Three Stars

Germany- Überfahrt- ✪✪✪

Überfahrt Exterior

Überfahrt Exterior

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

SERVICE: 8.5/10

FOOD: 7.0/10

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

VALUE/MONEY: 7.5/10

FINAL SCORE: 7.5/10

Christian Jürgens

Christian Jürgens

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

Just outside the restaurant- the Tegernsee

Just outside the restaurant- the Tegernsee

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

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

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

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

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

2nd Course: Quail Egg, 7/10

2nd Course: Quail Egg, 7/10

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

3rd Course: Caviar, 8/10

3rd Course: Caviar, 8/10

Cod-on-a-Stick

Cod-on-a-Stick

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

4th Course: Artichoke + Egg, 9/10

4th Course: Artichoke + Egg, 9/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7th Course: Cheese, 8/10

7th Course: Cheese, 8/10

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

8th Course: Zuppa Romana, 9/10

8th Course: Zuppa Romana, 9/10

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

9th Course: Winter Garden Patisseries, 7/10

9th Course: Winter Garden Patisseries, 7/10

Black Forest Cake

Black Forest Cake

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

Bill + Chef's Hat

Bill + Chef's Hat

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

France- Pierre Gagnaire- ✪✪✪

PARIS, FRANCE

SERVICE: 9.0/10

FOOD: 8.5/10

PRICE PAID: $154 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 8.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 8.5/10

Tucked into the tiny Hotel Balzac right off the Champs-Élysées in Paris is Pierre Gagnaire's eponymous establishment. 

The restaurant itself reminds me a bit of the Simpson's episode where Moe attempts to turn his bar into a family-dining restaurant. 

"If you like good food, good fun, and a whole lot of…crazy crap on the walls, then come on down to Uncle Moe's Family Feedbag." I mostly thought that because there are a ton of newspaper clippings, old medical journal pages, and what one may generally term as crazy crap on the walls of this iconoclast chef. It's actually pretty tasteful and fun to look at.

 

First Bites: Cherries, Watermelon, Grape, + Herbs, 9/10

First Bites: Cherries, Watermelon, Grape, + Herbs, 9/10

To kick things off, a black squid ink ball, Uzu lemon tart with black olives in small shot glass, and a big glass with cherries, watermelon, grape, herbs. Zingy and super tasty. 9/10.

First Bites: Paprika breadsticks, 9/10

First Bites: Paprika breadsticks, 9/10

Hand-rolled breadsticks with paprika came next.. The small balls with dots are pumpernickel and Parmesan. Simple but delicious. At the bottom of the sticks' bowl is a delicious red meat sauce. Fun, complex, interesting, engaging. 9/10.

Breads + Butter

Breads + Butter

Log-shaped butter

Log-shaped butter

Delicious, delicous bread and butter. I have to say that the log-shaped butter is a clever and interesting presentation.

Just-baked breads

Just-baked breads

1st Course: The Smorgasbord, 8/10

1st Course: The Smorgasbord, 8/10

There's a lot going on in this course, so like a dork I'll break it down into constituent parts and discuss each. Overall rating is 8/10.

Course 1A: Skate wing, White Fish, Seaweed, 9/10

Course 1A: Skate wing, White Fish, Seaweed, 9/10

This skate wing is soft, tender, served in a fork and presented on top of seaweed and "pillars" of white fish... Delicate sea flavor with strong salinity. Great balance of textures. 9/10.

Course 1B: Red Currant Soup, 8/10

Course 1B: Red Currant Soup, 8/10

Next was some red currant soup- flavorful and sweet. 8/10.

Course 1C: Cuttlefish & Green Apple, 9/10

Course 1C: Cuttlefish & Green Apple, 9/10

Cuttlefish and green apple- almost potato-like starchy flavors... 9/10.

Course 1D: Crab & Bone Marrow Bisque, 9/10

Course 1D: Crab & Bone Marrow Bisque, 9/10

Green crab with bone marrow bisque was next- ungodly rich, with a big umami flavor. Such an interesting statement in contrast to the lighter dishes served next to it. 9/10.

Course 1E: Anchovy, 8/10

Course 1E: Anchovy, 8/10

Though normally not the biggest fan of complete, raw fish (my first experience at Hyotei was certainly mixed) this anchovy is crisp and crunchy. Check out the beautiful presentation on the folded leaf- 8/10. 

2nd Course: Liver Mousseline + Veggies, 7/10

2nd Course: Liver Mousseline + Veggies, 7/10

As a layup to the final savory courses, this liver mousseline with green veggies and flat beans arrived. A dense, rich presentation that played decently well together but not perfectly. A big heavy dish that made me feel full right before the big courses. 7/10.

3rd Course: Duck + Potatoes, 9/10

3rd Course: Duck + Potatoes, 9/10

Duck and potatoes are outstanding and rich. Look at those colors! 9/10.

4th Course: White fish, Potatoes + Greens, 9/10

4th Course: White fish, Potatoes + Greens, 9/10

A touch greasy, but an overall refreshing seafood dish to round things out before dessert.

5th Course: Petits Fours and small desserts, 8/10

5th Course: Petits Fours and small desserts, 8/10

Fun, lavishly presented Petit Fours and hand-made desserts. 8/10.

6th Course: Strawberry Everything Dessert

6th Course: Strawberry Everything Dessert

Dessert part one was three version of strawberry desserts- the thin pasty to the right cracked with the gentlest touch of the spoon; some were served hot and some were served cold. Reminded me of one of my favorite desserts of all time from Ryugin. 9/10.

7th Course: Dessert part deux, 8/10

7th Course: Dessert part deux, 8/10

A lovely assortment of cheesecake, cherries, and currants... Fruity and light; 8/10

Beautiful, hand-carved presentation

Beautiful, hand-carved presentation

Last Bites: Handmade fruit and nut bricks, 9/10

Last Bites: Handmade fruit and nut bricks, 9/10

What struck me most about this meal was the sheer creativity of the front- and back- of the house working together. Every dish was set down with a synchronized flourish from the very well-trained staff, and the kitchen is obviously willing to try new things. A fantastic restaurant, and well worth the visit. 

France- Epicure- ✪✪✪

Epicure Breakfast Table

Epicure Breakfast Table

PARIS, FRANCE

SERVICE: 9.5/10

FOOD: 7.5/10

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

VALUE/MONEY: 8.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 8.0/10

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

1st Course: Salmon & Flatbread, 9/10

1st Course: Salmon & Flatbread, 9/10

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

2nd Course: Jambon, 8/10

2nd Course: Jambon, 8/10

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

3rd Course: Golden Eggs, 10/10

3rd Course: Golden Eggs, 10/10

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

4th Course: Fruit & Yogurt, 6/10

4th Course: Fruit & Yogurt, 6/10

Branded Fruit Plate

Branded Fruit Plate

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

France- L'Assiette Champenoise- ✪✪✪

TINQUEUX (REIMS), FRANCE

SERVICE: 6.0/10

FOOD: 7.5/10

PRICE PAID: $233 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 7.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 7.0/10

In a beautiful, hilly neighborhood near Reims called Tinqueux you can find this gorgeous Champagne Country hotel/restaurant . I joined them for dinner and a night's stay courtesy of my hotels.com tactics, and selected their middle-of-the-road menu called "Savor." 

Hate to be a jerk, but service here was average at very best. Not only were the people working there totally disinterested in explaining anything in English (I know, a very American expectation) they were hard-pressed to say anything at all in French, either. In addition, even though this was a relatively small number of courses, we managed to hit close to five hours. Mostly by being ignored for forty minutes at a stretch. Absurdly long.

1st Course: Tomato & Spinach Croquettes, 7/10

1st Course: Tomato & Spinach Croquettes, 7/10

First out were two filling courses of vegetable pie- tomato and spinach- that were an interestingly heavy introduction to the menu. 7/10.

2nd Course: Veggie Ensemble, 7/10

2nd Course: Veggie Ensemble, 7/10

A pretty grouping of vegetables in a light broth emerged next. I liked the panache of the carved carrot inserted on top- pretty to look at, but rather bland to eat. 7/10.

3rd Course: Tomatos & Vegetables, 10/10

3rd Course: Tomatos & Vegetables, 10/10

This course was, without a doubt, the rockstar of the evening. I couldn't believe how much fine knifework went into this extensive, summery vegetable presentation. Insanely creative and crispy-fresh to boot. 10/10.

4th Course: Ginger in Vegetable broth, 8/10

4th Course: Ginger in Vegetable broth, 8/10

Another gorgeous dish served with the perfect plating: ginger and a light vegetable broth to round out the salad courses. 8/10.

5th Course: Brittany Mullet with Scales, 8/10

5th Course: Brittany Mullet with Scales, 8/10

A fascinatingly spiny Brittany Mullet was served next- cauliflower and broccoli served as an interesting textural contrast to the fresh fish. 8/10.

