8/10 or Better

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- La Vie- ✪✪✪

A big part of why I love this project is that every now and then, I'm lucky enough to have an experience that goes beyond a fantastic meal or an incredible afternoon or a perfect evening. Sometimes, when the stars align, I wind up with a truly transformative, once-in-a-lifetime impression that leaves me thinking about the place I've visited for days, or even weeks. Thomas Buehner's La Vie is such a place. 

Thomas Buehner, Center

Thomas Buehner, Center

Having spent time working under Harold Wolfahrt at Schwarzwaldstube in the Black Forest as well as Kevin Fehling at The Table, Thomas struck out on his own in 2006. He ventured to Osnabrück, which is gorgeous but by Thomas' admission a touch out of the way. "Like gardening in the desert," was his characterization, and I found the incredible performance of his restaurant all the more impressive for its distance from any major city.

I found Thomas' style very unique—complex, with lots of considered groupings of flavors and textures, intense preparation and knifework, artistic presentation, and an atmosphere of comfort and playfulness that I find sorely lacking in the Michelin 3-star world. This restaurant is truly one of the, if not the, best 3-star I have been to. Period.

La Vie Main Entrance

La Vie Main Entrance

OSNABRÜCK, GERMANY

SERVICE: 10/10

FOOD: 9.5/10

PRICE PAID: $440PP (INCL. WATER, TAX, AND INCREDIBLE WINE)

VALUE/MONEY: 10/10

FINAL SCORE: 10/10

Off a tiny street in classically beautiful Osnabrück, Germany, is the unassuming entrance to La Vie. Osnabrück itself is worth a day's visit—though it was largely destroyed during World War 2, it has been exquisitely restored to its medieval architectural roots and hosts a pretty exceptional Christmas Market in December. 

La Vie Interior and Place Settings

La Vie Interior and Place Settings

The interior space at La Vie is comfortable, and strikes a great balance between formal and welcoming. The palette is neutral with high points of color that draw the eye; the blood-red centerpieces that subtly match the painting behind, for example. The linens were crisp and beautifully set; there was an effortless stylishness to the place that drew me in. The well-spaced-out dining room for around 30 people contrasts strongly with the submarine-like density of the kitchen, which we visited later in the meal. 

First Drink: Oolong Tea + Walnut + Seaweed, 9/10 

First Drink: Oolong Tea + Walnut + Seaweed, 9/10 

The first dish we are offered is some oolong tea with walnut and nori (seaweed), which brings out a rich, lustrous umami flavor that pairs perfectly with...

First Bites: Goose Liver Slices, 9/10

First Bites: Goose Liver Slices, 9/10

... two half-coins of "goose liver cake" served alongside. The goose liver is very rich and delicate; presented on an interesting platform; it looks and feels like tea crackers made of foie gras. Soft and exquisite. A fantastic start. 9/10.

Bread & Butter, 9/10 

Bread & Butter, 9/10 

Salted French butter, Spanish olive oil, and some extraordinarily hearty German bread with a thick-crusted rind arrive. I'm a huge fan of bread, and this is a pretty excellent pan-European presentation. 9/10. 

First Bites: Goat's Cheese, 9/10 

First Bites: Goat's Cheese, 9/10 

Another appetizer appears in the divot of a small plate; goat's cheese appetizer with milk bread cloth covering overtop. Strong, farm-like flavors go perfectly with the crunchy flake of milk bread. A lovely starter. 9/10. 

The Wine List

The Wine List

This is probably the right juncture to mention what can only be described as the most amazingly-priced wine list for exotic, fine wines in (likely) the entire world. I am absolutely not kidding. Let me humor you with specifics:

  • Chateau Latour 1992; average winesearcher.com average price: $449. La Vie price: €225.
  • Domaine de la Romanee-Conti La Tache 1991; winesearcher.com: $3,426. La Vie: €1,750.
  • Chateau Lafite Rothschild 1986; winesearcher.com: $1,315. La Vie: €640. And on, and on.

Especially if you take into account that, as of the time of this writing, the Euro is approaching parity with the dollar, you'll hopefully agree that classic/ancient wines like these can't be had for comparable prices in any wine store in the world, to say nothing of a restaurant where markups are typically 100%. I would return to this restaurant just for the wine list, ignoring for a moment the fantastic food and service. 

