Sensational dishes of 2013- Japan

Instagram and the iPhone have killed my blog. In this digital ‘social media’ age of immediate upload and instant feedback, my intended goal of writing at least 1 post a month in 2013 has been completely demolished. How many of these 12 posts have I managed to write in 2013? Zero.
What has finally motivated me to emerge from my blog slumber is the incredible year that I had. The adventures, the inspirations, the creativity and growth that encompassed every day of 2013 was something I wanted to share.

Izumo Shrine

Izumo Shrine

2013 was a year of renewal. It was the year that I moved from Los Angeles to Tokyo. There was a window of opportunity that presented itself at exactly the right time in my life- a new career, a new environment, a new lifestyle, a new perspective- what would life be if I wasn’t willing to follow my heart? I got to explore the country that I grew up in, calling Kagurazaka, my favorite part of Tokyo, my new home. Living in Japan has given me more opportunities to experience the culture that defines who I am and learn its complexities, its depth and its history. I took countless trips, met a lot of people and enjoyed a ton of food. There were many life changing meals and meaningful friendships that blossomed through those meals. Food connected me to more people than I could have ever imagined, every person enriching my life with their unique splash of colors.

Consequently, it was a year of renewal for Japan too. The year began with a pilgrimage to Izumo Grand Shrine in Shimane Prefecture, known as ‘the realm of gods’. Then a visit to the most sacred Shinto shrine in Japan, Ise Grand Shrine in Mie Prefecture. 2013 was the year of the Shikinen Sengu, a rebirth and renewal ritual where the entire shrine is rebuilt from the ground up with new materials- cypress, copper and gold. The tradition, which goes back more than 1,200 years, occurs in 60 year cycles for Izumo Shrine and 20 year cycles for Ise Shrine. 2013 was just that year when the cycles overlapped for these two most sacred shrines in the country. It could not have been a coincidence that I decided to move to Japan at a time in my life and in Japan’s history that signified new beginnings.

Ise Shrine

The Isuzu River, at Ise Shrine

I explored many facets of Japanese cuisine. Street food in Osaka. Mountain vegetables of Nagano. Contemporary kaiseki in Tokyo. Japanese knives in Gifu. Traditional wagashi desserts in Kyoto. Seafood in Hokkaido.

I was introduced to new foods that I had never even heard of, and new flavors that excited my palate. I ate out almost every day, taking in with my eyes and my appetite the incredible range of delicious food available at my fingertips. I was taught by Japanese chefs both young and old on the history of Japanese cuisine and given an intimate glimpse into the magic that happens in their kitchens. The dedication, verging on obsession, with which the Japanese treat every aspect of gastronomy is simply fascinating. There is a sincere intention behind every step of food preparation- one that simultaneously pays respect to the product and coaxes out its pure flavors. Discipline builds perfection, and reverence fosters beauty. It is no wonder that Japanese ‘washoku’ cuisine has been declared a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage.

Here are some of the gastronomic highlights of my incredible 2013 journey through Japan.

ITALIAN BLACK TRUFFLE RICE- KADOWAKI かどわき (TOKYO)

IMG_8335 IMG_2577Chef Toshiya Kadowaki works quietly behind the quaint 6 seat counter at his 2 Michelin star restaurant in Azabu Juban. His movements are also quiet- more like, precise. He moves through his kitchen with grace and ease, demonstrating not a millimeter of unnecessary superfluous movement. He is a master at incorporating Western ingredients into his cuisine which generally follows a traditional kaiseki sequence and style. The energy in the restaurant crescendoes when he prepares the grand finale of the meal- Italian black truffle rice. Kadowaki’s excitement for his signature dish is palpable in the way that he vigorously and unabashedly shaves copious amounts of black truffle over steamed white rice. That distinct truffle aroma fills the air and diners respond with oohs and aahs. It tastes just as one would imagine- like heaven.

SUPPON (SNAPPING TURTLE) LIVER AND SOUP- SAKUMA さくま (TOKYO)

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There are many places in Japan to enjoy suppon cuisine, where snapping soft-shelled turtles are prepared in a bubbling broth that is said to have incredible health benefits. Sakuma in Akasaka is perhaps the most exclusive of them all, using a 330 year old traditional method of turtle preparation for their famous suppon nabe, cooked in a special Shigarakiyaki clay pot. The seasoning is simple- soy, sake and a smidgen of ginger- for the turtle meat infuses its intense flavors into the hearty broth that is rich with amino acids. The meat, incredibly tender, falls off the bones, and the quivering skin, popular amongst the ladies for its high collagen content and beauty benefits, melts like butter. For me, the highlight is the light and airy turtle liver, a delicate piece of foie that easily succumbs to my bite like meringue.

FOIE GRAS SANDWICH- L’AS ラス (TOKYO)

IMG_2760 IMG_2775Chef Daisuke Kaneko’s 1-1/2 year old French restaurant in Aoyama was like a breath of fresh air in the Tokyo food scene. Diners immediately took to the casual vibe of L’As where the chef ditched the white tablecloths for simple sleek wooden tables, and offered affordable prix fixe menus that would be brought out from the beautiful open kitchen, course by course, by the chefs. The concept was simple but the flavors certainly were not. His signature foie gras sandwich, an ode to the famous Häagen-Dazs ice cream treat loved by all, was, for me, even better than the original. A thick block of rich foie gras sandwiched between crispy thin wafers and coated on the side with red wine and lemon cream still makes me scream for more.

MOROKO FISH- SHIGEYOSHI 重よし (TOKYO)

IMG_2817 IMG_2806Shigeyoshi is, quite simply, my favorite restaurant in the world. The food stays true to traditional Japanese ‘washoku’ and nobody else does it quite like Chef Kenzo Sato. He depicts the very soul of Japanese cuisine, never steering from what is in season and never tampering a second more with an ingredient that is already a perfect creation of nature. I have been eating at this 2 Michelin Star restaurant for about a decade or so, and every single meal teaches me something new about Japanese cuisine. This year I enjoyed moroko, fish the size of my finger, only found in Lake Biwa in Shiga Prefecture. Moroko are hard to come by these days, as the growing colony of black bass that have overpopulated Lake Biwa love to eat these little delicacies as much as I do. There’s a distinct bitterness to moroko that I absolutely love, and eaten whole from head to tail, it makes for a most wonderful ‘sake no tsumami’.

DEEP FRIED FUGU- YUKICHO 有希銚 (TOKYO)

IMG_2947 IMG_2952January and February are the best months to enjoy fugu, pufferfish known for its lethal tetrodotoxin. One requires rigorous training and a special certificate to have the privilege of preparing this ocean delicacy. The flesh itself doesn’t have much flavor when prepared traditionally as sashimi, but it takes on a wonderful succulent texture and juiciness when battered and deep fried. Yukicho, an exclusive Japanese ryotei in the heart of Ginza with private ozashiki dining rooms, has been preparing fugu for more than 80 years. The current chef, Chef Ishii, carries on the restaurant’s tradition of unrivaled excellence in fugu cuisine. Better than fried chicken, a bite of this fried fugu will completely change your world. It changed mine.

ROASTED PIGEON WITH LIVER JUS- L’EFFERVESCENCE レフェルヴェソンス(TOKYO)

IMG_3975 IMG_3978Chef Shinobu Namae has trained with some of the world’s best- Michel Bras in both Hokkaido and Laguiole, and Heston Blumenthal at The Fat Duck. Now, in his Michelin-starred Azabu restaurant, he infuses his unique flair into beautiful dishes that marry classical French techniques with seasonal ingredients. Vendée pigeon roasted to perfection was served with an intense savory liver jus, with pea purée, broad beans, spring onions, Kiyomi mandarin marmalade and wood sorrel leaves. The icing on the cake when enjoying this memorable dish was the silver tray of Laguiole cutlery from which we could choose our knife du jour.

DENTUCKY FRIED CHICKEN (DFC)-  DEN (TOKYO)

IMG_4020 IMG_4022Michelin starred Den quickly became one of my favorite restaurants in Tokyo for many reasons. First, the creativity. Dining out should be fun, interactive and memorable, and Chef Zaiyu Hasegawa makes sure that every guest that steps foot inside his Jimbocho restaurant enjoys the experience from beginning to end. He brainstorms daily with his staff about new ideas that could surprise and delight his diners, and loves to incorporate playful elements into all of his dishes. Dentucky Fried Chicken, aka DFC, is Den’s signature dish, presented in a specially designed ‘take-out’ box with a photo of Colonel Hasegawa. Out comes a mouthwatering deep fried chicken wing stuffed with seasonal ingredients- on a summer visit, my DFC wing was stuffed with almond, cumin, cinnamon, turmeric and raisins. On an autumn visit, my wing was stuffed with a variety of mushrooms. This succulent chicken wing sure is finger lickin’ good.

