I'll post brief descriptions of some of the best meals I've eaten in recent years here, with an emphasis on meals eaten at restaurants (for obvious reasons). Some of these descriptions will be more complete than others. Sometimes this is because I don't recall all the details, sometimes because the details aren't that exciting...
But I hope you enjoy the descriptions, as I enjoyed the meals...
Bacchus, London (Hoxton)
The French Laundry, Yountsville
Ginza Sushi-Ko, Beverly Hills
Manresa, San Jose
March, New York
Masa’s, San Francisco
Sent Sovi, Saratoga
The Striped Bass, Philadelphia
Beverly Hills, CA.
(One meal, 4/5/01)
One hears a number of rumors about Ginza Sushi-Ko, but few of them are reliable, as almost no one seems actually to have been there. But you hear that it only seats 15 people, and there is only one seating a night. You hear that the average meal runs around $300. You hear that the bar is unfinished wood, sanded smooth every day. You hear that it might be the best restaurant in the U.S. These are the kinds of things you hear.
Avrom and I had heard these rumors, and more. We had to know. When I planned my trip to visit my family for Passover, I called Avrom and asked him if he wanted to drop into LA around then and try Ginza; he did. Reservations were made. When making them, we were warned that the meal would be around $300 per person. One rumor confirmed.
We arrived a bit before 7 P.M. The rumor that Ginza only seats 15 people is exaggerated. It could, conceivable, seat 13, if the little table for four to the side was used. But it wasn't. Only the bar was used. It seats 9. Nine people. Total. We were two of them. Nine people a night. No turnover. As people finish their meals, and the evening winds down, the chef chats with you while cleaning and putting things away. Whenever the evening ends, it ends.
Avrom and I are overdressed. I'm more overdressed than he is. He's wearing a hip suit and a black T-shirt, I'm actually wearing a tie. No one else is. The young people to our left are wearing jeans and T-shirts; the older couple to our right are dressed slightly more formally, but not much (the man is wearing a long sleeve cotton pull-over, very nice, high quality, but informal, very informal...).
The bar is unfinished wood. Pale and perfect. Smooth as silk. At least four inches think. Beautiful. During the meal, things splash on it. It's wiped down. Small stains remain. How are they removed? Sanded? It could be. Or scraped. Something. The cutting boards are perhaps six inches thick. Also perfect... There is a container of coals with a grill over them; from our seats at the bar, we can feel the heat of it on our faces if we turn just so.
What would we like to drink? Cold sake. There is no list, sake isn't important. Wine isn't important. Food is important. We're brought out cold sake. It is very, very good, but the point isn't the drink. This is clear. When we finish the first small container (somewhere around the foie, I think), we order a second, and then switch to green tea. For the rest of the evening (through, that is, most of the sushi itself) we drink tea... The trio to our left drinks nothing but tea all evening. The couple to our right have champagne, sake, and I think a white burgundy. Drinks don't matter.
We were served a small salad to start, with a wonderful wasabi dressing. Small? Tiny. Two bites, no more. What was in it? We couldn't tell...
Then, we were served caviar with tuna tartar, and toast points. Perfect.
Then, a 'mackerel salad'. It was unbelievable. As Avrom put it: "this changes my mind about mackerel..." It is wonderful. Textures, taste, everything just so.
Then, a wonderful risotto... But what? Uni? Avrom wondered... Uni? So sweet, so creamy, so smooth, so wonderful. Uni? But something else? After we finished it, we were told it was "Sea urchin roe [so the Uni was in there!] and blow-fish sperm sac." Our first taste of blow-fish for the evening, but not the last...
The next dish was more funny than great. As we were heading out to Ginza, I mentioned to Avrom that my impression (rumors again) was that it was basically a prix fixe menu, unless you ordered particularly odd things, like maybe you wanted fugu covered with gold leaf. What were we served? Irony of ironies... Blow-fish (not actually fugu, but still) with gold leaf salad. No, really. It was pretty good, but a let-down after the risotto... More beautiful and dramatic than delicious. And funny, of course.
But the next course was brilliant. Slices of raw foie gras and green onion, and a simmering pot of broth. Dip the foie and scallion into the broth. And then into a light sauce. Perfect. Just perfect.
The broth then served as a palate cleansing 'soup' of sorts.
Next, we were served a bit of fried fish. Wonderful.
Then the sushi began... I won't bother to list all the kinds we were served; there were at the very least 15 different kinds, likely as many as 20... How can one keep track? Each was at least as good as the best I'd ever had before; most were vastly better.
The fattiest toro I'd ever laid eyes (or mouth) on...
A perfect, perfect scallop... The freshly grated wasabi hitting you after a second, and then the citrus...
Uni that was sweet, really sweet, and redolent of the sea...
Something, perhaps Kobe beef? something of the land? but something wonderful...
More blow-fish. The liver, this time...
It went on and on...
Finally, a vegetable maki sushi...
And, grapefruit sorbet. Or grannita. Whatever one wants to call it. Some juice, some grapefruit pieces, no sugar. Perfect.
And a final bowl of tea.
tab for the two of us? "Sushi Bar: $600. Sake: $60."
You can figure the tax and tip for yourself. But, it was just
what we were told to expect...
it worth it? Yes. Oh yes. Will I be going back? Not
soon... But yes. Oh yes.
