Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Guy Savoy. 3 stars. Lame headline like "Huh, what a Guy!"

There is a certain way I was imagining how an experience at a 3 Michelin starred restaurant would be. So far, I hadn't really be close at the other places I'd eaten at.

But today I got that experience at Guy Savoy.

I sure as hell paid for it, but I sure as hell ate the best lunch of my life so far. Maybe the best meal so far.

I walked it a few minutes after my booking and was welcomed by pretty much everyone in the restaurant, including Guy Savoy himself. I sat down and had a cool glass of Billecart Salmon Rose poured and took in the surroundings. Rich colours of timber, leather, mahogany. But that didn't last long because the head waiter/matire'd/whatever they call them these days came and offered to give me a look at the kitchen, since I was “earlier than everyone else” (in Paris, fashionably late appears to be not only the norm but the expectation).

Back to the table and I decide to go all in. The 360 euro tasting menu. Yes, that's EXCLUDING wine.

This was going to be a big one.

The wine list/winencyclopedia is delivered and I opt for an excellent looking half bottle of white.

And it begins.

More accurately, it begins with a cloud of smoke from the dry ice hiding beneath the lobster carpaccio. Somehow, I don't think the cloud is quite is quite enough to hide my smile.

Course after course follows and just when I think I've tasted the perfect dish, another one comes along and betters it.

A while back, Guy Savoy said that there was no such thing as the perfect meal. I'm inclined to agree with him. There is no such thing as the perfect meal, that's why chefs need to keep pushing boundaries. That's why people that love food keep searching for perfection. But the reason that no one can rest on their laurels has to be a result of the tremendous hunger, the tremendous greed that exists with all of us. For a chef to draw a line and say that they've created a perfect meal, would be like asking a rich person to never get richer. You can always get richer, and you can always push the boundaries of food.

It doesn't have to be wild and crazy like at El Bulli, it can just be pushing refinement, like Guy Savoy.

Seriously, a soup of asparagus with truffles and cheese. On the side, toasted brioche with truffle butter. To make that good, you don't need foams or gels or sous vide bags ad nauseum (maybe you do, I have no idea), you just have to pair things well.

Same as he does with the foie gras and radish. Every other foie gras dish I've had in France is still insanely rich. But this dish isn't. The acidity of the radish keeps just enough of the richness of the foie gras to make it enjoyable, but cuts through enough for you to feel invigorated.

If the food was great enough, the service is a good match. Hands down the best, most professional, friendliest service of the European dining trip. Considering the quality of restaurant I've been to, that says a lot. They even do matching breads with your meal. Who else is doing that? Superfluous? It doesn't feel it. Nothing does. Everything is right. Dining here is fun. It's formal AND fun, those are the two elements missing from other restaurants. Some have either, but it's rare for a restaurant to have both.

By the time the dessert cart comes around to mark the end of the meal, you're full. In both the stomach and heart. Because you know that you've just eaten a truly great meal at a truly great restaurant. You're in Paris, and you've just been shown why you came half way around the world and spent so much money.

Michelin star tally: 21


While researching restaurants in Paris for this trip, it would have been easy to just go all out and have as many Michelin stars as possible. But that wasn't what I wanted. In fact, I even went so crazy as to book a dinner at a restaurant that had no Michelin stars whatsoever.

Pomze screamed to me to go there. It's a restaurant that puts apples in EVERY SINGLE DISH ON THE MENU, and instead of a wine list, it has a cider list.

How could that possibly be bad?

It cannot.

The food isn't Michelin standard, but it's still good for the price. Just damn good flavour combinations (ie combining apple with everything) and uncomplicated food. Paired with matching ciders (that's right!) it all goes down very well.

What can I say? A fun experience, good solid food and a nice break from the Michelin-starred onslaught I'm in the middle of (although I still had to get the foie gras). It was at a level similar to being in a wine bar in Sydney, except instead of wine they served cider. And instead of food they served apples with food.

Le Cinq. 2 stars.

After the magic that Joel Robuchon had pulled the night before, I was feeling pretty cagey heading into my lunch booking the next day. Had I experienced the culinary pinnacle of my journey, or was I jusst feeling cagey as a result of the way too many additional dishes and wines I ordered 12 hours prior? I DUNNO I'M JESUS I CANNOT ANSWER THAT.

Another factor was that I was headed to one of the haute dining palaces, Le Cinq at Hotel George V. How could such a stodgy place possibly come close to matching the vibrancy and excitement of the night before?

Short answer: It wouldn't try to.

Longer answer: It wouldn't try to, so I shouldn't compare apples with oranges.

Longest answer:

Yes, it is a bloody nice dining room. Spectacular. It is pretty much exactly like how you'd expect the restaurant of a top-end Parisian hotel to look. Oh, there were chandeliers. You better believe it.

The staff are everywhere (are there more staff than square metres on the dining floor?) and have the formal dining thing down pat. Every move is polished excellence. From the placing of a dish, the pouring of a sauce and the push of the cheese cart; it's all spot on.

When it came to the food, I wasn't really expecting much. Like I said, last night had to be the pinnacle. And haute dining wasn't really a match for my style. I like it over the top... frenetic... rough. I was prepared to eat their reasonably priced, 3 course lunch menu and call it a day, particularly with last night's meal not entirely digested. But I left it to my dining companion to decide, and we ended up going all out. The summer tasting menu.

And what can I say. It tasted like summer.

From the different preparations of tomato that started things (the side dish, a cone glass filled with 6 different coloured layers, all tomato, was great fun), to the chunk of salmon in a watercress soup with caviar (wow, what a dish, the salmon roe transformed the balance of the dish, rather than playing the role of superfluous luxury that it does at most places), to the rabbit done three ways and finally to the brilliant, brilliant dessert that was some sort of peach or something in jelly with custard and a cookie (put back together to resemble a fruit), it was a fantastic summer experience.

The whole time the staff were perfectly organised, like a pack of vultures, swooping at just the right time. But good vultures. And the recommended champagne from the sommelier was spectacular.

We left happy, carrying the box of toffees that they gave us before leaving. And I think that says a lot about the meal.

It wasn't the best food I've had on this trip, but it was still very good. There weren't many wow moments, but no dishes failed. And the service and experience were among the best I've seen so far. So all up, a pretty damn good lunch, I'd say.

Michelin star tally: 18

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

l'Atelier de Joel Robuchon. 2 stars.

Chef of the century, he has named by the Gault Millau restaurant guide 20 years ago.

For decades, one of the most important and influential French chefs in the world.

25 Michelin stars to his name, making him the most starred chef in the world.

Mentor to some of the biggest names in cooking today.

And tonight I was going to his main restaurant, l'Atelier de Joel Robuchon. 2 Michelin stars. #29 in the San Pellegrino world's top 100 restaurants.

Oh. Yes.

It's fair to say that I was looking forward to this meal. When it comes to big names in food, there are only a couple that deserve the same level of regard.

L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon is an interesting French restaurant. Firstly, the are only bookings for the first sitting. After that, you can rock up and try your luck. Secondly, it looks NOTHING like a French restaurant. The whole concept is a lot closer to a Japanese restaurant, with an open kitchen and all of the diners sitting along a bench. Between the bench and the kitchen is a few staff to take orders and ferry food. And in another non-French twist, sharing of dishes is almost encouraged.

We get there at 6.30 for our booking and it's already busy. Which shouldn't be a surprise, because the doors open at 6.30 and that's when all the bookings are. The crowd causes anticipation to build.

We're seated next to a group talking about insurance and some quiet couples and kick things off with an absolutely smashing champagne. Rather than ordering off the menu (which looks popular with others) we decide to just go the tasting menu. We let the sommelier do the matching wines for us.

I thought we might have to wait for our food with so many people arriving at the same time, but the dishes start flying out. Caviar with smoked fish and potatoes is delicious. The tomato salad is a simple selection of different tomatoes but tastes incredibly good. Foie gras with beans is the first classic dish of the night. Sweet and savoury in perfect harmony. The wine matching was a dud (the assistant sommelier had a go) but that dish was spectacular. The sommelier came back for the egg and mushroom dish and the dish was transformed into something excellent.