DRIED AYU WITH LIVER- DEN (TOKYO)

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Another reason for loving Den? The flavors. The overall vibe during a meal at Den may be playful and fun, but there is a reason why this popular restaurant maintains its Michelin stars. I still dream about this ayu course during a summer visit to Den, with ayu dried for 6 hours then grilled and eaten whole from head to tail. Tade (water pepper) leaves, which are usually paired with ayu, were incorporated into warm rice flour bread which I thoroughly enjoyed with the most delightful ayu liver pâté. To this day, I still talk about this dish and hope to experience it again next summer.

SANMA RICE WITH LIVER – DEN (TOKYO)

DSCF0686 DSCF0720Den gets 3 spots on this year’s list for all of the times that I made a visit, and for what I love most about this fantastic restaurant- the hospitality. The staff at Den takes Japanese hospitality to a whole new level, treating every diner like family and going way above and beyond. When I dined here in the fall with The Spanish Hipsters to celebrate their nuptials, it quickly became apparent that the staff had been planning a special celebration for weeks. A lot of thought went into every detail of the meal to personalize it for the Hipsters, and we had a night to remember. Our experience included this sanma gohan, steamed rice with saury pike at its autumn peak with a luscious rich liver paste. We laughed, we ate, we toasted and drank, and the house mascot Puchi even came to join the party.

ROASTED ABALONE WITH LIVER-  MILLE CARESSES ミルカレス (OSAKA)

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Mille Caresses. Where do I even begin. I stumbled upon this exclusive wine bar in Osaka by chance, and it felt like I hit the jackpot. There are tables in the back of the restaurant, but the action is at the bar counter where Sommelier Kibi works his magic. He wears special white gloves to handle truffles, keeps his wines cradled in padded baskets, and treats his customer with just as much respect- a true professional. I’ve had a lot of great abalone dishes in my life, but this one by Chef Youichi Kaito takes the prize. Roasted abalone from Shimane prefecture in abalone liver sauce was fantastic beyond belief. The abalone- tender, juicy and succulent with an ever so subtle char at the fringed edges- and that decadent liver sauce- buttery, rich and creamy with a depth of flavor too incredible for words- brought tears to my eyes.

WAGYU KATSU SANDWICH- MILLE CARESSES ミルカレス (OSAKA)

DSCF0057 DSCF0050The pure awesomeness that is Mille Caresses in Osaka was also felt in their signature dish, the wagyu katsu sandwich. Miyazaki wagyu tenderloin, breaded and deep fried to a perfect rare, then sandwiched between toast with a lovely sauce made from onions and fruits, was as tender as room temperature butter. The course even came with a certificate indicating that our cut of Miyazaki beef came from cow #13349653555. A dish to remember.

ATSUKAN (HOT SAKE) & REISHU (COLD SAKE)- RYUGIN 龍吟 (TOKYO)

IMG_5274 IMG_0141Ryugin keeps getting better and better, living up to its promotion to 3 Michelin stars. Chef Seiji Yamamoto runs a tight ship at his Roppongi restaurant where the service and the courses seem to flow effortlessly. A recent revisit was right up there as one of the best meals of my life, and the highlight for me was their autumn harvest sake dessert. I went back and forth with my spoon, enjoying both the silkiness of the cold amazake soft serve and the warm fluffiness (and such enticing aromas!) of the sake soufflé. The juxtaposition of temperatures and textures was both pure genius and pure pleasure.

HAMO IN ICHIBAN DASHI- RYUGIN 龍吟 (TOKYO)

IMG_5239 IMG_5235There is no ingredient that tests the knife skills of a chef more than hamo, pike conger eel, which has rows of tiny coarse bones that are impossible to remove. Only an experienced chef with superior knife skills can perform honegiri (which means ‘bone cutting’ in Japanese), a process of making precise incisions into the bones without cutting through the skin or destroying the flesh. When a properly incised piece of hamo is blanched in hot water, it should blossom like a chrysanthemum flower with perfectly even sections, and create a light and fluffy texture. The hamo by Chef Yamamoto at Ryugin was the most perfect demonstration of hamo workmanship that I have seen to date. It was stuffed with sweet caramelized kamo-nasu eggplant and served in a wonderful bonito ichiban dashi.

DEEP FRIED AYU, DAIKON, GINGKO- ISHIKAWA 石川 (TOKYO)

IMG_5329 IMG_5288Ishikawa, right in my neighborhood of Kagurazaka, has maintained its 3 Michelin star status for some time. Located on a quiet cobblestone side street behind the famous Bishamon Temple, the food here stays true to traditional Japanese kaiseki style, honoring seasonal ingredients and treating them with great care and utmost respect. Chef Hideki Ishikawa mesmerized me with this dish that symbolized the transition of summer to autumn- crispy deep fried ayu at the tail end of their season, mixed with grated daikon mizore ankake and plump lime green shin-ginkgo at the very start of their season. The overlap period of these 2 beautiful ingredients is very brief, and Chef Ishikawa created a successful and delicious mariage.

HARI HARI POTATOES WITH TOBIKO- TAKADA HASSHO たか田八祥 (GIFU)

DSCF0557 DSCF0603Many of Japan’s finest chefs have trained with Chef Haruyuki Takada at the legendary Takada Hassho in Gifu Prefecture. A trip to Gifu during the fall proved to be an incredible cultural experience for me, attending the knife festival in Seki, observing the ancient art of cormorant fishing on the river at dusk, and sharing a fabulous kaiseki dinner with friends at Takada Hassho. The signature dish is called ‘hari hari’, made with extremely thinly sliced potatoes (by hand, of course), lightly blanched, mixed with tobiko and rolled into a sphere like a ball of yarn. My tongue was absolutely delighted at the playful textures of this dish- the crisp sharp bite to the potatoes, interspersed with little pops of tobiko eggs. It was a perfect way to end a perfect weekend in Gifu.

TORO MILLE FEUILLES- SUSHISHO MASA すし匠まさ (TOKYO)

DSCF0870 DSCF0872Of the thousands of sushi restaurants in Tokyo (did you know that there are more then 200 sushi restaurants in Ginza alone?) Sushisho Masa has quickly become one of my favorites, and the place that I recommend the most for visitors to Japan. I love the intimacy of the small space and the friendliness of the staff, but most of all, the mind blowing diversity of sushi that one gets to experience in one sitting. Chef Masakatsu Oka whips out more than 40 to 50 perfect little bites, taking the time to explain where each slice of fish came from and how he prepared it. His signature nigiri is what he calls the ‘Masa-feuille’, 3 thin slices of pristine o-toro with a generous dab of wasabi in between, creating a triple layered mille-feuille that magically lightens the fattiness of the tuna while enhancing its exquisite flavors. The toro melts so quickly that it almost evaporates, leaving you begging for more.

GRILLED ABALONE WITH LIVER- GINZA MIYAMA 銀座みやま (TOKYO)

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DSCF0782Prize winning Miyazaki wagyu from Iki Island is the specialty at Ginza Miyama, a teppanyaki steakhouse in the heart of Higashi-Ginza. We even got to see the special trophy that our cow had won prior to its slaughter. The marbled beef was incredible. However, what took my breath away that evening was the meaty abalone from Iki Island, still very much alive and squirming as it hit the sizzling hot teppanyaki plate in front of us. We watched in awe as the chef showed us the plump abalone liver- a deep magical green color so intense and bright that it was practically turquoise. ‘It’s the color of the seaweed in the waters around Iki Island that the abalone feed on’, the chef told us, as he sliced the abalone with his sharp knife and made a sauce with the liver and butter. The warm sauce, infused with the essence of this rich seaweed, was slathered over the tender abalone and served in its shell. Perfection.

MATSUTAKE TEMPURA- MIKAWA ZEZANKYO みかわ是山居 (TOKYO)

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Chef Saotome has been perfecting tempura for as long as many of us have been alive, and he has been collecting art for as long as he has been alive. His restaurant, in a quiet residential neighborhood in Monzen-Nakacho, displays beautiful sake chokos, ceramic plates and calligraphy, of which he himself is a master. During the meal he stands under the cowboy hat vent, silently focused on frying each seasonal ingredient to just the perfect degree. Matsutake mushrooms bigger than my palm, with a spritz of sudachi and a dab of salt, were meaty, juicy and aromatic. Saotome is a man of few words but he speaks through his food, his calligraphy and his art- all of which convey his charisma and vivacity.

ROASTED BRETAGNE VEAL- ANIS アニス (TOKYO)

DSCF1051 DSCF1066Chef Susumu Shimizu just opened this quaint adorable restaurant in Hatsudai a few months ago. The U shaped counter surrounds the open kitchen where he demonstrates the classical French techniques that he honed at L’Arpege for many years. 6 month old veal from Bretagne cooked in hay was sweet, milky and superb. His cuisine and style are both still evolving and I can’t wait to see what happens when he really hits his stride in 2014. He is, for sure, a young talent to keep an eye out for.

