Hugging coastal Spain's attractive shores in orchard-rich Dénia, Quique Dacosta is the full and beautiful expression of its owner's (very) idiosyncratic personality and style.
Extraordinarily formal even by 3-star standards, Martín Berasategui's Barcelona outpost does not achieve the same levels of culinary or service prowess as his flagship restaurant (located in Lasarte, Spain, interestingly) but it comes close.
Though set in a dreamlike, gorgeous interior décor style that mirrors Ducasse's incredible Monaco restaurant, several dishes were serious misses, and like other Parisian 3-stars this place is among the worst-priced experiences out there. Seemingly lost in its own opulence, the restaurant presents a boring and rudely short menu for a comical price. I cannot recommend.
Inside the stunningly opulent Four Seasons George V hotel is its semi-eponymous restaurant, Le Cinq. Helmed by Christian Le Squer, a native of Brittany with a passion for seafood, the restaurant stands out for its extraordinary dining room, the light, creative touches of its courses (especially compared to other Parisian 3-stars), and a very friendly service (most definitely in contrast to other Parisian restaurants, specifically the disaster that is L'Ambroisie).
Christian himself has had a fascinating and extremely Parisian culinary career. At age 14, believing he wanted to be a fisherman, he began work on his uncle's fishing trawler. He realized quickly that he preferred preparing and cooking the fish to actually catching them, and began to study the culinary arts. He went on to train at a professional high school in Vannes before working in Parisian haute cuisine establishments like Le Ritz, Le Divellec, Pavilion Ledoyen, etc. He took up his post at Le Cinq in 2014, earning two stars in the 2015 book and this third star in 2016.
In an interview, Christian makes an interesting analogy for how he views his work: "I like to think of cooking as perfumery. Like a perfumer selecting his notes for a particular scent, we pick our raw materials and transform them into works of culinary arts that boast elegance and refinement. By that analogy, I am a creator of flavors."
PRICE PAID: $450PP (INCL. WATER, TAX, TIP- PRE-CHALLENGE)
FINAL SCORE: 7.0/10
The hotel was fully decked-out in holiday regalia when I attended, complete with enormous mirror-finish polar bear and reindeers, wreaths, and twinkling lights galore.
Le Cinq is found off the main lobby and next to a gorgeous interior courtyard, itself adorned in ice-blue colored lights. By 3-star restaurant standards, the place felt cavernous, yet only holds 65 covers a night. A gorgeous central chandelier provides most of the room's illumination, and the ambiance this place is able to achieve is just about perfect. Though certainly gifted with many stylish restaurants in our own right, I can't think of a single American restaurant that nails "classy" this well.
Service was warm, even amiable, and throughout the evening several helpful people with tremendous English skills provided an incredible experience. This might not seem noteworthy until you consider that this is truly rare at Parisian restaurants in general. French restaurants are geared towards their regulars, and normally do not give a shit about how they treat first-timers or tourists in general. This might seem arrogant and self-harming, and that's because it is.
As a first set of greeting bites, we are offered a "bubble" of orange campari (on the left) and a slice of pizza on the right. The bubble has strong ginger flavors, and we are encouraged to eat the liquidy gel in a single bite. The pizza, complete with mozzarella, mushroom, and truffle, has a very thin crust and thus tastes like a pizza-flavored nacho chip but is delicious nonetheless. 8/10 overall.
Bread service arrived next; obviously I had to go with the baguette, which was rich, warm, and fresh. 9/10.
A strong start as we get into the menu; sea scallops imbued with lychee flavors (those small dollops on the upper-right portion of the plate were made from lychee as well) and served with frosty-cold sea urchin. The earthy sea urchin flavors pair perfectly with the acidity and sweetness in the lychee fruit; the scallops have that neutral taste commonly found when they are extremely fresh. Nice flavor contrasts as well. 9/10.
Next, in a confusing jumble of place names, some Dublin Bay Prawn (also known as Norway Lobster) from Brittany, France. Catch all that?
Anyways, the prawn is buttery, soft, and incredibly fresh. It is greatly enhanced by the addition of a crunchy buckwheat pancake, which adds texture, and less so by a hearty dose of warm aioli. My complaint here is that the dish loses a significant amount of its lightness with the aioli (some might call it just mayonnaise), and it hampers the delicate shellfish pretty significantly. 6/10.
Next, what the menu describes as: "Gratinated Onions, Contemporary Parisian style" is basically a deconstructed French Onion soup; or maybe French Onion Soup à la Mode. Warm, rich, and constructed with beef broth and a variety of cheeses, this is a very creative and delicious take on a staid French tradition. 8/10.
