United States

USA- Manresa- ✪✪✪

David Kinch

David Kinch

Occupying an unassuming corner of leafy Los Gatos, California, is the most recently-minted 3-star in the United States; David Kinch's Manresa. Known for his farm-to-table dishes that showcase the great natural abundance of Northern California (he wrote a book that describes his process), David Kinch is an up-and-coming American culinary star.

Some overall comments about my experience—after doing so many in Europe, it feels weird going back to an American one again. I had forgotten that along with dining at a high-minded US 3-star will come lots of long, self-congratulatory stories about the ingredients, the prep, the plating, what the chef was thinking about/trying to accomplish/showcase about the terroir or the farm or the process... Literally almost two paragraphs per dish of exposition—always welcome, and never boring, but it was jarring to recall how much this practice A) lengthens the meal, B) heightens the already high sense of overconsumption about the experience. A recent attempted decapitation of Manresa by the New York Times highlights some of the anxiety I felt in the room. 

Speaking of service, this place doesn't have the equation quite right yet. Less than two savory courses into my meal, I had gone through the pretty delicious bread that they're famous for (they have a separate retail outlet next door, Manresa Bread, that offers take-home versions). The server came by, scooped the bread plates without uttering a word, and was on her way. I tried gently calling after her to request more, but just like a kid hauling ass to the school bus who pretends not to hear a teacher assigning homework, she was outta there. A bizarre move, especially for a place that seems pretty crazy about their bread.

Manresa Exterior

Manresa Exterior

LOS GATOS, CA, USA (SOUTH BAY/SILICON VALLEY)

SERVICE: 6.0/10

FOOD: 7.5/10

PRICE PAID: $326PP (INCL. WATER, TEA, TAX, TIP- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 6.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 7.0/10

Manresa Patio

Manresa Patio

Behind some hefty greenery and a gorgeous sun-drenched patio sits the main dining room. The overall feel to the place was quite similar to its California 3-star siblings Saison and Benu

Manresa Dining Room

Manresa Dining Room

Manresa Place Setting

Manresa Place Setting

Manresa Table Centerpiece

Manresa Table Centerpiece

The place settings were somewhat minimalist, understated. A smooth, polished, well-decorated piece of wood served as a beginning- and end-of-meal centerpiece/serving platform. 

First Bites 1: "Savory Madeline," + "Savory Pâte de Fruits" + "Savory Granola Bar," 8/10 Overall

First Bites 1: "Savory Madeline," + "Savory Pâte de Fruits" + "Savory Granola Bar," 8/10 Overall

In a sign of things to come, a "savory" set of amuse-bouches starts the meal. Red pepper pâte de fruits, a black olive Madeline, and a savory granola bar on the left.

The madeline isn't warm but rather room temperature, and tastes like fresh olives. Could have been served warmer, but it just as likely is my own fault for pausing to take photos. 8/10. 

The red pepper pâte de fruits is surprisingly sweet—the texture and flavor is similar to sugary pizza sauce. 8/10. An inspiringly cool dish.

The "savory granola bar" is a cool idea that quite literally falls apart in practice. Composed of many tasty seeds, it instantly flakes all across the dining area upon first bite. Once again, user error may be to blame, but this was a very delicate bite. 7/10. 

First Bites 2: "Savory Beignet," 8/10

First Bites 2: "Savory Beignet," 8/10

The next amuse, titled "Savory Beignet," was served upon a bed of pebbles. With a crème fraîche center, slice of red pearl onion, and osetra-grade caviar topping, this was a decadent little starter. Kent, the server (who was awesome), recommended that one consume it all in one bite. The warm, super saline topping of caviar dominates the flavor profile, and the tempura coating of crème fraîche is surprisingly thick. Like a really awesome, warm mozzarella stick. 8/10.

First Bites 3: "Savory Steamed Bun," 8/10

First Bites 3: "Savory Steamed Bun," 8/10

Next, a "savory steamed bun" with dehydrated shellfish on the inside, a small sweet-and-sour sauce dollop on top. In a nod to traditional preparation techniques, a sweet egg glaze with broccolini is the final accoutrement. Crustacean flavors dominate this pretty interesting take on a Chinese tradition. 8/10.

