Hugging coastal Spain's attractive shores in orchard-rich Dénia, Quique Dacosta is the full and beautiful expression of its owner's (very) idiosyncratic personality and style.
Putting this review together was a struggle, because there is absolutely no way I could fairly capture the stunning beauty of La Vague D'Or's surroundings at the all-encompassingly gorgeous Residences de la Pinede in St. Tropez, France. Offered aperitifs as we arrived poolside, I have to admit that I could have stayed in that exact spot for days. I haven't been to a more gorgeous spot in my life.
ST. TROPEZ, FRANCE
PRICE PAID: $301 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)
FINAL SCORE: 8.5/10
Run by one of the youngest chefs to achieve 3-star status Arnaud Donckele, La Vague D'Or attempts to capture the flavors of Provence in their style and presentation. This place perfectly nails the combination of Provençal ingredients in a Mediterranean setting.
We got the chance to meet Arnaud after the service; he speaks zero English, but was extremely friendly. The kitchen has a strangely long, narrow main corridor with the Pass and the Expo stationed at the very end of that corridor, the hot lines and cold cold lines next to each other on the far side. Lots of squeezing past each other and near-collisions, which seems odd. They didn't seem to let it get in the way of putting on an incredible service.
As we continued relaxing on the ungodly-beautiful pool terrace, a handful of small snacks made their way to the table. First, some olive stuffed with ham presented on the end of a stick. These olives practically burst with flavor, and the saltiness of the two main ingredients play well together. 8/10.
Next, a large and complex arrangement of tree, wire mesh, plastic box, and food were brought over to our table. I was anxious to hear the story behind this beautiful, if somewhat complex, presentation, but was told that it was just chosen because it looks nice. Throughout dinner, unfortunate serving staff could be seen hefting these enormous contraptions to diners' tables. An 8-top table required almost the entire staff to come together for the service. These things must weigh 50 or 60 pounds apiece. Hm.
Some foie gras with pine nut crust, also on the end of a stick. I'm getting an "offering from Nature" vibe here. Crunchy and rich, it tastes like someone made foie gras into a Twix bar. 8/10.
Next, presented on a square-ishly shaped flat spoon, some grapes from Provence with the seeds removed and replaced with almonds. The almonds were super crunchy and fresh, and they tasted almost perfect against the fresh grape. It worked for the same reasons that peanut butter and jelly work together. 9/10.
The next amuse-bouche was charmingly titled: "Company Bread;" the dark portions towards the bottom are a thin grilled-on slice of lard. Some really strong ham flavors that harkens back to the olive presentation. 9/10.
"Aubergine tempura" is crispy and crunchy, and it honestly tasted a lot like it looks... Fried eggplant. It feels a little like something you'd find at the Minnesota State Fair. Greasy and tasty. 7/10.
Calamari octopus, served with an octopus broth and tomato cracker. The cracker itself, laden with octopus, had tons and tons of flavor. The broth had a lemongrassy/Thai feel to it, which once again paired nicely. Lots of simple, enjoyable one-to-one flavor interplays at work so far. 8/10.
The last of the patio snacks—an oyster with a thick layer of Béarnaise sauce mixed with yuzu. The yuzu gives it a citrus flair, but the Béarnaise is super, turbo, offensively rich. 6/10.
Interestingly, it is only at this point that we are now handed menus to select our meals. I have to say that I'm not murderously stuffed but I am definitely feeling more full than I'd like to in order to begin a meal. I opt for the smaller of the two menus, titled "Timeless," 5 courses, at €270; the other set-price menu is called "An Epicurean Adventure," at €340 with cheese course and €315 without. They also offer a wine pairing for my menu at €120, and one for the Epicurean Adventure for €145. I was driving so chose against wine; my dining partner went for the full-boat menu with pairing (a bold move).
We get seated in a corner with gorgeous views of the patio, pool, and sunset. I cannot emphasize enough: this is The Most Beautiful Hotel Ever.
The dining room itself is a touch plain; lots of exposed wood and gentle curves, a bit of artwork and mirrors but otherwise not a ton of adornment.
Lovely hand-folded French country bread. Always a welcome start in my book. 8/10.
First up, a lovely dish of Amberjack, Spider Crab, and a sorbet made from tomalley, the green part of the lobster's insides (not something I had previously known one could/should eat). The rich-flavored sorbet really brings out the best of the vegetables, and as you can see the plating is pretty awesome. I love the geometry of this dish. 8/10.
The server describes this next dish colloquially as "Langoustine two ways;" the sauce is made from a Japanese citrus called Hassaku (about halfway between an orange and a grapefruit) together with olive oil infused with grilled prawn heads. Lots of great, crispy crunch from the asparagus and a touch of aloe vera.
On the right, a small bowl of grapefruit (only subtly different from the Hassaku) with langoustine prepared in a slightly different way. It's hard to detect what this second dish is trying to say, but it's interesting to get two similar angles on the same dish. 8/10.
As a small interlude dish; a smoked egg cracker with a tiny layer of beef. Pleasant. 8/10.
This complex dish of sea bass is served on a bed of vegetables and seafood; Roma tomatoes, clams, and zucchini grown by Yann Menard, who is apparently a very famous farmer in Southern France, and itself smoked in some oregano grown in the gorgeous Alpilles sub-region of Provence. There's a shitload going on here, but somehow it all works together. This is an insanely fresh, summery, professionally-planned seafood dish. 8/10.
As a total bonus because my dining partner had a longer menu, the restaurant generously gave me a course of Zitone pasta with the subtitle, "a tribute to a chef who taught me so much." The pasta is filled with black truffle and foie gras, and includes some delicious artichoke with strong basil flavors. It is served on what can only be called a stump with squirrel-hole in it. 9/10.
Served along with a touch of absinthe, this thyme flower palate cleanser has fennel flavors in the sorbet. 8/10.
A fascinating cooking technique that the kitchen was proud enough of to bring by our table as it was in-process: this "Chicken Supreme" is cooked in a cow's bladder. Unfortunately, this doesn't quite lock in the moisture like one might hope; the chicken is slightly dry. The green consommé, which the kitchen brews like a tea, brings things mostly back in balance. On the side, a chicken wing and an "oyster of chicken" with an actual tea, strong and slightly herbal. 7/10 overall.
Another bonus course (they were incredibly generous and friendly in general) this time a completely delicious riff on Tomme D'Arles cheese. An ancient cheese recently re-cultivated in the Southwestern Alpes d'Haute Provence region, it is put on top of a delicious pile of pickled pears, with some môle honey and a glaze of Boutellian olive oil (a French variety of olive). On the side, some chopped pear and sorbet, which are both totally excellent. 8/10.
And now, finally to the desserts. This next course actually had several components. First, some chocolate made like a crème brûlée served with frozen raspberries and a side glass of bergamot/raspberry juice.
Next, some warm chocolate cake, melty and excellent, served alongside...
...Some super-sugary, delicious raspberry sorbet. This is an overwhelmingly huge dessert, by the way. 9/10 overall.
Some pretty amazing petit fours were served next. From top to bottom, a tarte tropezienne, also known as the Tart of St. Tropez, made of brioche and with strong flavors of orange blossom.
Next, a pistachio cake with an explosion of colorful fruit, and some absurd gold leaf. Lastly, kumquat filled with kumquat ice cream, also with absurd gold leaf. 8/10 overall.
As a small last interlude that continues the citrus theme, some chocolates with a deep orange flavor. 8/10.
Tarte Tatin with Apple and rhubarb ice cream. Rich, almost exactly like a French version of an apple pie. Dessert is feeling excessive at this point. 8/10.