Course 1: King Crab + Salsify, 9/10 

Course 1: King Crab + Salsify, 9/10 

Next, some king crab with salsify sliced perfectly to look like fish skin. The warm broth has dollops of chive oil, which gives it an herbal and almost spicy note. Salsify is an excellent choice to accompanyfrom the dandelion family, salsify has a vaguely oyster-like taste that supports the seafood flavors in the dish. 9/10, beautiful presentation and colors with lots of intense knifework. Service had their chance to participate as well, with one of many beautiful pourovers. I created a video montage of their best such dishes on the right.

Course 2: Mackerel + Snow + Corn Beer, 10/10 

Course 2: Mackerel + Snow + Corn Beer, 10/10 

Mackerel, pickled and flambéed, is served with "snow" of kefir and a corn beer from Peru called Chicha poured-over tableside. The mackerel is still warm from its recent flame-bath, and the snow and beer (which has a delicious chipotle flavor from the spices the kitchen adds in) are quite cold, yielding a fun temperature differential. Bits of blackened roasted corn are placed throughout for texture, as well as to enhance the South American feel to this dish. The mackerel has a very soft texture and the fresh, oily flavor typical of the fish. 10/10.

What I'm really enjoying about Buehner's style at this moment is that, though complex, each part of the dish has a role to play, and nothing feels extraneous. Mackerel, with its strong flavors, is never an easy fish to pair with, but it's handled beautifully in this dish.

Course 3: Red Gamba + Roots + Fruits + Flowers, 9/10 

Course 3: Red Gamba + Roots + Fruits + Flowers, 9/10 

Next, a delightfully bright dish of Red Gamba (a type of prawn), served with sunflower seeds and lots of assorted roots, fruits, and flowers. The prawn is smoky, mesquite-flavored almost. It's super fresh, and the rice on bottom gives this dish a hearty feel. The fruits are crisp, bright, and beautiful. Though the flavors aren't what you expect on first glance, there's nothing I would change about this dish. 10/10.

Course 4A: "A Touch of Autumn," 9/10

Course 4A: "A Touch of Autumn," 9/10

Next, series of dishes titled "A Touch of Autumn."

First, a gorgeous, fresh salad with radish, lettuce, white strawberry, citrus, and fig, all beautifully though perhaps excessively sliced. Each ingredient is impossibly fresh for December in Germany, which makes the ensemble all the more impressive. 9/10. 

Course 4B: Mushroom + Mint + Garlic, 9/10

Course 4B: Mushroom + Mint + Garlic, 9/10

This next dish, presented under a layer of mint leaves and flowers, was strongly driven by the white garlic and mushroom components; very strongly scented. Equally strong (almost felt like Vicks Vapo on the nose, in a good way) were the mint leaves themselves, which gave the dish an interesting balance. On bottom was an excellent, hearty broth; almost like a beef or red wine reduction. Another fascinating combination of flavors and textures. 9/10.

Course 5: Imperial Caviar + Sweet Potato, 9/10

Course 5: Imperial Caviar + Sweet Potato, 9/10

Next, some Imperial Caviar (AKA "Golden Osetra"), the rarest type of caviar sourced only from albino or white sturgeon, and prized for its golden tint and earthy, nutty, champagne-like flavors. To the side, a lovely thick ragout of sweet potato and chestnut mixed with squid fond that pairs nearly perfectly with the eggs. A truly, almost excessively, luxurious dish. 9/10.

Course 6: Étouffée Pigeon, 10/10

Course 6: Étouffée Pigeon, 10/10

An interesting take on this rich poultry dish. The chef describes the preparation as "Étouffée," a cajun/Creole style usually involving shellfish served over rice, this pigeon tastes like an otherwordly-amazing combo of chicken and bacon together, so it's basically perfect. Not too salty, perfectly cooked, temperature is presented just right. 10/10.

Bonus Course: Invited into the kitchen, 10/10

Bonus Course: Invited into the kitchen, 10/10

A delightful bonus course; we are invited back to the kitchen for a passion fruit and Woodford Reserve cocktail. The chef introduces himself and proudly points out the extreme diversity of his large (15-ish people) staff, hailing from Asia, Europe, North America, etc; folks from all over the world who have come all the way to Osnabrück to learn. After seeing the amazing quality of what they're able to produce, I can't argue. 

Course 7: Wagyu Beef + Topinambur + Purslane, 10/10

Course 7: Wagyu Beef + Topinambur + Purslane, 10/10

For the final savory course: a plate of absurdly well-marbled, masterfully-cooked Wagyu, Topinambur (also known as Jerusalem artichoke, or Earth's Apple), and an herb the menu describes as "sour portulak" (we would call it purslane). Further demonstrating his mastery of complex flavor pairings, the Jerusalem Artichoke is the perfect contrast to the beef, enhancing and enriching the flavor of the main without making it excessively buttery or rich. The coin-shaped portion of egg at the center of the dish enhances richness even further but takes it a bit far for my taste. 10/10.

