The Power of Pairing: Le Chateaubriand in Paris

I have had the pleasure of experiencing meals where the food was fantastic, and I have also had my share of phenomenal wines – sometimes even at the same time. But never has the art of the pairing been so apparent to me as on my recent visit to Le Chateaubriand in Paris.

I’d heard a lot about the restaurant, as well as Basque chef Inaki Aizpitarte, and I’d seen this crazy video so I knew I was in for something special. But I was completely blown away by the incredible, unusual and innovative way the staff paired the prix-fixe tasting menu with a variety of beverages, ranging from hard cider to Champagne to fino sherry to tomato liqueur. On their own, the individual pieces would have been delicious, but the combination took things to a whole new level.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

Here’s a transcription of the menu, with my translation and embellishment from the French:


Menu for Tuesday, October 14

Gougeres with black sesame seeds
Easy Cider, 2012 Cyril Zang

Avocado Ceviche
Liqueur de Tomates, L. Cazzotte

Crispy shrimps dusted with tamarind powder
Sea bream with salsa verde, greens and crispy pork skin
BB2, 2013 (Macabeo) Terra Alta, Laureano Serres

Saint Jacques Scallops, celery root, seaweed, oysters, hazelnuts
Sapience, 2006 (Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier), Champagne 1er Cru, Benoit Marguet

Bonito from Saint de Luz, figs, red cabbage, “juice from the wine merchant”
Les Damodes, 2011 Nuits-St-George, Frederic Cossard

Veal sweetbreads tandoori, nasturtium leaves tossed in lemon cream sauce, red currants
Fuori del Tempo, 2000 (Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc) Venezia Giulia, Radikon

Buttermilk ice cream with elderflower
Sake Kaze No Mori, Songe d’une nuit d’été (sparkling sake)

“Tocino de Cielo”
Fino (Palomino) La Bota Equipa Navazos (sherry)


Highlights

Tomato Liqueur & Avocado Ceviche: Some crazy Frenchman is making liqueurs and eaux de vie from all kinds of wacky ingredients, including tomatoes. 72 (!!!) different kinds of tomato went into this specific bottling. It smelled like essence of tomato – that smell of dead ripe ones in summer, including the vines – with a kind of earthy hay quality as well. The ceviche arrived in small round bowls each holding a few tablespoons of pink liquid with a small square of avocado floating on the top. The juice tasted of fresh fish and bright limey citrus. The combination was incredibly improbably, and incredibly delicious.

Sea Bream & Macabeo: My mother was deeply skeptical when this dish arrived, announcing that she “doesn’t like raw fish.” But she had been totally converted by the first bite. Sea bream is not so commonly seen in the US, but is fairly common in France. It was almost sweet, the crispy pork adding texture and saltiness. With the Macabeo from Tarragona in Spain, it really brought out the fruitiness in the wine. I have never been such a fan of Macabeo frankly, but this wine changed my mind. It was expressive and exciting.

Tocino de Cielo & Fino Sherry: Fino sherry is a dry sherry most often served as an aperitif, with a taste of almonds, apples and citrus. It tends towards the savory end of the spectrum rather than being overtly fruity. One of the “rules” of wine pairing is that the wine should always be sweeter than the food, otherwise the wine will taste “flat”, it will be robbed of its flavors. Therefore, pairing a dry sherry with dessert is a highly unusual choice. However, this was also a highly unusual dessert. Tocino de Cielo is a traditionally Spanish dessert made from egg yolks, water & sugar. It looks like flan. It literally means “Bacon of Heaven”, but there is no bacon involved. Chef Inaki made his with a raw egg yolk, nestled on top of a bed of dacquoise (a nutty meringue) and a dusting of what tasted like toasted  marshmallow dust. The egg yolk was room temperature and it may have been raw, but it seemed like it had been lightly heated in some way because it had none of the slimy, egg texture one might imagine. In fact, looking at it on the plate we didn’t even know it was egg yolk until we ate it. It was incredibly dense with sticky protein and had a decadent, thick mouthfeel. With the sherry, it was incredible.