So we got through the tasting menu and it was all fantastic. An excellent experience. But... there were two things bothering me:
1.It was raining outside and we didn't have an umbrella.
2.I hadn't tried the langoustines. My beloved shellfish.

Rather than coffee we decided to go for a dessert wine to finish off with. But I felt like I just HAD to try more of Robuchon's food, so I got another dessert based on their recommendation for what would match the wine we got. The arabica. A dreadnaught of coffee excellence. Coffee beans, coffee mouse and a kind of coffee pastry in a glass. Delicious.

The rain continued to fall.

I made the move. Let's go the langoustines.

They were good. Damn good. I was happy.

But it was still raining.

We asked for a suggestion from the sommelier/waiter. He said he'd surprise us. What came back was one of the best dishes I've ever eaten. Bone marrow on toast. So simple, but SO FREAKING GOOD. Bone marrow was piled up high on the toast and each bite released a torrent of delicious, salty fat. Wow.

I should have left it there. But it was still raining. Heavily. Something was telling me to stay. Jesus likes Robuchon's food too maybe?

Again, waiter/sommelier was given carte blanche to bring anything. He brought the pig trotters. Beautiful. A mix of fat, sweet meat, crunch, breadcrumbs, salt. You know, the good things in life.

It was still raining but it couldn't keep going like this.

We left.

We got wet.

I had one of the best dining experiences of my life. Alongside Marque and Momofuku Ko, I have a new top 3.

So should this be given third Michelin star? Can you give something three stars if you sit at a counter? The food was all about great produce, it wasn't about showing off a stack of techniques or putting dozens of elements on a plate. Does it need to?

I don't want to think about it really. This dinner doesn't need to be analysed or considered like other fine dining experiences sometimes do. It just took incredible food and gave you as much of it as you wanted. You dictated the terms of the meal. Not the restaurant, like most other places do.

Michelin star tally: 16

Le Celadon/Le Petit Celadon. 1 star.

It wasn't easy finding a Michelin-starred restaurant open for lunch. When we walked around before the meal, I realised why: pretty much everything is closed in Paris on a Sunday.

While the one-starred Le Celadon isn't closed, it does strip itself down to the bones, offering a top-value 3-course meal with only a handful of choices for each dish. It also strips the name down, changing the name of the place on the weekend to Le Petit Celadon.

It's a comfortable little restaurant, with the feel of an old person's living room. A classy old person maybe. A classy old person that likes huge candles.

For the entree, chicken breast stuffed with foie gras with truffle shavings. Served cold with a side of lettuce, it was a subtle way to get into the meal, and a generous portion. The lobster with uzu and quinoa jelly was also a great entree dish, fresh, sweet, salty and a little rich but not over the top.

The main of sole with truffles, leek and potatoes was a cracking dish. The perfect example of classic French cuisine. The sauce brought the whole thing together, and when you got a bit of everything on the spoon at once you were in heaven.

Dessert is a pretty simple affair. A cart is brought around with a few pastries and other things. The rum bab, with pipettes sticking out, was a popular choice with all of the tables. With good reason. It was a pretty good dish.

While the food wasn't near the level of many of the other starred places I've been to, it was an excellent meal. And for 55 euros INCLUDING wine, I don't think you can fault the value of the weekend menu. With warm service and a warm room, it was a great lunch on a cold, cold Paris day.

Michelin star tally: 14

Monday, September 27, 2010

Paris. Senderens. 2 stars.


Finally. After years of pining and planning, I have arrived in Paris, the food capital of the world. And to make it even better, I'm here with only one goal in mind: to eat as much as possible. My first meal in Paris wouldn't be an overly memorable one (a camembert and lettuce roll from a train station, although it wasn't that bad), it was the second one where the fun was going to start.

Alain Senderens has had a restaurant for a while now and has always been one of the less traditional chefs in Paris. In the last decade he's been critical of French cuisine, that it has lost its position at the top of the food pyramid to the likes of Japan and Spain. He even we to the extent of trying to disown his Michelin stars. But that didn't quite work, because his restaurant, Senderens, has two stars in the latest guide.

I haven't been nervous for a dining experience for a while, but there are a few butterflies in the stomach here. Would Paris meet my expectations? Would everyone inside be bastions of style, wearing four piece hats and things like trousers? That's what bastions wear these days, isn't it?

I walked in and the restaurant had an ominous red glow to it. I got shown to my seat and presented with the menu. I'm not sure if it's an omen, but there are butterflies on the menu.

I opt for, of course, the tasting menu with matching wines. 4 courses plus a couple of amuses (110e for food, 150e with wine).

Oddly, there are no Parisians dressed in a four-piece suit. Most people, it appears, are either Asian or American. Dressed in normal people clothing.

Was the food good? Sure, it was plenty good. Cepe mushrooms done in different ways with a soft-boiled egg were nice and my old friend langoustine was also delicious, crumbed with almond and fried with a sauce reminiscent of a cross between seafood sauce and a bisque. You eat it with your hands. Isn't that a novel idea!

Main of pork belly with carrots and avocado was an interesting idea. It didn't sound that impressive but the interplay of the fat of the unctuous pork belly with the sweet carrot and the sweet/oiliness of the avocado was pretty interesting.

Dessert was an absolute killer. A sort of macaroon thing with meringue, sorbet, praline thing, citrus terrine and szechuan pepper. Normally with citrus, it's the zest that has a strong afterburn. But this time the citrus terrine resembled zest but the burn came from the szechuan pepper. Along with the different texture of the rest of the dish, it was perfect in every way. Sweet, but not over the top.

The famous Americans at the nearby table threw down their black AMEX and gushed over the meal. While not gushing myself, I did find it pretty enjoyable, as I threw down my inferior card. As good as the other two-starred places I've been to? Maybe not. Nearly all were better. But, hey, it was good. And it wasn't bad value at $150, including wine, plus other things. But has Alain Senderens pushed the boundaries of French cuisine? No, I doubt it. There were Asian influences in the dishes, but there are other people doing the French/Asian fusion better, elsewhere in the world. The New World (TM) still rules supreme.

Michelin star tally: 13

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Le Pressoir d'Argent

As we walked back from dinner at Jean Ramet the night before, we passed the entrance for our dinner venue for the next night, the one-starred Le Pressoir d'Argent. Looking at the menu, it sounded like a cacophony of shellfish. Lobster, crab and langoustines were in nearly every dish. This was going to be good.

But lunch was the first priority. Yesterday's foie gras roll with macaroons and pastries was so good we decided to replicate it. Kind of. We went to the awesome looking cheese store a few doors down and picked up a couple of extraordinarily good looking cheeses (all for such low prices, compared to how much they'd be in Sydney, if we could find them). Add to that a baguette for spreading, some more macaroons and, because I'm a strong believer in the healthy diet pyramid, a small salad. Nice.

After that, a tour of a couple of Bordeaux wineries and back to the room to get ready for dinner and to down a bottle of one of my favourite Bordeaux wines, Chateaux Figeac.

Unexpectedly, I also received an email from the three-starred l'Arpege, where I would be dining at in a few days. Due to “technical difficulties” the restaurant is closed for a month. No dinner. No three stars. That put the 35 star goal in danger.

I scrambled and booked the only highly-starred place I could get at such short notice: the two-starred Lasserre.

We arrived for dinner at Le Pressoir d'Argent and were shown to probably the largest table of all time, which would comfortably hold 4 people. It matched the largess of the dining room, with heaps of curtains and flowers and things like that which normally indicate expensive furnishings. Leather, sure.

Opting for the escape menu at 160euros (plus 80e for matching wines) it looked more like a burial at sea than an escape. Shellfish everywhere. As far as the eye can see (is that a pun?).

Around 50 appetisers first though. Some macadamia nuts painted gold, an olive tart, a tuna cone, bread with dips (pesto, lobster) and a totally excellent gazpacho as an amuse bouche (with some shellfish hiding in it, I think).

Then into the menu. First up, a lobster mousse with caviar and cucumber. Eat that by spooning it onto a waffle, then dig into a tin of raw prawn with caviar and another touch of cucumber. Wrap some in seaweed as well. Why not. It was pretty excellent.

The sommelier decided to play the guessing game, pouring the wines and asking us after the courses what we though it was. I like games. But I wasn't good at this one. Turns out French wines taste pretty different to their Australian counterparts. I took it as encouragement to drink more French wine in future.