First Bites 4: Egg Custard: 9/10

First Bites 4: Egg Custard: 9/10

An egg custard of "soft farm egg," Meyer lemon honey, and coriander. I'm advised by Kent to dig all the way to bottom of the egg shell, which has been expertly cut, but not with the machine-like precision of French Laundry or Per Se. Kent described their cutting process—the egg is sliced while in a holding device, they remove the yolk and put it off the the side. add the fleur de sel and chive, and put the yolk back in lightly cooked. 9/10.

Interlude: Tea Service, 8/10

Interlude: Tea Service, 8/10

I'm feeling a touch under the weather, so I ask for a chamomile tea service that shows up in this lovely set. 8/10. 

Bread, 7/10

Bread, 7/10

Bread service showed up next, and Manresa has a Whole Big Thing that they like to talk about with their breads... As I mentioned earlier, they have a neighboring store that exclusively sells their baked grains, and they mention repeatedly throughout the night their supposed virtuosity with the product.

First, the choices I was offered—sea salt brioche, multigrain, and einkorn (likely for it's fun, foreign-sounding name). I picked all three, natch... As part of a package deal, I also got some whipped butter with sea salt.

The brioche is ... Actually a touch dry. The salt on the bread gangs up with the salt in the butter, which gives it a strange and likely unintended texture. The multigrain is smooth and very soft, wth a fantastic mouthfeel. Almost like a slice of cake! The einkorn has a very plain flavor and a rougher mouthfeel; almost like a cornbread. Nothing special. 7/10 overall. 

Course 1: Clam + Geoduck Gelée, 8/10

Course 1: Clam + Geoduck Gelée, 8/10

On to the main dishesclam gelée with peeled tomato and sliced cornichon on the right; super fresh. The gelée brings everything together; just a tiny hint of brine throughout.

The Clam pieces are fresh from from Coos Bay, Oregon, and the rippled pieces were geoduck trunk from Washington. 8/10. 

Course 2: Garden Salad, 9/10

Course 2: Garden Salad, 9/10

A gorgeous, colorful, well-plated garden salad with a "garden velouté" on bottom, made from all the roots and leaves ground up together. A combination of fried and fresh greens on top. The deep-fried wisps are crispy, and the potatoes aren't cooked much, which boosts the texture contrasts. 9/10.

Course 3: "Courgette Stir-Fry," 6/10

Course 3: "Courgette Stir-Fry," 6/10

This next dish, titled "Courgette Stir Fry," breaks apart with ease. Wonderful, rich, oily fried-veggie flavors. The textures are remarkably similar between the veggies and the protein, which isn't helped by the fact that said protein is squid. Basil flavors help smooth things a little, but this dish burns the mouth with salt. 6/10.

Course 4: Abalone + Tapioca + Radish

Course 4: Abalone + Tapioca + Radish

Next, the small tapioca pearls here are hot and full of flavor. Each "quadrant" is a different flavor; upper right (abalone) and lower right are a bit dry. Tamago on the upper left is totally excellent. To make the tapioca pearls, the kitchen used a small dollop with dehydrated in Bonito stock. Bonito flakes form the basis of the savory stocks used in Japanese cooking- think miso soup. Similar flavors here. 8/10. 

Course 5: Striped Sea Bass + Barigoule Sauce, 8/10

Course 5: Striped Sea Bass + Barigoule Sauce, 8/10

Strawberry Gazpacho

Strawberry Gazpacho

And now onto the fifth main course: striped sea bass in a barigoule sauce with strawberry gazpacho on the right to accompany. Bright fruity flavors leap out of the fish dish, the strawberry gazpacho plays along cool and lovingly. 8/10.

Course 6: Poularde + Morels + Anchovy, 9/10

Course 6: Poularde + Morels + Anchovy, 9/10

And now, the main-main. Poularde (a fancy word for chicken) with morel mushrooms, plated with a small rivulet of anchovy and white wine sauce, which pairs up perfectly. Quite heavy on the pepper. Another small note; the dish itself was liquid-magma hot, like literally unsafe. Still a totally incredible dish. 9/10.

