A charming, modern restaurant that is trying really, really, really hard. It is lovable for its effort and execution, but be ready for an intense experience that doesn't translate perfectly.
Martín has one of those very, very few restaurants that in all my journeys I would not only be interested but extremely excited to return to. With a bulletproof menu, incredibly disciplined and alert staff, beautiful physical space, and a creative and near-flawless execution, this is one of the best restaurants I have ever visited. It will be difficult to describe the fullness of my positivity without straying into hyperbole, but I will try.
Martín owns several restaurants around the world—in Spain, Shanghai, and the Caribbean—and has a philosophy of discipline, teamwork, and openness. His eponymous restaurant was opened in 1993 near San Sebastián, his hometown. He won his first star six months after opening, his third in 2001, and he has held them ever since.
The chef walked through the dining room to greet everyone post-meal. That particular day, he was wearing an immaculate white outfit with a BMW logo stitched on the nameplate, as though he were just arriving from the kitchen of some F1 team. An imposing but lighthearted person.
Martín grew up right next to the famous Mercado de la Bretxa watching fresh fish, vegetables, and produce get hauled in every day, providing his first exposure to Basque food culture. His father (and later Martín himself) ran the famous restaurant Bodegón Alejandro where he instilled in Martín the virtues of teamwork and tradition. It seems his dad knocked it out of the park.
SAN SEBASTIAN, SPAIN
PRICE PAID: $200 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)
FINAL SCORE: 9.0/10
Shitloads of egotistical, self-celebrating metal yard art are rarely a good sign about an impending meal. Luckily, that premonition would be proven wrong shortly, but a small holy-shit moment did occur right as I was snapping these photos.
I really and truly hope that whole squads of brightly colored avians didn't have to die to make this lobby come together the way it does... But somehow, I'm pretty sure they did. I am reminded of the expression: “some days you’re the peacock, some days you’re the duster.”
Floor-to-ceiling windows yield views of riotous greenery. Subtle lighting pervades. One of my favorite dining rooms of all time.
Most of you who follow me regularly know that I’m a total freak about bread and butter. I am exorbitantly pleased to observe the touchdown of some multicolored butters (Beetroot, salty, spinach, and mushroom) alongside some lovely sliced sourdough.
The server takes the time to tell us that the bread is from the same yeast from a many, many years-old long-running ferment. 9/10.
First, a few amuse-bouches; sea crunch tempura, followed by a kumquat, anchovy, and olive combination (on the right). All the flavors contrast yet support each other well- the warm seafood tempura is set off against the sweet and crunchy kumquat in a delightful way. 9/10. Interestingly, the spoon motif is repeated from the metal sculptures outside.
Next, a menu participant since 1995- a collection of smoked eel with foie gras and green apple. The server pours a delightful mixture that activates the frozen nitrogen under the plate, creating a "fog" with lovely aromas. Super cool effect. The server recommended that we take each bite with a bit of cream. The foie has the texture and flavor of cream cheese, and is exceedingly rich. During prep the apple was carmelized giving it both a crunchy and sweet profile- the perfect combination of savory and sweet. The cream has a ton of flavor, complimented nicely by the spring onion. This dish really sings together. Amazing. 10/10.
The last appetizer course—a “red shrimp royale,” with dill and Venta del Baron olive oil. We got some coaching on this one also; it was recommended that we dip the spoon all the way to bottom to get one of each layer. The red shrimp is small compared to the surrounding sauce, and quite salty, and everything is quite flavorful but tastes a bit like Thousand Island dressing. 8/10.
As we get into the main dishes, a new-age version of a surf-and-turf arrives. Sea urchin curd, along with jamón, seaweed, and anise. And, as it is plated before us, another recommendation for how we should consume it: “mix it all together.” The sea urchin and jamón flavors are strong and quite contrasting- the sea urchin almost tastes like lobster, and the ham is rich and salty. Cubed apples jump up the texture contrast, but it's really creamy and overly rich. Tastes like you're eating a sauce with a sauce in it. 7/10.