6th Course: Hen & Potato, 8/10

6th Course: Hen & Potato, 8/10

A very traditional, simple presentation of hen and potato. The standalone leaf is a pretty but merely decorative addition. 8/10.

7th Course: Chocolates, Served in Silver-Chocolate Dish, 8/10

7th Course: Chocolates, Served in Silver-Chocolate Dish, 8/10

I think it's pretty cool that the restaurant bothered to have cocoa bean-shaped serving dishes made custom for serving their first chocolate dessert. The chocolates themselves were delicious but a bit too creamy. 8/10.

8th Course: Tons of small baked goods, 7/10

8th Course: Tons of small baked goods, 7/10

This next dessert could only be described as a shitload of sweet baked goods. Eating one was a delicious treat; eating seven was work. 7/10.

9th Course: Chocolate Tarte, 9/10

9th Course: Chocolate Tarte, 9/10

I like how the shape of the curl of chocolate on the tart recalled the first vegetable course. A creative, pretty finish to some pretty stellar food. 9/10.

France- Pavilion Ledoyen- ✪✪✪

Pavilion Ledoyen exterior

Pavilion Ledoyen exterior

PARIS, FRANCE

SERVICE: 9.0/10

FOOD: 8.5/10

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

VALUE/MONEY: 7.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 8.0/10


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

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

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

Pavilion Ledoyen Main Entrance

Pavilion Ledoyen Main Entrance

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

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

1st Course: Ravioli & Hibiscus, 9/10

1st Course: Ravioli & Hibiscus, 9/10

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

Salted and unsalted butters

Salted and unsalted butters

Awesome, awesome breads

Awesome, awesome breads

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4th Course: Sole and Pasta, 9/10

4th Course: Sole and Pasta, 9/10

4A: Pasta in the renewed sauce  

4A: Pasta in the renewed sauce  

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

5th Course: Panko, 9/10

5th Course: Panko, 9/10

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

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

6th Course: Caviar and Crunchy Squares

6th Course: Caviar and Crunchy Squares

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

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

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

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

8th Course: Peas & Langoustine, 9/10

8th Course: Peas & Langoustine, 9/10

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

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

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

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

10th Course- Wagyu Beef, 10/10

10th Course- Wagyu Beef, 10/10

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

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

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

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

12th Course: Calvados Apple Pie, 9/10

12th Course: Calvados Apple Pie, 9/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

France- Le Meurice Alain Ducasse- ✪✪

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

PARIS, FRANCE

SERVICE: 8.0/10

FOOD: 7.0/10

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

VALUE/MONEY: 8.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 7.5/10

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

First Bites: Bread + Jam, 8/10

First Bites: Bread + Jam, 8/10

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

Course 1: Tropical Fruit Plate, 8/10

Course 1: Tropical Fruit Plate, 8/10

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

Course 2: Black Truffle Egg Benedict, 9/10

Course 2: Black Truffle Egg Benedict, 9/10

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

Course 3: Crêpe, 8/10

Course 3: Crêpe, 8/10

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

Belgium- Hertog Jan- ✪✪✪

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

LOPPEM-ZEDELGEM (BRUGGE), BELGIUM

SERVICE: 6.5/10

FOOD: 8.5/10

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

VALUE/MONEY: 7.5/10

FINAL SCORE: 7.5/10

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

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

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

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

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

First Bites: Smoked Mackerel, 9/10

First Bites: Smoked Mackerel, 9/10

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

First Bites: Tomato + Broth, 10/10

First Bites: Tomato + Broth, 10/10

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

First Bites, Continued: Beef Cannellonis, 7/10

First Bites, Continued: Beef Cannellonis, 7/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Course 1: Potato Soup + Coffee, 9/10

Course 1: Potato Soup + Coffee, 9/10

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

Course 2: Sea Bass, 9/10

Course 2: Sea Bass, 9/10

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

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

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

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

Course 4: Beet + Langoustine, 9/10

Course 4: Beet + Langoustine, 9/10

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

Course 5: Eel, 8/10

Course 5: Eel, 8/10

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

Course 6: Wagyu Beef, 9/10

Course 6: Wagyu Beef, 9/10

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

Course 7: Vegetables + Cream, 8/10

Course 7: Vegetables + Cream, 8/10

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

Belgium- Hof Van Cleve- ✪✪✪

Perched on a hilltop surrounded by idyllic Belgian countryside, renowned Flemish chef Peter Goossens has taken a gorgeous farmhouse and made it into a 40-seat restaurant of truly global quality.

Hof Van Cleve's View

Hof Van Cleve's View

KRUISHOUTEM, BELGIUM

SERVICE: 8.5/10

FOOD: 9.0/10

PRICE PAID: $456 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 7.5/10

FINAL SCORE: 8.5/10

 

Taking full advantage of their sweeping views and gorgeous physical layout, the wait staff greeted my late self just off a red-eye flight with courtesy and even hauled my ridiculously heavy carry-on bag into storage with enthusiasm bordering upon glee. I was invited onto this sun-drenched patio deck to enjoy an aperitif and the first few preview-courses as a means of easing into the meal. 

The deck was full of beautifully cushioned, hand-carved wooden chairs and tables. Carefully-laid brick underneath and manicured hedges and greenery surrounded me, emphasizing the glorious peak-summer day of my visit. In the far distance, silent wind turbines wound on and trees swayed in the breeze along small rivers. The only sound audible was the occasional chatter of other guests, but mostly we sat silently and enjoyed the perfection of the moment. A truly impeccable space. 

Service was extremely formal- no personal questions, not much eye contact, minimal hanging around at all times. With the many awkward arm bumps and hesitant command of English, I got the sense that much of the younger staff was here on some form of a summer internship. The average age for the service couldn’t have been more than 25.

First Bites: Strawberries + Cream, 9/19

First Bites: Strawberries + Cream, 9/19

First out was a small strawberry-and-cream dish that tasted like a fantastic smoothie. Creamy, light, and refreshing- perfect for the hot weather. 9/10.

First Bites, Continued: Seafood Crisps, 7/10

First Bites, Continued: Seafood Crisps, 7/10

Next up, a small set of seafood crisps- one with crispy-fresh, crunchy cucumber and herring, the other with shrimp. Each corner of the dish was immaculately presented, and you can tell right off the bat that the kitchen is taking these dishes seriously. 7/10, a bit greasy and actually a small challenge to eat, since the crisps disintegrated immediately.

Course 1: Herring + Lettuce, 10/10

Course 1: Herring + Lettuce, 10/10

Then, a bowl of herring with young lettuce- the colors were fantastic, and the plate selection was perfect here- salty herring playing off against fresh vegetables in a unique and fun way. 10/10.

Course 2: Beet Root + Liver, 10/10

Course 2: Beet Root + Liver, 10/10

Sadly, the last dish served on the terrace- a beautiful compilation of beet root, chicken liver, wheat block, and gelee. First, just look at the colors and the structure of this dish. Disassembled but still in a story that made sense. Super creative, I just love the look. 

The flavors were all correct as well- healthy lean beets go nicely with evil, rich liver, and the salty gelee sat somewhere in the middle. I can’t help but say this was another 10/10.

Arriving into the main restaurant in a seat towards the back corner closest to the kitchen, I was struck by the small size and intimacy of the place. In two medium-sized rooms there were no more than 12 tables in total, giving the place a very special, romantic feel. A youngish family of four Germans sat nearby, along with several loud, obnoxious French ladies who didn’t understand how or why one should disarm the ringer on one’s smartphone while dining out. A table of uncomfortable-looking dudes in short-sleeved button-ups stared awkwardly as if misdirected to the place while en route to the sports pub, and a couple on anniversary kept eyeing the menu prices nervously.

Course 3: Squid + Iberico Ham, 9/10

Course 3: Squid + Iberico Ham, 9/10

The first dish to arrive at the restaurant seat was a lovely, playful combination of squid, iberico ham, and squid stock. The squid was so fresh it almost resembled pasta in texture, and the squid’s sea-freshness was almost squeaky to chew, and went well with the salty iberico ham. 9/10. 

Course 4: Ponzu + Langoustine, 9/10 

Course 4: Ponzu + Langoustine, 9/10 

Check out this presentation of ponzu, langoustine, and radish. If it wasn’t clear that the kitchen was working their faces off up to this point, it should be now. Each individually-sliced radish appears precision-cut, and the “roof” it forms on the top of the dish balances out the flavors with that earthy radish flavor. The ponzu has rich flavors of banana, backed up by a nice coriander flavor. Very impressive dish. 9/10, only because it’s a little too filling.

Course 5: Lobster + Green Peas, 10/10

Course 5: Lobster + Green Peas, 10/10

Next, a dish that brought in the Oosterschelde Lobster (a lobster from the Netherlands' Eastern Scheldt in the North Sea, they are unique for their black-blue shells and turn bright red when cooked as you can see). The preparation included some snappingly fresh spring peas that complimented the shellfish perfectly. Some hearty green beans and lovely shies leaf rounded the dish out- a spectacular 10/10.