ABALONE LIVER RICE- SUSHI YOSHITAKE 鮨よしたけ (TOKYO)

DSCF1085 DSCF1092The shari, the neta, the prep, the ambiance. Everything is flawless at 3 Michelin star Yoshitake in Ginza. I especially love Chef Masahiro Yoshitake’s shari, made with akazu vinegar that gives the rice a brown hue and a subtle unobtrusive flavor that harmonizes well with the seafood. It was highlighted in this course that came paired with a generous serving of tender steamed abalone from Karatsu. The abalone liver, with a vivid forest green hue, was made into a silky paste and served with a mini portion of shari. It was a joyous and delicious moment in my life.

GARGOUILLOU- MICHEL BRAS TOYA JAPON  ミシェルブラス トーヤジャポン(HOKKAIDO)

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I had been meaning to visit Michel Bras in Hokkaido for a long time, and the stars aligned when I found out, when finally making my reservation, that it was the exact week when Chef Michel Bras himself was to make his annual visit. Ah, serendipity. Michel Bras cooking with Hokkaido ingredients was a true match made in heaven, and a food lover’s dream. His signature gargouillou of young vegetables, a celebration of Michel’s love for vegetables and herbs, was simply a joy. The ‘Terre’ dinner menu, a celebration of Laguiole, featured gargouillou with acacia oil, while the ‘Mer’ lunch menu, highlighting the seafood from Hokkaido, presented it with sansho oil. Both renditions were equally inspiring and lovely, like the maestro himself.

ICE CREAM CART- MICHEL BRAS TOYA JAPON  ミシェルブラス トーヤジャポン(HOKKAIDO)

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DSCF1455 DSCF1270No matter who you are, what age you are, or how fancy of a restaurant you may be dining at, when an ice cream cart pulls up to your table, it has the same universal effect- our hearts flutter and we squeal with delight. At 3 Michelin starred Michel Bras in Hokkaido, the ice cream cart came with a killer view of Lake Toya and 5 different flavors- apple sorbet sprinkled with anise powder, walnut mousse with hazelnuts in a chocolate covered cone, herb sorbet with balsamic reduction, white chocolate mousse with crumbled pistachios in a chocolate covered cone, and mikan sorbet with crystallized mint. Needless to say, I had a moment.

KEIJI SALMON SUSHI- SUSHI HIDETAKA 鮨ひでたか (HOKKAIDO)

DSCF1601 DSCF1576Where to have my one sushi dinner on a recent winter trip to Hokkaido was possibly one of the biggest dilemmas of the year. Hokkaido is a treasure box of seafood, and many delicacies are at their peak during the cold winter season. Choosing the right sushi restaurant for this trip was crucial. Thankfully, I chose well. Sushi Hidetaka in Sapporo is only a year old, but already quite the popular place. I sat next to a diner who flew from Tokyo just to eat here. Chef Hidetaka Yamada pampered me with the most incredible keiji salmon nigiri, a rare delicacy. Keiji, which means ‘infant salmon’, is a sexually underdeveloped salmon with an extremely high fat content (20-30%) but a light sweet flavor and silky smooth texture. Only 1 per 10,000 salmon caught are considered keiji, and they are usually only available during the end of November. Did it live up to its hype? Oh yes, yes indeed. It was the best salmon I have ever tasted.

GRILLED GINPOU- SHUBO SHINSEN 酒房しんせん (HOKKAIDO)

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For my last dinner in Hokkaido, I chose this tiny old izakaya in the rowdy Susukino district run by Chef Shigeki Echigo. The darn cute smile of his greeted me as I walked through the front door, and I immediately knew that I was in for a treat. One would never guess, from the outdated decor and the down-to-earth casual vibe at the restaurant, that this place was awarded 2 Michelin stars in the 2012 Hokkaido special edition. I felt right at home with the Shinsen family who fed me with the best of Hokkaido’s bounties. He whipped out a beautiful piece of grilled ginpou for me; something, he said, he only does for special customers. Ginpou (which means silver treasure in Japanese) is an extremely rare fish, only found off the coast of Kushiro in southeastern Hokkaido, and only 200-300 are caught per year. The texture was light, airy and fluffy. The flavor, due to its extremely high fat content, was sweet yet delicate. I have never tasted fish like this before- it was phenomenal.

IMG_4306My culinary journey through Japan in 2013 was educational, inspiring and downright delicious. I got to really explore the complex maze of Tokyo- the nooks and crannies- and make new discoveries on every street corner. I saw the countryside, the lakes and oceans, and reveled in the stunning beauty of this country. I tasted, I learned and I absorbed a whole lot of new information, and I met some amazing people along the way. It was a year of renewal and personal growth for me, and I am thankful for all of the friends, both old and new, who shared these memorable meals with me. I look forward to continuing this adventure in 2014.

But first, I’ll be writing a post of my most memorable dishes of 2013 outside of Japan.

wd~50 – New York

Call him an eclectic pioneer, a nonconformist chemist, a mad scientist or culinary daredevil, but Chef Wylie Dufresne has his feet firmly planted in the culinary world.  This James Beard Award nominee for Best Chef in New York City is somewhat of a celebrity chef now, using the disciplines of molecular gastronomy to entertain diners with food like they’ve never imagined or seen before.  He will liquify, solidify and gassify; he will deconstruct, reinterpret and transfigure.  Some may not like this style of cuisine and others may not even get it, but it will always be a new experience that makes the mind question what is normal.

At Dufresne’s Lower East Side restaurant wd~50, he works with pastry chef Alex Stupak (who worked as pastry chef at Alinea in Chicago) to construct an inspirational menu where what you order will look completely different from what you expect.  Pizza may turn up as pebbles, cocoa nibs may present as socium alginate and calcium chloride caviar pearls, bone marrow as dehydrated discs and shrimp as noodles.  While the concepts and presentations are abstract expressionistic, the execution of these gourmet projects are a precise science.

Contrary to the whimsical menu and reputation of the restaurant as a carnival of molecular delights, the restaurant decor is disappointingly boring, reminiscent of a local pizza parlor still stuck in outdated 90′s decor.  The mismatch takes away from the experience and I find myself feeling uninspired, even unexcited for this experience.  I suddenly feel skeptical about ordering the tasting menu, and opt for à la carte.  Yes, ambiance does matter.

Corned duck with rye crisp, purple mustard, horseradish cream

One of the most popular items on the wd~50 menu since its opening in 2003 is the corned duck, a beautifully constructed cylinder of lean but juicy duck that is gift wrapped around a tower of delicious condiments.  Untangling the ring of thinly sliced smokey bird reveals a nucleus of  tart horseradish cream and slivers of honey pickled garlic, a perfect power play of spicy and sweet.  A smear of dark purple mustard reduced with red wine adds a luscious savor while the bouquet of microgreens adds a fresh kick to the presentation.

Eggs benedict

A must-try dish at wd~50 that represents Dufresne’s philosophy and fantasy, the deconstructed eggs benedict is a colorful surprise of culinary cubism.  Crispy Canadian bacon chips are wedged in dollops of slow poached egg yolks, bright like the summer sun and made with the consistency of liquid just barely becoming solid.  English muffins become minimized as delicate coatings for the warm Hollandaise cubes, its intense richness showing my palate that big flavors can come in small packages. The sprinkles of black Cyprus volcanic sea salt help to cut through some of the heavy buttery flavors while chive spears placed at skewed angles add more geometry to the edible installation.  Fun, edgy and inventive, but good enough to compete against a traditional eggs benedict?  Not for me.

Aerated foie, pickled beet, mashad plum, brioche

The most memorable act of the evening is a plate of aerated foie, fine reticulated columns of savory liver that resemble a loofah at first glance and a microscopic image of bone matrix upon closer inspection.  The foie is light, airy and fragile, collapsing and melting into smooth liquid gold inside my mouth.  The tart sweetness of the plum purée, the acidity of the pickled beet rectangles and the delfino greens that hang over the foie like ivy all elevate the flavors of the foie, but I find myself fascinated with the crispy brioche crisps, sliced so thin that it too takes on the latticed construction of the foie.

Iberico pork neck, endive, buckwheat, clove

Thick cuts of sous vide Iberico pork neck are sweet and succulent, a stellar combination with the apple cider and brown butter sauce, but those are the only good ingredients in this ambitious and busy dish.  Cloved tuille tastes like the first strong puff of a clove cigarette, normally a good thing for post-meal smokes but not what I want on my pork.  Fried endive is an overcooked soggy bitter mess while deep fried buckwheat has the opposite effect- not quite puffed enough that it becomes a gritty grainy nuisance that gets embedded into the sockets of my teeth.