Next, the beetroot course with its stunning red colors. The beetroot itself is sliced into tiny cubes, and includes some horseradish for a spicy kick. The cream is made from salmon marinated with citrus. The texture is just awesome; chunking the beet into tiny bits was the right call. The dollop of horseradish brings the whole damn thing together, and to top it all off, the salmon was super flavorful. A very exciting dish. 9/10.
The next dish is cheekily named: “The Truffle,” and includes some fermented wild mushrooms and collard greens. There’s a strange, interesting balance going on in this dish between warm and cold. Really rich, deep, and earthy flavors abound. 9/10.
Served on a plate whose surface almost looks rocky. this next dish is called “Gorrotxategi.” It consists of an egg resting in a liquid herb salad with dewlap carpaccio- bright, clean, crispy vegetable flavors and the egg is a deep yellow I’ve never seen from any American grocery store. 8/10.
A stunningly enormous salad shows up next; "vegetable hearts" with cream of lettuce. It’s a good salad for people who don't like salad- strong seafood flavors, crisp and crunchy. 9/10.
On the lower left and then clockwise- a bonbon of liquid squid, a mousse of saffron and then fennel, and finally mullet with crystallized scales on. The mullet is totally delicious- crunchy, warm, and rich (not fishy, like Akelarre), and perfectly fresh. 10/10.
And finally, we move on to the main course—lamb with sweetbreads, presented confidently on this colorful dish. Served alongside some Parmesan whey, a fritter or two, and some asparagus. This dish is literally perfect. Temperature, freshness, everything works together- this dish is crazy good. 10/10.
In a nice recall to the beetroot course- the sticks are meringue of beetroot, and they're so brittle they fall apart like they're freeze dried. The foam is made of tea, which has a delicious, rich, smoky flavor. Pepper ice cream brings it all together for a near-perfect ensemble. 9/10.
Lastly, a “salted rock” of chocolate with pistachio and salty Quinoa. The ice is cold, and the chocolate is mousse-y for a really good temperature contrast. 9/10.
Some coffee, and then a lovely wrought-iron tree with various small last bites of dessert. Milk cinnamon and Armagnac (tastes like Christmas), passion fruit and grape dessert, some striped chocolates with orange custard, plain ones with vanilla. The long, skinny cakes are hazelnut. 8/10.
Overall, one of the most enjoyable meals of the entire trip. Can't say when I'll be back, but it couldn't be soon enough.
On an unassuming street corner near central Osaka is the tiny, beautiful, friendly restaurant of Koryu. Shintaro Matsuo, the chef and owner, tweaks each dish to bring out the best in its flavors, and his staff are gracious, kind, and fun. The chefs, servers, and every other member of staff were happy and engaged; they made this a really memorable experience. This was, hands down, one of my favorite experiences in Japan.
PRICE PAID: $160 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)
FINAL SCORE: 9.0/10
We were greeted politely- you might even say effusively- at the red-linen-draped entrance. We were welcomed into the small but gorgeous space by everyone in the kitchen and on the small serving staff.
Koryu's interior was set up almost like a stage- a long projecting table broke up the space while still acting as a direct connection to the kitchen.
Unsurprisingly, every surface shone with good care, and the patterns and colors worked together flawlessly. A gorgeous jewel of a restaurant.
So here's an experience I had previously never had before- BEAR. White miso soup with daikon, yuzu, and, I'd like to say again, BEAR. When I asked our server to confirm the source of the protein, he raised his hand like a claw, and, with a hilariously neutral expression, said, "Rawr." Brilliant. The meat itself is oily and a touch rubbery, but good. 8/10.
Next, a tofu sauce with Japanese vegetable and karasumi (compressed roe). The textures seemed to work together, but the flavors were really and truly Not My Speed. 6/10.
Ah, here comes the smorgasbord plate. An enormous carrying dish with several small sub-plates- clockwise from bottom left- soy sauce, flounder, octopus, mackerel, tuna, egg yolk soy sauce, ocean water, sake. I'll dive into each one in turn.
Brightly-colored tiger prawn accentuated the (relatively) tame flavor and texture of the flounder fish, which was well-cooked and extremely fresh. 9/10.
Octopus is delicious, crunchy, and its so fresh that the individual suckers are as firm as plastic. Served alongside crispy-fresh broccolini. 9/10.