Update: Ginza Sushi-Ko closed in 2004 and reopened in New York as “Masa’s” (no relationship to Masa’s San Francisco except that it is a common name in Japan!). The price has gone up a bit ($350/person), and it is now open for lunch as well as dinner, but otherwise the reviews agree with the above…
San Jose, CA
(one meal, March 2005)
David Kinch’s “new” restaurant (it opened about 3 years ago now!) is, culinarily, a long way from Sent Sovi. After a long absence from the Bay Area, I finally got to eat there in March of 2005. My wife, Shari, as well as our close friends Avrom and Ina, joined me in the meal.
I’ve heard foodies in the Bay Area claim that Kinch is trying to compete with the French Laundry, but to think that way would be to get the style and focus of the food at Manresa wrong. David is not looking north to Yontsville for inspiration, and the style of food he prepares has little, other than excellence, in common with that of Keller’s. Rather, if David is looking anywhere, he is looking towards el Bulli, the famous home of superstar chef Ferran Adrià. I’ve not had the opportunity to eat at el Bulli, and as of March 2005 the reservations for the entire 2005 season are already closed so I’ll have to wait until at least next year (and likely rather longer as I don’t know when I’ll next get a chance to travel to Spain!), but, based on the reviews I’ve read, it would seem that David’s focus is most similar to that of Ferran’s.
In both cases, the chefs are presenting (relatively) familiar foods in unfamiliar (and sometimes startling!) ways. While Ferran is sometimes associated with ‘foam,’ his tricks include a whole variety of different textures, as well as unusual temperatures, and other preparations. Similarly, David does not have a ‘gimmick’ – he has a variety of tools for expressing food in different ways.
Our meal consisted of 20 some-odd small courses. We started with wonderful red-pepper and black olive “Madeleine's” and beet “jellies” and worked through a half-dozen “amuse bouche” dishes, ending with David’s justifiably famous “egg” – a soft egg served in its shell with maple syrup and sherry vinegar. Though it is hard to pick favorites from such a strong line up, highlights for me among the ‘main’ courses included the brilliant “Foie gras and cumin caramel,” the “Ivory salmon and lobster risotto” and the “Squab and foie gras roasted in brioche” (this latter dish was amazingly subtle and elegant, among the very best individual dishes I’ve eaten). Desserts were equally excellent, but my favorite of them was the “Saffron panna cotta.” By the time a small shot glass of intense hot-chocolate arrived (along with chocolate madeleines and more traditional jellies), we were all a bit stuffed and overwhelmed, but it was a great way to end a meal.
The wine-pairings were superb – we were treated to many outstanding wines, including some exceptional, remarkably fragrant whites I’d not had the opportunity to try before.
The prices at Manresa are quite reasonable, especially given the exceptionally high quality of the food. And, for the moment at least, it is still possible to get reservations without having to plan unreasonably far in advance. It’s hard to ask for more!
Bacchus is the "gastropub" headed by the brilliant young
chef Nuno Mendes. Nuno trained with superstar chef Ferran
Adrià (el Bulli) and his food is both fun and
wonderful. I had the pleasure of eating there with my wife,
Sharyn, and our friend, Andrew Stivers, in early August of 2007.
Unfortunately, I was suffering from a head-cold that had turned into a
sinus infection, and while it didn't interfere with my ability to
taste, it did make the evening less fun than it might have been.
By the time last few courses were served, I was too tired to really
enjoy them, except in an intellectual way. We all got the 9 course tasting menu,
with the wine flights. The following was, roughly, our menu: Slow poached duck
(One meal, early August 2007)
Very thin toast, and a very intense pepper puree.
Warm golden beet soup.
Whipped avocado, crispy daikon, dashi, toasted nori dust
Sharyn, who is mostly vegetarian and doesn't eat tuna, got cubes of watermellon instead.
Tobiko, herbal broth, lemongrass gel, baby shitake, coral crumbs
Another foodie wrote this: "The lemongrass gel was a sheet of intense lasagne-like lemon grass. Pure flavour!" I agree. This dish was amazing.
Seared watermelon, goats cheese, Thai basil, pistachio praline.
Summer fruits and vegetables
Lime-leaf powder, vanilla-cucumber gelee, mangosteen, togarashi caramel
Iberico Ham Gelee
Heirloom tomatoes, bocadillo bread, breakfast radishes, olive oil powder
This was the one dish I didn't think really worked - it wasn't bad at all (in fact, it was quite tasty) but it just didn't have the precision of the other dishes; it felt a little muddled.
Ocean trout confit
English pea tapioca, grapefruit, bean sprouts, crispy skin and fennel
Our first "sous vide" dish - and wonderful!
Several textures of beets, cherries, hot jelly noodles, Macadamia nuts
Again, a very slow cooked "sous vide" dish - remarkable.
Fresas en texturas
Szechuan, rocket and wasabi powder, crispy yuba
Dark chocolate mousse
Mastic-rose petal ice, lychee cream, gooseberries
I really loved the cooking at Bacchus, and indeed the whole experience. I can't wait to get back (hmm, when is the next time I'll be in London?).
Bacchus is the "gastropub" headed by the brilliant young chef Nuno Mendes. Nuno trained with superstar chef Ferran Adrià (el Bulli) and his food is both fun and wonderful. I had the pleasure of eating there with my wife, Sharyn, and our friend, Andrew Stivers, in early August of 2007. Unfortunately, I was suffering from a head-cold that had turned into a sinus infection, and while it didn't interfere with my ability to taste, it did make the evening less fun than it might have been. By the time last few courses were served, I was too tired to really enjoy them, except in an intellectual way.
We all got the 9 course tasting menu,
with the wine flights. The following was, roughly, our menu:
Slow poached duck