Course 6: Sea Bass + Broccoli, 8/10

Course 6: Sea Bass + Broccoli, 8/10

The sea bass dish was light, buttery, and paired perfectly with the crunchy, purposefully-undercooked broccoli. As the meal wore on, the filling dishes started to get a little overwhelming. 8/10. 

Course 7: Farm Chicken + Zucchini, 8/10

Course 7: Farm Chicken + Zucchini, 8/10

A fantastic take on a traditional roast chicken with artichoke, m'hamsa, and zucchini. The restaurant was clearly making the most of the summer vegetables available to them; lovely eggplant flavors throughout but another thick, buttery broth to fill thy cup o'er. 8/10.

Course 8: Pigeon, 9/10

Course 8: Pigeon, 9/10

An interesting if cruel final main dish- young pigeon served Anjou-style with sage, cauliflower, and burned onion. Small flowers, a foamy vegetable base, and rich pigeon sauce served as the final slam-dunk in a long and worthy meal. I'll be honest, I was beyond stuffed at this point. 9/10.

Course 9: Strawberry, 10/10

Course 9: Strawberry, 10/10

In a nice change of pace, a relatively light and fruity strawberry-based dessert with basil, lemon, and yogurt flavors. A thin strawberry broth backed it up, and I'd have to call this the close to perfect dessert. 10/10, a fantastic close to a fantastic meal. 

USA- The French Laundry- ✪✪✪

French Laundry Exterior

French Laundry Exterior

NAPA, CA, USA

SERVICE: 7.5/10

FOOD: 9.0/10

PRICE PAID: $420 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 7.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 8.0/10

Thomas Keller's West Coast headquarters has a vertically-integrated farm that supplies fresh produce, and when I visited in mid-May 2015 they were operating out of a temporary kitchen. The kitchen was set up in what used to be a gorgeous, well-manicured garden that I hope some day returns.

First Bites: Salmon Ice Cream, 8/10

First Bites: Salmon Ice Cream, 8/10

A fun old standby that I have seen before at Per Se, the softness of the Scottish salmon plays off nicely against the crunchy cone. 8/10. The herbs give a bright, fresh taste. 

First Bites Part 2: Gougère Cheese Balls, 8/10

First Bites Part 2: Gougère Cheese Balls, 8/10

Another replay from Per Se, these are pretty much the best cheesy poofs in the world. 8/10.

Course 1: "Oysters + Pearls," 9/10

Course 1: "Oysters + Pearls," 9/10

I'm starting to notice a pattern here- this completely outstanding dish that I continue to love every part of was also a holdover from Per Se. I guess there aren't too many folks who will be disappointed by the repetition of trying both restaurants in the same 6-week period. Two perfect oysters in a cream broth are matched up with a generous dab of Osetra-grade caviar, which evokes sensations of the sea and a multitude of earth-toned flavors. A decadent, delightful dish. 9/10.

Course 2: Fennel Salad, 9/10

Course 2: Fennel Salad, 9/10

The fennel salad came with preserved green strawberries and rhubarb- one of my favorite combinations in the world- and the combo works out perfectly. The greens are incredibly fresh, and smelled like that first moment you walk into a greengrocers who is stocking a fresh delivery. 9/10.

Course 3: Smoked Sturgeon, 9/10

Course 3: Smoked Sturgeon, 9/10

A bit on the heavy, buttery side, this small flank of sturgeon reeks of smoke that comes through well because the fish is so fresh and mild. 9/10.

Though I won't often make a big deal of sides, Thomas Keller has a great success here with his East- and West-coast butters, star of sea salts, and phenomenal fresh-baked breads. I enjoyed way more of these than I think you're supposed to in one sitting. 9/10.

 

French Laundry (11 of 25)-2.jpg
Course 4; Duck + Cherries, 9/10

Course 4; Duck + Cherries, 9/10

Another out-of-the-park home run as far as pairings go- duck and cherries are another absolutely classic match that are executed close to perfectly by the French Laundry. The interplay of corn, cherry, and duck is totally stellar. 9/10.

Course 5: Wagyu Beef, 8/10

Course 5: Wagyu Beef, 8/10

This made for an almost-perfect keystone dish. The A5 Wagyu is as rich and marble-y as one could ask for, but the chefs decided to coat it in an offensively thick layer of salt. I had to scrape most of it off with my fork, because before doing so it virtually bit my tongue. After removing the salt, it is close to perfect. 8/10

Course 6: Cheese + Mulberries, 8/10

Course 6: Cheese + Mulberries, 8/10

A simple, fresh cheese played off fantastically against the mulberries, which I'll admit I've never had before. 8/10.

Course 7: Strawberry Tart, 9/10

Course 7: Strawberry Tart, 9/10

The assembly and presentation was what really made this dish sing- A strawberry tart with saffron and pineapple blossom guava stems. There were also tiny cubes of strawberry gelatin throughout, and the small stems made for an amazing texture. The thyme also conveyed a tea-like taste that I enjoyed. 9/10.

Course 9: Buttermilk Ice Cream, 9/10

Course 9: Buttermilk Ice Cream, 9/10

This buttermilk ice cream came with a small tres leches cake. There is a black pepper/jam kick that pairs with the buttermilk in a truly unique way. 9/10.

Course 10: Pretzels + Chocolate, 8/10

Course 10: Pretzels + Chocolate, 8/10

Yet another throwback to Per Se, a rod of chocolate with a creamy center is married up to some salted pretzel bits. A reliable crowd-pleaser. 8/10.

Course 11: Handmade Chocolates, 8/10

Course 11: Handmade Chocolates, 8/10

As the meal concluded, we were offered a selection of hand-made chocolates from a wonderful presentation case that showcased each chocolate, organized by color. The case was what made this for me- someone hand-built a display for these chocolates! 8/10.

Course 12: "Coffee + Donuts," 9/10

Course 12: "Coffee + Donuts," 9/10

French Laundry (23 of 25)-2.jpg

Yet another classic Keller dish, the "coffee" is actually coffee-flavored ice cream with macarons. Perfectly tasty. 9/10.

USA- Grace- ✪✪✪

Grace Interior

Grace Interior

CHICAGO, IL, USA

SERVICE: 9.0/10

FOOD: 8.5/10

PRICE PAID: $235 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 8.5/10

FINAL SCORE: 9/10

A newcomer to the three-star ranking, Curtis Duffy's Grace restaurant is an up-and-coming, adventurous restaurant that takes an innovative approach to fine cuisine. There is a real focus on service, presentation, and detailed work at every step of the meal- the waiters appear practically choreographed in their movements- that makes the evening incredibly special. 

First Bites: Fava Bean Cracker + 4 Small Bites, 9/10

First Bites: Fava Bean Cracker + 4 Small Bites, 9/10

We start out with a super creative presentation- four small bites on a fava bean cracker, all served on an enormous log. Preserved Meyer lemon and lemon balm were sprinkled throughout, and each bite had a different character- salty, sweet, citrus, etc. 9/10.

Course 1: Trout + Caviar, 9/10

Course 1: Trout + Caviar, 9/10

Another exceptionally clever presentation- poached trout with Osetra-grade caviar from Germany, served in a yogurt cup with foil lid. The lid has saffron and uzu puree on the underside that we were encouraged to scrape off, and there was a pool of smoke inside as well. The smoke seeps into the salmon for a classic taste, and there are tiny Hon Shimeji mushrooms that are firm, crisp, and tiny. 9/10.

Course 3: Crab + Roe on "Ice," 9/10

Course 3: Crab + Roe on "Ice," 9/10

If you're starting to get the feeling that super-creative presentations are Grace's thing, then you're in the same boat I was in. Danish trout roe and crab with togarashi spice are carefully placed on a sharp, blade-like "ice" layer of cooked sugar. The sweet, candied sugar brings out the crisp flavors of the crab and vegetables, and the unique spice is a perfect match-up. The roe pops in your mouth- refreshing like a summer salad. 9/10.

Course 4: Oysters + Salad, 7/10

Course 4: Oysters + Salad, 7/10

Long Island oysters with herbs and seaweed, white grapefruit, and chewy maitake mushrooms were presented next. The flavor in the oysters themselves I would label as "movie popcorn," and this was a busy dish with tons of flavors and textures. Perhaps even a little too much going on. 7/10.

Course 5: Rabbit + Cannellini, 8/10

Course 5: Rabbit + Cannellini, 8/10

We got to experience the grilled rabbit, prepared in confit style, with cannellini beans. The rabbit was very well cooked, but a touch dry. 8/10.

Course 6: Braised Pork, 8/10

Course 6: Braised Pork, 8/10

An interesting take on a classic dish- this pork was braised and matched up with a port wine reduction and a chicharron of fried pork. The crispy, crunchy rinds pair perfectly with the pork, which falls apart under the fork. The main protein is rich, and stands up to the other ingredients- like cauliflower- well. 8/10

Course 7: Wagyu Beef, 9/10

Course 7: Wagyu Beef, 9/10

Served as a "deconstructed spring roll," this herb-driven dish came with a broth of Tom Yum and caramelized peanuts. True to A5 Wagyu form, this beef was well-marbled and exceptionally rich. The presentation was colorful and playful, with crunchy veggie chips to try to offset some of the richness of the dish. I really enjoyed this one- a great capstone course. 9/10.