Dishes followed and they kept on ticking boxes. Plays on texture and flavour were common, and the chef showed a lot of influences. Japanese in the caviar/lobster/prawn opener, Spanish in the take on “paella” which took the flavours of a paella but refined them for fine dining. It was reminding me a lot of an Australian restaurant, where most chefs at fine dining joints will show influences from all over the world in their dishes.

The main of lamb and asparagus was lifted by one of these influences, a superb chick pea puree. Dessert was a marriage of basil and mango, in various forms. Again, a great dish.

The chef here is doing great things here. It's a fantastic celebration of seafood that I thoroughly, thoroughly enjoyed.

That said, I didn't enjoy dinner that much. This restaurant had some of the worst service I've seen. Totally lacking polish. Staff would ask a question, only to come back 5 minutes later to ask the same question, as if we hadn't just told them. Water must be a precious resource in Bordeaux, because getting a top-up proved near impossible. Glasses were left on the table for no reason. Butter was left on the table after the bread was gone. Wines took longer to arrive than the food, so you were stuck waiting for your pairing.

If they tighten up service and get the basics right then they could be in the running for a second Michelin star, because the food is great. But on the night I went, the service took too much away from the experience. The staff were all friendly—all charming—but that means nothing if you can't get the basics right.

Michelin star count: 11

Next stop. Paris. This is going to be good.

"The Bordeaux Lunch"(TM) and Jean Ramet

We almost didn't make it to Bordeaux. France's train workers had called a snap strike so half of the trains had gone missing. And to get from Reims to Bordeaux we were going to need to catch 3.

We almost decided to forget about Bordeaux and just head straight to Paris, where we would be two days later anyway. But the prices on hotels were insane, and we just managed to get some tickets to Bordeaux that would actually be on trains that ran (amazing, right?).

Not even the protest on the traintracks along the way would stop us. Take THAT France's train workers. Serves you right for trying to protest the raising of the retirement age from 60 to 62.

Arriving in Bordeaux I noticed a few things. Namely, within one block of our hotel was the following things:
3 macaroon stores
3 bottles shops
2 bakeries
3 bottle shops
1 caviar store
1 foie gras store
1 AMAZING cheese store
1 shopping centre selling more of all of the above

Having skipped breakfast that morning as a result of a culinary hangover from L'Assiette Champenoise, we arrived pretty hungry in Bordeaux. For lunch it just felt right to sample the local food and wine.

We returned with:
2 half bottles of pretty good Bordeaux red
1 tub of foie gras
1 baguette
10 macaroons
3 pastry things that I gather are native to Bordeaux. They're kind of like baclava.

We ate that around 5pm as a late lunch/pre-dinner, drank the wine from cheap plastic cups and felt good, if a little sick from the sudden sugar rush. It was all great. A five star meal in a two star hotel.

9PM quickly came and it was time for dinner at Jean Ramet, one of the well-known bistros/restaurants in the city. Previously it has held one Michelin star, but this year it lost it.

We received warm welcome and were lead to the table. We opted for their “4 Seasons” menu (around 65 euros for 4/5 courses),ordered a half bottle of white Bordeaux wine and a half bottle of red and settled in.

An amuse bouche of what I gather to be a mushroom and bean cold soup was quite nice. (I really need to improve the French to know what they're talking about).

An entree of langoustine ravioli was interesting. Plenty of ginger and anoki mushrooms on the soup/stock that accompanied the ravioli, so it took on a Chinese/Japanese feel. Interesting and good enough. I also tried the lobster with a cheese sauce and that was pretty good.

The (possibly drunk) Frenchman dining alone at the table next to us looked over at our food in interest.

Next up, a mushroom and snail casserole. Good flavours and a nice homely feel. I dug into that with fervour. The (possibly drunk) Frenchman dining alone at the table next to us looked over and laughed a little to himself.

Next up was the main course. Foie gras with gnocchi and some sort of puree. And when I say foie gras, I mean two big steaks of the stuff. Crisp on the outside, soft and unctuous inside. It was, again, homely and damn good.

Dessert was interesting. The spice route. Different fruits (and a couple of vegetables) each paired with a different spice. It was one of those dishes that could have been amazing, or could have been a spectacular failure. Oddly, it was in the middle. It wasn't amazing, but it was pretty good.

While we contemplated just how stuffed we were from our late lunch and this meal (still not as stuffed as we were at L'Assiette Champenoise is the answer there), a plate of petit fours was placed on the table. It looked large, but that could have just been me.

We ate a couple and asked for the bill, only to receive a playful “but you haven't finished the petit fours yet!” It was another symptom of the warm service that we received throughout dinner.

So does Jean Ramet deserve it's star back? Probably not. While the service was absolutely fantastic, the food didn't really go past “really good bistro” level. But I think that's where Jean Ramet works best anyway. Ultra-warm service, good food and probably drunk Frenchmen at the table next to you. What it does deserve is a visit if you find yourself in Bordeaux.

Friday, September 24, 2010

L'Assiette Champenoise. 2 Stars.

Sitting just outside Reims in Tinqueux is the 2-starred L'Assiette Champenoise, a hotel/restaurant that has built up a solid reputation for putting out exciting food.

I was looking forward to this one.

It's a lovely looking restaurant. Modern, but with a subdued elegance. When you walk in you can either head to the table or, if the weather is right, have an aperitif on the terrace.

I didn't come to France to look at terraces, so we headed for the table and had the aperitif there. After a long day walking around the cluster of champagne houses in Reims, a seat and a cold glass of champagne was most welcoming.

We opted for the menu saviour, the larger of the two set menus on offer (of course, they also have a tight a la carte menu. It began with some nice appetisers (fried balls of foie gras, sure!) and a great amuse bouche (fish in a cheese sauce) and by “nice” and “great” I really mean “laden with fat”. I've never been one to complain at the site of a lot of rich/fatty food, but the next 2-3 hours were going to be one of the biggest tests of my life.

First dish. Lobster with a fish soup. Sounds nice and French but it was straight out of Chinese/Malay. The fish soup (served cold, interestingly) was laced with ginger and the hint of chilli. On the side, a piece of toast that more closely resembled a prawn cracker (along with a martini glass of MORE lobster and more soup). It was nice.

Next up, gnocchi with a comte cheese sauce and what tasted like pickled vegetables. On their own, the gnocchi was a tad bland, the cheese sauce a tad too rich, and the pickled vegetables too... pickled. But together they worked perfectly. The pickle cut through the richness of the sauce and the gnocchi carried the dish through.

Then it started to get serious (in terms of blockage of the artery). A chunk of nicely cooked fish sat alone on a plate. On the side sat a bowl of mushroom slices. A pause, then they brought over the sauce: a rich cheese and bacon affair. Oh, and the mushrooms are actually hiding more mushrooms, and a garlic butter dressing. And... they left a pot of the sauce on the table. Dangerous.

Dangerous because the dish was awesome. And we wanted as much as possible. The garlic butter that dressed the mushrooms was perfectly balanced and together with the fish and a bit f the sauce it was a mouthful of heaven. Rich, velvety, comforting, good. Especially when you put more sauce on. And more. And after it was gone, you put more sauce on your plate because you wanted to taste the sauce alone. But then you stopped adding sauce, because the sauce was all gone.

Then into the main course. A large cube of beef cooked (I think) sous vide, with a layer of awesome fat. Alongside that, a potato carved to look like a piece of bone with marrow inside. On top of that, a yoghurt sauce, almost like a raita. And in the middle, a thick, but not too strong sauce. Yes, this was also an excellent dish. Yes, they left the pot of sauce again.

I was full. That was odd.

Looking around, people who started well before us had sticks of fairy floss on their tables. Dessert? They'd been eating that course for a long time, Strange...

The chef did the rounds and said hello to everyone, appearing humble in the face of the effusive praise coming from every table.

Time for another cheese cart. While not as impressive as the one at Paul Bocuse, and maybe not in as perfect condition (but damn close), it still had some stellar cheeses. One of the best camemberts I've ever had and hands-down the best comte I have ever had. If I had comte like that then I'd be making cheese sauces with every damn course too, I think. Every other cheese also hit the mark in big ways (but, hey, this is France).