Course 8: Phébus + Pine Nut Ice Cream, 9/10

Course 8: Phébus + Pine Nut Ice Cream, 9/10

The cheese course arrived next; some Phébus cheese from the Pyrenees mountains served with pine nut ice cream. Strong cheese flavors go perfectly with the savory pine nut ice cream and puffed barley that gives it a Honey Smacks-like flavor. 9/10.

Course 9: Pumpkin + Yogurt Ice Cream, 9/10

Course 9: Pumpkin + Yogurt Ice Cream, 9/10

The first dessert on the sweet side: pumpkin with yuzu and yogurt ice cream. The citrus elements of the yuzu blends with the gourd-y pumpkin flavors in perfect harmony. Yet another in what is a long list of creative, inventive pairings that don't necessarily sound great on paper, but are absolutely stunning in execution. Lots of careful knifework, as you can seethe pumpkin almost looks like it has been scrolled from its source. 9/10. 

Course 10: Beetroot + Coconut, 10/10

Course 10: Beetroot + Coconut, 10/10

Next, check out the stunning colors in this gorgeous follow-on dessert of beetroot with, in the words of the menu, "a little bit of coconut." Spiced cookies and parsnip round the plate out a bit and serve as platform to display more gorgeous, colorful prep work. I feel like a broken record saying this, but beet and coconut don't seem like natural compatriots... except this dish proved to me that they totally are. The sweet earthiness of the coconut paired perfectly with the earthy-earthiness (yup, I meant to say that) of the beetroot. 10/10. 

Final Bites: "Vending Machine" + Chocolates, 10/10

Final Bites: "Vending Machine" + Chocolates, 10/10

Lastly, a long series of final bites, each more artful than the last to conclude a meal as close to perfect as I could imagine. My favorite small chocolate bites (the ones with the faces) have five different Indian spices; the "Legos." are super bright and fruity white chocolate.

If you ever have he the chance to go here, don't hesitate. Just go. 

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.

France- La Vague D'Or- ✪✪✪

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. 

La Vague D'Or Patio

La Vague D'Or Patio

ST. TROPEZ, FRANCE

SERVICE: 9.5/10

FOOD: 8.0/10

PRICE PAID: $301 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 8.0/10

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. 

First Bites: Stuffed Olive + Ham, 8/10

First Bites: Stuffed Olive + Ham, 8/10

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. 

First Bites Ensemble

First Bites Ensemble

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. 

First Bites: Foie Gras + Pine Nut Crest, 8/10

First Bites: Foie Gras + Pine Nut Crest, 8/10

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. 

First Bites: Almond-Stuffed Grapes, 9/10 

First Bites: Almond-Stuffed Grapes, 9/10 

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. 

First Bites: "Company Bread" + Lard, 9/10 

First Bites: "Company Bread" + Lard, 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. 

First Bites: Aubergine Tempura, 7/10

First Bites: Aubergine Tempura, 7/10

"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.

First Bites: Octopus Broth + Tomato Cracker, 8/10

First Bites: Octopus Broth + Tomato Cracker, 8/10

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. 

First Bites: Oyster + Béarnaise + Yuzu, 6/10

First Bites: Oyster + Béarnaise + Yuzu, 6/10

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). 

La Vague d'Or Place Setting

La Vague d'Or Place Setting

La Vague d'Or Views

La Vague d'Or Views

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.

La Vague d'Or Dining Room

La Vague d'Or Dining Room

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. 

Bread, 8/10

Bread, 8/10

Lovely hand-folded French country bread. Always a welcome start in my book. 8/10.

Course 1: Amberjack + Spider Crab + Tomalley Ice Cream, 8/10

Course 1: Amberjack + Spider Crab + Tomalley Ice Cream, 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.

Course 2A: Langoustine + Citrus, 8/10

Course 2A: Langoustine + Citrus, 8/10

Course 2B: Langoustine + Citrus, again

Course 2B: Langoustine + Citrus, again

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. 

Interlude: Smoked Egg Cracker, 8/10 

Interlude: Smoked Egg Cracker, 8/10 

As a small interlude dish; a smoked egg cracker with a tiny layer of beef. Pleasant. 8/10.

Course 3: Sea Bass + Seafood Broth, 8/10 

Course 3: Sea Bass + Seafood Broth, 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.

Course 4: Zitone Pasta, 9/10

Course 4: Zitone Pasta, 9/10

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. 