A Combava, similar to a makrut lime, is part of the mix in the last dessert. They generously bring one out from the freezer with white gloves to show it off. It has a strong, oily, citrus smell.
Very lastly, a gorgeous stracciatella. Big chunks of chocolate throughout. Vanilla bean flavors punch through and dominate the dish, which is completely fine with me. 8/10
A few parting views of the gorgeous hotel as we depart. I'll return here someday.
I could literally have not picked a more Monaco-y moment to visit Monaco's soul 3-star restaurant—Grand Prix weekend in Monte Carlo is truly a bucket-list type activity. Crowds throng outside the doors, and White House-level security is everywhere. Shitloads of plastic surgery. Serious people in suits.
The Louis XV is run by a youngish chef named Dominique Lory; born in '79, he spent a few years working for Pierre Gagnaire and then for Alain Ducasse at the Louis XV under Franck Cerutti, and then in Paris at the Plaza Athénée. In 2011, Ducasse sent him back to Monaco as head chef of his (arguably) European flagship while Franck Cerruti became the head of all Hôtel de Paris' restaurants, with Dominique reporting to him.
The room's gorgeous central light hangs like a crown over the dining room. Recently redesigned, the first-floor restaurant of the famous Hôtel de Paris has an open, airy, turbo-luxurious feel. In the center is a service station built of metal and mulberry wood that discreetly frames the work of the staff. Designed and built by Parisian architects Patrick Jouin and Sanjit Manku, the design is meant to memorialize the gravitas and glory of the old-world restaurant with a modern spin. I'd say they nailed it.
MONTE CARLO, MONACO
PRICE PAID: $450 PP (RACE MENU; LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)
FINAL SCORE: 8.5/10
The Hôtel de Paris, itself at the very epicenter of Monte Carlo and across from the famous casino, has some interesting history. Back in the late 80s, Monaco's Prince Rainier III challenged Alain Ducasse to build a 3-Michelin-Star restaurant in the hotel in less than four years, a goal that Alain crushed in only three. Especially impressive since, at the time Alain began, there were zero three-stars in hotels, and Alain had only achieved two-star status with his previous restaurant.
As far as the hotel itself goes, opulence is just a word. I checked, and for their nicest suites this hotel charges more than €10,000 per night with a straight face.
First out, a Meditteranean take on summer rolls—cracklingly fresh vegetables in rice paper with a rich and zesty olive sauce. The spoon-shaped wooden skewers are a nice touch. 8/10, a straightforward but pleasant start.
A slightly more adventuresome next step, both in flavors and colors—local fish marinated with vegetables that subtly enhance the colors of the fish itself. There are small cuts of cuttlefish, red mullet, mackerel, and skipjack tuna. Super, super fresh, like it was just plucked out of the ocean. 9/10.
Rich, yeasty bread served alongside a swirl of butter on a small marble block, and salt. 8/10.
First up on the main courses, Gamberoni, a type of prawn, with jellyfish, a gorgeous centerpiece of caviar, and rockfish on the bottom. Interestingly, the dish is served quite cold, and the all the flavors play well with the jellyfish, whose textures overrides most of the dish. 8/10.
Every now and then I encounter a dish that totally changes my mind on a whole genre of food. This dish did it for me with vegetables. Mushroom, carrot, asparagus, peas, and turnip in a shockingly rich green pea juice. The juice itself is made by putting fresh raw peas in an extractor, not cooked, with lime, sorrel, and mustard... and that's it! By avoiding cooking the vegetables, the chef maintains the freshness of the dish and keeps it balanced by not mixing fresh with cooked ingredients.
The peas themselves are all briely roasted, and they pop they're so fresh. The whole dish has a smooth and silky mouthfeel; this is easily the best vegetable dish I have ever had. 10/10.
Next, a gloriously-plated dish of Sea bass with tomatoes, olive oil, fennel, and kumquats, in a lovely warm sauce. The flavors work together near-perfectly, and this dish is an excellent showcase of the amazing product available to the kitchen in this Mediterranean haven. 9/10.
A second knockout in a row—some truly excellent, incredibly fresh, and perfectly prepared Guinea fowl for the main course. Lightly pan-fried with a nice harkening back to the veggies course from the peas and mushrooms, this hearty and classic dish is a slam-dunk. The protein is tender, warm, and pairs perfectly with everything on the plate. 9/10.
As a palate cleanser prior to the finishing courses, a granité (granita) of Waldorf salad. Simple and elegant, I will admit that it tastes a lot like a lettuce icee, but it more than does the job. 8/10.
You would expect this place to have just a princely Maybach of a cheese cart, and you would have your expectations met. Showcasing cheeses from Southern France, Italy, and Switzerland, I selected (from upper left clockwise):
- Roquefort, exceptionally strong and salty
- Petit fiancé
- Comte. All excellent. 9/10.
As we are consuming the cheeses, a young man hard at work at the center of the restaurant with an enormous mobile cart full of greens brings us a freshly prepared "Salad a l'occasion." It appears to just be some leafy greens. I haven't had such a salad before offered mid-cheese-course as it is, but it's not unwelcome. 7/10.
To clean our hands, a beautiful dish of water perfumed with orange blossoms is offered to us. An extremely classy gesture.
Spanish strawberries for dessert, served with a mascarpone sorbet. 9/10.
A crunchy, sugary interlude of candied nuts are offered. Kind of like the salad a l'occasion, I'm not really sure why and I haven't seen anything like it before, but it's kind of fun. 8/10.
Though only some of the table partook, I wanted to share a photo of their incredible herbal tea cart which includes potted, growing plants used as infusions for the tea served tableside.
Some super-sugary candied fruits; limoncello, bamago, and mango. 8/10.
For some reason, I'm offered two caffeinated beverages on departure: some coffee from Laos, sweet and floral, as well as a particularly rich and well-made espresso from Brazil that help round out the meal and give me the caffeine boost I will later need to fight through drunken crowds of pre-race revelers outside.
What the menu describes as "chocolates from our factory"—Black chocolate from Peru, and milk chocolate from Brazil. Rich and amazing, it's a great advertisement for the boxes of chocolate they sell at the hostess stand on the way out. 9/10.
Marmalade of yuzu with a yuzu sorbet; soft, dairy-infused citrus flavors. A perfect finish. 9/10.
This is it- I found it. The most romantic, epically cool building of any 3-star restaurant in the world. Schloss Schauenstein ("Castle Schauenstein") has portions that were built almost 800 years ago, and the main building itself is a few hundred. It's situated in Fürstenau, which quite confusingly brands itself as the "smallest city in the world." Fürstenau appears to be a small clutch of snowy buildings, which I would deign a village, but no one asked me.
Another opening comment- service from the moment the door opened to the moment I left was absolutely and totally outstanding. I had driven through a very late-Spring Alpine snowstorm to get there, and perhaps because they were happy someone had braved the weather to join them, proceeded to be the kindest and most attentive group I have ever spent time with. Bar none.
One more quick word before we really get started- Andreas Caminada really feeds you. There is only one main menu option, and it is totally badass, but holy mother of God will you get full. Arrive hungry.
I got the chance to meet Andreas at the restaurant, and he is a calm, collected, well-centered soul. He runs something of a cooking and media empire in Switzerland, and he clearly has ambitions for much more beyond his many already successful restaurants. Someone to keep an eye on.
PRICE PAID: $285 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)
FINAL SCORE: 8.5/10
Lisa the guest services coordinator happily greets me right at the door. She gives me the tour and shows me the gorgeous original 12th-century basement, which today houses a wine cellar, a sauna, and a spa. Modern furniture and fixtures throughout, which is a fun contrast with the absolutely ancient surroundings.