The mackerel is served with a nice bright plum sauce, which adds a nice touch of sweetness and gives the dish some depth. 8/10.
As I mentioned at the top, the chef's specialty seems to be coaxing the strongest performance out of each dish- and what a brilliant idea: pair a rich yellow egg yolk "soy sauce" with Otoro (fatty tuna). The result is a quasi-religious experience where the richness of the two somehow combines in a way that enhances the tuna further without becoming overwhelming. 10/10.
Next, some cooked pufferfish liver on a gorgeous ceramic plate. I can only liken the flavor to a foie gras of the ocean. The texture is a touch on the greasy side. 7/10.
Next, some shiitake mushroom with Hukinoto (butterbur), all fried in tempura. There are some assorted Japanese vegetables, and eel which is both sweet and salty. The mushroom is awesome- its has been perfectly fried to accentuate the amazing texture. 8/10.
Next, a beautiful dish of crab and buri (yellowtail) in a crab sauce. Here is one of the few places I can level a legitimate criticism of the preparation- the temperature on the dish is too low when it reaches us because they waited too long to serve. The sauce has brilliant peanut butter flavors, and the vegetabes are crispy-fresh. 7/10.
Another case where my Western palate is a bit lost- sea cucumber, spicy and served in an icy-cold soup, with dill and assorted herbs. I would describe this dish as somewhat hairy and stringy, and thence not my fave. 6/10.
This next dish of Miyazaki beef was totally amazing- the flavors were salty-rich and totally out of this world- but once again the server waited a touch too long to serve, so it landed a bit cold, 8/10.
As we got into the wrap-up dishes, a really fun take on congee with Japanese tea and radish. The congee is satisfying and delicious, the tea has that roasted oats/honey nut Cheerios flavor. As the chef is walking our palates down from the rich heights, this dish makes perfect sense. 7/10.
For finishers, a small and understated dessert of strawberry, kumquat, and lily bulb mochi. The lily bulb has a neutral flavor which emphasizes the sweetness of the citrus and the berry- 9/10.
A final note on service- we accidentally left something behind in the restaurant, and as we walked out into the cool early-Spring night we heard running footsteps of one of our servers chasing after us, holding said item aloft. A touching gesture of care. This place is truly one of a kind.
Perched at the very top of the Grand Lisboa casino in Macau, Robuchon au Dôme was a delightfully refreshing break from its Hong Kong/Macau 3-Star brethren in that it was actually incredibly good, reasonably priced, and full of service staff who seemed to really give a shit. This is, fortunately or unfortunately, one of only two places out of all the 3-stars in the region that I truly enjoyed.
PRICE PAID: $98 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)
FINAL SCORE: 9.0/10
Navigating the Grand Lisboa hotel and casino to reach the restaurant requires no less than four lobbies and three elevators, a luxurious but galling approach if you're running late (as I was- which was my fault- but I prefer to blame luxury elevators).
One of the only bummers of the whole visit was the view itself-the restaurant offers stunning vistas of the thick pollution-fog from Zhongshan/coastal manufacturing China. This, according to our service staff, is actually considered a relatively clear day.
A short note on bread and butter, because I'm obsessed with such things- this was the best butter service I have yet experienced, full stop. They had two enormous pillars of butter that they "cut" and served with a spoon idling in hot water.
They basically dumped four pounds of assorted breads on the table, arranged in a lovely star shape, which more than suits me. Highest marks possible for bread. 10/10.
The amuse-bouche consisted of a sweet corn velouté with marshmallow, popcorn, and smoked duck. The presentation and colors are gorgeous, but I didn't expect it to be cold. Maybe because it sat too long before service, but the popcorn and broth have intermingled into a mealy consistency, and the sweetness doesn't stand up as well as it should. 6/10. Marshmallows make it richer without adding depth. 6/10.
I admire dishes that take something I don't automatically find appetizing- in this case beets- and make them my new fave. Beets and beetroot salad on bottom with microgreens and a delicious green mustard sorbet on top. The sorbet is incredibly refreshing- almost spicy- and pairs with the salad perfectly. My only small issue is that the microgreens are not 100% fresh. 8/10.
