le Creuset-style cooking pot. A charming end to the meal that made me laugh. 

France- La Maison Lameloise- ✪✪✪

Seated in the heart of Burgundy wine country, La Maison Lameloise has been 3-star rated since 1979, and has been run by the Lameloise family for three generations (Pierre, Jean, and then Jacques). Éric Pras took over the kitchen in 2008, and has maintained the hotel/restaurant's 3-star status ever since.

 Maison Lameloise Exterior

Maison Lameloise Exterior

CHAGNY, FRANCE (BURGUNDY WINE COUNTRY)

SERVICE: 7.5/10

FOOD: 8.0/10

PRICE PAID: $255PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 8.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 7.5/10

 Eric Pras

Eric Pras

Renovated into a hotel in 1921, the gorgeous Lameloise building was originally a 15th-Century coach house.

Currently under the leadership of Eric Pras, the restaurant was run by three generations of Lameloise chefs (Pierre from 1921-1944, Jean from 1944-1971, and Jacques from 1971-2009). The restaurant achieved its third Michelin star in 1979, and has held it since. 

Eric, only 36, has worked with Pierre Gagnaire, Bernard Loiseau, and many other famous French all-star chefs. He's filling some big shoes at Lameloise. 

According to his website, Eric is attracted to ideas like: "nothing is as difficult as simplicity." I like a good chef-philosopher. 


 First ites, 8/10

First ites, 8/10

First off, a beautiful and diverse amuse; each plate lands delicately and precisely from a different server. It's a very pretty and hearty welcome to the restaurant. Starting with the foie gras spoons, this dish is stunningly good.

 First bites: Micro Sandwiches

First bites: Micro Sandwiches

Second Spoon is very pretty but flavors are just okay- interesting crunchy texture combined with a nice soft foundation.

All the way on the left, some micro sandwiches with preserved meat. Delicious. 9/10.

 First bites: Snail + Tomato, Canapes, 8/10

First bites: Snail + Tomato, Canapes, 8/10

Tomato with snail is served warm- a super-Burgundian dish- and the fruits themselves are exploding with ripeness. The circular canapés are bland and don't say as much. 8/10.

 1st Course: Melon + Chèvre Soup, 9/10

1st Course: Melon + Chèvre Soup, 9/10

What an awesome idea- melon with melon water and goat's cheese in the center. Dashes of olive oil and spices make this thing really sing together. Clever, creative, and the chèvre is quite strong and pairs nicely with the melon. 9/10.

 2nd Course: Lobster Ravioli + Summer Fruits, 10/10

2nd Course: Lobster Ravioli + Summer Fruits, 10/10

 Course 2B: Tempura Lobster Claw

Course 2B: Tempura Lobster Claw

The next course is super interesting- ravioli with lobster and a fried tempura claw on the side. The claw is piping hot, and the server recommends that it be eaten first; delicious. The strawberries are frozen-cold, which is a fun contrast. Strawberry-tomato sauce ties it together perfectly. Original, interesting, delicious. 10/10.

 3rd Course: Turbot + Rhubarb + Pasta, 7/10

3rd Course: Turbot + Rhubarb + Pasta, 7/10

This course of turbot with rhubarb in small pastas has stand-out fish, but the small mushrooms and spinach don't match it. Neutral, buttery taste accentuated by the very-buttery sauce. 7/10.

 4th Course: Foie Gras, 7/10

4th Course: Foie Gras, 7/10

Next is a very pretty plate of foie gras with coquilettes and haricot. The small hard squares are tasty and precisely-made, but the Foie itself is unremarkable and heavy. 7/10.

 5th Course: Veal + Zucchini, 9/10

5th Course: Veal + Zucchini, 9/10

"Veau avec courgettes," accompanied by a cracker with more courgettes. This dish exhibits a deep, smoky flavor; super complex. Beautiful colors and a confident, beautiful presentation. 9/10.

 6th Course: Cheese Tray, 10/10

6th Course: Cheese Tray, 10/10

I would have been terribly sad if the cheese cart in a 3-star Burgundy restaurant was anything short of spectacular. An enormous assortment of beautifully laid-out, delicious cheeses from many different local farms. I asked for the house specialties and got a pretty excellent selection of soft cheeses. 10/10.

 Soft cheeses

Soft cheeses

 7th Course: Lemon Ice + Petit Fours, 9/10

7th Course: Lemon Ice + Petit Fours, 9/10

Next up is the first dessert course- lemon ice, small petit fours... The apricot-flavored bite all the way on the right is lovely and bright, the chocolate guy tastes just like a s'more. Raspberry tartelette has a nice spice on it. 9/10. 