After our brief tour, I’m led upstairs to what was once a nobles’ salon and is now… a Vodka bar. Bright under-lighting gives the room a decidedly Muscovite feel, and on the other side of the room a glorious marble fireplace blazes away. Sweet.
More than any other 3-Star I’ve visited, Schauenstein is trying hard to make a go of the mobile era. There 2D scan-enabled cards— roughly business-card size— randomly distributed around the castle (in the menu, the parking area, the sauna, etc.) and several members of the staff make mention of the app you can download that lets you take a 3D tour of the castle itself. Scanning the cards unlocks achievements and new features of the app. Sounds hokey, but it’s actually pretty entertaining to be constantly on the lookout.
As I sit lounging by the fire, several helpful people bring me a menu, a glass of Swiss-made sparkling white wine, and a few small starter bites.
A bloody mary “shot;” tomato and cracker, self-contained in a warm shell that cracks open as soon as you pop it in your mouth. Really delightful sensation.
Next, graham cracker pasta with kohlrabi and fish eggs- lighter, more flavorful.
Lastly, the liver/foie cracker. A rich little bite with tons of different flavors and aromas. 8/10 overall.
The bite on the left reminded me of Kylo Ren's ship from Star Wars: The Force Awakens, for some reason. Anyways. A light crunchy snack, served alongside more delicate pasta. Really fun. 9/10.
At this point, I was asked if I'd like to take my seat in the main dining room. I was politely led back downstairs to the main dining area, where I found this fantastic little piece of chiaroscuro:
I cannot help but admire the extremely stark lighting scheme, as well as the flawlessly perfect tabletop surfaces and understated decoration. Every table felt directly spotlighted, which had the effect of keeping all the patrons shrouded in darkness, effectively giving each table a great deal of privacy. It was an admirably thoughtful effect that highlighted the colors of the food while letting the patrons enjoy each others' quiet company.
A riff on beet soup with a frozen sphere of beet ice cream and a super-crunchy beet leaf, together with a mustard mousse. The ice cream is rock-hard cold- you have to chip into it with your spoon- the mustard pairs well and all the flavors are zesty and refreshing. A bit salty, but delicious. Really neat idea; frozen instead of hot. 9/10.
The next amuse-bouche is a small square of Val Lumnezia chicken presented with smoke! The aroma fills the room in a pretty excellent way. Freeze-dried, smoked corn is also a nice touch and pairs more or less perfectly. Another win. 9/10.
This course is meant to evoke the raw, green beauty of the village where Caminada was born- Maiensäss. Maiensäss is at the top of the mountain where the cows graze, and this dish is a birds-eye view of that three-house village. The artist who makes these "lightning plates" out of iPads lives a few villages away. One house is a Grisons meat parfait (also known as Bündnerfleisch, an air-dried meat that is a specialty of the canton of Graubünden, Switzerland). Another is a tail-of-veal jelly, and the third is a collection of pearl barley, peppermint, and a vinaigrette. 9/10 for creativity, and definitely for flavor. A bit odd to be dining off an iPad, but I’m all for new things.
And now onto the bread, which I have to say was another huge win- piping hot, served in a black cloth, and covered in flour. The butter comes in two versions- sweet and salted with fleur de sel. Tastes oven-fresh and basically perfect. 10/10.
Next, a course of egg, truffle, and celeriac soup with mushrooms. The soup has a vegetable stock base with local truffles from the canton of Grisons. Lots and lots going on here, and it mostly works out well. The celeriac forms a nice starchy base, and the broth ties everything together well. 8/10.
Swiss char (who knew?) with a play on tartar sauce. On the side, raw fish under a layer of cream. Parsnips are a good choice, not overwhelming; an easy pairing. The fish is just a touch not-fresh. 8/10.
Next, some aggressively-plated langoustine with a "variation of carrot." The broth includes just a touch of dill. The soup is lawsuit-hot, which is a little surprising since temperatures have been relatively mild up to now (makes sense with the late-Spring snowstorm). The carrot has been cut into beautiful red scrollwork, and the flavors and textures are masterful. 8/10.
For a restaurant several thousand miles from the cultural heartland of BBQ, these are the most excellent pork ribs one could possibly expect. They were, once again, served very fucking hot. Lightly glazed with a tomato-and-vinegar based sauce; once again just a touch dry. 7/10.
Braised pork cheek with decadently salted, delicious pickled vegetables. One of the prettiest, most intensively-prepped dishes I have ever encountered. 7/10.
Some decadent tortellinis, served with a "foam of Parmesan." The Parmesan heightens the salinity of the dish quite considerably, but quite wisely the chef serves the pasta itself relatively al-dente to downplay the saltiness. 8/10.
Cured pork with beans- the beans are perfect with the bacon- served alongside a gloriously American-tasting apple and cinnammon compote. The flavors work together to absolute perfection. 10/10. Feels a little bit autumnal and hence out of season but I care not.
Next, a somewhat confusingly titled "rocket salad," wit pumpkin seed oil from Austria, pikeperch fish (also known as Zander) with variation of pumpkin The green sauce is extract of arugula, which might be where the name comes from. The fish is extremely fresh and the starchy vegetables complement it well. 8/10.
The final main savory course- lamb. The curly things are potato-like; the tiny kumquats add a citrus flair and are a great touch. Smoky and spicy, extremely good. 8/10.
The cheese cart was all about showcasing the great diversity of Swiss products (beyond Emmethanl "Swiss cheese" obviously). I was offered a selection of cheeses from Andeer village aged to different degrees- 3 month vs 15 month, etc.
My favorite was a really incredible cheese called Vacherin Mont d'Or. The product is made only from summer milk, has a lovely dry grass smell, and deep rich flavors that I absolutely loved. 9/10.
A selection of cured meats from different local producers in Grisons and elsewhere. The meats are presented first, then delicately carved up and served alongside some roasted pear and compote. 8/10.
On the side, a typically swiss dessert of "Malloons"- potatoes with cream and sugar.
And now onto the sweet stuff- first, a quince and apple dessert. The coin-shaped apple mush has the flavor and consistency of really sweet baby food. The soufflé in the upper right is excellent, it's just absurdly fucking hot. Burned my hand on the dish like a damned fool. One small note is I would have liked more heads up about dishes to watch out for. 8/10.
A collection of small dessert bites- green apple macaron, raspberry tart, "coffee slice," on closest dish. Next on left- chocolate ganache. Uppermost- a strawberry explosion similar to the Bloody Mary starter. 8/10 overall.
Walking back out into the snowdrifts, I couldn't help but admire once again how gorgeous this place and its grounds are. If I ever return, I would definitely consider renting one of the handful of guest rooms the Castle offers. This place is a truly incredible gem.
On a drizzly, early-Spring midday I arrived at the exterior of the Hotel Les Trois Rois, a luxurious but somewhat sad-looking building on the river in the center of Basel, Switzerland. If you’ve seen the film Grand Budapest Hotel, you’re getting the picture. This is a new entrant to the three-star category; they just got their third star as of the 2016 book, and, seeming to feel the need to prove their mettle, they did not disappoint. Peter Knogl leads an exceptionally professional staff for one of the most satisfying and least expensive meals of my entire adventure. This place is a must-visit.
PRICE PAID: $112 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)
FINAL SCORE: 8.5/10
I’m walked into a large, European-Royalty-Drawing-Room style space quite similar to L’Astrance or Le Meurice. Gorgeous oil paintings with a Renaissance look are hung on the walls, and an ancient golden cuckoo clock incorrectly keeps time above.