"Les Crustacés" - "The Crustaceans," is a shellfish soup on the right and two rice-and-shrimp balls on the left. In the soup is a hugely rich and dense variety of seafood flavors thanks to a few different kinds of shellfish along with roe to add sweetness. The miniscule, bubbly texture of the shellfish goes great with the tiny pops of the roe. Great flavor, perfect temperature. 9/10. The shrimp balls don't add a ton, and I wouldn't recommend mixing them with the soup. Crunchy rice texture is a touch dry.
Remarkably similar to a dish offered by Robuchon's place in Hong Kong (my brother got it while we were there) the idea is pretty simple- spaghetti with lobster knuckles and microbasils in a turbo-rich lobster sauce. The execution boils down to how well the lobster is cooked, and in this case they rocked it. The microbasils also have great flavors that really heightens the dish. Simple, well-thought-through. 9/10.
A main course that would make any French chef proud- beef Wagyu Bourguignon. The Wagyu is soft enough to cut with a fork, the vegetables are lightly cooked and relatively firm, which enhances the contrast. What's interesting is that the traditional recipe uses a variety of cattle called Charolais, which are actually very lean- so to instead use Wagyu, which is basically on the opposite end of the fatty spectrum, is a really cool idea. 9/10.
Thanks to the Robuchon au Dôme, I got introduced to my new favorite varietal of cheese- Epoisse, this one specifically from a producer in France called Gaugry that is, sadly, not available in the US because they don't pasteurize (as, indeed, most good French producers do not). 9/10.
An extremely delicious coffee service, complete with pink sugar cubes. 9/10.
What is very likely the most absurd dessert cart in the Eastern hemisphere rolled up next. I love envisioning the design conversation that went into this megalith.
Jacques: "Should there be ceramic mushrooms?"
Jean: "Of course, Jacques."
Jacques: "And the chocolates; should they be in small, hand-painted cocoa bean shells?"
Jean: <long stare> "Obviously, Jacques."
This cart instantly inspires joy as it is wheeled around the room; photo flashes abound and laughter fills the high glass ceiling. A small part, but nonetheless an important part of these experiences is the transportation factor- making you feel, even if only for a moment, that you are whisked to some alternative dimension where you get to see or feel something genuinely new and different. No one pays as much for these meals as they do because they care that the ducks were raised by priceless organic bees or whatever, they want to feel taken away. This is the rare restaurant that actually accomplishes this goal
A short final note- as I walked out, I could't help but inspect the massive, low-lit rows of wine racks the restaurant stores on the main floor. A truly unreal collection of Romanée-Conti, Chateau Haut-Brion, Cristal, Krug, etc. Though certainly showy, it makes a hell of a point.
Alvin Leung, Hong Kong's culinary wunderkind, is actually nicknamed The Demon Chef, which is a pretty badass nickname and totally incongruous with the extremely humbly-presented, delicious meal I experienced at his flagship restaurant in Wan Chai.
HONG KONG, CHINA
PRICE PAID: $340PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)
FINAL SCORE: 9.0/10
The restaurant shares a private elevator with a Thai place right below, and has a pretty amazing fire-heated terrace outside. We opted to sit at the Chef's Table, which gives an intimate view into the main cold-line and prep areas. In general, Leung and his staff do a lot without much space.
A quick note on service- I was terrifically impressed with our chef/server/curator Derek, who not only ran the prep table but would also serve us with a breathless and carefully-detailed vignette for each and every one of the almost two dozen dishes he would present us. I was impressed by his storytelling and his clear gift for fine cooking; rare to see both in one human.
Hong Kong's streets are thronged with food vendors, and among the most unique and fascinating are the egg waffle vendors. These crispy, crunchy treats are broken apart by hand, and the distinctive bubbles are filled with air. This first bite was a nod to the uniquely Hong Kong staple, and set the mood that Alvin would be telling us a story about his hometown.
Continuing the description of the hometown, a lovely dish called "air." Or, more specifically, "fog," with a flowing stream of chilled vapor flowing from the dry ice beneath. The foam in the spoons had delicious rose flavors. 10/10, creative, interesting, good showmanship, terrific flavors.
The next dish showed up on a beautiful metal sculpture and caviar go together well, though the tarot is a touch heavy. 7/10.