Course 8: Ice Cream, 8/10

Course 8: Ice Cream, 8/10

At the beginning of the meal, we got asked whether we prefer chocolate or vanilla- and this was the payoff. Bite-sized ice cream cones of almost-butter-rich ice cream were a great follow-up to the Wagyu. 8/10.

Course 9: Frozen Pear, 9/10

Course 9: Frozen Pear, 9/10

Frozen Pear, Post-Opening

Frozen Pear, Post-Opening

Another unbelievably creative execution- a hollow sphere made of frozen pear juice, with blond brownie holding everything together at the base. The soft, almost gummy brownie is a great match for the pear. 9/10.

Course 10: Panna Cotta, 8/10

Course 10: Panna Cotta, 8/10

A beautiful dish of panna cotta and green strawberries. 8/10.

Final Bites: Cocoa Butter Sphere, 6/10

Final Bites: Cocoa Butter Sphere, 6/10

The final dish left a small sour note on my palate- a cocoa butter sphere had an extremely strong lemon tea inside that didn't agree with me- tasted somehow rusty and oxidized. 6/10. 

Japan- Chihana- ✪✪✪

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

Chihana Main Entrance

Chihana Main Entrance

KYOTO, JAPAN

SERVICE: 8.0/10

FOOD: 8.0/10

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

VALUE/MONEY: 7.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 7.5/10

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

The Main Restaurant Seating Area

The Main Restaurant Seating Area

Chef Nagata

Chef Nagata

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3rd Course: Vegetable Tempura, 8/10

3rd Course: Vegetable Tempura, 8/10

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

4th Course: Onion Soup, 7/10

4th Course: Onion Soup, 7/10

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

5th Course: Greens + Fish, 8/10

5th Course: Greens + Fish, 8/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8th Course: Raw Fish, 8/10

8th Course: Raw Fish, 8/10

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

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

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

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

10th Course: Red Snapper, 9/10

10th Course: Red Snapper, 9/10

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

11th Course: Bean Curd Soup, 8/10

11th Course: Bean Curd Soup, 8/10

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

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

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

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

13th Course: Rice + Herbs, 7/10

13th Course: Rice + Herbs, 7/10

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

14th Course: Orange Juice, 7/10

14th Course: Orange Juice, 7/10

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

Japan- Hyotei- ✪✪✪

Hyotei Exterior

Hyotei Exterior

KYOTO, JAPAN

SERVICE: 6.0/10

FOOD: 8.0/10

PRICE PAID: $45 PP (LUNCH)

VALUE/MONEY: 7.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 7.0/10

Hyotei (2 of 15).jpg

Though décor does not figure prominently into my rating schema, I would have to give Hyotei extremely high marks for their unbelievable space. From the outside on a rainy day, Hyotei's 14th-Generation owner/chef Eiichi Takahashi (yes, totally not kidding, 14th-generation) has taken care to present an unassuming portal. But, on the inside, a universe of colors and a delicate balance of indoor and outdoor space transports you to another time and place. The experience is beyond surreal upon entering the small door and walking through garden pathways to the restaurant. Which, by the way, was almost totally empty when I visited. The pinks and the greens popped so brightly, and the small stream flowed so perfectly and serenely through the mossy riverbed that even after taking ten minutes to absorb the space I could hardly believe it was real.

Hyotei Interior

Hyotei Interior

No one in the restaurant spoke a single word of English. Not even, "Hello," so I was stuck with, "Hi, I'm Andrew," until we squared away that I did, in fact, have a reservation and wasn't just lost. 

The lunch Bento Box

The lunch Bento Box

Bento Box Interior

Bento Box Interior

Lunch was presented in a traditional black-lacquered Bento box, together with fiddlehead ferns in a potato-based sauce. Several traditionally-dressed ladies participated in the presentation of the box, and very carefully explained each dish. They explained the ingredients, the origins, and the sources of each portion of the meal, along with talking through the Chef's strategy and his attempt to remain loyal to the spirit of this long-established restaurant. At least, I think they did, because once again I speak only the most crucial Japanese phrases and they made it clear that no effort would be made to accommodate an English-speaker, God bless 'em.

Course 1: Fish Paste + Vegetables, 7/10

Course 1: Fish Paste + Vegetables, 7/10

Starting with the dish on the lower-left, a pretty excellent balance of fish paste with a delicately carved starch and spring peas. This one pushed my comfort zone a little, in that I was completely unsure what any of these items were (except for the fish paste). 7/10.

Course 2: Whole FIsh + Grape Leaves

Course 2: Whole FIsh + Grape Leaves

Course 2: Inside the Grape Leaf

Course 2: Inside the Grape Leaf

The next dish (situated in the lower right on the main photo) included some more challenges to my Western palate. Dried, preserved fish in their entirety (eyes and all), along with some vinegar-dipped rice in a grape leaf. The grape leaf imbues a sweet and earthy flavor into the rice, and the fish were crunchy and actually pretty good. 

Course 3: Egg + Fish, 10/10

Course 3: Egg + Fish, 10/10

This next dish- a hot, cooked flank of incredibly cooked fish and the brightest-yellow eggs I have ever eaten. The richness of the eggs paired up with the lean fish in an incredibly fashion that blew my expectations away. I was really impressed with this dish. 10/10.

Course 4: Thinly-Sliced Fish + Fresh Vegetables, 9/10

Course 4: Thinly-Sliced Fish + Fresh Vegetables, 9/10

This dish in the upper right- thinly-sliced fish with a generous helping of incredibly fresh vegetables and a dash of soy sauce- rivaled some of the sushi I had had in Tokyo. 9/10.

Course 5: Fiddlehead Fern Soup, 9/10

Course 5: Fiddlehead Fern Soup, 9/10

After I wrapped up the Bento box, I was served a tremendous hot soup of fiddlehead ferns that were literally-just-picked fresh, an egg ball, and a rectangle of something totally delicious. Once again, wish I could figure the rectangle out. 9/10.

Course 6: Mushroom + Rice, 8/10

Course 6: Mushroom + Rice, 8/10

This incredibly fun dish- mushrooms and rice- was deceivingly plain but a pleasing finish to the meal. 8/10.

Final Round: Green Tea, 8/10

Final Round: Green Tea, 8/10

Finally, a ceramic cup of some of the richest Green tea I have ever experienced. 8/10.

Japan- Ryugin- ✪✪✪

Ryugin Main Entrance

Ryugin Main Entrance

TOKYO, JAPAN

SERVICE: 9.5/10

FOOD: 9.0/10

PRICE PAID: $310 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 8.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 9.0/10

Ryugin was an incredibly special blend of European, Chinese, and Japanese styles into a harmony that I haven't seen done as well anywhere in the world. It was also eclectic and experimental- some of the dishes could compete with the most innovative techniques I've seen in the US, and the overall experience was a seamless blend of new and old approaches. Seiji Yamamoto is the head chef, and he is also clearly proud of his many accomplishments, including the third Michelin star. A visitors' room I stumbled into upstairs has a flat-screen TV playing a video from his Michelin acceptance celebration on a loop.

The Ryugin Owl

The Ryugin Owl

Also, there is an owl. The owl viewed the visitors' room as his space.

The Ryugin Menu

The Ryugin Menu

Start to finish, every aspect of this evening was polished, almost to a fault. The menu, for instance, came in a stamped and post-marked envelope, and a perfectly readable (though certainly full of interesting word choices) English.

1st Course: Sea Urchin, 8/10

1st Course: Sea Urchin, 8/10

First up was a delicious, fried bite of sea urchin. It was rolled up in the individual maki with ginger and green peas, giving it a cool mix of flavors and textures, along with the crunch of the shell. 8/10.

2nd Course: Firefly Squid, 9/10

2nd Course: Firefly Squid, 9/10

This was my "you're not in Kansas any more" moment on the first trip to Japan. A plate of warm, whole squid (eyes and all) was gamely placed in an egg custard, and all of it cooked over charcoal. The charcoal comes through incredibly strongly, and the squid (I must admit I've never eaten whole squids before) were a delightful blend of exotic flavors- a rich umami blend- and paired perfectly with the egg custard. A surprisingly welcome combination and dish. 9/10.

3rd Course: "Just-in-Time" Soup and Cherry Leaves, 9/10

3rd Course: "Just-in-Time" Soup and Cherry Leaves, 9/10

The egg in the middle of this soup had a hard, crunchy white vegetable inside that was imbued with a softly fruit taste from the cherry leaves. A simple but interesting soup dish. 9/10.