Course 7: Lamb, 9/10

Course 7: Lamb, 9/10

Next, a kingly dish of super well-prepared, savory lamb from Don Watson's farm in Napa, California. The beautiful, jewel-like fruit on the left is nectarine, whose bright sugary notes pair well with the dry, earthy tones in the lamb. Lots of knifework-heavy prep on this dish; small cubes in the back of espelette (a special kind of pepper) and eggplant. 9/10.

Course 8: Cherries + Green Tea Matcha + Lime, 9/10

As we exit the savories and head into dessert, a small layer cake of cherry, green tea matcha, and lime. The cherries and green tea matcha go together perfectly, and the cherries used in this construction are perfectly, burstingly fresh and ripe. 9/10. It's also super rewarding to break apart (see left). 

Course 9: Strawberry + Pistachio + Toasted Milk

Course 9: Strawberry + Pistachio + Toasted Milk

Next, a completely charming dessert of strawberry, pistachio, and toasted milk.

Course 10: "Strawberry-Chocolate" Petit Fours, 8/10

Course 10: "Strawberry-Chocolate" Petit Fours, 8/10

A few delicious chocolates—the one on the left had heavy peanut butter flavors. The one on the right; strong notes of ginger. 8/10. 

Last Bites: Madeline + Pate de Fruits, 8/10

Last Bites: Madeline + Pate de Fruits, 8/10

As we conclude, a nice rapprochement with the opening course—a sweet chocolate Madeline and strawberry pâte de fruits (in contrast to their earlier, savory versions). 8/10.

Very Last Bites: Macarons, 8/10

Very Last Bites: Macarons, 8/10

Almost very lastly, some macarons. Cookies and cream in front, crunchy and delicious. Menthol on the upper right is cool and creamy. Upper left is strawberry, which tastes exactly like several layers of variously-dehydrated strawberry jam. 8/10. 

Breakfast for Tomorrow, 8/10

Breakfast for Tomorrow, 8/10

Lastly, "breakfast for tomorrow"—some lovely handmade coconut granola. Copy of the menu. Well wishes. 8/10. 

Walking Out

Walking Out

I'll try to offer a few original thoughts on this experience, inspired mostly by the NYT article up top but also my own observations. Most of the patrons were, true to Northern California form, wandering in "as they were," which in many cases meant an XXL t-shirt (I'm not kidding) and cargo shorts. It was definitely a little odd to sit down for a meal that, for half the room, was a once-in-a-lifetime moonshot, and for the other half was a casual weekday meal they had probably decided on as they drove to the place. More thoughts to come on this topic. Thanks for reading.

USA- The Restaurant at Meadowood- ✪✪✪

Deep in the gorgeous Napa Valley is Christopher Kostow and Nathaniel Dorn's gorgeous Restaurant at Meadowood. With a country-library feel to its interior and a spotless 3-star experience, Meadowood is worth an evening's visit... or 10. 

The Restaurant at Meadowood Exterior

The Restaurant at Meadowood Exterior

NAPA, CA, USA

SERVICE: 8.5/10

FOOD: 8.5/10

PRICE PAID: $290 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 8.5/10

FINAL SCORE: 8.5/10

Christopher Kostow

Christopher Kostow

Though a bit notorious for the price tag of its Chef's Counter menu, I found Meadowood to be a tasteful and disciplined execution of French-inspired American cuisine that didn't overwhelm with snoot.

Christopher Kostow has held the three-star rating at Meadowood since 2011, and won the James Beard award for best chef of the West in 2013. 

With a diverse career that has taken him to France as well as up and down California, Christopher has worked alongside such greats as Daniel Humm and Elizabeth Daniel. 

Main Lobby

Main Lobby

Though low-lit (and hence not terribly photogenic), the lobby of the restaurant has roaring fireplaces, cozy chairs, and bookcases built into the walls with books piled high. A lovely space to kill thirty minutes before beginning the meal. 

Place Setting- Stone + Flowers

Place Setting- Stone + Flowers

Our greeting once reaching tableside was this beautiful bouquet of dried flowers, hand picked from nearby fields. A lovely sandstone tablet, which appeared absurdly heavy, loomed on our table. 

