UK- The Fat Duck- ✪✪✪

Heston Blumenthal occupies a quasi-mythic status in the fine dining world, so let's start with that. His Big Idea is to recast fine dining as an experience in storytelling rather than eating, but not in a boring, let-me-tell-you-where-the-chef-found-this-particular-lobster kind of way. More like a multisensory memory walkthrough from childhood, with lots half-serious yet artful emulations of Alice in Wonderland to boot. While charming, be prepared for lots of instruction, long anecdotes, and windy explanations recited like memorized lines as well as service staff might be expected to recite. Some of those lines are charming. Some are teeth-grindingly awkward. Also expect an extremely leisurely pace; we clocked in at over 4.5 hours. 

 The Fat Duck's "Coat of Arms"

The Fat Duck's "Coat of Arms"

As you approach his building, you confront a prominent bronze plaque emblazoned on the outside. This is Heston Blumenthal's coat of arms, so to speak, representing the senses—lavender for smell, a lyre for hearing, apple for taste, a hand for touch, etc. Quite tellingly, the motto at the bottom reads, "Question Everything." 

 Heston Blumenthal. Credit: CNN

Heston Blumenthal. Credit: CNN

Returning from their successful stage in Melbourne, Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck immediately regained its 3-star status in the 2017 Michelin guidebook. Since not much of the equation that has made them so famous hass changed, it's unsurprising that they should be immediately welcomed back. I would group The Fat Duck alongside Bo Innovation in Hong Kong and Alinea in Chicago as, without question, the three most creative and showmanship-oriented 3-star restaurants in the entire world. Years ago, Heston publicly disavowed the term "molecular gastronomy" in favor of his preferred nomenclature, "modernism." However described, after spending an evening at his restaurant he in inarguably taking fine dining in a new and much more engaging direction. 

BRAY, UK

SERVICE: 8.0/10

FOOD: 8.0/10

PRICE PAID: $410PP (INCL. WATER, TAX, TIP- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 7.5/10

FINAL SCORE: 8.0/10

 Fat Duck Place Settings

Fat Duck Place Settings

 Fat Duck Dining Room

Fat Duck Dining Room

 Upstairs

Upstairs

 Fat Duck Dining Room

Fat Duck Dining Room

 Fat Duck Dining Room 

Fat Duck Dining Room 

The interior decoration of this building was really something to behold... "Whimsical" doesn't even come close. Each room has a light cannon sitting the table above that modifies the color of illumination based on what course is being served. As we first enter, you can see in the photos above that everything is quite red, representing sunset on the day before our journey. More to come on that in a sec. 

 "The Map" - Menu

"The Map" - Menu

A map is brought over to our table and unfolded with great drama. We are told at enormous, ponderous length that this map is a map of our journey to come. Broken up into chapters like a book, and with teeny-tiny course descriptions underneath for those actually interested in what they would be eating. A great deal of care and craftsmanship went into creating this map, and I daresay it looks incredible. "As you look at this map, can you imagine how your journey will unfold?" We are asked, somewhat open-endedly. Heston's staff needs to work on how much they talk down to patrons who are clearly meant to be absolutely and completely fucking aghast at how amazing this is. It's pretty great, don't get me wrong. But it's not quite as amazing as they think I should feel. 

 Course 1A: "A Change of Air," Frozen Aperitifs, 8/10

Course 1A: "A Change of Air," Frozen Aperitifs, 8/10

Next, up rolls a charming liquid-nitrogen aperitifs cart. The options for frozen-solid drinks included:

  • Paloma with tequila
  • Vodka sour with lime
  • Campari soda
  • Piña colada

I went with the Piña colada. Sorry for the red light effect, it was shining pretty strongly at this point. 8/10.

 Course 1B: "A Change-of-Air," Beetroot + Horseradish, 8/10

Course 1B: "A Change-of-Air," Beetroot + Horseradish, 8/10

This next morsel, designed to accompany the aperitif as a two-part dish titled titled "A Change-of-air," was a macaron of beetroot with spicy horseradish cream. Super light, spicy, and airy. The freeze-dried beet texture is particularly excellent. Crispy and delightful pairing of flavors. 8/10.

 Course 2: "Just the Tonic We Need," Gin + Tonic, 9/10

Course 2: "Just the Tonic We Need," Gin + Tonic, 9/10

Another charming yet lengthy story opens this course. This time, the server regales us with the stresses of traveling all the way to Cornwall: kids in the backseat whining, car trouble, missed directions, etc. The first drink one's parents would want after such an experience, we are told, is a G&T. This dish is basically a deconstructed version, with lots of hot and cold, green wheatgrassy flavored broth, and a touch of gin ice cream in the middle brings everything together perfectly. 9/10. 

 Course 3: "Excuse Me, My Tea Seems To Be Cold... And Hot," 8/10

Course 3: "Excuse Me, My Tea Seems To Be Cold... And Hot," 8/10

Moving on to "chapter 2" of the menu, "breakfast"—some tea which is hot and cold at the same time. It's really a mid-blowing effect, but despite appearing to have a homogenous constitution, this beverage is quite viscous and feels like two opposing flavors at once. 8/10.  

 Course 4: "Why Do I have to Choose Between A Variety Pack and a Cooked Breakfast?" 10/10

Course 4: "Why Do I have to Choose Between A Variety Pack and a Cooked Breakfast?" 10/10

The next course was, hands down, one of the most interesting and fully-executed ideas I have ever come across in fine dining. Six shrink-wrapped mini-cereals fashioned in the fake-brands of Heston Blumenthal's imaginary journey, each complete with cover art, nutritional information, and actual cereal. 

 "Brisk Bites" 

"Brisk Bites" 

 ... Complete With "Nutritional Info" 

... Complete With "Nutritional Info" 

 Course 4: Inside the Cereal Boxes

Course 4: Inside the Cereal Boxes

Included in each box were precision-cut puzzle pieces that could be fashioned into a coin-holder. Referring back to a survey I answered before attending the meal, the restaurant had decorated one of the pieces with the likenesses of my two dogs. Totally charming. 10/10 just for the creativity alone. 

 Course 4: Cereal + Milk Curd, 10/10

Course 4: Cereal + Milk Curd, 10/10

The milk curd and cereal were excellent; like those last sugary bites at the end of the bowl that you remember from when you were a kid. 10/10.

 Course 5: "The Sound of the Sea"

Course 5: "The Sound of the Sea"

 Course 5: "The Sound of the Sea"

Course 5: "The Sound of the Sea"

The next dish—"Sound of the Sea"—is precipitated by a seashell with headphones. Pumping out the ear buds is a relaxation-CD style sound of ocean waves, brought to you by the iPod shuffle seen on the right. 

 Course 5: "The Sound of the Sea,"

Course 5: "The Sound of the Sea,"

The meal itself is served on a "plate" with a drop shadow of sand. On top of the glass surface are Yellowtail, mackerel, vegetable stock foam, octopus, and coriander seed. 10/10, zingy-fresh and a delightfully constructed dish. 

 Course 6A: "Can I Have Some Money For An Ice Cream?" 7/10

Course 6A: "Can I Have Some Money For An Ice Cream?" 7/10

Next, a "rocket" and "twister" ice cream bars; I suspect those brands mean more to UK residents than to this American. The rocket is Waldorf salad. On the right is salmon smoked jasmine tea, horseradish avocado mousse. Avocado and smoked salmon is strongly flavored. Maybe too strongly flavored; it overpowers the delicateness of the Waldorf rocket pop. 7/10.

 Course 6B: "Can I Have Some Money For An Ice Cream?" Crab + Passion Fruit Ice Cream, 9/10

Course 6B: "Can I Have Some Money For An Ice Cream?" Crab + Passion Fruit Ice Cream, 9/10

As a follow-up, we are brought small cones of crab ice cream with passion fruit and a chocolate stick. The incredibly rich crab pairs perfectly with the sweet, tropical passion fruit tones. 9/10.

 Course 7: "Then We Went Rockpooling," Crab + Caviar, 9/10

Course 7: "Then We Went Rockpooling," Crab + Caviar, 9/10

The trick of this next dish is the "Melting crab" served with caviar. As the broth is poured over, the "skin" of the crab melts away, just as the skittish sea creatures one might try to capture disappear beneath the waves. Caviar and tiny pieces of Cornish crab remain, along with golden trout roe. The underlying sauce is made from white chocolate and seaweed, giving it a Very Very Rich profile. 8/10, if only because it's too ungodly rich.

 Course 8: "Damping Through The Boroughgroves," Biodome presentation

Course 8: "Damping Through The Boroughgroves," Biodome presentation

An enormous biodome-like container arrived next on our table, along with a very long story about hiking through the forest. We are asked to reminisce about the smell of the forest just after rain.

The server poured liquid in, and immediately strong after-rain smells/smoke poured out of forest diorama.

 Course 8: "Damping Through The Boroughgroves," Mushroom + Beet + Blackberry, 8/10

Course 8: "Damping Through The Boroughgroves," Mushroom + Beet + Blackberry, 8/10

The biodome is removed, and the dish itself looks like a forest floor, even down to the  little grubs. Beets. Earthy, rich, granules of dirt. Made with fig leaf, meadowsweet, melilot, oakmoss, and of course black truffle. 8/10. 

 "The Mock Turtle's Story" 

"The Mock Turtle's Story" 

We then got to a rather confusing part of the meal titled "... We Discovered the Mock Turtle Picnic." First, we were presented with a small and somewhat depressing brochure on the story of Mock Turtles, that is the faux-turtle protein made of veal.

 Course 9: Tea Kettle

Course 9: Tea Kettle

 Course 9: Meltable Clock

Course 9: Meltable Clock

This next course got a little complicated, so please excuse the panoply of pictures. First, we were brought clear glass pots of "Tea," which had a hot veal consommé. Then, a small jewelry case with gold clocks, and each with tiny paper anchors like a tea bag would have.

 Pre-Clock

Pre-Clock

 Post-Clock

Post-Clock

The clock melts, revealing tiny cubes of ham. the gold portions break apart, further enriching the soup. 

 Course 9A: Veal Soup + Ham Cubes

Course 9A: Veal Soup + Ham Cubes

... The resulting mixture, stirred together and served hot, was rich, warm, beautiful. 9/10. 

 Course 9B: "Tea Sandwich" Egg + Toast, 10/10

Course 9B: "Tea Sandwich" Egg + Toast, 10/10

... The mock turtle tea was followed up with a simple, incredibly tasty toast sandwich. The amazing part about the sandwich was the hard-toasted bread layer in the middle; it was dense and crispy, contrasting beautifully with the soft layers around it. I truly loved this course. 10/10.

 Kitchen Visit

Kitchen Visit

At this point in the meal, we took a break from the action for a kitchen visit. Chefs from all over the world were busy plating some of the delicacies we had just enjoyed; I even witnessed a member of staff sound-check every single conch shell with ocean wave recording before it left the kitchen. An impressive dedication to quality. 

 "The Menu" cover

"The Menu" cover

 "The Menu," Opening page

"The Menu," Opening page

 "The Menu" 

"The Menu" 

When we returned to our seats, we were presented with another menu as though we had arrived at a new, utterly separate restaurant, complete with new art, style, and typography (Heston employs a font expert to develop these experience-within-the-experience touches, so as to best evoke memories of childhood). Along with the new menu, we are brought bread and butter and told, once again a bit too theatrically, "Welcome to the restaurant." 

 Course 10: "Scallop Anna," 6/10

Course 10: "Scallop Anna," 6/10

The "appetizer course" is brought out first; a beautifully-plated scallop dish with black truffle and King Oyster mushrooms. The interplay of colors is beautiful, but this dish is way, way too salty. 6/10.

 Course 11: "Alows of Beef," 8/10

Course 11: "Alows of Beef," 8/10

 Raddicchio Salad

Raddicchio Salad

And now on to the "true" main course, titled "Alows of Beef." A thick, salty slab of Wagyu beef is accompanied by some hearty slices of grilled onions, lettuce, and mushrooms. 

To the side, some crispy red radicchio salad. 8/10.

 Course 12: "Botrytis Cinerea," 8/10 

Course 12: "Botrytis Cinerea," 8/10 

This next dish is flavored like the famous "Botrytis," or Noble rot, often found in fine white wines. This is accomplished through some sugary preserved fruit jellies as well as fizzy pop rocks that explode upon contact with your mouth. A neat dish; the full emulation of the noble rot flavor is impressive. 8/10.

 Course 13: "Whisky Gums," Before

Course 13: "Whisky Gums," Before

 Course 13: After, 8/10

Course 13: After, 8/10

Lastly, as a "digestif" to this mini-menu, we are brought a framed map of Scotland with some candied Whisky gels, titled "Whisky gums." The gels themselves taste exactly like the whiskies originating from that part of the country. The Islay Scotch, for example, reveals the word "Laphroaig" upon removal, and sure enough has the distinctively peaty, sea-salty flavors of Laphroaig. 

 Course 14: "Bedtime, Off to the Land of Nod"

Course 14: "Bedtime, Off to the Land of Nod"

This next course was, not kidding, presented on a floating pillow... Suspended with a jet of air, it appeared to sit in space as if by magic. 

 Course 14: Ice Cream, 9/10

Course 14: Ice Cream, 9/10

Imbued with baby powder, the spoons we are handed have fur handles to enhance the sensory experience of comfortable sleep. The ice cream is made from tonka, milk, meringue, crystallized white chocolate, and pistachio. 9/10. 

 "The Sweet Shop" 

"The Sweet Shop" 

 Sweet Shop Cubbies

Sweet Shop Cubbies

"A visit to the sweet shop," likely the high point of Blumenthal's showmanship, is the final course. Designed and built custom for the restaurant at a cost of around £150,000 you insert the coin that you received during the cereal course into the side of the machine and all sorts of acrobatics ensue. It's impossible to describe articulately, so check out the video:

 Sweet Shop Bag

Sweet Shop Bag

 Course 15: Petit Fours, 9/10

Course 15: Petit Fours, 9/10

The output is a placed in a custom-printed sweet shop bag, which you get to take home with you full of delicious petit fours. A creative and beautifully presented final gift. 9/10. 

Germany- Aqua- ✪✪✪

Sven Elverfeld's Aqua resides inside the gorgeous Wolfsburg, Germany Ritz-Carlton hotel, itself in the shadow of an enormous Volkswagen factory. Surrounded by a beautifully choreographed waterscape, the restaurant feels like the centerpiece of a city-sized post-industrial artwork. 

Aqua opened in 2000, scored its first Michelin star in 2002, its second in 2006, and its third in 2009, joining the now 10 (as of the 2017 book) other German 3-Michelin-starred restaurants. Of note, Aqua scored 19 points out of 20 with Gault Millau, the second-highest score possible. Also interesting: this is the only 3 Michelin star in the Ritz-Carlton chain.