Next, some turbot with watercress (the green elements) and pear. The watercress adds a nice dash of color and zest to the incredibly fresh, flaky fish. The sauce is made with Japanese miso and butter, enhancing the savory richness even further. The deliciously light texture paired with the hearty flavor were memorable, and almost perfect. 9/10.
From a region in Australia called Ranger's Valley, this "Black Market" beef is made from Black Angus cattle but has a similar marbling to that found in A5 wagyu. The filet is grilled, sliced, and covered with truffle, mozzarella, and mushrooms, forming a pretty white shell. The interior colors are gorgeous as well. Rich, soft mouthfeel and a flavor profile that is balanced nicely by the mushrooms. 9/10.
With delicate white leaves that looked and felt like plastic, this "Iced Dairy" dessert comes with three biscuits on the side; vanilla and raspberry cheesecake, pecan nut and caramel pie, and a crispy caramel tart made with mango, passionfruit, and tarragon jellies.
The "plastic" is actually caramel with painted-on silver, and has the strong flavor of yeast. Under the white shell you have an ice cream of yeast and a mousse of yeast. The taste of both are slightly sour, serving as a nice and refreshing but non-sweet dessert. The idea you're left with is the taste of cake dough or cookie batter right before you place it in the oven. Kind of a complex idea to convey with a dessert, but it works. 8/10.
Described as "Crunchy Grapefruit, Preserved and Raw," a crystallized layer of sugar protects a group of delicious, burstingly fresh grapefruits. The caramelized layer breaks easily with the spoon, and the relatively sour grapefruit pairs perfectly with the decadent sugariness. A simple but lovely dessert. 8/10.
And finally, the last menu dessert: chocolate ganache with caramel on the side and whipped cream on the right. A “Peau de lait,” or skin of cooked milk is included in the sauce and it's described as "a chili made of milk." Interestingly, it's the same exact plate as the langoustine/prawn plate with its multi-layered surface. 8/10.
Next, a set of candied croissants with almonds. Flaky, crunchy, and warm. 8/10.
Lastly, a series of wrapped candies and petit fours for the final bites. Chocolatey and rich. 9/10.
And, a charming little gift box full of other snacks to take home. A nice parting gestures.
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.
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."
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.
PRICE PAID: $410PP (INCL. WATER, TAX, TIP- PRE-CHALLENGE)
FINAL SCORE: 8.0/10
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The clock melts, revealing tiny cubes of ham. the gold portions break apart, further enriching the soup.
... The resulting mixture, stirred together and served hot, was rich, warm, beautiful. 9/10.
... 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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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:
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.
With its boxy, modern frame and gorgeous windows, De Leest cuts an impressive shape out of the corner of this sleepy village north of Appeldoorn in the Low Countries. Open since 2002 and helmed by a husband-wife team (Jacob Jan Boerma in the kitchen, and Kim Veldman running the wine program), De Leest won its first Michelin star in 2003, its second in 2006, and its third in 2013, which it has held since.
From interviews, it's clear that Jacob views his restaurant as a bit of an "outsider" in the Michelin world—they use all-sustainably-harvested product and target zero food waste, buying from local sources wherever possible. This leads to lots of vegetable-driven dishes, and Jacob's attempt is to strike balance with each dish without making it too rich. I found him to be mostly successful.
VAASSEN, NETHERLANDS (~1 HR FROM AMSTERDAM)
PRICE PAID: $260PP (INCL. WATER, CHAMPAGNE APERITIF, TAX, TIP)
FINAL SCORE: 7.0/10
The interior is neat, bright, well-lit, spacious, and modern. The servers' stands are perhaps a bit too pronounced; they occupy much of the landscape in the center of the restaurant which breaks up the long visual lines but the makes the room feel crowded.
Some delightful first bites arrived within moments of taking our seats; a parmesan cookie on a small ceramic pedestal (left) and some watermelon-tomato gel upon what looked like an egg-crate plate (left.) While not dry, the somewhat brittle cookie was savory and salty, contrasting nicely with the juicy watermelon and tomato combination. A nice mix of flavors and textures. 8/10.
Next, two small coppery spoons nestled on a bed of rocks arrived carrying some mini-steak tartare bites, along with a tiny sandwich of soufflé. The smallish grains of couscous underneath provided a nice textural contrast to the super-soft tartare and sandwich. A lot going on here, but an extremely pleasant bite. 8/10.
Next, a "Taco" with tartare of shrimp and small green shoot garnishment. Really more of a nacho in my opinion, but we'll go with taco. Fantastic flavors, and surprisingly rich; also surprisingly not-spicy for the heavy dose of red pepper it appears to have had. The shrimp is fresh but not exactly exploding with flavor; it's been in the fridge perhaps a day too long. 7/10.