Lemongrass mousse, brown sugar, jack fruit, whole wheat sorbet

Pastry chef Alex Stupak creates an architectural dessert using a serpentine tube of lemongrass mousse accented by flourescent yellow dots and slivers of jackfruit.  Lemongrass foam on both ends of the mousse hold its height while the long rectangular strips of lemongrass ice start to slowly melt over the whole wheat sorbet and brown sugar crisp.  As the ice melts and our spoons diligently work away at the dessert, the configurations of the components begin to change, and a new form of non-static abstract art is revealed with every bite.

The meal ends with chocolate shortbread-covered milk ice cream, cold balls of intensely sweet ice cream that taste like Oreo cookies.

The cocktail menu at wd~50 is interesting in concept, but poor in execution.  The Bourbon Bimbo had to be sent back because it tasted like the bitter white flesh of lemon rinds, and ‘A Saltier Dog’s saltiness was overpowering, killing whatever flavor it was supposed to have.

It is difficult and unfair to rate a restaurant based on one quick visit with just a handful of dishes, and I dare not question whether wd~50 is truly worthy of a Michelin star or a place in S. Pellegrino’s 50 Best Restaurants list.  All I know is that my visit didn’t excite me to return again, at least not until the interior is revamped, the mood lightened and the menu improved.  Wiley Wonka’s laboratory of molecular delights is a fun exhilarating experience, one that will certainly provoke a lot of thought and conversation- but does his passion come through enough in his food, and does it have that punch that will make a diner want to come back the following week, and the week after?

wd-50

50 Clinton Street
New York, NY 10002-2401
(212) 477-2900

Random trivia:  Did you know that jackfruit is the largest tree-borne fruit in the world, reaching 80 pounds in weight and up to 36 inches long and 20 inches in diameter?

Street Food Mondays at Angeli Caffe- Sri Lankan Hopper Night

If you live in Los Angeles and love food, chances are you’ve already had a ‘pop-up’ restaurant experience.  Whether you’ve sampled squid carbonara with pancetta at LudoBites 4.0 in downtown LA, or any of the monthly Hatchi dinners at the Breadbar in Century City, you know you love these limited pop-up engagements.  It’s a wonderful way for adventurous LA diners to taste new flavors while chefs get an opportunity to share their creativity and vision.  I’m a big supporter of pop-up events and always love to see what local chefs have in store for us.  Every pop-up dining experience has been amazing for me, but with famous chefs preparing deconstructed, liquified, powdered and all around reinterpreted food at most of these events, a new type of pop-up called Street Food Mondays comes as a breath of fresh air.  Bill Esparza from Street Gourmet LA has teamed up with Chef Evan Kleiman of Angeli Caffe to bring back, for some, and introduce, to others, the wonderful culture of street food.

When we travel to foreign countries, we don’t go to 3-Michelin starred restaurants to find out about their culture.  We venture into their local markets to take in the sights and aromas of the local bounties, and we taste the elements that fuel their energy by sampling local delicacies.  Street food is the very essence of culture, honoring food that nourishes many generations and defines who we are today.  Simple but hearty and comforting food that sings to the soul often evokes powerful childhood memories and comes with interesting life stores.  Street Food Mondays opens up these magical realms to us and brings us a step closer to understanding the world around us.

What better liaison to serve as our guide than Bill Esparza who is an avid seeker and connoisseur of international street food.  Street Food Mondays debuted last month with Ricky’s fish tacos, attracting a line of customers that spilled out onto the sidewalk.  The second in its series occurred this past Monday to feature Priyani Dissanayake’s Sri Lankan Hopper Night.  Priyani used to serve authentic Sri Lankan fare out of a restaurant called Priyan’s Ceylon Café in Northridge which has unfortunately recently closed.  It was a special treat to be able to enjoy her famous hoppers for this one-night only event.

Hoppers, or appam in the native language, are thin Sri Lankan pancakes made from a fermented batter of rice flour, coconut milk and palm toddy, and most often eaten for breakfast or dinner.  The batter is fried in a small wok-like pan called an appachatti with a little bit of oil to give it its characteristic bowl-like shape.  Plain hoppers were served with sime sambal, a chile based condiment.

Egg hoppers are these same hoppers but with an egg broken into the pancake as it cooks in the pan.  We ordered our egg hoppers with a wonderful mutton curry cooked on the bone with a rich and seductive blend of spices.

Although it has the same name, string hoppers, or idiyappam, are different from regular hoppers.  String hoppers are made from steamed rice flour and curled into flat spirals, similar to Vietnamese bun.  Our dish came with a light and aromatic coconut sambal made with grated coconuts and chile spices.  For the side we chose chicken curry that was fully infused with a perfect blend of flavorful exotic spices.  As much as India is famous for their curries, Sri Lanka is just as famous for their diversity of distinct spices.

Small round fish croquettes filled with moist fish flakes and elongated beef croquettes stuffed with a creamy minced beef filling served as satisfying bite-sized eats with the spicy chile sauce.

Sri Lankan biryanis are known for being spicier than Indian biryanis, but Priyani kept the heat level under control for her Los Angeles diners at this event.  Her chicken biryani was made with chicken curry, hard-boiled eggs, cashews and an unforgettable smokey eggplant curry.

My favorite dish of the evening was the lampreis, a Dutch-influenced Sri Lankan dish that derives its name from a Dutch word meaning ‘lump of rice’.  Lampreis generally constitute rice cooked in stock, eggplant curry, meat cutlet or frikkadel meatballs, plantain curry, blachan made from dried prawns and spices, and meat curry all wrapped up and steamed in a banana leaf.  Priyani’s lampreis had chicken curry, shrimp sambal, generous chunks of tender fish cutlet, sime sambal and sweet green banana curry all fully infused with the phenomenal aroma of the banana leaf.  Each component was carefully cooked with love, and combined together it was an explosion of wondrous flavors.

Our satisfying meal concluded with a Sri Lankan dessert called wattalapan, a steamed coconut custard made with coconut milk, eggs, jaggery and cashew nuts and seasoned with cardamom, cloves and nutmeg.  Jaggery is unrefined sugar made from sugarcane and palm tree, and used widely for both sweet and savory dishes in Sri Lanka.  Due to the use of jaggery instead of refined sugar, the custard had a dark, earthy sweetness that reminded me of pure molasses.

Thanks to Bill Esparza and this wonderful pop-up event, I was able to get a good introduction into Sri Lankan street food.  Despite the fact that Los Angeles is a melting pot of different cultures, authentic Sri Lankan food is hard to come by, and it’s unfortunate that Priyani’s restaurant closed down.  More Angelenos are showing interest in good food and making an effort to seek delectable eats these days- it’s my hope that they will support authentic street food and mom-and-pop stores just as much as celebrity chef restaurants.  Street food is where the heart is, and Street Food Mondays are where the food is.  Street Food Mondays at Angeli Caffe by Street Gourmet LA, which not only introduces new flavors to our community, but also embraces cultural diversity and the very essence of ‘soul’, is the most welcomed pop-up act to hit our food community today.

Angeli Caffe

7274 Melrose Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90046
(323) 936-9086

Street Gourmet LA website:

www.streetgourmetla.com

Priyani’s Ceylon Fusion available for catering.  Contact Priyani at Priyanidisa@yahoo.com

Random trivia:  Did you know that raw cashews are caustic due to its outer lining that contains urushiol, the same chemical found in poison ivy?  Exposure to urushiol can cause a severe skin reaction, which is why all cashews available for consumption are steamed or roasted.

Manzanilla- Ensenada, Mexico

On a recent culinary adventure down to Baja California with my good friend Bill Esparza of Street Gourmet LA, I was introduced to a whole new world of Baja food culture that centers around fresh seafood unique to the 2 beautiful bodies of water that flank the peninsula.  Sea urchin tostadas topped with freshly shucked pismo clams, smoked marlin taquitos, manta ray and tuna fin soup, chocolate clam shooters, smoked oyster with chipotle sauce, abalone chorizo sopes and octopus carpaccio are just a few of the sensational dishes that changed not only the way that I view Baja cuisine, but also my life.  My mind was opened to a myriad of new flavors that I had never tasted before, and through meaningful interaction with the various people who prepared my food, my soul was graced with a newfound appreciation and respect.

Of the people that I met on this trip, none peaked my curiosity and interest quite like Chef Benito Molina, an eclectic individual whose signature long curly mustache, reminiscent of Salvador Dali, left just as strong of an impression on me as his cuisine.  There are many fine and distinguished chefs who are leading the gastronomic movement in Baja, but of them all, Molina is a contemporary artist who is way ahead of our time.  Similar to Basquiat’s graffiti or Warhol’s silkscreen pop art, Molina’s avant-garde food art grabs your attention with its bright splashes of color and bold presentation of forms.