 Sven Elverfeld

Sven Elverfeld

Sven began his career as a pastry chef/chef de partie in various German restaurants like Humperdinck (now closed), Dieter Müller, and the Castle Johannisburg. It's worth mentioning that most other three-star chefs did not spend time on both the "sweet" and "savory" (i.e. pastry and hot/cold lines) of a kitchen as they trained up.

Sven started with Ritz-Carlton in 1998 right after achieving his state certification in gastronomy from the prestigious Hotel Management School in Heidelberg, Germany's largest and oldest service school. Sven joined the Ritz in Dubai, and then moved to Aqua to take over shortly thereafter. From his various interviews, it is clear that Sven enjoys simplicity, innovation, and the blending of French and German styles into something uniquely his. 

 Aqua Main Entrance

Aqua Main Entrance

WOLFSBURG, GERMANY

SERVICE: 7.0/10

FOOD: 8.5/10

PRICE PAID: $244PP (INCL. WATER, TAX, TIP- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 7.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 8.0/10

 Aqua Place Setting

Aqua Place Setting

With perfect, idyllic views of the water below, Aqua looks and feels like an oversized dining room in a modern country club (meant in the nicest way possible). The tables are spaced out far in excess of what comfortable movement requires; my guess would be that they increase or decrease table settings for a given evening so as not to appear like they have empty tables. On the night we attended, the space felt about 75% booked, which gave it a nice, open, airy feel. 

 First Bites: Carmelized Black Olives, Savory Green Olives; 8/10 

First Bites: Carmelized Black Olives, Savory Green Olives; 8/10 

The restaurant describes this opening snack as caramelized Kalamata olives (six o'clock and nine o'clock on the plate) with white sugar leaf on top. At 12 and 3 o'clock, green olives with capers and smoked almond. The capers really drive the flavor; salty but milder overall than the super-saccharine'd black olives. The savory and the sweet go together fantastically, and the dish is a very nice opening statement about the meal itself. Having spent time training on both the sweet and savory side of the kitchen, Sven Elverfeld is giving a hint of what we'll see in the meal to come; bringing together the best of both worlds. 8/10.

 Bread & Butter, 8/10 

Bread & Butter, 8/10 

Bread, with butter dishes charmingly released at once by the service in a nicely choreographed movement. Wish I took a video, but didn't, so imagine synchronized swimmers dropping off dairy. Salted brioche, soft and warm, small French breads. Totally delightful. 8/10.

 First Bites: "Our burger," 8/10

First Bites: "Our burger," 8/10

Jimmy, the very nice restaurant manager, introduces himself with a handshake and asks about our menu choice. He's gregarious and kind, and that's basically the last we see of Jimmy, which is fine. 

Along with the menu we are served some micro sliders with mountain cheese. The sliders have strong thousand island and onion flavors; imagine a really nice, expensive Big Mac and you've more or less got it. Deeper and more savory, less sweet and subtle than subtle previous course in every way, and I enjoy the contrast. 9/10.

 First Bites: Vitello Tonato Tartare, 8/10

First Bites: Vitello Tonato Tartare, 8/10

Next, a fascinating take on Vitello Tonnato—an Italian dish of veal, capers, anchovies, parsley, and lemon. Their version is served tartare in a pretty half-sphere with some greens. The base also has some oil of arugula, which tastes like a really amazing melted salad. 8/10.

 

 First Bites: Gillardeau Oyster + Artichoke, 8/10

First Bites: Gillardeau Oyster + Artichoke, 8/10

A delicious morsel of French Gillardeau oyster, served with artichoke and argan oil to give some depth. The plate itself looks a bit like mother-of-pearl; a nice design decision that goes nicely with the dish's theme. Super fresh, crunchy texture of freeze-dried vegetables pairs well, but there's a lot going on in a single bite here. 8/10.

 Course 1: "Stulle" Sandwich, 9/10

Course 1: "Stulle" Sandwich, 9/10

Next, a "Stulle" sandwich— textures are dominated by the crunchy, thin bread and crispy shrimp from Büsum harbor; softer beef and crab round things out. Great combo of somewhat dissonant flavored proteins; the sauces on the side add a bit more richness for those inclined (not me; perfect without). 9/10.

 Course 2: "Bouchot" Mussels + Rabbit Leg, 10/10

Course 2: "Bouchot" Mussels + Rabbit Leg, 10/10

This next dish is titled "Bouchot" mussels and rabbit leg. "Bouchot" is French for "shellfish bed," and refers to an aquaculture technique of growing mussels on ropes underwater near the seashore for easy harvesting and higher quality. The rich, meaty mussels pair perfectly with the saffron curry powder for a completely innovative East-West pairing. Rabbit leg within provides another land-sea contrast similar to the previous course. I loved the creativity and flavors of this dish. 10/10.

 Course 3: Veal Tongue "Berlin," 6/10

Course 3: Veal Tongue "Berlin," 6/10

 Post Sauce Service

Post Sauce Service

Next, Veal tongue "Berlin" (not sure where the "Berlin" title comes in; Berlin-style beef tongue usually includes capers, which this doesn't.) The super-cold veal on the left goes great with the foam poured overtop in the rightmost photo; overall a salty palate. The Cipolla Onion in the upper right stands out. A little rich for my blood, especially because of the goose liver slices. 6/10.

 Course 4: Pigeon Breast "Jean Claude Miéral," 7/10

Course 4: Pigeon Breast "Jean Claude Miéral," 7/10

Next, a delightful Pigeon breast raised by the farm of Jean-Claude Miéral, a farmer known for his premium-branded French poultry. Elverfeld pair the super-soft bird (very creatively carved, by the way) with a small bed of couscous (upper left in the shape of a corn ear) that adds crunch. Lots of dashes of super-rich sauces fill in space around the plate. There's a lot going on here, and I really enjoy the artistic plating, but it feels a lot easier to look at than to eat. The sauces (if you choose to use them) add way, way too much richness to the delicate pigeon, and it's basically a texture overkill since the bird itself is already very tender and paired nicely with the couscous. The plate itself reminds me of rocks in a river, which is an interesting visual statement. 7/10. 

 Course 5: The Cheese Cart, 9/10 

Course 5: The Cheese Cart, 9/10 

I must be honest and say that I possess a deep character weakness for awesome cheese carts. Of the many incredible choices, I selected:

  • Vacherin Mont d'Or, a seasonal soft cheese produced in Switzerland,
  • Munster,
  • Maroilles, a cheese developed in the 10th century in Northern France by a monk,
  • Trou du Cru, an orange-rinded, alcohol-washed Burgundy cheese, and finally my favorite:
  • Epoisses, a strongly-scented washed-rind cheese, also from Burgundy.
 Course 6: Ruinart Champagne Cream, 9/10

Course 6: Ruinart Champagne Cream, 9/10

Another creative dessert, this one with some interesting cross-branding: Ruinart champagne made into sorbet; a touch bitter, and served in a the punt of one of its own bottles. Slightly raspberry, but mostly it tastes like champagne, which is awesome. 9/10. 

 Course 7: Quince + Grain, 8/10 

Course 7: Quince + Grain, 8/10 

Next, a crunchy, seasonal plate of "Quince & Grain;" lots of crunchy, freeze-dried components with a very soft, peach-like quince. There's a lot going on here: spruce sprouts, ginger, and lots of fruit beyond the quince itself. Sweet but restrained. 8/10.

 Course 8: Elderberry + Peanut + Champagne, 8/10

Course 8: Elderberry + Peanut + Champagne, 8/10

Next, elderberry, peanut, and champagne, to harken back to two dishes ago. I love the creative stacking inside the glassware. 8/10.

 Course 9: Pumpkin + Cranberries + Yogurt, 8/10 

Course 9: Pumpkin + Cranberries + Yogurt, 8/10 

Next, a very autumnal dessert; a Muscat pumpkin with cranberries, yogurt, and pumpkin oil at the base. The pumpkin flavors carry through really, really strongly; in fact, this dish tastes almost 100% like pumpkin. Not a bad thing; like a deconstructed slice of pumpkin pie. 8/10. 

 Course 10: Beetroot + Cherry + Bolivian Chocolate, 10/10

Course 10: Beetroot + Cherry + Bolivian Chocolate, 10/10

And, penultimately, a beetroot dessert made with half-cherries and Bolivian chocolate. The cherries and chocolate go together particularly well, and I especially admire the visual pairing of beets with cherries. Everything is pulled from the same corner of the color palette, with vastly different flavors. 10/10, a brilliant dish. 

 Final Bites: Dessert Cart/Pralines, 9/10

Final Bites: Dessert Cart/Pralines, 9/10

And, finally, the dessert cart is rolled near. Pralines of coconut, coffee, blueberry, and some tropical fruit bites finishes out the meal. Just awesome, a great capstone to a great meal. 9/10.

Italy- Osteria Francescana- ✪✪✪

Set behind a subtle pink facade among the gorgeous Spring pastel-colored walls of Modena, Italy, Osteria Francescana owns worldwide fame for its revolutionized style of Italian cuisine. A wildly passionate and toweringly extroverted person, the head chef Massimo Bottura is given to strokes of inspiration that cause him to stop traffic and call a friend with his new dish idea at a second's notice. He won his first Michelin star in 2002, his second in 2006, and his third in 2012. The chef and his team are given prominent billing on the first season of Netflix's Chef's Table documentary.

 Massimo Bottura

Massimo Bottura

Massimo has a celebrity chef's CV to go with his celebrity restaurant. He has worked alongside Alain Ducasse, Ferran Adria (of El Bulli fame), and Georges Cogny. He opened Osteria Francescana in 1995 to an almost continuous river of criticism from conservative Italian chefs, who accuse him of "poisoning the national cuisine." A more reasonable reaction might be to say he's injecting new ideas into a very traditional style of food. 

Expectations for this world-famous restaurant were sky-high for me. Bottom line: Massimo lived up to his ultra-celebrity in culinary art, and while his food definitively knocked it all the way out of the park, the service did not.

 Osteria Francescana Main Entrance

Osteria Francescana Main Entrance

MODENA, ITALY

SERVICE: 5.5/10

FOOD: 9.0/10

PRICE PAID: $251 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 7.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 8.0/10

There's a ton that could be said about Massimo, his restaurant, the city he comes from, and the culinary traditions therein. High praise of Modena's cuisine goes back as far as Cicero, who praised the town's food culture while writing his Philippicae (a series of speeches condemning Marc Anthony), and that was almost 2,000 years ago. Situated right between two tributaries in the Po River valley, Modena historically grown some of the richest fruits, vegetables, and proteins anywhere in Europe or in the world. 

 Osteria Francescana Place Setting

Osteria Francescana Place Setting

The door unlocks with great drama, and we are led through a series of hallways and passages to the main dining room. The place settings are classier and more spare than I would have imagined. The place is more Ritz Carlton, less punk rock than the reputation of the chef would suggest.

 Osteria Francescana Interior

Osteria Francescana Interior

 Osteria Francescana Decor

Osteria Francescana Decor

The interior had a decidedly Alinea-like feel to it—neutral, grayish colors, intense lighting, over-thick carpet, art with frames and subjects that match the tone of their surroundings. You know, birds sitting calmly on perches and shit.

 Bread, 8/10

Bread, 8/10

A quick note on service—between seating and even getting our menus a really, really, really long time elapsed. Like, 35 full minutes. And, in a surprise move that has only ever happened at one other 3-star, the sommelier totally botched one of the table's drink orders. 

 First Bites: Ice Cream of River Fish, 9/10

First Bites: Ice Cream of River Fish, 9/10

First up, an ice cream of river fish—"Italian fish and chips" is the description we get. The ice cream is super cold and sets off the warn, crunchy wafer fantastically. Great start. 9/10. 

 First Bites: "Macaron" + Pillows of Codfish + Capers + Tomatoes

First Bites: "Macaron" + Pillows of Codfish + Capers + Tomatoes

Continuing the theme of dessert first—a "macaron" of tomato and stewed rabbit appeared alongside pillows of bread with codfish capers and tomatoes. The flavors and textures in both were perfectly matched, and the theme is clever. 9/10.

 Bread Sticks Ahoy, 9/10

Bread Sticks Ahoy, 9/10

What would an Italian restaurant be without a shitload of bread sticks? We get an Olive Garden-quantity to munch on between courses, which as it turns out is often a really long time. Some hand-carved scoops of butter accompanies, which are utterly amazing. 9/10.

 Course 1: "Misery & Nobilty," 8/10

Course 1: "Misery & Nobilty," 8/10

And now onto the first main course—a dish ever-so-playfully titled "Misery & Nobility" consists of oyster with a warm savory prosciutto broth in the ceramic canister underneath. The oyster is a perfect reflection of the flavors of the ocean—it is coated in seaweed and fried for an emphasis of its saltiness. The liquid prosciutto has a pretty, filtered, refined flavor. I'm detecting some kind of analogy to Land & Sea in there somewhere, but that's as far as I can decode this guy. 8/10.

 Course 2: "Lentils Are Better Than Caviar," 9/10

Course 2: "Lentils Are Better Than Caviar," 9/10

Caviar, right? Nope, lentils! The dish is made with the belly of eel, crème fraîche, crunchy bread, and citrus. I have to say that the end result tastes exactly like caviar. A really cool effect, my only quibble is that there is way too much of it. 9/10. 

 Course 3: Mackerel + Suckling Pig + Saffron, 7/10

Course 3: Mackerel + Suckling Pig + Saffron, 7/10

The jelly sitting astride this dish is made from belly of suckling pig, which enhances the salinity of the pork belly and mackerel underneath. The vegetables, too, are really lightly pickled producing a pretty salty dish. Though this is the flavor it is known for, the mackerel is overly fishy and oily, which doesn't go perfectly. Saffron lends color but the flavor is hard to detect. 7/10.

 Course 4: "Gnocchi as Tzatziki Salad," 8/10

Course 4: "Gnocchi as Tzatziki Salad," 8/10

Yogurt, potatoes, and tzatziki sauce on a plate of gnocchi. Small shaped spheres of celery—cooked quite al Dente—give a nice texture interplay. Tiny, shredded up peppermint leaves are a really nice touch, they build a strong mint flavor on the back of the palate which pairs perfectly with the potato-y pasta. 8/10. 

 Course 5: "Eels Swimming Up the Po River," 10/10

Course 5: "Eels Swimming Up the Po River," 10/10

One of the absolute classics of the restaurant: "Eels Swimming Up the Po River." Eels from the Po River valley, which itself surrounds Osteria Francescana, are famously delicious. If you care to listen, you can buckle in for a really long, complicated story about how dish is an analogy to some sort of escape of the Estense Dukes from Ferrara to Modena in 1598, forced upon them by an ambitious Pope who wanted their eel marshes. Anyways, the eel itself is cooked sous-vide with a coating of saba sauce and some onion ash, creamy polenta (on the right), and a brilliantly sugary wild-apple jelly (the green sauce). It's toasty warm and basically perfect. 10/10.