This beautifully-plated oyster is bright, saline, and refreshing. It pairs perfect with green Sichuan sauce and the beef tongue. I have to admit that I ate in two bites, though I'm pretty sure that's not the design intention. The peppercorn is a touch spicy. 8/10
This foie gras dish is cooked for 48 hrs, and it is a fantastic contrast to the hard crunchy bamboo. It's glazed in a miso sauce made of Chuh Yeh Ching Whiskey, which gives it a touch of fire. Pickled indian lettuce stem, green apple rounds out the green theme here. 9/10.
Okay, the "umami-" otoro (really fatty) tuna is completely outstanding. Seared perfectly to remain soft, yet unbelievably rich and flavorful. We are offered some Har Mi oil to add additional umami flavor, and sure enough it really pours it on.
The noodles are shrimp-y and not too terribly oily, but don't add much. 9/10.
Perhaps my favorite and most creative dish of my whole experience thus far- a jar of baby food with custom-designed hairy crab logo (hairy crab is in season in late November in HKO). Great texture, deep flavors that really take advantage of the tasty crab proteins and texture. 10/10.
... This was followed by, quite possibly, my next-favorite dish of the entire experience, a "molecular dim sum explosion," made to imitate a Cha Siu bao (pork bun). Very rich- you can taste the bun even! 10/10
This next course, I will admit, was a real challenge. Bathed in a bowl of liquid nitrogen which is poured casually from an industrial container kept in the corner, this tiny ball of spicy-hot ginger is rolled around in the frozen liquid and then handed off for quick consumption. Of course, the contrast of the super-cold ginger with the spiciness of the bite itself is pretty interesting, but I have to admit that it froze the hell out of the tip of my tongue, and it took a few days for me to get 100% of the sensation back. 8/10.
With a sauce based on Pat Chun black rice vinegar, this gamely-named dish of "Tomato" features tomatoes in very different preparations from left to right. Leftmost is a tomato marshmallow, or maybe tomato foam is a better title. The middle is based on fermented Chinese olives; the texture doesn't work perfectly so I'm not crazy about it. The roasted tomato on the right is fresh and delicious. 7/10 overall.
Before serving this next dish, they brought around a Kia's worth of white Alba truffles in glass cake-case to show off.
Duck egg, white truffle, Chinese dumpling all are totally amazing. The white truffle in particular is even more outstanding. My only problem with the whole thing is that I can feel my arteries hardening as I eat- it is insanely rich. 9/10.
Next, a beautiful slice of blue lobster that practically falls apart at the touch of a fork. A Sichuan hollandaise off to the side (in case you wanted to make it even more decadent) and coated in a broth of chili and Shaosing cooking sauce. Chinese leek, peas, and roasted corn round things out. A nice light break from the weight of the previous courses. 9/10.
Next, a palate cleanser "King's Cup" (meaning you have to hold it with both hands and tip your head back to consume- not sure what makes that kingly). Alcohol and passion fruit flavors are very strong, as is hawthorn and lemongrass. 9/10.
Using special 9-year-aged risotto rice that is sole-sourced directly from a farm in Italy (Derek told the whole story about how the farmer was dining in the restaurant, met the chef, convinced the chef to try his risotto, chef decided to buy all the risotto the farmer had grown), the chef creates what is essentially a deconstructed congee. You can really taste the difference in the rice- I'm not sure I'd call this the Ferrari of rice but lacking similarly hyperbolic descriptions for basic starches I'm going to roll with it.
This next course was a fun wagyu and dumpling soup combined with a ton of black truffle. Derek mentioned that these are a play on "Cheong Fun," or dim sum rice noodles, and so yet another chapter in the Demon Chef's Hong Kon story. All I can say is that this tasted very little like dim sum, and was totally outstanding. 10/10.
Finally getting into the dessert courses, this one reminded me intensely of Alinea's desserts. Deconstructed coconut with pina colada snow; sweet, strong cherry flavors, decadent, totally great. 9/10.