His restaurant in Ensenada, called Manzanilla, is like a hidden artists’ loft tucked away on a dark and quiet industrial street across from a shipyard.  There is no sign outside, only a wooden fence, but once you step through the large doors it’s a sexy and mystical warehouse space that looks like a scene from a Stanley Kubrick movie.  A long beautiful wooden bar with vintage decor and intricate carving occupies almost half of the main dining space, illuminated by chandeliers that give off eery red lights.  Large contemporary paintings and sculptures by local Mexican artists decorate the space in such a way as to make me think that I’m just a pawn in a large surrealist installation.

Chef Benito Molina runs Manzanilla with his wife Solange Muris, also a chef.  If you’re a Bizarre Foods fan, you may recognize Chef Molina from the recent Baja episode with Andrew Zimmern, and his wife who took Zimmern through Mercado Hidalgo.  Molina is originally from Mexico City but did his culinary schooling and training on the East Coast where he worked at Todd English’s original Olives restaurant.  Perhaps this is his inspiration for naming his place Manzanilla, after the Spanish olives that were served as an appetizer.  Molina and his wife welcomed us with open arms to their dramatic restaurant that was packed with diners.  I instantly fell in love with the artwork and the seductive restaurant decor, and I knew that we were in for a fantastic dinner.  When I looked into Molina’s kind but intense eyes that sparkled with a tinge of mischief and burned with fiery passion, I was certain that it was going to be an experience of a lifetime.  Fresh local seafood and meats prepared with dynamic seasoning and presented with innovative artistic expression were paired with local wines from Valle de Guadalupe for a memorable tasting dinner.

Light flakes of sturgeon mixed with tomatoes, garlic, chile and herbs were served on crispy toasts as a lovely warm canapé.

A Kumamotor oyster garnished with shallot vinaigrette looked longingly across the vast burnt salt bed in hopes of being reunited with its companion, a Pacific oyster topped with soft gelatinous chunks of chopped pork trotter.  Unfortunately for the oysters, we gobbled up these briny little treasures in a matter of seconds before moving on to the next dish.

Small but intensely sweet Manila clams and a larger White clam were served raw on a bed of ice with soy sauce and habanero on the side and a few lime wedges to heighten the fresh flavors.

More bivalves arrived at our table, this time a duo of oyster and littleneck clam both smoked to order and still bubbling at the edges from the oven heat.  The smoked clam went surprisingly well with Gorgonzola cheese, and I was impressed with the pairing of tarragon butter with the locally grown Kumamoto oyster.  A fruity bottle of 2008 Viñas Pijoan Silvana, a Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, Moscatel and Sauvignon Blanc blend, went particularly well with this dish.

During a pre-dinner kitchen tour with Chef Benito Molina, we saw one of his chefs filleting a sturgeon, apparently a catch quite rare in these areas of the water so he bought it at the fish market without hesitation.  It was amazing to be able to see the whole fish first before savoring its flavorful meat in a tiradito prepared 2 ways- one with capers, onions and the distinct tart sweetness of raspberry vinegar, and the other with chile verde, soy sauce and ginger.

When I tasted the fresh sardines, cured in salt and vinegar and topped with chile verde and ginger, my taste buds immediately recognized the flavor as being distinctly Japanese.  The side garnish of cultured cream, cucumber and wild fennel from Molina’s garden injected Mediterranean influences into the dish.  Chef Molina later told me that he learned how to make the sardines from a Japanese chef.  Sardines spoil easily, and it’s difficult to master the art of curing them, but Molina did a fantastic job.

Continuing on with Asian flavors native to my tongue, Molina served a plate of grilled mackerel and sardine on a bed of baby mizuna freshly picked from his garden in Valle de Guadalupe.  The crisp sharp flavors of the mizuna greens were the perfect complement to the smokey fatty flavors of the fish.  I almost wished that I could eat this dish with a bowl of white rice, but instead I enjoyed it with a glass of 2008 Estación por Venir Palomino blend.

Clam chowder was reinterpreted Manzanilla-style in a dish of Manila clams with smoked bacon, potatoes and saffron.  I loved this classy version where the intense appetizing aroma of saffron and bacon perfumed my nasal passages.

One of my favorite dishes of the evening was a powerful composition of thinly sliced 3 year abalone, lightly grilled in the wood-fire oven and splayed dynamically across the plate with a tomato, onion, serrano chile and pasote sauce.  A distinct appetizing smokey aroma wafted up from this masterpiece that seemed to explode with life and vigor out of the shell right into my mouth.

Calamares Manchez is a signature Benito Molina dish, one that has been enjoyed and written about by many who have been struck by its dramatic display and delicate flavors.  Grilled calamari was body painted in bright red with a concoction of roasted beets, ginger, orange juice, lime juice, garlic and habanero for a dish that tickled my taste buds with alternating sensations of sweet, tart and spicy.  Around this time, a bottle of 2007 Viñas Pijoan Domenica, a blend of Grenache, Petit Syrah and Cabernet, came to our table for the last portion of the meal.

Cabrilla sea bass, with perfectly seared crispy skin, was flavored with garlic and herbs and served on a bed of Swiss chard and poblano chiles.

Tender smokey white seabass was excellent with a garnish of radish salsa, but the table unanimously swooned over the rich and smokey huitlacoche risotto, a rendition of risotto so sexy and delicious that all future risottos that follow in its footsteps will never satisfy me.

If we didn’t give Chef Molina the red light on our meal, he would have gone all night, effortlessly pulling ideas and dishes out of his bottomless magic hat.  Our minds wanted to continue on with the Manzanilla dinner extravaganza, but our stomachs were feeling full and heavy and it was time to call it quits.  As if to remind us of how full we were, he finished our savory meal with a hefty serving of stewed offals cooked in chile guajillo and garnished with a sheet of homemade pasta.  Many diners have a separate stomach for desserts, and I have one specifically for offals.  I was the only one at the table who not only finished the dish, but also savored every bite of tender tongue, stomach and hoof.

We had the pleasure of having cheese maker Marcelo Castro Chacón of La Cava de Marcelo sit with us through our dinner.  He’s a fourth generation cheese maker from a family who has been producing cheese for 130 years in Ojos Negros.  He took his time in explaining the intricacies of cheese making and how he develops the unique flavors for his products that are loved by local chefs.  We got to sample 3 queso frescos with basil, pepper and rosemary, and 2 creamy and luscious añejo (aged) cow’s milk cheeses, aged 4 and 7 months.  Strawberry wine reduction and sliced green apples were paired with our fantastic cheese plate.

Even after all of this food, we somehow managed to squeeze in warm molten chocolate cake, mango coulis on shortbread cookies and mango flavored cream.

By the time that we were winding down from our dynamic and artistic Manzanilla journey around 12am on a Saturday night, the restaurant was just starting to fill up with local diners who were sitting down for dinner.  This isn’t Madrid, this is Ensenada- who starts dinner at midnight in Baja, I thought.  Turns out that the place was packed with local chefs like Guillermo Jose Barreto from El Sarmiento, wine makers like Hugo D’Acosta and the 3 women from Tres Mujeres, seafood distributors, vegetable farmers and the artisanal cheese maker that we had already met.  Benito Molina has a charismatic personality and magnetism that I found hard to resist, and the very fact that everybody in the industry came to Manzanilla to spend their Saturday night with him showed that they too were drawn to his allure and his food.

Manzanilla
Teniente Azueta #139

Zona portuaria

Ensenada, Baja California, Mexico

52-646-175-7073

Open from 12pm – 12am, Wednesday through Saturday

Random trivia: Did you know that abalone are hemophiliacs, meaning that they have no blood-clotting mechanisms, so even a small cut or puncture wound can be fatal?  For this reason, it is impossible to culture an abalone pearl, as the process may kill them.  If you see an abalone while diving, do not try to pry them off of rocks, as the smallest tear in their muscle will kill them- simply observe this beautiful creature from a distance.

Villa Saverios- Tijuana, Mexico

Tijuana is no longer a place of cheap booze and juvenile festivities- it’s quickly emerging as a new landmark for fine dining and sophisticated continental cuisine.  A visit to Tijuana’s Gastronomic District will quickly prove that talented local chefs and their distinguished restaurants are capable of challenging and taking down any of its counterparts in Los Angeles or New York.  Grabbing the reigns of the Baja culinary movement with full force and steering it into the future is perhaps the most hardworking and dynamic of them all, Chef Javier Plascencia who runs 6 restaurants on both sides of the US-Mexico border.  It started as a family business for Chef Javier when his father, Juan Plascencia, founded Baja’s first pizza parlor back in 1967.  But it’s not just his family history and pedigree that made these restaurants a success- Javier Plascencia, who did his culinary training at San Diego Mesa College and the CIA, has real skill and unparalleled talent.  On my recent culinary trip to Baja led by Bill Esparza of Street Gourmet LA, I had the opportunity to sample exciting cuisine prepared especially for us by numerous distinguished chefs, from Chef Miguel Ángél Guerrero Yaguës at La Querencia to Chef Martín San Román of Rincón San Román to Chef Benito Molina at Manzanilla.  Each chef had a unique, innovative and delicious take on Baja cuisine, but it was Plascencia’s food that made me purr the loudest.