I’m seated at a corner table with a beautiful view of the river. Incongruously lime-green buses crisscross the low, grey European skyline every minute or two, and four freshly-made candles adorn a silver candlestick at my table. The space could not be more quirkily elegant.
On weekdays, the restaurant offers a “business lunch” menu for around $100 that is an absolutely killer deal. It came out to about $10 a plate, and I left absolutely stuffed. Their regular menu is well over $200, and there was some visible disappointment from the wait staff when I didn’t order either that menu or wine, but them’s the brakes.
Bread and butter service are just okay- the bread is crunchy, and the server charmingly admonishes me to only take one piece at a time so I can enjoy the smell of each loaf more before they get cold. An oddly European piece of advice. 7/10.
Next, some Carabineros (a red prawn from the Mediterranean) with jalapeño mousse. One must dig down and get a whole vertical slice for all the correct flavors to be present. Small chunks of shellfish are throughout, almost indistinguishable from the surrounding mousse they're so soft. Rich, and slightly sweet- almost an avocado mousse flavor. Everything is super fresh and goes together perfectly, a stupendous start. 10/10.
Next, a tapioca chip with a tiny wrap of beef, served on a napkin. The rich sauces are a little overwhelming, and taste almost exactly like Arby's horsey sauce. 7/10.
This is easily one of my favorite dishes of all time. A dill-forward collection of clams presented in the shell of a razor clam (on the left) alongside mushroom slices and a mushroom sauce on a chip that tastes like Wheaties cereal (on the right). The flavors all (somehow) work together perfectly- 10/10.
Kingfish, miso, and avocados. The fish is very bright and fresh, but I suppose that Knogl and crew can't help themselves but to install dabs of extraordinarily rich sauce that taste much like mayonnaise. Nothing wrong with that, but it ends up being a lot of goddamn mayo. 7/10.
Check out this beautifully constructed dish of angelfish and Perigord black truffles. The truffles are excellent and the fish is fresh. Once again, the sauce is unspeakably and unnecessarily rich. 8/10.
Next, a completely awesome Granny Smith apple granita with coconut and ginger. The sugary softness of the yogurt is balanced perfectly by the spicy ginger. And on the side, a Granny Smith shot! Sweet and fresh. 8/10
As we wrap up, a tiny, perfectly-balanced spoonful of tropical fruit and cheese. 9/10.
Some absolutely awesome mignardises; including a hazelnut triple stack, Lemon, and carrot. 9/10.
What would a visit to Switzerland 3-star be without some Swiss chocolate? This enormous tray of hand-made confectionary is brought to my table with a great flourish. I'm told to select as many as I want, and of course the temptation is to scoop them all up and put them in my backpack, but that strikes me as a potentially gauche gesture.
From 12'o'clock, and moving clockwise- salty caramel, pure dark chocolate, piña colada, Mint, yuzu, and Szechuan spice. Piña colada is liquid centered and tastes like an alcohol-coconut drink blended with white chocolate, so they nailed it. Mint is spearmint and very strong. 9/10.
Though I won't often get explicit about the financial piece on this website, Le Cheval Blanc made it easy for me to hit my $100 target by setting their fixed menu lunch at an unbelievably reasonably price for one of the top ~100 restaurants in the world. As I said, this place has it all.
Located in the middle of Ginza in a totally nondescript building and up some stairs, Yoshitake was, hands-down, my favorite sushi experience in Japan. Better than Jiro by a long shot, with friendlier chefs and staff, fresher and more interesting fish, a more beautiful and compelling space, and a better atmosphere. If you only go to one sushi place in Japan, forget Jiro and the others- go here.
PRICE PAID: $225 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)
FINAL SCORE: 8.5/10
Unlike most other restaurants on my trip, I was warmly and enthusiastically greeted by both the chef and his staff as soon as I walked in. And I don't just mean the robotic greeting that every restaurant automatically belts out whenever a new customer walks in- that's par for the course- I mean he actually greeted me by name, thanked me for coming, asked me about my allergies and preferences, where I was from, and wished me a great meal. Such a small touch. but you'd be shocked how few restaurants in this country bother with such a gesture even if they only serve a dozen people in a night.
The menu was divided into two halves- the appetizer half, which consisted of a series of small plates, and then of course the sushi half.
This delightful warm steamed egg custard was garnished with pufferfish roe and had soft pillowy textures throughout. Flavors of vanilla cake! What a great start. 9/10.
THIS IS IT. This is the one, best, most delightful piece of fish of my entire Japan trip. Seared ruby snapper, served warm. The searing brings out the sweetest, richest, most delicious flavors without getting oily or greasy. It seems hyperbolic to award an 11/10, but I really really want to. 10/10.
Anything would be kind of a disappointment after that last course, but this squid with roe from the coast closest to Kyoto is extremely good- fresh, firm, flavorful. Squid sauce a little sweet. 8/10.
Next, two firm chunks of monkfish liver- I would describe the taste as like a lean foie pâté. 8/10.
Next, some steamed abalone- the mollusk has a pleasing, if somewhat rubbery, texture. Great flavor and subtle floral/vegetable notes. 8/10.
This next part was pretty cool- the chef had created a liver sauce from the very same abalone served moments earlier. I was instructed to mix the sauce with the rice- the end results is an incredibly rich ragout that tastes a lot like mayo. I mean that in the best way possible. 9/10.
Next up, some grilled tilefish (a bottom-feeder commonly found in the North Atlantic). Firm, great texture, but a somewhat neutral flavor that serves as a nice walk-down from the heavy richness of the previous course. 9/10.
For the final appetizer course, some steamed clam served with a small spritz of shaved lemon peel, sake, and canola flower. Refreshing, and the citrus brings out the best in the clam's flavors. 9/10.
It was a real treat to sit at the chef's counter and get to watch the very fine knifework that went into the meal. In this step, the chef is cutting squid into slices as thin as paper- freehand.
This squid- or Ika- has a perfect glassy appearance and a firm but yielding texture, but the flavor is just not 100% quite there. 8/10.
Next, some sayori, or halfbeak. These are small fish known to be difficult to prepare with with a mackerel flavor, and thick but yielding flesh. 8/10.
Here come the big guns- the tuna courses. Chuotoro- medium-fatty tuna- is smooth, almost steak-like in texture and mouthfeel. Flavor isn't terribly rich but its deep and full of umami. You won't find a better piece of sushi anywhere in the world. 10/10.
Looking back on my notes from the meal itself, all I wrote was: "Mother of God." Can't disagree with that. Some of the best fatty tuna (otoro) ever created. 10/10.
Next, the bizarrely-named gizzard shad- has an almost a pepperoni flavor. The fish is definitely quite oily, and like most shiny fish is served with scales removed but skin still on. 8/10.
This herring roll crunches with veggies, and has a big, hearty flavor. 8/10.
Ark shell- also known as red clam- has some beautiful colors and a firm, salty flavor. 8/10.
Next, an enormous sea urchin (uni) hand roll, piled together from a box of sea urchin that is removed with great ceremony. The box itself is full or sea urchin lined up carefully like jewels. Strong earthy flavors, perfect temperature and slick texture. 9/10.
Japanese Imperial Prawn, or kuruma ebi, is a basically a completely delicious shrimp very recently cooked and served pleasantly warm. The flavor isn't very sweet- it's more savory- but has wonderful texture. Served with the tail and head off, unlike at Jiro's, which is a more Westerner-friendly presentation. 8/10.
Anago, or sea eel- is presented next. Cooked to perfection and with a beautiful baked flavor, the eel is bright and zingy-fresh. In what is becoming a string of victories for Yoshitake, this is easily the best sea eel I've had- 10/10.
