Restaurants


“There are only two animals in the world with bones in their ‘sex’ ” our waiter noted. Welcome to Hof Van Cleve, where the endless array of delicious food is eclipsed only by the fact that you will cut some of it up with a knife made from whale penis. Hof Van Cleve is currently ranked 26th in the San Pellegrino list of the top 50 restaurants in the world. Liz and I made a special detour to the remote town of Kruishoutem on our trip to the Benelux this summer to cross it off our list. Through a misunderstanding on the part of my esteemed dining partner, we arrived half hour before the restaurant opened, and were faced with the prospect of either extending our cab ride through rural Belgium or walking around the deserted dirt roads and corn fields that surround the restaurant’s grounds. We chose the latter and in the process built up a healthy appetite which still proved no match for the amount of food we’d be served.  Both our stomachs would bend and break by the end of our 5+ hour meal. A couple more courses and my fat would have grown around and into the bottom of my seat cushion, requiring forcible removal by crane. That said, this was an unbelievably good restaurant. Heavy on the seafood, but still with a wide variety of flavors, textures, and preparations. Certainly up there with the best restaurants we’ve been to, though it didn’t have the playful element with the food that would really put it at the top.

It seems customary in nice Belgian restaurants to trot out a series of amuse bouches before the meal begins. Here they are:

braised oxtail spring roll, plum sauce, sardines on toast

braised oxtail spring roll, plum sauce, sardines on toast

herring, green apple

herring, green apple

..

(abalone) sashimi, beef sashimi, seaweed cracker, wasabi sorbet, fruit

(abalone) sashimi, beef sashimi, seaweed cracker, wasabi sorbet, fruit

frog leg, herb broth, cous cous

frog leg, herb broth, cous cous

The frog leg may have been the best bite of the night

crab, grapefuit sorbet, pea puree

crab, grapefuit sorbet, pea puree

The amuse bouches had already sated our appetites and it was hard to believe the main meal had not yet started. With some concern for our cholesterol and livers, we pressed on. The menu was in French and Flemish – I’ll include the French as it appeared and then explain what it is to the best of my ability (or to the best of babelfish’s ability)

langoustine, cucumber fettucine, avocado, watercress gelee

Langoustine "Guilvinec" cresson/concombre/avocat

Several langoustines covered with cucumber fettucine, avocado, and some kind of watercress gelee. I didn’t notice until now but it kind of looks like  a face. Several of the main dishes also came with a side dish. This came with a side of what seemed to be pork consomme (not pictured).

Maquereau "Lisette"

Maquereau "Lisette" coriand/tomate/ couteau de mer

Mackerel four ways with coriander, tomato, and razor clams. This came with a side of crab prepared two ways with an avocado mousse. See below.

side of crab

side of crab

Calamares

Calamares yuzu/dashi/algues

This was the least successful dish of the night. Squid with yuzu, dashi, and seaweed. The complimentary flavors worked well but squid seems to be impermeable to flavor. So what you’re left with is an ordinary piece of squid with a nice sauce on top, as opposed to the rest of the fish on the menu which were fleshy and porous enough to absorb whatever they happened to be in. Although it did come with a tasty soup of cockels and mussels on the side.

Homard de L'Escaut De L'Est

Homard de L'Escaut De L'Est choux-fleurs de Malines/ cepes/ belotta

Lobster with cauliflower puree, egg, mushrooms and ham.

Cabillaud Danois

Cabillaud Danois jeunes poireaux/brandade/ crabe royal

Danish cod with leeks, brandade (a puree of salt cod, oil and milk), and crab. Came with a side of what seemed to be lightly battered and fried baby shrimp and a zuchini flower chip.

Veau Sous la Mere "Correze"

Veau Sous la Mere "Correze" estragon/petits-pois/girolles

Veal with tarragon, peas, chanterelles and roast potatoes. And of course, the whale penis knife we used to cut it up.

Whale dick cutlery

Whale dick cutlery

At this point we were already very full, but when the nice waiter came by to ask if we’d like cheese before dessert we just didn’t want to disappoint him. Lucky for us this was hands down the best cheese plate we’ve had anywhere.

cheese party

cheese party

There was another tier of cheese that you can’t see in the picture. We tried 12 of them.

cheese party

cheese party

Everything was delicious. Unfortunately, due to the fact that cheese plates come at the end of the meal, after a lot of eating and drinking, we can never remember a thing about any of the cheeses.

mojito

mojito

….and the food just did not stop coming

Fruit plate

Fruit plate

This was an assortment of interesting and refreshing  fruit preparations. Frozen little pearls of fruit on jellied fruit with some kind of fruit puree.