 Course 6: "Autumn in New York," Pre-Broth, 9/10

Course 6: "Autumn in New York," Pre-Broth, 9/10

 Post-Broth

Post-Broth

This next dish is titled "Autumn in New York," and it's an interpretation of Billie Holiday's hit 1934 song Autumn in New York. Zucchini with white beets, peas, asparagus, with a smoked porcini mushroom infusion broth. The rough apple shape that the dish is formed into is the Big Apple, get it? The dish works okay together; it's kind of a mish-mosh of flavors and textures, which kind of makes sense because the song is a mix of optimism and risk:

It's autumn in New York that brings the promise of new love.

Autumn in New York is often mingled with pain.

Dreamers with empty hands may sigh for exotic lands;

It's autumn in New York; It's good to live it again.

9/10.

 Course 7: Five Ages of Parmigiano Reggiano," 10/10

Course 7: Five Ages of Parmigiano Reggiano," 10/10

This next dish was easily my favorite in all of Italy so far—"Five Ages of Parmigiano Reggiano" is a metaphor of the slow passage of time. Each of the cheeses used in this dish is aged for a different length—24 months, 30, 36, 40, and the "clouds" on top aged to 50 months, a soft analogy to heaven or the afterlife. The flavor is that of the best soufflé in the world; the delicate and subtle differences between the different cheeses comes together perfectly, and the poetry in the meaning of the dish is singularly brilliant. A signature dish, and one that I would trek all the way back to Modena just to enjoy again. I'm not kidding. 10/10.

 Course 8: "The Crunchy Part of the Lasagna," 9/10

Course 8: "The Crunchy Part of the Lasagna," 9/10

The story behind this dish is a reach back to the chef's childhood—"the Crunchy Part of the Lasagna" recalls the scrabbling with siblings or friends over the one most delicious part of the entire pasta dish one's mom has just brought out of the oven. True to form, it tastes exactly like a slightly crispy, burnt piece of rich pasta. Creamy and delightful flavors. 9/10. 

 Course 9: "This Little Piggy Went to Market," 7/10

Course 9: "This Little Piggy Went to Market," 7/10

This dish is a story of all the chef's travels; each little piggy represents one of his stops on the journey around the world to get where he is now. From left to right:

  • Marrakech spices and pumpkin; Africa
  • BBQ; North America
  • Cucumber; Asia
  • Avocado; South America
  • Apple; Modena

All have pork belly underneath. The avocado is a little underripe and so is very firm, which I don't think was intentional. 7/10. 

 Course 10: Croccantino of Foie Gras, 8/10

Course 10: Croccantino of Foie Gras, 8/10

As we get into dessert, a foie gras "ice cream bar" rolled in almonds, a.k.a. "croccantino." The idea is awesome, but initially a heavy balsamic flavor overrides everything. It eventually evens out, yielding a super-rich pre-dessert with a great crunch. 8/10. 

 Course 11: "Gazpacho as Pre-Dessert," 8/10

Course 11: "Gazpacho as Pre-Dessert," 8/10

This dish has the fun title of "Gazpacho as a pre-dessert." The dish has brilliant colors and is constructed of lots of gels—cucumber, crème fraîche, orange, etc. The serving temperature is too warm for my tastes, and interestingly the gels don't taste like the fruits they represent. Sickly-sweet and overall a great precursor for dessert. 8/10. 

 Course 12: "Oops! I Dropped the Lemon Tart," 10/10

Course 12: "Oops! I Dropped the Lemon Tart," 10/10

 Last Bites: Fruit Bits, 8/10

Another restaurant classic—"Oops! I dropped the lemon tart" comes on a faux-shattered custom plate. Lemon and citrus flavors as bright as the sun. A brilliant finish to a totally brilliant meal. 10/10.

 Last Bites: "Reconstruction of a Cherry," 8/10 

Last Bites: "Reconstruction of a Cherry," 8/10 

And, for the very last portion of the meal—"Reconstruction of a Cherry" has three small bites. From left to right, chocolate-covered foie gras, cherry chocolates, and cherry macarons. 8/10. If you can stand the long waits, this is the truly the ultimate gastronomical experience. 

Spain- Arzak- ✪✪✪

  Elena + Juan Mari Arza

Elena + Juan Mari Arza

Arzak is one of those handful of restaurants that, to me at least, represents the most exciting restaurants of my whole entire Michelin 3-Star experience. Ever since watching Netflix’s Chef’s Kitchen episode about the father-daughter team that runs Arzak, I was attracted to their humility, their dedication, and their intense commitment to improving that which was already close to perfect. For example, they keep a "flavor library" in their restaurant to test drive new pairings and combinations for their diners, filled with hundreds of unique scents and tastes they have collected from around the world.

Arzak, at moments, came close to perfect. There were some truly inspired flavors and presentations (the beer can dish really stood out- see below) but elements of the experience really lacked. The dining room is really, really tightly packed. Certain dishes kind of fell down with their own complexity. To be really clear: at no time was Arzak bad, and this is still one of my top ten favorite restaurant experiences. 

 Arzak Exterior

Arzak Exterior

SAN SEBASTIAN, SPAIN

SERVICE: 7.5/10

FOOD: 8.5/10

PRICE PAID: $241 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 7.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 8.0/10

 Arzak Place Setting

Arzak Place Setting

 Arzak Dining Room

Arzak Dining Room

We were seated in a corner table in a space that, to put it generously, was a touch overcrowded. Though I’m sure they’re eager to remain humble, it’s pretty clear that their massive popularity has forced them to get more from their space. Probably two or three tables too many crowded the tiny room. 

 Menu and Centerpiece

Menu and Centerpiece

A charming waiter named Cesar joined us at our table to give us a full course-by-course description of the menu; a unique gesture that I enjoyed. There were few choices to make on the tasting menu, and he walked us through what to expect for each one. The options were pretty easy- seabass vs. monkfish, pigeon vs. lamb, etc.

 Bread + Olive Oil, 8/10

Bread + Olive Oil, 8/10

Some delicious, thick wheat bread and flavorful olive oil to start. 8/10.

 First Bites: Party Chips, 8/10

First Bites: Party Chips, 8/10

These very colorful chips, complete with flower petals, were a delicious salty intro. They had shellfish flavors and make a pretty picture. 8/10.

 First Bites: Fried Anchovies, 9/10

First Bites: Fried Anchovies, 9/10

Next, some fried anchovies—the anchovies aren’t oily or fishy in the least—that taste fresh, flaky, and lean, with the chives brightening the flavors significantly. I end up eating the tail and don’t even mind. 9/10.

 First Bites: Fried Prawn + Moringa Gyoza, 7/10

First Bites: Fried Prawn + Moringa Gyoza, 7/10

Next, some gyoza of prawns with a batter made from Moringa, a spice from India known as the horseradish tree. Spicy, and the orange and green peppers add a nice texture note. There's a lot going on in these small dumplings, though. 7/10.

 First Bites: Txistorra + Beer + Mango, 10/10

First Bites: Txistorra + Beer + Mango, 10/10

Check out this completely amazing presentation of mango and Basque "txistorra" sausage (a thinner, leaner version of chorizo) on the tail of a crushed beer can! The mango flavors pair with the protein perfectly, and I love the delightfully Instagram-worthy plating. 10/10.

 First Bites: Black Pudding + Cabbage, 7/10

First Bites: Black Pudding + Cabbage, 7/10

Next, some black pudding with cabbage, which I (rather unwisely) ate in a single bite. A very soft mouthfeel and there were so many tastes throughout that the impression ends up being surprisingly neutral; the strongest flavors I could pull out are those of frosted sugar. 7/10.

 Course 1: Fish of the Day- Sea Bream, 8/10

Course 1: Fish of the Day- Sea Bream, 8/10

The choice in opposition to the oysters is a fish of the day, which turns out to be sea bream. It doesn’t disappoint- zingy fresh, with a subtle clear sauce that adds a lot of depth without making it heavy. 8/10.

 Butter, by request

Butter, by request

Like most of the Spanish restaurants I visited during this trip, olive oil is the standard bread pairing. I always ended up feeling slightly guilty requesting butter, because it comes out from the kitchen in these clearly hand-made flourishes. But then I immediately stop feeling guilty and enjoy the hell out of this awesome butter. 9/10. 

 Course 2: Lobster + Bee Pollen, 9/10

Course 2: Lobster + Bee Pollen, 9/10

Next, an extremely delicious plate that pairs freshly cooked lobster with… bee’s pollen? The pollen is also included with some blue honeycomb, and both taste a lot like honey. They add delicious waxy depth to the dish; I can safely say that I never would have guessed that this pairing works out, but it really does. The stickiness of the pollen goes with the crackling, firm freshness of the lobster in a unique and beautiful way. 9/10.

 Course 3: Grilled Zucchini, 7/10

Course 3: Grilled Zucchini, 7/10

The zucchini tasted smoked, and grilled, yielding something like a barbecue zucchini. Not sure where this came from, or how it's supposed to fit into the flow of the meal, or if it was even supposed to be thought of as a whole course, but it tastes simple and delicious. 7/10. 

 Course 4: "Space Egg," 9/10

Course 4: "Space Egg," 9/10

Nobody on the staff was quite sure how it ended up with the name “Space Egg,” but the farm-fresh egg in this dish was slow roasted at 65° C for 40 minutes, which brings out tons of rich flavor. Surrounded by flowers and tiny dabs of sauces and spices, the flavor is so natural and bright, you can practically taste the seeds and grains the chicken that produced this lives on. I've never had an egg quite this good before. 9/10.

 Course 5: Sea Bass + Graviola Sauce, 9/10

Course 5: Sea Bass + Graviola Sauce, 9/10

Next up, some sea bass with a graviola sauce, which is a tropical fruit from Brazil. The fruit has a flavor that's a midpoint between pineapples, bubblegum, strawberries, and bananas. It works just perfectly with the light, flaky, perfectly cooked fish. Yet another flavor combination that reflects the incredibly hard work and research done by Elena and Juan Mari. Super excellent. 9/10. 

 Course 6: Lamb + Cypress, 10/10

Course 6: Lamb + Cypress, 10/10

And now the big show: lamb with cypress, yuca, and grapefruit. The base of the dish has amazing flavors of armanac as well. We got to hear a neat story about how Elena and her father were visiting a friend named Vicente Carrillo, who makes guitars. As they stood near him in his shop while Vicente shaped a new guitar out of cypress wood, the shavings flew through the air and created a heavenly aroma that Elena and her dad agreed they had to share with others. So, the shavings of wood that surround this dish (and, truthfully, that occasionally landed on my plate) is an homage to that experience. The scent of the tree pairs perfectly with the lamb. A really cool idea and great execution. 10/10.

 Course 7: "Square Moon," 9/10

Course 7: "Square Moon," 9/10

In another celestial reference, this dish is titled "Square Moon," and it's basically a chocolate cube filled with mint, neroli, and kiwi, a complex set of flavors that somehow work together perfectly. The server walks over with a teapot full of melted chocolate and proceeds to pour in, collapsing the structure in a big awesome pool. Check out the video to the right. 9/10. 

 Course 8: "Milk & Sea," Buckthorn Pot, 6/10

Course 8: "Milk & Sea," Buckthorn Pot, 6/10

Another dessert, another complex medley of flavors. This dish is a creamy mix of buckthorn (a somewhat bitter herbal) with smoked sheep's milk, sweet potato, and peanut. Everything goes together, but I feel like there's so much going on it's almost overwhelming. 6/10. 

 Course 9: Ice Cream, 8/10

Course 9: Ice Cream, 8/10

A simple, fun bowl of fruit ice creams. 8/10. 

 Course 10: Dessert Birdcage, 8/10

Course 10: Dessert Birdcage, 8/10

A lovely birdcage with folding gate is brought over with small petit fours. The pink is passion fruit with milk, green is apple. A delightful ending. 8/10.

 Last Sip: Coffee

Last Sip: Coffee

Some pretty excellent coffee rounds things out. This place met, though didn't fully exceed, my very high expectations.

Spain- Azurmendi- ✪✪✪

Azurmendi is most memorable for its treatment of the meal as an educational, enlightening, (maybe even moving?) experience. The event begins with a facility tour- we are walked through the lobby, the kitchen, a greenhouse, and given "snacks" along the way at each step. The tour is very showy—employees are pumping smoke into a fog generator, carefully placing small bites before arriving guests walk in—in a way that feels quite artificial. Not to say any of it was unenjoyable; it's a hell of a way to spend an afternoon, and it felt like so much more than just a meal. 

 Head Chef Eneko Atxa

Head Chef Eneko Atxa

On the approach up a steep hill alongside a highway, we drive past Eneko Atxa's cooking school and culinary center, and then finally arrive near the top of the hill at the restaurant itself. The restaurant itself has the look of a large greenhouse- floor-to-ceiling windows, glassy rooftop spans- lending the whole place a feel of transparency and eco-involved-ness.

 Azurmendi Exterior

Azurmendi Exterior

SAN SEBASTIAN, SPAIN

SERVICE: 7.5/10

FOOD: 8.0/10

PRICE PAID: $230 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 7.5/10

FINAL SCORE: 8.0/10

 Azurmendi Gardens

Azurmendi Gardens

 Azurmendi Gardens

Azurmendi Gardens

 On-Site Vineyards

On-Site Vineyards

A gorgeously-manicured eco-garden full of the flowering plants that eventually become the fruits and vegetables on our plates surrounds the building. Down the hill from the main structure are a few thin rows of wine grapes, which also end up getting consumed a few meters away as the crow flies by the restaurant’s guests. The on-site winery is run by head chef Eneko Atxa's cousin, Bertol Izagirre, who specializes in Basque txakoli wine.

 Restaurant & Overlook

Restaurant & Overlook

 Azurmendi Lobby

Azurmendi Lobby

After a quick greeting (interestingly, the restaurant doors open promptly at 1PM and not a moment earlier; typical, I suppose, by Spanish standards). We give our names and are brought into the back of their lovely, verdant main lobby near a small waterfall for a “picnic course.” 

 First Bites: Smoked Eel Sandwich + Tomato Water + "Txakoli Punch," 9/10

First Bites: Smoked Eel Sandwich + Tomato Water + "Txakoli Punch," 9/10

Tucked into a classy little picnic basket are some delicious first bites: smoked eel sandwich in a bed of black volcanic salt (9/10), tomato water with marigold leaves (9/10), and some "Txakoli punch" with a liquid center that tastes what candy would taste like if it were made out of wine. Which is to say fantastic. (9/10). 

 Kitchen Bites: Hazelnut/Foie Gras + Hibiscus Emulsion, 9/10 overall

Kitchen Bites: Hazelnut/Foie Gras + Hibiscus Emulsion, 9/10 overall

 Azurmendi Kitchen

Azurmendi Kitchen

Next, we are marched into the busy kitchen, which is in full swing preparing for lunch service. Every surface gleams, and the feel of the space is open, well-lit; focused but calm. 