As we get towards the end of the sushi menu, a tuna hand roll- literally held by hand and eaten like an ice cream cone. It takes me a few inelegant bites to consume the whole thing. 9/10.
And, lastly, a slightly-sweet egg cake, served in a delightfully simple cube form. 9/10.
And, the final word in what has been a very long and record-settingly-awesome meal- a cup of plain miso to unwind the palate. 8/10.
Nobuharu Yamamura's Wa Yamamura was a close-to-perfect chef's counter kaiseki experience in Nara, Japan. Nara is famous for tame deer who bow when you give them snacks, gorgeous temples with enormous buddhas that have pillars so big it's a rite of passage to crawl through them, and tons of other beautiful sights from Nara's days as the ancient capital city. Nara is off the beaten path a touch but it's worth a spending a day. Tucked back down some very plain-looking residential streets you'll find Wa Yamamura, a small oasis of simple beauty with a chef and staff who are working exceptionally hard.
PRICE PAID: $180 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)
FINAL SCORE: 8.5/10
We were lucky enough to be seated right at the bar, which was a vital and busy display of chef, server, bartender, and other associates moving at great speed through their tiny space. The restaurant had a feeling of being overstaffed, but everyone moved fluidly around each other and there were few collisions (but definitely at least one).
A few quick words on service- our seat was absolutely prime for watching the head chef do his work, including assembling the sashimi dish into fully-iced-out bowls (video below). If you go, ask to be seated on the far left of the counter, since most of the interesting stuff happens there. Every single member of staff was pathologically friendly and helpful, and the menu was translated into English for us by hand. The chef, with an enormous flourish, signed said menu at the end of the meal with three different types of ink.
For our first bites, a small bowl of crab with abalone. Clean, firm crab taste comes through perfectly. The abalone had tiny microcuts along the side for ease of consumption and tenderness, and I found that it massively improved the normally-rubbery texture of the fish. Amazing panoply of textures and flavors. A strong start. 9/10.
Check out the gorgeous ceramic bowl this dashi soup arrived in- like most of the pieces used in this restaurant, they felt to my amateurish eye to be close to museum-quality. The soup was thick, with the approximate texture of egg whites. The shrimp was extremely fresh and surrounded by cloudy, starchy dough. The broth had flavors of pine smoke, and the tiny turnip serves as a great visual set-piece as well as crunchy and tasty in its own right. Great soup. 8/10.
Next, we had the good fortune to get front-row seats to watch the chef assemble the sashimi into a custom-made ice-bowl.
The shrimp's flavors are almost buttery it's so fresh. The flat fish is chewy, and the fatty tuna (otoro) is orgasmic good. Ground by hand right in front of us using a shark-skin grater, the wasabi is fiery-hot. 10/10
Next, an insane smorgasbord of different dishes with a riot of colors arrived. I'll describe each component in turn; overall the course was an 8/10.
The enormous green beans are surprisingly brittle; they break apart immediately, and have a flavor just like a fava bean; hearty and earthy. Beautifully hand-cut, the curls of radish and carrot helix have flavors that pair perfectly. The mackerel is oily and a touch fishy, it's probably been in the fridge a few hours too long. The cubes are conger eel with fish paste, which are super fun and taste a bit like not-sweet vanilla cake. 7/10.
These black beans are bigger than previous restaurants, with more smoky flavors and less blueberry. The pickled honeydew (on the left) has extremely interesting combinations of savory and sweet. The prawn is a touch dry, and the karasumi isn't my fave, per usual. 7/10.
The anchovies are crunchy and slightly sweet; they're dipped in a soy sauce of some kind. Abalone is unyielding but flavorful. 8/10.
This sesame tofu is slippery and spongy, and very satisfying to eat- soy and wasabi speaks nicely to the previous course. 9/10.
Last, a dish of soft cod roe in vinegar that looks like a slimy brain and is creamy, warm, and totally delicious 9/10.
This sea urchin soup is made with eggs, lily bulbs, and ginkgo nuts that give it an extremely interesting texture contrast. The thick starchy soup goes great with creamy Uni texture; the lily bulbs are the approximate size and shape of garlic cloves, but with a mild potato-like flavor. 9/10.
The ceramic dish this course of Butterfish is served on is incredible- a soaring bird, complete with features. The flavors of the fish are, well, quite buttery and rich, and this makes for an excellent main course. Perfectly cooked and tender. 9/10.
This fantastic scallop dish is interesting, because the flavors and textures of the scallop itself are unremarkable- the jelly is full of lemon and citrus flavors along with a savory note from the vinegar elements, and those strong flavors carry the dish. It's a little odd, I will admit, to have a dish that consists of jelly garnished by scallop as opposed to the other way around. 7/10.
Taro, tofu, carrot, burdock root and bamboo shoot showed up next with two small garnishments of Japanese Pepper leaf. The starches are crunchy-fresh and the flavors are soft and subtle- easing the transition towards dessert. 8/10.
This next dish was really amazing- tofu skin (also known as Yuba, or bean curd sheet) is milky and cheesy and is full of rice, with a light dash of significantly-less-spicy wasabi on top. 8/10.
Desserts in Japan are always a subtle affair- some places like Chihana just give you a glass of orange juice- but Wa Yamamura's was both understated and a total delight. Strawberries preserved in gelatin are delicious, but the Asian pears are particularly amazing- soft and sweet. A fantastic end to a fantastic meal!
Friendlier, homier, more welcoming, and just plain more fun that any other Kaiseki restaurant I went to is Yoshihiro Murata's awesome Kikunoi Honten. Like most of our other visits, the space was immaculate, beautiful, and comfortable; the food was a spectacularly exotic journey... But what made this place special was the engaged, thoughtful, amazing service. The chef himself sets the tone with a warm, welcome message that everyone on the staff tries to take seriously- I've never seen a restaurant in Japan try to describe itself as an "amusement park for adults," but Kikunoi pulls it off.
The restaurant has been around since 1912, and the company (which includes other restaurants and stores) considers their mission to be "communicating Japanese cuisine to the world," and "cooking for the public benefit." Yoshihiro himself was trained in France and has executive-chef'd for Singapore Airlines, among others.
PRICE PAID: $140 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)
FINAL SCORE: 8.5/10
A rainy day turned out to be the perfect backdrop for the private room- water gently cascaded down a rocky stream, and a stone wall-garden serves as a peaceful, gorgeous setting. The gentle drips and dabs of rain intermingled with a low, musical gurgle of the tiny creek nearby. Muted grey light from cloud and rock shone into the room intensely throughout this mid-afternoon meal. Every inch of space both indoors and out reflected a smooth, quiet, low, focused calm that I have never experienced before.
For the three of us (all relatively long-legged Westerners) the floor-pillow with TV-dinner stand (not really, but you get it) was somewhere between a little awkward and extremely awkward for those of us who struggle to sit cross-legged (yours truly).
Per tradition, the place settings included a cupful of Puffed-Rice tea that, also per tradition, tastes exactly like Honey Smacks cereal. Not kidding. A super-light, mild opener and palate cleanser. 8/10.
First up: a delightful collection of hand-painted ceramics containing even more delightful appetizers. Clockwise from the bottom of the photo: horse-reins sushi (named for the beautiful, twisting pattern it is folded into), wasabi greens, sweet black beans (once again with the strong blueberry flavors), icefish with yuzu flavoring, rapini dressed with mustard, cod roe terrine, and a Michelin-Star shaped agar-agar jelly.
Amongst the greens are butterbur leaves ("fuki," in Japanese, which the menu mis-translates as the very similar coltsfoot, another herbal medical plant; butterbur is well-known for treating migraines), that add a subtly sweet note. 9/10.