And then dessert.


The waiter came off and rattled off a list of dishes in French, and I realised that I shouldn't have tried to bluff my way through this meal with the 10 words of French I know.

I heard “La Mirabelle” and it sounded nice. I hoped that was the fairy floss thing.

And then... something happened...

The gates of hell opened and out walked approximately 16,000 desserts and petit fours (petit four-thousands?). Their mission was to destroy us.

They sat on the table and stared at us. Fairy floss, lollipops, toffees, tiny eclairs, lines of chocolate, biscuits.

I guess that was “La Mirabelle”.


The waiter returned with our desserts. An awesome dish of layers of thin meringue and pear purees and sorbets. Another cracking dish. The sweetness was spot on and not over the top and the textures, as you worked your spoon through the layers, Had just the right crunch to compliment the purees. Oh, and on the side, another martini glass, filled with more pears, custard and meringues.

We ate that, and the dessert army stared at us. Surely it would be rude not to try... all of them?

We busted our guts and tried our best to get through everything on the table. But it was impossible. There was so much.

As we went to leave, the waiter stopped us. Another surprise, he said, handing us a small bag.

A monsterous “petit” brioche.

“In case you want something to munch on tonight,” he said, happily.

I threw up in my mouth a little bit, and left feeling pretty damn good. As we waited for the taxi, the chef came out and farewelled us.

From the welcome at the front desk to the dessert onslaught, L'Assiette Champenoise constantly hit the marks. The food was great, the service near perfect, the wine matches from the sommelier were outstanding and the setting lovely.

Was it as good as some of the best meals I've ever had? Better? Probably not. But make no mistake, this is a fantastic restaurant with a bright future. If they continue to make food this good then I have no doubts that we'll be hearing a lot more from this place and, in particular, the relatively young chef at the helm.

Michelin star count: 10

La Vigneraie

I didn't have any places in mind for our first dinner in Reims (the heart of the Champagne region). After a bit of looking online, we headed to a restaurant near the main strip called La Vigneraie. While not Michelin-starred (oh, Ben, how could you lower yourself?), it is listed in the guide (oh, phew, well I guess that is KIND OF OKAY! Just be careful...).

Pretty tidy little place. We opted for their menu gourmand or something of that nature, which was around 66 euro for 5 or 6 courses. The amuse bouche wasn't outstanding (some sort of pastry thing with some sort of seafood mousse), but the entree of foie gras two ways was nice (also with fig two ways). The course that followed of lobster with spinach in a rich seafood bisque and some sort of foam was fantastic. Roasted pigeon for the main was good and the cheese cart and dessert plates that finished off the meal were also quite nice. A solid meal, nice restaurant, warm service and plenty of champagne on the wine list all made for a good experience.

I could get used to eating a lot of foie gras (I also had two courses of foie gras with lunch).I could also eat that lobster dish many times again. Succulent lobster with a great bisque. It reminded me a lot of a similar dish I had elsewhere. I think at Les Bernadin in New York.

Nevertheless, if you're in Reims you could do a lot worse than pay a visit to this place.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Paul Bocuse; The first 3-starred cab off the rank

In the first piece I wrong about this trip, I said that one of my motivations for eating at all of these restaurants was to get a taste of the culinary world as it is now; to plant a yardstick. As we headed towards the first of the 3-starred restaurants, I realised that this was going to be a problem, because Paul Bocuse isn't about food “now”, it's about respecting the history of French cuisine and, more accurately, paying tribute to the dishes that chef Paul Bocuse created during his stay near the top of the French culinary landscape. It's probably worth mentioning that he's had those three Michelin stars for nearly 50 years.

But therein lies the problem. How can one taste the current, and still respect the past? If food is art, can it be timeless?

My dinner at Paul Bocuse only left me more unsure of the answer to that question.

There are four thing that you notice about the restaurant immediately:
1.The outside is like a gaudy Swiss cottage.
2.The inside is well-adored but in an ever so slightly dated way (ala a glamorous restaurant from the 70s or 80s that hasn't changed.
3.Everything has the Paul Bocuse name or logo on it.
4.There are approximately 6000 staff members on the floor.

There are a few different menus on offer, but we opted for the big boy: the grande tradition degustation (at 215euro plus wine). It's a journey through all of the classic dishes that Paul Bocuse invented during his career. Signature dishes like the truffle and foie gras soup and the whole Bresse chicken roasted in a pigs bladder (with more truffles). Signature dishes that were invented decades ago.

And therein lies the problem. You're paying to experience what eating in the 1970s must have been like. The restaurant even has the token coloured man who opens the door for you on arrival and spins the music box when it's someone's birthday or anniversary (yes, they wheel a cart into the dining room and play the music).

But maybe that's just me having a problem with this. I don't like “hokey” things. And here you're almost choking on them.

But what of the food? The legendary dishes that this man has been responsible. Well, they're good. I suppose. But I'm saying that with a tainted palate, because if I had been tasting those dishes in 1970 I would have definitely been blown away. There is no doubting that there are some great flavours on the plates they bring you. But the problem is that food has come so far since then. Chefs are using modern techniques and appliances to extract maximum flavour and perfect texture in a dish; they're pairing unfamiliar ingredients to create taste sensations. With all of that in mind, why do we need to pay tribute to the past? Why should Paul Bocuse continue to receive 3 stars when this food just isn't reflective of good food NOW?

It reminds me a lot of the debate in Sydney about Tetsuya's losing being demoted from three to two hats. Tetsuya's is one of Sydney's most important restaurants for the influence it has had in elevating Sydney cuisine to world standards. But it's still relying on the food that elevated us years ago. Maybe the demotion in Sydney happened because Australian's don't have the same regard for the past that the Europeans seem to?

After our so-so meal at il Convivio, we were speaking to a Roman who was saying that it's an important restaurant for the locals. Maybe it only has that Michelin star for that importance?

So who's right? The old world of Europe or the new world that Australia belongs to, where instant gratification is a seen as a birthright by some? Maybe the good meals I had in New York were also a symptom of that New World desire for constant evolution and constant improvement with no regard for the past?

Either way, Paul Bocuse just didn't cut it for me. The degustation concludes with an unlimited selection from a stunning selection of cheeses (all in stunning condition) and an unlimited number of desserts from the huge dessert cart, but it all just feels underwhelming and nothing close to what a skilled pastry chef can do if he/she pours his or her heart into a dish. I've had some stunning dessert courses in my short life, and an unlimited selection of old “standards” just isn't going to get a rise from me.

Maybe I'm too young to appreciate it? Hey, the dish of sole with a cream and tarragon sauce, tomato, mushrooms and pasta brought back some good memories of when I had fish in cream and tarragon sauce as a child. Maybe if I was eating stuff in 1970 then I'd appreciate it a bit more. But the fact is I wasn't. And while I did enjoy all of the food and respect the history behind the dishes, I left feeling underwhelmed and, with the menu never changing, absolutely no urge to return. I'll get some instant gratification elsewhere.

Michelin star count: 8

Wednesday, September 22, 2010


We spent a couple of days in Torino, working our way up Italy and across into France. I was hoping to go to 2-starred Combal.Zero in nearby Rivoli for a bit of molecular gastronomy, but they never responded to my reservation request, so that was a bit of a let down (thanks guys!).

Uninspired by the restaurants around and inspired by the massive food hall across the road from the hotel, we ate dinner in the hotel room on both nights. On one hand, it was a shame not to be able to appreciate some of the local restaurants (especially during truffle season), but on the other hand, it was pretty great eating nothing but bread, amazing cheese (truffled peccorino, truffled brie, burrata, etc, etc, etc) and prosciutti for two nights and sinking a lot of local wine.

One thing I'm loving over here is that the quality of certain produce is just miles ahead what I can get in Sydney. Every cheese, in particular, is at it's peak of ripeness and has been handled well.

Everything is so fresh and vibrant. This was brought to a head on the afternoon I visited the huge open air market at the north of the city. What looked like hundreds of stalls were set up, selling everything seasonal you can imagine, red ripe tomatoes, juicy berries, just-arrived porcini mushrooms and fragrant herbs (all of which were somehow sweet). For a few euros I got a deliciously fresh lunch, topped off with an amazing pastry from one of the stalls.