Our small group is herded into a corner, where the lovely tree-with-snacks combo you see above is presented. Some hazelnut chocolates and foie gras "seeds" with lovely golden color (9/10) and an almost sickly-sweet floral emulsion of Hibiscus (8/10).

 Greenhouse Bites

Greenhouse Bites

Next, we are brought into the restaurant's "greenhouse," for a seasonal tour that included panoramas of different natural scenes complete with a small snack to accompany. It was entirely for show (the real greenhouse was towards the back of the property, this was more to convey the idea of where some of the ingredients arose from) but it was extremely entertaining nonetheless. 

 Autumnal Corn Panorama

Autumnal Corn Panorama

 Corn Soup, 8/10

Corn Soup, 8/10

Perched in a small glass container with cork stopper, some delightfully rich corn soup. 8/10. 

 The Herb Garden

The Herb Garden

 Herb Cracker, 8/10

Herb Cracker, 8/10

A fragrant herb garden is the next stop; accompanied by a snack that could best be described as what Oreo cookies would taste like if they were made of rosemary and basil. 8/10. 

 "Cotton Candy"+ Asparagus Dust, 10/10

"Cotton Candy"+ Asparagus Dust, 10/10

The next stop is a "cotton field;" in a small treasure chest is some cotton candy doused with asparagus dust. The cotton melts instantly in your mouth, and the sweetness and asparagus go together perfectly. Extra points for the incredible presentation. 10/10. 

 Mushroom Leaf, 8/10

Mushroom Leaf, 8/10

Lastly, we are brought to an area with "rotting logs" that are growing a small collection of mushrooms- Oyster, Shiitake, etc. We are handed a small leaf-shaped treat made from a paste of all those mushrooms, which tastes almost like beef jerky. 8/10.

 Azurmendi Dining Room

Azurmendi Dining Room

Finally, we are led into the dining room to begin the meal service. The space is open and airy, and I dig the concrete flooring.

 Azurmendi Place Setting

Azurmendi Place Setting

 Course 1: Frozen Olive + Vermouth, 7/10

Course 1: Frozen Olive + Vermouth, 7/10

 Orange Juice Aperitif

Orange Juice Aperitif

First up, a beautifully-presented frozen olive with a liquid center made of Vermouth. Alcoholic and very strong flavors of olive, which is a loud way to start the sit-down portion of the meal. 7/10. 

This is served alongside an aperitif of a tiny glass of orange juice- more of a shot glass portion, I would say. The sweetness balances the savoriness of the olive quite well. 

 Course 2: Egg "Cooked Inside-Out" + Truffle, 9/10

Course 2: Egg "Cooked Inside-Out" + Truffle, 9/10

This egg has been injected with black truffle consommé and then cooked, in a technique the chef describes as "inside-out." The result is super soft and decadent; it doesn't get richer or more delicious than egg yolk with truffle. Maybe a quarter-step too rich. 9/10

 Milk Bread, 9/10

Milk Bread, 9/10

Some "Milk bread" with olive oil. Soft and sweet, almost like cakebread. 9/10

 Course 3: "Oyster with Pearl," 8/10

Course 3: "Oyster with Pearl," 8/10

With a name suspiciously similar to the opening course served at Per Se and the French Laundry, Azurmendi's "oyster and pearl" doesn't quite live up to the standard set by Thomas Keller's restaurants. Made up of oysters with liquefied seaweed, the taste is very fresh and clean, but it doesn't exactly burst with flavor. The oyster has a firm, fresh texture. 8/10.

 Course 4: Deep-Fried Oyster, 7/10

Course 4: Deep-Fried Oyster, 7/10

And then, next up, some more oyster. This one with a super, super heavy sauce with some intense flavors- totally overpowering. 7/10.

 Double-Fermented Bread, 8/10

Double-Fermented Bread, 8/10

An interesting change-up to the bread service- "double-fermented" bread. Richer, much thicker than the milk bread served previously. 8/10

 Course 5: Sea Urchin 3 Ways- "Emulsion, Juice, and Waffle," 7/10 overall

Course 5: Sea Urchin 3 Ways- "Emulsion, Juice, and Waffle," 7/10 overall

 Course 5B + C: Sea Urchin + Sea Urchin Sandwich

Course 5B + C: Sea Urchin + Sea Urchin Sandwich

Next, three versions of sea urchin- above, in a strawberry-bright red broth. To the right, raw sea urchin with vegetables, and further right a sea urchin "waffle," which is basically a sandwich. Super intense flavors or sea urchin throughout; that lovely, earthy taste; but three in a row is a lot to take in. The roe in the soup brings welcome additional texture. 7/10 overall.

 Course 6: Peas + Caviar, 9/10

Course 6: Peas + Caviar, 9/10

Some caviar peas served beautifully with fresh caviar. The peas pop in your mouth, and the caviar flavors do not overpower. 9/10.

 Course 7: Roasted Lobster + Tempura Shell, 7/10

Course 7: Roasted Lobster + Tempura Shell, 7/10

Another multiple-choice style dish: lobster in different versions. The portion in the center is roasted and quite fresh but not terribly flavorful. The much more interesting bit is the crunchy, light shell off to the right. 7/10 overall.

 Course 8: Basque Pork + Basque Cheeses, 9/10

Course 8: Basque Pork + Basque Cheeses, 9/10

Next, some Basque cheeses with fried suckling pig. The small pipes of cheese are very strong, and pair nicely with the light crisps. The pork itself is just outstanding- this dish targets bold, bold flavors and just nails it. 9/10.

 Course 9: Cod Tripe + Chickpeas + Potatoes, 8/10

Course 9: Cod Tripe + Chickpeas + Potatoes, 8/10

Next, everyone's favorite: cod tripe, or more specifically the bladder of a cod. Just kidding, but this dish somehow makes it completely delicious. My only complaint is the somewhat sticky mouthfeel that makes the dish come off as very fatty; feels like eating cream and deep fried cream together. 8/10.

 Course 10: Cauliflower + Egg Pre-Truffle

Course 10: Cauliflower + Egg Pre-Truffle

 Cauliflower + Egg Post-Truffle, 8/10

Cauliflower + Egg Post-Truffle, 8/10

Next, the server brings over this presentation of cauliflower with egg, and then carefully shaves a small black truffle on top. This dish felt strangely autumnal (it was Springtime when we visited) but the flavors worked together very well nonetheless. 8/10. 

 Course 11: Monkfish, 9/10

Course 11: Monkfish, 9/10

Delivered on a plate that loosely resembles the bottom of the sea with wisps of artichokes and vegetables floating upwards like seaweed, this perfectly-cooked monkfish was incredibly fresh and awesome. 9/10. Buried somewhere within is some basil that pairs more or less perfectly.

 Course 12: Pigeon, 9/10

Course 12: Pigeon, 9/10

And now onto the big show- pigeon, on a base of duxelle (a mixture of mushroom, shallots, and  garlic slow-cooked with herbs). Presented simply and with large nuggets of salt gleaming from the crusted skin. Super fresh, great presentation. 9/10.

 Course 13: Pineapple + Cardamom + Celery, 8/10

Course 13: Pineapple + Cardamom + Celery, 8/10

And now, onto desserts. This first dish is a really cool combination of pineapple, cardamom spice, and celery. I never would have thought celery either A) paired well with pineapple, or B) would belong in a dessert, but you live and learn I guess. 8/10.

 Course 14: Yogurt + Honey + Spices, 8/10

Course 14: Yogurt + Honey + Spices, 8/10

Another mottled plate surface is brought out, this time with yogurt, honey, and a five-spice combination that seems to mostly feature cinnamon. A nice simple wind-down from the more complex flavors of the dessert previous. 8/10. 

 Course 15: Chocolate + Peanut + Licorice, 8/10

Course 15: Chocolate + Peanut + Licorice, 8/10

And onto the last dish- a shoe-shaped dessert made of chocolate, peanuts, and licorice. I'll admit that licorice is not my favorite flavor in the world, but once again the main flavor combinations have been perfectly balanced. 8/10. 

 Last Sip: Coffee, 9/10

Last Sip: Coffee, 9/10

A pretty, rich cup of coffee served in a delicate handmade ceramic. 9/10. 

 Last Bites: Petit Fours, 9/10

Last Bites: Petit Fours, 9/10

Get it? It's a hand waving bye-bye to you and serving you some delicious petit fours as it does. The small box behind contains chocolates of mint, lime, and mango tea flavors. They're presented on a layer of chocolate and coffee grounds that smell delightful. Well done. 9/10. 

 Even more last bites: Macarons, 9/10

Even more last bites: Macarons, 9/10

And, just for the hell of it, a few parting macarons of nutella-like flavor. 9/10.

 Departure Gifts

Departure Gifts

As we exit, a small bit of evidence for how hard Azurmendi works to stay organized and give everyone a great experience. I would return here in a heartbeat.

Germany- Bareiss- ✪✪✪

Virtually a stone's throw from Schwarzwaldstube, another stoic German 3-star, is the hotel-restaurant Bareiss in the idyllic black forest resort town of Baiersbronn. Interesting that, as of mid-2016, this tiny burg (population 14,500) has as many three-star restaurants as London!

Run by Claus-Peter Lumpp since 1992 and winning its third star in 2007, Bareiss' head chef has spent time under the tutelage of European culinary greats like Alain Ducasse and Eckart Witzigmann. He describes his own style as highly technical with a focus on aromatic richness to the point of opulence. Having enjoyed a lunch here, I'd say his self-description is totally on-point.

 Bareiss Exterior

Bareiss Exterior

BAIERSBRONN-TONBACH, GERMANY

SERVICE: 7.0/10

FOOD: 8.0/10

PRICE PAID: $110 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 8.5/10

FINAL SCORE: 8.0/10

 Bareiss Main Entrance

Bareiss Main Entrance

 Bareiss Lobby

Bareiss Lobby

As I walk up to the host stand a full 15 minutes early, several employees of Bareiss’ restaurant attempt to greet me and sort me out. Two of them, approaching down the hall at the same time, offer me the local South-Germany greeting "Gruss Gott," and then laugh as I struggle they duck into a service door and say to each other, in English and very loudly, “He only speaks English!” Raucous laughter ensues. A bizarre greeting. I'm asked to cool my heels for 15 minutes so we can start exactly on time. How very German of them. 

 Bareiss Dining Room

Bareiss Dining Room

As soon as they decide it's okay to open their doors, which happens to be precisely 12:00 noon, the restaurant manager, chef, waiter, and entire wait staff greet me as I walk in. Everything in this hotel is pristine, ornate, polished, painted, marbled, and freshly dusted. The dining room has the feeling of a country club taken to a distant extreme- a gorgeous, enormous centerpiece exploding with tulips is the room’s center of gravity, and with great heft the wait staff haul an aperitif cart around to offer every new entrant. A single, freshly lit candle awaits me at my seat. A beautiful bouquet of cut roses sits at the table's opposite end. This is really a lot to take in. 

 First Bites- Kingfish Sushi + Leek Tart + Ham/Bread + Cream Cheese/Fish, 7/10

First Bites- Kingfish Sushi + Leek Tart + Ham/Bread + Cream Cheese/Fish, 7/10

A very small starter arrives on a silver plate with pretty, tiny platforms. Top to bottom- kingfish with tarragon sushi, leek tart, ham and bread, and cream cheese with fish and paprika. The sushi is very cold, which would never fly in Japan, and additionally when you eat finger food in Asia it is always accompanied by a warm napkin to clean your hands with. No such luck here, which seems like a strange miss based on how detailed the rest of their work was. 7/10.

 Bread + Butter, 8/10

Bread + Butter, 8/10

Shaped like a sprig of ginger, the bread is trotted out piping hot and super fresh. 9/10.

 Unsalted Butter

Unsalted Butter

 Salted Butter

Salted Butter

Two varieties of butter; sweet on the right, salty on the left, both "from France." When I press a little further for a farm/locale/region, I am informed, "from France." Thanks guys, that helps. #stoicism. 8/10.

 Course 1: "Variation of Carrots," 9/10

Course 1: "Variation of Carrots," 9/10

Like a beautiful Roman laurel, this dish, lovingly titled "Variation of Carrots and yogurt," has some pretty unique touches. The yoghurt has a layer of purple Urcarrot (German for "old carrot)" with delicious beet flavors, and slightly spicy. Interestingly, four hundred years ago all carrots grown in Europe were purple, and only after the orange variety was created in the Netherlands did we get the stereotypical color and appearance that we associate with the root vegetable today. The small flakes on the side add crunchy texture. 9/10.

 Course 2: Prawns + Glass Noodles. 8/10

Course 2: Prawns + Glass Noodles. 8/10

Next, a ragu of prawns. The glass noodles are a nice touch. Mushroom and cilantro simplify and add layers. Broth has a coconutty Tom kha gai flavor; it's also pretty spicy. Another appropriation from Asia that works out pretty well. 8/10.

 Course 3: Swiss Char + Asparagus Salad, 9/10

Course 3: Swiss Char + Asparagus Salad, 9/10

Next, some Swiss Char tartare with asparagus tip salad. The fish is warm and perfectly cooked in the running for best piece of fish ever, actually the tartare exhibits almost citrus flavors. The white and green asparagus are in an egg yolk cream and are crunchy-fresh, and the roots of radish are a nice flourish. 9/10.

 Course 4: Calf, 7/10

Course 4: Calf, 7/10

 Course 4: Sauce + Radish, 8/10

Course 4: Sauce + Radish, 8/10

Now onto the main show- milk-fed calf with sweetbreads and morels, along with a sauce of fruits and radish, a side dish of veal ragu with morel foam. The calf is firm and actually a touch on the dry side. It leans heavily on the sauces for flavor, and the sauces lean heavily on salt- I crunched through a particularly large flake. The veal ragu and foam combo is a good re-interpretation of the main dish, but I'm not sure why the same two ideas are presented in totally different ways- one is about as good as the other but there's nothing accretive about presenting both experiences together. It feels like you're getting two mains. 7/10 overall.

 Course 4B: Veal Ragu + Morel Foam, 7/10

Course 4B: Veal Ragu + Morel Foam, 7/10

 A Fancy Dessert Napkin

A Fancy Dessert Napkin

Though the photo doesn't do it much justice, for the dessert courses I am handed a separate, much more delicately embroidered dessert napkin. A really nice touch. 

 Course 5A: Cassis Cream with Apple Ragout, 9/10

Course 5A: Cassis Cream with Apple Ragout, 9/10

A spicy and delicious creation— basically crème de cassis ice cream— with a lovely garnishment of sliced fruit and flowers. A touch over the top sugary, but awesome nonetheless. 9/10. 

 Course 5B: Tahitian Vanilla Foam, 9/10

Course 5B: Tahitian Vanilla Foam, 9/10

... Accompanied by some Tahitian vanilla foam, which tastes a lot like vanilla ice cream, which was totally fine by me. 9/10. 

 Course 6: Mignardises, 9/10

Course 6: Mignardises, 9/10

As we approach the wrap-up, some mignardises/petits fours— right to left: passion fruit, red currant, and then chocolate with a heavenly molten center. 