Vital Statistics:
Location: 129 Avenue Parmentier, 75011 Paris
Metro: 11 to Goncourt
Website: www.lechateaubriand.net
Prices: 65€ for dinner, 130€ with wine pairings

Okryu-Gwan: Financing Kim Jong-il’s Caviar Habit

This post was written by a dear friend of mine about a year ago on a trip to Dubai.  He shared it with me recently and I thought it an excellent story of a food adventure, and topical considering the recent succession and nuclear negotiations.  If I disappear shortly hereafter never to be heard from again, you’ll know why – I’ve been kidnapped by Kim Jong-Un to write his private food blog, just like the South Korean movie director and actress.  Some names and details have been changed to protect the author.

———————————————————————————————————

I have discovered a new definition of globalization, and it is “An American speaking Mandarin to a North Korean in Dubai.”

One of the joys of Dubai is that you find the tragic, the comic, and the purely random. Like signs that say “Binladen Construction Group”. Anyway, I saw a random NPR article on the opening of a North Korean restaurant in Dubai. Since I was going to be in Dubai, I resolved it had to be investigated… at all costs.

The Okyru-Gwan is a bit of a strange beast. It’s apparently the best restaurant in North Korea. And aside from arms trafficking and money laundering (and apparently Japanese pachinko machines), it is one of Kim Jong-il’s main sources of foreign hard currency. About half the North Korean embassy in Beijing has been converted to an Okryu-Gwan — apparently lines go out the door at lunch. Then there’s ones in Vietnam, Laos, Mongolia, Russia  and other parts of the world with obsessive predilections with hammers and sickles.

Finding the restaurant was damn-nigh impossible. There is no address anywhere. And the one telephone you find associated with it (in the Dubai business register) doesn’t seem to work. All we knew was that it was near “Deira”, which is a seedy part of old Dubai full of bazaars and cheap storefronts. Asking a Chinese shoe merchant in Deira where his fraternal socialist comrades had set up shop elicited a blank look.

Further frantic googling located that it was near the “Deira clock tower”, and so my intrepid band of students went to investigate. We found the clock tower, and then navigating by the color schemes of the one picture we had, found the restaurant.

There were North Korean girls standing outside wearing North Korean costumes. We were quickly ushered inside and seated. It was empty. So we got the massive table in the middle. Here’s how protocol seemed to work:

§  There were 3 quite attractive North Korean girls whose job it was apparently to cater to our every whim. They surrounded our table and stared at us foreign water buffalo. Since I, Harold the Banker, am a banker, I communicate most efficiently through bullet points.

§  They were wearing little North Korean flag pins on their uniforms. Other than that, there was no political paraphernalia inside. No portraits of either Kims, as is de rigueur in the DPRK. Instead, natural scenery. But there was a large LCD screen showing… fish swimming back and forth. Very garish.

§  There was a stern-looking “NO PHOTO” sign inside. So apologies for lack of photos.

§  The girl at the head of the table’s job was apparently to banter with us and make lighthearted conversation. Her English wasn’t terribly serviceable, but she was trying very hard. I tried Mandarin, to no avail either. So I finally pulled out my BlackBerry and we communicated via Google Translate.

§  I’ve encountered her mode of communication before in Asia. It’s known as “Asian waitress giggle-talk”. How it works is that everything she says, even if it’s “Would you like some tea?” has to be preceded, interrupted, and appended by giggles.

§  There were three other North Korean girls who were standing in the corners watching the three who were watching us. Someone in some office in Pyongyang somewhere is probably also watching them.

§  Apparently, she wasn’t doing such a good job bantering with us, or maybe she was too friendly? One of the girls in the corner barked something at her in Korean, and she immediately backed off… to be replaced with the next giggle-talker.

§  Anyway, the food was absolutely amazing. Pyongyang buckwheat cold noodles is a signature of the Okryu-gwan and of Pyongyang. We all got that. Someone got something which in the menu was translated as “Okryu-gwan Hot Dish” which appeared to be a rice cake topped with a pancake topped with mushrooms over which hot water is poured. The resulting mishmash was absolutely divine.

§  Overall, North Korean food is very different from South Korean food by taste and texture. Not nearly as spicy or as pungent.

I wasn’t allowed to take photos inside, but here is a reasonably accurate depiction of the cold buckwheat noodles that I found floating around the Internet:

Oh, and ABBA’s Dancing Queen was playing in the background on a synthesizer.