The final dessert courses was a really fun interpretation of 8 Treasures Tea, one of the most popular of thousands of Chinese herbal medicines that includes relatively run-of-the-mill ingredients like green tea, goji berries, ginseng, etc. The brownie and the tea are both made from the same components, a fun and crowd-pleasing way to explain this traditional piece of Hong Kong culture. Once again, I applaud the creativity and showmanship; flavors were okay but not great as this felt a bit like shoehorning an idea into a dish. 8/10.
Mignardises were a lovely final touch. Easily one of the best meals, if not the best meal, of the whole journey.
PRICE PAID: $328 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)
FINAL SCORE: 9.0/10
I want to start off by saying that Da Vittorio was an extremely special experience; absolutely one of the best evenings I have had in Europe and perhaps in my global adventures.
The hotel and restaurant are run by the Cereas, and various family members are responsible for different branches of the property- one brother (Enrico) runs the restaurant, another (Francesco) runs the hotel, a sister runs hospitality (Rossella); you get the picture.
Without exception, every member of the family operating this property are joyfully and completely committed to ensuring their guests have a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Let me convince you with examples:
- Every single member of the staff, bar none, came out and introduced themselves to me before the meal even got rolling.
- Even though it was well past midnight, the sommelier offered me a personal tour of their world-class wine cellars, showing off what is likely one of the best collections of Italian wine in Europe.
- The Chef and Hotel Manager personally checked in with me throughout the evening to ensure everything was meeting expectations.
- Omar running service is fantastic- informed and friendly.
Beyond the personal touches, the property itself is incredibly dramatic and grand. You approach their enormous, gated property that looks every bit the hillside Italian villa of yore. Beautiful lighting and enormous gates give it an exclusive and almost untouchable feel.
The only slightly strange bit- every ten minutes, a plane roars into flight at the very-nearby airport. A bit unsettling at first.
Now, for the meal itself. I chose the Carta Biaca (Carte Blanche) menu, which was the longest on offer.
First out, a single large chunk of squid with a big, creamy ricotta. Tomato base, and Porcini mushrooms round things out nicely with a sliced celery topping. A subtle and herby gazpacho. 9/10. Great cleanser/starter.
Next, a Taleggio cheese "ice cream" served hot- textures are squishy and awesome. Bell peppers bring it all together. 8/10.
Cherry and foie gras pair up absolutely perfectly. The cherries are deadly sweet, and the foie is rich as sin. 9/10.
Next up, a "False Apple" with Beluga caviar. Sweet presentation! Altogether this dish is an awesome idea- the flavors of the caviar and apple work well but the textures aren't a perfect match; you end up with a salty-fruity mash that tastes like good fruity oatmeal. Not entirely a bad thing. 8/10
Another creative idea to bring the foie gras and cherry combo back- cool presentation and extremely rich! This time, the foie isn't fried and the cherries are fresh, presented with their leaves. Is Cerea winding back the clock? 9/10.
Getting into the seafood dishes- "Caccia al caciucco" with prawns. The prawn is soft and almost buttery. A hearty but refreshing course. 9/10.
The next seafood course was absolutely outstanding- sea bass carpaccio. Not too salty, great textures, and the clams add a nice touch. 10/10.
This next dish was super summery- prawns from Sicily, enclosed while cooking to release their smoky notes. The prawn has a taste quality I can't quite put finger on- almost a delicious hot dog taste. Paired up with Burrata cheese, a close cousin to Mozzarella. 9/10.
Beautiful saffron accents in the presentation is pretty. I like that the rice is sculpted into a small circle, with herbs on top. This dish has a nice comfort-food feel that I really appreciate. 9/10.
9) Sea Bass cooked in a cocoon of sugar. The sugar-cooking method brings out all kinds of flavors that I never imagined existed in seafood like this. Once again, bringing back the Sea Bass ideas from the fifth course and reflecting them nicely. 10/10.
Cooked Scorpion fish cheeks and neck with raw fish. Scorpion fish are extremely poisonous, by the way. Raw fish is in separate broth and is considerably tastier than cooked. 8/10.
A nice cheese plate, including robiola and red onion sauce, partially melted. Excellent pre-red meat cleanser. 8/10
These homemade raviolis were beautiful, and possessed an unexpectedly sweet flavor, most likely from the extremely rare Strachitunt cheese, which is only produced in this region of Italy by a single producer. 9/10. Duck sauce sets it off nicely.