 Raspberry Tartelette

Raspberry Tartelette

 8th Course: Crêpes Suzette, 9/10

8th Course: Crêpes Suzette, 9/10

 Preparing the Crêpes Suzette tableside

Preparing the Crêpes Suzette tableside

This next dessert was totally over-the-top; Crêpes Suzette made tableside with sorbet, Grand Marnier, and small petit fours. The Grand Marnier flavor charges through loud and clear. Oranges play off nicely. 9/10 and great presentation. Sorbet had a marshmallow- shaped ice cream underneath.

 Sorbet

Sorbet

 Final Bites: Hard + Soft Passion Fruit, 9/10

Final Bites: Hard + Soft Passion Fruit, 9/10

Lastly, a small plate of hard and soft Passion fruit candy. An excellent conclusion. 9/10.

France- Le Meurice Alain Ducasse- ✪✪

Update- as of the 2017 book, Le Meurice Alain Ducasse is now 2-stars :( :(

PARIS, FRANCE

SERVICE: 8.0/10

FOOD: 7.0/10

PRICE PAID: $80 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 8.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 7.5/10

Situated in the gorgeous Meurice hotel on Rue de Rivoli, Alain Ducasse's hotel restaurant has one of the most palatial surroundings imaginable. The restaurant serves breakfast out of what could only be described as a gold-leafed ballroom, complete with tall white marble fireplace, mirrors, paintings, chandeliers, and the whole nine yards. If an ensemble had leapt from the curtains and sang, "Be Our Guest," I wouldn't have even registered surprise. 

 First Bites: Bread + Jam, 8/10

First Bites: Bread + Jam, 8/10

As with your traditional carb-heavy French breakfasts, we began with a tower-plate of bread. Pain au chocolat, croissants rolls, all paired up with just-made jams and confitures. Nicely presented and with beautiful flavors. 8/10.

 Course 1: Tropical Fruit Plate, 8/10

Course 1: Tropical Fruit Plate, 8/10

Is this a beautiful, tropical fruit plate that appears to have been precisely and delicately cut by a trained hand? Yes, it is. Is it exceptionally different from a fruit plate one might get from, say, room service at a Hyatt Regency in Dallas? No, it is not. Still pretty good, though. 8/10. 

 Course 2: Black Truffle Egg Benedict, 9/10

Course 2: Black Truffle Egg Benedict, 9/10

If you, for any reason at all, are trying to inflict a heart attack on yourself or a loved one, please by all means try this dish out. I'm not kidding when I infer that an entire stick of butter had to die to make this egg benedict. The truffle on top was just icing on the cake (haha get it? But yeah more butter). Truly, magnificently decadent, but please don't try this at home. This is a butter hurricane wrapped inside a fat tornado. I shall name it, "the ButterCane." 9/10. 

 Course 3: Crêpe, 8/10

Course 3: Crêpe, 8/10

A small pile of crepes with chocolate and sugar. Simple and pleasurable. 8/10. 

Belgium- Hertog Jan- ✪✪✪

With an idyllic garden and gorgeous modern-architecture restaurant layout, Hertog Jan was one of my favorite visits in all of Europe. 

LOPPEM-ZEDELGEM (BRUGGE), BELGIUM

SERVICE: 6.5/10

FOOD: 8.5/10

PRICE PAID: $328 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 7.5/10

FINAL SCORE: 7.5/10

Situated in a lush, green garden a few miles outside of Brugge, Hertog Jan is the masterwork of the Lebron James of the culinary world, Gert de Mengeleer. Gert is on an incredible roll- he achieved his third Michelin star at age 34, making him one of the youngest chefs in the world with that honor. Gert's motto is "driven by simplicity," and the menu is one of the purest product-driven presentations (i.e. fresh fruits, vegetables, and ingredients) I have ever seen. The garden (pictured above) is where most of the restaurant's inputs come from. 

 In the summer, pre-dinner aperitifs start outside near the garden

In the summer, pre-dinner aperitifs start outside near the garden

Upon entering, you approach the hostess stand in a dark ceramic-brick lobby that feels like a nice spa. Surrounding you are books as well as take-home preparations of jam, sauces, and condiments branded by de Mangeleer. It's not an uncommon sight in some of these Three-Star restaurants, but this one takes it almost to gift-shop levels. We walked out past lovely rectangular artificial ponds to an absolutely stunning patio, greeted by the setting sun and a lovely glass of reasonably-priced champagne. While the views weren't as sweeping and magnificent as Hof Van Cleve, Hertog Jan takes full advantage of its setting. 