Next, some eggplants, pan fried, with a foam of Parmesan and some puffed sweet peppers. We appear to be getting into the sultry end of the appetizers, because this dish is shockingly heavy. Eggplant is never my favorite vegetable, but the textures here are a high point. 7/10.
Next, some pumpkin curry with kaffir limes, also known as combava. Sweet and complex, I really like the combination of curry and lime; it gives the dish a Thai flavor profile. 8/10.
The bread is fresh and light, and the butter is rich and heavy so I'm definitely happy. 8/10.
In what must surely be the last appetizer course, some Gillardeau oysters with a green curry-saffron potato purée. Unbelievably smooth; the curry flavors go with the oysters perfectly. The shellfish themselves feel like they were just pulled from the ocean; neutral and fresh. It's not often you see curry tried twice in a series of appetizers, but this group makes it work. 9/10.
The first menu course came next, plated linearly: some North Sea crab, green herbs, and a frozen pastille of Buddha's Hand. The crab has been marinated wth green apple to balance the acidity, and some "sweet and sour" red beetroot adds color and depth to the dish. There's a lot going on here, and the large number of diverse and contrasting flavors feels like a traffic jam. Rising to the top are the delightful crab and green herb reduction. 7/10.
Good lord, more curry? Some roasted langoustine marinated with tandoori spice foam overtop, served with young carrots and curry. Underneath, a purée of smoked vegetables. The curry itself is based on vadouvan, an in-vogue curry powder that was actually invented in France—the base is garlic, shallots, and onions, with fenugreek (and, obviously, curry leaves). Toasted and blended carefully, it yields a subtle and almost sweet note to the curry, as opposed to the explosion of heavily perfumed cumin flavors in the previous dishes. It's delicious, but this is a lot of curry all in a row. 7/10.
Next, some codfish, parsnip, butternut squash, and - mother of God - yet more curry. All in a vinaigrette of curry. Once again, I'll admit that this light yet flavorful dish really brought out the best of the codfish's oily flavors by correctly balancing the acid of the citrus and the spice of the curry powder. It's a beautiful dish. But my palate is getting burned out on curry here. 8/10.
Next up, some trout, fennel, fermented vadouvan foam (I give up. Every dish will have curry. It's fine.) And lastly, caviar. The trout has some delightful beurre noisette flavors underneath. Unreal that such a lean fish can be presented in a way that makes it feel so rich. 7/10.
Lobster with celeriac, vinegar, potato, shiitake mushrooms, chorizo, and sauerkraut. Very strong celery/mustard flavors; this winds up feeling like a Germanic dish in contrast to the South Asian feel to the rest of the menu. The caviar pops with freshness and the lobster is as good as if we were sitting on the dayboat that brought it up. 9/10.
Next, an artful dish of duck liver, hibiscus flower, and papaya. The colors are the all-star of this dish, as is the moon-surface plating. Some light flavors of jasmine flower and sherry; the papaya and foie gras flavors contrast nicely. 7/10.
And finally, on to the last main dish: Pheasant. Delightful flavors of chicory, gravy, Jerusalem artichoke, and red beetroot. A hint of truffle in the gravy really moves the dish forward a few paces from its already pretty awesome presentation. 8/10.
Check out this plate's color—the deep green really emphasizes the pale yellow hues of the cheeses; a subtle refinement. The restaurant features regionally-produced cheeses, and here were the standouts:
At bottom right is a very uniquely-made type of blue cheese called Grevenbroecker. The cheesemaker, Peter Goonen, is an award-winning family farmer based in the Limburg region who has won many awards for his work. By not artificially inoculating the cheese with the microbes that will form the penicillium and instead letting the curds naturally clump and form their blue veins, the taste ends up richer and more natural. The farm for generations prior made only butter, and the soft texture and butteriness of this cheese recalls that history.
Another honorable mention- the cheese at the bottom of the plate at 6'o'clock is called "Svallow," like the bird. Made from cow's milk in an agricultural community in the Southern Netherlands called Lievelde, the cheese is a Dutch version of Camembert. Earthy, creamy, and with an extremely delicious taste of hay and fresh grass. The cheesemaker, Hermiene Makkink, says she makes cheese because of her love and respect for cows and nature.
A nice selection of goat's milk cheeses from the Loire region and a few other cow's and sheep's milk cheeses round out the batch. 9/10 overall, a great diversity of flavors and all from interesting, top-quality producers.