Fatty and delicious duck breast with coffee and Guanaja chocolate sauce. Guanaja, by the way, is one of the small Caribbean-side islands belonging to Honduras that Christopher Columbus discovered in 1502, becoming likely the first westerner to taste Cacao on that very voyage.
Anyway, the polenta is an excellent textural contrast, and they go together fantastically. 10/10, an excellent main!
The only even mild disappointment of the evening- beignet with cookie, prepped table side. It was, unfortunately, burnt. 6/10.
Not much to say about this strawberry sorbet and mint except that it was perfect. A classic pairing, executed without flaw. 10/10
This Millefeuille of apple had a delicious, crumbly texture and bright green apple flavors. 9/10.
Next, some amaretto. A bit like a pain au chocolate. 9/10
Next, a fluffy cotton cloud arrived with chocolates and mint. The idea, of course, is that you should be floating on a cloud by now, and these desserts are coming up to join you. 9/10.
Last, parting gifts- a small batch of hand-made cookies. I love this place. 9/10.
A last, charming gesture- a copy of the menu, signed by Chef Cerea himself. What an outstanding level of service.
PRICE PAID: $428 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)
FINAL SCORE: 9.0/10
Flagship of the enormous Gordon Ramsay empire is his Royal Hospital road restaurant. Led by Chef Patron Clare Smythe, this restaurant has held its 3-star rating for almost 14 years; appointed in 2007, Clare is the only female chef to hold this title in the Michelin-star world.
The restaurant itself is small and straightforward- a square room with capacity for around 40 guests on no-messing around plain white tablecloths.
The first thing I'd like to say about the restaurant is that service was across the board top-notch. Attentive, friendly, sincere. This is the place to go for a seriously important life milestone, because at every moment of the meal someone was paying unbelievably close attention to our experience and making sure we were having the time of our lives.
First bites are some pretty delectable ricotta cheese and mint. Small sliced tomatoes. Fiery radishes and flower petals. Summery and fun. Tastes like a garden, in a good way. This is how the world's most decadent rabbit feels. Delicious. 10/10.
This beautiful little rectangle is foie with duck. The duck is rich and amazing. The foie is very good, but doesn't outshine the duck itself. Both pair excellently with included brioche. There's a strong Pepper Madeira, flavor buried somewhere underneath, which creates a cool effect. 9/10. So far, I'm getting excited because this is the best start I've had so far.
I was told by our server that this is the restaurant's signature dish- lobster ravioli- and has been offered since they opened. Green sauce really brings out the lobster flavor. Just look at those colors, for God's sake. 9/10.
Next arrived a delicate rose water broth saddled with some so-fresh-its-falling-apart-I'm-not-kidding halibut. This is Absolutely Perfect. 10/10.
Next, a perfect, rich pairing of pigeon and cherries. The pillow-soft and tender pigeon is likely the best bird I've ever tasted. 10/10.
An excellent but not overwhelming cheese tray, with plenty of great soft cheese selections from all over France and the UK. I asked the waiter for his recommendations, and he was able to knowledgeably recite data about each selection from heart. I was impressed. 8/10.
Next, a mint palate cleanser that comes with a pestle and mortar you grind yourself. I love, love creative dishes like this that get you involved in the course, even if your involvement is totally ceremonial (and, it always is). 9/10.
Hard to believe, but another total stunner came across the transom next. The jelly reflects bubbles in the expertly-chosen plate. Lemonade sorbet with the spun honey forming a bridge over the top. I'm told that this is Claire Smythe's work, and I believe it. 10/10
elderflower Turkish delight, frozen lemon balls, and some peanut brittle with salt served as our final statement for the meal. An absolutely exquisite finale to a near-perfect meal. 10/10.
I'm comfortable saying that this is the finest restaurant experience I have had on my adventure so far.
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
PRICE PAID: $235 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
A beautiful dish of panna cotta and green strawberries. 8/10.
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.
PRICE PAID: $310 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)
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.
Also, there is an owl. The owl viewed the visitors' room as his space.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
CHICAGO, IL, USA
PRICE PAID: $251 pp (includ. champagne + wine)
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:
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.
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.
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.