 Dessert Cart 1, 9/10

Dessert Cart 1, 9/10

And then, out trotted the dessert tray with pralines, macarons, pâte de fruits, fruit pie, etc. 9/10. 

 Last Bites: Chocolate, 10/10

Last Bites: Chocolate, 10/10

A selection of gorgeous hand-made German chocolates. Super awesome ending to a super awesome lunch. 10/10.

 Warm Rose Water

Warm Rose Water

At the end, I'm given a silvery bowl of warm rose water to wash my hands with. It's a bit confusing and I must admit that this is the only 3-star that gave me a hand-cleanser at the very end of the meal— are they trying to save me a trip to the washroom?—  but it was an okay way to transition to the bill. 

 The final bill

The final bill

I wasn't joking about the price- less than 100 Euros for one of the most sumptuous lunches of my lifetime. 

Japan- Aoyama Esaki- ✪✪✪

Situated below street level in a quiet office block of a tasteful, artisanal-store-heavy neighborhood not far from Tokyo's new Olympic stadium construction is Aoyama Esaki. I found the restaurant to be much like the neighborhood around it- interesting, understated, pretty. For less than $100 (with champagne!) this place also turned out to be one of the best deals of my whole trip. 

 Aoyama Esaki Main Entrance

Aoyama Esaki Main Entrance

TOKYO, JAPAN

SERVICE: 7.5/10

FOOD: 7.0/10

PRICE PAID: $95 PP (INCLUDING CHAMPAGNE- LIST PRICE IS ~$55)

VALUE/MONEY: 9.5/10

FINAL SCORE: 8.0/10

 Aoyama Esaki Seating

Aoyama Esaki Seating

 Aoyama Esaki Interior

Aoyama Esaki Interior

The seating areas are separate from the two private dining rooms, and the tables and chairs are underwhelming but nicely spaced. 

 Place Setting

Place Setting

 Menu

Menu

Both the food and drink menu are (almost) entirely in Japanese, and language skills are, shall we say, highly goddamn mixed so make sure you bring your Google Translate app or someone with at least a Middle-Schooler-level understanding of Japanese.

 Course 1: 10 kinds of Japanese Vegetables, 9/10

Course 1: 10 kinds of Japanese Vegetables, 9/10

First up, a delightful collection of 10 varieties of Japanese fruits and vegetables including rose hips, brussels sprouts, oranges, water chestnuts, deep fried flowers, radish, carrot, grilled onion, and black beans, all prepared differently. The flowers taste surprisingly rich, and overall this is a stunningly great and diverse set of flavors. 9/10.

 Course 2: Sashimi, 8/10

Course 2: Sashimi, 8/10

 The Fish Book

The Fish Book

Striped jack- or shima-agi- sashimi- had a soft and delicious texture. Paired with some delightfully briny seaweed. 7/10.

I thought this was incredibly sweet- rather than try to explain the fish's name and qualities to me, our server ran and got a Japanese fish reference book, which she offered for a photo or for casual perusal as we enjoyed our sashimi. Charming that they both have such a reference tool on hand and that they offer it so freely. 

 Course 3: Clam Soup. 8/10

Course 3: Clam Soup. 8/10

This clam soup was almost perfect- a really enormous clam was served in its shell with a small garnishment of veggies on top. Rich and salty. 8/10.

 Course 4: Sea Bass, 8/10

Course 4: Sea Bass, 8/10

Out comes the fish book again, this time without having to ask. We are told, once again quite charmingly, that the fish we are eating might be any of the handful depicted on a given page that we were directed to. Three or four fish were illustrated, and I must say that they looked pretty similar, so rather than ask for more detail I thanked her profusely.

Sea bass perch with "Orange Queen" Chinese cabbage - the fish is excellent and brought out nicely with a buttery sauce. Peas are bright and sweet. 8/10. 

 Course 5: Rice + Mushroom Soup, 8/10

Course 5: Rice + Mushroom Soup, 8/10

Next, some delightful rice and mushroom soup. The soup had almost a peanut butter note on the nose, and tasted like forest floor in the best possible way. The rice was hearty and satisfying. 8/10. 

 Coffee, 8/10

Coffee, 8/10

Mostly because I was so thrilled to have it (it was seldom on offer in Japan,) a lovely hand-brewed up of Brazilian coffee. 8/10. 

 Course 6: Yam + Lychee Ice Cream, 8/10

Course 6: Yam + Lychee Ice Cream, 8/10

Though this wasn't my favorite dessert in Japan, the starchy yam paired really perfectly with the lychee ice cream to make this beautiful dessert. 8/10. 

Japan- Cá Sento- ✪✪✪

With its Spanish-influenced style and refined atmosphere, Cá Sento is a fascinatingly beautiful oasis in the hum-drum normalness of Kobe. Only a few blocks away from some pretty seedy red-light-ish districts and "all you can eat Kobe beef, $40" restaurants is this little beauty: 

 Ca Sento Exterior

Ca Sento Exterior

KOBE, JAPAN

SERVICE: 7.0/10

FOOD: 9.0/10

PRICE PAID: $180 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 7.5/10

FINAL SCORE: 8.0/10

 Ca Sento Interior

Ca Sento Interior

 Ca Sento Dining Area

Ca Sento Dining Area

A 3-star since 2010, the head chef Shinya Fukumoto is an alumnus of Mugaritz, a famous San Sebástian-area restaurant that pioneers new preparation techniques. It's a much longer story, but San Sebástian itself is the center of Spanish "pinxto" culture- also commonly known as tapas. The heavy Spanish influence on this restaurant is most easily detected in their application of pinxto-like dishes.

The restaurant has a gorgeous, tasteful interior decor. Place settings are immaculate. Service is soft-spoken, sweet, attentive. There are only a handful of neatly-aligned tables.

 Ca Sento Silverware

Ca Sento Silverware

 Wall Decor

Wall Decor

Spanish/Quixotian/Whimsical touches abound. Northern Spain more or less has a lock on the bizarre as stylish - just ask Picasso - and this place fully cops said style, to the extent reasonable. 

 First Bites: Karasumi + Radish, 8/10

First Bites: Karasumi + Radish, 8/10

First, my heart plummets into my stomach as I see that our first dish is karasumi with Kyoto radishes. The crunchy texture and the earthy flavors of the radish actually offsets the condensed egg texture and fishy flavor of the karasumi perfectly, and in a real accomplishment I can actually say that I really enjoy this karasumi. 8/10

 Course 1: Green Vegetable Soup, 9/10

Course 1: Green Vegetable Soup, 9/10

Next, some Japanese green vegetable soup. Multiple textures going on here. Yellowish egg-like custard at the bottom, thick and creamy layers. Lots of different flavors to pick apart but still amazing. 9/10.

 Course 2: The Smorgasbord

Course 2: The Smorgasbord

Japanese multi-plates are super fun- they're meant to bring together a wide variety of flavors and textures and start to tell a story. Many of these (especially the fish dishes) are pinxto imitations. I'll start in the lower right with that green dish and go clockwise. 

 Course 2A: Snapper + White Bean + Pesto, 9/10

Course 2A: Snapper + White Bean + Pesto, 9/10

This first dish has a pasty look- snapper in a white bean sauce with parsley, cumin, a pesto-like sauce, and almond. It tastes like eating someone's garden that has been through a Vitamix- crisp high notes of vegetable, with a nice smooth texture from the snapper. 9/10.

 Course 2B: River Fish, 8/10

Course 2B: River Fish, 8/10

A nice break from the earthiness of the pesto and vegetables- "river fish," in a red sauce is fresh and quite spicy. 8/10.

 Course 2C: Squid + Bean Sprout, 9/10

Course 2C: Squid + Bean Sprout, 9/10

Next, some squid and bean sprout with a white miso sauce. The bean sprouts add a wonderful crunch to the squid's soft textures- strong flavors of vinegar and cayenne, which go together surprisingly well. 9/10.

 Course 2D: Mackerel + Garlic, 8/10

Course 2D: Mackerel + Garlic, 8/10

Another strong-flavored pairing: mackerel with sliced garlic. The mackerel is slightly oily and very fresh- there's some olive oil layered on there to really drive the oily point home. The strength of the flavors match but they don't harmonize as well as the last fish combination. Mouthfeel is oil-soaked. 8/10. 

 Course 2E: "Blood Sausage," 8/10

Course 2E: "Blood Sausage," 8/10

Next, a clever little dish of "blood sausage" made of duck from Osaka. Very soft and rich, tastes exactly like blood sausage as the name suggests, with a rich egg-yolk sauce on top. Some heavy hitters in this plating group. 8/10. 

 Course 2F: Focaccia Bread, 8/10

Course 2F: Focaccia Bread, 8/10

Some focaccia bread- heavy with oil and rosemary- is a delicious snack bite. 8/10.

 Course 2G: Anchovies + Radish, 9/10

Course 2G: Anchovies + Radish, 9/10

Lastly, a deliberate copy of the pinxto style found in San Sebastián- sliced anchovies with a circle of radish. Strong flavors from both- the anchovies have that briny, ocean-fresh taste that matches up perfectly with the earthiness of the radishes. 9/10. 

 Course 3: Literally The World's Best Salad, 10/10

Course 3: Literally The World's Best Salad, 10/10

Behold: this is the best salad in the world. I found it. 

Let me start by saying that this salad was good enough to change my mind on the entire genre of salad, writ large. We start with a lovely base of farm-fresh vegetables like potatoes, taro, turnips, Brussels sprouts, red peppers, flowers, snap peas, carrots, red and white onion, butternut squash, radicchio (purple stuff), frisée, red chard, spinach, and arugula. Then, we add some magic:

A piping hot Emmental cheese sauce is poured over, and it is the best thing ever. As she poured, the server explained that this salad is totally unique to chef and is one of their signature dishes. 10/10. Go to Kobe expressly for this salad. I'm not joking. 

 Course 4: Kobe Veal, 9/10

Course 4: Kobe Veal, 9/10

I would have been pretty sad if I had to leave Kobe without some Kobe beef... And thankfully, the next course was Kobe veal with black truffle, polenta, and broccoli. The veal is soft and decadent as all get out, and the black truffle is actually a bit over the top- the protein would have done just fine on its own. Texture is pliable and easy, 9/10.

 Course 5: Fish + Tomato + Rice Soup, 8/10

Course 5: Fish + Tomato + Rice Soup, 8/10

As we get to the wrap-up courses, a lovely bouillabaisse fish soup with rice and a fresh tomato base. Rich and smoky, with very fresh fish. 8/10. 

 Course 6: Mousse of Orange + Beer, 9/10

Course 6: Mousse of Orange + Beer, 9/10

Dessert is a mousse of orange and smoke flavor, made with orange beer. A delightful and creative finish. 9/10.

 Last sip: Coffee, 9/10

Last sip: Coffee, 9/10

A rich and gorgeous serving of coffee- a really nice break from the roasted oat tea that finishes most fine dining meals in Japan. 9/10. 

Japan- Ishikawa- ✪✪✪

Tucked away near a Bushido temple in Shinjuku, tiny Ishikawa has an understated exterior shielding one of the world's friendlist and most interesting three-stars. Hideki Ishikawa is featured in Lutz Hachmeister's food documentary Three Stars (worth a watch, by the way) and describes in detail the hard work he invests to create not just a special experience for his guests, but a fantastic place to work for his staff as well. This was an excellent experience worthy of another visit- exceptional service, stellar food with incredibly fresh ingredients, and delightfully creative presentations.

 Ishikawa Main Entrance

Ishikawa Main Entrance

TOKYO, JAPAN

SERVICE: 8.5/10

FOOD: 8.0/10

PRICE PAID: $176 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 8.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 8.0/10

 Ishikawa Main Hallway

Ishikawa Main Hallway

 Ishikawa Interior

Ishikawa Interior

Upon entering, the scented air immediately fills the space around you- it is heavy with rice, cooked fish, and spices- in a completely welcome and homey kind of way. Not nearly as formal, aseptic, and strict as most of the other Kaiseki restaurants I have visited on this trip. 

 Ishikawa Chef's Table

Ishikawa Chef's Table

I'm given a chair at the very small (7-seat) counter next to two nice couples. The space is clean, subtly lit, easy on the eyes. I'm immediately comfortable. 

 First Bites: Blowfish + Radish Sauce, 9/10

First Bites: Blowfish + Radish Sauce, 9/10

First out is a delightful cold dish of blowfish tossed with Japanese herbs and a white radish sauce. Great textures and very, very fresh. Radish sauce is fruity, almost citrusy. 9/10.

 Course 1: Turtle, 8/10

Course 1: Turtle, 8/10

This is my first experience with turtle of any kind, and it has a chewy, soft, mushroom-like texture. Two large chunks are served hot, and they're meant to be eaten in two big bites with kelp salt to taste. 8/10. 

 Course 2: Scallop Dumpling Soup, 8/10

Course 2: Scallop Dumpling Soup, 8/10

Next, a clear-broth soup with scallop dumpling, bamboo shoots, and seaweed. The small green garnish on the dumpling is a Japanese Pepper bud. The bamboo tastes rich, almost smoky, and the seaweed is super fresh- feels like it was hauled off a boat that morning. 8/10.

 Course 3A: Sea Bream + Sea Urchin Sashimi, 9/10

Course 3A: Sea Bream + Sea Urchin Sashimi, 9/10

3-Michelin Star sashimi courses rarely disappoint; this is no exception. Sea urchin as soft as ice cream, sea bream as bright and zingy-crispy-fresh as I've ever experienced. The texture is also soft and smooth- a very easy-to-down course. 9/10.

 Course 3B: Lightly Seared Squid Sashimi, 9/10

Course 3B: Lightly Seared Squid Sashimi, 9/10

Next, a few elegant bites of squid with ginger. Lightly seared and warm. The increased temperature is a nice break from the sea bream and the urchin, but the squid is seared in such a way that it doesn't lose its outstanding texture. 9/10.

 Course 4: Conger Eel, 9/10

Course 4: Conger Eel, 9/10

Next, some conger eel- pleasant and soft, perfectly cooked texture. This is normally a subtly-flavored fish, but the crispy presentation and the cooking oil bring out some delightful flavor. 9/10.

 Course 5: Snow Crab + Turnip, 8/10

Course 5: Snow Crab + Turnip, 8/10

A delightful plate of snow crab; soft, with an almost sinewy texture. The turnip brings out stunningly bright flavors in the crab, which is served cold. The title of this dish was "Delicacy," and I couldn't agree more. 9/10.

 Course 6: Duck Hot Pot, 10/10

Course 6: Duck Hot Pot, 10/10

Hot pot courses are super fun at Kaiseki restaurants, and this one was no exception. Super-fatty duck is served alongside some vegetables; the slick mouthfeel of the duck pairs perfectly with the lean, crisp vegetables and the tasty broth. One of my favorite courses of all time. 10/10.