Moving on to the desserts, a sorbet of sorrel and dried apple. The overwhelming flavor of the dish is that of wheatgrass; a nice palate cleanser. The apple adds crunch to the texture. 7/10.
The second dessert is a creative pairing of blueberries with basil, along with what tastes like rose petals. The blueberries appear in several forms—a sauce on the right, cooked berries sitting atop the basil cream, and freeze-dried on the left. A deliberate diversification of textures that works really well. 8/10.
A tropical mix of mandarin oranges, coconut, grenadine, and jasmine flower juice arrived next. Beautifully shaped circles of fruit and sugar pastries adorned this gorgeous ceramic plate. I loved the geometric juxtapositions and carefully handcrafted architecture of this dish, the three-dimensionality of it. The taste, though, was a little plain compared to the exhaustive construction. 7/10.
As we get close to the end of the desserts, some lovely lemon-imbued milk and yogurt pucks with caramel and hazelnut. Quince ice cream. A little dairy-heavy but a satisfying dessert nonetheless. 7/10.
Last but certainly not least, a collection of stone-shaped plates are carried over one-by-one in many trips by the service staff. Exquisitely made and showing off the precision of the pastry chef, the desserts themselves (some macarons, marzipans, and marshmallows) wind up emulating the style of the plates themselves. Bright, crispy, sugary flavors throughout (especially in the Pâte de fruits at center, which are blackberry). A stylish finish to the meal. 9/10.
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.
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.
PRICE PAID: $440PP (INCL. WATER, TAX, AND INCREDIBLE WINE)
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.
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.
... 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 accompany—from 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 see—the pumpkin almost looks like it has been scrolled from its source. 9/10.
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.
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.
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 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.
PRICE PAID: $244PP (INCL. WATER, TAX, TIP- PRE-CHALLENGE)
FINAL SCORE: 8.0/10
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.
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, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
- 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.
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.
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.
Next, elderberry, peanut, and champagne, to harken back to two dishes ago. I love the creative stacking inside the glassware. 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.
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.
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.
Putting this review together was a struggle, because there is absolutely no way I could fairly capture the stunning beauty of La Vague D'Or's surroundings at the all-encompassingly gorgeous Residences de la Pinede in St. Tropez, France. Offered aperitifs as we arrived poolside, I have to admit that I could have stayed in that exact spot for days. I haven't been to a more gorgeous spot in my life.
ST. TROPEZ, FRANCE
PRICE PAID: $301 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)
FINAL SCORE: 8.5/10
Run by one of the youngest chefs to achieve 3-star status Arnaud Donckele, La Vague D'Or attempts to capture the flavors of Provence in their style and presentation. This place perfectly nails the combination of Provençal ingredients in a Mediterranean setting.
We got the chance to meet Arnaud after the service; he speaks zero English, but was extremely friendly. The kitchen has a strangely long, narrow main corridor with the Pass and the Expo stationed at the very end of that corridor, the hot lines and cold cold lines next to each other on the far side. Lots of squeezing past each other and near-collisions, which seems odd. They didn't seem to let it get in the way of putting on an incredible service.
As we continued relaxing on the ungodly-beautiful pool terrace, a handful of small snacks made their way to the table. First, some olive stuffed with ham presented on the end of a stick. These olives practically burst with flavor, and the saltiness of the two main ingredients play well together. 8/10.
Next, a large and complex arrangement of tree, wire mesh, plastic box, and food were brought over to our table. I was anxious to hear the story behind this beautiful, if somewhat complex, presentation, but was told that it was just chosen because it looks nice. Throughout dinner, unfortunate serving staff could be seen hefting these enormous contraptions to diners' tables. An 8-top table required almost the entire staff to come together for the service. These things must weigh 50 or 60 pounds apiece. Hm.
Some foie gras with pine nut crust, also on the end of a stick. I'm getting an "offering from Nature" vibe here. Crunchy and rich, it tastes like someone made foie gras into a Twix bar. 8/10.
Next, presented on a square-ishly shaped flat spoon, some grapes from Provence with the seeds removed and replaced with almonds. The almonds were super crunchy and fresh, and they tasted almost perfect against the fresh grape. It worked for the same reasons that peanut butter and jelly work together. 9/10.
The next amuse-bouche was charmingly titled: "Company Bread;" the dark portions towards the bottom are a thin grilled-on slice of lard. Some really strong ham flavors that harkens back to the olive presentation. 9/10.
"Aubergine tempura" is crispy and crunchy, and it honestly tasted a lot like it looks... Fried eggplant. It feels a little like something you'd find at the Minnesota State Fair. Greasy and tasty. 7/10.