Service throughout was okay but not great, and in some cases not even good. As the first few precursor dishes wrapped up, we asked to stay on the patio for an extra moment to enjoy the sunset. The staff behaved as though this was the most toweringly ludicrous request one could possible level at them, and told us that the kitchen couldn't handle such a request. It does seem a little odd that the kitchen couldn't handle having their dishes walking an extra ten feet, but so be it. 

 First Bites: Smoked Mackerel, 9/10

First Bites: Smoked Mackerel, 9/10

Charmingly smoking over a small bed of twigs, this delicate wrap of mackerel with a light pasty crust and a garnishment of flowers was a beautiful opening statement about the meal and the amazing things to come. The temperature was just-right, and the smokiness of the dish gave it a total-sensory experience. 9/10. 

 First Bites: Tomato + Broth, 10/10

First Bites: Tomato + Broth, 10/10

A dish that impresses with its simplicity and obvious technical complexity; tomatoes stuffed with mozzarella had their insides carefully extracted and refined into a delicate broth. The effect of eating both together was that of an exquisite tomato soup. Creative, interesting, and a beautiful presentation. 10/10.

 First Bites, Continued: Beef Cannellonis, 7/10

First Bites, Continued: Beef Cannellonis, 7/10

Another fantastically pretty presentation, this time of two small, crunchy cannellonis with Flemish beef and bright spice powder. Serving on a bed of plain white rice was shrewd, bringing out the colors of the beef and the spices. The flavors didn't quite match the brilliance of the visual presentation- it was a little plain, honestly- but still enjoyable. 7/10.

 First Bites, Continued: Goose Liver + Raspberry, 10/10

First Bites, Continued: Goose Liver + Raspberry, 10/10

Though the chef frequently espouses his simplicity-driven cooking style, it was clear to me that this dish was a fun play on the potential of complexity- a beautiful medley of goose liver, raspberry, and lychee practically exploded with flavor. The lychee was served ice-cold, which played off the warm goose liver and the electric-zing of the raspberry dust. A truly memorable dish. 10/10. 

   First Bites, Continued: Potato + Lychee, 6/10

  First Bites, Continued: Potato + Lychee, 6/10

While the presentation was bright and luscious the flavors were actually fairly bland on this potato-based dish. Working with starches is always risky, and even with a nice blend of sea salt and oil the staid texture overwhelm the core idea of the dish. 6/10.

 Course 1: Potato Soup + Coffee, 9/10

Course 1: Potato Soup + Coffee, 9/10

This next potato dish made a ton more sense- a dense, rich plate of cream of potato, shaved cheese, and coffee grounds. Check out the dazzling colors and patterns of the ceramic- this was carefully thought through. Completely delicious 9/10. 

 Course 2: Sea Bass, 9/10

Course 2: Sea Bass, 9/10

A traditional Peruvian presentation- this dish was straightforward, light, and delicate. The fish felt a bit confined in a jail of vegetables visually, but a small note on such a delicious fish. 9/10. 

 Course 3: "A Walk in the Garden," 9/10

Course 3: "A Walk in the Garden," 9/10

A dish that was decadent in its pure, crispy, practically ringing freshness- the Walk in the Garden is an always-changing dish that reflects the most-currently-available products from the garden outside. An impossibly dense collection of colors and vegetable textures made this feel more Jungle than Garden; this dish is the pinnacle of showing what the chef's supply chain can do. 9/10. 

 Course 4: Beet + Langoustine, 9/10

Course 4: Beet + Langoustine, 9/10

Langoustine and beet with a stock of langoustine- the colors flowed nicely, and played well against the greenery of the previous dish to provide a nice contrast. 9/10.

 Course 5: Eel, 8/10

Course 5: Eel, 8/10

This meticulously-folded preparation of eel with sauce was a beautiful penultimate dish- lush sea flavors played well with the crunchy, starchy tri-fold vegetables. 8/10.

 Course 6: Wagyu Beef, 9/10

Course 6: Wagyu Beef, 9/10

Incredibly tender and hidden under layers of mushrooms, this was one of my favorite Wagyu preparations of all time. 9/10

 Course 7: Vegetables + Cream, 8/10

Course 7: Vegetables + Cream, 8/10

Lastly, a beautiful baked tart with surprisingly sweet vegetable cream. Small green shoots remind us of the heavy vegetable-driven meal we've just enjoyed. A beautiful concluding statement. 8/10.