Fraises

Fraises menthe/ chocolat "Ivoire"/ prosecco

Strawberries with mint, white chocolate and prosecco

Banane

Banane fruits de la passion/ citron vert/ mascarpone

This dessert was outstanding. It came with a chocolate madeline that was so good I just had to force it down my throat.

too drunk and full to remember

too drunk and full to remember

But I think it was some kind of play on fruit, yogurt and granola.

white chocolate truffle with pistachio

white chocolate truffle with pistachio

At this point we were getting scared. Would this meal ever end?

donuts!

donuts!

Then things just got ridiculously  out of hand with the dessert wagon. In case we hadn’t had enough out came our waiter with a cart of pastries, cakes, madelines, truffles, macaroons and who knows what else. Realizing this would probably be my only trip to Hof Van Cleve in my lifetime I endured some more gastrointestinal pain to choke down a delicious eclair, a madeline, and some kind of apple glazed donut.  I’m not proud of it, but it had to happen. Years of being raised by Italian women has instilled in me the principal of “never decline what you are offered”.

are you serious?

are you serious?

Hof Van Cleve is definitely worth the trip if you are within several hours driving distance of Waregem (Amsterdam, London, Brussels, Paris). We stayed at the St Janshof Hotel, a perectly serviceable hotel a short taxi ride away. It was the perfect way to kick off our vacation.

Tupelo and Hungry Mother are two of the most celebrated additions to the Cambridge eating scene over the past year. That they are both southern inspired suggests a niche in the Boston area that was screaming to be filled at least since the closing of Bob the Chef’s over on Tremont. By most accounts, Tupelo and Hungry Mother are doing a fine job, and our experiences at both restaurants largely confirm this. So a traditional like/dislike review seems less appropriate in this case than a comparison of these largely similar establishments. If you’re in the mood for some catfish, fried oysters, roasted chicken or grits where should you go? Here’s recommending Tupelo.

With appetizers at $5-8 and entrees for $12-15 Tupelo beats Hungry Mother’s prices ($8-11 apps and $18-25 entrees) by a sizable margin, without sacrificing anything when it comes to the food or atmosphere (though Hungry Mother does trump Tupelo in terms of drink selection and quality). Tupelo’s fried oysters with green tomatoes ($8) stacked up against Hungry Mother’s fried oysters ($11) and I preferred their catfish ($14.50) to Mother’s ($18).

Most of Hungry Mother’s offerings stray a bit too far from the comfort food and too close to the French for my taste. The dishes tend to be a bit more “refined” than at Tupelo, but in a totally vanilla way. There is nothing comforting or interesting about the rainbow trout dish below. Other entrees on the menu are similarly uninspired e.g.  french style gnocchi (I’m not sure what makes these gnocchi French, but anything that would make them less Italian can’t be good) and veal strip loin. These items do not jump off the menu. Tupelo’s entrees, on the other hand, sound unhealthy and delicious: beer battter crepes, daube of beef with hominy mashed potatoes, bourbon maple bbq chicken, new orleans gumbo. The one disappointing part of Tupelo was the biscuit. There are few breads I like more than a good biscuit, but this version was dry and bland. Other than that, Tupelo satisfied on all counts.

Hungry Mother's fried Chesapeake Bay Oysters

Hungry Mother's fried Chesapeake Bay Oysters

Crispy Catfish with fresh green tomatoes, parsley potatoes, and pickled jalapeno aioli

Tupelo's Crispy Catfish with fresh green tomatoes, parsley potatoes, and pickled jalapeno aioli

Hungry Mother's cornmeal catfish

Hungry Mother's cornmeal catfish w/low country red rice middlins, andouille sausage, green tomato relish

Fish was good, but the middlins were quite bland, which was an issue the last time I had this dish.

Hungry Mother's grilled rainbow trout, fingerlings, red vidalias, bacon, almond-brown butter

Hungry Mother’s grilled rainbow trout, fingerlings, red vidalias, bacon, almond-brown butter

Half Roasted Chicken, Bourbon-Maple BBQ chicken with cheddar grits, sweet onions and quick dressed greens

Tupelo's Half Roasted Chicken, Bourbon-Maple BBQ chicken with cheddar grits, sweet onions and quick dressed greens

The half-chicken was moist and sticky and salty and sweet and went great with the dense cornbread and the cheesy grits. This is what I want if I’m in the mood for southern flavors.