On one of our evenings, Javier Plascencia greeted us at Villa Saverios in Tijuana for a special chef’s tasting dinner.   This restaurant, unlike his others, serves ‘Baja Med cuisine’ which melds fresh local Baja foods with the best of Italian, French, Spanish and Mediterranean flavors and traditions.  One step inside this beautiful restaurant space and you will be transported to a rustic Tuscan villa with a winding staircase that leads to a private banquet room and a wine cellar downstairs that can host a private dinner.

As the charismatic and handsome chef welcomed us at our table and explained what he was planning to prepare for us that night, we sipped on a fabulous tamarind martini made with Beefeater gin and mashed tamarind pulp.   The whole tamarind pod, fully infused with liquor essence and oozing with juicy sweetness, was ripe and ready for enjoyment.

A trio of miniature tostadas commenced our fantastic tasting dinner, from a creamy spider crab tostada topped with cherry tomatoes and a crisp and fresh geoduck clam tostada with cucumbers and jalapeños in the center to a succulent octopus version topped with savory and smokey Sonoran dried beef machaca.  I was hooked on the surf and turf tostada for its stellar combination play of tender octopus legs in contrast with the slam dunk spice of picante beef.  Each tostada was bursting with fresh and vibrant ocean flavors, showcasing the diversity of the local Baja waters.  The tostadas were paired with a fruity 2009 Sauvignon blanc from La Niña L’ Blanc with pleasant citrus and peach undertones.

Plascencia’s version of chile relleno, an earthy and seductive pasilla chile stuffed with beef cheeks and topped with heirloom beans, arugula, fig granules, ground cacao and pickled red onions was sensational.  The hint of  cacao flavor with the subtle sweetness of figs and beans pulled all of the different elements together for a rustic and memorable dish, beautifully paired with the balanced sweetness of a 2008 Villa Montefiori Sangiovese Rosado from Valle de Guadalupe.

My favorite dish of the evening came from a surprise twist on Peking duck rolls in Plascencia’s interpretation through a duck, cucumber, avocado and cilantro taco wrapped in an almost translucent yet mouthwatering and crisp sheet of thinly sliced jicama.  With a bit of habanero salsa to raise the heat factor and dark magenta hibiscus flowers bringing both honey-like sweetness and a vivid splash of color to the plate, each precious bite of the Mexican duck taco introduced me to a new level of fascinating flavors and sensations.  Paired with a 2007 Mariatinto red from Valle de Guadalupe made with a Cabernet, Petit Syrah and Grenache blend, this delicious dish was one that I will never forget.

2 well-suited servers pulled up to the side of our table each with his own cart stocked full of bowls, bottles and utensils.  One mashed a couple of fillets of anchovies with a flattened fork and whisked in some finely chopped garlic, freshly squeezed lime juice, olive oil, Maggi sauce, Dijon mustard, Worcestershire sauce, a coddled egg yolk, pepper and parmesan cheese to make a classic Caesar salad.

We watched in awe as his rival made a classic Victor salad with equal skill and finesse.  Anchovies, coddled egg yolk, mayonaise, tabasco, Worcestershire sauce, A1 steak sauce, parmesan cheese, ground pepper, vinegar and corn oil went into the terracotta pot to be whipped up into a creamy dressing with the speed of a mechanical whisker and tossed with whole Romaine lettuce leaves.

As many of you may know, it is said that Caesar salad was born in Tijuana, Mexico in 1924 when restaurateur Caesar Cardini improvised with these ingredients when he was low on food supplies and had to make do with what he had to accommodate a party that arrived at his restaurant at Hotel Caesar’s on Avenida Revolución.  The Victor salad is its rival, also born out of a legendary restaurant in Tijuana, although both institutions have since closed down.  Although the Victor salad was delicious,with strong acidity and tartness from the addition of vinegar, I have to say the creaminess and distinct anchovy umami of the Caesar salad was the clear winner.  It probably helped that our Caesar salad maker was a true professional in this art- he worked at the original Hotel Caesar’s and has been making this legendary salad for 17 years.  Javier Plascencia is taking over the old hotel space and reviving the legendary Caesar’s back this weekend .

A stunning dish of farro that Javier’s grandmother used to make for him was reinvented at Villa Saverios with savory chunks of crispy suckling pig, micro cilantro, heirloom ‘eye of the goat’ beans, morel mushrooms and raw cured nopales.  The distinct chewy texture of the farro reminded me of the most perfect bowl of udon noodles with an elastic koshi texture, forming a wonderful canvas upon which the salty pork crisps, crunchy and slightly slippery nopales and spongy morels could shine.  It was a hearty and comforting dish that paired well with the 2007 Tramonte Tempranillo/Cabernet blend that we had.

Meanwhile, Chef Javier Plascencia was busy tending to our final meat course in the wood-burning oven, a perfectly prepared 3 month borrego primal lamb shank cooked in lamb jus and wine with onions, thyme and an indented masa dumpling called chochoyones that was just starting to soak up the beautiful sauce.  The juicy lamb was heavenly, having been cooked to a perfect sear near the crackling flames.  This dish was paired with a 2007 Adobe Guadalupe Kerubiel, an interesting red blend including Syrah, Grenache and Viognier with distinct notes of pepper.

12-14 month aged Ramonetti cow’s milk cheese came decorated with mission figs, pine nuts, a drizzle of honey and basil ribbons.

Thick chunky pistachio ice cream stood out in its minty green hue, accented by a few sprigs of fresh rosemary to enhance the nuttiness of this fabulous dessert.

The Plascencia’s got their start in the business flinging pizza dough into the air, so it only seemed right to end our chef’s tasting dinner with an unusual but heavenly dessert pizzetina topped with quince, Real del Castillo cheese, fig syrup and crunchy pomegranate seeds. 

It wasn’t just the romantic restaurant setting or the flowing wines, but the meticulously prepared and exquisitely flavored cuisine from this seasoned chef that made me an instant fan of the Plascencia legacy.  It’s obvious that Javier Plascencia understands food and how to create magic with it- there wasn’t a single dish that flopped and every bite awakened my senses to a new level of understanding and inspiration.  On a subsequent visit to one of his other Tijuana restaurants Cebicheria Erizo, and a recent one to Romesco in San Diego, I reconfirmed the mastery and savvy of this amazing chef.  Tijuana should be proud of its magnetic culinary representative who is revolutionizing the food culture and reversing the reputation of this once feared city with his bare hands.

Villa Saverios
Blvd. Sanchez Taboada
Esq. Escuadron 201
22320 Zona Rio Tijuana

Baja California, Mexico

Phone Number: 0 11 52 664 6502

Random trivia:  Did you know that tamarind pulp, when mixed with salt and rubbed directly onto the object to be polished, is an excellent  brass and copper polish?

Twist by Pierre Gagnaire- Las Vegas

I weave through the evening crowds on the Las Vegas strip as I make my way toward CityCenter.  The abrasive sounds of honking taxis and electronic slot machines pierce my ears and follow me everywhere.  Obnoxiously drunk college kids bump into me without an apology, almost spilling their beer from the fluorescent plastic yard glasses that they carry like a trophy.  While crossing the pedestrian bridge to get to the other side of the street, I get caught in a bottleneck of tourists who push me aside with their cheap cameras in order to get their postcard shot of the neon city.  The noise and the crowds start to get under my skin and I quicken my pace toward the Mandarin Oriental Hotel.

I enter the dark and desolate ground floor of the hotel, wondering if I’m in the right place- there’s nobody there.  All of a sudden it’s so quiet that I can hear a pin drop on the black marble floors of the elevator lobby.  As I relax on the velvet bench in the elevator that silently whisks me up to the hotel lobby on the 23rd floor, I have a momentary flashback of a similar experience.  I remember the same feeling of escaping from a crazy urban jungle into a quiet zen oasis when I visited the Tapas Molecular Bar at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Tokyo.  There too, a magical elevator transported me from concrete chaos to a chic hideaway in the skies with 360 degree views of the city lights.  Only this time, I’m finally getting my chance to dine at Pierre Gagnaire’s restaurant.

Pierre Gagnaire‘s only US restaurant, Twist, which opened in December 2009, is accessed through a dark hallway from the spacious lobby.  A wondrous spectacle of 300 illuminated glass globes floating from the ceiling at different heights against a dynamic backdrop of the Vegas strip awaits at the other end of the dark tunnel.  The charming maitre d’ greets me by name and escorts me to a table against the back wall on the upper level which has equally good views of the open kitchen and the city lights.  It’s a surprisingly small restaurant where every seat is a good seat with an amazing view of the Strip.  I breath a sigh of relief for the tranquility and intimacy in this gorgeous restaurant which is unlike others in this bustling city where ‘bigger is better’.