First Bites: "Chips + Dip," 8/10

First Bites: "Chips + Dip," 8/10

"Our version of chips and dip." Fried veggies from their own proprietary garden. Bright bell pepper flavors, and a very crunchy chip. Very tart. Cream cheese with strong sour cream flavors, and tastes of fermented red pepper. This is a strongly-flavored dish to start with! 8/10.

1st Course: Fermented Kohlrabi + Shinjuku Oyster, 8/10

1st Course: Fermented Kohlrabi + Shinjuku Oyster, 8/10

The first course was an icy broth of fermented kohlrabi with strongly-flavored Shinjuku oysters. The cold temperature was a very pleasant surprise. 8/10.

2nd Course: Cherry Tomato Dashi, 8/10

2nd Course: Cherry Tomato Dashi, 8/10

Savory Plant Butter

Savory Plant Butter

A savory, briny Tobago dish: cherry tomato broth with geoduck (an enormous mollusk), clam, and nasturtium. Accompanied by a lovely yellow-green plant butter to the side. 8/10.

3rd Course: Abalone + Matsutake Pine Mushrooms 9/10

3rd Course: Abalone + Matsutake Pine Mushrooms 9/10

My first experience with Matsutake Pine mushrooms, together with a smooth broth. The Matsutake have a nice even spice to them that really stands out. Fascinating ingredients and a well-constructed dish. 9/10 

4th Course: Daylily + Prawn + Caviar, 9/10

4th Course: Daylily + Prawn + Caviar, 9/10

A gorgeous presentation of daylilies from garden, with caviar and prawn. Rich and salty, beautiful to look at and even better to taste. 9/10.

5th Course: Halibut + Squash, 7/10

Fermented Squash in lemon getup

Fermented Squash in lemon getup

Next, some halibut caught on Ocean Beach near San Francisco with grilled, fermented squash meant to look like squeezable lemons. Beautifully presented but a bit dry, actually. 7/10. 

6th Course: Duck Tea, 8/10

6th Course: Duck Tea, 8/10

A savory, refreshing duck tea to prep us for the protein main. 8/10.

7th Course: Lamb + Marigold + Plum, 9/10

7th Course: Lamb + Marigold + Plum, 9/10

Plum + Marigold Sauce Applied

Plum + Marigold Sauce Applied

The main show was this gorgeous and colorful morsel of dry-aged rack of lamb with a marigold and plum coating applied after service. Big, bold fruit and flower flavors punch through- a very good main. 9/10.

8th Course: Goat's Cheese + Grape Plant Cutting, 9/10

8th Course: Goat's Cheese + Grape Plant Cutting, 9/10

A classic follow-up of cheese- in this case Goat's cheese and a beautiful grape plant cutting. 9/10.

9th Course: Fig + Olive Oil, 10/10

9th Course: Fig + Olive Oil, 10/10

Most definitely my favorite course of the evening, both for the gorgeous colors and presentation as well as the unbelievable texture and taste- olive oil and fig. Cold yogurt beneath the figs; chocolate flavors throughout. I could eat fifty of these. 10/10

10th Course: Grilled Date + Walnut Oil, 8/10

10th Course: Grilled Date + Walnut Oil, 8/10

Not that I had ever wondered what hommos ice cream tastes like, but after this dish I feel confident that I know. 8/10.

11th Course: "The Garden, Candied," 9/10

11th Course: "The Garden, Candied," 9/10

A social-media-ready dish of candied vegetables and chocolate. They pick whatever is fresh, candy it, and coat it in sugar. Very fun, and who would have thought that candied carrot makes a good dessert? 9/10. 

12th Course: Chocolate Babka, 9/10

12th Course: Chocolate Babka, 9/10

Finally: a large, rich selection of chocolate babka, an interestingly holiday-oriented choice to finish off a late-summer menu. 9/10. 