Turin is a beautiful city with a huge history of stellar food and wine. I definitely want to come back one day and spend a bit more time there (particularly in the food markets).

Friday, September 17, 2010

Trussardi alla Scala

Sometimes it's the small things about different cities that really get you. Take Milan, for example. So impossible was it to find a shop that sells bottle openers, we find ourselves sitting in the hotel room, trying to open a rare bottle of dessert wine from Florence with a set of house keys.

It works. It tastes good.

Some say that Marco Polo stole noodles from the Chinese for the Italians. But that's totally untrue, because he actually stole prawn crackers.

Just like at Cracco last night, a bowl of vegetable and fish “prawn crackers” are placed on the table. They taste pretty much the same.

I'm at 2-star Trussardi alla Scala, sitting in probably the most comfortable chair of all time, eating prawn crackers, about to begin my first solo meal of the trip. Solo meals are always interesting because you become a lot more aware of everything that's happening around you and, more importantly, on the plate. Companionship can be ever so distracting.

I didn't do much research into this restaurant before booking. The menu looked nice and it seemed to have a pretty good reputation. One thing I realised I should have checked is what sort of food it actually serves up. Was the bowl of prawn crackers trying to tell me something? Was I in for another molecular experience tonight?

No, not really. Trussardi all Scala just does kick-arse food.

I think I realised it with the risotto with raw prawn. What a bloody great dish. A totally perfect risotto conceals slices of raw prawn. On top, a little sprinkling of sweet paprika (I think, or maybe sumac). Sounds plain—looks kind of plain—but each mouthful is utter heaven. Great texture, even greater flavour.

There were hints of them trying tricky things with the food—like the “fruit vegetables” or whatever they were (pickled fruit my the looks/tastes of it) with the tenderest of squid—but my favourite parts of the meal were when things stayed relatively simple. The spring lamb was one of those parts. A perfect chunk of lamb with perfectly fried potatoes and pieces of onion. It reminded me of a similar dish at il Convivio, and why that dish didn't work. Trussardi alla Scala got it spot on.

Dessert was an interesting affair. A globe/bubble of spun sugar sat over a pineapple parfait or something similar. Crack the dome and it releases a strong smell of smoke. Not bad at all. I like magic (I don't).

All up an impressive meal. It wasn't consistently strong as Cracco or Marque, but no dishes were weak and it definitely had its moments. What it was better for was the dining room (beautiful) and the more “Milanese” feel of the place (the dining room at Cracco didn't have many Italians). It was an excellent representation of this cosmopolitan city.

Michelin star count: 5

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Cracco. Milan.

To say that I was a little nervous going into Cracco would be a little of an understatement. I had mentally prepared myself to be robbed of all of my money and to waste a few hours of my life on a pathetic dining experience, all in the name of this “quest”/”saga”.

There were some online reviews that were completely scathing and described, in great detail, terrible (and expensive) experiences at the restaurant. Gosh, it just sounded so terrible, guys!

So with a fair helping of trepidation we were ushered into the lift at Cracco by the maitre'd and raced him to the floor the dining room was on. The restaurant looked quite nice but was this going to be a case of style over substance, like most of the Milanese women walking around the city?

The menu has a small a la carte selection, a traditional tasting menu and a creative tasting menu, which uses the techniques that have made chef Carlo Cracco one of the respected members of the molecular gastronomy crowd. Of course, we had to go the creative menu (at 160e).

One of the most scathing of reviews that I saw mentioned receiving “dehydrated vegetables in a box” for one of their courses. “The type that you'd see as army rations.” That was the thing that worried me the most.

A plastic box of sun-dried vegetables was placed on the table.

And it was actually a nice way to start the meal. Take THAT mysterious online reviewer (show your face!)! (Show it now!) There was also a selection of fried vegetables and they were also nice. It was pretty satisfying eating a zucchini flower that was like a prawn cracker.

But what if every course was like this? Maybe the mysterious review was right! I don't want to eat dried vegetables all night. I want some substance. Was this going to descend into farce?

Dear Mysterious Online Reviewer (is that an anagram?),

In reply to your review of Ristorante Cracco in Milan, that of the 2 Michelin star and 70-somethingth in the San Pellegrino world top 100 restaurants fame, I am writing to inform you that your application to share an opinion has been declined. Unfortunately, the standard of opinions for this restaurant was quite high and while you paraded yourself as informed, you were so far from the mark that me and the girls in HR (Linda and Linda K) actually had a big laugh at it.

Your pal,

PS. What followed those dried and fried vegetables was nothing short of extraordinary.

While the watermelon, almond and sea thing was good; the sea urchin and parsley salad with anchovy oil a delicious expression of the sea; and the scallop pasta with mache deliciously simple in terms of flavour, I think it was the vanilla crème brulee with sea slug where I fell in love. Something may have been lost in translation, but did he really say the crème brulee was made by influsion water with octopus skin? I don't really care, because that dish was nothing short of extraordinary. A few salt flakes added the perfect touch.

PPS. There were too many dishes to run through them all, but nothing failed. Everything was at least good. Many were great. By the end of it we were completely exhausted. So much great food, so much wine.

I think the thing I enjoyed the most at Cracco was the balance. Salty and sweet was used perfectly to make you feel refreshed or indulged. Texture came into play every now and then just to change the direction of the meal. On top of that was the excellent ingredients used that allowed dishes to stay simple yet taste elegant. And yes there was a lot of molecular technique on display, but it never overshadowed the dish itself.

To say I was a little content walking out of Cracco is a little bit of an understatement. While it probably isn't at the pinnacle of restaurants I've dined at, it's way, way up there. For just under 300 euro a head, it's not bad value either. Take THAT, online reviewers.

Online reviewer

Michelin star count: 3

(There's a) Firenze (in my pants)

After the somewhat disappointing culinary experience in Rome (although a glass of good cognac for 4 euros next to the Colosseum was rather excellent), I was a bit nervous about what Florence would have in store for me. Another poor experience could have solidified into a poor impression of Italian restaurants (well, those in tourist meccas). Thankfully, there was some relief.

On the first day we saw the first bad weather of the trip, with heavy showers for much of the afternoon. Good weather to stay in an eat. Lunch was nothing to write home about, a solid beef carpaccio, but the afternoon gave me my first good restaurant experience of the trip. Opposite the Palazzo Pitti is a tiny wine bar with only 12 or so seats. Being located opposite a tourist destination is usually not a great sign, so I was a little hesitant when I walked in.

An aperitivo to start--a crisp sparkling wine. Then into the business end of things. One of the “super Tuscan” reds and a cheese plate with a selection of Tuscan cheeses. Great wine, even greater cheese plate. A truffled peccorino was the highlight, but every other cheese on the plate was tremendous. After polishing off the glass of red (served in a mini decanter, cute) they gave me a try of one of the more classic Tuscan wines to try. Very different in flavour, but a fantastic expression of sangiovese. To finish, a delicious glass of cool vin santo and a brisk walk home in the rain with no umbrella.

Dinner was a little less successful. With no restaurant shortlisted, I had trouble finding something open on a Monday that looked good. I eventually found two opposite each other, but one ended up being closed and the other full. We walked around for a while, looking for something acceptable (it took a while). Eventually, we stumbled into a small pizza restaurant and, while it wasn't extraordinary, it was still very enjoyable. Solid pizza, nice insalata caprese, okay crostini misti and a very enjoyable tiramisu. For 20 euro, no complaints at all.

Day two in Florence and I was hoping to try some of the steak that the region is famous for. That didn't quite happen. I started with a stroll around the city, picking up a great coffee and almond cookie along the way, before stumbling on to a food market. If I had access to a kitchen then I would have bought a tremendous amount of the delicious looking cheese (oh buffalo mozzarella, you haunt my dreams), prosciutti and vegetables. Nearby there was also a stall selling the traditional tripe sandwiches. I was tempted to get one, but couldn't will myself into it.

So I headed over to a restaurant called il Latini, that does a brisk trade with locals and tourists alike. I was sat on a table with a tourist couple and four old local men. It was one of the first time that I really wished I spoke Italian, because the men ate, drank and joked with everyone (that spoke Italian).