We were invited to come back and told that at 8 PM, the girls would sing and dance, and play the guitar, piano, and drums. Apparently, this is true. They play old ABBA songs on the guitar and piano according to the reviews. I can honestly say that never before have I gone and dined with this combination of interest, apprehension, and well, fear. Or eaten lunch with this overpowering feeling that you’re being watched. Or that your overpriced (if delicious) meal is going to support Kim Jong-il.

Once outside, I snapped a quick photo of the girls standing out front, which made them completely freak out. Who knew.

Later that night, I somehow had to urge to come back, so I returned with my friend for a late dinner. This time, I got the Okryu-Gwan Hot Dish while he wolfed down the cold noodles. Fortunately, the general manager was there this time. She was this plump little adorable Asian woman who frankly reminded me of my grandmother, complete with nagging Asian grandmother insistence that we eat. She actually spoke pretty good Mandarin! (“I studied at Pyongyang Foreign Languages College!”)

Although she was embarrassed as all hell, since we were supposed to be bantering with her pretty waitresses, and not with her plump, adorable, Asian-grandmotherliness, we found out, in conversation with her:

§  Business has been “pretty good”, mostly South Korean and Chinese businessmen though, but could be better.

§  She was curious as to how we found this place, and blown away that it would be mentioned on the “English Internet”

§  Here’s the kicker — I was going out of my way to not mention South Korea, which North Korea does not recognize, and can seriously offend them, but she was actually pretty open minded, and mentioned the name “Han Guo”, which is completely taboo with the North Koreans.

§  The key difference between North Korean and South Korean food is that North Korean food does not go overboard with spices. She said the South Koreans use so much spice and fermentation with their kimchee and everything else, that it completely obscures the taste of food.

§  All the staff at Okryu-Gwan Dubai were top performers at the Okryu-Gwan Pyongyang and had worked there for several years before being chosen to go overseas.

§  I asked her if she had ever seen North Korea’s state leaders like Kim Jong-il before — she said “Well, they come to Okryu-Gwan all the time, but we ordinary people cannot just look at them!!”

When we left, she gave me a hug, and also a VIP Poster (10% discount on future visits!) Did I mention she was plump and sweet and adorable and reminded me of my grandmother? Only she’s from a horrible totalitarian regime. But at least the food was awesome?

Because it was awesome.

So, there you have it. I have directly financed the North Korean regime and the Dear Leader’s caviar habit to the tune of 130 UAE dirhams.

Vital Statistics:
Location: Google Maps says it is here: Al Rigga – Dubai – United Arab Emirates but as Harold the Banker says, just look for the clock tower.
Website: are you kidding?
Prices: about 130 UAE dirhams (about US $35)

Jack’s Wife Freda

I recently stopped in to Jack’s Wife Freda on a Saturday for brunch after reading about it on Tasting Table. It’s a small storefront right next to Osteria Morini and up the block from La Esquina on Lafayette between Kenmare and Spring. The bright white-washed interior features a long communal table down the middle flanked by smaller ones along banquettes and a few seats at the marble bar at the back overlooking the pastries.

The brunch menu includes a smattering of those sweets – croissants, chocolate twists, corn muffins – a range of egg dishes and what looks like standard brunch fare and some incentive sandwiches. Upon closer inspection the standard bit reveals its quirky side – the poached eggs are served with roast tomatoes and haloumi cheese while the eggs shashuka bathes them in a green soupy sauce of tomatillos, cumin and coriander.  Then there’s the grapefruit and yogurt – sounds pretty boring right? But in fact it’s a delicious mix of tart citrus with just a hint of mint, a generous dollop of thick Lebanese yogurt, honey and a sprinkling of granola.

On the drinks side the cantaloupe juice is pretty amazing – basically puréed melon. There’s no full bar so the boozers among you will be limited to mimosas, or beer/wine.

Verdict: a good neighborhood spot for a laid back meal.

Note to self:  next time try the rosewater waffles with Lebanese yogurt and berries.

Vital statistics:
Location: 224 Lafayette between Kenmare and Spring
Subway: 4, 5, 6 at Spring St
Website: jackswifefreda.com
Prices: Brunch mains from $9-13. Our bill for two came to about $20 each with tip.

Le Grand Pan

le Grand Pan

The New York Times article described the location as “the most boring part of the 15th arrondissement” in Paris, which turned out to be a pretty accurate statement. In addition it is also something of a hike from the nearest Metro stop. So here’s hoping these two factors keep the tourist hordes away (present company excluded, of course) because Le Grand Pan has made it onto my list of Parisian favorites.