Palate Cleanser: Thyme Flower Granita, 8/10

Palate Cleanser: Thyme Flower Granita, 8/10

Served along with a touch of absinthe, this thyme flower palate cleanser has fennel flavors in the sorbet. 8/10.

Course 5: Chicken Supreme + Pasta, 7/10

Course 5: Chicken Supreme + Pasta, 7/10

Post-Sauce

Post-Sauce

Course 5B: Side Dishes

Course 5B: Side Dishes

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. 

Course 6: Tomme D'Arles Cheese, 8/10

Course 6: Tomme D'Arles Cheese, 8/10

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.

Course 7A: "A Sensual Encounter Between Dark Chocolate and Raspberries," 9/10

Course 7A: "A Sensual Encounter Between Dark Chocolate and Raspberries," 9/10

Bergamot/Raspberry Juice

Bergamot/Raspberry Juice

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.

 

 

Course 7B: Warm Chocolate Cake, 9/10

Course 7B: Warm Chocolate Cake, 9/10

Next, some warm chocolate cake, melty and excellent, served alongside...

Course 7C: Raspberry Sorbet, 9/10

Course 7C: Raspberry Sorbet, 9/10

...Some super-sugary, delicious raspberry sorbet. This is an overwhelmingly huge dessert, by the way. 9/10 overall.

Course 8: Petit Fours, 8/10

Course 8: Petit Fours, 8/10

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. 

Interlude: Orange Chocolate, 8/10

Interlude: Orange Chocolate, 8/10

As a small last interlude that continues the citrus theme, some chocolates with a deep orange flavor. 8/10.

Course 9: Tarte Tatin + Apple + Rhubarb Ice Cream, 8/10

Course 9: Tarte Tatin + Apple + Rhubarb Ice Cream, 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. 

Combava from the kitchen

Combava from the kitchen

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. 

Course 11: Stracciatella, 8/10

Course 11: Stracciatella, 8/10

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 

The hotel grounds at night

The hotel grounds at night

A few parting views of the gorgeous hotel as we depart. I'll return here someday.

Monaco- Alain Ducasse Louis XV- ✪✪✪

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.

Dominique Lory, Head Chef

Dominique Lory, Head Chef

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. 

Louis XV Main Dining Room

Louis XV Main Dining Room

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

SERVICE: 9.0/10

FOOD: 8.5/10

PRICE PAID: $450 PP (RACE MENU; LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 7.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 8.5/10

Hotel de Paris Exterior

Hotel de Paris Exterior

Hotel de Paris Lobby

Hotel de Paris Lobby

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 Bites- Summer Rolls, 8/10

First Bites- Summer Rolls, 8/10

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. 

First Bites: Local Fish 9/10 

First Bites: Local Fish 9/10 

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.

Bread

Bread

Butter + Salt, 8/10

Butter + Salt, 8/10

Rich, yeasty bread served alongside a swirl of butter on a small marble block, and salt. 8/10.

Course 1: "Gamberoni from San Remo," 8/10

Course 1: "Gamberoni from San Remo," 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.

Course 2: "Cookpot of Spring Vegetables + Mushrooms," 10/10

Course 2: "Cookpot of Spring Vegetables + Mushrooms," 10/10

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. 

Course 3: Mediterranean Seabass, 9/10

Course 3: Mediterranean Seabass, 9/10

Post-Broth

Post-Broth

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. 

Course 4: Guinea Fowl, 9/10

Course 4: Guinea Fowl, 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. 

Waldorf Salad Granita, 8/10

Waldorf Salad Granita, 8/10

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. 

Course 5: Cheese Cart, 9/10

Course 5: Cheese Cart, 9/10

Alain Ducasse Louis XV (19 of 29).jpg

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):

  • Fébus
  • Roquefort, exceptionally strong and salty
  • Petit fiancé
  • Camembert
  • Comte. All excellent. 9/10. 
Course 5B: "Salad a L'Occasion," 7/10

Course 5B: "Salad a L'Occasion," 7/10

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.

Hand cleanser

Hand cleanser

To clean our hands, a beautiful dish of water perfumed with orange blossoms is offered to us. An extremely classy gesture. 

Course 6: Strawberry + Mascarpone Sorbet, 9/10 

Course 6: Strawberry + Mascarpone Sorbet, 9/10 

Spanish strawberries for dessert, served with a mascarpone sorbet. 9/10. 

Course 7: Candied Nuts, 8/10 

Course 7: Candied Nuts, 8/10 

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.

Tea Cart

Tea Cart

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. 