Calamari octopus, served with an octopus broth and tomato cracker. The cracker itself, laden with octopus, had tons and tons of flavor. The broth had a lemongrassy/Thai feel to it, which once again paired nicely. Lots of simple, enjoyable one-to-one flavor interplays at work so far. 8/10.
The last of the patio snacks—an oyster with a thick layer of Béarnaise sauce mixed with yuzu. The yuzu gives it a citrus flair, but the Béarnaise is super, turbo, offensively rich. 6/10.
Interestingly, it is only at this point that we are now handed menus to select our meals. I have to say that I'm not murderously stuffed but I am definitely feeling more full than I'd like to in order to begin a meal. I opt for the smaller of the two menus, titled "Timeless," 5 courses, at €270; the other set-price menu is called "An Epicurean Adventure," at €340 with cheese course and €315 without. They also offer a wine pairing for my menu at €120, and one for the Epicurean Adventure for €145. I was driving so chose against wine; my dining partner went for the full-boat menu with pairing (a bold move).
We get seated in a corner with gorgeous views of the patio, pool, and sunset. I cannot emphasize enough: this is The Most Beautiful Hotel Ever.
The dining room itself is a touch plain; lots of exposed wood and gentle curves, a bit of artwork and mirrors but otherwise not a ton of adornment.
Lovely hand-folded French country bread. Always a welcome start in my book. 8/10.
First up, a lovely dish of Amberjack, Spider Crab, and a sorbet made from tomalley, the green part of the lobster's insides (not something I had previously known one could/should eat). The rich-flavored sorbet really brings out the best of the vegetables, and as you can see the plating is pretty awesome. I love the geometry of this dish. 8/10.
The server describes this next dish colloquially as "Langoustine two ways;" the sauce is made from a Japanese citrus called Hassaku (about halfway between an orange and a grapefruit) together with olive oil infused with grilled prawn heads. Lots of great, crispy crunch from the asparagus and a touch of aloe vera.
On the right, a small bowl of grapefruit (only subtly different from the Hassaku) with langoustine prepared in a slightly different way. It's hard to detect what this second dish is trying to say, but it's interesting to get two similar angles on the same dish. 8/10.
As a small interlude dish; a smoked egg cracker with a tiny layer of beef. Pleasant. 8/10.
This complex dish of sea bass is served on a bed of vegetables and seafood; Roma tomatoes, clams, and zucchini grown by Yann Menard, who is apparently a very famous farmer in Southern France, and itself smoked in some oregano grown in the gorgeous Alpilles sub-region of Provence. There's a shitload going on here, but somehow it all works together. This is an insanely fresh, summery, professionally-planned seafood dish. 8/10.
As a total bonus because my dining partner had a longer menu, the restaurant generously gave me a course of Zitone pasta with the subtitle, "a tribute to a chef who taught me so much." The pasta is filled with black truffle and foie gras, and includes some delicious artichoke with strong basil flavors. It is served on what can only be called a stump with squirrel-hole in it. 9/10.
Served along with a touch of absinthe, this thyme flower palate cleanser has fennel flavors in the sorbet. 8/10.
A fascinating cooking technique that the kitchen was proud enough of to bring by our table as it was in-process: this "Chicken Supreme" is cooked in a cow's bladder. Unfortunately, this doesn't quite lock in the moisture like one might hope; the chicken is slightly dry. The green consommé, which the kitchen brews like a tea, brings things mostly back in balance. On the side, a chicken wing and an "oyster of chicken" with an actual tea, strong and slightly herbal. 7/10 overall.
Another bonus course (they were incredibly generous and friendly in general) this time a completely delicious riff on Tomme D'Arles cheese. An ancient cheese recently re-cultivated in the Southwestern Alpes d'Haute Provence region, it is put on top of a delicious pile of pickled pears, with some môle honey and a glaze of Boutellian olive oil (a French variety of olive). On the side, some chopped pear and sorbet, which are both totally excellent. 8/10.
And now, finally to the desserts. This next course actually had several components. First, some chocolate made like a crème brûlée served with frozen raspberries and a side glass of bergamot/raspberry juice.
Next, some warm chocolate cake, melty and excellent, served alongside...
...Some super-sugary, delicious raspberry sorbet. This is an overwhelmingly huge dessert, by the way. 9/10 overall.
Some pretty amazing petit fours were served next. From top to bottom, a tarte tropezienne, also known as the Tart of St. Tropez, made of brioche and with strong flavors of orange blossom.
Next, a pistachio cake with an explosion of colorful fruit, and some absurd gold leaf. Lastly, kumquat filled with kumquat ice cream, also with absurd gold leaf. 8/10 overall.