Japan- Chihana- ✪✪✪

The name means something close to "1,000 blossoms," and tucked into the dense and romantic Gion district of Kyoto is this tiny gem of a kaiseki restaurant. The cuisine style originated hundreds of years ago in Japan as a style of coursed menu for nobility, and persists today in many excellent restaurants in Kyoto and elsewhere.

 Chihana Main Entrance

Chihana Main Entrance

KYOTO, JAPAN

SERVICE: 8.0/10

FOOD: 8.0/10

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

VALUE/MONEY: 7.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 7.5/10

A quick heads up to those visiting- give yourself an extra 15 minutes to find the place. Tucked way down a twisting alley that looks like it leads nowhere, GPS will also actively obstruct your journey by taking you to the back entrance which isn't open for guests. 

 The Main Restaurant Seating Area

The Main Restaurant Seating Area

 Chef Nagata

Chef Nagata

You enter a blond-wood bar with dozens of small, colorful ceramic cups and plates arranged carefully behind the chef's counter. Behind the curtain to the right is a packed kitchen with an unknown number of scurrying assistants who duck in and out. There are only eight seats with a few small private rooms behind us that were unoccupied, so the evening is incredibly intimate and quiet. Chef Nagata rolls in and out of the back room to quietly chat with guests. His English was pretty basic, but he seemed to care deeply that I was enjoying myself.

 1st Course: Strawberry + Broccoli + Scallop, 10/10

1st Course: Strawberry + Broccoli + Scallop, 10/10

To kick things off, the chef began with a truly outstanding combination of cooked strawberry, broccoli, and hot scallops. The strawberries and greens were cold, creating a wonderful balance of colors, flavors, textures, and temperatures. The briny-ness of the scallops met with the sweet of the strawberry and the fibrousness of the greens; this is by far the best individual course I have had on my adventure thus far. 10/10.

 2nd Course: White Fish + Spring Onion, 8/10

2nd Course: White Fish + Spring Onion, 8/10

A savory mix of warm fish proteins, hard veggies, and a sprinkling of strongly-flavored spring onions gave this dish a hearty feel. 8/10.

 3rd Course: Vegetable Tempura, 8/10

3rd Course: Vegetable Tempura, 8/10

A massive and filling portion of fiddlehead fern and bamboo shoot tempura, served with a touch of salt and a fresh lemon to taste. Great texture and perfectly cooked, but took me about 10 minutes to get through. 8/10.

 4th Course: Onion Soup, 7/10

4th Course: Onion Soup, 7/10

Next came a warm soup of onion slices and a doughy, spongy substances that tasted like fish cake. The overall dish made sense but it was on the bland side- the onions were crisp and a little young, and the doughy substance made for a nice pair with the vegetable. The ceramic bowl's colors went along perfectly- in most cases, you can see that the chef's carefully selected the dishware for that particular course. 7/10.

 5th Course: Greens + Fish, 8/10

5th Course: Greens + Fish, 8/10

Thus began the dishes that were set to challenge my western palate. Served cold, this plate of greens with cooked fish and a mustardy sauce throughout was a fun little dance of textures. The consistent, cold temperature challenged my opinion of high-end fish. 8/10.

 6th Course: White Fish + Asparagus, 6/10

6th Course: White Fish + Asparagus, 6/10

With what could only be described as a heapin' helpin' of loosely-bound fish, this dish was a tough one for me. Combining the huge portion and the repetitive fish-and-greens combo, I only made it through halfway through this course before giving up. 6/10.

 7th Course: Seaweed + Bamboo Shoot Soup, 8/10

7th Course: Seaweed + Bamboo Shoot Soup, 8/10

The sprig of herb you see front and center is only a brief flavoring gesture- it was removed right after the dish was placed in front of me. This was a subtle dish, with the fibrous bamboo shoots playing nicely off the sweet, soft seaweed and the herbaceous broth. A fun dish that made sense to me. 8/10.

 8th Course: Raw Fish, 8/10

8th Course: Raw Fish, 8/10

Some interesting condiments I had never experienced before- the black sticks in the upper right of the photo were dry seaweed, and I was encouraged to use wasabi, horseradish, and soy sauce combinations to find my own optimal grouping. Effectively, the un-named, fresh fish was a platform for different combinations of salty flavors. Another fun dish, 8/10.

 9th Course: 5-Dish Combo, 9/10

9th Course: 5-Dish Combo, 9/10

(Sorry for the blurry photo! Learning curve and all that...) From left to right: bean paste, ("eat this one fast!" was the instruction), fried veggie chips, squid paste, fish paste, and a veggie mix. The idea here was to mix and match very different flavor profiles and preparation ideas- each of these felt like they were made by a different chef. The squid paste wasn't quite to my liking, but the other four dishes formed a spectacular harmony of tastes. 9/10.