Last Bites: Candied Fruit, 8/10

Last Bites: Candied Fruit, 8/10

Some super-sugary candied fruits; limoncello, bamago, and mango. 8/10. 

Last Sips: Coffee from Laos, 8/10

Last Sips: Coffee from Laos, 8/10

Last Sips: Espresso, 9/10

Last Sips: Espresso, 9/10

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.

Last Bites: Chocolate, 9/10

Last Bites: Chocolate, 9/10

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. 

Last Bites: Yuzu Marmalade + Yuzu Sorbet, 9/10

Last Bites: Yuzu Marmalade + Yuzu Sorbet, 9/10

Marmalade of yuzu with a yuzu sorbet; soft, dairy-infused citrus flavors. A perfect finish. 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.

Spain- Martín Berasategui- ✪✪✪

Martín Berasategui

Martín Berasategui

Martín has one of those very, very few restaurants that in all my journeys I would not only be interested but extremely excited to return to. With a bulletproof menu, incredibly disciplined and alert staff, beautiful physical space, and a creative and near-flawless execution, this is one of the best restaurants I have ever visited. It will be difficult to describe the fullness of my positivity without straying into hyperbole, but I will try. 

Martín owns several restaurants around the world—in Spain, Shanghai, and the Caribbean—and has a philosophy of discipline, teamwork, and openness. His eponymous restaurant was opened in 1993 near San Sebastián, his hometown. He won his first star six months after opening, his third in 2001, and he has held them ever since. 

The chef walked through the dining room to greet everyone post-meal. That particular day, he was wearing an immaculate white outfit with a BMW logo stitched on the nameplate, as though he were just arriving from the kitchen of some F1 team. An imposing but lighthearted person.

Martín grew up right next to the famous Mercado de la Bretxa watching fresh fish, vegetables, and produce get hauled in every day, providing his first exposure to Basque food culture. His father (and later Martín himself) ran the famous restaurant Bodegón Alejandro where he instilled in Martín the virtues of teamwork and tradition. It seems his dad knocked it out of the park.

Martín Berasategui Exterior

Martín Berasategui Exterior

SAN SEBASTIAN, SPAIN

SERVICE: 9.0/10

FOOD: 9.0/10

PRICE PAID: $200 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 8.5/10

FINAL SCORE: 9.0/10

Martín Berasategui Walkway

Martín Berasategui Walkway

Martín Berasategui Gardens

Martín Berasategui Gardens

Metal + Stone Sculpture

Metal + Stone Sculpture

Shitloads of egotistical, self-celebrating metal yard art are rarely a good sign about an impending meal. Luckily, that premonition would be proven wrong shortly, but a small holy-shit moment did occur right as I was snapping these photos. 

Martín Berasategui Lobby

Martín Berasategui Lobby

I really and truly hope that whole squads of brightly colored avians didn't have to die to make this lobby come together the way it does... But somehow, I'm pretty sure they did. I am reminded of the expression: “some days you’re the peacock, some days you’re the duster.” 

Martín Berasategui Dining Room

Martín Berasategui Dining Room

Floor-to-ceiling windows yield views of riotous greenery. Subtle lighting pervades. One of my favorite dining rooms of all time.

First: Butter. 9/10

First: Butter. 9/10

Most of you who follow me regularly know that I’m a total freak about bread and butter. I am exorbitantly pleased to observe the touchdown of some multicolored butters (Beetroot, salty, spinach, and mushroom) alongside some lovely sliced sourdough. 

Sourdough Bread, 9/10

Sourdough Bread, 9/10

The server takes the time to tell us that the bread is from the same yeast from a many, many years-old long-running ferment. 9/10.

First Bites: "Sea Crunch Tempura," 9/10

First Bites: "Sea Crunch Tempura," 9/10

First Bites: Kumquat + Anchovy + Olive

First Bites: Kumquat + Anchovy + Olive

First, a few amuse-bouches; sea crunch tempura, followed by a kumquat, anchovy, and olive combination (on the right). All the flavors contrast yet support each other well- the warm seafood tempura is set off against the sweet and crunchy kumquat in a delightful way. 9/10. Interestingly, the spoon motif is repeated from the metal sculptures outside.

First Bites: Smoked Eel + Foie Gras + Spring Onion + Green Apple, 10/10

First Bites: Smoked Eel + Foie Gras + Spring Onion + Green Apple, 10/10

Next, a menu participant since 1995- a collection of smoked eel with foie gras and green apple. The server pours a delightful mixture that activates the frozen nitrogen under the plate, creating a "fog" with lovely aromas. Super cool effect. The server recommended that we take each bite with a bit of cream. The foie has the texture and flavor of cream cheese, and is exceedingly rich. During prep the apple was carmelized giving it both a crunchy and sweet profile- the perfect combination of savory and sweet. The cream has a ton of flavor, complimented nicely by the spring onion. This dish really sings together. Amazing. 10/10. 

