Memorable Meals

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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...

 

The Restaurants So Far…


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

 

 



 

Ginza Sushi-Ko

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...

Sole...

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.

Perfect. Perfect.

The 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...
(The couple next to us were regulars.  They were served everything we were, along with many even more exotic things.  When the man paid, I caught a glimpse of many, many hundred dollar bills, perhaps a dozen? perhaps only ten.  But it seems you can ask for and get an even more special meal.  I can't imagine...)

Was 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…

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March

New York, New York

(Two meals, the first in December 1995, the second in December 2000)

My first meal at March was the perfect culmination to a perfect day in NY.  The scene: It's the end of 1995, my first year on the job market, and the APA is a terrible experience.  It could have been worse, but it is hard to see how.  Avrom, who was one of my housemates back then, and I are getting increasingly depressed.  The second to last day in NY, our housemate Stef meets up with us, and we decide to just blow off the conference entirely.  We have a fantastic lunch at a place chosen at random, and the meal finishes with the best cappuccino I've ever had.  We do a bit of shopping on 5th, and go to the Museum of Natural History to look at the dinosaurs.  We go to the bar at the Plaza and drink champagne and eat oysters.

Before all of this, we'd made reservations at March on the basis of some guide to NY dining saying it was mellow with really good food.  We arrive.  We are startled.  It is clearly a place where food and wine are taken very seriously indeed.  We blow off our budget, and ask them to prepare a meal for us centered around seafood.  And to choose our wines.  The meal is fantastic.  Just wonderful.  It goes on for hours.  It was a long time ago, so I can only recall a few highlights.  The "beggar's purses" (lobster and black truffle, wonderful).  The caviar, tiny shrimp, and waffle fried potato.  Wow.  I believe a perfect piece of seared sea bass with a black truffle cream sauce.  An incredible array of desserts.  My first glass of Condrieu.  Beautiful.  Just beautiful.

My second meal at March was equally wonderful, but less surprising.  I'd known that Nish had given up on 'menus' and 'entrees' and was just serving arrays of small dishes.  I went with my friends Thomas and Rebecca; Thomas was one of the housemates at Oak Hill along with Stef and Avrom for some time.  Eventually, he left to live with Rebecca, and we got Rebecca's housemate, Anthony, but that's another story.  But we were all old friends who hadn't seen each other in a while, and we went to March.  And had a wonderful meal.  I won't bore you with more courses and details, but the food was wonderful, and the wines, again, were perfectly matched, and generously poured.  Our meal checked in at around $200 person when all was said and done (including tax and tip, so not that bad, really), but we felt good...  Very good indeed.  There is a generosity of spirit about March, that makes $200 seem a quite reasonable price...
 

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The Striped Bass

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

(two meals, the first in December of 1998, the second in May of 2001)

What I mostly remember about my first meal at the Striped Bass was the amazing bottle of wine our Sommelier helped us choose (a very nice, and yet affordable, white Burgundy), and that the food was wonderful.  So I was anxious to eat there again, and, while spending a few weeks in Philadelphia in late May, I got the chance.  Once again, our Sommelier helped us choose fantastic wines.  The Chablis she recommended was the perfect complement to the oysters we began the meal with, and took us through our appetizers gracefully.  For our entrees, she recommended an obscure French pinot.  It was strawberry red, bright, fresh, wonderfully light, great fruit, and with just enough structure to hold it all together.  It reminded me of a wine I fell in love with in Palo Alto, made by an obscure little winery at the foot of Montebello (Sunrise? something like that) – an old, wonderfully light pinot that was already turning rust colored when we bought our case of it, and yet still tasted young.  Go figure.  In any event, that odd little French pinot was an excellent wine, both given our entrees, and on its own – and it is something I never would have thought to try without our Sommelier’s advice – bravo!

The food was brilliant.  The lobster ravioli I began my meal with were light, ethereally tender, sweet, and perfect.  The seared arctic char was wonderful, and the deep, dark, wine and stock reduction astounding.  My only ‘complaint’ about the dish was that the morel mushrooms, while they lent a nice earthiness to the sauce, seemed a bit overwhelmed by the sauce.  Shari (my fiancé at that point, now wife (!)) and Ina (an old friend and colleague) both had the seared scallops.  They were superb, and the light, bright sauce quite elegant.  The desserts were all quite remarkable; light enough to follow the meal yet substantial enough to leave us feeling, well, fulfilled.

Update: Due to a bankruptcy, The Striped Bass closed briefly and has reopened with Chef Alfred Portale at the helm (well, commuting from New York, anyway).  It’s supposedly quite good, but I haven’t been back since.  I hope to try it next time I’m in the area, though.