USA- Benu- ✪✪✪

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

Benu Outer Entrance, Hawthorne Street

Benu Outer Entrance, Hawthorne Street

SAN FRANCISCO, CA, USA

SERVICE: 7.5/10

FOOD: 9.0/10

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

VALUE/MONEY: 8.5/10

FINAL SCORE: 8.0/10

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

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

Benu Exterior Courtyard

Benu Exterior Courtyard

Benu Interior

Benu Interior

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First Bite 4 of 10: Ginkgo Nut, 8/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quail Egg post-Ginger Spice Foam

Quail Egg post-Ginger Spice Foam

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

2nd Course: Tomato + Celtuce, 7/10

2nd Course: Tomato + Celtuce, 7/10

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

3rd Course: Lobster Bao, 8/10

3rd Course: Lobster Bao, 8/10

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

4th Course: Sea Urchin, 8/10

4th Course: Sea Urchin, 8/10

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

It comes with a not-terribly-photogenic broth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9th Course: Kampuchea Tea, 8/10

9th Course: Kampuchea Tea, 8/10

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

10th Course: Pear Sorbet, 9/10

10th Course: Pear Sorbet, 9/10

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

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

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

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

12th Course: Dark Chocolate Sculpture, 9/10

12th Course: Dark Chocolate Sculpture, 9/10

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

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- NOW CLOSED

Grace Interior

Grace Interior

Update: after a conflict with his owner, Chef Curtis Duffy closed Grace restaurant in late 2017. He is planning to re-open a restaurant in Chicago, and I’m happy to have a reason to go back!

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. 

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- Two Stars

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

Update: As of the 2018 New York guide, Jean-Georges was downgraded from 3 to 2 stars, in no doubt as a (small) geopolitical gesture. We will keep an eye on this lovely establishment as time goes on!

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- Two Stars

Update: In the 2019 guide, Saison was downgraded from three stars to two. During the previous season, founder Joshua Skenes had moved on to another restaurant in San Francisco and was replaced by Laurent Gras, a chef who famously achieved three Michelin stars in Chicago only to leave that restaurant (L2O) within a few months.

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

SAN FRANCISCO, CA, USA

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. 

USA- Alinea- ✪✪✪

Alinea- a ground-breaking establishment that led the way on ticket-based seat sales and broke a whole bunch of culinary rules on their way to the 3-Star Michelin Guide rating they now hold. Here was my experience;

The Famous Alinea Balloon

The Famous Alinea Balloon

CHICAGO, IL, USA

SERVICE: 8.0/10

FOOD: 9.0/10

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

VALUE/MONEY: 7.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 8.0/10

1st Course: Osetra Caviar + Foam, 10/10

1st Course: Osetra Caviar + Foam, 10/10

Right out of the gate, Grant Achatz starts with a very strong first dish of Osetra-grade caviar, a type known for its creamy walnut taste. Unlike most caviar I have had, it wasn't strongly saline or ocean-y- the creamy texture matched up nicely with a toasted brioche and egg yolk custard. They even gave us a mother-of-pearl spoon with a "landing pad" to enhance the visual presentation of the dish. 10/10, an outstanding dish. 

2nd Course: Salsify Jerky, 5/10

2nd Course: Salsify Jerky, 5/10

It was hidden in the Jesus reference!

It was hidden in the Jesus reference!

What's an elite fine-dining experience without a Jesus reference, am I right? Just kidding- this second course was served to us in a crown-of-thorns-esque assemblage of twigs that had "branch camouflage" of Salsify jerky (a root vegetable in the dandelion family). The jerky was cooked in soy and garlic then dehydrated, giving it a smoky, earthy flavor but too small to be very satisfying. The waiter said that some people compared its flavor to oyster- I would have said more like dried beets. 5/10, with -2 points for the bizarre religious reference. 

3rd Course: Skate Wing + Herbs, 7/10

3rd Course: Skate Wing + Herbs, 7/10

Course 3 was a colorfully-presented skate wing poached in brown butter with parsley, oxalis, and lemon. I'd call this the botanical garden plate- fun textures, beautiful hues, not terribly memorable taste but great crunchy mouthfeel from the flowers that paired nicely with the wing. Extra points for the clever presentation- a plate shaped like a folded napkin. 7/10.

4th Course: Prawns + Beans, 9/10

4th Course: Prawns + Beans, 9/10

Dish 4 was the "pebble dish," so named for the fun textural interplay of the hard beans (the pebbles), the soft Hawaiian sweet prawn with Ogo (seaweed), and the softer still custard. I liked the framing of the plate as a small-scale diorama of a beach- the flavors recalled the ocean and the tropics in a cool and original way. 9/10.