As a small last interlude that continues the citrus theme, some chocolates with a deep orange flavor. 8/10.
Tarte Tatin with Apple and rhubarb ice cream. Rich, almost exactly like a French version of an apple pie. Dessert is feeling excessive at this point. 8/10.
A Combava, similar to a makrut lime, is part of the mix in the last dessert. They generously bring one out from the freezer with white gloves to show it off. It has a strong, oily, citrus smell.
Very lastly, a gorgeous stracciatella. Big chunks of chocolate throughout. Vanilla bean flavors punch through and dominate the dish, which is completely fine with me. 8/10
A few parting views of the gorgeous hotel as we depart. I'll return here someday.
I could literally have not picked a more Monaco-y moment to visit Monaco's soul 3-star restaurant—Grand Prix weekend in Monte Carlo is truly a bucket-list type activity. Crowds throng outside the doors, and White House-level security is everywhere. Shitloads of plastic surgery. Serious people in suits.
The Louis XV is run by a youngish chef named Dominique Lory; born in '79, he spent a few years working for Pierre Gagnaire and then for Alain Ducasse at the Louis XV under Franck Cerutti, and then in Paris at the Plaza Athénée. In 2011, Ducasse sent him back to Monaco as head chef of his (arguably) European flagship while Franck Cerruti became the head of all Hôtel de Paris' restaurants, with Dominique reporting to him.
The room's gorgeous central light hangs like a crown over the dining room. Recently redesigned, the first-floor restaurant of the famous Hôtel de Paris has an open, airy, turbo-luxurious feel. In the center is a service station built of metal and mulberry wood that discreetly frames the work of the staff. Designed and built by Parisian architects Patrick Jouin and Sanjit Manku, the design is meant to memorialize the gravitas and glory of the old-world restaurant with a modern spin. I'd say they nailed it.
MONTE CARLO, MONACO
PRICE PAID: $450 PP (RACE MENU; LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)
FINAL SCORE: 8.5/10
The Hôtel de Paris, itself at the very epicenter of Monte Carlo and across from the famous casino, has some interesting history. Back in the late 80s, Monaco's Prince Rainier III challenged Alain Ducasse to build a 3-Michelin-Star restaurant in the hotel in less than four years, a goal that Alain crushed in only three. Especially impressive since, at the time Alain began, there were zero three-stars in hotels, and Alain had only achieved two-star status with his previous restaurant.
As far as the hotel itself goes, opulence is just a word. I checked, and for their nicest suites this hotel charges more than €10,000 per night with a straight face.
First out, a Meditteranean take on summer rolls—cracklingly fresh vegetables in rice paper with a rich and zesty olive sauce. The spoon-shaped wooden skewers are a nice touch. 8/10, a straightforward but pleasant start.
A slightly more adventuresome next step, both in flavors and colors—local fish marinated with vegetables that subtly enhance the colors of the fish itself. There are small cuts of cuttlefish, red mullet, mackerel, and skipjack tuna. Super, super fresh, like it was just plucked out of the ocean. 9/10.
Rich, yeasty bread served alongside a swirl of butter on a small marble block, and salt. 8/10.
First up on the main courses, Gamberoni, a type of prawn, with jellyfish, a gorgeous centerpiece of caviar, and rockfish on the bottom. Interestingly, the dish is served quite cold, and the all the flavors play well with the jellyfish, whose textures overrides most of the dish. 8/10.
Every now and then I encounter a dish that totally changes my mind on a whole genre of food. This dish did it for me with vegetables. Mushroom, carrot, asparagus, peas, and turnip in a shockingly rich green pea juice. The juice itself is made by putting fresh raw peas in an extractor, not cooked, with lime, sorrel, and mustard... and that's it! By avoiding cooking the vegetables, the chef maintains the freshness of the dish and keeps it balanced by not mixing fresh with cooked ingredients.
The peas themselves are all briely roasted, and they pop they're so fresh. The whole dish has a smooth and silky mouthfeel; this is easily the best vegetable dish I have ever had. 10/10.
Next, a gloriously-plated dish of Sea bass with tomatoes, olive oil, fennel, and kumquats, in a lovely warm sauce. The flavors work together near-perfectly, and this dish is an excellent showcase of the amazing product available to the kitchen in this Mediterranean haven. 9/10.
A second knockout in a row—some truly excellent, incredibly fresh, and perfectly prepared Guinea fowl for the main course. Lightly pan-fried with a nice harkening back to the veggies course from the peas and mushrooms, this hearty and classic dish is a slam-dunk. The protein is tender, warm, and pairs perfectly with everything on the plate. 9/10.