The ambiance is neighborhood brasserie, full of locals, with about 40 covers max and a beautiful selection of meat, the specials written out in script on the blackboard.  It is unmistakably Parisian, and at the same time a member of that endangered species – The Typical French Bistro – that is being squeezed out by fancier and more modern places.

The Times recommended the côte de boeuf for two, to which we duly succumbed, in addition to one of the best foie gras maison I have ever had. We rounded this out with a cheese plate that included a nice selection from across France and a mille feuille with prunes soaked in aged rum.

Oh, did I mention the hand cut double fried french fries?  Heaven.

Vital statistics:
Location: 20 rue Rosenwald 75015 Paris
Metro: Convention or Plaisance
Website: N/A
Prices: 139€ for two people, including aperitif and a bottle of wine; most main courses were in the 35-45€ range

Le Dauphin

Only in Paris can you go to one of the trendy hot spot bar-restaurants of the moment and sit next to a father having dinner with his two children under 4, just a normal Tuesday dinner, and another couple who are slipping their dog treats under the table.

glass & marble

Oh, and it’s in an immigrant neighborhood off an avenue lined with Chinese restaurants and the equivalent of dollar stores.

Did I mention the interior is designed by Rem Koolhaas and the chef is Inaki Aizpitarte of neighboring Chateaubriand fame?

I parked myself at the bar at Le Dauphin on a glacial Tuesday evening in February.  I had heard of Le Chateaubriand but dining alone decided sitting at a bar would be more convivial.  My overall takeaway is that the food is fantastic but the service is seriously lacking.  Ok, maybe it was an off night, but it’s a good thing the waitresses in France don’t depend on tips for their income.

The menu at Le Dauphin is “tapas” style small plates. I had 4 plus dessert which was about right, and I will say that in general the waitress’ suggestions were on point.

poulpe tandoori

I started with the Poulpe Tandoori – slices of crispy squid in olive oil with “light” spices. It was perfectly cooked and very good, but I could have gone for a bit more spice – as it was I could barely taste the tandoori at all.

This was followed by grilled ravioli which I would have better described as dumplings. They were stuffed with ground up foie de volailles (liver of fowl), cumin and spices, which seemed to me to include lemongrass, and served with the “sauce maison” which is a secret. They were exquisite.

Next came pork belly with daikon radish, spinach and, again, the special sauce, which was pink and tasted of lemon, maybe some red wine vinegar, maybe grapefruit and shallots, with a consistency like very chunky mignonette. (Go figure the truth will probably be none of those things but this is the impression I had.)  The radish was served two ways: a few thin slices lightly cooked, but still with the spicy radish flavor and their purple skins on, and two long, paper thin slices raw.  It was a delicious combination of spicy, crunchy radish, falling apart pork belly with a crispy top, and the acidic sauce.

Next I had the St Jacques scallops with shaved turnips and mandarin orange. Two beautiful scallops, seared, arrived with two small sections of citrus and perfect rounds of thin turnip.

I ended with the Dacquoise with pear and celery filling. I found the biscuit a little cloying, but the cream filling with chunks of raw pear and celery was very original.

Final frustration, it was FREEZING cold inside.  Half the patrons were wearing their puffy down jackets and scarves.  It’s time to turn up the heat, or at least invest in a curtain to cover the door.

Vital Statistics:
Location: 131 Avenue Parmentier 75011 Paris
Metro: Goncourt
Website: N/A (yes, really)
Prices: 57€ including two glasses of wine and tip

Brawn + The Nightjar

“It’s worth the trek!” my friend assured me when I balked at the East London Columbia Road address. And it was, if only for the cauliflower gratin.

Located on a dark corner with not much else around in the evening, Brawn is a cozy place with about 30 covers plus seats at the bar. The food is sort of British-French featuring a range of charcuterie and inventive small plates.

la terrine

gesier salad

Installing ourselves at the bar so we could keep an eye on the action, we started with some delicious hard salami, brown bread, butter and a bottle of red.  The bread – made by a bakery called e5 – was so good we ate three baskets of it and had to ask for more butter.