The restaurant is popular for good reason. Delicious prosciutto, handmade pasta, roast beef with potatoes (wow! Excellent texture and flavour of the beef, perfectly roasted potatoes) and good, simple desserts. It wasn't cheap, but it was delicious.

Filled with renewed faith in food/table wine, I headed back to the market to get a tripe sandwich. But that wasn't to be: they'd just sold out.

In the afternoon I became annoyed that I hadn't had any gelato yet in Italy. So I went in search. First up Gelato Pecche No? For a cup of amaretto and chocolate. Very good, but hardly the mind-blowing experience I was hoping for from Italian gelato. Next stop Vivoli, one of the more famous places. Here we go! Seasonal flavours, artisan methods, stacks of annoying tourists. Caramelised orange and chocolate was utterly sensational, with the orange melting in the mouth and combining with the rich chocolate. Also another flavour featuring candied ginger that was quite solid. Lastly, to Grom, which had the biggest queues. Incredible. Caramelised pear was perfectly balanced, refreshing, yet rich, but not overly sweet. And the crema de Grom, a mix of many good things. Rich, but, again, not overly sweet.

Dinner time and it's off to Trattiora Cibreo, a cheaper version of the restaurant next door. This is where I start to question things. We start with delicious crostini misti and mozzarella, follow it with beautifully simple polenta with oil and cheese and a hugely flavoured fish soup. For secondi, a fish carpaccio with a lively topping that made every bite both refreshing and satisfying, and a really good, simple chicken meatball dish. Sides of roasted carrot and a bean dip were also satisfying. To finish, good, but not extraordinary, chocolate tart, cheesecake and pannacotta. All up, a hugely enjoyable meal of simple, honest, traditional food.

I should have been overjoyed, but I was having a dilemma.

Back in Sydney that would have been a tremendous meal and the restaurant would have immediately become one of my favourites. But here... How is this for an Italian restaurant in Italy? Would a local have seen this as overpriced for such simple food? A restaurant for tourists? For me, this was great food, but I haven't had that much “great” Italian food so what do I know? I could say that it was a great restaurant and be completely wrong. And that means I could also be wrong about the other restaurants I go to. Taste is always subjective, but there is an element of objectivity to it. A good restaurant is a good restaurant. But maybe il Convivio was great FOR Romans? Maybe it played off THEIR tastes, not mine? More though (and more food) is required.

But that wasn't the only thing on my mind.

With the language/outsider barrier, I was worried that it was limiting my dining experiences. These cities are big tourist destinations, so they're experienced in dealing with my “type” (tall, slim, dark hair, good taste in music, obsession with food). In a couple of restaurants we've been seated in different sections to the locals. Just a way of making sure the bilingual staff are given that section, or something more sinister? How many times have I been ripped off so far? I suppose I'm playing the paranoid tourist thing to an extent, but it can't be totally irrational. Again, more thought and more eating is required.

For now, on the train to Milan. Tonight, dinner at two-star Cracco. Tomorrow night, dinner at two-star Trussardi alla Scala. While Cracco has the two Michelin stars and is ranked in the San Pellegrino world top 100 restaurants, I've seen some mixed reviews--particularly from tourists--so this could be interesting.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

il Convivio

One Michelin star to rule them all kick things off.

I'd missed out on getting a booking at a few other Michelin-starred restaurants around Rome so it was il Convivio that had the honour of being the first cab off the rank for this idiotic celebration of overconsumption.

I had no idea what to expect and was looking forward to this place giving me some insight into how this trip was going to pan out. Would the food blow me away or would the food just blow?

il Convivio definitely didn't blow me away.

The restaurant is beautiful, the service is quite polished (but needs the touch of a good sommelier to inject knowledge and better pairings), but the food just didn't do it for me.

We kicked things off with a quick appetiser: fried olive and white fish fritter. Nice enough.

Into the menu proper and it never really took off. Red mullet with pear and truffle sounded interesting but didn't do much. A prawn fritter with an oyster mayonnaise and a salad of potato, tomato and something else was nice but the sort of thing you'd except to find in an upmarket fish and chip shop. Spaghetti with razor clams and something green had some good flavours but the razor clam disappeared in the dish.

There was finally a great dish with the porcini meatballs with sweetbreads and green beans. These were the sort of flavours I was hoping for from a higher-end Italian restaurant.

Unfortunately, it was followed with a so-so dish of steak with shaved truffle, roasted onion and potatoes. Nice, but it was closer to home cooking than fine dining. Same deal with the dessert of a fried calzone filled with ricotta and pistachio.

It's certainly a nice "experience" restaurant, but the food just doesn't match the decor and the service, so I was left feeling a bit hollow.

No more Michelin starred places for another few days, until we get through Florence and into Milan, so I'll be getting stuck into some good cheap and mid-range places in the meantime. Florence is apparently well known for its steak, so there will be a bit of that happening.

The next Michelin-starred place is Cracco in Milan, carrying 2 stars. It's also #71 in the San Pellegrino world's top 100 restaurants. I'm a bit worried about that one, having seen mixed reviews, but it should be another good learning experience.

Michelin star tally: 1

On Rome, Roscioli Restaurant

At first, I thought I was going to really dislike Rome (or Roma, as they say in the native language, American).

We touched down on a steamy day and headed through the traffic-choked streets to our hotel near Termini, Rome's main train station. Stepping outside for our first meal (lunch) we were greeted with a vista of tourist traps. We walked for around thirty minutes, trying to find something that looked semi decent. It wasn't happening. Eventually we stumbled into a small bar and got some simple but tasty panini. But if every meal was going to be that hard and every road filled with confused English women then I didn't think I was going to like Rome much.

Later that night, my faith in Rome (Catholic; I like to adapt) was restored with a home cooked meal from a real live Roman. Carbonara, which was so simple and delicious compared to the cream-laden version that we see most often in Sydney, with lightly fried chunks of pancetta from the cheek offering an explosion of flavourful fat with every bite and a crisp, dry white wine from Abbruzzo washing everything down nicely. It was followed with a huge selection of salumi and ham, cheeses and fruit. Our host spoke so passionately about the food, often bringing up a topic like chocolate, only to disappear into the kitchen with something new to try. Or a handful of kittens. That was rather unexpected.

After a morning spent walking around Rome (dear Rome: enough with all of the things to see, okay) we were pretty hungry. We headed through the Campo di Fiori--a market packet with fresh food, meat, cheese, truffles and other produce--and towards a place I'd heard about: Roscioli.

From what I understand, Roscioli is a deli selling a huge selection of awesome things (meat, cheese, vinegar) which is related to a nearby bakery. At the back of the deli is a restaurant that serves up all of this goodness.

Things of goodness: Salumi, prosciutto, cheese, bread, wine.

If you like said things of goodness then Roscioli is for you.

We got a selection of Italian cheeses (piave de alpeggio, parmigiano reggiano, two types of stravecchio), a selection of black pork prosciutto and a selection of lardo. To wash it down, a crisp sparkling white. Plus some bread from the bakery.

Now, a word of warning. That's a lot of fat.

Ignore the warnings and enjoy. All I can really say is the bread was delicious, the cheese fantastic, the lardo addictive and the black pork prosciutto is now my wife (sorry to disappoint you, ladies). How can something be so good? You bite it, and the cured fat of the prosciutto bursts in the mouth. It's like it's been fried BUT IT HASN'T IT JUST EXPLODES.

Not cheap, not expensive, very good. Although I fear that I may never be able to eat normal prosciutto in Australia again.

Tonight, it's off to il Convivio to get the first Michelin star out of the way.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Yardsticking: Marque and Sepia

It's all well and good for me to fly over to foreign destinations and eat foreign destination food and say "hey, this foreign destination food is nice!" but it's kind of useless if I don't have anything to compare it to.

Don't get me wrong--I've eaten at a lot of Sydney's best restaurants, eaten at some of Melbourne's notable names, and eaten my way through New York's fine dining institutions--but it doesn't provide a clear comparison to what I'm going to be eating in a few weeks (days?).

I saw a definition of the Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide's hats the other day, which provided the comparison I needed:

3 chef hats is supposed to be on par with the best in the world and 2 hats are worthy of a detour, which is pretty much the same definition that gets applied to the Michelin stars.