Tupelo's Brown Butter Pecan Pie with Toscanini's Tupelo honey ice cream and blackberry sauce

Tupelo's Brown Butter Pecan Pie with Toscanini's Tupelo honey ice cream and blackberry sauce

The pecan pie was delicious though i read somewhere that it might be off the menu now. The rest of the desserts looked equally good, so there should be no shortage of delicious ways to finish your meal.

Tupelo on Urbanspoon

Hungry Mother on Urbanspoon

Alice Waters has long been well-known amongst epicureans, locavores, and Nothern Californians.  But lately she has garnered more widespread attention by calling for the Obamas to plant an organic White House garden and through her increasing appearances on national news and talk shows.  I have to admit that I find Waters’ views on food sort of impractical.  Her breathy, fanciful speeches about organic produce as a fundamental human right and her unwillingness to admit that it might be more important for school districts to spend limited resources on books rather than on fresh, locally-grown, organic white peaches are just annoying.  And not only that, her flagship restaurant, Chez Panisse, has dropped in our favorite international restaurant rankings.  Nonetheless, there are worse things she could advocate for and she still has one of the best restaurants in the world, so Carlo and I paid it a visit during our trip out west.

Chez Panisse includes a fine dining restaurant and a cafe.  The cafe is more casual and offers an a la carte menu and the restaurant offers a daily-changing fixed-price menu.  On the evening of our visit, the menu was as follows:

Warm asparagus with capers, pancetta, and Parmesan

Warm asparagus with capers, pancetta, and Parmesan

Pan-seared sea scallops with wild fennel, hot pepper, and oregano

Pan-seared sea scallops with wild fennel, hot pepper, and oregano

Spit-roasted Becker Lane pork with fava beans, cannellini beans, and rapini

Spit-roasted Becker Lane pork with fava beans, cannellini beans, and rapini

Twin Girls Farm cherry crostata with bitter almond ice cream

Twin Girls Farm cherry crostata with bitter almond ice cream

Supposedly, there is also an optional cheese supplement, but we were never offered it, the only flaw in service for the evening.  We would have ordered it had it been offered, but we were plenty full so we weren’t that upset to miss it.  This was a very nice meal.  Everything was cooked perfectly, the flavors were great, and the produce was in perfect form as promised.  If we lived in Berkeley, I am sure we would happily become regulars.  But it wasn’t a very exciting meal despite the great ingredients.  The kitchen is very competent but not very creative.  Given the same quality ingredients, competent home cooks could easily replicate and improve on these dishes.  Except for the last one.  The dessert was out of this world, fresh juicy perfect cherries on an almost marzipan-y crust with fresh ice cream. I wish I could go back and get that dessert, though there is no guarantee that it would be on the menu, since it changes everyday.  So, all in all, Chez Panisse was a pleasant experience and a good dinner, only marginally over-priced, and worth a visit for anyone in the Berkeley area.

Chez Panisse on Urbanspoon

Immediately after eating Speed’s loaded hot dog, a whitehead appeared on my nose. Now I understand that correlation doesn’t equal causation, but  the smell of grilled pork that emanated from my pores for the rest of the afternoon provided converging evidence.  Why is this relevant? Well, you certainly won’t want to go for a run after downing this beauty, in fact you will probably want to take a nap or stare blankly into space for a bit. Your self-esteem could take a hit, you might need to buy new pants, strangers might stand a bit farther away from you in elevators,  but this hot dog is so good it is worth all the bodily malfunctions and social repercussions that might ensue.  The Wall Street Journal called Speed’s hot dogs the best in the country. They are as good as advertised. While $7 might seem a bit steep for a cart hot dog, the loaded dog (special sauce, mustard blend, onions) is a steal considering the massive size and how damn delicious it is. Service moves a little slow, I was 8th in line and waited around 10 minutes for mine. Cash only.

Speed’s is tucked away in Newmarket Square, but easy enough to find. Coming from Boston just take a left off Mass Ave onto Newmarket Square road and you will see it on your right shortly. For those in Boston for July 4th they are setting up shop on the corner of Beacon and Clarendon from 9am until all the dogs are gone.

Loaded

Loaded

Speed's Hot Dog on Urbanspoon

I highly recommend Sensing to anyone who likes a healthy dose of the absurd. From the seating by the hostess to the dessert menus, the extremely friendly (but extremely poorly trained) waitstaff and the long-on-promise, short-on-delivery kitchen at Sensing never miss an opportunity to violate every expectation you might have for dining in an establishment that is a recent recipient of AAA’s Four-Diamond rating. Our experience single-handedly rendered that distinction meaningless to me. Or, at the least, demonstrated the extent to which Guy Martin’s name rings out amongst the circles of people who dole out these awards. Speaking of Guy Martin’s name, I am confident he’d roll over in his bed at the Ritz if he were to eat at the current incarnation of his Boston namesake.