4th Course: Fish, 8/10

4th Course: Fish, 8/10

As you can see, this palate of gorgeous color and shapes included (clockwise, from the top): fugu (pufferfish), Salmon, Monkfish liver, squid, and octopus. The salmon was soft and fresh, the liver tasted like an excellent cheese, and the octopus was spicy and super fresh. An amazing diversity of textures and flavors. My only (tiny) complaint is that the octopus is tough but yielding enough to be pleasurable. 

5th Course: Grilled Kin-Ki Fish, 7/10

5th Course: Grilled Kin-Ki Fish, 7/10

The deep-sea Kin-ki fish from Hokkaido is stuffed with eggplant. Smoky and rich as hell, the eggplant is a nice but bland flavor that served as a nice base for the super-rich fish. The fish wasn't quite to my tastes, and the bamboo shoot vegetables were a little too plain for me. 7/10. 

6th Course: Cook-Your-Own Broth, 8/10

6th Course: Cook-Your-Own Broth, 8/10

This next dish wins huge points for originality- a gas-driven hot-pot is brought out pre-filled with chicken broth, herbs, and fresh peas. A plate of Spring vegetables, colorful and fresh, is brought for dipping/cooking in the broth (I was told no more than 10-20 seconds is best) and a warm peanut dipping sauce is provided. Super fun to cook your own food ("we're going to make you work!" said the waiter jokingly). 8/10.

7th Course: Wagyu Beef, 10/10

7th Course: Wagyu Beef, 10/10

I won't have to tell you much more than this was the best Wagyu beef I have ever had, hands down. The beef was covered in rich sauce, and the egg of a particularly prized hen sat underneath. 10/10. 

Course 8: Chicken + Rice, 9/10

Course 8: Chicken + Rice, 9/10

This chicken was unlike any poultry I have ever tasted- soft, almost to the consistency of clay, paired up nicely with the crunch of the seeds and the richness of the rice. The chef made this dish by memory from his favorite meal as a kid- one of several sentimental references to youth and memory that chef's Spring menu portrayed.

Course 9A: Hot + Frozen Strawberries

Course 9A: Hot + Frozen Strawberries

Course 9B: Hot + Frozen Strawberries

Course 9B: Hot + Frozen Strawberries

Another incredibly adventurous dish that resembled something I thought Alinea might try. A frozen strawberry, dipped in -150F frozen nitrogen, is paired up with a spoonful of hot strawberries cooked to +150F, yielding a 300 degree temperature difference. The effect was almost like pop rocks- it snapped and crackled on the tongue and was almost overwhelmingly sweet. An incredibly creative and fascinating dish. 10/10.

 

10th Course: Sake Ice Cream + Sake Soufflé

10th Course: Sake Ice Cream + Sake Soufflé

The sake glasses

The sake glasses

The second dessert was equally beautifully presented- a warm soufflé of sake, paired with sake ice cream, and all with an unfiltered house sake poured on top. The alcoholic tinge made the sake taste "real," and the effect was that of drinking the finest glass of sake I've ever had. Also worth noting- I got to pick my own sake glass for consumption, which came on a gloriously colorful tray. 

11th Course: Traditional Matcha Tea

11th Course: Traditional Matcha Tea

Made with a traditional Matcha brush, the tea was so rich that it almost tasted like a shot of wheatgrass. Flavors of pure cut grass, seaweed, and rich tea. A fantastic finish to a fantastic meal.

USA- 11 Madison Park- ✪✪✪

Certainly the restaurant whose staff was working the hardest among my New York visit restaurants, 11 Madison Park stood out as the group who were hustling the hardest to provide an outstanding three-star experience. 

11 Madison Park Main Dining Room

11 Madison Park Main Dining Room

NEW YORK, NY, USA

SERVICE: 10.0/10

FOOD: 9.0/10

PRICE PAID: $218 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 9.5/10

FINAL SCORE: 9.5/10 

If you want to see what truly world-class dining service looks like, you need go no further. 11 Madison Park gave me an amazing team of people- Jane, Aurora, Ellen, and Megan- who worked together professionally and flawlessly to create an unforgettable experience. 11 Madison Park achieved my highest score so far, 9.5/10.

First Bites: Black + White Cookie, 8/10

First Bites: Black + White Cookie, 8/10

The first entrant is a small gift-box when I was seated at my table. A cookie with black and white colors, apple-flavored and sweet. It was crunchy, simple, and pretty. 8/10.

Course 1: Woods Hole Oysters, 9/10

Course 1: Woods Hole Oysters, 9/10

Two oysters- the one on the left prepared with "apple snow," the one on the right warm with chestnut. The rocks under the right-hand side were warm to the touch, and ice sat under the left. Very cool presentation, and excellent fresh oysters. 9/10.

Course 2A: Sturgeon

Course 2A: Sturgeon

Course 2B: Caviar

Course 2B: Caviar

Course 2: All together

Course 2: All together

This is where things really began to take off- an awesome, creative presentation that arrived in a smoke-filled cover. Included was a small can of Malossol caviar, some thin baked breads, cream cheese, and pickled beets. A smorgasbord to begin with. The sturgeon was fantastic (and, incredibly smoky, as you might guess) and the caviar was excellent. 8/10.

Course 3: Turnips + Juniper, 8/10

Course 3: Turnips + Juniper, 8/10

Course 3 Post-Broth

Course 3 Post-Broth

A simple presentation of turnips in a turnip and juniper broth- the dish had a delicious vinegar zing to it and some really awesome colors. The broth reminded me of whisky and the bowl was the perfect selection to pair up with the dish. 8/10.

Duck Fat + Sea Salt Butters, 9/10

Duck Fat + Sea Salt Butters, 9/10

Another cool presentation of two butters contrasted against each other, 11 Madison Park had plain (on the left) against the same butter rendered in duck fat (on the right). The duck-fat butter was smoky and delightful, and the sea salt is from a husband-and-wife team on the Narragansett- pure, rich, and the perfect match to either of the creamy butters. 9/10.

Course 4: Cabbage + Foie Gras, 9/10

Course 4: Cabbage + Foie Gras, 9/10

A perfectly bizarre, natural pairing of colors and flavors- the bitter of the cabbage complimented the sweet richness of the Hudson Valley foie gras. The cabbage is cooked and marinated with the foie, and presented on a plain ceramic dish to showcase the colors perfectly. 9/10.

Course 5: Kitchen Tour + Pastrami + Celery Soda, 10/10

Course 5: Kitchen Tour + Pastrami + Celery Soda, 10/10

This was one of the coolest things that has happened in my adventure so far. I was invited for a kitchen tour mid-meal, and as I arrived back in the kitchen I was greeted with a set table that included a hand-made pastrami sandwich, and a bottle of celery soda modeled on Cel-Ray, a favorite of delis in New York.

Course 6: Lobster Newburg, 10/10

Course 6: Lobster Newburg, 10/10

Course 6, with fire

Course 6, with fire

Another dish big on showmanship- Lobster Newburg, prepared tableside with mushrooms. While preparing my meal, I was told the entire story of how Lobster Newburg came to be at Delmonico in New York. The story was fascinating, the preparation was a delight, and the dish itself was fantastic. 10/10.

Course 6, Post-Fire Show

Course 6, Post-Fire Show

Course 7: Celery Root + Black Truffle, 9/10

Course 7: Celery Root + Black Truffle, 9/10

Next came a celery root cooked inside a pigs bladder. Entertainingly but a bit strangely, one of the chefs brought the pigs bladder by my table as the root was cooking inside. I thought this show-and-tell was yet another example of the confident, over-the-top service style here, and I learned something about how these dishes are prepared. 9/10.

Course 8: Duck, 10/10

Course 8: Duck, 10/10

The duck- once again, carved tableside- has been aged in a bristling layer of spices for almost two weeks before being served. The effect was truly incredible- the spices soak deep into the flesh and give the duck a far most complex flavor than any I have ever tasted. 10/10.

Course 9A: Squash, 9/10

Course 9A: Squash, 9/10

Course 9B: Salad, 9/10

Course 9B: Salad, 9/10

An excellent wind-down from the heavy main courses beforehand, the Carnival Squash is roasted with cheese, and prepared with a small, fresh salad. A bit filling for so far along in the meal, but a welcome break from the mains and an original take on the cheese course. 9/10.

 

Course 10: Botrytis + Sorbet, 9/10

Course 10: Botrytis + Sorbet, 9/10

This next dish was curious... White wine purposely infected with Botrytis, a fungus that is normally a threat to agriculture that in this case is sought after for its pleasant taste. Also known as noble rot, it gives wines an even-sweeter taste. I certainly found that to be true of this dish, and thought that the bitter almond sorbet was an excellent pair. 9/10.

Course 11: Maple Ice Cream, 9/10

Course 11: Maple Ice Cream, 9/10

A fun, sweet prsentation of Maple ice cream, bourbon-barrel aged and with dry ice. 9/10.

Final Bites: Chocolate-Covered Pretzel, 9/10

Final Bites: Chocolate-Covered Pretzel, 9/10

Last but certainly not least, a chocolate-covered pretzel served alongside a sweet version of the greeting cookie. Charming, and rounded the night out nicely. 9/10.