Next up, an extremely hearty soup that felt more like a paste. Steamed prawn and red turnip with a healthy dollop of wasabi. The prawn has great texture, and the wasabi is bright and somewhat understated. 8/10.
Next up, some Botan Shrimp with green shrimp eggs (in season from November-March in Japan). The shrimp itself has a texture and flavor that are very rich - almost buttery- and it's served with the hottest fucking wasabi ever. Udo (a vegetable similar to ginseng that grows in the mountains), is earthy and sweet at the same time. 9/10.
The sea bream that comes next is fresh but doesn't possess a ton of flavor. Nice bright colors and a smooth, even mouthfeel. 7/10.
Next, a delightful duck soup- rich but not overstated. "Yomogi," or Japanese Mugwort- is infused in a dumpling that has an incredibly sticky, dense texture- I've never had anything like it. The star-shaped yuzu really jumps out- rich sweetness like a banana or a plantain. 8/10.
With the halibut-preparation for the subsequent course underway, we enjoyed some slices of bluefin tuna, which I felt iffy about eating due to its threatened extinction. We were assured that these stocks were sustainably acquired. The texture was as smooth as ice cream, and literally melts in your mouth- this is one of many entries into the Best Tuna of All Time category. 10/10.
For this very specially-served course of grilled halibut and shiitake mushroom, the daughter of the chef (and head of service) came out to serve us. The mushroom is surprisingly sweet; the halibut is a touch dry but the roe adds a great deal of sweetness. 7/10.
Next came further evidence of the Western influence on chef Murata's training- a late-meal palate cleanser. The sorbet has strong wasabi spicyness that tickles the back of your throat, and the yuzu is imbued with a plummy, orange-y taste. Extremely fresh and pleasant. 8/10.
Next, cod milt tofu in an orange with red pepper and ponzu. The fruit and tofu flavors blend well with the cod, but it's off-putting to be eating a fish-soy dish out of an orange husk- the sweetness of the fruit doesn't translate. 7/10.
Next, like a stack of morning newspapers arrived the components of the hot pot preparation that we ourselves would be embarking upon. Yellowtail tuna, tofu, daikon radish, Kintoki carrot, Kujo onion, mibuna (a type of arugula from Kyoto), ponzu, and yuzu were all served. Like a huge fool I overcooked my fish, but overall this was an incredibly fun course. 9/10.
Next, anago eel with rice, kinome, burdock root, fiddlehead ferns, and pickled vegetables. A filling, fresh ending to the main courses. 8/10.
Lastly, a dessert of custard made from almond, apricot, strawberries, and kiwis. Like most Japanese desserts, it is both pleasant and understated. 9/10.
A handful of notes about our delightful surroundings. The phone, deemed too unsightly to be on open display (and available to call our server should we need anything) sat in a satin bag. Thank God.
I had the opportunity to wander the halls at one point in the meal service, and the whole building does a wondrous job of transporting me back ten centuries. Every surface, step, wall, and panel is immaculate. A totally magical space appropriate for the incredible meal.
Deep in the gorgeous Napa Valley is Christopher Kostow and Nathaniel Dorn's gorgeous Restaurant at Meadowood. With a country-library feel to its interior and a spotless 3-star experience, Meadowood is worth an evening's visit... or 10.
NAPA, CA, USA
PRICE PAID: $290 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)
FINAL SCORE: 8.5/10
Though a bit notorious for the price tag of its Chef's Counter menu, I found Meadowood to be a tasteful and disciplined execution of French-inspired American cuisine that didn't overwhelm with snoot.
Christopher Kostow has held the three-star rating at Meadowood since 2011, and won the James Beard award for best chef of the West in 2013.
With a diverse career that has taken him to France as well as up and down California, Christopher has worked alongside such greats as Daniel Humm and Elizabeth Daniel.
Though low-lit (and hence not terribly photogenic), the lobby of the restaurant has roaring fireplaces, cozy chairs, and bookcases built into the walls with books piled high. A lovely space to kill thirty minutes before beginning the meal.
Our greeting once reaching tableside was this beautiful bouquet of dried flowers, hand picked from nearby fields. A lovely sandstone tablet, which appeared absurdly heavy, loomed on our table.
"Our version of chips and dip." Fried veggies from their own proprietary garden. Bright bell pepper flavors, and a very crunchy chip. Very tart. Cream cheese with strong sour cream flavors, and tastes of fermented red pepper. This is a strongly-flavored dish to start with! 8/10.
The first course was an icy broth of fermented kohlrabi with strongly-flavored Shinjuku oysters. The cold temperature was a very pleasant surprise. 8/10.
My first experience with Matsutake Pine mushrooms, together with a smooth broth. The Matsutake have a nice even spice to them that really stands out. Fascinating ingredients and a well-constructed dish. 9/10
A gorgeous presentation of daylilies from garden, with caviar and prawn. Rich and salty, beautiful to look at and even better to taste. 9/10.
Next, some halibut caught on Ocean Beach near San Francisco with grilled, fermented squash meant to look like squeezable lemons. Beautifully presented but a bit dry, actually. 7/10.
A savory, refreshing duck tea to prep us for the protein main. 8/10.
The main show was this gorgeous and colorful morsel of dry-aged rack of lamb with a marigold and plum coating applied after service. Big, bold fruit and flower flavors punch through- a very good main. 9/10.
A classic follow-up of cheese- in this case Goat's cheese and a beautiful grape plant cutting. 9/10.
Most definitely my favorite course of the evening, both for the gorgeous colors and presentation as well as the unbelievable texture and taste- olive oil and fig. Cold yogurt beneath the figs; chocolate flavors throughout. I could eat fifty of these. 10/10
Not that I had ever wondered what hommos ice cream tastes like, but after this dish I feel confident that I know. 8/10.
A social-media-ready dish of candied vegetables and chocolate. They pick whatever is fresh, candy it, and coat it in sugar. Very fun, and who would have thought that candied carrot makes a good dessert? 9/10.
Finally: a large, rich selection of chocolate babka, an interestingly holiday-oriented choice to finish off a late-summer menu. 9/10.
Update: in the 2019 Michelin guidebook, L’Astrance lost their third star after 11 years on top. Three 3-stars lost their coveted third in the 2019 book, causing quite a stir. I expect L’Astrance will be back!
PRICE PAID: $184 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)
FINAL SCORE: 8.5/10
Pascal Barbot is an up-and-coming culinary all-star. His tiny 25-seat restaurant, tucked under the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, is a beautiful statement in modern French style. Service was almost coffee-bar casual at certain points, which was actually a hugely welcome change from some of the more formal Parisian 3-star neighbors.
A tart with layers of foie gras and mushroom appeared first, with cirtus and fruit creme dollops flanking it. A great start. 10/10.
Next came thinly sliced apple and mushroom tart. Lots of work! Layers of soft mushroom and crunchier apple work well together. Enjoyable and interesting course. 8/10.
Oysters with a salad that brimming with bright flowers. A stunningly beautiful presentation. Small leaves have an almost coconutty, tropical flavor. Amazing dish. I can't quite place the taste of the small round baked guy; doesn't matter, it's delicious. 10/10.
Mackerel with a big ol' dipping sauce. This is easily the best mackerel grillé I've ever had. Underneath is a base of extremely soft material- tastes like mozzarella. Flavor is woody and smoky, the seeds on top have a great crunch. Love this dish. 10/10.
The main act is this dish of veal and black truffle. Super soft and delicious. A deep, dark, forest floor-y dish, in a good way. 10/10.