We arrived at 6pm for dinner expecting to find an empty dining room. We did. But that’s no big deal – the somewhat removed location,  the not so great reviews, and what I imagine to be the difficulty of selling the $825,000 – $5 million units at the Battery Wharf have all contributed to the low foot-traffic. We were greeted and seated promptly by the friendly hostess, but given two different dinner menus. A problem which our equally friendly but equally confused waiter had to consult the kitchen to resolve. We immediately ordered the snacking platter which is either one each of 6 different amuse bouches, or 6 of one. To go with our snacks we decided to order a glass each of sparkling wine. Sensing’s wine list is unimpressive – neither varied nor interesting.  With so few offerings, you would think the waitstaff would be able to say something coherent about each wine. Liz and I ordered 2 of the 3 possible glasses of sparkling wine – a prosecco and a scharffenberger – and were met with a blank stare and a request to point to what we wanted.  This is not the waiter’s fault. To me, failures of knowledge like that demonstrate a restaurant’s rotting infrastructure and total managerial indifference. Whoever is steering the ship at Sensing has seriously failed in their responsibilities to train the waitstaff, and has their sights set on a Fall ’09 closing.

Things did not get any better when the food arrived:

snacking platter

snacking platter

From the  bottom right going clockwise we have an oyster with shallots and vinegar (this was quite tasty), some kind of fried cheese with a tomato, a clam, a ball of cantaloupe with prosciutto and a wine jelly, a lobster roll, and in the middle a glass of tomato water. Apart from the oyster, all these were disappointing. The cheese was cold, the “sixty-second clam” earned its name for the amount of time it took to chew through it, the jelly with the cantaloupe and melon had an off-putting mealy texture, the lobster roll was fine, and the tomato water was overwhelmingly infused with vanilla foreshadowing a meal with flavor combinations that  I think Devra Frist at the Globe accurately described as “strange, but not delightful”.

seared tuna salad

seared tuna salad

I enjoyed my salad, it was certainly the highlight of the night. The tuna was nicely cooked, the lemon dressing was subtle but tasty, and the flavor combination with the anchovy, quail eggs, and cucumber worked well. There’s nothing new about this dish, but it was still a solid version.

heirloom tomato salad

heirloom tomato salad

Liz’s tomato salad with basil ginger dressing and candied pine nuts didn’t impress. The tomatoes weren’t very good, and when you’re serving a dish this simple, they had better be.

At this point in the evening Liz and I decided to order a half bottle of red to go with our meat courses. As I perused the short list I came across an oddity: under the red wines they had listed a wine called Innocent Bystander, Moscato, 2008.  A red moscato? Not listed under dessert or aperitif? I was curious. Maybe this wine list wasn’t so bad after all. I’d only seen a non-desserty moscato once, and certainly never a moscato that had qualities akin to a wine you might reasonably categorize as “red”. But I assumed it was there for good reason and decided to order it. Big mistake. What arrived was a very ordinary incarnation of sweet sparkling rose. Just the thing you want to go with steak and lamb. The waiter commented he had never seen a wine like this before. What I had never seen is a frickin’ sweet sparkling rose listed under red wines, at least not in a restaurant that gave a damn about the quality of its service.

olive encrusted lamb loin

olive encrusted lamb loin

Ordered it rare. It came medium well with pink ends.

beef strip loin, chick pea fries, mizuna, thai curry and anchovy sauce

beef strip loin, chick pea fries, mizuna, thai curry and anchovy sauce

Ordered it rare, 1/3 of it actually was (presumably, the 1/3 that was not sitting directly under a heat lamp for 10 minutes), the rest was medium well. And the chick pea fries were soggy, inedible cubes of warm flour. If you want a real chick pea fry go to Garden at the Cellar.

mystery asparagus

mystery asparagus

Along with our meat came this plate of mystery asparagus. We didn’t order it, and the waiters didn’t mention it when they brought it over.It was actually pretty good. Wish we knew what the heck it was.