5th Course: Gurnard + Bourbon Sauce on a Bourbon Plank, 8/10

5th Course: Gurnard + Bourbon Sauce on a Bourbon Plank, 8/10

Watermelon with dollop of bourbon sauce

Watermelon with dollop of bourbon sauce

Though its difficult to make out in the photo, the fifth dish was served on a long black bourbon barrel plank (a cool touch) with two people served at once on either end. A fish from New Zealand called Gurnard was served alongside watermelon, broccoli, and a fish sauce aged in the selfsame bourbon barrels. A big and filling dish with tons going on- the Gurnard had peanut-y and sesame flavors that matched well with the actual peanuts, the fish sauce imbued a seriously rich taste. Quite a lot to take in and led to feeling a bit full as of the fifth course, but a solid 8/10.

6th Course: Eggplant + Fresno Chili, 6/10

6th Course: Eggplant + Fresno Chili, 6/10

Post-broth

Post-broth

The sixth course provided a nice break from the seafood in favor of a hearty vegetable dish- eggplant poached with pickles and banana puré, gin and tea, lemongrass ginger, Fresno chili, and mint. The chili had some serious kick- they're hotter than jalapeños by far- which really danced up this veggie-heavy dish. The eggplant texture provided an excellent base to enjoy the mustard seeds. However, the lemongrass flavor shows up suddenly and pounds the broth and mustard into the dirt- an overwhelming flavor that doesn't let up. Great concept, but I'd humbly recommend a smaller lemongrass serving. 6/10.

Course 7A: Chicken Skin

Course 7A: Chicken Skin

Course 7B: Tamarind

Course 7B: Tamarind

Course 7C: Lemongrass + Chili + Soda "cocktail"

Course 7C: Lemongrass + Chili + Soda "cocktail"

7 was a fun "Tour of Italy"- three single bites including chicken skin, a tamarind, and then a "cocktail" of lemongrass, chili, and soda. The coconut and lime flavors of the tamarind were perfect, and the caramel chunk gives it a fun texture interplay. 9/10.

8th Course: Hamachi + Pine Branch, 8/10

8th Course: Hamachi + Pine Branch, 8/10

Course 8- some Hamachi (also known as Japanese yellowtail, but with a more refined taste) was served skewered on a pine branch with Shishito peppers and beans. The peppers weren't particularly hot, and the presentation style was clearly interesting- a pile of logs sat unsuspectingly in the center of this woodsy dish. We'd find out the logs' role in a few moments... 8/10

9th Course: Abalone + Maitake Mushroom + Shiso, 8/10

9th Course: Abalone + Maitake Mushroom + Shiso, 8/10

Course 9 included some tempura of abalone served with dashi (dried kelp that forms the backbone of many Japanese dishes) and shiso, a cilantro-like mint also from Japan. What was really cool was that the next course was cooked for us in the middle of the table as we enjoyed these small skewers. 8/10. Quick video:

10th Course: Pork Belly, 10/10

10th Course: Pork Belly, 10/10

Inside the fire was... some absolutely incredible pork belly. Course ten was not only wrapped in kombu (a type of kelp) and cooked and cut on-table, but served with parsnip, black trumpet mushroom, some delicious cuttlefish ink with julienne. This dish was truly outstanding. 10/10!

11th Course: "Hot Potato, Cold Potato" 9/10

11th Course: "Hot Potato, Cold Potato" 9/10

Our waiter told us that Course 11 had been on the menu for almost 9-and-a-half years; certainly a confident comment. Suspended above a warm broth was a cold potato with black truffle and a small cube of butter. The butter melts quickly, so the recommendation was to withdraw the small metal spike holding the ingredients up and eat it all in one go. The hot and cold mixed together brilliantly and this -certainly a bit salty- dish made it easy to see why one might continue to offer it for almost a decade. 9/10.

12th Course: Squab Liver + Roasted Orange, 8/10

12th Course: Squab Liver + Roasted Orange, 8/10

Course 12 was certainly one of the most colorful of the evening- squab liver mousse with beets, roasted orange, and a bunch of flower petals. Some of the petals weren't terribly fresh, but the squab was absolutely exquisite. I wasn't 100% sure why the orange was roasted/burnt, since this heightened the already strong flavor and didn't pair terribly well with the squab. But, the squab itself was a total delight- wonderful texture, incredibly fresh (almost on-the-farm) taste, perfectly cooked. 8/10.