For our main meal we chose the housemade terrine, served with excellent, briny cornichons; Welsh leeks, served cold with a vinaigrette; and a delicious mâche salad topped with poached duck egg, croutons and sliced “gesier”, or gizzards. We practically licked our plates.

cheesy cauliflower

This was followed by the aforementioned cauliflower gratin – big chunks of cauliflower in a thick, creamy cheese sauce with nice bubbly brown bits – served with a delicious endive salad in a tangy mustard dressing, plus a snail vol-au-vent which I found less successful.

The only downside: we had so gorged ourselves on pâté and cheesy cauliflower we didn’t have room for actual cheese (there was a lovely French selection) or dessert (I was lusting after the poached pear en croute).

However, a hidden benefit of the remote (everything’s relative) location was that we were revived by the cool air on our walk to the tube and thus had room and energy for cocktails at The Nightjar, my new favorite London bar.

Located in a basement off Old Street there’s live jazz early in the evening; a craft cocktail list complete with pre-Prohibition, Prohibition, Post-War Era and original Nightjar creations; a tin ceiling; and bartenders in suspenders (oops, I mean, braces for the Brits). I ordered the Post War Advance London Sour with Woodford Reserve, homemade marzipan orgeat, lemon & orange with chocolate bitters served up. It had a nice floral-citrus balance, not too sweet, easy to drink, delicious, and too dark for photos.

Tip: If you want to go early for the music make sure to book ahead. After 11 there is often a line to get in although it moved pretty fast, especially for a party of 2.

Vital Statistics:
Brawn

Location: 49 Columbia Road, London E2 7RG
Tube: Old Street (15 min walk)
Website: www.brawn.co
Prices: £77 all in for two including tip and bottle of wine; dishes range from £8-17

The Nightjar
Location: 129 City Road, London EC1V 1JB
Tube: Old Street
Website: www.barnightjar.com
Prices: drinks £9-12 each

I Love Buvette

a view down the bar

Recently I read about a new “gastrotheque” in the west village – featuring cured meats, croques Monsieur, and other French country delicacies. Naturally it went right on my to do list but, not being open for weekend brunch (quelle horreur!) I didn’t get to go until this past Monday, January 2.

A friend of mine and I popped in for a late lunch on a cold afternoon (finally it is cold!), which might be the perfect time to visit Buvette, a warm, cozy nook of a place on Grove Street right off Bleecker in the West Village.  Although, I imagine it’s pretty stellar for breakfast too.  We installed ourselves at the marble bar, ogling the plates being assembled before our very eyes, trying to decide which of the 15 things we wanted to have.  There was a great selection of cheese and charcuterie, plus a range of sandwiches, a few salads and a smattering of egg dishes.  The drinks list features two (2) cocktails: the Manhattan and the Martini; as well as lots of wines, beers and a few champagne concoctions.

When we finally got some attention (the service was friendly but either they need better multi-taskers or more people) we ordered drinks – I the Rosette, which is champagne with dried cherries, and my friend a glass of Pineau, a musty, grapey fortified wine.  The Rosette is a great alternative to the perennial Kir Royal, and by the end the cherries had plumped up nicely with the bubbly so I could pick them out with my spoon.  Nothing like a good alcohol laden piece of fruit.

champers & cherries

raw meat

For food we decided on the steak tartare – served, like everything else we ordered, on crusty, country bread; brandade de morue – a kind of cod pâté that was delicious; and duck rillettes because I am incapable of not ordering rillettes when they are on the menu.

rillettes: duck fat + meat = heaven

They arrived with a healthy serving of plump, green olives and globular pickles that were tangy and salty and eminently poppable.

We were totally full after this, but naturally I couldn’t leave without sampling the mousse au chocolat – a dense, dark one topped with whipped cream.  Sinfully good.  Next time I’ll have to leave room for the tarte tatin….

Vital Statistics:
Location: 42 Grove Street, between Bleecker and Bedford
Subway: 1 to Christopher Street
Website: www.ilovebuvette.com
Prices: $45 each for 3 savory plates, 2 cocktails, and 1 dessert; cocktails $12 each, plates about the same

the Buvette bicycle (ahem, I mean vélo): throw a cork in the basket for good luck

Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare

That’s it – the only photo you’re going to get of the entire evening I spent at Chef Cesar Ramirez’s Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare on Friday, December 2.  This is because the chef operates a strict no photographs and no note taking policy.  “Just enjoy your meal” he told me, somewhat exasperated, when I lamented the fact I would never be able to remember all the dishes. I started out repeating each dish as it came out, and then repeating in reverse order everything that had come before.  But I gave up at around the 7th amuse and took Cesar’s instructions – after all, when one is in a kitchen, the only appropriate reply to a direction from the man in charge is “Yes Chef.”