 

I also want to mention that in addition to providing truly incredible service the entire night, the staff got word of my round-the-world adventure and put together a parting gift that included snacks and even a neck pillow. I can't tell you how touched I was by the hard work these people put into making my night special, and I will remember it forever.

USA- Jean-Georges- ✪✪✪

NEW YORK, NY, USA

SERVICE: 7.0/10

FOOD: 8.5/10

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

VALUE/MONEY: 7.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 7.5/10

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

First Bites: Scottish Salmon Carpaccio, 9/10

First Bites: Scottish Salmon Carpaccio, 9/10

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

Course 1: Caesar Salad, 9/10

Course 1: Caesar Salad, 9/10

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

Course 2: Parsnip Soup, 10/10

Course 2: Parsnip Soup, 10/10

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

Course 3: Suckling Pig, 6/10

Course 3: Suckling Pig, 6/10

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

Course 4: Citrus, 9/10

Course 4: Citrus, 9/10

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

Last Bites: Petit Fours, 7/10

Last Bites: Petit Fours, 7/10

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

USA- Masa- ✪✪✪

NEW YORK, NY, USA

SERVICE: 9.0/10

FOOD: 9.0/10

PRICE PAID: $390 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 6.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 8.0/10

On a busy Saturday night, I visited Masayoshi Takayama's self-named restaurant, Masa. It has the dubious distinction of being the most expensive sushi restaurant in the US, and some call it the best. It is the only sushi restaurant stateside to have earned three Michelin stars, and Masa demonstrates the same traditional focus on ingredient quality and execution that earns the best rankings in Japan. 

Masa grew up working in his family's fish market stall in Tochigi Prefecture, delivering fresh sashimi to neighbors and customers on his bike. His lifetime of experience with seafood gives him a unique perspective to offer US customers a taste of the highest-quality sushi in the world. Masa began his life in the US with another highly traditional restaurant in Los Angeles that focused on providing an authentic experience for Japanese expats. He eventually got a zealous local following, including Marlon Brando.

Though he doesn't allow photos in his restaurant, I can do my best to describe the experience. Here's a pro tip: when making the reservation, request to be served by Masa himself. It doesn't cost any extra, and as long as you're polite and are making the reservation far enough in advance they'll usually accept. Requesting this honor gave me a seat front-and-center at the blond wood sushi bar. A huge yellow, blooming tree served as a backdrop to his work. The space is calm, relaxing, quiet, and focused. Watching the man himself work was a real treat- he is in complete control of the space and the kitchen. When he needed new ingredients- wasabi, let's say- he would mutter "wasabi" quietly under his breath and the whole kitchen would respond in an outdoor voice: "wasabi!" Within fifteen seconds, someone would bring him fresh ingredients. Subtle and impressive to watch.

The meal began with a few small amuse-bouche and appetizers served by the backup kitchen staff. First was a vegetable and mustard-y dish with a bright, spicy zing. Next was a small leafy green salad with fish, and of remarkable note was a whole cooked sea urchin served in its spiny shell that has the exact consistency and taste of cheddar mac and cheese (9/10). 

The night's menu depends on which fish the chef has flown in from Tsu-Jiki market or been able to find in New York, but on the night in question I enjoyed:

  • Japanese Mackerel- 9/10
  • Fluke- 9/10
  • Squid, with the skin delicately removed by hand- 10/10
  • Sweet Shrimp- 10/10
  • Cooked Sea Eel- 8/10
  • Uni (Sea Urchin) that tasted almost like liquid butter- 10/10
  • Cooked Shiitake Mushroom, fresh from the grill- 9/10
  • Red Clam- 8/10
  • Fatty Tuna- 10/10
  • Vegetable and Shiso- 9/10

For dessert, Masa served a fruit and ice mixture with some soothing tea. Overall an extremely traditional presentation, and the coolest part was- as soon as he was done serving my meal, Masa excused himself to go to his other restaurant across town. An incredibly special evening.

USA- Per Se- ✪✪✪

NEW YORK, NY, USA

SERVICE: 9.0/10

FOOD: 8.0/10

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

VALUE/MONEY: 7.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 8.0/10

View of Columbus Circle 

View of Columbus Circle 

Screen Shot 2015-04-08 at 7.58.39 PM.png

On a chilly weekend afternoon right around the Ides of March, I visited Thomas Keller's East Coast flagship restaurant, Per Se. Eli Kaimeh runs this branch on Keller's behalf, and has for more than a decade.

Located right on Columbus Circle (and, coincidentally, literally across the hall from my other visit to Masa), the New York Times called this the best restaurant in New York City

As I was visiting six restaurants in a single weekend, I needed to make choices to optimize the experience. Something that makes Per Se special is that they serve the same menu for lunch and dinner, giving me access to the full tasting early in the day (so I'd have enough time to walk it off by dinner). Per Se offers an 11-course menu with a few optional upgrades, and you can reduce the number of courses for a few dollars less. Interesting, flexible menu concept.

Per Se Main Entrance

Per Se Main Entrance

Walking into Per Se felt a little like walking into a really nice Spa. Calm atmosphere, lots of stone and... at the top of four flights of escalators in a mall. A nice mall, mind you. But, an enormous mall in the middle of Manhattan. I was greeted by a whole fleet of smiling, impeccably prepared staff members and then showed to my table. 

Keller's Custom Champagne

Keller's Custom Champagne

One of the best parts about being a huge screaming deal in the culinary industry is that you get to do things like have vineyards make custom Extra Brut champagne for you. In this particular case, Thomas Keller has his own version of Schramsberg that they pour in all his major restaurants- the Laundry, Bouchon, etc. Interestingly, Schramsberg is the champagne they serve in the White House- a tradition Nixon started many decades ago. It was fresh and crisp and fruity like most good Blanc de Blancs champagnes, and thrown in with the meal it was a welcome complimentary treat.

First Bites: Gougere Cheese Puffs, 7/10

First Bites: Gougere Cheese Puffs, 7/10

Have you ever had cheesy puffs? Imagine those, except made by a three-star chef. Mostly butter, but crunchy and pretty good. 7/10.

Course 1: Scottish Salmon Cone, 8/10

Course 1: Scottish Salmon Cone, 8/10

This dish wins points for the super fun and original presentation. The "cone" is a crunchy baked tuile with a hand-folded napkin all around. Soft fresh salmon with a light grazing of herbs make this a pretty excellent kickoff. 8/10.

Course 2: "Oysters + Pearls," 10/10

Course 2: "Oysters + Pearls," 10/10

This dish is a Keller favorite, and a real crowd-pleaser. Two oysters with caviar and a nice starchy base. The smooth, even sauce had a neutral flavor that really brings out the caviar. An absolutely perfect melody of textures and tastes. 10/10.

Course 3: Egg Custard, 10/10

Course 3: Egg Custard, 10/10

At this point in the meal, I started to get excited that this experience might approach a "best meal ever" status with two amazing courses right in a row. This dish is also a fixture at the French Laundry- a precision-cut hen's egg with a baked cracker stuck into the (extremely, extremely rich) custard made from the egg itself inside. 10/10.

Parker House Rolls

Parker House Rolls

The Michelin-Shaped Salt Star

The Michelin-Shaped Salt Star

Two Parker House rolls (a recipe created by a Boston Hotel in the nineteenth century, and mostly butter) were presented with two additional butters- one from an East-Coast creamery, the other from the West Coast. It was fascinating to observe the subtle taste differences between the two- the West Coast butter had a sharp, pronounced flavor while the East Coast butter was soft, creamy, and served as a great base for the six salts offered in a Michelin-Star shaped bowl. While each of the salts were interesting, my server Eric explained that the Malden salt exploded with such flavor because it had a unique pyramid-shaped structure that gave it more surface area. I was spoiled for choice and really enjoyed this part of the meal. 9/10.

Course 4: Foie Gras, 6/10

Course 4: Foie Gras, 6/10

This next course is where things went from rich to unbelievably super-rich. A hockey-puck sized torchon of foie gras was served with a banana covered in green onion, peanuts, flowers, and chocolate sauce. While this was certainly a tasty combo, after the richness of the previous few dishes it was totally overwhelming. Along with being an enormous slice of foie gras, the salt and fat was seriously overpowering. It took me almost 15 minutes to get through. 6/10.

Course 5: Turbot, 8/10

Course 5: Turbot, 8/10

This next dish of turbot was succulent and perfectly cooked. Small coins of potato/starch played off nicely against the mouthfeel of the fish. There was a clean, crisp zing from the radishes flown in from Keller's vertically-integrated garden on the West Coast. The chips were a bit much, but otherwise a thoughtfully-constructed dish. 8/10.

Course 6: Scallops, 7/10

Course 6: Scallops, 7/10

Getting into the last of the seafood dishes, the scallops were served blue foot mushrooms that were crunchy and matched the texture of the scallops. The scallops themselves were heavily salted on one side, so much that I had to scrape some off. 7/10.