Great, then hats should equal Michelin stars. Unless the Sydney Morning Herald is lying to me. And they wouldn't lie to me, would they?

I've eaten at a good amount of the hatted restaurants, but I needed something fresh in my mind. Thankfully, this week was time for the 2011 Good Food Guide awards and hats to be handed out.

Chef of the Year, and upgrade from 1 to 2 hats: Martin Benn at Sepia.
Restaurant of the Year, one of only 3 remaining 3-hat restaurants: Marque.

I should go to them.

So I did.

I'd had the business lunch at Sepia beforeand was keen to go back and try other options.

Once again, the service was flawless. I love that it puts out serious, serious food, but you walk in and feel right at home.

Started with the steak tartare, which was pretty much great. Topped with soft-boiled quail eggs for a bit of added lusciousness. I polished that off without too much trouble.

Then the kitchen sent out a spanner crab and buckwheat "risotto", which was topped with what tasted like a bouillabaisse foam. An excellent dish, an explosion of flavour and a real excitement as far as texture goes.

The main was mulloway with asparagus and a sauce I didn't pay attention to. It was nice, but just like the steak main last time, didn't blow me away.

$55 for all of that was top value, but next time I go back it will be for the degustation. I don't think I can pass judgement on Sepia until I've tasted it at full flight.

When the awards were being presented, I decided that I was going to try and get a booking at the restaurant of the year the night before leaving for Europe. I was secretly hoping that the restaurants I had no chance of getting a table at with so short notice wouldn't win. If the likes of Rockpool of Quay had won I was going to go to Sepia for dinner.

But Marque won, didn't it.

I called the restaurant as soon as I saw it announced on Twitter and was a little surprised when I got a table without too much fuss.

So I hauled my fat arse up Albion Street tonight after work and took a seat in Marque, sweating profusely.

What was I expecting from Marque? I was expecting it to be very good. Great even. But I didn't think it was going to be better than the meals I had at Quay and Bilson's, which were spectacular.

I was so, so, so wrong.

It started off well with the Alain Passard (he of 3-star l'Arpege, where I'll be eating at in Paris) chaud-froud egg. An uncomplicated starter that fired up the tongue.

2 dishes followed, and they were real "wow" moments (yes, apparently they do exist). Almond jelly with blue swimmer crab was just a delight of texture. Soft, creamy, yet slightly unyielding. And then there was the cured bonito with smoked foie gras. Fuck me, what a combination. A bit of lardo to add smokiness and gherkin to provide crispness to cut the richness of the fish and foie gras. Just wow.

At this point I was thinking it was downhill.

Next up, scampi cooked in what appeared to be a heavily spiced butter, with roasted baby cos lettuce and lemon curd. I tried the scampi, too buttery almost, but still tasting of scampi despite the heavy spicing, which was good. The roasted cos, yep, nice, okay. The lemon curd, tart. But put all of them together and it was nothing short of extraordinary. The lemon curd cut through the buttery scampi PERFECTLY (emphasis) and the roasted cos added a nice smokey flavour. This dish was so perfectly executed that I shook my head in disbelief.

At this point I'm going to stop being so effusive and finish in dot point form:
- Then vegetables in a ham consomme with pea dust. Genius. I tried to deconstruct a pea and ham soup a while ago and failed. This succeeds.
- Roast duck with a sort of reassembled eggplant and yoghurt. On their own, nice (perfect duck, the best I've ever had?), together amazing. Amazing.
- Amazing.

And it just kept coming. There were more courses, every single one of them was incredible. No meal had every delivered so many perfect dishes. Every course was a wow moment.

The venison with beetroot. Did he read my mind? I wanted to make that dish but had no idea how to approach it. It was like Mark Best was cooking my dreams.

The optional/addition cheese and truffle course? You have to get that.

What Marque are doing is profound (homoerotic phrase?). The dishes aren't overcomplicated like a lot of other restaurants. There are a few elements on the plate, but they work so, so perfectly.

This is Australian cuisine right now. There were nods to molecular, nods to France, to Spain, there was a casual dining feel to it, there were the nods to tradition, the Australian "thing" of putting seemingly incongruent flavours together.

I've had great meals in Australian restaurants, but they didn't get it this good. Every dish was exactly how it should be.

As I left, one of the waiters (excellent, no-fuss service from everyone) asked me if I enjoyed my meal.

I worry that I enjoyed it TOO much.

How can food be better than that? I can't fathom it.

Am I about to blow wads of cash on inferiority, just to confirm my suspicions that the best meal in the world is a 10 minute drive away?

Marque on Urbanspoon Sepia on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

The Restaurants

So I finally have enough restaurants booked to pass 35 stars/send me bankrupt 4 times over. There are a couple I'm waiting on/am trying to fit in, but this is the list that got me over the line:

3 Stars:
Guy Savoy - Paris, France
l'Arpege - Paris, France
Paul Bocuse - Lyon, France
Taillevent - Paris, France

2 Stars:
Cracco - Milan, Italy (#77, San Pellegrino Top 50)
l'Assiette Champenoise - Tinqueux (Reims), France
l'Atelier de Joel Robuchon - Paris, France (#29, San Pellegrino Top 50)
La Terrazza del Casino Madrid - Madrid, Spain
Lasarte - Barcelona, Spain
Le Cinq - Paris, France
Michel Rostang - Paris, France
Senderens - Paris, France
Trussardi alla Scalla - Milan, Italy

1 Star:
Auberge du Lion d'Or - Geneva, Switzerland
Comerc24 - Barcelona, Spain
Il Convivio - Rome, Italy
le Pressoir d'Argent - Bordeaux, France
Petit Celadon - Paris, France
Restaurant Tavares - Lisbon, Portugal

36 stars all up. There are another 6 stars I'm trying to work in (every man needs a buffer) but that could pan out either way.

Some of the main ones I tried to get but couldn't:
Alain Ducasse au Plaza Athenee - Paris, France - 3 stars
Enoteca Pinchiorri - Florence, Italy - 3 stars
il Pagliaccio - Rome, Italy, 2 stars
La Pergola - Rome, Italy - 3 stars

And a bunch of others I knew I have zero chance of getting with short (one month of human years) notice.

I have also set up a "yardstick", which will be unveiled tomorrow, after I consume said yardstick (a homoerotic phrase?).

Sunday, September 05, 2010

ARTICLE: Stars In The Eyes

Flights are booked. Some of the hotels are booked. Still need to book transfers and look into tours. We’re a just over a month away from starting a five week trip around Europe and all I can think about is booking restaurants.

I blame New York.

For the New York trip earlier this year I left the restaurant booking a bit late, which caused me to miss out on a few places I was keen on going to. I’m also haunted, quite irrationally, by memories of walking around the city, trying to find a place to eat that looked “acceptable” (not many did). If I book every meal in advance this time around then I’ll have a worry-free holiday. Surely?

I should backtrack a little. The hotels are booked for most places because we’ve decided what country and city we’ll be in on each day of the five weeks. Allocating days to cities became an intense political process. Lines were drawn and few concessions were given. I started off deciding based on cities and countries that would be interesting to visit. You know, like a normal person would when confronted by Europe for the first time. But, all too quickly, I started preferring cities and countries that would deliver me some killer food.

I blame New York. I got way more enjoyment out of looking at a menu than I did from looking at an old building (or, from a height, a lot of buildings at once). The better memories I have are of the food. Like the passionfruit and foie gras “egg” at WD-50, the langoustine with mache, wild mushrooms and shaved foie gras at Le Bernadin and, fuck it, the entire meal at Momofuku Ko.

So France was a must and it’s no surprise that 11 of our 35 days will be spent there, with nearly half of that time dedicated to Paris. 11 days to sample what represents probably a century of dominance of the culinary landscape. It doesn’t feel like enough, but it’ll have to do.

Italy didn’t interest me too much to begin with, but with such a rich history of food and wine, it got a hell of a lot more interesting when I looked into it. 9 days there.

If it hasn’t already, Spain is on the verge of overtaking France as the gastronomic centre of the Earth. After sampling the past in Italy and France, Spain will drag me into the future. 8 days there, split between Barcelona, Zaragoza and Madrid.