As a palate cleanser prior to the finishing courses, a granité (granita) of Waldorf salad. Simple and elegant, I will admit that it tastes a lot like a lettuce icee, but it more than does the job. 8/10.
You would expect this place to have just a princely Maybach of a cheese cart, and you would have your expectations met. Showcasing cheeses from Southern France, Italy, and Switzerland, I selected (from upper left clockwise):
- Roquefort, exceptionally strong and salty
- Petit fiancé
- Comte. All excellent. 9/10.
As we are consuming the cheeses, a young man hard at work at the center of the restaurant with an enormous mobile cart full of greens brings us a freshly prepared "Salad a l'occasion." It appears to just be some leafy greens. I haven't had such a salad before offered mid-cheese-course as it is, but it's not unwelcome. 7/10.
To clean our hands, a beautiful dish of water perfumed with orange blossoms is offered to us. An extremely classy gesture.
Spanish strawberries for dessert, served with a mascarpone sorbet. 9/10.
A crunchy, sugary interlude of candied nuts are offered. Kind of like the salad a l'occasion, I'm not really sure why and I haven't seen anything like it before, but it's kind of fun. 8/10.
Though only some of the table partook, I wanted to share a photo of their incredible herbal tea cart which includes potted, growing plants used as infusions for the tea served tableside.
Some super-sugary candied fruits; limoncello, bamago, and mango. 8/10.
For some reason, I'm offered two caffeinated beverages on departure: some coffee from Laos, sweet and floral, as well as a particularly rich and well-made espresso from Brazil that help round out the meal and give me the caffeine boost I will later need to fight through drunken crowds of pre-race revelers outside.
What the menu describes as "chocolates from our factory"—Black chocolate from Peru, and milk chocolate from Brazil. Rich and amazing, it's a great advertisement for the boxes of chocolate they sell at the hostess stand on the way out. 9/10.
Marmalade of yuzu with a yuzu sorbet; soft, dairy-infused citrus flavors. A perfect finish. 9/10.
Located in Alba, Italy, famous for its white truffles, Piazza Duomo builds a menu each day that reflects the offering of their on-site biodynamic garden. Depending on which micro-season they're in, the chef (Enrico Crippa) must improvise. In his own words, "<The menu> is a daily task that I can't delegate to anyone and every day I am forced to learn and adapt." Choosing this strategy means that they can only seat a few dozen people each week, and I must say that the experience felt pretty exclusive and special. My overall thoughts are that this improvisational technique yielded a handful of truly outstanding moments—two of three of the dishes on this menu might be some of my favorites of all time—but it also produced some real duds.
PRICE PAID: $252 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)
FINAL SCORE: 7.0/10
Situated in Northwestern Italy, in a sub-regional called the Langhe (a UNESCO world heritage region since 2014,) the restaurant is in the middle of one of the richest food cultures in Europe. Along with the aforementioned white truffles of Alba, Barolo and Barbaresco wines can also trace their roots to this part of the world. From having spent an afternoon driving through it after lunch, I can tell you that the region is easily worth a few days' (or weeks' ) trip. Steep hillsides, vineyards, tiny fortressed villages... It's heaven on Earth.
Piazza Duomo's interior is up a flight of stairs from their brightly-painted streetside entrance, and a wandering collection of anterooms crowd the upper floor. This lobby is one of them.
We are led to the main dining room, which is a slightly less-offensive hue of pink than the exterior, and looks like someone's 8-year-olds had a field day with the wall paint. A bizarre criss-crossing abstract leaf pattern makes the point: "this place is a little odd." Nailed it. Outside, the gorgeous chalky colors of Alba shine through in the early Summer sun.
We are first brought two different chips made out of chickpea and buckwheat. The buckwheat version tastes exactly like Frosted Flakes without sugar. The chickpea chip has a rich, Middle-Eastern flavor to it. 7/10.
A nice palate-cleansing dish of shiso and green apple sorbet. The minty, cilantro-y flavors of shiso go perfectly with the apple, and the frozen temperature is a nice way to begin a set of vegetables. 9/10.
Next up, a series of small appetizer bites. From left to right, a rich bok choy leaf straight from the garden dipped in a lovely pâté of mushrooms and seeds (8/10). Next, mushroom paper with milkweed, as soft as actual paper (9/10). A pillow of corn with sesame seeds, which tastes just like cheesy bread (9/10). Lastly, on the right, a beautiful presentation of deep-fried spaghetti sticks with carbonara and eggplant. Strongly-flavored mint leaves are attached to the stick with some pretty edible flowers, also straight from the garden (9/10.) 9/10 overall.