Course 7: Pollard, 7/10

Course 7: Pollard, 7/10

So much salt. See those large white crystals? All salt. Too much salt. Please stop with the salt. 7/10.

Course 8: Beef, 9/10

Course 8: Beef, 9/10

Hearty, well-paired, traditional, and delicious. Everything you'd expect from a Thomas Keller main dish. 9/10.

Course 9: Pork Belly, 8/10

Course 9: Pork Belly, 8/10

A pungent, thick cheese was paired up with three small cubes of pork belly. A powerful dish, and an interesting conclusion to the mains. 8/10.

Course 10: Pâte de Fruits 8/10

Course 10: Pâte de Fruits 8/10

A fascinating pairing of sweet fruits and savory spices- Thanksgiving-like, with cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg. The effect was quite delicious. 8/10.

Course 11: Crème Brûlée Ice Cream, 9/10

Course 11: Crème Brûlée Ice Cream, 9/10

An awesome take on a classic everyone loves- crunchy crème brûlée topping on crème brûlée ice cream. and all on a butter cracker. Creative, interesting, stunningly great flavor. 9/10.

Course 12: Chocolate + Pretzel, 8/10

Course 12: Chocolate + Pretzel, 8/10

A rounded bar of dark chocolate with crispy salted bread on top. A delightful little dish. 8/10.

Course 13: Choice of Chocolates, 7/10

Course 13: Choice of Chocolates, 7/10

As we approached the close of the meal, I was offered a huge selection hand-made chocolates from a local purveyor. I chose ones that ended up tasting exactly like peanut butter & jelly, and white chocolate. 7/10. 

Course 14: Medjool Dates, 7/10

Course 14: Medjool Dates, 7/10

A delicious (and finally non-rich) dessert. Very tasty Medjool dates. But, you know, they were just dates. 7/10.

Course 15: "Coffee + Donuts," 10/10

Course 15: "Coffee + Donuts," 10/10

Another Keller standby- this one is also served at the French Laundry if you ask for it (no charge). The "coffee" is actually a coffee-flavored ice cream with a heavy layer of cream foam on top. The donut is fresh, hand-made, with a light coating of brown sugar. They pair up nicely, and the overall effect is totally amazing. 10/10, a great finish to the meal.

Last Bites: Macarons + Candies + Cupcakes, 9/10

Last Bites: Macarons + Candies + Cupcakes, 9/10

A pretty standard collection of macarons, small candies, cupcakes, etc. You leave with the sense that there's no way you could be hungry afterwards. They even packed up a small bag of take-home treats that I got to bring with me. An extremely complete experience overall!

USA- Chef's Table at Brooklyn Fare- ✪✪✪

NEW YORK, NY, USA

SERVICE: 4.0/10

FOOD: 8.0/10

PRICE PAID: $275 (pre-challenge)

VALUE/MONEY: 5.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 5.0/10

I'll start this review with three of the English language's most lethally condescending words:

In Their Defense...

The Chef's Table is an extremely unique physical space. I'd like you to imagine what fine dining on a submarine might look like, and your first draft of that idea is actually just perfect. Imagine how people might move, how they might bump and sidle around each other, how they might squeeze themselves into seats and bulkheads. Now, in your imagination, also cram in a bulky Molteni stove and about 1,500 pounds of copper cookware, and you're closer.

You enter a cramped portal where a dosey-do must occur between you and the host in order to remove your jacket. Special note- try to go in the summer, or wear your least awkward coat. After removing said coat, you'll glance up to notice that no matter how many patrons, chefs, and staff members occupy the space, they are all now making direct, intimate eye contact with you. From the moment you walk in to the 6x6x6-seat "Chef's Table" area, you have the feeling that you've now entered the flight deck. Or, like I said, a submarine.

César Ramirez, a wunderkind chef who has gotten the culinary world's attention as much for his restaurant's business model as his dishes, worked his way up from a cult dining establishment to a full three Michelin stars in only a few years. He's gotten rave reviews from the Times and many others. I'll admit to having higher expectations here than most of the other restaurants I have visited.

Of special note to bloggers, writers, or others seeking to memorialize their special private dining experience - you may not. Being the obstinate fool that I am, I failed to read down to the seventh paragraph of my email confirmation, which clearly stated:

I should have known this would be trouble...

I should have known this would be trouble...

In Their Defense, I should point out that I'm thrilled with restaurants that take a strong stance on building their guests' experiences. Over the moon, in fact, in a world of social media and (hey, the exact space this blog occupies) exploitive food photography (I shudder to say food porn). I'd like to think that there's a difference, though, between classily asking customers to refrain from photos and angrily hissing to remove my camera and notepad from the table space. An extremely awkward first interaction with the person occupying the center of that 6x6x6 space turned out to be a bad omen for the rest of the meal. He also turned out to be the waiter/runner/expo, and the only wait staff I would speak to all night besides a clueless, silly sommelier with a full page of $2,000 Romanée Conti bottles on offer. Absurd, by the way. 

I'll do my best to summarize some high points. Early courses were smallish dishes of seafood lightly prepared- Japanese big eye tuna with shiso, with a bright, shiny, herbaceous flavor. Japanese anchovies, fried fish with wasabi that had a killer kick, and then the crown jewel of the evening, by a long shot. Cooked sea urchin on a small square of toast, which tasted like pure liquid buttery goodness. The product was fresh, and had been prepared only seconds before I ate it, and it was absolutely perfect. 

The best course was, however, also an embodiment of the worst parts of the experience- that waiter/runner/expo I told you about (you'll remember, because it will be the only person you speak to) saw his role as that of some kind of perverse announcer. He would scurry back and forth in his small stainless steel pen, bringing two dishes at a time from the kitchen to the diners. He would pause with care, and place the dishes in front of his customers. Then, with a flair, he would look up with intensity, and with just the right amount of effete accent, say: "Sea Urchin. Prepared On Toast." Hold that eye contact an extra second, and then he'd vanish back across the pen to the kitchen to make a similarly dramatic pronouncement to the two people sitting less then three feet away, who had very much already heard him. It was really weird to watch this happen many times in a row for each course.

The second half of the meal was notable and fun- lamb with white asparagus that was perfectly salted and minted, shiso sorbet and milk chocolate foam that melts away as you eat for dessert, Meyer lemon and chocolate cookies. But, I never really got over how forced the behaviors were, how unpleasant this stilted environment was. As we shoved our way down the narrow hall, the second seating's guests were roughly jostling inside and throwing off their coats, I felt a wave of relief wash over me with the chilly Spring night air. 

 

USA- Le Bernardin- ✪✪✪

Le Bernardin's head chef Eric Ripert grew up in both France and Andorra, a small country on the border with Spain, where starting at age 17 he began working in fine dining restaurants like La Tour D'Argent. Le Bernardin is one of the most consistently high-ranked restaurants in the world, with a 4-star rating from the New York Times since 1986 and 3 Michelin stars since 2005. Ripert is known for his focus on seafood- he once served as the poissonier for Joel Robuchon.

Le Bernardin Main Entrance

Le Bernardin Main Entrance

NEW YORK, NY, USA

SERVICE: 7.5/10

FOOD: 8.5/10

PRICE PAID: $87 (LUNCH)

VALUE/MONEY: 9.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 8.0/10

If you're on the hunt for a classic urban open-format French restaurant, then look no further. Le Bernardin's dining room has all the modern-artsy, well-appointed, gilded look once could possible desire. Fantastic lighting and set pieces make this space really sing.

Le Bernardin Interior

Le Bernardin Interior

First Bites: Scottish Salmon + Toast, 8/10

First Bites: Scottish Salmon + Toast, 8/10

As a delightful pre-course amuse, the restaurant offered a hash of poached salmon. The fish was perfectly cooked and tasted both rich and smooth on the palate. The hand-sliced thin toast was a great touch. 8/10.

1st Course: Sea Trout, 9/10

1st Course: Sea Trout, 9/10

For my first lunch course, I selected the ultra rare sea trout with braised ramps and sauce gribiche. The warm trout pairs with the miso perfectly, and the small dash of fried and fresh veggies on top adds a crispy texture. 9/10.

2nd Course: Duck + Sour Cherry, 10/10

2nd Course: Duck + Sour Cherry, 10/10

Besides being generous in portion, the duck with sour cherry is possibly the coolest pairing I've yet experienced, especially on a lunch menu. This second course kind of knocked my socks off- the duck was cooked to absolute perfection, and the sweet cherries played off the fatty duck exquisitely. The snow pea chunks added a nice mouthfeel. 10/10.

3rd Course: Pear + Vanilla Bourbon, 8/10

3rd Course: Pear + Vanilla Bourbon, 8/10

Third and final course- a slice of roasted Bosc pear with a pear and olive oil emulsion-filled bonbon. An inspired collection of flavors, and a nice simple conclusion to the meal. 8/10.