 10th Course: Red Snapper, 9/10

10th Course: Red Snapper, 9/10

Easily one of the freshest, best fish dishes I have ever had. The lemon and salt re-appear for flavoring, but they weren't necessary since the fish itself was the must succulent and rich I have ever experienced. 9/10.

 11th Course: Bean Curd Soup, 8/10

11th Course: Bean Curd Soup, 8/10

Look how well the colors turn out in this dish- it almost looks like a cheddar beer soup. Bean curds aren't usually my preferred ingredient, but this course managed to change my mind a little. The curds were fresh and tasted like a rich bread, the perennially super-fresh veggies gave the dish depth. 8/10.

 12th Course: Pine Nuts + Whole Fish + Beans, 8/10

12th Course: Pine Nuts + Whole Fish + Beans, 8/10

Very similar to a dish I had earlier enjoyed at Hyotei, this dish was an interesting combo of large, hard, lima bean-like vegetables with pine nuts and full sardines, eyes and all. Though I am proudly up for a challenge, this specific dish definitely pushed me- I feel like they're looking at me. I got over it and enjoyed the crunchy bones up against the hard, rich beans. 8/10.

 13th Course: Rice + Herbs, 7/10

13th Course: Rice + Herbs, 7/10

Things went off the rails for me at this point. This was such an enormous, heavy portion of rice with such a liberal and substantial heap of herbs that I had to give up 1/3rd of the way through. Though certainly tasty, the dish felt mis-placed in the order of the meal. 7/10.

 14th Course: Orange Juice, 7/10

14th Course: Orange Juice, 7/10

And then, leading up to dessert was... A glass of orange juice. The orange juice had a spritz of apple, giving it a bright and fruity taste. But, I mean, come on. It's just orange juice. I'd like to fully own that this might be my Western cuisine bias, but especially after how large and heavy the final courses were, this felt like a letdown. 7/10.

USA- Jean-Georges- ✪✪✪

NEW YORK, NY, USA

SERVICE: 7.0/10

FOOD: 8.5/10

PRICE PAID: $140 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 7.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 7.5/10

As the United Airlines half-marathon ran in the background, I enjoyed lunch at the famous Jean-Georges restaurant in the Trump Tower. One of Jean-Georges Vongerichtgen's anchor properties in the United States, Jean-Georges has a serene, open feel that seems a bit out of place next to the classless, gaudy polished bronze lobby of the Trump building. Vongerichten himself has been an understudy to many of the most successful names in fine dining- Paul Bocuse, Paul Haeberlin at L'Auberge de L'Ill, among others. 

 First Bites: Scottish Salmon Carpaccio, 9/10

First Bites: Scottish Salmon Carpaccio, 9/10

The first bite of the afternoon was super creative and paired well. A tiny tower of Scottish salmon with a roasted Cremini mushroom. The mushroom was firm and not overly salted, and the Salmon was perfectly fresh, tangy, and stuffed with delicious herbs. 9/10.

 Course 1: Caesar Salad, 9/10

Course 1: Caesar Salad, 9/10

Topped with a healthy ration of black truffle, the caesar salad was a cool and original take on the dish that left me impressed. The dressing was exceptionally rich, and the long leaves required a knife to cut. They practically snapped with freshness, and the dish worked really well overall. 9/10,

 Course 2: Parsnip Soup, 10/10

Course 2: Parsnip Soup, 10/10

The parsnip soup was an extremely interesting combo- the foam on the right is coconut milk, and the froth on the left is lime and elderflower with a shaving of herbs overtop. The sweet of the lime and coconut did wonders for the starchy parsnips. 10/10.

 Course 3: Suckling Pig, 6/10

Course 3: Suckling Pig, 6/10

The biggest disappointment of the meal, by far- an enormous, rather dry slab of pork in a very autumnal squash-based pudding with some distracting shoots sprinkled about. The central story of the dish didn't make any sense the way it was prepared, but the aesthetics were quite lovely. 6/10.

 Course 4: Citrus, 9/10

Course 4: Citrus, 9/10

The citrus dessert was a real high point- seared chunk of grapefruit on top of shaved grapefruit ice, and a slice of lemon cheesecake with fruit toppings. An absolute delight, 9/10.

 Last Bites: Petit Fours, 7/10

Last Bites: Petit Fours, 7/10

The petit fours were delightful, but nothing terribly special. A Pâte de fruit, a handful of chocolates, and a macaron. Pretty standard fare. 7/10.