With a few days left, a bit of traditional holidaying sounded like a good idea (you know the ones, where you see shit?). That brought Portugal and the Netherlands into the game, although Portugal is starting to look like a good way to spend a few days drinking port and eating salt cod. Add to that a lunch in Geneva and a day in Frankfurt before leaving and you have 35 days.

So how was I going to fill 35 days worth of meals? It’s a problem that has plagued mankind for centuries/me for a few weeks. I needed a guide, so my first two stops were the San Pellegrino Top 50 restaurants in the world (which is actually 100 restaurants) and the historic (if somewhat less reliable) Michelin Guide. They gave me the starting points, and online food sites plugged the gaps.

I’m not sure how it happened, or why it happened, but I think both did fairly organically. The end result was a goal. A goal to consume 35 Michelin stars in 35 days. Not to eat at 35 Michelin starred restaurants, that seemed rather pointless, but to eat at enough 1, 2 and 3-starred places so as to accumulate 35 (oh, yeah, that’s way more reasonable, Ben).

I didn’t set out to do it, but along the way it was becoming clear that I was going to go pretty close to that mark. So why not aim for it? Societies have been built from simple goals. I’m totes going to create a society with my high tolerance for cholesterol-laden dishes!

Why it happened is easier to explain: it happened because I remembered the regret after New York. I missed eating at Daniel, I missed eating at Nobu. I didn’t even eat at a steakhouse! Am I some kind of freak? Never again.

So I got going and it got damn hard. Restaurants we’re already booked out, Alain Ducasse at the Plaza Athenee was closed for a private function—some sort of celebration dinner for the ISO 9001 organisation (is it an organisation?)—some restaurants only took bookings on certain dates, most restaurants are closed Sunday and Money, Google was conspiring to defeat me by sending emails from top restaurants to my spam folder (have you no taste, Google you fuck?), where was I going to find time for the non-starred gustatory experiences, blah blah blah. I was struggling to lock in 35 stars.

Days out from departing and I still don’t have 35 stars locked in. Even if I do lock 35 stars in, what’s to stop the likes of Paul Bocuse and Joel Robuchon from forgetting my booking? What if I miss an important confirmation call? It’s doomed, it’s all doomed. In the most delicious, excessive way doom can be possible.

So what am I hoping to achieve from this taste-budinal assault? A taste of now, of 2010. I could be tasting the decline of French fine dining and catching one of the first waves of Spain’s dominance at the top. In a few years, everything will have changed and the culinary landscape will look completely different, but I will have tasted a point in time.

I also see it as the end of part of a quest. After years of worshipping food and only be able to dream of saying my prayers in a French haute temple, or repenting sins over a bowl of handmade pasta in Rome, I will finally get the chance. Part of me is worried that my expectations of amazing food will be crushed—that I’ll spend an insane amount of money only to discover that Sydney is nearly as good—but, fuck it, there’s only one way to find out. And if that way is paved with bricks of foie gras and twitchingly-fresh local produce then I’m down.

ARTICLE: On Hunger

Where did this all start?

I’m sitting alone in one of New York’s restaurants, spending nearly $500 on a meal. I won’t be going to the Empire State Building during the two weeks I have at my disposal. I did the same thing at another restaurant the night before, after doing the same thing for lunch at another restaurant. I’m not travelling alone, but I am dining alone, because my travelling companion doesn’t share my enthusiasm.

Was I born with this inclination?

I have a small wooden tub in front of me. It’s filled with a soft, triple cream cheese from France that contains a molten, buttery centre beneath the rind. I’ll eat the whole thing myself with nothing but the aid of a baguette.

Did something put me on this course?

I have spent an entire day in the kitchen, making a few things. For no one in particular. For no reason in particular.

Was it a combination of things?

I’m laying in bed, wondering what brought me to this point. It’s a point that a lot of other people are at. What, on Earth, possessed us to become “foodies”? It’s a horrible term when self-applied, yet an accurate descriptor for many people: people that happily spend hours in the kitchen when most others are out socialising; that happily spend all of their disposable income on food, when most people see it as a one-in-a-while treat; that feel an emotive response when confronted with the sight of a new restaurant, when most simply regard it as part of the ebb and flow of life.

Nature versus nurture is a term that springs to mind. Was I born “This Way” or did I become what I am today?

My earliest memory of food is standing in my family home with my babysitter. I don’t remember her name and I don’t remember what she looked like. She was young, I was younger. Five, maybe? We were in the kitchen. It was an odd kitchen; small, rapidly becoming dated. She was showing me how to make my own pizzas. First, toast some bread. Then add some tomato sauce, some dried oregano from the spice rack, some toppings (whatever was in the fridge) and some grated cheese. Place it under the grill. It was a revelation. I could make this whenever I wanted. This pizza—this thing that was so immediately satisfying—could be minem whenever I wanted it.

I can remember the food. I can remember her showing me. But I don’t remember her. Is that telling?

A few years later and my sisters have been born. A different babysitter is on the scene. I think her name is Jackie. I must be around 7 or 8. I dislike her a little because she has been employed to babysit my sisters, yet she still wants to know where I am at all times. Yet I adore her because she makes food that excites me. I remember the butterfly cakes: sponge cupcakes with cream, sponge cake wings and (sometimes) jam. Chocolate éclairs that would explode in my mouth. I swear I could have eaten a thousand of them. Marble cakes that astounded me because I was too young to understand the physics behind them. And roasts that, in my memory banks, are better executed than anyone in history. I remember her as old and quite overweight, hardly fit to care for young children. Was she kept on by my parents because of her cooking skills?

11 or 12 now. I have a group of friends that I see most days after school. For some reason, food is a part of how we interact. Sausage rolls after school become a ritual, like an after work beer. There are eating challenges. The once-dull confectionary landscape of frogs and musk sticks is being flooded with new brands and new sensations. One afternoon, everyone is over at my place. 2 minute noodles have become a part of our identity because we can make them ourselves. I make a batch for everyone, but add (for no reason) some herbs from my parents’ spice rack. Chives, I think. I feel excitement as I present them to my friends. Another time and we’re playing snooker. Non-alcoholic champagne (sparkling grape juice) has become an obsession for us. While we play snooker in the games room, I take an ice bucket from my parents’ alcohol cabinet and fill it with ice for our bottle of grape juice. We drink it from champagne flutes and feel grown up.

For some reason, I don’t have many food memories for a few years. But this changes tremendously when I’m 21. University has finished and I haven’t been able to immediately find a job. I find myself spending a lot of time watching television, and the shows that I gravitate to most are cooking shows. Jamie Oliver, Nigella Lawson, Iron Chef, Ian Hewitson and a host of others. I’m not sure what it was that drew me to shows of this nature. Perhaps it was the way they would stir hunger within me. But it wasn’t just the appetite. I would remember stupid facts about the food, like adding salt to garlic in a mortar and pestle would make it more abrasive and help it break down.

After many months of this obsessive watching I went on holidays with a friend to Melbourne. It wasn’t meant to be about anything remotely similar to food, but it was there where I had my true culinary awakening. We ate at restaurants that looked interesting and relished in the new flavours and delights that we ate. Looking back, it was always there, but it was here where food became truly thrilling. Laksa, Greek lamb, Vietnamese pho, it was all so damn good.

It was also where food’s accompaniment was introduced to me: wine. I’d never really been a wine drinker before this point. But a tour through the Yarra Valley, involving a lot of tastings, showed me that different varietals can be so... different. A bottle of fortified red wine blew me away, as did a sweet sparkling wine. I took them home and drank them with vigour, swearing that they tasted even better this time around. Before long I was subscribing to wine sites to get recommendations and going through bottles of various origin and style, consuming knowledge and fermented grapes in the process.

Five years after that and it’s become an obsession. Weekends are spent cooking recipes from all countries; celebrations and anniversaries are punctuated by fine food and wine; and far too much disposable income is spent in restaurants and bottle shops. It feels like I’m on a quest to find the perfect bite, or the perfect sip. But the more you have the more you realise that there probably isn’t such a thing; it’s more about experiencing gastronomy at a particular point in time. Restaurant menus will be different in ten years and wines will taste a little different. But the present can be consumed.