I had read about Chef’s Table while in London and promptly put it on my list to do when I came back.  By which time unfortunately (for those trying to get a reservation) they had received a third Michelin star, making it even more impossible to get a table, or rather, seats, since there are no tables.  So I did what any resourceful office girl would do: put a recurring meeting in my Outlook calendar for 10:30 every Monday, when the reservation line opens.  On my first try, I had my phone on release-redial for 30 minutes straight when finally it started ringing.  My heart started pounding and when someone finally answered I said, in a hopeful, somewhat breathy, perhaps mildly desperate voice, “Hi, I’d like to make a reservation, if possible.”  “Hold please.” After which followed a stressful few minutes of solid silence.  Afraid I had been dropped, I grabbed the phone from the desk next to me and started dialing using that one too.  Finally I got an actual reservationist who put me down for 2 at 7pm on Friday, December 2.  Success!

Chef’s Table is BYO, so the first step was to buy wine.  Michele Smith, sommelier and manager, recommended we start with a blanc de blancs Champagne, white Burgundy, red Burgundy and an auslese or spätlese Riesling.  4 bottles of wine for 2 people is a lot, so I brought a half bottle of champers and the two bottles of Burgundy I had bought 5 months ago in St Georges de Nuit and shlepped back across the ocean wrapped in lots of plastic bags and bubble wrap for protection.

Contrary to my usual style – which is to arrive at the last possible moment and almost (and occasionally actually) miss flights, trains, etc – Diana, my partner in crime for the evening, and I showed up 30 minutes early.  The confirmation email had fiercely admonished that the first courses would be served approximately 10 minutes into the reservation.  If you were late, tough.  And so, as Manhattanites unused to venturing into the wilds of Brooklyn, and imagining ourselves getting on the wrong train, getting lost, getting stuck in a tunnel on a train and having to climb over tracks wearing highly inappropriate footwear, we left plenty of room for error, and as a result ended up cooling our heels outside the restaurant for a good half hour, watching the staff set up (from whence above photo).

By the way – Chef’s Table is in Boerum Hill, on a nondescript street across from a parking deck, and is attached to Brooklyn Fare, a fantastic grocery store.  You literally eat in the kitchen, it’s all one room, although the dish washing takes place in a little out of the way corner by the bathroom.

At five minutes to 7, we were allowed inside.  Wine service is all self-service, but the restaurant does provide a big communal ice bin, corkscrews and an extensive range of glassware.  The 18 guests are seated in a semicircle facing the kitchen, with diners staggered in two groups (one at 7pm, the next at 7:45, and at least one more seating at 9:45).  I got what I consider the best seat in the house – at the far end right next to Chef Ramirez, so I could see all the action and hear him introduce each dish.

Speaking of which, I can remember 18 courses, in varying degrees of vividness.  The first one was orange and squash soup topped with a bit of fresh yogurt foam, served in a shooter glass.  “Are we supposed to drink it?” someone asked.  “I would” replied the chef.  Then came fluke with pickled daikon radish, just one bite, then Japanese red snapper.  “How is it different from regular red snapper?” I asked.  Chef replied that it is a cold, deep water fish and so has a higher fat content than Florida red snapper, for instance. “Just taste it!”  Yes Chef!  It was sublime.

Inspired by the Japanese omakase style meals (Japan has been rising up my “to go” list for sometime and may have skipped a few places as a result of this dinner), what followed was a series of tiny plates containing 1-2 bites of seafood each – kampachi, a kumamoto oyster with Meyer lemon, tuna with fresh wasabi, something with mustard, another something with crispy leeks, a slice of some kind of enormous shellfish that Cesar described as a cross between an oyster and a clam. Each one a little explosion of flavor that met with concentrated lulls in conversation.

There was a creamy sea urchin pâté served on a tiny brioche with a slice of black truffle on top.  (Embarrassing Admission: may the seafood gods and food experts strike me dead, but I actually do not like sea urchin.  Blasphemy, I know.)  There was an incredible rouget filet served over Iranian saffron rice, and smoked cod with potatoes and caviar over little red onions that came in a covered, egg-shaped dish and when you lifted it off there was a little puff of smoke.  That might have been my favorite single dish. It was creamy and salty and smokey and tangy all at once.