Wanting to get the full Sensing experience, we decided to order a dessert. The waiter, again, brought two different menus, one brunch and one dessert.  Upon joking to Liz that the Coast Guard Omelet looked really good, the moment got the best of us and we could not stop laughing at the absurdity of this dinner. The chuckles would have quickly turned into sobs if we thought about the money we were about to spend on it. We waited about 20 minutes for the waiter to return to take our order, ate a mediocre piece of cheesecake, and split.

I am viscerally repulsed that we spent $220 on this experience. This is not a matter of disliking the food. Any kitchen can have a bad night, or a bad table on a good night. But I get the feeling that the people in charge at Sensing know its not going to last and they just don’t care.  Such horrible attention to detail shows a lack of pride that surely starts at the top and only then trickles down to the kitchen and waitstaff.  If you find yourself  near Battery Wharf you’d be better off buying a burger at the nearby Sail Loft and spending your remaining $210 on something other than lining an absentee chef’s  pockets.

Sensing on Urbanspoon

After Carlo and I spent the day wandering around San Francisco we decided to give Zuni Cafe a try for lunch.  Carlo had been treating me to meals cooked from the excellent Zuni Cafe cookbook for weeks and we wanted to see if the original version of their famous Ceasar salad measured up to Carlo’s.  It didn’t but it was very good.  Zuni has a neat set up.  The bulding is shaped like a triangle, and the kitchen is in the middle of the base of the triangle with the bar along one side of the triangle, so Zuni has arranged little pockets of seats all over the place, including in the mezzanine.  We were seated in the only two seats that face right into the open kitchen so we had built in entertainment.  Our view was of the pizza guy, who mesmerized us with his methodical repetitive pizza making throughout our lunch.

pizza guy

pizza guy

I ordered the Ceasar salad, of course, and Carlo had a half-dozen oysters.

100_0041

caesar salad

caesar salad

The Ceasar salad was very good, but I missed the grilled chicken and whole pieces of egg that Carlo put on his, and the oysters were tasty, though we’re not really oyster connoisseurs.  We shared a cheeseburger on rosemary foccacia with Roth Kase cheese from the great state of Wisconsin.  Our very friendly server had the kitchen cut it in half for us and put it on separate plates after he learned we were sharing, which was a nice touch. The cheeseburger was a little rich, but very fresh and flavorful.

cheeseburger, pickled red onions, pickled cukes

cheeseburger, pickled red onions, pickled cukes

It came with a mountain of crispy salty shoestring potatoes that we made them take away after we ate half of them.  They were a little too good.  The highlight for me was the dessert: Gateau Victoire with whipped cream.  Essentially a perfectly moist, chocolately, but not too sweet, not too dense, chocolate cake with whipped cream on it.  Can’t beat that.   All in all, it was a very nice meal to compliment a beautiful day walking around San Francisco.

chocolate cake with a glass of nonino amaro

chocolate cake with a glass of nonino amaro

Zuni Cafe on Urbanspoon

ad hoc

Ad hoc was originally intended to be a temporary space filler as Thomas Keller put the finishing touches on his burger and wine restaurant concept, but it became so popular that he decided to keep it around. The concept is simple: a fixed price ($50 a head)  family style four course meal, changing daily. The atmosphere is great – casual, comfortable and hip with music that Liz’s brother occasionally found “flaccid and mundane” but otherwise enjoyed. The service was friendly and the food was great all around.

trout saladSmoked trout salad with radishes, fava beans, red onions, boiled potatoes and a delightful dressing.

whole duckDuck three ways: confit legs, seared breast, and duck sausage in rice. Sugar snap peas on the side.

cheese plateCheese plate with apples and honey roasted hazelnuts.

bread pudding

Bread pudding with raisins, vanilla custard and marmalade.

The success of ad hoc should be a model for other restaurateurs. Specifically what they should take note of is that, contrary to what many people believe, people don’t like options. Really, they don’t. There’s strong evidence from psychological research on decision making showing that people are happier with their choices when they have fewer of them. This may seem counterintuitive, but think of the experience of looking at a huge menu. It can be overwhelming. Are you in the mood for pork? Veal? Beef? Fish? Pasta? If a lot of the choices look good to you (indeed, especially if a lot of choices look good to you) you will likely take a long time to pick, pick arbitrarily and then have a strong case of buyer’s remorse when you see the waiter serve the hanger steak with polenta fries that you passed on to the self-satisfied stooge at the next table. Something not quite perfect about the monkfish you settled on? It’s so easy to imagine how good that steak would have tasted.