The soft purple lights accent the dreamy atmosphere of this quaint and modern haven where I feel far removed from the bustle of the city below.  In true Mandarin Oriental style, this hotel and restaurant feel exclusive and private.  Even the bathrooms are exquisite, offering panoramic views of the city through its polished glass windows behind the sinks.  The service reflects the 3 Michelin star status of the world renowned French chef whose adoring American fans have rejoiced at the opening of this US outpost. For me it’s a blessing, as I’m still licking my wounds from last year’s trip to France when I had to cancel Saturday night reservations at his world famous restaurant on Rue Balzac in Paris because I was sick.

For a brief moment I blush and check below my feet as I’m led up the staircase to the suspended wine loft which hangs above the front desk.  I’m wearing a dress, and the staircase is made of clear glass.  It’s a sharp and clean space and I want to spend time looking at each bottle, but I’m anxious to finally savor the inventive and curious creations of the irreverent genius.  I don’t even notice the staff tucking me into my comfortable chair or adjusting my table setting as it’s all done quietly and smoothly.  Everything flows with the grace of a summer wind, all except for time which seems to stop.

‘Cuisine does not measure itself in terms of tradition or modernity.  One must read in it the tenderness of the chef’ – Pierre Gagnaire

The intricate menu opens to a description of the $285 tasting menu, titled ‘Homage to the American Product’.  Maine lobster with Riesling granité, Washington Bay scallops with turmeric, biscotti and apple-cinnamon paste, Sonoma foie gras served with vegetable cocotte and Confucius Duck of Sylvia Prizant with fresh morels, finished off by a 5 course dessert, entice my taste buds to explore this option, but I opt for some a la carte items that I can’t pass up.  The Sonoma Valley foie gras dégustation is a must for me, as well as the Langoustine appetizer.  We waver about ordering an additional appetizer of veal sweetbreads, but knowing that 1 course at Pierre Gagnaire means 4-5 offerings of eccentric interpretations of the main product, we keep it simple.  As we peruse the menu, we sip on refreshing signature Twist cocktails, lemongrass mojito and ginger pear bellini.

Meanwhile, an amuse bouche extravaganza arrives at our table, starting with the wondrous  Bluefin tuna chantilly with flax seed crackers.  The luscious whipped cream, infused with smokiness, is so light and airy that it practically floats up into one of the orbs in the ceiling.

Ginger lemongrass sablé with rabbit ear almonds is served with a mini pecorino cheese soufflé topped with a cheese crisp and spinach velouté dot.  I relish the crunchy pecorino morsel that tastes like refined comfort food.

The Guinness and Jack Daniels geleé with gingerbread crumble crust proves to be my favorite amuse with its dark and sexy flavors reminiscent of bitter chocolate.

The Nolpi salad of finely diced cuttlefish, haricot vert, red bell pepper and celeriac doesn’t have much flavoring but it offers a wonderful play of crunchy and chewy textures.

As we try to decipher the 43 page wine menu, we talk about the small nibbles that we just had, only to realize that we hadn’t even ordered our food yet.  There’s so much enthusiasm at the table already and dinner hasn’t officially started.  Even the breads are amazing- molasses raisin bread, mini baguettes and auvergnat are served with wedges of addictive seaweed butter and salted beurre Bretagne.  My anticipation and excitement grow by the second- this is going to be a thrilling and wild ride, and I am buckled up and more than ready to go.

3 servers descend upon our table at once, each carrying 3 plates for a total of 9 to start off our appetizer courses of Langoustine and Foie Gras Dégustation.  We are given strict instructions to start with the pan seared langoustines, served with chanterelle and trumpet mushrooms in a langoustine broth,  seasoned with ‘Terre de Sienne’ spices of piment d’Espelette and coriander and finished off with orange zest.  The fungi bring a distinct earthiness to the rich and creamy broth which we happily lap up with bits of bread.  I wonder if I can order a jar of this marvelous bisque to go, to take a piece of Gagnaire heaven back home with me.

A blushing exoskeleton carries its naked flesh over its shoulders in this interesting seafood plating.  A poached wedge of pear accompanies the perfectly grilled langoustine which is flavored with ginger teriyaki Diablo sauce.

Langoustine mousseline with spinach velouté, perfumed with Sherry Amontillado and garnished with dill spears, is creamy and rich.  As I dig my spoon into the pillowy mousseline, the vibrant green color of the velouté comes bleeding out.

Dark brown langoustine geleé is brought alive by the acidity of the sweet and sour heirloom tomato Juliette marmalade, and topped with a fine dusting of  lobster coral.  The minerality of the Leth Gruner Veltliner Steinagrund 2008 that our server pairs for our langoustine dish goes particularly well with the slightly bitter finish that the lobster coral brings to this otherwise rich dish.

My favorite dish of the evening is the fifth and final dish of the langoustine course, the plump and sweet langoustine tartare, served on a platform of wakame seaweed ice to keep the dish at an optimal cool temperature, and nestled under a blanket of nori confetti.  The succulent langoustine tails, such delightful little treasures of the ocean, are held in place with a dollop of creamy nori chantilly and flavored with a spicy grapefruit syrup that brightens up the dish.

The 4 course Sonoma Valley foie gras Dégustation begins with a seared wedge of buttery foie, flavored with sweet and sour duck glaze and accessorized with a complex amalgam of salty and sweet.  Soft chunks of sweet apple marmalade and slivers of Iberico ham take refuge atop the foie gras boat that floats on a puddle of bright aromatic Spanish olive oil.  The fruity olive oil surprisingly doesn’t weigh down the foie gras, but instead enhances and even lightens the fattiness of the protein.  This is a resonant and delightful dish that is well thought out.

Seared zucchini buttons embedded in the top forest green layer of spinach pureé add much needed texture to this otherwise disappointing dish of foie gras custard.  I can’t get past the second bite of the foie gras custard which hides underneath the mossy vegetable swamp, and I apologetically send this dish back.

Perfectly round and toasty foie gras croquettes are served on a bed of delightful Trevicchio coulis made with radicchio and pickled red onions.  The rich and slightly tart purple coulis really makes the dish shine.

The fourth and final interpretation of foie gras is my favorite, a simple terrine flavored with Amontillado sherry on a bed of fig pureé and stabbed with delicate shards of crisp toasted ginger bread at skewed angles.  A splash of ginger bread powder completes the picture of what looks to me like a foie gras under attack.  The buttery and rich wedge of foie gras is exquisite, with each precious bite ending in a sweet lingering note of sherry.  The pairing of our foie gras dégustation with a glass of 2005 late harvest Alain Brumont Brumaire proves to be most triumphant with this terrine.

Our wonderful server surprises us with a complimentary palate cleanser of red beets and champagne parfait.  Succulent cubes of red beets marinated in campari and rum are topped with a layer of refreshing champagne sorbet and an airy beet würtz spuma finish.  The earthy and sweet flavors of the beets are well balanced with the fresh and fruity sorbet, and the vibrant color of the red spuma is mesmerizing.  It’s a sensational dish that almost makes me shed tears of joy.  I would love to try to replicate it at home.

Potato ice cream with chopped eggs and a generous dollop of Osetra caviar also resets our palates with its cold temperature and clean crisp flavors.  Naturally, the caviar is the leading actor here and the supporting cast of potatoes and eggs follow through with their performance.

4 enticing options for seafood include Alaskan halibut with hibiscus gelée, Maine lobster with duck foie gras cake, Loup de Mer with cauliflower velouté and John Dory with fennel pearls and star anise, but we’re hungry for the meats.  La Terre land critter selections like Nebraska bone-in rib eye, filet mignon, filet of veal and guinea hen all stimulate my salivary glands, but we forego these options to order rabbit and lamb.  Our rabbit course kicks off with an amazing marjoram stuffed saddle lightened with the vibrant colors and flavors of basil pesto, pine nuts, basil oil, tomato caviar and Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.  I am pleasantly surprised at how tasty this dish is, given that it is a fairly straightforward and simple dish with ingredients that we can relate to, unlike the quizzical and exotic flavor combinations of Gagnaire’s other dishes.

Morsels of pan sautéed rabbit leg dusted with cornflower, juicy chunks of chanterelle mushrooms, glazed turnips and snow peas in a lime jus all take refuge under the dainty umbrella of a crispy peppered nougatine.

Our Colorado lamb course starts with a juicy cut of mousseline wrapped tenderloin atop a blanket of thinly sliced braised turnip and beetroot, flavored with red wine lamb jus and garnished with smooth green blots of zucchini purée.  The soft mousseline encasing imparts an interesting layer of texture to the tender meat.