As a follow-up main, duck with oregano and cherries. Oregano sets the Cherries and duck off perfectly. A hint of salt. Duck-and-cherry pairings are traditional and a bit predictable in French cuisine, but this one sets a new, high bar. 10/10. Inside the cherries is an almond oregano mixture.
First cheese course is a beautifully presented flower with melon leaf and red fruit. A ton of goat cheese on the inside. 8/10
Next, a "cracker" and nectarine dish. Cracker is fun and full of fruit. Delicious. Nectarine has a sorbet richness. Simple and peachy. 9/10.
Final round of dessert is fruit, sorbet, egg custard, and Madeleine's. The fruit is fresh and delicious. I haven't seen stuff this fresh anywhere in Paris.
PRICE PAID: $154 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)
FINAL SCORE: 8.5/10
Tucked into the tiny Hotel Balzac right off the Champs-Élysées in Paris is Pierre Gagnaire's eponymous establishment.
The restaurant itself reminds me a bit of the Simpson's episode where Moe attempts to turn his bar into a family-dining restaurant.
"If you like good food, good fun, and a whole lot of…crazy crap on the walls, then come on down to Uncle Moe's Family Feedbag." I mostly thought that because there are a ton of newspaper clippings, old medical journal pages, and what one may generally term as crazy crap on the walls of this iconoclast chef. It's actually pretty tasteful and fun to look at.
To kick things off, a black squid ink ball, Uzu lemon tart with black olives in small shot glass, and a big glass with cherries, watermelon, grape, herbs. Zingy and super tasty. 9/10.
Hand-rolled breadsticks with paprika came next.. The small balls with dots are pumpernickel and Parmesan. Simple but delicious. At the bottom of the sticks' bowl is a delicious red meat sauce. Fun, complex, interesting, engaging. 9/10.
Delicious, delicous bread and butter. I have to say that the log-shaped butter is a clever and interesting presentation.
There's a lot going on in this course, so like a dork I'll break it down into constituent parts and discuss each. Overall rating is 8/10.
This skate wing is soft, tender, served in a fork and presented on top of seaweed and "pillars" of white fish... Delicate sea flavor with strong salinity. Great balance of textures. 9/10.
Next was some red currant soup- flavorful and sweet. 8/10.
Cuttlefish and green apple- almost potato-like starchy flavors... 9/10.
Green crab with bone marrow bisque was next- ungodly rich, with a big umami flavor. Such an interesting statement in contrast to the lighter dishes served next to it. 9/10.
Though normally not the biggest fan of complete, raw fish (my first experience at Hyotei was certainly mixed) this anchovy is crisp and crunchy. Check out the beautiful presentation on the folded leaf- 8/10.
As a layup to the final savory courses, this liver mousseline with green veggies and flat beans arrived. A dense, rich presentation that played decently well together but not perfectly. A big heavy dish that made me feel full right before the big courses. 7/10.
Duck and potatoes are outstanding and rich. Look at those colors! 9/10.
A touch greasy, but an overall refreshing seafood dish to round things out before dessert.
Fun, lavishly presented Petit Fours and hand-made desserts. 8/10.
Dessert part one was three version of strawberry desserts- the thin pasty to the right cracked with the gentlest touch of the spoon; some were served hot and some were served cold. Reminded me of one of my favorite desserts of all time from Ryugin. 9/10.
A lovely assortment of cheesecake, cherries, and currants... Fruity and light; 8/10
What struck me most about this meal was the sheer creativity of the front- and back- of the house working together. Every dish was set down with a synchronized flourish from the very well-trained staff, and the kitchen is obviously willing to try new things. A fantastic restaurant, and well worth the visit.
Perched on a hilltop surrounded by idyllic Belgian countryside, renowned Flemish chef Peter Goossens has taken a gorgeous farmhouse and made it into a 40-seat restaurant of truly global quality.
PRICE PAID: $456 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)
FINAL SCORE: 8.5/10
Taking full advantage of their sweeping views and gorgeous physical layout, the wait staff greeted my late self just off a red-eye flight with courtesy and even hauled my ridiculously heavy carry-on bag into storage with enthusiasm bordering upon glee. I was invited onto this sun-drenched patio deck to enjoy an aperitif and the first few preview-courses as a means of easing into the meal.
The deck was full of beautifully cushioned, hand-carved wooden chairs and tables. Carefully-laid brick underneath and manicured hedges and greenery surrounded me, emphasizing the glorious peak-summer day of my visit. In the far distance, silent wind turbines wound on and trees swayed in the breeze along small rivers. The only sound audible was the occasional chatter of other guests, but mostly we sat silently and enjoyed the perfection of the moment. A truly impeccable space.
Service was extremely formal- no personal questions, not much eye contact, minimal hanging around at all times. With the many awkward arm bumps and hesitant command of English, I got the sense that much of the younger staff was here on some form of a summer internship. The average age for the service couldn’t have been more than 25.
First out was a small strawberry-and-cream dish that tasted like a fantastic smoothie. Creamy, light, and refreshing- perfect for the hot weather. 9/10.
Next up, a small set of seafood crisps- one with crispy-fresh, crunchy cucumber and herring, the other with shrimp. Each corner of the dish was immaculately presented, and you can tell right off the bat that the kitchen is taking these dishes seriously. 7/10, a bit greasy and actually a small challenge to eat, since the crisps disintegrated immediately.
Then, a bowl of herring with young lettuce- the colors were fantastic, and the plate selection was perfect here- salty herring playing off against fresh vegetables in a unique and fun way. 10/10.
Sadly, the last dish served on the terrace- a beautiful compilation of beet root, chicken liver, wheat block, and gelee. First, just look at the colors and the structure of this dish. Disassembled but still in a story that made sense. Super creative, I just love the look.
The flavors were all correct as well- healthy lean beets go nicely with evil, rich liver, and the salty gelee sat somewhere in the middle. I can’t help but say this was another 10/10.
Arriving into the main restaurant in a seat towards the back corner closest to the kitchen, I was struck by the small size and intimacy of the place. In two medium-sized rooms there were no more than 12 tables in total, giving the place a very special, romantic feel. A youngish family of four Germans sat nearby, along with several loud, obnoxious French ladies who didn’t understand how or why one should disarm the ringer on one’s smartphone while dining out. A table of uncomfortable-looking dudes in short-sleeved button-ups stared awkwardly as if misdirected to the place while en route to the sports pub, and a couple on anniversary kept eyeing the menu prices nervously.
The first dish to arrive at the restaurant seat was a lovely, playful combination of squid, iberico ham, and squid stock. The squid was so fresh it almost resembled pasta in texture, and the squid’s sea-freshness was almost squeaky to chew, and went well with the salty iberico ham. 9/10.
Check out this presentation of ponzu, langoustine, and radish. If it wasn’t clear that the kitchen was working their faces off up to this point, it should be now. Each individually-sliced radish appears precision-cut, and the “roof” it forms on the top of the dish balances out the flavors with that earthy radish flavor. The ponzu has rich flavors of banana, backed up by a nice coriander flavor. Very impressive dish. 9/10, only because it’s a little too filling.
Next, a dish that brought in the Oosterschelde Lobster (a lobster from the Netherlands' Eastern Scheldt in the North Sea, they are unique for their black-blue shells and turn bright red when cooked as you can see). The preparation included some snappingly fresh spring peas that complimented the shellfish perfectly. Some hearty green beans and lovely shies leaf rounded the dish out- a spectacular 10/10.
The sea bass dish was light, buttery, and paired perfectly with the crunchy, purposefully-undercooked broccoli. As the meal wore on, the filling dishes started to get a little overwhelming. 8/10.