 Course 7: Steamed Rice + Perch, 8/10

Course 7: Steamed Rice + Perch, 8/10

As most Kaiseki restaurants do, Ishikawa offers a "bottomless" course that usually involves rice and a light protein. In this case, steamed rice and perch are served alongside some pickled vegetables, and will be refilled on demand until you're full. I like the idea that good restaurants don't want you to leave hungry. One round was all I needed, and the flavors were light and delicious- if anything, a touch on the bland side. 8/10. 

 Course 8: Soybean Mousse, 9/10

Course 8: Soybean Mousse, 9/10

For dessert, a mousse of soybean in a soybean soup. I can very safely say I have never had anything remotely like this dish- the soybean mousse is almost chocolatey- and this is a perfect cool-down dish. A great finish to a great meal. 9/10. 

Japan- Kohaku- ✪✪✪

Right down the street from Ishikawa (the restaurant that actually owns this one), is Koji Koizumi's more informal (but just as excellent) kappo-kaiseki style eatery, Kohaku. Though a touch more experimental and informal than Hideki Ishikawa's place, both the interior look and feel as well as the ingredients and dishes felt extremely familiar. I will say that going to both restaurants within two days of each other was probably an error on my part. 

 Kohaku Dining Counter

Kohaku Dining Counter

TOKYO, JAPAN

SERVICE: 7.0/10

FOOD: 8.5/10

PRICE PAID: $158 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 8.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 8.0/10

Over the course of my two-week trip, I encountered English-language skills that were all over the map; rather unfortunately, I'd have to place Kohaku in the bottom quintile overall. Not a single person could do much more than read the Google-translated menu they printed out for me (which is fine- I'm the traveller visiting another country, it should be on me to learn the language rather than force them to speak mine). I will admit, though, that this made the meal a touch more isolating than usual.

Service was extremely attentive- like many counter-style restaurants, the chefs and cooks were also the servers, table-bussers, water-pourers, etc. This leads to a very efficient and busy counterfront, but the downside is that when they were approaching their peak demand from the private dining rooms, they were often too busy to attend to things like tea, water, clearing, etc. Understandable, but my meal slowed way, way down around the middle of the menu to a glacial pace. 

 Course 1: Turnip + Shiitake + Turtle, 9/10

Course 1: Turnip + Shiitake + Turtle, 9/10

First out, a delightful dish of Shogoin turnip that has almost cigar-y/tobacco-y notes (I'm not a smoker, but it was damn good). The mushrooms were perfect- there's a firm but oily protein that turns out to be turtle. 9/10.

 Course 2: Leek + Burdock + Truffle, 8/10

Course 2: Leek + Burdock + Truffle, 8/10

A beautiful dish- the burdock root is very firm; almost potato-like. I will say that though it adds a lot visually, the truffle doesn't bring a ton of flavor- it feels a little too dry, like it has been in storage too long. 8/10.

 Course 3: Pufferfish + Sticky Rice, 7/10

Course 3: Pufferfish + Sticky Rice, 7/10

I will admit that they even describe this dish as "Just Fired" on the menu, but this pufferfish liver was Uncomfortably Hot as Fuck. Like many other pufferfish livers I tried, it can best be described as a sea-salty, ocean version of foie gras- very rich, and very dense. 8/10. 

 Course 4: Conger Eel Dumpling Soup, 8/10

Course 4: Conger Eel Dumpling Soup, 8/10

A lighter, extremely refreshing soup after the heavy liver- the eel dumpling is light and sweet, and the broth is almost sugary. A thoughtful next step. 8/10.

 Course 5: Smoked Mackerel + Jelly, 9/10

Course 5: Smoked Mackerel + Jelly, 9/10

More consistently than most Japanese 3-stars, Kohaku really nailed their seafood presentations. This mackerel practically melted when touched with a utensil. The sauce was close to perfect, and the shaved veggies added a crunchy texture. 9/10.

 Course 6: Snapper + Tofu, 10/10

Course 6: Snapper + Tofu, 10/10

I must once again say that, as far as preparation goes, this snapper is absurdly well-made; it just falls apart. Nice, bright flavors and the addition of tofu and wasabi goes a long way without overcomplicating the dish. 10/10.

 Course 7: Perch + Eggplant, 9/10

Course 7: Perch + Eggplant, 9/10

Another interesting changeup- this dish is served quite cold, a nice break from the heat/spice of the previous dish. The eggplant itself has deep, smoky flavors. Which pairs nicely with the perch- notes of apple, smoke, salt; a really deep and balanced dish. 9/10.

 Course 8: Bear + Bamboo Shoot Soup, 6/10

Course 8: Bear + Bamboo Shoot Soup, 6/10

This was the only spot in the meal where the chef lost me a bit (but only just a bit). Bear isn't something I'm accustomed to, but especially after all the lean/light seafood, a big, heavy, oily cut from a bear leg wasn't exactly a welcome diversion. The veggies are crunchy and squeaky. but the bear is fatty, greasy, and gamey. The bamboo shoot is cut a bit too large and it's a huge challenge to bite into. Just like at Koryu, I have learned that bear is not my favorite. 6/10.

 Course 9A: Steamed Rice + Yellowtail, 7/10

Course 9A: Steamed Rice + Yellowtail, 7/10

 Course 9B: Pickled Vegetables + Miso, 7./10

Course 9B: Pickled Vegetables + Miso, 7./10

As we get around to the final hunger-eliminator course, I must say that the rice and yellowtail fish are rich and filling but a touch dry, the miso overly seaweedy. 7/10.

 Roasted Oat Tea, 8/10

Roasted Oat Tea, 8/10

As a nice wind-down to the meal, a cup of roasted-oat tea, which like always is pretty good and tastes a lot like Honey Smacks. 8/10.

 Course 10: Strawberry Sherbet + Cream, 8/10

Course 10: Strawberry Sherbet + Cream, 8/10

A lovely, if small, dessert of fresh strawberries (in season at the time) with cream and crunchy fried tofu skin. A pleasant if non-spectacular conclusion to a really excellent meal. 8/10.

 Last Sip: Green Tea, 8/10

Last Sip: Green Tea, 8/10

And, last but not least, a bottomless ceramic cup of green tea to warm me up before heading back out into the late-winter air. 8/10.

UK- The Waterside Inn- ✪✪✪

Nestled in picturesque Bray, an ancient exurb on the distant Western end of Greater London, the Waterside Inn is a culinary icon. Albert Roux runs the place, taking over for his dad Michel Roux who had the reins from 1977-2010. The family is basically gastronomical legend; the restaurant has held 3 stars for 31 years, and it was the first restaurant outside of France to hold its 3-star rating for a quarter-century. That was in 2010... :)

 Waterside Inn Main Entrance

Waterside Inn Main Entrance

BRAY, UK (NEAR LONDON)

SERVICE: 7.0/10

FOOD: 8.5/10

PRICE PAID: $280PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 7.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 8.0/10

 The Waiting Room/Grandma's House

The Waiting Room/Grandma's House

After a quiet, windy walk down a cobbled street from pre-dinner drinks at the Hinds Head (the Fat Duck's bar), we walked into the main entrance of the Waterside Inn. It appears to be targeting the famed British "cozy" aesthetic, and man are they nailing it. I felt like I needed to take off my shoes. We walked through this anteroom into the main dining room, where sadly I couldn't snap a photo because the space was too tightly packed and awkward to have that make sense.

 Butter, 7/10

Butter, 7/10

 Bread, 7/10

Bread, 7/10

In the great and massive tome I will someday write about bread and butter, this place is solidly middle of the pack. But nothing special. A hockey puck of salted, local butter and some handmade baguettes are extremely good but also nothing terribly special. 7/10.

 First Bites: Foie Gras + Anchovy- 7/10

First Bites: Foie Gras + Anchovy- 7/10

First bites: setting up the themes for the evening of extremely precise and refined knifework and a huge focus on the aesthetics of color, juxtaposition, and careful crafting, we received a share-plate of heavy, creamy foie gras on toast, raisins on salmon, and anchovy. Very salty, it got my attention with the gorgeous colors and flavors, but kind of a heavy start with the large portion and liberal use of cream sauces. 7/10.

 Course 1: Butternut Squash Soup- 7/10

Course 1: Butternut Squash Soup- 7/10

Served shockingly cold, this butternut squash soup with cracker has a thick, almost paste-like texture. Beautiful, precisely-cut vegetables and mushrooms. Some interesting peanut butter flavors going on as well. 7/10.

 Course 2: Lobster Salad, 6/10. 

Course 2: Lobster Salad, 6/10. 

Man, would you just look at all of those individual components the cold line had to build?! Lobster, caviar, several types of gelatin, carefully-dolloped sauces... While visually gorgeous, the Lobster lacks umph- it was clammy and thin. Caviar, lobster, and gelatin do not match up well, and the beet flavors end up winning out. Maybe that was intentional but it's unclear. 6/10.

 Course 3: Fois Gras + Potato Soup, 9/10

Course 3: Fois Gras + Potato Soup, 9/10

Interestingly, the moment we move away from the fancy fireworks of the bright colors and knifework, the flavors start to speak for themselves more strongly. This foie gras and potato soup is incredible- it feels almost like the first time you have French onion soup on a cold Winter's day. The tarragon flavors are nice; shame there isn't more of it. 9/10, great dish. 

 Course 4: Breaded Monkfish + Coq Au Vin, 9/10

Course 4: Breaded Monkfish + Coq Au Vin, 9/10

A crazy-creative combination of breaded monkfish with chorizo and coq Au vin... Almost pizza flavored. The combination of flavors and textures from the three proteins- monkfish, chorizo, and chicken- would never go together in any cooking textbook, yet here we are. This is the kind of creativity that keeps this place famous. 9/10.

 Course 5: Duck + Pear, 7/10

Course 5: Duck + Pear, 7/10

A super-classic French dish- duck with pear. Everything goes well together, but the overall effect is quite salty. 7/10. 

 Course 6: Basil + Passion Fruit Sorbet, 8/10

Course 6: Basil + Passion Fruit Sorbet, 8/10

A lovely palate-cleanser- basil and passion fruit sorbet, with extremely bright tropical flavors enhanced by the gentle mint. 8/10.

 Course 7: Yogurt + Raspberry + Marshmellow, 8/10

Course 7: Yogurt + Raspberry + Marshmellow, 8/10

With lovely flourishes of raspberry sauce, (though no dessert is quite as flourish-y as Alinea's) this made for a kingly dessert. 8/10. 

 Course 8: Mirabelle Soufflé, 10/10.

Course 8: Mirabelle Soufflé, 10/10.

Made using Mirabelle plums, noted for their soft, tender flesh, and distinctly perfumed flavors, this was in every way, shape, and form, a perfect French dessert. 10/10.

 Course 9: Cheese Cart, 9/10

Course 9: Cheese Cart, 9/10

 Course 9: Cheese, 9/10

Course 9: Cheese, 9/10

What would any good French meal worth its salt be without an enormous, fragrant cheese cart? I love the selections here (the Stinking Bishop is a must-have), and grabbed a sampling of their soft cheeses. They were, without exception, excellent. 9/10.

 Last Bites: Mignarises, Petit Fours, 8/10

Last Bites: Mignarises, Petit Fours, 8/10

A delicious last few bites served on a beautiful tray- great way to end the evening! 8/10. 

USA- Benu- ✪✪✪

Set in the middle of downtown San Francisco, Corey Lee's Benu restaurant is an advanced laboratory of Asian-Fusian cuisine that isn't afraid to try adventuresome, interesting dishes. 

 Benu Outer Entrance, Hawthorne Street

Benu Outer Entrance, Hawthorne Street

SAN FRANCISCO, CA, USA

SERVICE: 7.5/10

FOOD: 9.0/10

PRICE PAID: $298 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 8.5/10

FINAL SCORE: 8.0/10

Corey Lee is a rising-star alum of Daniel in New York and the French Laundry in Napa, and is in the process of making a name for himself in the fine-dining world. Benu has only had their third Michelin star since 2014, and the whole place exudes a rockstar vibe that I found very cool. 

With its own beautiful urban courtyard and a gorgeous, understated interior, I found even the walk inside an entrancing start to the evening.

 Benu Exterior Courtyard

Benu Exterior Courtyard

 Benu Interior

Benu Interior

 First Bites: Caviar + Winter Melon + Chicken Cream, 10/10

First Bites: Caviar + Winter Melon + Chicken Cream, 10/10

The first portion of the meal consisted of approximately 10 mini-courses, called Small Delicacies. The first one out was this absolutely stunning winter melon and chicken cream with caviar. There was a nice gel texture in the under layers, and the gold leaf is over-the-top but adds beautiful colors to an already gorgeous dish. Wonderful start. 10/10.

 First Bites: Mushroom + Eggplant + Ginkgo, 8/10

First Bites: Mushroom + Eggplant + Ginkgo, 8/10

Next, a small grouping of delicately-plated dishes- mushroom with squash and pine nuts, eggplant uzu, then ginkgo nut. 8/10 overall

 First Bite 2 of 10: Mushroom + Squash + Pine Nuts, 9/10

First Bite 2 of 10: Mushroom + Squash + Pine Nuts, 9/10

  First Bite 3 of 10: E ggplant + Uzu , 7/10

First Bite 3 of 10: Eggplant + Uzu, 7/10

  First Bite 4 of 10: G inkgo Nut,  8/10

First Bite 4 of 10: Ginkgo Nut, 8/10

  First Bites Continued: Unlaid Egg + Beggar's Purse + Drunken Chicken, 9/10

First Bites Continued: Unlaid Egg + Beggar's Purse + Drunken Chicken, 9/10

These next three were a really impressive experimentation with textures. A cured, unlaid egg with bacon, a "Beggar's purse" with essence of oak tree, and an Eastern Chinese "drunken chicken" dish with quail jelly. Overall, 9/10.

  First Bite 5 of 10: Unlaid Egg  , 10  /10

First Bite 5 of 10: Unlaid Egg, 10/10

The unlaid egg is exactly what it sounds like, and it literally explodes in your mouth under lots of tension- 9/10, a really fascinating dish. 

  First Bite 6 of 10: Beggar's Purse  , 8  /10

First Bite 6 of 10: Beggar's Purse, 8/10

The Beggar's purse is full of mushrooms, and unfortunately was a bit dry... 8/10

  First Bite 7 of 10: D runken Chicken , 10  /10

First Bite 7 of 10: Drunken Chicken, 10/10

The Quail jelly is firm, and the chicken has great texture- 9/10

  First Bite 8 of 10: Eel Taco  , 10  /10

First Bite 8 of 10: Eel Taco, 10/10

Next came an Eel taco wth mountain yam with a tiny micro-lime perched nearby. Great textures with the crunchy shell, and the eel was fresh and delicious. 10/10.