Oh! But then came chestnut ravioli with shaved white truffle from Alba. I smelled the truffle first, and whipped my head around to find the source. “Time to switch to red” Michele informed me.  And then the duck with a baby turnip.  Somewhere along the way Diana and I had started speaking Spanish with el Chef (he was born in Mexico), so there was a discussion about how you say turnip in Spanish (it’s nabo).  And then we had befriended the two Swedes sitting next to us and were swapping wine while talking about great Swedish inventions like Spotify, Hövding (the invisible bicycle helmet) and, of course, Fäviken.

This was a wonderful quirk of the restaurant: in what other 3-star Michelin establishment (or 1 or 2 star for that matter) do you casually chat with the chef, share wine with strangers and engage in conversation with your fellow diners?  By the end of the evening it was like at dinner party for 10 in someone’s (very fancy) kitchen.

Finally there was some cheese followed by elderflower sorbet over some sort of berry.  The result of no photos or notes and quite a lot of wine, not to mention dishes, is that none of us can remember what the berry was.  It reminded us of raspberry.  But it wasn’t.  I’ve got one vote for cassis, and another for “infused blueberry.” Who knows? It’s not really the point – it was delicious and there was gold leaf on top. Which brings me to another observation: Chef’s Table is not about locavore sustainability.  It is about opulent, top of the line ingredients: caviar, gold, Japanese red snapper, Iranian saffron, white truffles from Alba.  I appreciate a good farm-to-table restaurant as much as the next person (or perhaps even more, depending on the person), but it is fun to eat this kind of over-the-top, rare and expensive cuisine as well.  Once in a while.

And finally, last but not least came fig purée, a small cake and lemon thyme ice cream.

Completely sated, but on a huge food and adrenaline high, we entertained ideas of going somewhere local, but quickly abandoned that and instead hopped on the C train to West 4th street and hit up Little Branch for some cocktails.

Key Takeaway: eating in a kitchen + BYO + talking to strangers + incredible food = 3 Michelin Stars.

In case you are frustrated at the lack of visual aides in this post, I refer you to Chef’s Table’s Facebook page or the NY Times slideshow.  For further reading, here is an interesting Bloomberg article, a review from New York Magazine’s Adam Platt, and one from the NY Times.  I also feel compelled to say something about Chef Ramirez’s attitude, since it has been so maligned on a variety of blogs, including Law & Food.  I can’t say anything particularly defensible about the description of the exchange described, but personally I found Cesar to be extremely friendly and easy going, eager to talk with us and know how we were enjoying our meal, and to describe his approach and the ingredients.  So if you keep your cell phone in your bag/pocket, smile and be generally nice, you should be fine.

Vital Statistics:
Location: 200 Schermerhorn Street between Hoyt and Bond Streets, Brooklyn, NY
Subway: the 2, 3 to Hoyt Street, a few blocks away, or the A, C, G to Hoyt-Schermerhorn right across the street
Website: www.brooklynfare.com/chefs-table
Prices: $185 per person, plus tax and 20% gratuity.  Plus your wine, obviously.

Good Things in Midtown Manhattan

The midtown scene can be pretty dire.  Not to mention expensive. And as much as I enjoy overpaying for sub-par food and drink at impersonal chain restaurants … Oh wait, I don’t enjoy that at all.

Luckily there are a few bright spots scattered about here and there.  Here are some of my faves:

‘wichcraft

Choice #1 for lunch is Tom Colicchio and Sisha Ortuzar’s sandwich mini-chain ‘wichcraft.

berkshire pork sandwich with jalapeno and red cabbage

For about $10 you can get a yummy lunch made with quality ingredients. With options like slow-roasted Berkshire pork, smoked turkey with goat cheese and mashed chickpea with roast pepper there’s something for everyone.

Plus: they make good soups and delightful mini cookie sandwiches, like lemon poppyseed with raspberry or oatmeal with caramel cream. A perfect little afternoon pick me up.