Course 13: Mint Ice, 9/10

Course 13: Mint Ice, 9/10

The 13th course was super fun and interesting- looks like a block of ice, right? The small shavings in the center were exploding with the flavor of minty dark chocolate! Another fun trompe l'oeil where the appearance and the taste were at odds. I also noticed how the kitchen moved back and forth on the color spectrum- bland, bright, bland, bright. 9/10, great surprise, wonderful palate cleanser.

Course 14: "Graffiti," 8/10

Course 14: "Graffiti," 8/10

As we headed into the final few courses, the 14th "Graffiti" course of hazelnut, perigord, and balsamic were served in the shape of broken asphalt with a spray can of liquid applied on top. The reference was a little bizarre, but the creativity of the presentation said a lot. 8/10.

Course 15: Almonds + Grapefruit, 8/10

Course 15: Almonds + Grapefruit, 8/10

The 15th course, known as "Quince," was an almond-heavy dish cooled with dry ice. It reminded me of those awesome fruit and nut cereals I used to enjoy as a kid. It had a fruity kick from the grapefruit, and wasn't terribly memorable but a great approaching-the-end dish. 8/10.

16th Course: Green Apple Balloon, 9/10

16th Course: Green Apple Balloon, 9/10

Someone in the back of the house has the (not terribly enviable) job of creating green apple taffy, carefully crafting it into helium-ready balls, filling those balls, and connecting them to a rope of candy without breaking them or unleashing a bunch of helium into the kitchen. This person, needless to say, is a master craftsman at their job. Eating the balloons leads to all sorts of cartoon-voiced hilarity, a thoughtful way to get people laughing together and cementing great memories at the end of the meal. 9/10.

Course 17: Painting of Fruit, 10/10

Course 17: Painting of Fruit, 10/10

The very last statement starts with a large, grey latex that gets laid on top of the table. Then, small bowls of ingredients are brought out. Finally, a member of the kitchen emerges and freehand-paints a gorgeous mural of dessert, like so:

Creative, unique, delicious. 10/10.

USA- Sixteen- ✪✪

CHICAGO, IL, USA

SERVICE: 9.5/10

FOOD: 8.5/10

PRICE PAID: $251 pp (includ. champagne + wine)

VALUE/MONEY: 8.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 9.0/10

For my very first review, Trump Tower's Sixteen restaurant is the perfect place to start. I know it's got a "mere" two Michelin stars, but let's work our way up to that, shall we? With five AAA diamonds and a Forbes five-star rating, this place comes very close. 

The front and back of the house were totally in sync, the wintery views from the floor-to-ceiling windows were breathtaking, and the wait staff were charming and 0% snooty. Here are six reasons you'll have a good time here:

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1) They seem to actually care about the humans who make the restaurant work. Chef Thomas Lents crafted a seasonal menu that pays tribute to the people who inspired and taught his team. Some of this is name-dropping- "guess who worked with Joel Robuchon, you guys?"- but mostly it felt sincere. Profile photos of those people adorned the walls and menus.

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2) The Oyster with cider gelee you start with is the best oyster I have had in the Midwest. Salty and creamy, and charmingly presented on a massive plate... That plate gets its top level removed to reveal....

 

3) A sub-plate! With two more small bites! How clever. This one had Xo cracker, shrimp sausage, and ginger- practically exploding with taste, and an edible flower to boot.

4) Have you ever wondered what a lime ice salad tastes like? Well, wonder no longer, because Sixteen makes them. This creative and beautifully presented dish (with chopped ice shards forming the backdrop) was refreshing and tasted like fresh-from-the-garden vegetables. A nice break in January.

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5) The main dish was a rarity in the fine dining world- enough food that you actually felt full. I chose the Poussin roasted in hay, hazelnut, onion, and apple vinegar. Though there were other courses worth mentioning, this one stood out for the clean presentation and the heartiness of the dish.

6) Dessert kicked it out of the park. An apple cake with maple yogurt, fenugreek ice cream, and lemon balm. Solid black plate nicely set off the bright colors of the fruit and dairy, the tastes matched perfectly.