I happily gnaw every possible bit of flavorful meat and fat off of the lamb rib chop which is gallantly displayed on a mound of crispy spring cabbage encircled by an oregano and tamarind lamb jus moat.  A smidgen of dark brown tamarind mostarda brings a complex earthy accent to the well balanced dish, which pairs nicely with a glass of 2008 Laetitia Pinot from the local California vineyards of Arroyo Grande.

A light and refreshing cold Provençal Tian tower made with alternating layers of slow roasted lamb leg, heirloom tomato, microbasil and a hint of mascarpone cheese is the perfect way to end the savory portion of our meal.

Twist offers a la carte desserts for $16 each, but when you can order the 5-course Grand Dessert Pierre Gagnaire with seasonal fruits and vegetables for $24, the solution is quite simple.  The first dessert course, called LLLemon, is an invigorating citrus tasting flight of lemon sorbet and candied citrus rind in a lagoon of pink Thai grapefruit and citrus gelée.

Sweet honey cream sports a wide-brimmed almond tuille embellished with dried raisins at a tilt like a sassy Southern belle at the Kentucky derby, and the luscious quince syrup that finishes off the honey parfait is even more memorable.

The red cassis carpet is rolled out for the dainty morsels of coffee tartlette with whiskey chantilly and cassis gelée stuffed milk chocolate-pistachio glacée.

The whimsical vegetable dessert, titled The Evil, highlights a scoop of peppered mozzarella ice cream with tomato confit and microgreens, finished off with a film of dried tomato skin and sprinklings of candied eggplant.  It’s an interesting savory dish that one would normally expect to see in the appetizer menu rather than the dessert menu, and I wonder about the inspiration behind naming this vibrant and virtuous dish The Evil.

My favorite dessert is the beautifully layered sweet decadence of ginger and campari marinated Thai grapefruit, chocolate cake, chocolate cremeux and chocolate disc.  The subtle bitterness of campari liqueur and the hint of citrus from the bottom grapefruit layer bring sophistication to this triple chocolate decker by tempering the rich luscious cremeux from being too overwhelming.

In his website, Pierre Gagnaire writes that his restaurant is one which is present in the now, facing the future and respectful of the past, one which strives to give pleasure through a generous yet lively cuisine which takes risks.  I reflect back on my splendid meal of visual, gustatory, olfactory and tactile delights where every dish was a novel artistic interpretation and fantastic insight into his creative genius.  Every dish at Twist certainly had a twist, with flavor concepts and plating which were clearly outside of the box, yet done in a quiet and sophisticated manner that was believable and familiar.  At times saluting classic French cuisine, always using incredibly fresh local ingredients, and otherwise pioneering unconventional and whimsical compositions, this wonderful chef and his unpredictable cuisine has left me in awe.  Such brilliance only comes around once in a while, and I was honored to have had the opportunity to enjoy his creations.  A revenge visit to finally make it out to his flagship restaurant on Rue Balzac to redeem myself is in the works now.  Until then, I will continue to cherish the beautiful memories of this enchanted evening at Twist thanks to the legendary chef who always seems to have an ‘excès de vitalité!’

Twist by Pierre Gagnaire

Mandarin Oriental Las Vegas

3752 Las Vegas Boulevard South
Las Vegas, NV 89109
(888) 881-9367

Random trivia:  Did you know that rabbits eat their own night droppings, called cecotropes?  When a rabbit is engaging in cecotrophy, it is eating nutrient packed droppings from its anus.  Santé!

Cooking at home with black truffles

Plutarch believed that they were born out of thunder hitting the earth.  Cicero considered them to be the children of the earth, and Porphyrus called them the gods of the earth.  Pliny the Elder called them ‘callosities of earth and a miracle of nature’ and Brillat-Savarin called them the ‘diamond of the kitchen’.  Rossini called it ‘the Mozart of mushrooms’.  We know them as expensive fungi.  The black truffle…

What do you do when the most perfect specimen of black truffle finds its way into your kitchen?

Well, first you place it up high on a cipollini onion pedestal and admire its holiness from all angles.  Then you sniff sniff sniff and take in all of its earthy and heavenly aroma like a junkie.  Then you morph into a shameless paparazzi and take lots of photos to commemorate this momentous event.

Then, like any reasonable and civilized human being, you wipe your drool and begin cooking.  Not too long ago my good friend Haru Kishi, head chef at the Gordon Ramsay at the London in West Hollywood, came over with a humongous white truffle.  We recklessly shaved generous portions of pungent white truffle over perfectly cooked risotto and a salad with spinach, asparagus, bacon and poached egg.  This time he came over with a black truffle to complete our yin and yang truffle journey.

I love dining out but I would choose cooking and eating at home any day, especially if it involves food items like truffles at the hands of a knowledgeable chef.  It’s mesmerizing to watch a chef at work, cutting, dicing, fileting and flambéeing with precision and grace.  I suppose it’s the same when people watch me perform surgery at work, but New Zealand lamb chops and fingerling potatoes are sexier than Staphylococcus infected pilonidal cysts and exsanguinating full-thickness head lacerations.

We decided to keep the menu simple and prepared a classic dish of scrambled eggs with shaved black truffles.  This was when Chef Kishi’s years of experience and creativity kicked in at full force.  Eggs were gently and patiently scrambled over low-medium heat until they just barely started to set.

As if the fresh black truffles weren’t enough extravagance, we busted out my precious tub of Urbani white truffle butter that I bought at Epicure Imports, a fantastic gourmet warehouse run by friendly proprietors and good friends Bill and Daniel.  We also passed the whites of soft boiled eggs through a sieve to throw into the egg mixture, to add more soft texture to the dish.

The result?  The softest, fluffiest, richest and smoothest batch of scrambled eggs that I’ve ever had the pleasure of consuming.  I never knew that eggs could have such a pillowy texture.  My tail was starting to wag as we continued to prepare the other components of our dinner.

Chopped applewood smoked bacon was quietly sizzling and popping away on one corner of the stove top, while shaved and diagonally chopped asparagus simmered in hot water on the other.

Meanwhile, cipollini onions were roasting away in the oven into caramelized and sweet treasures.

A beautifully marbled piece of rib-eye steak went into the frying pan, instantly releasing a flood of melted liquid fat that started to brown the edges of the meat.  Like my previous white truffle cook-out when the bacon went into the pan, my 2 cats pranced into the kitchen at this time to see what was going on.  Luckily the sizzling sounds of meat on metal drowned out the desperate meowing that ensued.

Prepping and cooking seemed like an eternity to me, as the intense aromas from the oven and the stovetop were practically torturing me into an impatient state of extreme hunger and lust.  I was jumping around Haru like a child with ADD, checking in every other second to see if the food was ready.  All the while he stood patiently at the stove, completely ignoring me in his state of deep concentration as he tended to the precious cut of steak like the master that he is.

Finally it was time for plating.  Asparagus and bacon went first.

Followed by a generous heap of scrambled egg perfection, more asparagus and more bacon.

Meanwhile, juicy cuts of medium-rare rib-eye steak were plated along with tender and candy sweet cipollini onions, topped of course with a generous slab of white truffle butter.

Then came the crowning moment when precious black snow gently descended upon our plates.

With every rapid slice of black truffle against the sharp blade of the truffle slicer, a waft of earthy aroma was released into the air, spreading with it a thousand bubbles of happiness and joy.  You just can’t get this degree of extravagance and luxury at a restaurant, unless you’re willing to pay hundreds of dollars.

The final result?  A decadent and delicious meal.  I loved the texture of the smooth slivers of truffle against my tongue, and how it broke down easily under my bite to release even more aroma that rose up into my nasal passages.  I loved looking at the fine reticulated and lacy patterns on the truffle that looked like a complex labyrinth.  I loved the way that the crunchiness of the asparagus contrasted the silkiness of the eggs, and how the bacon added a perfect touch of saltiness to complete the dish.  The steak was bursting with warm juice that ran like a river into the valley of melted truffle butter on the plate.  Just for the hell of it we even shaved truffles over our salad.  Why not?  This type of experience only comes around once in a lifetime, so we might as well take it all the way to the max and enjoy the moment to its fullest.

With beautiful music in the background and a beautiful bottle of red wine in tow, this was a meal that will never be forgotten.  It was an epic experience that will be hard to beat.  Even if I have good scrambled eggs with black truffles at a nice restaurant in the future, I doubt that it will ever surpass this dish that we made.  Did I post enough photos of this experience to make you envious?  I guess I went a little overboard with the photos, but it’s like a parent taking photos of his or her newborn baby.  You can’t snap enough photos of the precious love in your life.  Except in my case, I ate my yummy baby.

Random trivia:  After 5 years of research, a French-Italian team of scientists finally succeeded in mapping out the entire genome and DNA fingerprint of the black Périgord truffle.  Now, was that really necessary?  See the Nature article from March 2010 below if you’re at all interested:

http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v464/n7291/full/nature08867.html