A fantastic take on a traditional roast chicken with artichoke, m'hamsa, and zucchini. The restaurant was clearly making the most of the summer vegetables available to them; lovely eggplant flavors throughout but another thick, buttery broth to fill thy cup o'er. 8/10.
An interesting if cruel final main dish- young pigeon served Anjou-style with sage, cauliflower, and burned onion. Small flowers, a foamy vegetable base, and rich pigeon sauce served as the final slam-dunk in a long and worthy meal. I'll be honest, I was beyond stuffed at this point. 9/10.
In a nice change of pace, a relatively light and fruity strawberry-based dessert with basil, lemon, and yogurt flavors. A thin strawberry broth backed it up, and I'd have to call this the close to perfect dessert. 10/10, a fantastic close to a fantastic meal.
Update: In the 2019 guide, Saison was downgraded from three stars to two. During the previous season, founder Joshua Skenes had moved on to another restaurant in San Francisco and was replaced by Laurent Gras, a chef who famously achieved three Michelin stars in Chicago only to leave that restaurant (L2O) within a few months.
On February 20th, I sat down to a meal at Joshua Skenes' Saison restaurant, a place that is singular in its execution of a transparent kitchen, novel preparation and aging approaches, and strong on style the whole way through. A huge upside is the unbelievable, personal service from true culinary dorks like myself (and I mean that in the nicest way possible,) most specifically Max the Sommelier and Megan and Christine the waiters. Request them if you can- they're super intelligent, know the content, were super sharp the whole evening.
SAN FRANCISCO, CA, USA
PRICE PAID: $423 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)
FINAL SCORE: 8.5/10
The entrance makes a huge impression- stacks of almond tree wood that ends up in the ember smoker a few feet away in the kitchen. A nice dramatic effect that communicates something about your experience before you even sit. Saison is big about giving closure- ingredients, themes, and flavors from the beginning of your experience come back to wish you farewell at the end, and the symmetry to the evening wasn't lost on me.
Saison has their own farm that supplies many of the herbs and vegetables Saison uses. They serve a small bundle of those herbs with a simple but likable Meyer lemon tea in a thin-walled apparently handmade ceramic cup. This first course presentation is very cool, but one practical downside to the thin cup body with no handle is that the container is piping hot to the touch. Thus, it's quite time-consuming to drink- took me about 15 minutes. 8/10
The second course rode in an equally impressive hand-cut glass plate- complete with cover that stood in as a rest for the wooden spoon- and played up the light hitting the bright green vegetables. The peppers had a nice little spicy kick, and the buttermilk cream smoothes out the rough edges and adds a fantastic texture. Clever presentation, great dish. 9/10.
The third course of Osetra-grade caviar is served on a gelee of vegetables (once again, from their vertically-integrated garden) with a clear liquid pork fat poured over top. While the smooth gelee serves as a nice foundation and contrasts the mouthfeel of the caviar texture nicely, the pork fat flavor runs a little roughshod over the delicate sea flavors of the caviar. 7/10.
The fourth course was some Black Cod from Half Moon Bay cooked in a fire with chanterelle and yellowfoot mushrooms. The broth was made of the cod bones. This dish struck me as clever because the mushrooms and cooked cod had similarly squeaky-crunchy texture that went together well. The broth had a lovely campfire smoke taste that finishes the dish with elegance. 8/10.
The fifth course featured lobster meat from the mitts and tail warmed over those almond-wood embers I mentioned a second ago. In the white bowl in the background is a Meyer lemon (catching the theme yet?) and citronet, which was poured over the lobster. The butter is made from the lobster's brains, and a small condensed morsel of dehyydrated and rehydrated seaweed was tucked in the corner of the intricate glass bowl. The lobster's temperature was perfect; pour the cxitronet immediately for maximum effect. 8/10
The sixth dish was Battle Creek Trout cured in uzu and soy, then put in its own eggs with skin to create a potato-chip like shell. The crunchy shell paired beautifully with the uber-soft trout. 9/10.
Course seven featured abalone, a type of edible sea snail, with rich fatty pork jowls on top. The abalone had a positive, rubbery texture that played off well against very soft jowls. A sauce of liver and capers rested underneath. 8/10
The eighth course can only be described as an out-of-the-park home run. Three different textures battle it out with the focus centered on the unbelievably rich, luxurious sea urchin. I'm tempted into hyperbole and giving this dish an 11/10, but I'll try to restrain myself at a perfect 10/10.
Nine challenged me to get over whatever pre-conceived notions I may have had about crab brains- this creamy, pasta-like ragout is made out of "Dungeness Crab- the Whole Thing," or so the menu gamely states. Smooth and creamy like an amazing Mac & Cheese from childhood, with a signature "Saison" smokiness in the custard underneath. 8/10- a fun and creative dish.
The tenth course starts to lighten things up in advance of the main dishes coming soon- Mendocino county seaweed with herbs from the garden washed in Meyer lemon juice (eh? eh? Meyer lemon juice). There's a surprise oyster buried underneath with wonderful dill and leaves of spearmint. A zesty, clever, beautiful dish. 8/10.
This wholesome, filling vegetable dish is crisped over the almond wood embers, bringing out new and fascinating flavors in the brussel sprouts especially. Sauerkraut on the bottom rounds on the salinity. Delightful, different, impressive. 9/10.
The 12th dish really shows where Skenes' novel techniques shine. Pumpkin is cooked in two methods- one is hung over the fire for three days using a method called Fire in the Sky (a nice Washington Post article describes the technique and inspiration in more detail), the other is prepared and served more traditionally. I can only say that this was the second dish that totally blew me away- the Fire in the Sky method brings out all kinds of flavors one would never predict in pumpkin- tropical notes like papaya and pineapple, along with a smoky tartness that was a joy to explore. 10/10.
The thirteenth course featured a beet cooked in the same method as the pumpkin that- I kid you not- tastes exactly like a finely-prepared steak. The beet is a type known as Bull's Blood, which is rich, thick, and chewy. 9/10.
14 included toffee from duck livers, foam, and beer. This dish blurred the line between savory and sweet- it almost had an ice cream-like texture. The toffee flavors in the beer that came paired alongside enhances further. A well thought-out, joyful dish. 9/10.
Fifteen was a Muscovy duck with a ragout made of duck innards and a sauce from the cooking juices. The duck was aged in-restaurant for three weeks. I can only describe this dish as unbelievably rich- in this case a touch too rich for me. 7/10.
A bullion made of the roasted bones of the duck from the previous course served as our sixteenth dish. Simple, delicious, and made for a good wind-down from the richness of the previous dish. Might have also been effective to have served this dish and course 15 side-by-side. 8/10
The seventeenth course included a mousseline made from Cowgirl Creamery's Red Hawk, one of the best cheeses available in this country (in my humble opinion). Two beignets were just as good as anything you can get in New Orleans. 8/10.
Course 18 was probably my favorite dessert dish of all time- ice cream made from a cow named Vibrance who lives in Lagunitas with salted caramel, cocoa nibs, and roasted over the fire. Perfect texture, sweetness, balance. A lifetime-memorable dish. 10/10.
This palate-cleanser tasted just like Honey Nut Cheerios, and has a nice calming aura. Perfect post-ice cream idea. 8/10.
The Sommelier Max introduced me to this digestif- green chartreuse with a powerful anise flavor- that calmed my stomach before departure. 8/10.
The absolute final word was a small broth of persimmons. Simple and cleansing. 8/10.
One last cool note- Max kindly invited me on a kitchen tour where I got to see the almond wood embers firsthand. Each and every evening, a person is tasked with keeping these embers roasting at just the right temperature and evenness to ensure proper preparation. The job requires tons of focus on consistency, and I was impressed that this glowing heart of the kitchen worked so well.