This phenomenon doesn’t solely work on the psychological level. A smaller menu lets the kitchen concentrate on making those dishes better. The cod fritter appetizer you order from a selection of 3 options will definitely be prepared with more care than the same dish ordered from a selection of 10. It’s a win-win. The customer is happier, the food is better, the kitchen is calmer. Of course, it would be unfortunate for people who have very specific dietary needs, and for those who are particularly picky eaters. But a smart kitchen will always be able to accommodate dietary restrictions in a tasty way, and I’ve always had a particular disdain for the latter group who think that every restaurant should be capable of accommodating their whims. Don’t eat fish because it’s yucky? Then go to a steakhouse. Trade specialization worked for most societies, seems like it would do wonders for the food industry as well. I am all about promoting more vegan restaurants if it makes it easier for other restaurants to cook food the way they want to and in a manner more conducive to quality.

Ad Hoc on Urbanspoon

Welcome to French Laundry. May we hang your soiled-from-anticipation pants up to dry in the garden?

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Liz and I went out to Napa Valley with Liz’s brother and sister-in-law this past weekend to drink some wine and eat some food. We secured a reservation for 4 exactly 2 months ago from  Saturday, May 16th. If you google “french laundry reservation” you will be met with a slew of websites and blog posts devoted to the difficulties inherent in getting a reservation. First of all, you need to call at 10am pacific time (when the restaurant opens) exactly two months before the day that you would like to go. The websites will tell you that even doing this probably won’t be enough as the line will be busy. Some suggest you need to go there in person. There is even a service for which you can pay to have a particular individual get the reservation for you! Such is the desire and perceived difficulty of getting a seat at what is widely considered the best restaurant in the country. I say “perceived” because I am not so sure how much to buy into this.  Liz and I started calling with two phones the moment the clock struck 10am, got through after about a minute,  and had the option of several seatings. I feel like if you do that and you have a window of a couple of days that you are willing to go, you should have no problem. Especially now since it’s star is starting to fade a bit and other US restaurants are considered as good if not better.

To the meal. Everything was delicious, with the standouts being the Oysters and Pearls (Liz said it was her all time favorite bite of food), the Butter-Poached Lobster, the Black Bass, and the Yogurt Sherbet. The service was amazing – the courses were paced well, and our server was fun and informative. The environment in the restaurant was a little stuffy. No music playing so it was a little awkward at first with lots of tables whispering. But it loosened up after a while, presumably as a function of drunkenness. There were two menu options, the Chef’s Tasting or the vegetarian tasting. The waiter strongly urged us to go with the Chef’s Tasting absent any strict vegetarians, and I think that’s a wise move. For the same price ($240) you better have some strong philosophical aversion to meat to go with the vegetarian menu. The menu was 9 courses with four of those courses having two options to choose from. The Foie Gras and the Kuroge Beef courses carried supplemental charges.

salmon tartare

Amuse bouche of salmon tartare with some kind of whipped cheese hiding in the nether-regions of a chive cornet.

Oysters and Pearls“Oysters and Pearls”:  Sabayon of pearl tapioca with Island Creek Oysters and California Sturgeon Caviar

hearts of peach saladSalad of Hawaiian Hearts of Peach Palm: French Laundry Garden Radish, Cucumber, Perilla and Navel Orange

foie grasMoulard Duck Foie Gras in Terrine: Green Grapes, Cutting Celery, Compressed Endive and Black Truffle

black bassSauteed Fillet of Atlantic Black Bass: Garlic Scapes, Carrots, Artichokes and Barigoule Emulsion

tuna tartareTartare of Japanese Bluefin Tuna: Beech Mushrooms, Gengko Nuts, Broccollini and Bonito

lobster knuckleSweet Butter-Poached Maine Lobster “Mitts”: Potato “Mille Feuille”, Golden Corn, Fava Beans, and Pickled Ramps

pork bellyFricassee of Salmon Creek Farms Pork Belly: “Garnitures de Petit Pois a la Francaise”

kuroge beefSirloin of Kuroge Beef from Shiga: White Asparagus, Pine Nuts, Tulare Cherries, Mizuna and Ginger Sauce

cheeseManchester: Cauliflower, Pumpkin Seeds, Zante Currants and Parsley Shoots

yogurt sorbetAndante Dairy Yogurt Sherbet: Oatmeal “Sable” and Royal Blenheim Apricot

chocolate“Gateau au Chocolat Avec Bavarois Praline”: Caramelized Gros Michel Bananas and Hazelnut Sorbet