First Bites: "Red Shrimp Royale," 8/10

First Bites: "Red Shrimp Royale," 8/10

The last appetizer course—a “red shrimp royale,” with dill and Venta del Baron olive oil. We got some coaching on this one also; it was recommended that we dip the spoon all the way to bottom to get one of each layer. The red shrimp is small compared to the surrounding sauce, and quite salty, and everything is quite flavorful but tastes a bit like Thousand Island dressing. 8/10.

Course 1: Sea Urchin Curd + Iberian Pork, 7/10

Course 1: Sea Urchin Curd + Iberian Pork, 7/10

As we get into the main dishes, a new-age version of a surf-and-turf arrives. Sea urchin curd, along with jamón, seaweed, and anise. And, as it is plated before us, another recommendation for how we should consume it: “mix it all together.” The sea urchin and jamón flavors are strong and quite contrasting- the sea urchin almost tastes like lobster, and the ham is rich and salty. Cubed apples jump up the texture contrast, but it's really creamy and overly rich. Tastes like you're eating a sauce with a sauce in it. 7/10. 

Course 2: Beetroot + Horseradish Salad, 9/10

Course 2: Beetroot + Horseradish Salad, 9/10

Next, the beetroot course with its stunning red colors. The beetroot itself is sliced into tiny cubes, and includes some horseradish for a spicy kick. The cream is made from salmon marinated with citrus. The texture is just awesome; chunking the beet into tiny bits was the right call. The dollop of horseradish brings the whole damn thing together, and to top it all off, the salmon was super flavorful. A very exciting dish. 9/10.

Course 3: "The Truffle," 9/10

Course 3: "The Truffle," 9/10

The next dish is cheekily named: “The Truffle,” and includes some fermented wild mushrooms and collard greens. There’s a strange, interesting balance going on in this dish between warm and cold. Really rich, deep, and earthy flavors abound. 9/10.

Course 4: "Gorrotxatexi" Egg + Liquid Herb Salad, 8/10

Course 4: "Gorrotxatexi" Egg + Liquid Herb Salad, 8/10

Served on a plate whose surface almost looks rocky. this next dish is called “Gorrotxategi.” It consists of an egg resting in a liquid herb salad with dewlap carpaccio- bright, clean, crispy vegetable flavors and the egg is a deep yellow I’ve never seen from any American grocery store. 8/10.

Course 5: Vegetable Hearts Salad, 9/10

Course 5: Vegetable Hearts Salad, 9/10

A stunningly enormous salad shows up next; "vegetable hearts" with cream of lettuce. It’s a good salad for people who don't like salad- strong seafood flavors, crisp and crunchy. 9/10.

Course 6: Liquid Squid + Red Mullet, 10/10

Course 6: Liquid Squid + Red Mullet, 10/10

On the lower left and then clockwise- a bonbon of liquid squid, a mousse of saffron and then fennel, and finally mullet with crystallized scales on. The mullet is totally delicious- crunchy, warm, and rich (not fishy, like Akelarre), and perfectly fresh. 10/10.

Course 7: Lamb + Sweetbreads, 10/10

Course 7: Lamb + Sweetbreads, 10/10

And finally, we move on to the main course—lamb with sweetbreads, presented confidently on this colorful dish. Served alongside some Parmesan whey, a fritter or two, and some asparagus. This dish is literally perfect. Temperature, freshness, everything works together- this dish is crazy good. 10/10. 

Course 8: Beetroot Meringue, 9/10

Course 8: Beetroot Meringue, 9/10

In a nice recall to the beetroot course- the sticks are meringue of beetroot, and they're so brittle they fall apart like they're freeze dried. The foam is made of tea, which has a delicious, rich, smoky flavor. Pepper ice cream brings it all together for a near-perfect ensemble. 9/10.

Course 9: "Salted Rock" of Chocolate, 9/10

Course 9: "Salted Rock" of Chocolate, 9/10

Lastly, a “salted rock” of chocolate with pistachio and salty Quinoa. The ice is cold, and the chocolate is mousse-y for a really good temperature contrast. 9/10. 

Last sip: Coffee, 8/10

Last sip: Coffee, 8/10

Some coffee, and then a lovely wrought-iron tree with various small last bites of dessert. Milk cinnamon and Armagnac (tastes like Christmas), passion fruit and grape dessert, some striped chocolates with orange custard, plain ones with vanilla. The long, skinny cakes are hazelnut. 8/10.