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Masa's

San Francisco, CA

(two meals w/ Julian Serrano as chef, but I can't recall the dates)

I haven't eaten at Masa's since Serrano left, and I never ate there before he arrived, so this is more of a snapshot than it might be.  Masa's, in my experience, was not a place for 'creative' or 'innovative' dishes.  They were 'merely' perfect.  The food was perfectly prepared, perfectly served.  The service was perfect.  The lighting, sound level, all perfect.  I have a soft-spot for perfection, for doing things right.  Perfection.  They nail it.  Not showy.  Just correct.

Is the food surprising? No, just perfect...

And, all things considered, not too expensive.  And the wine list contains many reasonably priced, excellent bottles of wine.  And of course, many unreasonable priced bottles of wondrous elixirs I'll never be able to afford to even taste.  But the reasonably priced ones are poured with respect, and with care, and no one would be so tactless as to suggest that a more impressive choice might be appropriate...

Update:

In late Spring 2001, I went back to Masa's again.  Chef Ron Siegel's cooking is obviously inspired by Thomas Keller's (not surprisingly), and the food shows it.  But Siegel is his own person, and the experience at Masa's is not an attempt to replicate that of The French Laundry.  The food of course remains excellent, the wine list contains many innovative and reasonably priced choices, and the Sommelier is knowledgable, skilled, and friendly.  What more could you ask for?

Second Update: Ron Siegel has left Masa’s and Chef Richard Reddington, who trained with Julian Serrano's back when he was at the helm, is now in charge.  I’ve heard it is still great, but I haven’t been back yet.  I hope to, though.

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The French Laundry

Yountsville, CA

(two meals, dates forgotten)

OK, what can one say about what is, justifiably, one of the most famous restaurants in America?  You can't get reservations anymore, unless you are very lucky, or very famous, and/or have a phone with a high speed auto-dialer.  And maybe a couple of lines...

Keller is brilliant.  The food is brilliant.  If you read the cookbook (which is a tour de force itself) you'll see why.  The two meals were wonderful.  The wine list is excellent, with many reasonably priced half-bottles, so you can try many wines to match your many courses.

Salmon poached in truffle juice. I can still recall the taste.  White corn and truffle agnoli.  You can hardly wrap your mind around the richness, the depth of flavor.  Perfect foie...  Amazing desserts.

What can I say?  Get a phone with an auto-dialer.  Get two or three, in fact, on two or three lines.  Two months before you want to go, start dialing and don't stop until you reach someone.  Better yet, start doing it tomorrow and keep doing it every morning until you get a reservation; plan your trip to Yountsville around the reservation rather than the other way around.

The food is surprising.  And perfect.  And, all things considered, not too expensive.
 

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Sent Sovi

Saratoga, CA

(many meals, over several years)

There is a long story behind this, but I'll make it short.  After finishing my PhD I was burnt out.  I didn't want to do philosophy, or think about philosophy, or anything.  I wanted to cook.  So a colleague of mine said "so cook, damn it!" She lived next door to a great restaurant and knew the chef/co-owner (David Kinch), and told me that if I was at all serious about this I should at least talk to him.  So I did.  David told me if I wanted to know what a professional kitchen was like, I should drop by on a Wednesday in the morning and hang out all day, maybe help out a bit during prep just to see.  So I did.  And one day turned into another.  And another.  And another...  A few months later I was hired to do prep...  And a few months after that, I had to decide whether this was a career, or whether to start my post-doc.  I chose the latter.

But in any event, David is very, very good.  Among the very best. You especially owe it to yourself to try David's foie, which is second to none (and far, far better than most!).  And indeed, everything David touches turns wonderful.

And Sent Sovi, despite its tiny kitchen, put out some of the finest food in the Bay Area night after night under David's direction. David is no longer at the helm at Sent Sovi, as he sold it and has since moved to his new restaurant, Manresa.
 

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Manresa

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!

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 Manresa Menu

 



Bacchus Restaurant, London, Hoxton District.

Picture of the chef...

(One meal, early August 2007)

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:


Amusee 1

Very thin toast, and a very intense pepper puree.

Amuse 2
Warm golden beet soup. 

Tuna cubes
Whipped avocado, crispy daikon, dashi, toasted nori dust
Sharyn, who is mostly vegetarian and doesn't eat tuna, got cubes of watermellon instead.

Yuzu crab
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. 

Paradise prawns
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!


Slow poached duck
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?).