parfait“Parfait au Cintron”: Candied Lemon, Biscotti Tuile and Lemon Snow

So, what do I think? French Laundry is definitely one of the best restaurants we’ve been to, probably top 5. Was it worth the price? No, I don’t think so. Not considering what you could get elsewhere for the same price or less. Eating there reminded me of what Ezra Klein wrote about Per Se over at the IFA. “It wasn’t going far enough. It wasn’t inventing anything, or surprising you.” There were no duds at French Laundry. Every dish was delicious and beautiful. But there were no jaw-dropping moments either, except of course when the bill showed up. There was nothing playful about the experience. No whimsy. And dammit, if I’m going to plan a trip around a restaurant and pay that much to eat there, I want some f’ing whimsy. The difference between an incredibly fresh ingredient prepared perfectly and a really incredibly fresh ingredient prepared super-duper perfectly does not merit tacking hundreds of dollars onto the bill. There are other places I could go. Eating the Tour at Alinea in Chicago is like French Laundry meets Cirque du Soleil. And cheaper.

That said, it was a great experience. Yountville and the surrounding wine country is a beautiful setting and must be taken into account if you like to travel for restaurants. While Alinea is a better restuarant, I’d rather take a trip to Napa than Chicago.

French Laundry on Urbanspoon

Dear Chef, thanks for your comments.  Your observations about the arrabbiata  nicely captures an important point about my perspective on Italian food that I think many other Italians share: if it’s not what I know, it can’t be good. The arrabbiata I’m familiar with must indeed be the Calabrian version – my mom was born there. Given that, any deviation from the norm will be met with skepticism and dismay. Heck, anything short of flying my Calabrian grandmother from Friuli to Boston to cook me the pasta I was raised on will be a let down. I’m sure this is true of most food cultures but perhaps particularly so for Italy given the regional specificity of various dishes in combination with our natural inclination to poo-poo anything not from our own little village. It’s interesting that you mention my dad’s return since he is on a committee of Italians which exemplifies this tendency. They go around to various Italian restaurants in the area critiquing the authenticity of their food. They will not hesitate to besmirch the offerings if they do not meet their extremely high (and, some might say, extremely arbitrary) criteria.

It’s also interesting that the more traditional dishes are the more complex. I have some vague notion that “traditional” correlates with simplicity, as if using multiple ingredients is some kind of culinary innovation. I wonder if that correlation depends on what exactly is being cooked. Perhaps there is a negative correlation for sauces and stocks  – you could always throw in whatever happened to be around, leading to greater complexity. For meat and fish on the other hand I expect that traditional preparations are simpler cooking procedures with fewer ingredients. From this perspective, then, I think I’ll amend what I described as Erbaluce’s MO from “simple, simple, simple” to  “authentic, authentic, authentic”. Complexity is orthogonal to authenticity. Whether one prefers the traditionally simple or the traditionally complex is just a matter of taste.

Not sure why anyone would frown on big herbs in principal.  I thought that’s what made the razor clam dish so great. That’s not to say that I have anything against a piece of meat in a butter and cream bath, there’s a place for that too. But it’s a welcome change and seafood in particular lends itself to the fresh and bright approach.

We’ll be back soon – we already have plans for a couple weeks from now. Looking forward to it!

Bina Osteria is ripe for stereotyping and prejudgment.  Between its trendy white interior and close proximity to the Sports Club LA, one is bound to think this place is going to be high on price and low on quality.  Add that to its claim to be an Italian restaurant, and Carlo and I, though curious, were planning on avoiding it, at least for a while.  But much to our surprise, my mother-in-law said she wanted to try it for her Mother’s Day dinner, and that’s how we ended up there on Saturday night.  Even more to our surprise, we were really impressed by the food.

The meal started with a frizzante red wine and a brief scuffle over whether we should get the 14-course tasting menu or order a la carte.  My father-in-law was adamantly against the tasting menu, which meant my mother-in-law insisted that we order it.  Being Mother’s Day, my mother-in-law prevailed and we embarked on what turned out to be a long, delicious meal.

More on the wine before I start on the food.  The wine I just mentioned was a 2006 Castello di Luzzano Oltrepo Pavese Bonarda from Lombardia, which was the perfect apperitivo.  It was mildly fruity, mildly frizzante, but unlike Brachetto (the other sparkling red that has been popping up in restaurants all over the place), it was dry, and not too expensive at $42/bottle even in a restaurant. 100_0222

For the meal we drank a 2006 Statti Gaglioppo, a calabrese wine in honor of my calabrese mother-in-law, which was also inexpensive at $46/bottle.  Initially it tasted and smelled a lot like banana candy, but it mellowed out and became a drinkable floral wine.  It’s nice to see wines from far-flung parts of Italy making it onto menus and it’s also nice to see that even the less expensive wines at Bina have been selected carefully.