  First Bite 9 of 10: BBQ Duck Liver + Pork  , 9  /10

First Bite 9 of 10: BBQ Duck Liver + Pork, 9/10

An amazing square slice of bread with barbecue duck liver and pork, then liver again, with a marinade as the sauce. Nice, strong sherry flavors. 9/10.

 Last of the First Bites: Bread + Butter + Honey, 9/10

Last of the First Bites: Bread + Butter + Honey, 9/10

  First Course:: "1,000 Year Quail Egg," 9/10

First Course:: "1,000 Year Quail Egg," 9/10

 Quail Egg post-Ginger Spice Foam

Quail Egg post-Ginger Spice Foam

A "1,000-year-old quail egg," came next. We were informed that they were actually aged in Korean pots for 4 weeks. Right after serving, a thick cabbage broth with ginger spice and foam was poured over. It had a little spice kick to it, which was almost perfect. 9/10.

 2nd Course: Tomato + Celtuce, 7/10

2nd Course: Tomato + Celtuce, 7/10

Tomato and celtuce came next. Celtuce is a vegetable that I had never experienced before- this HuffPost article nicely summed up my response. Strong bruschetta flavors throughout. 7/10.

 3rd Course: Lobster Bao, 8/10

3rd Course: Lobster Bao, 8/10

Next came an ornately-served lobster coral Xiao Long bao. Corey offers an extensive explanation of the dish here, but the bao is served super hot and with strong ginger and vinegar flavors. 8/10.

 4th Course: Sea Urchin, 8/10

4th Course: Sea Urchin, 8/10

Next, a very good marinated sea urchin and fermented crab sauce. The urchin is good, but not Tokyo good. Rich tastes of whole wheat. 8/10

It comes with a not-terribly-photogenic broth.

 5th Course: Cucumber + Peanut + Black Truffle, 8/10

5th Course: Cucumber + Peanut + Black Truffle, 8/10

This cucumber dish with peanut and black truffle had a steamed bun off to the side. Very umami and rich. 8/10.

 6th Course: Abalone + Iberico Ham, 9/10

6th Course: Abalone + Iberico Ham, 9/10

Next, a whole braised abalone with chicken and Iberico ham. 9/10

 7th Course: Beef + Burdock + Wood Ear Mushroom, 10/10

7th Course: Beef + Burdock + Wood Ear Mushroom, 10/10

The beef rib is so tender that it is literally cuttable with butter knife. It comes with a burdock root and Wood Ear mushrooms, and is literally one of the most perfect things I have ever tasted. 10/10

 8th Course: "Shark Fin" Soup, 8/10

8th Course: "Shark Fin" Soup, 8/10

So, first and foremost, this isn't real shark fin soup. Dry salt-cured ham from Jinhua gives the soup its flavor- egg white custard at the base with Dungeness crab. 8/10. Another really creative dish. 

 9th Course: Kampuchea Tea, 8/10

9th Course: Kampuchea Tea, 8/10

Kampuchea tea- a delicious palate-cleanser. 8/10.

 10th Course: Pear Sorbet, 9/10

10th Course: Pear Sorbet, 9/10

An unspeakably soft, beautifully shaped Hosui pear sorbet, 9/10

 11th Course: Apricot + Osmanthus Flowers, 10/10

11th Course: Apricot + Osmanthus Flowers, 10/10

A beautiful apricot dessert with Osmanthus flowers and almonds. 10/10

 12th Course: Dark Chocolate Sculpture, 9/10

12th Course: Dark Chocolate Sculpture, 9/10

Lastly, a lovely, delicate sculpture of dark chocolate with candied seeds. Big, crunchy, delicious. 9/10.

Germany- Schwarzwaldstube- ✪✪✪

 Hotel Traube Tonbach Exterior

Hotel Traube Tonbach Exterior

BAIERSBRONN-TONBACH (BLACK FOREST), GERMANY 

SERVICE: 8.0/10

FOOD: 8.5/10

PRICE PAID: $241 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 7.5/10

FINAL SCORE: 8.0/10

 Harald Wohlfahrt

Harald Wohlfahrt

Deep in the Black Forest, Harald Wohlfahrt has built a gastronomic temple in the most picturesque setting imaginable. Deep pine forests set on rolling hills with shining rivers cutting through- it's the German Middle Earth. Wohlfahrt is credited with training most of the other German chefs awarded three-stars.

A quick note in background- I was set to begin lunch right when they opened at 12 noon. I had a flight out of Frankfurt at 5:05PM, more 125 miles away, to take me back to Chicago. I also wanted to do their longest and most complex menu. This is the fine dining equivalent of asking them to sprint a marathon.  David, the head waiter, agreed to go really, really fast. He did not disappoint.

 The Hotel Lobby

The Hotel Lobby

All servers were dressed in full tuxedos for a Sunday lunch service. Attitude overall was insanely formal-  at each course, the assistant server would awkwardly present his tray and bow in front of the table before serving. He stared at me throughout like he wasn't quite sure why he was doing this either.

 Pre-First Bites, 9/10

Pre-First Bites, 9/10

While waiting in the plush lobby couches to be seated, I was given three small silver spoons with a bite apiece. They were a magnificently diverse selection of flavors and textures- from bottom to top, sushi-grade tuna with horseradish, beef with a passion fruit pâté, and a fried beef meatball. A delicious start- 9/10. Soon after, we moved into the main dining room:

 Main Dining Room

Main Dining Room

Big and airy, and with a touch of a country-club feel to it, the restaurant has gorgeous hillside views of the Black Forest below. 

 First Bites, 9/10

First Bites, 9/10

Starting from the bottom left and moving clockwise- Chorizo dabs (red) give a nice slickness to this fresh green onion. On the upper left, passion fruit foam is brilliant and speaks to first bites. The egg is firm but the yolk is light and delicious- almost mayo-like. The cube of mackerel on the upper left is super, super fresh. Veggies and Asian salad remind me instantly of Chihana in Kyoto. 9/10.

 1st Course: Quail + Duck Liver + Sweetbreads, 9/10

1st Course: Quail + Duck Liver + Sweetbreads, 9/10

Going clockwise from lower left- the quail leg is delicious and goes with pine nuts, but temps are out of sync- quail is warm and nuts are piping hot. Vegetables crisp and fresh, and the sweetbreads are rich and delicious. The pine nuts make more sense with the liver, which is gelled in a Jurançon jelly (a type of wine jelly infused with saffron). 9/10

 2nd Course: Lobster, 8/10

2nd Course: Lobster, 8/10

Next, Breton lobster- presented with sautéed calamari sepia; heavy flavors of capsicum and fennel. I'd say the sauce is 85% butter, and the plate is served lawsuit-hot. 8/10. 

 3rd Course: Red Mullet + Bouillabaisse, 10/10

3rd Course: Red Mullet + Bouillabaisse, 10/10

This Rouget is served in an intensely aromatic broth of saffron and herbs on a base of small shellfish. The fish itself falls apart like melted butter- literally perfectly cooked. Light, crispy skin. This is a classic Mediterranean dish done right. 10/10.

 4th Course: Venison 9/10

4th Course: Venison 9/10

The menu charmingly described this course as "Venison of homegrown deer." I like to imagine some famous chef patiently raising wild deer in his garage for such a purpose. 

The protein is just beautifully cooked, and the is once again absurdly hot. Toweringingly savory! Golden raisins and chocolate/Nutella sauce are a good idea- the protein balances well with the sweetness. Apple circles work well too. 9/10.

 5th Course: Cheese, 9/10

5th Course: Cheese, 9/10

The cheese course is a charming Parmesan and salad with Trevisano and dandelion- creamy and delightful, with distinctive Parmesan flavors. 9/10.

 6th Course: "Christmas" Dessert, 9/10

6th Course: "Christmas" Dessert, 9/10

A candied Christmas Tree of sugar plum, the decoration pops open to reveal a hollow core of spun sugar. A delightful and playful conclusion to the meal. 9/10.

 7th Course: Petit Fours, 9/10

7th Course: Petit Fours, 9/10

Petit fours! Run to Frankfurt!

UK- Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester- ✪✪✪

 The Dorchester Hotel Lobby

The Dorchester Hotel Lobby

LONDON, UK

SERVICE: 7.5/10

FOOD: 8.5/10

PRICE PAID: $280 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 8.5/10

FINAL SCORE: 8.0/10

 Jocelyn Herland

Jocelyn Herland

Located in London Mayfair right near the Marble Arch in the beautiful (if a bit overdone) Hotel D0rchester is Alain Ducasse's UK flagship restaurant. Headed up by chef Jocelyn Herland, this is only one of 27 restaurants in the Ducasse empire. It has held its third star since 2010; an impressive record after opening only in 2007. 

Herland previously ran La Plaza Athénée in Paris, and was hand-picked to run Ducasse's London headquarters.  

A few quick notes about the interior- sited in the already gorgeous Dorchester hotel, the restaurant itself is full of natural, understated colors and a few design flairs. A fiber-optic-lit machination called La Table Lumière sits in the corner (I happened to be seated right next to it) for those wishing for a more secluded experience. During my meal, a toweringly obnoxious couple from California dined with their little girl who kept throwing her caviar and seafood whilst requesting chicken nuggets. At certain points, I couldn't blame her.

 

 La Table Lumière

La Table Lumière


 The Dorchester Lobby- just stunning

The Dorchester Lobby- just stunning

 First Bites: Cheese snacks, 7/10

First Bites: Cheese snacks, 7/10

Our first bites were an enormous pile of cheese snacks. Hollow spheres of breaded cheese- what an interesting start to a meal- and I'm not kidding when I say it was, like, two pounds of snacks. 7/10.

 Salted + Unsalted Butters

Salted + Unsalted Butters

 1st Course: Lobster + Asparagus, 8/10

1st Course: Lobster + Asparagus, 8/10

First course is a beautiful, thoughtful presentation of lobster with raw and cooked asparagus. Sauce is awesome. Lobster is perfectly cooked and fresh. 8/10.

 2nd Course: Foie Gras + Peach, 9/10

2nd Course: Foie Gras + Peach, 9/10

Next, we had some duck foie gras stuffed with peach. Foie is almost refreshingly light. 9/10.

 3rd Course: Langoustine + Ravioli, 10/10

3rd Course: Langoustine + Ravioli, 10/10

Thirdly, some Scottish langoustine served with squid ink ravioli. Soft and rich. The broth ties things together perfectly with flavors of green mango and lemongrass, what an exceptional and memorable dish. 10/10. 

 4th Course: Turbot + Clams, 8/10

4th Course: Turbot + Clams, 8/10

Next, a generous cube of turbot with clams and beans. The beans are a nice textural partner to both. 8/10.

 5th Course: Beef, 7/10

5th Course: Beef, 7/10

The only mild disappointment of the evening was, unfortunately, the main. This beef was overcooked and not well matched in its black olive jus. 7/10.

 6th Course: Cheese, 9/10

6th Course: Cheese, 9/10

Some excellent Comté Garde Exceptionnelle from 2012. 9/10.

 7th Course: Macarons, 9/10

7th Course: Macarons, 9/10

Ducasse must enjoy the looks on his patrons' faces when staff members come by and dump enormous quantities of baked goods on their table. These macarons and chocolate are excellent, but once again: there are a shitload of them. 9/10

 8th Course: Chocolate + Ganache, 8/10

8th Course: Chocolate + Ganache, 8/10

Surprisingly similar to Milky Way bars; the chocolate and ganache dessert is another pleasing contribution to the finish. 8/10.

 9th Course: Mignardises + Gourmandises

9th Course: Mignardises + Gourmandises

France- Epicure- ✪✪✪

 Epicure Breakfast Table

Epicure Breakfast Table

PARIS, FRANCE

SERVICE: 9.5/10

FOOD: 7.5/10

PRICE PAID: $90 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 8.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 8.0/10

Located in the gorgeous Hotel Bristol and overlooking a lush interior garden, Epicure keeps all the beauty of French cuisine without making it intimidating or snooty.  Service was casual but friendly, and this was some of the best breakfast food I have ever enjoyed. Period.

 1st Course: Salmon & Flatbread, 9/10

1st Course: Salmon & Flatbread, 9/10

First out was some gloriously simple salmon and flatbreads. The salmon is smoky and super fresh. The bread is fluffy and soft. The cream is super dense and rich. This is true breakfast. 9/10.

 2nd Course: Jambon, 8/10

2nd Course: Jambon, 8/10

Presentation was a touch messy, but this ham with cream sauce was salty and delicious. Good balance of textures.  8/10.

 3rd Course: Golden Eggs, 10/10

3rd Course: Golden Eggs, 10/10

Beyond being unspeakably decadent (gold and all...) this egg custard with caviar served perfectly in a dark-colored shell was an explosion of flavor and textures. A really well thought-out dish; and the yolk was on the bottom.

 4th Course: Fruit & Yogurt, 6/10

4th Course: Fruit & Yogurt, 6/10

 Branded Fruit Plate

Branded Fruit Plate

Ended on a bit of a disappointing note, sadly- not particularly fresh fruit or good yogurt- 6/10- also, as an American I'm accustomed to Greek yogurt, so this "real" yogurt tastes like water. I like that they took the opportunity t0 brand the dish, though.

France- Bernard Loiseau- ✪✪

UPDATE: Some very sad news- Le Relais Bernard Loiseau has lost its third star, and as of the 2016 book is now a 2-star restaurant. Michelin is under some pressure for the stress their three star rating puts on chefs- interesting reads here and here

 Bernard Loiseau Exterior

Bernard Loiseau Exterior

SAULIEU, FRANCE (NEAR BURGUNDY WINE COUNTRY)

SERVICE: 8.5/10

FOOD: 7.5/10

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

VALUE/MONEY: 8.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 8.0/10

Occupying a prominent space in the very small downtown of Saulieu, Bernard Loiseau seems to be an industry to itself- by the time you’ve added up the space taken by the hotel, the restaurant, the spa, and the shop with all the Bernard Loiseau collectibles, you’re in the double-digit percentages for the town's economy overall. 

As seems the tradition with excellent European countryside restaurant/inns that have achieved 3-star status, after checking in at the front desk I was immediately asked if I would like an aperitif on the beautiful garden terrace. Laid out neatly under large, Sherbet-Orange colored awnings is one of the most tranquil and beautiful gardens I have ever visited.

 The unspeakably gorgeous garden

The unspeakably gorgeous garden

The gardens butt up against the pool and cabins that are part of the property- I took a walk down there, and the garden is full of beautiful hand-hewn stones like this one:

 Awesome hand-hewn stone

Awesome hand-hewn stone

An interesting note about the experience- the restaurant uses the terrace experience as a staging point- you gather your thoughts about the meal and make dinner, dessert, and wine selections all in advance before proceeding to the dining room.

The dining room itself has a tall, airy feel- almost like a ballroom or a tiki hut. The beams are light and fashioned from wood, and most of the lighting on this bright summer day was natural with small artificial lights further to back close to the kitchen. All around was bright, verdant greenery, colorful flowers, and insects humming in an intensely-alive environment. 