Last Bites: Mignardises, 8/10

Last Bites: Mignardises, 8/10

Overall, one of the most enjoyable meals of the entire trip. Can't say when I'll be back, but it couldn't be soon enough.

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. 

Switzerland- Schauenstein- ✪✪✪

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. 

Schauenstein Exterior

Schauenstein Exterior

FURSTENAU, SWITZERLAND

SERVICE: 9.5/10

FOOD: 8.5/10

PRICE PAID: $285 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 7.5/10

FINAL SCORE: 8.5/10

Schauenstein Main Entrance

Schauenstein Main Entrance

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. 

Spa

Spa

Lobby/Resting Area 1

Lobby/Resting Area 1

Resting Area 2

Resting Area 2

17th-Century Drawing Room/Vodka Bar

17th-Century Drawing Room/Vodka Bar

Roaring Fireplace

Roaring Fireplace

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.

The Card System

The Card System

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. 

First Bites: Bloody Mary Shot + Graham Cracker Pasta/Kohlrabi +  Foie, 8/10

First Bites: Bloody Mary Shot + Graham Cracker Pasta/Kohlrabi +  Foie, 8/10

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. 

First Bites: Crunchy Stick, Pasta, 9/10

First Bites: Crunchy Stick, Pasta, 9/10

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:

Schauenstein Dining Room

Schauenstein Dining Room

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. 

Course 1: Beet Soup, 9/10

Course 1: Beet Soup, 9/10

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. 

Course 2: Val Lumnezia Chicken, 9/10

Course 2: Val Lumnezia Chicken, 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.

Course 3: "Village on a Lightning Plate," 9/10

Course 3: "Village on a Lightning Plate," 9/10

Maiensäss

Maiensäss

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. 

Bread + Butter, 10/10

Bread + Butter, 10/10

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. 

Course 4: Egg + Truffle + Celeriac Soup, 8/10

Course 4: Egg + Truffle + Celeriac Soup, 8/10

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.

Course 5: Swiss Char + Tartar Sauce, 8/10

Course 5: Swiss Char + Tartar Sauce, 8/10

Course 6: 

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. 

Course 6: Langoustine + "Variation of Carrot," 8/10

Course 6: Langoustine + "Variation of Carrot," 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. 

Course 7: BBQ Pork Ribs, 7/10

Course 7: BBQ Pork Ribs, 7/10

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.

Course 8: Braised Pork Cheek + Pickled Vegetables, 7/10

Course 8: Braised Pork Cheek + Pickled Vegetables, 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. 

Course 11: Tortellini + Parmesan Foam, 8/10

Course 11: Tortellini + Parmesan Foam, 8/10

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.

Course 12: Cured Pork + Beans + Apple + Cinnamon, 10/10

Course 12: Cured Pork + Beans + Apple + Cinnamon, 10/10

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. 

Course 13: "Rocket Salad," 8/10

Course 13: "Rocket Salad," 8/10

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.

Course 14: Lamb, 8/10

Course 14: Lamb, 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.

Course 15: Cheese, 9/10

Course 15: Cheese, 9/10

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.

Course 16: Cured Meats, 8/10

Course 16: Cured Meats, 8/10

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.

Malloons

Malloons

On the side, a typically swiss dessert of "Malloons"- potatoes with cream and sugar.

Course 16: First Dessert, 8/10

Course 16: First Dessert, 8/10

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.

Course 17: Second dessert, 8/10 overall

Course 17: Second dessert, 8/10 overall

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. 

Switzerland- Le Cheval Blanc- ✪✪✪

Peter Knogl

Peter Knogl

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. 

Le Cheval Blanc Exterior (Hotel Les Trois Rois)

Le Cheval Blanc Exterior (Hotel Les Trois Rois)

BASEL, SWITZERLAND

SERVICE: 7.5/10

FOOD: 8.5/10

PRICE PAID: $112 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 9.5/10

FINAL SCORE: 8.5/10

Le Cheval Blanc Interior

Le Cheval Blanc Interior

Cuckoo Clock

Cuckoo Clock

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.

Le Cheval Blanc Interior Wall

Le Cheval Blanc Interior Wall

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 + Butter, 7/10

Bread + Butter, 7/10

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.

Course 1: Red Prawn + Jalapeno Mousse, 10/10

Course 1: Red Prawn + Jalapeno Mousse, 10/10

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.