Now onto the tasting menu.  Most, though not all, of the dishes were smaller versions of existing menu items.  We started with rustic country bread accompanied by lard and sea salt followed by two amuses bouches: an oyster with cherry gelee served in the shell (see below) and a spoonful of ricotta, salt and oil and a little shot of fizzy grappa cream.  A nice start to the meal.  The oyster tasted like real cherries and oysters, a combination I have never experienced.  I thought the ricotta was a perfect combination of creamy and salty, though I was told by my Italian compatriots that they’ve had better.  The grappa fizz was reminiscent of cream soda with a kick.

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Our appetizer was called Seriola Marinata, which consisted of CleanFish yellowtail, pinenut confit, avocado, and peppercress.  The nice piece of fish on top of fresh avocado on top of a sheen of spicy/oily, almost arrabiata-like, sauce was delicious and different.

The Seriola was followed by THREE, yes THREE, pasta courses, and unbelievably, the table liked all of them, hardly complaining at all.  The first was perfectly prepared fresh gnocchi with calamari, clams, chorizo, and Meyer lemon confit.  The gnocchi were light and chewy, and the seafood balanced well with the spicy chorizo.  We voted on our favorites at the end of the meal and this one got the most mentions, a shocking revelation coming from my never-pleased-by-restaurant-pasta Italian family-in-law.  The gnocchi was followed by two “Spaghetti alla Carbonara” with house-made pancetta, slow cooked hen egg, and pecorino foam and two braised rabbit  tortellinis.   And for the final pasta course, we had Risotto with crispy sweetbreads, morel mushrooms, and aspargus. The house-made fresh pastas were excellent in both pasta dishes, as were the accoutrements, and the risotto was perfectly cooked al dente with lovely fresh morels and asparagus.  Though I think three good-sized pasta courses in a tasting menu might be a mistake, we loved every bite of them.

Onto the fish/seafood courses.  The first one was Atlantic Halibut coated with smoked potato ragu, beet pearls, and watercress (see below).  Carlo said this was his favorite.  I was losing steam at this point.  The potato cream was delicious and balanced nicely with the sweet beets.  Our other sea-faring course was Lobster with Lardo, garden salad gazpacho, picked ramps, and Clear Flour croutons.  This was my least-favorite dish of the evening.  The lobster was a little rubbery/stringy and I just wasn’t hungry anymore, meaning that I was only interested in eating really superlative food.  Carlo ate mine for me, so it wasn’t bad, just least favorite in a great meal.

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Two more savory courses:  Foie Gras with English pea puree and morel mushrooms and Vermont Lamb with baby artichoke, taggiasca olives and Piquillo peppers.  I thought both of these dishes were excellent, which is impressive, because I was so full and tired at this point and I didn’t want to eat anything else.  The foie gras was silky and the peas were bright green and flavorful.  The lamb was perfectly cooked, moist and tender, and the accompaniments were very nice.  I just couldn’t eat them.

But that didn’t mean I was not up for our THREE, yes THREE, desserts.  The first was Moscato d’Asti Mousse with orange sorbet, honey cream, and sumac meringue served in a champagne flute.  Wow, I am going to replace root beer and vanilla ice cream with Moscato and orange sherbert from now on (see below).  This was really good and refreshing.  Next we had “Composition of Rhubarb” with a lemony butter cookie, rhubarb sorbet, lemon meringue, and candied elderflower.  Another beautiful, refreshing delicious dessert.  And finally we had the obligatory tiramisu, which was basically mascarpone cream and chocolate gelato on top of some coffee cookies.  I ignored the cookies, which were a little too crunchy to eat easily and stuck to the creamy stuff, which were both rich and delicious.  My in-laws tittered about how it wasn’t really tiramisu while they licked their plates clean.

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And then we rolled ourselves home, full and looking forward to going back to Bina, but perhaps for the four-course prix-fixe menu next time.

The only real drawback to the meal was its four-hour duration.  Yes, we did order 14 courses of food and should expect to sit there for a good chunk of time.  But there were long lulls between all of the courses, which was nice in the beginning when we were getting warmed up, but as we got fuller, drunker and more tired, we grew a little impatient and disinterested in the food.  We attribute this to the restaurant being fairly new and unaccustomed to customers who take them up on the tasting menu.  This will undoubtedly improve as more and more Bostonians take notice of this great new addition to the city’s fine-dining repertoire.

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