Service, led by the dynamic and friendly Eric, is formal and in a typical head waiter- assistant waiter- server- runner format, with at least six different people including the sommelier stopping by at some point during the meal. The attitudes were quiet and respectful but not haughty, and I got great service from everyone involved, except one runner who seemed bent on getting me to consume another glass of wine before a very long drive, which I politely declined three times.

 First Bites: Light Baked Bread, 8/10

First Bites: Light Baked Bread, 8/10

Upon receiving my aperitif, a small dish of light baked bread with cheese arrived. Excellent for pairing with a light drink or champagne, they were warm and tasty. 8/10.

 First Bites; Amuse-bouches, 9/10

First Bites; Amuse-bouches, 9/10

Next, a small plate of amuse-bouches. The one on the left is effectively a fried cheese-ball with rice inside- super homey and delicious- the square is crunchy, and the spoon was a creamy, fruity delight. 9/10.

For the next courses, I was led into the dining room and was almost immediately greeted with this fascinatingly-colored, delicious dish:

 1st Course: Tiny Bird Legs, 8/10

1st Course: Tiny Bird Legs, 8/10

Tiny, delicate pigeon on the bone in a green minty sauce; the server encouraged me to eat it with my fingers- they provided a small dish of water with lemon for cleansing. 

The taste was rich and delicious- imagine the tenderest, softest chicken wing you’ve ever had- and the sauce paired well and made total sense. I skipped the cream in the middle, since it just seemed like an excuse to pile on the fat to this already caloric dish. Also, there was butter:

 Butter

Butter

 2nd Course: Sabot fish & Red Wine Sauce, 7/10

2nd Course: Sabot fish & Red Wine Sauce, 7/10

Next came an extremely pretty Sabot fish in red wine sauce with skin perfectly seared on top. The white fish was flaky and soft; basically perfectly cooked . My only complaint here was that the red wine sauce took things a touch far- there’s no reasonable way to pair anything except a rich sauce with this extremely light fish, I get that- but it was overwhelming. Like taking a delicate piece of sushi an smothering it in McDonald’s BBQ sauce. 7/10. 

I’ll take a moment to mention that Eric pointed out the plates used in the “Bernard Loiseau Classics” menu- they’re all at least 25 years old, and all but 4 of them have survived service in the restaurant since they were made in the 80s. They were all pretty and accentuated the dishes nicely.

 3rd Course: Chicken, Liver, Black Truffle, 10/10

3rd Course: Chicken, Liver, Black Truffle, 10/10

Next, a truly perfect dish of soft chicken breast with liver, black truffle potatoes, and asparagus. You won’t find a more classic French dish anywhere in the world, and this one was executed just perfectly.  The breast was incredibly soft but somehow still well cooked enough to avoid being pink. The potatoes, heavy with truffle, backed up the protein with perfection. The asparagus was bracingly fresh and stood well on its own or with the vegetables and chicken. The liver was a touch rich, but coming off a full week eating food with that kind of richness I’m willing to give them a pass. 10/10. 

 4th Course: Cheese, 5/10

4th Course: Cheese, 5/10

To round things out, they hauled up their unremarkable cheese dish with way too many mild cow, mild sheep, and uninteresting goat cheese options.

 Cheese Selections

Cheese Selections

I selected some Epoisse and some monk’s cheese- the experience was utterly similar to spending ten minutes at the cheese counter at any Whole Foods. The server didn’t have much advice either, and for some reason was surprised that I hadn’t already selected my cheese in advance. 5/10. 

Three small decadent desserts arrived next, each with a small fleck of edible gold leaf- the first one chocolatey, the second one creamy and herbacious, the third one rich apple-flavored. They were paired up next to this delicious monstrosity:

 5th Course: Dessert Pastries, 9/10

5th Course: Dessert Pastries, 9/10

Self-suspended layers of chocolate crackers held together with extremely dark, rich chocolate ice cream. A melon sauce surrounded the outside- it was a huge dish to take down, and a rewarding and delicious dessert. 9/10.

Lastly, a tiny plate with a baked almond “cresting wave,” a tiny pâte de fruits, and a dark chocolate truffle with the Bernard Loiseau logo. All delicious and super over the top. 9/10

 6th Course: "Cresting Wave" dessert, 9/10

6th Course: "Cresting Wave" dessert, 9/10

France- Pavilion Ledoyen- ✪✪✪

 Pavilion Ledoyen exterior

Pavilion Ledoyen exterior

PARIS, FRANCE

SERVICE: 9.0/10

FOOD: 8.5/10

PRICE PAID: $375 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 7.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 8.0/10


About two hundred yards to the West of the Petit Palais along the river Seine in Paris sits Yannick Alleno's gorgeous Pavilion Ledoyen. 

Built as a garden mansion for Napoleon III more than 150 years ago, the pavillion was taken over in 2014 by the Alleno group and serves as a restaurant, event space, and bar. From the walking tour I took after the meal, it was clear that they were still growing into their space- much of it was built out and restored, but some parts were very much untouched since the Second Empire. 

The gilded entrance, like most of the rest of the structure, is beautifully restored. 

 Pavilion Ledoyen Main Entrance

Pavilion Ledoyen Main Entrance

Let's kick things right off. To start, you're brought a small panorama of nature that happens to include small bites to eat. 

The ravioli is creamy and cumin-y, with a tropical dairy texture. The hibiscus and sweet onion is crunchy and the flavors reminds me of Hawaii- coconut oil, pineapple, etc. There are some pretty amazing dim sum and soy flavors at work too- a strong start. 9/10. I also really like the spongy platform that the course is served upon. 

 1st Course: Ravioli & Hibiscus, 9/10

1st Course: Ravioli & Hibiscus, 9/10

A colorful offering of salted and unsalted butters, along with some pretty awesome breads.

 Salted and unsalted butters

Salted and unsalted butters

 Awesome, awesome breads

Awesome, awesome breads

Next up, Iberico ham with a rich sauce. The ham is well-salted, and the fermented gelee is a heavy idea so early on in this menu's story. 6/10. Good but mouth-burningly salty. 

 2nd Course- Iberico ham with Fermented Gelee, 6/10

2nd Course- Iberico ham with Fermented Gelee, 6/10

"Twice-marinated anchovy" - Wonderful, crunchy texture, but the fried components (that tasted a lot like fried onions) layered another portion of butter and fat on an already rich start. 7/10. 

 3rd Course: Twice-Marinated Anchovy, 7/10

3rd Course: Twice-Marinated Anchovy, 7/10

The pasta in this next dish is poured right on top of the remains of the previous- an interesting statement about refreshment and renewal. The sole has an almost sushi-fresh quality- cool and clean. 9/10. 

 4th Course: Sole and Pasta, 9/10

4th Course: Sole and Pasta, 9/10

 4A: Pasta in the renewed sauce  

4A: Pasta in the renewed sauce  

The fifth course was a lovely dish of panko and sauce- we were encouraged to dip the bread in the sauce for the maximum experience. 9/10. 

 5th Course: Panko, 9/10

5th Course: Panko, 9/10

The lettuce serves as a gentle "border" and the sauce delivery is beautiful to watch. Check it out:

Next up: caviar with delicious, tiny, crunchy squares. As good as caviar gets. 10/10.

 6th Course: Caviar and Crunchy Squares

6th Course: Caviar and Crunchy Squares

Next up was sole with green tomato sauce. The sole pairs with green peas fantastically well. Chanterelle mushrooms make this guy sing. 10/10.

 7th Course: Sole and Green Tomato Sauce, 10/10

7th Course: Sole and Green Tomato Sauce, 10/10

Peas, mint, and langoustine next. An absurdly colorful dish with tons of flavor. 9/10.

 8th Course: Peas & Langoustine, 9/10

8th Course: Peas & Langoustine, 9/10

I'm not sure if this is the official title, but the server described this as "lobster and cabbage bones." A beautiful design that looks like sculpture, bright and spongy lobster pairs well with crispy, crunchy cabbage. 8/10. 

  9th Course: Lobster with "Cabbage Bones", 8/10

9th Course: Lobster with "Cabbage Bones", 8/10

During the course of this project, I've experienced a relatively wide array of Wagyu beef on a few continents. This was, hands-down, the absolute best. I want you to imagine beef the consistency of actual butter, but with pure grassfed flavors that give it an otherwordly aura. You can taste hay, the farm, fresh oats... It was quasi-religious. 10/10.

 10th Course- Wagyu Beef, 10/10

10th Course- Wagyu Beef, 10/10

These dessert bites were served "on the beach," a nice, if confusing, statement in the narrative of the meal. He's wishing us a good vacation? We need a beach trip after all the food? Not quite sure what he's after here, but still delicious and gorgeous to look at, 9/10.

  11th Course: Dessert on a Beach, 9/10

11th Course: Dessert on a Beach, 9/10

This was pitched as Calvados apple pie without the pie, which I'll admit I sort of understood. It was just simply-presented, awesome pie as far as I was concerned. You can see someone took the time to gently cut small lines into the surface before laying down some vanilla ice cream. 9/10.

 12th Course: Calvados Apple Pie, 9/10

12th Course: Calvados Apple Pie, 9/10

Going tropical again, this time with a coconut and white biscuit dessert. Really strong coconut flavors speak nicely to some of the earlier courses. 9/10.

 13th Course: Coconut with White Biscuit,  9/10

13th Course: Coconut with White Biscuit,  9/10

I was offensively stuffed at this point, but they managed to get me involved in this final round- beer pie and truffles, a classic and spectacular ending. Loved every part of it. Man was this thing a marathon. 10/10.

 14th Course : Beer Pie with Guinness and Chocolate Truffles, 10/10

14th Course: Beer Pie with Guinness and Chocolate Truffles, 10/10

And, a final goodnight to this beautiful structure. Amazing meal, amazing service, truly worth the journey. 

France- Guy Savoy- ✪✪✪

 Entering the French Mint, en route to Guy Savoy

Entering the French Mint, en route to Guy Savoy

PARIS, FRANCE

SERVICE: 9/10

FOOD: 8.5/10

PRICE PAID: $425 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 7.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 8.0/10

Set in unreal surroundings- the French national mint- Guy Savoy's European branch puts on a hell of a show on the plate. The US version, by the way, is in Vegas. 

Come early, because you 1) have to get past a handful of guards with guns, and 2) you have to take a lot of steps to get there. Luckily, they left a lot of signs:

The restaurant is located in what used to be the office of the Mint's President. How subtle.

Guy Savoy (2 of 21).jpg

Guy Savoy offers two, similarly-priced menus: The Product Menu, and the Colors, Textures, and Savors menu, which is slightly larger. I opted for the CTS; a four-hour experience that was paced in a leisurely fashion. Service from Denis and Michel was extremely attentive and formal- to my far left in the dining room were some important elected officials, and the rest of the crowd glanced at their watches with a certain the-private-jet-is-idling-at-Charles-de-Gaulle-goddammit look to them. 

First bites were a torchon of foie gras with cold courgette soup. The torchon is extremely rich and meant to pair with the intro champagne- the culinary equivalent of a warm handshake. The soup is zesty and refreshing on a hot day, the culinary equivalent of nice air conditioning to accompany said handshake. Tiny crisp under the plate is playful and delicious. 8/10, good opener dish.

 First bites: Torchon of Foie Gras

First bites: Torchon of Foie Gras

 First Bites: Cold Courgette Soup

First Bites: Cold Courgette Soup

Another small intro bite- the small crisp under the main plate. 

 First bites: Wheat crisp with Tomato and Pesto

First bites: Wheat crisp with Tomato and Pesto

The first dish is cucumbers- soft, with an almost waxy consistency. The tiny, delicately placed crumbs are soldered-on with a rich sauce that lends structure. Fun dish. 8/10.

 1st Course: Cucumbers, 8/10

1st Course: Cucumbers, 8/10

This second dish really amped things up by a few notches. Caviar with courgette leaf crisps and egg custard. Cucumbers beneath followed by a larger ring of cucumber. 

 2nd Course: Caviar, 10/10

2nd Course: Caviar, 10/10

Each egg was explosively fresh. This dish is totally transcendent- three different types of caviar that each work well together or alone. Outstanding presentation- 10/10. The crisps don't add much and represent the wrong season but I don't care.

 

For the third course, we switch gears into vegetables with peas & egg. Those two ingredients work terrifically, but this is a heavy dish. The egg had a jelly-fish-like appearance, and check out those colors! 8/10.

 3rd Course: Peas & Egg, 8/10

3rd Course: Peas & Egg, 8/10

After an already filling setup into the main dishes, I have to be honest when I say that an enormous half-lobster was not what I expected next. And yet.

Chanterelles in the main body are a nice touch. The onions are soft and French-onion-soup-like in character and texture.

Have you ever bought a fresh-boiled lobster from a roadside stand, and tried to consume it standing up? It's messy. So was this, which was a weird experience in such a nice place. 7/10. I'm not saying I stood up while I ate it. 

 4th Course: An Enormous Lobster, 7/10

4th Course: An Enormous Lobster, 7/10

This mussels dish was announced as the chef's specialty. As seafoody and ocean-y as it gets, like a delicious rich mud. 8/10.

 5th Course: Mussels, 8/10

5th Course: Mussels, 8/10

Here's where we reach the height of richness- mushrooms, huge slices of black truffles, and Parmesan cheese gathered together in one soup. It comes with a mushroom brioche to go with- truly decadent; 9/10. 

 6th Course: Mushroom & Truffle Soup, 9/10

6th Course: Mushroom & Truffle Soup, 9/10

Here come the Laguiole steak knives. This next course- a veal cutlet- is brought by the table so you can see it before they serve it. Cutlet, liver, and sweetbreads are a massive, filling finale of the main courses. 8/10

 7th Course: Veal Cutlet, Liver, Sweetbreads, 8/10

7th Course: Veal Cutlet, Liver, Sweetbreads, 8/10

As a nice wind-down, some warm Burgundian cheese with an almost almond and chocolate flavor. The sandwich is crunchy and has a light flavor of watercress. 9/10. 

 8th Course: Burgundian Cheese, 9/10

8th Course: Burgundian Cheese, 9/10

An extremely awesome marshmallow and meringue. Nothing to say but 10/10.

 9th Course: Pre-dessert Marshmallow, 10/10

9th Course: Pre-dessert Marshmallow, 10/10

This dessert totally blew me away: dried, frozen, and fresh strawberries all together in a tart. Great combo of temps, flavors, textures. Super amazing dessert dish. 10/10.

 10th Course: Strawberry tart, 10/10

10th Course: Strawberry tart, 10/10

"All-Black" chocolate dessert. With cardamom. 9/10.

 11th Course: "All-Black" Chocolate & Cardamom, 9/10

11th Course: "All-Black" Chocolate & Cardamom, 9/10

Lastly, a choose your own adventure dessert cart. Cheesecake, melon sorbet, chocolate mousse. 9/10, great cart.

 12th Course- Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Cart, 9/10

12th Course- Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Cart, 9/10