USA- Saison- ✪✪✪

On February 20th, I sat down to a meal at Joshua Skenes' Saison restaurant, a place that is singular in its execution of a transparent kitchen, novel preparation and aging approaches, and strong on style the whole way through. A huge upside is the unbelievable, personal service from true culinary dorks like myself (and I mean that in the nicest way possible,) most specifically Max the Sommelier and Megan and Christine the waiters. Request them if you can- they're super intelligent, know the content, were super sharp the whole evening. 

SAN FRANCISCO, CA, USA

SERVICE: 9.5/10

FOOD: 9.0/10

PRICE PAID: $423 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 7.5/10

FINAL SCORE: 8.5/10

Saison Entrance

Saison Entrance

The entrance makes a huge impression- stacks of almond tree wood that ends up in the ember smoker a few feet away in the kitchen. A nice dramatic effect that communicates something about your experience before you even sit. Saison is big about giving closure- ingredients, themes, and flavors from the beginning of your experience come back to wish you farewell at the end, and the symmetry to the evening wasn't lost on me.

1st Course: Meyer Lemon Tea + Garden Herbs, 8/10

1st Course: Meyer Lemon Tea + Garden Herbs, 8/10

Saison has their own farm that supplies many of the herbs and vegetables Saison uses. They serve a small bundle of those herbs with a simple but likable Meyer lemon tea in a thin-walled apparently handmade ceramic cup. This first course presentation is very cool, but one practical downside to the thin cup body with no handle is that the container is piping hot to the touch. Thus, it's quite time-consuming to drink- took me about 15 minutes. 8/10

2nd Course: Garden Peppers + Whipped Buttermilk, 9/10

2nd Course: Garden Peppers + Whipped Buttermilk, 9/10

The second course rode in an equally impressive hand-cut glass plate- complete with cover that stood in as a rest for the wooden spoon- and played up the light hitting the bright green vegetables. The peppers had a nice little spicy kick, and the buttermilk cream smoothes out the rough edges and adds a fantastic texture. Clever presentation, great dish. 9/10.

3rd Course: Osetra Caviar + Garden Herb Gelee

3rd Course: Osetra Caviar + Garden Herb Gelee

The third course of Osetra-grade caviar is served on a gelee of vegetables (once again, from their vertically-integrated garden) with a clear liquid pork fat poured over top. While the smooth gelee serves as a nice foundation and contrasts the mouthfeel of the caviar texture nicely, the pork fat flavor runs a little roughshod over the delicate sea flavors of the caviar. 7/10.

4th Course: Black Cod + Mushroom + Pine, 8/10

4th Course: Black Cod + Mushroom + Pine, 8/10

The fourth course was some Black Cod from Half Moon Bay cooked in a fire with chanterelle and yellowfoot mushrooms. The broth was made of the cod bones. This dish struck me as clever because the mushrooms and cooked cod had similarly squeaky-crunchy texture that went together well. The broth had a lovely campfire smoke taste that finishes the dish with elegance. 8/10.

5th Course: Lobster, 8/10

5th Course: Lobster, 8/10

The fifth course featured lobster meat from the mitts and tail warmed over those almond-wood embers I mentioned a second ago. In the white bowl in the background is a Meyer lemon (catching the theme yet?) and citronet, which was poured over the lobster. The butter is made from the lobster's brains, and a small condensed morsel of dehyydrated and rehydrated seaweed was tucked in the corner of the intricate glass bowl. The lobster's temperature was perfect; pour the cxitronet immediately for maximum effect. 8/10

6th Course: Trout + Roe, 9/10

6th Course: Trout + Roe, 9/10

The sixth dish was Battle Creek Trout cured in uzu and soy, then put in its own eggs with skin to create a potato-chip like shell. The crunchy shell paired beautifully with the uber-soft trout. 9/10.

7th Course: Abalone + Pig Jowls, 8/10

7th Course: Abalone + Pig Jowls, 8/10

Course seven featured abalone, a type of edible sea snail, with rich fatty pork jowls on top. The abalone had a positive, rubbery texture that played off well against very soft jowls. A sauce of liver and capers rested underneath. 8/10

8th Course: Sea Urchin, 10/10

8th Course: Sea Urchin, 10/10

The eighth course can only be described as an out-of-the-park home run. Three different textures battle it out with the focus centered on the unbelievably rich, luxurious sea urchin. I'm tempted into hyperbole and giving this dish an 11/10, but I'll try to restrain myself at a perfect 10/10.

9th Course: Dungeness Crab, 8/10

9th Course: Dungeness Crab, 8/10

Nine challenged me to get over whatever pre-conceived notions I may have had about crab brains- this creamy, pasta-like ragout is made out of "Dungeness Crab- the Whole Thing," or so the menu gamely states. Smooth and creamy like an amazing Mac & Cheese from childhood, with a signature "Saison" smokiness in the custard underneath. 8/10- a fun and creative dish.

10th Course: Seaweed + Garden Herbs, 8/10

10th Course: Seaweed + Garden Herbs, 8/10

The tenth course starts to lighten things up in advance of the main dishes coming soon- Mendocino county seaweed with herbs from the garden washed in Meyer lemon juice (eh? eh? Meyer lemon juice). There's a surprise oyster buried underneath with wonderful dill and leaves of spearmint. A zesty, clever, beautiful dish. 8/10.

11th Course: Brussel Sprouts, 9/10

11th Course: Brussel Sprouts, 9/10

This wholesome, filling vegetable dish is crisped over the almond wood embers, bringing out new and fascinating flavors in the brussel sprouts especially. Sauerkraut on the bottom rounds on the salinity. Delightful, different, impressive. 9/10.

12th Course: Pumpkin, 10/10

12th Course: Pumpkin, 10/10

The 12th dish really shows where Skenes' novel techniques shine. Pumpkin is cooked in two methods- one is hung over the fire for three days using a method called Fire in the Sky (a nice Washington Post article describes the technique and inspiration in more detail), the other is prepared and served more traditionally. I can only say that this was the second dish that totally blew me away- the Fire in the Sky method brings out all kinds of flavors one would never predict in pumpkin- tropical notes like papaya and pineapple, along with a smoky tartness that was a joy to explore. 10/10.

13th Course: Beet, 9/10

13th Course: Beet, 9/10

The thirteenth course featured a beet cooked in the same method as the pumpkin that- I kid you not- tastes exactly like a finely-prepared steak. The beet is a type known as Bull's Blood, which is rich, thick, and chewy. 9/10.

14th Course: Toffee, 9/10

14th Course: Toffee, 9/10

14 included toffee from duck livers, foam, and beer. This dish blurred the line between savory and sweet- it almost had an ice cream-like texture. The toffee flavors in the beer that came paired alongside enhances further. A well thought-out, joyful dish. 9/10.

15th Course: Muscovy Duck, 7/10

15th Course: Muscovy Duck, 7/10

Fifteen was a Muscovy duck with a ragout made of duck innards and a sauce from the cooking juices. The duck was aged in-restaurant for three weeks. I can only describe this dish as unbelievably rich- in this case a touch too rich for me. 7/10.

16th Course: Duck Bullion, 8/10

16th Course: Duck Bullion, 8/10

A bullion made of the roasted bones of the duck from the previous course served as our sixteenth dish. Simple, delicious, and made for a good wind-down from the richness of the previous dish. Might have also been effective to have served this dish and course 15 side-by-side. 8/10

17th Course: Cheese, 8/10

17th Course: Cheese, 8/10

The seventeenth course included a mousseline made from Cowgirl Creamery's Red Hawk, one of the best cheeses available in this country (in my humble opinion). Two beignets were just as good as anything you can get in New Orleans. 8/10.

18th Course: Flame-Roasted Ice Cream, 10/10

18th Course: Flame-Roasted Ice Cream, 10/10

Course 18 was probably my favorite dessert dish of all time- ice cream made from a cow named Vibrance who lives in Lagunitas with salted caramel, cocoa nibs, and roasted over the fire. Perfect texture, sweetness, balance.  A lifetime-memorable dish. 10/10.

19th Course: Buckwheat Tea, 8/10

19th Course: Buckwheat Tea, 8/10

This palate-cleanser tasted just like Honey Nut Cheerios, and has a nice calming aura. Perfect post-ice cream idea. 8/10.

20th Course: Chartreuse, 8/10

20th Course: Chartreuse, 8/10

The Sommelier Max introduced me to this digestif- green chartreuse with a powerful anise flavor- that calmed my stomach before departure. 8/10.

21st Course: Persimmons, 8/10

21st Course: Persimmons, 8/10

The absolute final word was a small broth of persimmons. Simple and cleansing. 8/10.

The Smoker

The Smoker

One last cool note- Max kindly invited me on a kitchen tour where I got to see the almond wood embers firsthand. Each and every evening, a person is tasked with keeping these embers roasting at just the right temperature and evenness to ensure proper preparation. The job requires tons of focus on consistency, and I was impressed that this glowing heart of the kitchen worked so well.