Vital Statistics:
Location: various, but I go to the one in Rockefeller Center
Subway: F, M, B, D to Rockefeller
Website: http://wichcraftnyc.com/
Prices: sandwiches $8-10

Macaron Cafe

It looks a little too pink from the outside, but Macaron Cafe place turns out good salads and sandwiches at reasonable prices – like the croque monsieur I sampled this week that came with a little side salad and mustard vinaigrette for $10.

on 59th between Park and Madison

As the name suggests the house specialty is macarons – New York’s new fad food item, giving the cupcake a run for its money. Macaron Cafe turns out a wide variety of flavors including classic (cassis) and not so classic (pumpkin spice). But at $3 a pop these are not the most budget friendly treats ever.

Vital Statistics:
Location: 625 Madison Avenue, entrance on 59th Street between Park and Madison
Subway: 6 to 59th Street or the N, R to 5th Avenue
Website: http://macaroncafe.com/
Prices: sandwiches and salad from $8-10, macarons $3

Zibetto

My go-to for coffee when I’m at work and in need of some caffeine help.  Helps that you feel as though you’ve walked into Italy when you enter.  I like to pretend and say “ciao” and “grazie” to the waiters, just for good measure.

Vital Statistics:
Location: 1385 Avenue of the Americas between 56th and 57th
Subway: F, M, B, D to 57th Street
Website: www.zibettoespresso.com
Prices: $3.50 for a latte, $7 for a sandwich

The Lantern’s Keep at the Iroquois Hotel

As I was bemoaning the lack of good cocktails in midtown the other night at Milk and Honey, bartender Theo told me clearly I had not frequented his establishment yet.  It’s true – some good things happened while I was away in Europe and Lantern’s Keep is one of them.

the Dodd's Cocktail: a bourbon Manhattan with a Fernet rinse

Tucked away in the back of the historic Iroquois Hotel, it features a list of the classics and a staff that can, in good Sasha Petraske fashion, make you exactly you want, even when you don’t know what that is yourself.  And so now I can go out after work and not cry on the inside every time I order a drink.

FINALLY.

Vital Statistics:
Location: 49 West 44th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues
Subway: F, M, B, D to Bryant Park
Website: http://thelanternskeep.com
Prices: $14 a cocktail, plus a menu of yummy snacks ranging from $4 to $19

Mas (la grillade)

Last week my friend Cordelia and I checked out Galen Zamarra’s new restaurant Mas (la grillade) – yes the name includes the parentheses – on Leroy and 7th Avenue South (a corner that is also home to another fine establishment, Little Branch). For those of you thinking “Wait, isn’t there already a restaurant called Mas in the West Village?” you’re right – that would be Zamarra’s first restaurant Mas (farmhouse) which he opened in 2004.

La grillade is a bit less upscale than Farmhouse but they still go in for fancy linens, hot plates (those decorative ones at your place when you sit down) and service which, although excellent, at times felt overly formal given the otherwise relaxed vibe. The dining room is spacious with a full wall of windows facing 7th Avenue, double height ceilings and a small lofted space with a skylight.

True to its name, la grillade is all grilling all the time – even the desserts (we had grilled figs). Apparently some people in the neighborhood are not fans though, as demonstrated by the irate man who barged in as we were finishing our main courses yelling about how the restaurant was poisoning the neighborhood with smoke. He was firmly escorted out by a group of waiters and the general manager.

squid stuffed with bay leaves

To start we sampled grilled artichokes with chanterelles topped with arugula. Some of the most incredible chanterelles I have ever had, they were crisped and sweet, melt in your mouth delicious. The squid appetizer was also good – although the waiter felt obliged to warn us to remove the bay leaves before eating it.  I wondered how many unassuming guests have choked on them to warrant this disclaimer.

The wine list featured French wines – lots of red Burgundy and Cotes du Rhônes – with a few American bottles thrown in. We found the price point a little high, with most bottles between $65-$120 which for me is just a little more than what I want to spend for dinner just because it’s Wednesday.  In the end we settled on a bottle of Carignan from the Languedoc, 2007 for $58. It was a nice medium bodied wine and paired well with our mains: squab and lamb chops.

lamb + squab + fennel and pear

Both meats were sublimely juicy and tender and richly smokey – the lamb total pink perfection.  We also ordered a side of fennel and pear – delish.

Vital statistics:
Location: 28 Seventh Avenue South at Leroy Street
Subway: 1 to Christopher Street
Website: www.maslagrillade.com
Prices: $30-34 for a main course, total damage for us was $110 each