Almond marzipan, with extremely strong tree nut flavor and a very sticky, gummy texture that I found agreeable. Allergics beware. 9/10.
Langoustine and veal tartare made to look like olives. They actually taste very olive-y. 7/10.
Peanut cracker, which tastes just like a light peanut butter. 8/10.
"Swiss chard sponge", with some tuna and mayo in the middle, an absolutely classic flavor combo. We are advised to eat with our fingers, and the soft sponge yields immediately to the lightest pressure. Beautiful, original, and fun. 8/10.
Next, foie gras cream with ginger foam, which we are advised to eat from the bottom up. Something is really bitter in the foam, unfortunately, and the very light and creamy foie gras doesn't quite make up for it. 6/10.
Endive salad with dill and cod. The cod is super light. Pretty delicious. 8/10.
The first main course was a precariously-plated, thin-shelled goose taco. Inside is an oversized portion of protein, chicken-mayo, Parmesan-Reggiano, and many varieties of leaves. There are strong mint flavors, but the overwhelming quantity and huge diversity of greens gives it a flavor of Too Much Garden. The taco shell also immediately disintegrates upon first bite, making it a real battle to eat. 5/10.
Another enormous quantity, this one titled "Eggs + Egg Salad." Caviar, egg whites, egg yolks, sour cream, seaweed, and a codfish broth on top. A lot of the leaves are partially wilted in some melted butter. This dish is absurdly large and very salty; it's also just six large piles of pretty much the exact same thing. For maybe the second time in this whole experience I could only get through about a third of it and gave up. 5/10.
This next dish, titled "Prawns & Cherries," was full of beautiful color. The gazpacho was constructed with tomato, orange, cherry, and red prawn. When taken all together it actually works really well. Lots of great flavors, and some serious depth comes from the flowers and mint. 9/10.
Called "Raw Colors," this dish was another strikingly-plated collection of brightly-hued ingredients. Red mullet with lots of powders, basically, with some that taste like vegetables and some like sea urchin. Each of those powders seems to be primarily made of salt, yielding yet another very briny dish, which is kind of overpowering. 6/10.
Sultanas and capers add some neutral colors to what is otherwise an extremely green dish. The cod buried within is absolutely perfect—actually the best cod I've ever had, fresh and cracklingly resh, and the vegetables are prepared perfectly. A completely different set of flavors than the previous dish. 10/10.
Though I'm not sure the photo will quite do it justice, this next dish was possibly the most artful, most gorgeous plated presentation I have come across in my entire adventure, period. Titled "Squid & Peas," a collection of brightly colored vegetables is paired with a mashed potato ragout and creatively-streaked squid ink. Great flavors and a mix of different textures. 9/10.
Made with white wine vinegar and corn powder, this straighforwardly-titled "foie gras and leaves" is, indeed, some foie gras under a leaf. There is a lot of crunchiness in the texture from the corn powder, which contrasts the foie in an interesting way. 7/10.
In yet another example of how my experience here was kind of all over the map, this was one of the most insanely delicious bites of pasta I have ever enjoyed outside of my favorite at La Pergola. Parmesan sauce, paired with an Islay Scotch whisky! The server brings the whisky over in a small spray bottle, and delicately applies a few puffs to the dish right after service.
Known for their heavy, peaty, smoky flavor, this particular Scotch pairs absolutely perfectly with the light cheese sauce and the pasta, which is itself dead simple and a touch al dente. 10/10.
Cardoncelli mushroom with asparagus, carrots, and pigeon. The pigeon is fresh, well-cooked, evenly spiced, and not overly rich (a rare event). Fantastic. 9/10.
If you had asked me before this meal whether the flavors of curry and banana go together well, I probably would have said, "hell no." But, I would have been completely wrong, because this curry, banana, chamomile reduction, and peanut butter rectangle crisp ensemble represents yet another stunningly original and functional flavor pairing that can only be called inspired. 9/10.
As we approach the end of the meal, some lychee sorbet as a palate cleanser. The flavors really worked well; sweet, simple. 9/10.
Buried under a layer of strawberry meringue, yet more strawberries. Sugary, over-the-top, near-perfect dessert. 9/10.
Strawberries and cherries, milk and grappa, and a variety of other small dessert bites. The milk and grappa has a bold, alcoholic flavor. Actually, it's totally fantastic. 9/10.
Lastly, a geometrically-laid-out group of chocolate truffles, decadent and fresh. A lovely finish to an excellent, if uneven, meal. 8/10.
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 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.
PRICE PAID: $251 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.