Course 2: Tapioca Chip + Beef, 7/10

Course 2: Tapioca Chip + Beef, 7/10

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.

Course 3A: Razor Clam, 10/10

Course 3A: Razor Clam, 10/10

Course 3B: Mushroom Chip, 10/10

Course 3B: Mushroom Chip, 10/10

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. 

Course 4: Kingfish + Miso + Avocado, 7/10

Course 4: Kingfish + Miso + Avocado, 7/10

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.

Course 5: Angelfish + Black Truffles, 8/10

Course 5: Angelfish + Black Truffles, 8/10

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.

Course 6A: Granny Apple Granite + Coconut + Ginger, 8/10

Course 6A: Granny Apple Granite + Coconut + Ginger, 8/10

Course 6B: Granny Apple Shot

Course 6B: Granny Apple Shot

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

Course 7: Passion Fruit + Cheese, 9/10

Course 7: Passion Fruit + Cheese, 9/10

As we wrap up, a tiny, perfectly-balanced spoonful of tropical fruit and cheese. 9/10.

Course 8: Mignardises, 9/10

Course 8: Mignardises, 9/10

Some absolutely awesome mignardises; including a hazelnut triple stack, Lemon, and carrot. 9/10.

Last Sip: Coffee, 8/10

Last Sip: Coffee, 8/10

Course 9: Swiss Chocolate, 9/10

Course 9: Swiss Chocolate, 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. 

Course 9: Swiss Chocolate, 9/10

Course 9: Swiss Chocolate, 9/10

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. 

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- Sushi Yoshitake- ✪✪✪

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. 

Yoshitake Main Entrance

Yoshitake Main Entrance

TOKYO, JAPAN

SERVICE: 8.5/10

FOOD: 9.5/10

PRICE PAID: $225 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 8.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 8.5/10

Yoshitake Chef's Counter

Yoshitake Chef's Counter

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. 

Course 1: Steamed Egg Custard + Pufferfish Roe, 9/10

Course 1: Steamed Egg Custard + Pufferfish Roe, 9/10

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.

Course 2: Ruby Snapper, 10/10

Course 2: Ruby Snapper, 10/10

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.

Course 3: Squid + Roe, 8/10

Course 3: Squid + Roe, 8/10

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. 

Course 4: Monkfish Liver, 8/10

Course 4: Monkfish Liver, 8/10

Next, two firm chunks of monkfish liver- I would describe the taste as like a lean foie pâté. 8/10. 

Course 5: Steamed Abalone, 8/10

Course 5: Steamed Abalone, 8/10

Next, some steamed abalone- the mollusk has a pleasing, if somewhat rubbery, texture. Great flavor and subtle floral/vegetable notes. 8/10. 

Course 6: Abalone Liver Sauce, 9/10

Course 6: Abalone Liver Sauce, 9/10

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. 

Course 7: Grilled Tilefish, 9/10

Course 7: Grilled Tilefish, 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. 

Course 8: Steamed Clam Soup, 9/10

Course 8: Steamed Clam Soup, 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. 

Preparing the Squid Sushi

Preparing the Squid Sushi

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. 

Course 9: Squid, 8/10

Course 9: Squid, 8/10

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.

Course 10: Halfbeak, 8/10

Course 10: Halfbeak, 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. 

Course 11: Medium-Fatty Tuna, 10/10

Course 11: Medium-Fatty Tuna, 10/10

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.

Course 12: Fatty Tuna, 10/10

Course 12: Fatty Tuna, 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.

Course 13: Gizzard Shad, 8/10

Course 13: Gizzard Shad, 8/10

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.

Course 14: Herring Roll, 8/10

Course 14: Herring Roll, 8/10

This herring roll crunches with veggies, and has a big, hearty flavor. 8/10.

Course 14: Ark Shell, 8/10

Course 14: Ark Shell, 8/10

Ark shell- also known as red clam- has some beautiful colors and a firm, salty flavor. 8/10.

Course 15- Sea Urchin, 9/10

Course 15- Sea Urchin, 9/10

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.

Course 16- Prawn, 8/10

Course 16- Prawn, 8/10

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.

Course 17- Sea Eel, 10/10

Course 17- Sea Eel, 10/10

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.

Course 18: Tuna Hand Roll, 9/10

Course 18: Tuna Hand Roll, 9/10

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. 

Course 19: Egg Cake, 9/10

Course 19: Egg Cake, 9/10

And, lastly, a slightly-sweet egg cake, served in a delightfully simple cube form. 9/10. 

Course 20: Miso Soup, 8/10

Course 20: Miso Soup, 8/10

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.

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.